New Structures and Spaces of Learning – the HOW


Having challenged the idea of what knowledge and skills might be considered essential in today’s world, our attention turns to how this knowledge and these skills are transfer and acquire.  I speak of course of the physical environment in which teaching and learning takes place and the manner in which it is convey, the pedagogy.


“[T]raditional education is defined by two elements of organization: bounded classrooms and hierarchical organization of information and content.” (Siemens, 2008)

There as been much written and said about the origins of our school structures.  We can examine the historical aspects of this, but truthfully, I am far more interesting in considering whether or not these environment continue to effectively serve the needs of our students.

“[T]he forces of technological change, new opportunities to create and share information, and increased ability for interact with peers globally require a new model based on networks and ecologies.” (Siemens, 2008)

If the knowledge and skills required by our students has changed, then why not too the environments in which they learn?  If we hope to develop in our students the skills of collaboration and communication, both face-to-face and digitally, should we not endeavour to provide physical spaces which support and encourage the development of such skills and knowledge?

“The slow pace at which educational institutions have reacted to technological developments through the creation of new pedagogies can be traced to the physical structures of existing classrooms.” (Siemens, 2008)

As Siemens attest, quoting the work of Oblinger (2006, as cited in Siemens, 2008). there the link between the design of the learning space and improved learning outcomes:

Space—whether physical or virtual—can have an impact on learning. It can bring people together; it can encourage exploration, collaboration, and discussion. Or, space can carry an unspoken message of silence and disconnectedness. More and more we see the power of built pedagogy (the ability of space to define how one teaches) in colleges and universities. (Oblinger, 2006 as cited in Siemens, 2008)

Though not included directly within this quotation,  I believe its relevance can be extend to include traditional K-12 school settings.  How can we expect students to think, learn and work in new ways, in environments that physical, despite the best efforts of many teachers to manipulate them to suit their needs, promote a traditional view of teaching and learning that is essentially – I teach, you learn!

As a teacher who has been around the block a couple of times, I know first hand the direct effect the learning environment can have on my students.  I can inspire open discussion and collaboration or create compliance simply by moving my students’ desks and chairs.  Imagine what could be achieved if we dared to threw away the old school model, and look to build something new…what if the walls didn’t matter?

As leading architect,  Prakash Nair mentions in this video, perhaps school leaders can use their physical environments as catalyst for the change wish to see in teaching and learning.  Such “dialogue about changing learning spaces and structures suggests a fundamental rethinking of classrooms, courses, and programs” (Siemens, 2008) and that process, though challenging, is essential if our schools are going to move  into the 21st century.  Surely the time has come for us to stop and think serious and purposefully about the future needs of education.  What do we want for our children?  What do our children need from our schools?  A valid consideration I think before we continue to investing millions of dollars in buildings that do nothing but replicate the past, thereby confining teaching and learning to the past as well.

 If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” (Henry Ford)

You will note that I have not discussed the role of technology as it related to the school environment.  Why?  Well, I think few would argue that technology is here to stay, and as such, considerations for wireless networks etc is generally now a given when it comes to physical infrastructure and planning.  There is also the additional consideration that technology is change at such a rapid pace, that specific planning for technology today, will be out-of-date tomorrow.  Therefore I believe time is better spend considering how the design of the physical spaces in schools reflects each school’s vision for teaching and learning.  These can’t just be words in a glossy brochure or on a flashy website, they must be lived, reflected in the buildings as well as in the people.  Designing spaces that can be flexible and bend to the teaching and learning needs whatever they might be, now and in the future, seems like a worthwhile time investment.  After all…

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. (Winston Churchill)

Learning spaces are a subject dear to my heart.  I would love to share some of the work that I have explored in this area, but am conscious of copyright laws.  Instead I have included some links to some images that might just get you thinking about learning spaces as well and the incredible possibilities they create for learning,..look out for the concertina whiteboard walls – they are my favourite!

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“Traditional classrooms provide a particular shape to the learner–educator relationship.” (Siemens, 2008)

The pedagogical implications for a shift in our understanding of what knowledge and skills our students need to be protective members of society are enormous, and perhaps will be the most difficult to overcome.  Teachers can be notoriously skeptical when it comes to change but if we are “[t]o truly harness the transformative potential of new technologies, change at a systemic level is required” (Siemens, 2008).  The first step toward that change might just be admitting that we don’t know what the future holds for schools and education in general.  While that can be scary, it has the potential to be quite liberating.  Think of the possibilities! A clean slate, a blank cheque – what would teaching and learning look like to you?

One possible approach, as suggested by Siemens in this article, is participatory pedagogy.

“A participatory pedagogy is one that does not fully define all curricular needs in advance of interacting with learners. Learners are able to contribute to existing curricula. The organizational work of faculty members does not comprise the entirety of the course content and does not consist of the sole perspective used to filter content. Multiple perspectives, opinions, and active creation on the part of learners all contribute to the final content of the learner experience.” (Askins, 2008; Collis & Moonen, 2008 as cited in Siemens, 2008)

Now for the average teacher this is quite a significant shift, but what I link about it is that fact that it opens us up to the possibilities of what teaching and learning COULD look like.  One thing is for certain though, “[e]merging devices, tools, media, and virtual environments offer opportunities for creating new types of learning communities for students and teachers” (Dede, 2004).  The world is at our fingertips, and the same is true for our students!  The possibilities are endless – but if we are honest, we must also acknowledge that change and innovation are not always easy to achieve in schools.

“Large systems do not react and change due to small change pressures. Once change has developed to a point of potentially altering the existing system, significant resistance can be expected.” (Siemens 2008)

“The truth is “the fundamental barriers to employing new technologies effectively for learning are not technical or economic, but psychological, organizational, political, and cultural” (Debe, 2004)

But if we do not stand up and ‘fight the good fight’, education will continue to remain dormant and unchanged.  As educators do we not then fail in our duty to adequately prepare our student to enter the world equipped with the knowledge and skills they need, not only to be productive, but to thrive?  We are no longer the centre of our students’ universe and it is naive of us to continue to maintain such an ideology. Our roles are changing and evolving and where that might lead us, is still unclear.  Yet, this is experience for which we are charged with preparing our students.  So if we accept that they require different knowledge and skills to step bravely into the unknown, then as teacher, just this once, maybe we should do as we have always done, and lead by example!

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” (Helen Keller)


Dede, Chris. “Distributed-learning communities as a model for educating teachers.” Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference. Vol. 2004. No. 1. 2004.

Siemens, G. (2008). New structures and spaces of learning: The systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning. Actas Do Encontro Sobre Web.


2 responses to “New Structures and Spaces of Learning – the HOW

  1. Pingback: How NGL can inform my role as teacher | EVEN ELMO'S GOT A MOBILE

  2. Used the Churchill quote in a paper I was working on last week, but thinking about what it means when the spaces/”buildings” we operate within are largely virtual/ICT based. What does the “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us” mean in an ICT-based space that is always changing? What are the implications?

    Especially when ICTs can be changed/re-programmed? The idea of program, or be programmed.

    But if our ICTs can change, not just because they themselves are always changing, but also because we can change them, does that mean we can get to the stage where “We shape our buildings, they shape use and then we shape them some more”?


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