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Personal Learning Spaces: Going Beyond Just Flexiblity

March 1, 2017 by Jody Andres and Rob Koehler in School Planning & Management

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Planning & Management magazine and is posted in its entirety with permission.

There is a growing movement towards personalized learning that deserves attention if you’re considering a new construction or renovation project. Personalized learning adjusts the environment and allows students to take more ownership of their education, ultimately recognizing strong gains. The benefits of personalized learning are increasingly recognized and appreciated as more schools engage in this approach.

If personalized learning is the chosen method, it is important that the space encourages and supports it with a design that supports individual instruction, small group instruction, large group lecture or projects. This suite of diverse rooms is ideal for student education options, but teachers still need to provide supervision, teach and manage the entire class. The space needs to be designed in a way that allows them to engage with students and facilitate educational experiences.

Grasping Personalized Learning
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation relays their thoughts on Personalized Learning:

“When learning is personalized, teachers help students find what they like and want to learn about and what their strengths and needs are. Then, the teacher sets up projects that are in line with the students’ interest and with academic standards. This growing movement is focused on changing the learning environment so students can take more ownership of their learning and teachers can work with them to discover their passions and interests.

“The breakthrough idea in personalized learning is the striking shift in the teacher-student team. In traditional learning, the teacher is the leader and the student is a mostly passive recipient. In personalized learning, the student is the leader, and the teacher is the activator and the advisor.”

Dallas Independent School District in Texas, has described personalized learning in this way. Personalized Learning (PL) is a one-size-fits-one approach to instruction that (1) taps into each student’s strengths, needs and interests to customize learning and (2) supports student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn to ensure that all students achieve at their greatest potential.

It’s important to remember that PL is a teaching method that goes far beyond the designed space. The space must accommodate such a method, and can contribute heavily to a conducive educational environment, but the design of the space and choosing the right furniture are only the beginning. In addition to the right environment, key components for every PL endeavor will surely include learner profiles, student roadmaps, as well as competency testing and selfpaced education. Students glean at their own pace, often with an algorithm that determines a student’s knowledge level and readiness to move on. Teachers are kept up to date with data, providing an in-depth look at individual progress.

Twenty-first-century learning emphasizes the 4 “C’s” — Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. PL is a methodology that can be a conduit towards these twentyfirst century competencies… paving the way for our students’ successful future.

Personalized Learning Space...beyond Flexible
Flexible learning spaces and PL spaces are not synonymous. In some cases, students in traditional classrooms are on their own personal learning paths. In other instances, you'll find cource-centric learning taking place in updated educational settings with flexible furnishings. While being able to shift furniture around can help you turn an existing classroom into a flexible learning space, it won't necessarily turn it into a PL space. Personalized learning spaces are more about design and usage of space than the furnishings we put in them.


Flexible learning space is about flexibility in furniture and space. For example, you will often find adjustable height tables — that can be wheeled to provide various arrangements — to allow for diverse experiences, Socratic discussions, or for presentations. Flexible learning spaces are easily configured and reconfigured to support unique and changing educational needs.

The differentiator is that PL suites will have rooms of varied sizes to accommodate students’ changing needs and styles, combined with curriculum and student-centered data. PL spaces accommodate individualized work, work rooms for projects and groups both large and small. Architecturally, this can be a challenge as we deal with the issues of supervision, safety, sound control, wall plug-ins and more.

Seek to discover opportunities for extending the learning environment in a way that will truly make a difference in a student’s learning.

A Middle School Example
Berlin Middle School, in Berlin, Wisc., provides a great example. “When we planned and implemented the construction of our new middle school we wanted to be sure the design and furnishings facilitated the opportunity to enhance a collaborative approach to educating our students. We included a large Mathematics Lab that would allow us to change the traditional model of providing instruction based on grade levels and replace it with programs founded on individualized learning plans,” says Dr. Robert Eidahl, Superintendent of the Berlin Area School District.

Three grades of students use the Mathematics Lab suite that consists of an office for the teachers, small break-out space/classroom which can serve up to 10 students, a large, open classroom providing for up to 75 students, and a medium break out space/classroom that will accommodate up to 20 students. All spaces have a large amount of transparency to each other, allowing teachers to go where they are needed, yet provide supervision for the entire suite.

The large classroom has a variety of furniture (hard, soft, tall,short, etc.) and a large projection screen to allow the instructor to present information to the whole class or for students to use for their presentations. Casework was provided along one wall, under the glazing between spaces, providing a work or display surface in addition to storage. This space was also lined with power outlets to allow students to charge their devices. Natural daylighting was valued as a critical element for each learning space. The Mathematics lab is largely an interior space with little access to an exterior wall. However, with transparency to its smaller, supporting rooms, as well as with clerestory windows, this space feels bright and vibrant.

The concept of a suite of rooms is particularly functional because it offers space for such a wide variety of scenarios. For example, a medium space could be ideal for a teacher to gather a small group of students who are struggling with a specific concept. A personal space can allow a student to work privately and concentrate without normal classroom distractions. An open space can provide an excellent work zone for team projects.

Dr. Eidahl explains it this way: “Our middle school math is no longer based on a one size fits all text book; it is now a course that utilizes technology and teacher design curricula to meet every student where their abilities lie and ignoring grade levels. It is all about each child developing at his or her own pace. The response has been very encouraging with a renewed interest in education by students combined with some great growth in fundamental math skills.” He anecdotally shared additional benefits: “The program has garnered a lot of interest and when a local banker visited a class she reported the collaborative approach and team goals she observed were exactly the skills set they look for in 21st Century employees. Because our new school facilities, and more importantly the instructional practices have been well received in the community, we have seen an increase in parent involvement and community volunteerism.”

Key Considerations
When planning for your school’s future, consider these important concepts as codified in the acronym, Aim It All.

  • Assessment: Are formative assessments utilized? Are there opportunities for peer review?
  • Interactive: Does it cater to all five learning styles? Is there the chance to both help and learn with others?
  • Multiple Assessment Medium: Is there the opportunity to create? Are paper and pencil utilized? Do students have the chance to present? Are some exercises project-based?
  • Independent Work: Are real world connections made? Is it clear how the work relates to learning goals? Is it student led? Is there an assortment of assignments? Is it related to student interest?
  • Technology: Is there a wide assortment available? How is it utilized to enhance learning? Is it readily available when desired?
  • Appropriate: Is the space safe, healthy, comfortable? Is the lighting, temperature and visual appearance conducive to learning?
  • Learning: Does it provide for 1:1, small groups and large groups? Is it relevant to student interest? Are there a wide variety of resources, and does it invite engagement?
  • Learning Environment: Are there both collaborative and quiet areas? Does seating aid collaboration? Are online workspaces like SharePoint or Edmodo employed?

Is Personalized Learning Right for Your Next Project?

When considering your next construction or renovation project, take the time to see if creating personal learning space will work for your culture. According to many administrators, it is a concept that is sure to prepare your students for the future — and it may just be the solution your teachers and community are looking for!

About the Authors

Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is the K-12 Market Leader and a Senior Project Architect for Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. (www.hoffman.net). Andres is a LEED AP (Accredited Professional) and a past President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Wisconsin. Andres has worked with more than 50 school districts on PreK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessment, planning, programming, and design services. 

Rob Koehler, AIA, is a Project Architect at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., in Appleton, WI. Koehler is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

 

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