Sunday, March 10, 2013

Open learning spaces…and the smaller spaces within

As we get close to finalising the design for our school’s second stage build much of the attention is on the nature of the smaller spaces within. We know that our new hubs will accommodate three teachers and up to 90 learners but exactly what is the nature of the smaller spaces within? What size should they be? And should they have doors?

Currently within each learning hub we have one larger space that can be closed down - it’s equivalent in size to a traditional classroom (about 64 square metres) – as well a couple of smaller (11 sq m) breakout spaces. They both have glass sliding doors and good acoustic separation.

The ability to close the doors for a while is important for some children. One of our youngest students, referring to a small glazed breakout space, reported that “I like to go to the small room because it is quiet. Another suggested that, I like this space because it can shut its doors and it will be quiet”.

However a couple of our older students made an interesting observation:
Student 1 - I like the quiet room because it’s easier to work in there because there’s no noise
CB – Which one’s the quiet room for you?
Student 1 - The one with the books in it - the library. The Google room’s cool too because it’s a big area and you can close it off.
Student 2 – But it’s annoying when there are millions of people in there
CB – Do you think it’s important that you have spaces that you can close off?
Student 1 – Yes because if you’re going to be noisy, if you were doing a film or something, you can close it off so that people don’t get distracted by our learning. And it’s also good if you want to have quiet and so you can block off all the noise.

So these two students considered a space that they referred to as a quiet room to hold dual purposes. Firstly that it was a place to find quiet, and secondly a place that you could close down in order that it was quiet for everyone else.

The Professional Learning Group has recently toured a couple of business environments in order to draw some comparisons with the types of spaces we are designing for schools. Both the bank and the architects that we’ve visited have an emphasis on open, collaborative and highly interactive spaces. There are hot desk stations, settings for teams, presentation spaces as well as food based spaces; the coffee bar, the shared kitchen, and outdoor seating.

These are the sort of spaces that Jonah Lehrer refers to in Imagine: How creativity works, when he talks about the Pixar Animation Studios. They are the places of the incidental encounters, casual conversations, the places for connections to be made, networks to be broadened. They are Ray Oldenburg’s ‘third places’ - spaces that bring together diverse talents and view points. Not that all the conversations that are going to go on there will be of high significance, just that some of the are. What characterises these spaces is the openness, accessibility and proximity for all.

But although there was an emphasis on collaboration and openness in the places we visited, both environments still had a need for closing down spaces at times – to hold client meetings, for team meetings, presentations, phone calls, interviews and confidential conversations - and so had rooms set aside for just that purpose.

It’s a point that Fayard and Weeks (2011) make in discussing the transition from private office work environments to open, shared spaces. They discuss that even though there are positive behavioural effects of the redesigns there is also counter evidence to suggest that opening up the space may actually inhibit casual conversations and encounters. “Though it may seem counterintuitive, research shows that informal interactions won’t flourish if people can’t avoid interacting when they wish to” (p. 105). Herman Miller Inc’s recent paper on collaboration makes a similar point. “Smaller rooms and alcoves a little off the beaten path can provide a person with the peace and quiet needed to synthesise a large amount of information and write a report” (p. 5)

Shift that thinking into a school context and what does it suggest? Well it’s about students having access to some spaces that can be closed down, while at the same time having the affordance of visibility. I like the notion of having a ‘room within a room’ that Stephen Heppell refers to - and I like the way he frames it - “agile little spaces-within-spaces that have proved so popular with children and teachers alike - they offer a space for mutuality, for an intimacy of collaboration, for serious study and focused conversations, for peace & quiet sometimes, for focus and of course, with always one side open and an eye line in, for safety too.”

And I think that our children have discovered this for themselves. When you walk into a learning hub and observe they have rearranged furniture, or sit behind a teaching station, or a couch, or nestle into a corner or up against a window, or on a stage block, more often than not they have created their own spaces that purpose their own learning. When asked to design potential new environments, the idea of creating nooks and crannies was a common theme among children. Take this model for example.

