Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Learner Agency in Innovative Spaces

  • Jennifer CharterisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_348-1


The convergence of educational technologies, associated possibilities for anywhere/anytime learning, and conceptions of the twenty-first century self-regulating learner has driven the ideology of designs for innovative architectural schooling spaces in advanced capitalist societies. These architectural innovations in educational facilities mark a departure from nineteenth and twentieth century industrial school designs with their single cell enclosures encompassing one teacher to every class of 25–50 students. In flexible learning spaces (FLS), value is placed on the fluidity and adaptability of spatial designs and the agency of children to maximize their learning opportunities in these classroom spaces.

Although historically learning environment design has received little attention across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, now spatial pedagogies and learner agency in FLS is an emerging area of research. This entry addresses key concepts for teacher education that are pertinent to new spatial designs of FLS. It makes connections between the notions of learner agency, spatial literacy, spatialized pedagogy, and assessment capability in FLS. It addresses the changing conceptions of what it means to be a learner in advanced capitalist societies and considers implications for teachers and teacher pedagogy within the relational dynamics of FLS classrooms.

Learner Agency and Co-Teaching

Learner agency in the context of FLS can be linked with the neoliberal discourse of human capital theory. The idea that schools produce citizens who can contribute to their country’s economy is pervasive. Learner agency has grown in salience over the last 20 years with the proliferation of technologies in the classrooms along with the notion of twenty-first century learners as adaptable, flexible, problem-solving individuals, able to self-manage and make decisions about their learning (See Charteris et al. (2017) for a critique of this conception of the twenty-first century learner). The demand for citizens of this type has resulted in attention being drawn to the importance of flexibility in schooling designs and pedagogy, so that learning is customized for individuals. Meanwhile, teaching practitioners must learn to manage the complexity of FLS through developing an adaptability mindset.

The flexibility of learning spaces can enable students and teachers to arrange multiple learning areas as determined by the nature of particular curricula foci. When learning is customized, students negotiate relationships and curriculum using spaces purposefully for learning. Pivotal in conceptions of FLS are the pedagogical relationships between students, between teachers and students, between teachers themselves, between students and teachers, and the materiality of the environment. Students can work in partnership with peers and teachers to co-construct learning and share power in ways that are democratic (Bradbeer 2016). A democratic process where teachers and students share power in FLS can transcend tokenistic considerations of empowerment where choices are narrow and carefully crafted so that students follow a recipe to comply with a teacher’s directives.

In FLS, power sharing also involves a process of establishing relational trust between teachers who co-teach. Co-teaching in FLS can require critically examining the moment by moment micro-relations of classroom practice and spatial affordances in play; putting pedagogical support or scaffolds in place for students to succeed; and recognizing the value of multiple realities and knowledge in shared spaces that bring together different social and cultural groups for whom knowledge and interpretations of agency may vary. There can be a focus on the cumulative development of learner agency, where students increase in their learning capability as they progress through the schooling years.

With a focus on learner agency and co-teaching practices, the adoption of FLS can potentially change learning cultures in schools. Adaptability becomes a necessary element of coping with change and evolving classroom pedagogy accordingly. Adaptability in FLS includes ensuring that affordances are in place for learners to act agentically. Agentic (self-directed and self-responsible) learners draw on social and cultural resources, using information from a range of sources to inform their learning in digital, cyber, and physical spaces. Affordances that support agency in FLS include teacher practices that support spatial literacy, spatialized pedagogy, and assessment capability. The spatial design of FLS can foster social awareness and dialogic practice and enable learners to develop spatial literacy, where they can participate in the design and pedagogic culture of educative spaces. Where possible, children can engage in decision-making about how and when to use these spaces to learn, both individually and with their peers.

Spatial Literacy

Spatiality shapes human relations and interactions and informs how people experience space. It can enable and constrain how people work together. Particular spaces are created through the interactions that individuals have with one another, the rules that normalize and legitimate the purposes of these spaces, and the material construction that shape their forms (Massey 2005). Developing spatial literacy in FLS involves exploring: how social relationships are enhanced or diminished in classroom spaces; the implicit and explicit rules that create shared meanings around the use of space; and how the spaces themselves permit particular kinds of activities. Teachers used to single cell classroom designs may be unprepared to use open schooling spaces where there are multiple teachers and a range of different types of environments. For teachers who work effectively in FLS, there is a need to foster an adaptability mindset in order to share space and resources, become proficient in co-teaching, and collectively negotiate various roles and responsibilities. It is therefore important that teachers have opportunities for professional development to foster spatial literacy if they are to address the possibilities of FLS.

