The Tension Between Learning Spaces and Learning

I am enjoying the intensifying interest in the ‘value-added’ impact of innovative learning spaces on learning, particularly now that my school is about to embark on a major refurbishment project.

When attending an ‘Innovative Learning Spaces and Pedagogy’ conference recently, the distinct ‘wow’ factor presented in many of the school designs is indicative of the incredible progress achieved over recent years in the development of truly innovative learning spaces in Australia. Governments and education systems are budgeting millions of dollars each year for the construction of new schools and to breathe life into established schools via refurbishment projects. It is a huge financial commitment and many schools are impelled to consider using innovative design as their point of difference, in order to stay ahead of the competition. The underlying intended message to prospective parents is: We have the brightest, newest, and most innovative learning spaces, offering your child the ultimate educational experience. Seeing many of the aesthetically beautiful schools on display, it is easy to get caught up in all the hype, particularly for parents who want to provide the best learning experience for their young children.

But the question remains: is having the brightest, newest and most innovative learning spaces making enough of a difference to the quality of learning? And can schools actually say they offer ‘the ultimate educational experience’ just because they have new and innovative learning spaces?


A dilemma often faced by school leaders and teachers after updating their learning spaces is ‘how do we make the most effective use of this new space to improve learning?’ This kind of thinking indicates that the ‘learning space’ has become a key driver of the learning agenda. Unfortunately, having an innovative learning space does not guarantee innovative learning.

It is exciting to walk into beautifully designed learning spaces, decked out with flexible, unique furniture, break-out areas, and tinkering corners, only to be let down when the teaching and learning practices do not match or take full advantage of the new learning environment. It is hardly the teacher’s fault, particularly if the school or hierarchy is using ‘innovative learning space design’ to initiate pedagogical change. Attempting to ‘fit into’ a new learning space can create a world of problems that could have been avoided. The learning space provocation is not about creating innovative learning spaces; it’s about creating spaces to enhance innovative learning.

Before schools ever consider the design and construction of new learning spaces, leaders and teachers need to have already ‘mapped out’, implemented and refined their agreed-upon school-wide learning framework. This should be a school’s (most) critical point of difference, not the physical structures. Knowing what learning looks like, and how (innovative) learning happens in your school, will guide the decision-making when it comes time to designing your learning space. In this way, it will be the learning that drives the learning space design in a natural, organic way, allowing the design to enhance and showcase that which already exists.

It is a great pity that the same level of ‘wow’ clearly evident in many of the innovative learning spaces presented during the Learning Spaces conference, did not reach the same heights for innovative learning. For at the end of the day, it is about the quality and depth of learning, after all.

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