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Using flexible space to transform student learning

What if we designed our schools around the thinking patterns we wanted to promote? What if we tore down the walls that typically confine learning to subject- specific classes and instead opened up the space for integrated, project- based learning? What if schools in the 21st Century were as adaptive and flexible as the most successful businesses?

A typical lesson in Futures Academy

Imagine entering a classroom without a teacher. Upon opening the door, you step inside a large open space with a rolling whiteboard that stands in the middle of the room. There is a question strewn across its surface: “As members of a new society, how do we feed our population?”

Three students kneel in front of the board, jotting down their own inquiries in response.

Around the periphery of the room are small groups of students, all engaged in activities that relate to this central question.

Bob, Christina and Andrew attach a pump to their homemade aquaponics system made of pvc and plastic containers while Christopher and Melissa watch brainpop videos on the role of photosynthesis in food production.

The room is shaped in a “U,” with windows that capture light from the rising sun. There are no chairs. Only tables with adjustable heights and writable surfaces.

After a short walk up the stairs, you find another group of students seated inside a mini- amphitheatre. They record feedback for a student who presents on the small stage at the front, hoping to convince his classmates that aquaponics growth is the most efficient and sustainable method for food production. A facilitator helps guide the process.

Up another small set of stairs you find the remaining students. In small groups, they explore different models for government, jotting down strengths and challenges. A facilitator meets with a student on the soft seated furniture rested against the glass wall. In a few days, these students will vote on the government structure they feel will best lead their society.

Futures Academy- Reinventing how schools use space

The learning described above is real.

It happens daily in a unique program called Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing. This program uses interdisciplinary projects centered around a common theme to deliver learning. Facilitators (more traditionally known as 'teachers') serve to guide students through the process and deliver subject- specific knowledge and skills. Rather than divide students according to a class schedule, they group students according to the needs of the project.

Flexible Space: The Third Teacher

The learning environment described above would not be possible without the use of flexible space. Three unique, yet related activities were possible because of how the space was configured.

The first group worked on their aquaponics system in a space designated as the "messy space." In conventional design labs, this space serves for taking apart components, constructing models, reverse engineering, and other "hands- on" projects. Notosh, the world’s leader in creating design based thinking spaces for leading companies and schools, insists that these spaces help show the “guts of learning,” and helps students explore the essential question.

The second group worked in the "campfire space." This space allows for presentations and community wide announcements. In 'DesignShare,' a manual for the construction of 21st Century schools, authors Nair and Fielding argue that these spaces allow for more focused learning, while promoting a feeling of community.

The remaining students worked in the "flexible" space. The research is quite compelling for the impact these spaces have on student learning. According to a detailed report by EPE, a school design task force group, they insist that flexible space and furniture help improve student’s metabolism and increase oxygen flow to the brain, in turn increasing motivation and engagement. DesignShare reinforces this concept, explaining that unlike fixed areas, flexible space accommodates for several modalities of learning and multi-functional areas.

Borrowing from the most innovative companies

How did Futures Academy create such an intentional, innovative learning environment?

They visited and consulted with the most innovative businesses and schools from around the world. Here are a few designs from the real world that served as inspiration for designing the Futures Academy space:

Writable Surfaces:

This innovative company boasts over 70% of its surfaces as being writable. In Futures Academy, 100% of its surfaces are writable. Below depicts one of these surfaces. Students brainstorm the design for their food production models directly onto the tabletop.

Flexible Space

The AIREA studio in Detroit is a free to use public space for independent contractors, designers, and anyone else who seeks a workspace different from their own. The space is designed to promote the kind of informal conversations that lead to the greatest innovation.

Futures Academy also believes in the importance of space in inspiring innovation amongst its students. The "Nexus" or main space of Futures Academy contains a number of nooks and shape configurations to encourage a range of conversations and thinking patterns.

Next Steps for Educators

As a teacher or school leader, you have the great privilege of helping make your space more flexible. What kind of thinking do you want to promote in your students? If it's collaboration, do an audit of your existing space and ask if it fosters the kind of group collaboration you hope to instill. If it's innovation and creativity, think about how you might manipulate furniture or classrooms to be more open and unrestricted. Consider creating cross- cutting shapes to disrupt the monotony and tradition of square or rectangular boxed classrooms.

Remember, you don't have to go at it alone.

Futures Academy utilized the expertise of several consultants on school design. You should too. Visit the most innovative schools and ask school leaders where they received their inspiration. Or if you want to be even more far reaching, bring an educational entrepreneur on board to survey your existing space and offer suggestions.

In Conclusion

You don’t have to tear down your school and rebuild to offer more flexible spaces for your students. Rather, it involves a little bit of creativity and commitment to making your existing space more adaptive. Don’t try and build a ‘Futures Academy.’ This custom built space worked in the context of our unique setting. You have your own unique setting and your own ideas for school design. Trust them. Engage your staff and students in the process. Commit to an actionable item today and I am confident you will see see a transformation in the way in which your students learn.

About the Author:

Kyle Wagner is the former Futures Academy Coordinator at the International School of Beijing and an educational consultant for innovative schools around the world. He is absolutely obsessed with pursuing his passions and helping teachers and students discover their own. Kyle is a former educator at High Tech High and holds a M.ed. in Teacher Leadership. When not writing or teaching, he is performing with his original band, singing karaoke at KTV's and traveling the world with his partner.

Find out more about how Kyle can help your school transform at Or send him an e-mail at

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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