I graduated high school in 1977. The English classrooms I see in 2009 are almost identical to the English classrooms I experienced in 1977. I started teaching biology in 1986 and my biology classroom then looks exactly like most biology classrooms do today. Don’t get me wrong- a great deal of outstanding teaching and learning can, and does, take place in such spaces.

Will I be able to say the same thing 20 years from now? Will the English and Biology classrooms of 2029 look exactly like the same classrooms from 2009?

It is my personal belief that they will, and that the notion of what a learning space looks like will not fundamentally change in mainstream K-12 education over that same time period. It is also my belief that the concept of learning space is one of the most neglected concepts of school design. Unlike some, I spend each and every day actually in a school, and I see teaching and learning jammed into a one-size-fits-all space that has the potential to constrict learning.

So I’m interested in something more. Something different, something better. Some might say I’m passionate about learning space, some may say obsessed. So, here is a quote that I posed the other day on Twitter, from Ryan Bretag:

“What are the dimensions of a learning space?”

If I were to ask you to identify a single word that describes a place for learning, you would probably say “classroom.” And that’s a great place to start, but unfortunately, that’s as far as most schools go. So when I think dimensions, I think of all possible spaces for learning, and all the types of learning that could potentially take place in those spaces. I use dimension in that context. To that end, in the school I work in, I’ll be focusing my passion for developing learning spaces on:

Flexible spaces that can be reconfigured to meet the need of the learners. One size fits all needs to go away. (Our library renovation will include a laptop lab with furniture that can be rearranged to align space with learning needs).

Non-traditional spaces, such as commons areas, where students can take advantage of their electronic devices and our open wireless network. (Our hallways, our Student Activities Center, our cafeterias can now have an additional dimension to what is available to learn with.)

Private student spaces where collaboration can occur, spaces for quiet reflection and collaboration. (Our library will contain two glass-enclosed conference rooms for students, complete with whiteboard wallpaper where kids can use the walls to diagram their ideas, their learning, and their passions.

Large open spaces in our library where kids and teachers can push and pull different resources to design their own space, given the immediate need. (Information commons, knowledge commons, what does a library in 2009 and beyond look like? Oh yes, it will still have….books.

Digital spaces where teachers can work, where students can interact, that support the physical space and extend it, to help students master the complex skills of connecting, creating, and learning in a digital context. (Our multidimensional learning space, with Moodle and Google Apps, and the focus on an entire digital school community, will provide students with support for a different type of learning experience).

Opportunities for the support of informal learning, that enable students to pursue their interests, their own learning, but within the context of the traditional learning space, i.e. schools and supported by adults. (Why limit learning? How can educators become mentors outside of the classroom context to help students explore their passions?)

So that’s why I’m passionate about learning space. And I don’t care if any or all of it has been done before, because it hasn’t been done enough….

Of course, this is all in support of a very successful and diverse school with multiple types of programs, services and opportunities for kids, a committed faculty and staff, excellent administrators and a supportive community-we’re very lucky. And we still have a wood shop, an automotive program, and we still offer film photography. Sort of old school, but old school can be good.

I’m not the only one interested in this of course. Consider the 2010 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in Denver. Their conference theme is Understanding Complex Ecologies in a Changing World and they have a list of suggestions for presentations, which include:

  • How educational settings—formal and informal—can be designed to address the interrelated cognitive, social, and emotional demands of learning;
  • How learning occurs within and across time and space in complex dynamic systems;
  • How alternative organizational spaces for education, such as for-profit schools, colleges, firms, community organizations, and museums interact with schooling in recruiting and expanding repertoires for learning.


If you are looking for an outstanding resource to get started, look no further than Educause’s excellent set of essays, appropriately entitled “Learning Spaces.”

Yeah, we will always have classrooms. I get it. But I would encourage you to think bigger, think beyond that typical space to take advantage of every opportunity for learning, and that includes a consideration of how space can impact learning, and what kinds of learning can take place in those spaces. I think that consideration is something that we dismiss too easily, it’s too much of an assumption that we don’t seriously reflect upon.

“Space can have a powerful impact on learning; we cannot overlook space in our attempts to accomplish goals” (Chism, 2006)

Chism, N. V. (2006). Educause. Retrieved July 8, 2009, from Learning Spaces: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/PUB7102b.pdf

10 Responses to “Me? Obsessed?”
  1. David,

    Some excellent resources I would recommend, though I imagine you are very familiar with them.

    DesignShare which Christian Long was affiliated with for quite a while. (http://www.designshare.com) Lots of ideas, case studies and articles as well as their excellent book Language of School Design, which is an unusually pretty design book for schools with many global but concrete concepts.

    Also, we did a site visit to High Tech High in San Diego and I highly recommend/laud their use of flexible spaces. (though alas, they do not have a library type of space). Their use of simple flexible space was very innovative and not expensive.

    I think space does drive innovation, to an extent. And I do think it is very difficult for us to think outside of the “box” of the schoolroom, so to speak, even after many years of discussion about it. (I would wager going back to Dewey or further).

