Flexible learning spaces

Julie Grazotis shares her journey with implementing flexible spaces in the library in line with future learning needs of students.

An image of Julie Crazotis, a teacher librarian at Banks Public school in western Sydney
Image: Julie Grazotis is the teacher librarian at Banks Public School in western Sydney.


Over the last 18 months, Banks Public School (BPS), like all other schools in NSW, has been preparing for the implementation of the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum. At our school, this process has included a review of current pedagogy. After engaging in professional learning about the needs of 21 century learners and the Quality teaching framework, reflection on our classroom practice identified a greater need for explicit teaching, and staff and student collaboration.

As a result, all stages adopted an open classroom approach to literacy and numeracy in 2013. The process revealed some key positives, particularly, the ability of students at BPS to rotate and work collaboratively in groups. In order to build on this success, the principal, Pate Cooper, proposed an expansion of this practice into the library. The only hitch would be that the timetable required two classes attending the same session. It was an exciting prospect: two teachers, two classes, two hours and one library. How was it going to work?

Defining the problem

To answer this question, I reflected on past learning in the library, the degree of student engagement and areas of student need. Analysis of data derived from conducting semester quizzes for three years revealed that our students were confident library users and able to navigate the library space, but they lacked knowledge and skills to follow the research process effectively. Evaluation of the open classroom initiative also revealed that students were not always producing work of a quality standard, both in neatness and knowledge when working independently or in small groups.

It became clear that learning activities needed to be more explicitly structured and learning spaces organised, so that productive learning could occur.

Finding the right solution

One solution seemed to stand out from the rest; an approach in the library with an organisational structure built around groups of students working on explicit research related tasks. The framework for this program was inspired by an article by Bianca Hewes in a recent Schools Catalogue Information Services (SCIS) Connections newsletter. The article, Using archetypes to match learning spaces with physical and digital spaces, outlined how Bianca Hewes was using Thornburg's concept of flexible learning spaces in her high school classes to connect and engage students in the learning process. Hewes described the process as aligning students physical learning space with their mental learning space. This seemed to be the answer I was looking for; a process that allowed for the movement of large groups with provision for flexibility of activities and supervision.

The flexible learning spaces model was also appealing as the process employed a narrative in which to frame the student focused experience. I have long employed the Quality teaching element of narrative to engage and connect students with learning in the library. The story telling nature of this approach to learning in the library was the hook required to capture students' attention and frame student learning experiences.

Flexible learning spaces

Flexible learning spaces is a student focused approach to teaching a unit of work. The learning space is divided into smaller task focused spaces that relate directly to the learning behaviours student should display when working in each area. At BPS we label each of the areas as outlined by Thornburg and Hewes:

  1. Cave: The cave is a space where students work independently to complete tasks. They can reframe ideas gathered from interaction with other students and stay focused on their reading and research.
  2. Waterhole: The waterhole is a space where students work in small groups to complete tasks. They are encouraged to discuss, collaborate and share ideas.
  3. Campfire: The campfire is a space where the whole group meets to receive instructions, discuss the topic and view stimulus to gather information about the topic. Only one person speaks at a time in campfire so conversations are focused and directed around the topic and reflection of student experiences.
  4. Life: The final space is life. In this space students make and create a small topic related project. The project has a specified audience and requires the application of research gathered during the other spaces. Life occurs towards the end of the topic, but still requires visits to campfire to clarify the project and reflect on student progress.

To support the notion of flexible learning spaces, posters outlining each of the spaces: cave, waterhole, campfire and life are displayed. In the beginning, furniture was rearranged and in some cases purchased to accommodate groups. Visual timetables were developed to indicate the sequence of activities and activity cards were created to guide students as they moved around the library space completing their tasks.

Programming for flexible learning spaces

The Curriculum Planning and Programming for Quality Teaching Assessing and Reporting document guided preparation for the project as it outlines that a collaborative process requires a 'shared understanding of intended learning'. Therefore, understanding that the success of the different approach to learning depended on staff support, I created a programming template. This template allowed Stage teams to collaboratively identify the focus of the unit, possible activities and resources to engage the students. My role was to address the logistics of the lesson with attention to the structural features of the space and the movement of the groups. In addition, I helped colleagues to select suitable topic related print, visual and multimodal texts to be accessed by students during the unit of work.

