Theories and Concepts which Underpin Contemporary Learning Space Design

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Key Learning Space Design Principles

When designing an ideal contemporary learning space, it is essential to apply dialogic and inter-professional participatory design processes which address the social, pedagogical, physical and digital concerns of all stakeholders, including students (Brown & Long, 2006; Casanova et al., 2018; Finley & Wiggs, 2016; Joint Information Services Committee [JISC], 2006).  Consultation with key stakeholders allows designers to understand the limitations of the existing space, desired objectives or aspirations, and any other design requirements (Gibbons, 2016; JISC, 2006).  Research has shown that carefully designed environments may enhance both the experience and outcomes of learning; learning and spaces of learning are interdependent (Ellis et al., 2018).  Secondly, while design alone cannot raise achievement, poor design can be an obstacle to raising educational standards above a certain level (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, 2010).  It is well-acknowledged that design enhances student motivation (Finley & Wiggs, 2016; Hutchinson, 2011) therefore contemporary learning spaces need to consider how to integrate aesthetics, function, data and intuition in order to maximise this potential (Finley & Wiggs, 2016).  The participatory process injects insight, initiative, enthusiasm and collaboration between users into learning space design (Casanova et al., 2018).  Furthermore, it gives users agency and helps create shared ownership of spaces that are meaningful for users (Casanova et al., 2018).  Teacher and student behaviours have been shown to change according to the design and structure of learning spaces, especially if underpinned by effective use of learning technologies (Brooks, 2012).  There are a myriad of evident benefits to applying collaborative design thinking principles into learning space design .

Social Theories and Concepts of Contemporary Learning Space Design

Contemporary learning spaces emphasise the social aspects of learning with considerations for individual study, small group collaboration and whole class teaching.  These spaces are based on constructivist learning principles, whereby the focus is on active and social engagement and learning rather than teaching (Brown & Long, 2006).  The learner-centred paradigm or student-centred perspective on learning demonstrates the shift from passive to active learning in contemporary learning spaces (Topçu, 2013).  Learning in 21st-century environments is an active, participatory, experiential, cooperative process in which teachers and students co-create learning experiences (Bennett, 2009; Neill & Etheridge, 2008).  Consequently, there is a desire from students for softer, warmer, more intimate instructional spaces (Topçu, 2013).

The selected learning space is located within the library where the focus of current library design trends emphasises innovative, flexible, social spaces which facilitate collaboration, autonomy, and knowledge building.  Libraries are increasingly referred to as an information and learning commons or learning hubs which invite exploration and collaboration, foster learning and creation, and where users can co-construct understanding (Harrison & Hutton, 2013; Holland, 2015; Johnson & Khoo, 2018).  The goal for a learning commons is to facilitate students’ third space (connection between home life and school life) as well as the development of 21st century skills (Grazotis, 2017; Loertscher, Koechlin, Zwann, & Rosenfeld, 2011).  Library learning spaces also benefit from integrated services to aid learning therefore the library is considered the ‘gateway’ to information literacy and critical engagement within an information-based society (Brown & Long, 2006; Harrison & Hutton, 2013).  A learning commons environment is also reflective of working and learning outside of school to provide students with opportunities that prepare them for life and learning after graduation (Canadian Library Association, 2014; Department of Education and Training, 2018; Elliot, 2010).

Pedagogical Theories and Concepts of Contemporary Learning Space Design

Pedagogically, contemporary theories about learning space design highlight the relationship between being responsive to the needs of the learning community as well as actively enhancing teacher pedagogical repertoire in response to the learning space design.  Firstly, the design of personalised learning spaces should support the specific needs and modalities of the learning community as well as the school’s teaching and learning practices (Fisher, 2012; Ministry of Education, 2016; Walden, 2015).  Personal observations of learners throughout the school and within LIB3 reveals that collaborative, student-centred pedagogies are essential and highly valued by students and teachers alike (Wall, 2016).  The space is also used as an informal space which is conducive to working spontaneously and deliberately in small or medium-sized groups (Brown & Long, 2006; Harrison & Hutton, 2013).

Contemporary, innovative learning space design allows the instructor to be flexible and responsive to learners (Hutchinson, 2011).  Teacher involvement in the design of flexible learning spaces better enables innovative and varying pedagogical approaches and experiences of teaching and learning when compared to the traditional classroom (Lippincott, 2009). Teachers need to be supported through the transition to develop their pedagogical repertoire though ( Neill & Etheridge, 2008; Thomson, 2010; Wall, 2016).  Investment in staff skill development must also be matched by fostering ownership of proposed changes; both teacher-led and student-led activities need to be supported (JISC, 2006).  Neill & Etheridge (2008) suggest using a communication strategy to raise awareness of the potential of flexible learning spaces, train faculty on learning space features and use faculty forums to share best practices.  Similar educative strategies have been applied to promote the use of active learning spaces at the University of Sydney (2018).

Theories and Concepts about the Physical and Digital Components of Contemporary Learning Space Design

Current research on physical and digital requirements in contemporary learning space design focuses on the interplay between integrated technology, flexibility, visual transparency and ‘zoning’.  As with other design aspects, physical learning spaces are seen as a representation of an institution’s vision and strategy for learning and a room’s design influences the type of learning it promotes (Federation University, 2020; JISC, 2006).  The physical setting can be somewhat moderated by the social and instructional context (teachers) but technology and limited flexibility within the space can limit the potential of this moderation (Topçu, 2013).  While technology does not ensure quality teaching or learning it can extend the potential of the space (Federation University, 2020).  That is, technology promotes interaction and participation (Casanova et al., 2018), but changes in technology or physical space changes are not independently sufficient conditions to cause a change in learning behaviours (Johnson & Khoo, 2018).  Physical space often lags behind IT-enabled pedagogical change (Harris, 2010).  Learning is maximised when the physical space is given as careful consideration as other aspects of learning (Topçu, 2013).  For example, consideration of visual transparency (natural light, clear lines of sight including the ability to discreetly observe all students throughout the space) supports a more collaborative and shared style of teaching, observable by passing teachers (Wall, 2016).

The interplay of physical and digital concerns in learning space design is also evident in the prevalence of discussions in the literature about different ‘zones’ or breakout spaces to accommodate for different types of learning (Ministry of Education, 2016; Wall, 2016).  Multiple ‘zones’ within a room has been found to have a positive impact on student learning outcomes (Bligh & Crook, 2017; Harrison & Hutton, 2013).  The intra-space zones may include a collaborative learning zone, a social learning zone, and an individual study zone, and will ideally include flexibility for rooms to be re-configured quickly for small discussion groups or different zoning needs (Brown & Long, 2006).

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