By developing their spatial literacy, teachers can recognize the pedagogical affordances of physical environments on a moment-by-moment basis and understand how to draw on them through reflective peer collaborations and co-teaching. They can purposely foster student spatial literacy. For students, like their teachers, spatial literacy involves understanding how the pedagogical affordances in FLS can be used to advantage in both their individual learning and when they collaborate with peers. David Thornberg’s (2001) archetypes can be a useful framework with which to describe the vision for learning spaces to children and their families. These metaphors include: campfires where there is a blend of the cognitive and affective domains when people gather to hear stories from experts; watering holes which is an informal setting for learning and students can learn from peers; caves as spaces of reflection is where students can have time to learn individually and have opportunities to process their thoughts. These metaphors provide a shared spatial language to describe classroom spaces, although adaptability is required to use the spaces flexibly during the school day and in consultation with colleagues. An adaptability mindset would suggest that teachers and students have the skills and dispositions associated with spatial literacy and are equipped to integrate it into classroom practices through spatialized pedagogy.

Spatialized Pedagogy

Spatialized pedagogies pertain to the specific practices around the customization of classroom spaces and the maximization of the affordances of flexible furniture and resources (e.g., digital tools) to enhance student learning. Although it is sometimes suggested that FLS can both enhance student achievement outcomes and foster the growth of “21st century learners,” the evidence is not present in the academic literature (Byers et al. 2018). This is an area requiring further research at this point as the changing designs of schooling spaces have meant the development of spatialized pedagogies ahead of the research evidence. For teachers, working in FLS involves thinking pedagogically about how students use the spaces available for different approaches to learning. Spatialized pedagogies involve “in the moment” decision-making about how the flexible classroom designs best meet learners’ needs. The designs for walls and floors facilitate various modes of communication, and there is openness and liberty to move, with mobile furniture and scope for furniture settings that allow different types of activities to take place.

The ongoing day-by-day redesign of learning spaces allows fluidity in teaching practice. The design of classroom spaces can be regularly configured and reconfigured, as teachers reflect on how they, their colleagues, and their students interpret their physical environments, and how affordances in the environment shape a range of approaches to teaching and learning (spatial literacy). With flexibility in student movement and furniture, spaces are negotiated between teachers, between teachers and students, and between students so that they address a range of purposes. Without clear collegial planning for maximizing spatial affordances, teachers may develop teaching practices that do not use the available spaces or resources in ways that activate learner agency. There may be an underutilization of the spaces available, with students corralled through the use of reinstated partitions. There may also be challenges associated with the acoustics of particular lessons, if teachers do not identify and negotiate how they intend to execute particular types of activities in shared classroom spaces. (For instance, an obvious example would be taking a group for music or drama when other students in the same space are test taking.) Therefore, spatial pedagogy involves negotiating the “messiness” of relationships in flexible spatial arrangements (Bradbeer 2016).

In FLS, there is primacy placed on teachers’ capacity to deprivatize their practice and see the “messiness” though the visibility of glass walls and doors. Pedagogical practice in FLS is often made highly visible to students, teaching colleagues, and school leaders through the deprivatization of openness in classroom settings. Although not dealt with here, deprivatized practice, as a prominent feature of spatialized pedagogy, has been critiqued for intensifying teachers’ work (Charteris et al. 2017). It does, however, create possibilities for professional learning about spatialized pedagogy. Teacher peer feedback can take place informally with colleagues observing professional practice throughout the day or formally through processes like systematic professional inquiry, where teachers have a particular focus and gather data for each other in relation to a particular topic related to teaching in a FLS.

Through this deprivatization, teachers can also work closely with each other in co-teaching teams where they carefully negotiate the use of the different spaces available. There can be a shared responsibility for learners and a capacity for teachers to work to their different strengths in order to collectively address the diverse needs of learners within the space. Teachers may collaboratively plan for different types of activities, teach to their specializations, and take a shared approach to target the needs of individuals when particular students need extra support (Bradbeer 2016). Teachers may withdraw students to designated spaces for specifically targeted micro-lessons in small groups or as individuals. Students may opt into these micro-lessons or be co-opted to undertake them – depending on the approach of the teacher and the decision-making capacity afforded the child. If agency is valued, students may be positioned as co-designers of FLS where they participate in the process of identifying how particular spaces can be used and they make decisions about the best places to achieve their learning goals. The capability of various spaces for different types of learning is made explicit to them.

In FLS teachers can develop pedagogies that afford student initiative, independence, and interdependence. With increased flexibility, configurations of multiple teachers and various groups of students, and the impetus for learner agency, teachers and students are able to opt into (and out of) various relationships and pedagogical opportunities. Teachers may be able to free each other from working with large numbers of students in order to work with individuals or targeted small groups.

