Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Spatial Flexibility as a Response to Pedagogical Complexity

  • Craig DeedEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_347-1


In many countries the basic classroom remains the core building block of how schools are designed and used. Yet, educators now also regularly encounter a range of different spatial learning environments. This entry provides the reasoning behind this spatial flexibility in relation to contemporary teaching models, and identifies pedagogical concepts that are influencing the design and use of modern flexible classroom environments. Spatial and pedagogical affordances for different teaching practices and learning processes are identified, with implications for the role of the educator and for preservice teacher preparation also being identified.

An Uncertain and Complex Future

Discourse about new pedagogies and flexible learning environments frequently include the proposition that learners must be prepared for a global future. Broad economic and social changes are also used to justify changes to educational facilities. There is a contention that teachers are required to change curriculum, pedagogical and assessment processes, to maximize the affordances of advancing information technologies. Future economies will require multidisciplinary learning modalities including problem solving and higher order thinking skills, based on the unpredictable, yet assuredly complex, prospective workplace.

Future-oriented, “twenty-first century skills” include team work, multimodal representation and communication, digital literacy, social and cultural skills, creative and critical thinking, and problem solving. These skills are the basis for school and workplace learning that is autonomous, flexible, adaptable, and entrepreneurial. Several pedagogical models claim to develop “twenty-first century skills,” including self-directed, student-oriented, autonomous, and project-based learning. These models draw on theoretical constructs including experiential, embodied and situated learning. The implication is that educational and workplace environments will be increasingly integrated. For example, should schools draw inspiration from the Google office work environment, with gaming rooms and relaxation hubs? Whether this is pragmatic is undecided, but it can be argued that future learning environments need to blend functionality and productivity with imagination and innovation.


Flexibility suggests affordances for a range of learning processes. A flexible context need not be physical, or physically bounded. Reading, for example, can take place in a classroom, a library, a café or on a train. The point being that educational activities can occur in a range of spaces and at different times. Flexibility is sometimes perceived as a reaction to conventional classrooms that may be characterized as representing an industrial model of transmissive education, with associated routines and controlled behaviors. This is a bleak view of the cellular classroom model, which remains, for parents and many educators, the preferred and understood model of where education occurs. In contrast, flexible learning environments may be characterized as expressing and authorizing concepts that underwrite contemporary education, including democracy, individualization, and complexity (Deed and Lesko 2015). This flexibility is evident in multiple possible layouts, a range of furniture configurations, technology integration, creative and flexible use of space, immersive technology infusion, collaborative and independent working areas and encouragement of student learning both within and adjacent to the classroom.

Unfortunately, both conventional classroom and flexible learning spaces are conceived of as abstract representations at opposing ends of a spectrum (Sfard 1998). This is apparent in the language used on both sides. While enthusiasts of flexible spaces refer to them as co-authored, textural, and expansive; antagonists may be more pejorative, calling them experimental, barns, free-range or bean-bag schools. Despite these provocative metaphors, it remains the case that many schools prefer the structural form of the enclosed classroom, full of memories, certainty and sentiment (Deed and Lesko 2015). The reason for this is found in the functional integrity of these spaces, and for many educators the traditional classroom works effectively.

Flexibility is a construct that has become a part of the design and educational experience in some schools and countries. A flexible learning environment is not fully resolved, and thus enables many different interpretations and uses. It might be designed to be multilayered, with core, incidental, complementary, and adjacent spaces. While this approach provides a range of design affordances, it is the educator who sees, understands, and uses the potential of this flexibility.

The Influence of Contemporary Pedagogy

Several pedagogical concepts have emerged that justify for the ongoing exploration and discourse around the design and use of flexible learning environments. Each of these concepts is parts of a larger, discernible shift in contemporary education from transmission modes towards participatory activities (Sfard 1998). These influence the function of education, evident in student participation processes and teaching practices. While not an exclusive list, some of the main influences are found in personalized and experiential learning, student autonomy and agency, learning communities, and technology. A summary of the interplay between pedagogical constructs and spatial form is outlined in Table 1.
Table 1

