Thoughts on designing spaces for learning

bricolage-spaceThis semester I undertook a course called Designing Spaces for Learning with QUT. It was an interesting program exposing me to some new voices on the topic and challenged me to think differently about learning spaces in my own context in new ways. Too often I think we complete assignments for courses that a loan teacher reads, and then they disappear into the bottomless pits of our Google Drives. I decided that some of the ideas I wrote about were worth coming back to and hanging onto. Here is an excerpt I have revisited since finishing that course:

The NCM Horizon Report 2015 K-12 Edition outlined a number of trends, one of which was “rethinking how schools work in order to bolster student engagement and drive more innovation” (p. 2). Scholars and popular educational reformists such as Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson have been challenging schools for some time to shift gears and rethink how we organize and structure learning in relation to these objectives. In Robinson’s video (2006) he said, “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”Wagner (2012) concluded that most schools have continued to overemphasize rote learning and test preparation. He stated that transformation “at every level is essential to develop the capabilities of young people to become innovators” (p. 202). These calls for action are an imperative; as Fullan and Langworthy (2013) put it, “The current situation is intrinsic to our societies’ transition to knowledge-based economies and global interdependency, enabled and accelerated by technology” (p. 1). An equally important trend in schools is the “fast-expanding K-12 strategy meant to foster student creativity: a reliance on “maker spaces”—places in schools, libraries, and other settings, operating with varying degrees of structure or informality, where people invent, create, and problem-solve” (Cavanagh, 2015). So then, with these compelling challenges and possible solutions in mind,  we will examine a policy document from a public library that is actively fostering these ideals.

The Digital Commons Co-working Space (Dream Lab) Policy describes a shared collaborative working space provided to members of the DC Public Library to “develop and sustain new ventures” (DC Public Library). Reflecting the concepts of a learning commons, this policy statement lays out in simple terms the functions and intentions of the organization to support and enable an interconnected innovative community. This is evident in the two-way relationship that users enter into when taking advantage of the commons. While on the one hand, the policy lays out for whom and how the space can be used, it also states the reciprocal exchange expected from users, namely, “to provide a minimum of one (1) hour of public programming per month related to information technologies and/or digital literacy” (DC Public Library, para 2). In this way, the Dream Lab is developing membership and investment in not only the space but also the community of users. The document lays out clear booking and facilities procedures as well as conveys the spirit in which the co-working space is intended for use. E.g. courtesy for others with respect to time, content, beliefs and a reference to rules of behavior. While the policy document does contain details that provide new insights, a number of questions remain unanswered about establishing innovation incubator spaces such as, how much direction and support are provided by staff, how staff manage and utilize the reciprocal exchange, how staff manage infringements, and how is a sense of community fostered? In spite of these remaining questions, the Dream Lab is a model worth considering in schools seeking to support learner autonomy.


Elliot Burns (2005) argued for the importance of learner identity and the need for schools to acknowledge and develop “learners as knowledgeable and creative people, complex thinkers, and reflective, self-directed learners, who actively investigate, communicate and participate interdependently in their worlds” (p. 2). The key here is self-direction. Classroom spaces are not typically common spaces, they are the domain of teachers who consider a classroom their own. How then can students develop autonomy and self-directedness when there are few inviting places that afford the development of this capacity and mindset for active participation. Learning commons are spaces that provide a degree of freedom and autonomy within boundaries. ‘Commons’ implies that there is a shared ownership of facilities by multiple users. The shift to learning commons by libraries in recent years has brought with it a greater awareness of how groups use spaces. For example, traditionally, libraries provided quiet individual areas for people to work whereas now, more often “space is configured for use by small groups of students, reflecting students’ desire for collaborative learning and combining social interaction with work” (Lippencott, 2006. p. 3). The spaces defined by the Dream Lab policy cater to, and enable, a particular type of person or group who is self-directed. One can infer that a person or group using the Dream Lab space has motivation and objectives that exist separate from how traditional spaces for learning have operated. For example,

“Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture, the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself” (Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011. Chapter).

Perhaps the relevance of the Dream Lab example lies in how spaces for innovation are perceived and shaped by users. Some questions to continue to ponder are:

Who owns the space: a teacher or the members of the community?
Who directs what happens in the space: an instructor or the users?
What type of learning can occur in the space: teacher directed or user driven inquiry?