Spatialized pedagogy is more likely to be enacted where teachers and students work together to determine the best use of the spatial affordances, as resources for learning. There can be a sense of fluidity in practice when students and teachers work together with an adaptability mindset to continuously negotiate, redesign, and reconfigure classroom spaces to meet their needs. Adaptability involves evaluating and adjusting curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment as appropriate. Student groupings are highly flexible, with decisions based on daily observations and reflection on learning. This requires sophisticated teacher and student assessment practice. In partnership with their teachers, students can make decisions about their mode of learning and their next steps, evaluating their goals through the purposeful use of assessment-related practices.

Assessment Capability

If students are to develop spatial literacy and partner with their teachers in spatial pedagogy, there needs to be clarity around learning processes. Learner agency is inherent in the sophisticated use of assessment practices. Learners who demonstrate assessment capability can source and use a range of information about their own learning. They are assisted by their teachers to discern where they are in reference to progressions of learning and can define their next step actions. Assessment capability is exemplified when students engage in dialogue about their assessment data with peers and teachers to make informed decisions about their learning goals. They can determine and, where possible, articulate what they need to do to address the area of the curriculum they are focusing on. Where spatial pedagogy supports assessment capability, students negotiate how they operationalize curricula through classroom relational spaces.

The possibility for learner agency is supported through the development of student assessment capability and the affordances of mobile technologies that enable students to move about purposefully in learning spaces. In FLS, assessment processes that foster student assessment capability include: the scaffolding of resources to support students’ capacity to engage in dialogic feedback that prioritize learning conversations through the use of questioning techniques; student use of achievement data to enhance their own learning; chances for students to coregulate learning through interacting with other learners; and have opportunities to learn through the deliberate provision of time and space to think – with peers and as individuals.

Student assessment capability reflects “twenty-first century” visions of learners participating in classroom decision-making, while working within learning spaces reconfigured to reflect individualized programs that also enable groups to use assessment data to underpin decision-making about their learning. This twenty-first century learning concept can be linked with notion of teacher assessment capability in FLS, where practitioners interrogate assessment data to collaboratively locate student learning within progressions of learning, modify teaching practice accordingly, and foster student assessment capability. Teachers co-teaching in spaces with large groups of children need excellent communication in regard to sharing information about day-by-day assessment decisions, so that they know where all of their students are at within progressions of learning in the different discipline areas.


This entry does not make claims to link student achievement with FLS but explores some of the key concepts that are linked with learner agency in FLS – spatial literacy and pedagogy, co-teaching practices, and assessment capability (Charteris et al. 2017). Moves to reconsider spatiality in schooling contexts, and arguably intensify practices in schools, is in keeping with the envisioned progressive technology-rich future. Although supporters of flexible environments claim them to have the revolutionary potential to be transformational, and while they appear to be different when compared to single cell classrooms, the purpose of strengthening the neoliberal discourses through framing and molding what is valued in twenty-first century citizens is an important consideration and one worthy of critique. For the affordances of these redesigned and purpose-built spaces to be maximized in the interests of this twenty-first century learning construct, learner agency has become an important foregrounded concept. While agency is an aspirational ideal of personal empowerment linked with twenty-first century learning, it is also relevant to critique the neoliberal notion of choice and voice to which it is linked.

Flexible learning spaces that aim to promote innovative teaching and learning practices require careful planning so that teachers are prepared and equipped with pedagogical strategies to manage the complexity of these environments. It is concerning that the investment in schooling redesign may not align with teachers’ pedagogical aspirations and teachers can find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the demands of these collective spaces. Without attention to teacher professional learning, there may be little regard given to how the affordances of FLS spaces can enable enhanced learner agency, spatial literacy, spatialized pedagogy, and promote student assessment capability. If little consideration is given to how teachers develop adaptability to address these features in FLS, opportunities to maximize the affordances of the spaces may be missed. At worst, there may be “FLS refugees,” where teachers and families flee from schools that have not grounded ways of working proactively with spatial affordances and have not communicated the rationale for new practices with communities.


  1. Bradbeer, C. (2016). Working together in the space-between. Pedagogy, learning environment and teacher collaboration. In W. Imms, B. Cleveland, & K. Fisher (Eds.), Evaluating learning environments. Snapshots of emerging issues, methods and knowledge (pp. 75–90). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  3. Charteris, J., Smardon D., & Nelson, E. (2017). Innovative learning environments and new materialism: A conjunctural analysis of pedagogic spaces. ACCESS Special Issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory, 49(8), 808–821.  https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2017.1298035 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  5. Thornburg, D. (2001, revised 2007). Campfires in cyberspace: Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century. Retrieved from tcpd.org/Thornburg/Handouts/Campfires.pdf

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

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