Pedagogical and spatial interplay

Pedagogical concept

Spatial form

Personalized learning

• Differentiation of space

• Spaces for a range of learning approaches, capacity and preferences

• Choice of spaces to support individual needs

• Spatial fluidity and agility

• Learning narrative

Experiential learning

• Spaces for creative and investigative activities

• A range of media, equipment and resources

• Maker spaces for construction, modelling, presentation and display

• Spaces for long term projects

• Connection of indoor and outdoor spaces

Student autonomy

• Spaces for student ownership and participation

• Co-created spaces

• Spaces for individual work

• Innovation/entrepreneurial hub

• Educator sphere of influence/visibility

The learning community

• Spaces for gatherings and performance

• Spaces for social learning and collaboration, including use of technology

• Integration of local context, culture and community

• Shared facilities and resources

• Belonging, safety and wellbeing


• Immersive studio

• Access to technology

• Networking, including social media

• Distributed expertise

• Representation and communication

Personalized Learning

There is a considerable volume of education research that claims that learning is personalized when it is designed around individual learning needs, capabilities, and interests (Prain et al. 2013). Personalized learning appears to be dependent on effective differentiation of the curriculum in response to the diversity of learner needs and the development of independent learner capacities. Personalized learning can be understood within the social, economic, cultural, political and religious parameters that constitute the student’s sense of “self.” This is apparent in the idea of student autonomy. Autonomy in learning emphasizes learning choices while being guided to meet defined learning goals. The idea that students make learning choices is an underpinning aspect of personalized learning. This assumes that there are key junctures in the teaching and learning relationship that can be understood and actioned by the learner.

Pedagogical approaches include students being granted choice over how to create and organize the learning environment, how to enact learning with different spaces, and the degree of investment in learning engagement and participation. Asking learners to decide where, when, and how they learn assumes, however, a learning environment that affords a breadth of activity.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning involves students being active participants in their own learning, constructing knowledge and meaning from experience. Learning is conceived of as a process, rather than an outcome. Active learning is characterized as an effortful and intentional interaction between the educator, learning, and the context (Sfard 1998). This is a mutual and interdependent relationship. An example of experiential learning is problem-based learning (PBL). PBL is where students engage in complex authentic tasks, using a problem-solving process to investigate, analyze, and model potential solutions.

These approaches require flexibility in how learning environments are designed, configured and used. As the learning process is mediated by social and cultural processes, as well as resources within the learning space, an effective learning environment should enable the design and construction of a project space; the drafting, mapping and exploration of different ideas; contain supporting resources and materials; allow for construction, demonstration, and performance of models and other artefacts; provide space for presentation, display and focused seminars or tutorials. In short, learning environments that support experiential learning are those that afford a range of learning events, and provide appropriate resources and support. The learning environment must prompt and direct, yet also be influenced by, the learning process.

Student Autonomy

Autonomous learners perceive learning as a controllable process, from which they can select, apply and justify their learning strategies, and accept responsibility for their performance and achievements. This assumes students can take responsibility and exert control over their learning. Autonomous learners also actively shape their own learning environment, as autonomous learning occurs in response to contextual opportunities. Learners who are aware of their own capacities, are likely also to be aware of social, cultural and contextual enablers and constraints for learning. The concept of autonomy therefore has implications for the form and structure of school, as students become aware that learning environments are fluid entities that they can manipulate. Educators thus need to consider how to establish a catalytic learning environment, including enabling social and cultural aspects of learning, and supporting student agency. A primary issue is how educators and students can co-design the learning environment and experience that affords productive and engaging learning.

The Learning Community

A learning community is a living network, where educators and students are connected by shared knowledge, purpose and identity. A community supports a sense of connectedness, belonging and wellbeing. An effective approach develops student self-awareness and self-management skills; uses social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish positive relationships; and develops physical, social and emotional wellbeing capacity. An outcome is learners who can adapt to contextual possibilities and constraints. Schools play a significant role in creating safe, orderly, and supportive learning spaces and communities (Farrelly 2014). There are clearly established contextual links between individual wellbeing and learning capacity. Indicators of student wellbeing in learning communities include supportive social relationships, behavioral expectations and management; individualization of learning tasks; and opportunities for personal and social development (Farrelly 2014).

Importantly, school and classroom design need to afford an environment that is safe, conveys a sense of belonging and connectedness, and provides an engaging context. An increase in flexibility in school spaces means a shared responsibility for all staff for wellbeing, due to increased presence and visibility in learning communities. There is a need to mitigate potential for chaotic learning, and a high level of structuring and organization with a focus on personalized learning, connection and belonging, need to be developed as part of the operational culture of teaching and learning. This culture needs to emphasize shared values and high academic expectations, along with ongoing consideration of how to create and organize the physical, social and cultural context that is attentive to student agency.