When asked about the zig-zag wall, the two children who’d built it talked about the little spaces that it created – small environments our architect might describe as ‘worlds’. Corners it seems to our children are important places for learning.

Another couple designed this sunken amphitheatre with group dialogue and discussion in mind:

On a recent trip to Melbourne University I came across this ‘room within a room’. It’s open, visible and whilst not acoustically separated from the larger environment it is part of, there was a sense of purposeful separation. The lines delineated by the carpet too added to the concept.

This couch area too, at the architect office, despite being right in the middle of the practice, forms it’s own little world for people to meet and discuss, and learn. Strangely enough and despite its centrality it affords  a surprising amount of noise insulation from the general murmur of work and keyboards around it.

As we move into finalising our hub designs, when we think about the spaces within, it’s about exploring a balance between open spaces where shared teaching, collaboration and group work can go on, and at the same time providing a couple of smaller breakout spaces which can be acoustically separated. Teachers have commented that we probably need two closeable spaces; one for a larger group of students (although not as large as a classroom), and another one for small groups. The visible nature of spaces with large glass doors is seen as a real positive too.

Also though its important to look at creating other spaces, alcoves and worlds within the larger one; perhaps through the use of the corners, nooks and crannies, hinging screens and staircases that are so popular with our learners. Over the next few weeks the designs will continue to evolve and we'll be going to our teachers and students for some all to critical feedback.


Fayard, A.-L., & Weeks, J. (2011). Who Moved My Cube? Harvard Business Review(July-August 2011).

Heppell, S. (2012). Rooms within rooms, from

Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place : cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York : Paragon House, 1989.


  1. There are so many advantage in open learning space teachers can view students activities.Teaching and learning in an open space presents a number of challenges that cannot faced when teacher teaching in a single cell classroom.International Schools in Bangalore

  2. Chris,
    I'm a 2011 graduate of the SDSU program and recently received my CEFP designation. My educational background is an MS in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 13 years as a professional librarian, and for the past 15 years, a facilities project manager and strategy consultant for a large bank, specializing in corporate learning environments.

    I was reading your post on this topic and was glad that you had the opportunity to look at open classroom environments and compare them with the trend in corporate offices for collaborative team spaces. The 2 concepts are very similar, and I am in agreement with your evaluation of the open collaborative office and the need to have a variety of spaces, both shared and private, for the various needs of the team member working in the environment.

    Recent studies have shown that corporate office spaces (private offices, workstations, etc) are in use no more than 30 per cent of the time, and there are a variety of tools to help with that evaluation (IP router tracking, occupancy sensors). People work out of the office, travelling, at home, or whenever and wherever to get things done. Coming to the office is more of a connection time with others who are doing the same thing, but you need a variety of environments to provide the right atmosphere when these employees are in the office: small conference spaces, benching, small offices similar to a study carrel in a library.

    All of these factors are very similar to providing a variety of learning environments within an open space plan, where children can go to a specific place that they find to be the most effective for self-study, or for groups to gather. This trend is also found in today's libraries in the form of the Learning Commons: students not only go to the library to gather materials but to discuss them with others....and because libraries provide a 24-7 environment through websites for databases and other types of information, the library acts more as a socialization hub for this information than a repository for books.

    At any rate, I was glad to see your comparison and to have colleagues that are thinking beyond the walls of a school.

  3. Great Post! Informative and helpful. Thank-you :)

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  5. Im glad to read this and have it followed up with Mike moyer experience. Im currently home studying and even though I very much prepared my study area to be clean and in order with everything I might need at hand, I find it easier to learn in a smaller place in my house. Im glad to read the answers from the children and Herman Millers Inc book pg5 comment.

  6. Good to know about our school stage. I am also planning to make a new office building. So last week arranged a meeting at one of good meeting space San Francisco. Everything went great and soon the work will be starting.

  7. I visited your school, Stonefields, in 2012. It's good to see how open spaces can be used. Your methods deserve a wider audience.

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