Implementation and reflection

Teaching began on the first day of Term 1 this year with an orientation for staff followed by a five week introductory unit (see Table 1) for students in Years 1 to 6. During this unit of work, students were introduced to the terminology of the learning spaces and the expectations of each one. The focus of this introductory unit is the development of skills for communication, learning and reflection that can be applied across a range of KLAs. This orientation time allowed teachers to adjust to the team teaching arrangement and observe the students as they explored each of the spaces.

Students were also able to identify which of the spaces they preferred to work in through targeted questioning. The allocation of time to reflect proved essential to the orientation process as students adopted ownership of the language and the spaces. Student responses included:

I like cave because I can concentrate .
I like waterhole because I can talk to others and share my ideas .
An image of a primary school aged boy in a school library sitting on the floor reading a book
Image: Cave: a student finds a comfy place to read without distractions

These reflection times are now a regular feature in campfire as student responses allowed teachers to directly attend to issues that arise in the space and support students having difficulty. As a result of the reflection time it was identified that spatial changes were required to better cater for students with a preference for waterhole learning. Our waterhole activities were originally set up in open floor spaces and the cave activities were set at tables. However, over a number of weeks it became obvious that cave learners wanted to spread out and waterhole groups wanted to be near each other. The swap has allowed students in each of these spaces to be more settled and focused on their set tasks.

While students and staff continue to embrace the flexible learning spaces model, clear rewards can already be seen. Observation of behaviour and student work samples reveal that as they complete the work students are asking questions, taking accurate notes and seeking support to improve their research practice. The campfire space is used to provide information literacy skills such as using an index, note taking and internet browsing at point of need and these pieces of advice are accepted by the students as they are relevant to the immediate work.

The progress in student research skills was evident when the students were presented with their first life task. Although students were keen to commence the project they could not do so until they had completed all their research. For some this meant retracing their steps, checking facts and searching for more keywords. A valuable lesson was learnt here as students had to accept responsibility for their progress and performance.

Eight primary school aged children sitting around a table working on a writing task
Image: Waterhole: group of students working together

Building a flexible future

Banks PS will continue to employ flexible learning spaces over this year and hopefully into the future as recent staff feedback indicates satisfaction with this approach to learning. Our units of work have developed to integrate elements of the new English syllabus, namely an expanded text base to engage students. We are also able to provide an increasing range of opportunities to employ current and new technologies such as the XO laptops, Notebook 10, YouTube clips, PowerPoint and blogs.

Banks PS 2014: Introduction to flexible learning spaces: Unit overview, Stages 1–3

Topic: Adventure time

Learning goals:

  • orient students to the flexible library space process
  • assist students to develop skills to locate, select and use good quality, relevant information using the 5Ws method.

Unit duration: 5 weeks: one 2 hr session per week

Organisation: two stage adjacent classes, separated into 6 working groups meet for one 2hr session per week

Week 1: introduction to topic

Weeks 2-4: each group completes three rotations per session; one complete rotation per fortnight

Week 5: presentation and reflection

Supervision: one teacher librarian and one classroom teacher per hour with possible addition of a SLSO

Session organisation:

  • 20 mins campfire
  • 60 mins 3 x 20min rotations cave and waterhole
  • 20 mins campfire
  • 15 mins for borrowing and browsing.

References and further reading

Hewes, B. 2013, ‘Using archetypes to match learning spaces with physical and digital spaces’, SCIS Connections, Issue No 85 Term 2, accessed 20 January 2018.

New South Wales Department of Education and Training (NSWDET) 2003, Quality teaching in NSW public schools, Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate, Sydney.

New South Wales Department of Education and Communities (NSW DEC) 2012, Curriculum planning and programming for Quality teaching, assessing and reporting, accessed 20 January 2018.

Shrock, K. 2009, The 5W’s of website evaluation, accessed 20 January 2018.

Thornburg, D. 2007, Campfires in cyberspace: primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century.

Keywords: learning spaces, quality teaching, primary, campfire, library, teacher librarian

How to cite this article: Grazotis, J. 2014, ‘Flexible learning spaces’, Scan, 33(4)

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