    Thanks for sharing the plans for your school spaces!

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I wrote a blog post (http://www.boldleaps.net/school_buildings/) about this issue last year when the school district I live was trying to pass a bond referendum to build new schools. With the millions and millions of dollars being spent, you would think we would get away from the old model–but no, now we have very expensive school buildings suited to learning systems from the last century. In Education Week last year, there was an excellent commentary from a architect firm that builds schools. One of the quotes that jumped out at me was this:

    “What do our school buildings say about what we think is really important? What do schools that mimic architecture of other centuries say to children within them working on digital devices? Are our school buildings saying what we want to convey to teachers and students? ”

    So we all must obsess about this issue–and act locally when new schools are built to make our voices heard. Long shot but worth it.

  3. Dan Lake says:

    Dave, regarding your “digital spaces”, I took a cue from the British who have clearly defined Managed Learning Environments and Virtual Learning Environments and are working to develop new digital “Smart” desk designs to alter their physical learning environments. Remember.. they are the originators of the Promethean boards and more. I suspect because they are a small island and their high bandwidth pre-dated ours, they take some leadership that is work watching.

    I now challenge those I teach to review and determine what IS and what SHOULD BE their virtual learning environments. This surprises even the best techology-using educators who often are spread all over electronic space with no coordinated, authenticated learning space. Only those with learning management systems even consider the larger ideas and how the managed learning system pieces are still often disconnected from the actual student “virtual learning environments”.

    The whole concept of reforming “classrooms” is primary to all the Web 2.0 tool concepts. We need the framework and context, with equal focus on the teacher as the assigned manager of learning in this extended context!

  4. David (et al)
    Thanks for the great resources and things to think about. I am actually on the HS building committee as we rethink whether to renovate or rebuild our High School. As a 1:1 high school the teachers have really started to rethink what the learning space should look like—for example do we need a “formal auditorium” or would a flexible / divisible space make more sense? Part of the process is having a chance to talk with the architechts and I will certainly be consuming as much of this information as well as passing along to my colleagues. I think that people do need places to come together to learn socially, collaboratively.
    I think that consideration is something that we dismiss too easily, it’s too much of an assumption that we don’t seriously reflect upon.
    Believe me…I will be reflecting upon all of these ideas and pressing the envelope in terms of things that should be considered. Thanks for this timely post :)

  5. Daniel Rezac says:


    I’m even surprised that, even in the present time I still see science and English classrooms with bare walls, very little engagement even with non-tech integration. I’ve always been excited about modular devices and modular buildings. What would be wonderful to see, is entirely modular desks, walls, classrooms- classrooms that can change for the type of learning that was going on at the time. I used to spend hours setting up my desks so that students could quickly change from group work- to paired -to lecture- to movie- to laptop. etc.. A lot of thought has to go into designing schools upon these principals. The simple idea that the lunchroom could be a place where students could further their ideas is kind of revolutionary. You mean- you want students to think? Well, what would happen if our students started doing that? Oy vey- the sky would start falling.

  6. [...] Scott McLeod’s annual leadership challenge.   A recent post by David Jakes on his blog, Strength of Weak Ties, “Me, Obsessed?” has me thinking about the future of what we call school.  And Don [...]

  7. Amber Byrne says:

    I was having very similar issues in my classroom. The space was not realistic for the types of learning that transpires in my classroom. Also with all the technology that is available for us today I only had a handful of electrical outlets and there is not access to the wireless internet in my building so the lap tops are not functional in my classroom. I have worked with the technology person at our school the head maintenance worker along with a few others in the district office to remedy the problems that I faced. I have had extra outlets installed and internet connections dropped down in various places in my room. I have also solicited many spare materials to help create the environment that I want in my classroom. I find my classroom to be more functional and I enjoy how it is working out so far this year yet I am finding many of your resources are giving me even more ideas for change in the classroom.

  8. Amber says:

    I completely agree that the classroom itself is one of the few parts of education that has changed very little, if at all, over the years. Honestly, as a new teacher, this is something that I have never thought about. Really, the only part of the actual classroom that has changed over the years is the amount and type of technology available in the classroom. Granted, I am sure that there have been new desks and flooring installed maybe even a new chalkboard or an upgrade to a white board, but honestly the actual space does not change. Teachers do their best to decorate their rooms to make them look inviting, but that is often just a cover up to what the room has always and always will look like. I think that this is mostly seen in secondary classrooms more than elementary classrooms because there is more that a teacher can do with an elementary classroom instead of just desks and chairs with the occasional bookcase as found in most secondary classrooms. Thank you for posting on this topic as I find that it is one that many teachers do not even consider or put at the bottom of the list because there is so much else to do!

  9. [...] influential blog post: David Jakes, Strength of Weak Ties: Me? Obsessed? [...]

  10. [...] is pretty huge for me as I can actually see/know that the things he writes about in education (learning spaces, for example) are actually being implemented in a school. Talking to my friend gives me further [...]

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