By: Andrew Miller
Flexible learning environments encompass many facets—from furniture and physical space to student agency and choice in how they spend their time and take ownership of the learning environment. The implementation of flexible learning environments captures the dynamic way space, time and agency come together to create student-centered learning. Singapore American School has been on this journey for quite some time. It is one of their components of personalized learning, which also include competency-based learning and customized pathways.
Sixth-grade teams were involved early in the ‘pathfinder’ work of piloting flexible spaces and learning in the middle school. I recently had a chance to sit down with one team and learn about how they saw the transition of students to what may be for many a different way of learning. While flexible seating and spaces are just two aspects of flexible learning environments at SAS, it is important to reflect on and learn about their specific implementation.
Community Building and Ownership
Culture comes first. As teacher Linda Xuereb says, “We bring students together often and build community right from the start.” She knows the importance of setting the tone with clear expectations and a culture of care. She adds, “It’s important to build routines and habits to support them in their transition to flexible learning.”
Teacher James Toney shared one very practical routine: “As a practice, we have students take responsibility to reset the space.” In addition, he says “We get students involved in naming the spaces.” It’s a fun way to have students take ownership of the space both in terms of culture and routines. Teacher Chris Peterson says, “We allow students to take ownership as they get to choose where they work and how they work.” Teachers provide coaching and the students often reflect on their choices to help them support the culture of the classroom and their own learning.
Need for Parent Education
We conduct regular learning walks at Singapore American School, often with parents. These walks can help parents get a sense of how flexible spaces work. Students are often collaborating on projects and engaging in collaborative learning experiences in middle school. That being said, sometimes parents come for an initial visit and it may look a little chaotic to them. As Toney says, “Parents may actually struggle with the transition more than the students.” There needs to be follow-up with parents and perhaps multiple visits so they see the space being used in different ways. Teacher Kris Munden says, “Parent education is essential—they need to know that we don’t always have all the walls open. It’s all about helping them realize that our learning experiences drive the configuration of our flexible space.” Having parents engage with educators is essential to helping students with the transition and establishing a shared understanding and partnership.
The Space Talks
The Regio Emilia approach calls the learning environment the “3rd Teacher.” This is particularly noteworthy in a space and environment that may be new to students. Classrooms and learning environments are created for students with the intent of aligning teaching and learning practices. In fact, the space goes further than alignment. Teacher Brendan Riley says, “The flexible space facilitates collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. When we want to collaborative, it is as simple as turning our heads to the left or to the right.” Instead of collaboration being a separate learning experience, it is part of the culture of learning in the classroom. Knowing the flexible space fosters this type of learning suggests the focus on the transition may be more about learning habits than seating habits. If students are struggling in the space, it may be that attention should be given to addressing learning practices and routines to support them.
Not a Big Deal?
One of my biggest takeaways from talking with the team was questioning the assumption that “the transition is really a big deal.” Riley says, “If you make it a big deal to them, then it will be.” This really gave me pause. As educators, we do need to be mindful of the transition and plan accordingly but also treat it as normal routine; addressing it, but not playing it up. Teacher Sue Greaney adds, “Because middle school is a big transition, students are really open to anything.” This made me reflect as well. Students are constantly in transition, but the transition to middle school can be especially challenging. However, one of the opportunities is that students are excited and willing to try new things. There needs to be a balance of explicit preparation and embedded, responsive practice to support students.
Reflect and Revise the Furniture
One of the opportunities we have at SAS is modeling a learning organization. As students are growing and changing before us, we need to be cognizant of what is appropriate for them. In addition, we may find some spaces are not used or that small aspects of the space need tweaking. Consequently, changes are made to the spaces year after year, refining it to really meet student needs. “Furniture can make an impact on the classroom. It’s important to audit the furniture to see what is working and what is not working,” says Greaney. Administrators regularly work with the teachers to learn and then select new furniture or make changes to the space. They also partner to survey students and run focus groups. It is important to approach the transition to flexible spaces as an iterative process. We need to learn as much as our students in order to create spaces that work for them.
For more, see:
- Mythbusters: Flexible Learning Environments in Middle School
- Why Flexible Learning Environments?
- 20 Signs of Progress at Singapore American School
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Andrew Miller is the Director of Personalized Learning at Singapore American School. He is also a consultant for ASCD and PBLWorks.