There’s an interplay between the design of a learning space and the type of learning that happens in it. If a classroom is set up with rows of desks it makes collaborative learning harder and independent learning more likely. Many learning spaces don’t support the kind of learning we know students should be engaging in. We want students to be collaborating with each other and solving real world problems but the furniture and walls keep getting in the way.

New or renovated schools have spaces custom-built to support that kind of learning but most students learn in classrooms built decades ago for a different kind of learning. Teachers need simple ways they can modify their classrooms and facilitate collaborative learning. You can’t knock down walls, but what can you do?

Don’t worry, help is here. The following five changes will help to transform your learning space:

  1. Ditch the desks: Desks are good for individual work but what about the rest of the time? Replace the desks with tables. With students clustered around tables they can more easily make eye contact with each other, collaborate and provide bigger spaces for students to safely move around in or group together as needed.
  2. Break Down the Walls: Classrooms shouldn’t be figurative or literal islands. The ‘real’ world outside the classroom walls is a cool place, and we need more of it into our learning spaces. Bring it in with guest speakers, outside programs, volunteers, co-op students, whatever…just bring the outside in. Bring in the natural world with plants, fish, leaves, whatever’s out there. Use technology like Skype and twitter to reach outside the classroom in real-time. Field trips are great, but that doesn’t need to involve a school bus ride. Go for a walk around the school neighborhood or take students outside for quiet reading. Make the outside world part of your learning space.
  3. Free the Tech: Digital technology is an integral part of our lives. We’ve gone from everyone watching a single screen, to one in every room, to one in every pocket. We’ve been slower in making this shift in our learning spaces and we group the tech in one area. In whatever ways you can make technology an integrated part of learning for students, not a separate subject. Personal devices (tablets, smart phones, iPod touches) are a natural way to do this so encourage students to use them in their learning. Wireless internet in schools makes this much easier. Arrange desktop computers around the room rather than clustering them so that students can easily use them for research or reference then return to group work. Break up computer labs and get those machines into classrooms where the students and the learning is.
  4. Flexibility: Students don’t learn in the same way all the time, so good classrooms must account for this with flexibility. There should be areas that support independent work, pairs, triads, small groups, whole groups and spaces for students who need quiet. A classroom needs flexible arrangements, things that can easily move and be repurposed. Watch here to see how simply putting wheels on furniture allows it to be easily rearranged to support different groupings. One of my favourite flexible spaces is the floor where groups of students can stretch out and work together on chart paper or a single student can lie and read quietly to themselves.
  5. Open The Doors: In many schools working in the hallway is a punishment or a management strategy. It can also be an untapped resource. There’s lots of unused, tucked away spaces that trusted, responsible students can take and use effectively. Let students use hallways and stairwells to collaborate without disrupting others. Keep students that need more support in the classroom and circulate. You can’t do this all the time, but occasionally you can spread out and make the classroom bigger and less constricting. Why not put temporary tables in the hallway, like a street cafe for learning?

What have I missed? What are some other ways to hack learning spaces? Ideas in the comments.