Technology is the principal accelerator of flexibility, fragmenting and intensifying both teaching and learning, expanding the scope and reach of the work of educators into a new ecology of space. Learning styles and preferences of neo-millennial students include fluency in multiple forms of media, social and active learning in virtual environments, nonlinear multimodal representation, and a tendency to seek and create personalized learning experiences (Dede 2010) Digital technology enables autonomous and active learning, where students can create their own, or engage with a range of virtual learning environments. Learning using technology is not bound by traditional time and space constraints of school. Students do not occupy the same role or identity when learning in flexible virtual space; they can make choices about how they inhabit learning space using different modes of connectivity and interactivity. Networked communities of practice can afford a range of learning experiences and linkages to expertise beyond the physical classroom. The affordances of technology include multimodal representation and communication by users, who can access diverse opinions, and purposefully build knowledge through iteratively accessing, questioning and applying ideas and experiences.

Individual learning spaces can connect and interact with more formal space, where modes of structuring, framing and assessment of learning remain largely in spaces under the control of the educator. Together, individual learning space, and institutional teaching space, may form an interconnected physical and virtual system of teaching and learning.

Flexibility and the Changing Role of the Educator

The pedagogical concepts outlined above have leveraged flexible learning environments into the day-to-day life of educators and students. The function of educational spaces is grounded in an understanding of the possibilities and constraints of teaching and learning processes. As outlined in Table 1, the interplay between flexible spatial form and contemporary pedagogy encourages educators and students to see and act differently.

The differentiation of the curriculum and an emphasis on personalized learning are base drivers of a dynamic reworking of school conventions and routines. This raises questions about the traditional enclosures of teaching and learning. Flexibility of pedagogy has opened the door to flexibility of the spatial form. A prime example is the emergence of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). STEM is an initiative that seeks to embrace authentic, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary learning. Based on a constructivist model and enacted in maker spaces, the process involves students interacting collaboratively with the materials, tools, and technology to design and create projects. The key relationship is between the pedagogy and the maker space context.

Makerspaces are a typical example of flexible environments where students can design, construct, create, test and refine objects. The learning process is simultaneously constructivist, immersive, social and contextual (Dede 2010). The maker space provides an environment that is more flexible than a conventional classroom. The maker space offers an environment where there is no front-of-class and no educator-directed structure or boundaries. Students participate in visible and immersive learning processes in a space that provides a capacity to interact and explore using technological, social, and cultural tools (Sfard 1998). The structure and direction for learning comes from the educator’s pedagogy, drawing on the spatial affordances. This has significant implications for teaching engagement with spatial potential and related pedagogical practices.

Adapting Practice to Flexible Spaces

There is a relationship between spatial flexibility and teaching and learning. The characteristics of each context contribute to how educators understand their practice, and flexible spaces create affordances for prompting and shaping these practices. Teaching in flexible spaces requires educators to understand the relationship and interaction between teaching, learning, and the context for action. Educators are likely to be reflexive over time to their evolving understanding of their own capacity within the potential of the learning environment.

The process of transition and adaptation to flexible spaces is a relatively new area of educational research. It is likely that educators working in flexible spaces initially become aware of spatial affordances and then may consider how flexible spaces may influence their practice. To realize the potential of flexible spaces, educators can experiment with their practice in different environments, to understand the interplay of activity and context, and then intentionally adapt to these dynamic affordances. For educators, the need to ensure the integrity and functionality of teaching and learning is important.


Flexible learning environments appear to be a design response to contemporary pedagogical advances. Flexible learning environments will be increasingly encountered by educators in many jurisdictions internationally. One way to understand how to use these spaces is for educators to consider the relationship between teaching, learning, and context. The learning environment can be used as a resource or prompt to support contemporary approaches to learning. Educator understanding of the possible interplay between pedagogical constructs and spatial form is the basis for ensuring that the space does not get in the way of the function of school.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationLa Trobe UniversityBendigoAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Leon Benade
    • 1
  1. 1.Auckland University of TechnologyAucklandNew Zealand