May 10, 2018

F3 – Fixed, Flexible & Fluid Learning Spaces

Photo credit: DLR Group

 by Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, NCIDQ, AIA Affiliate 

It is argued here that flexibility is just one component of designing to support intended behaviors, and the design community perhaps interprets the word differently than the education community. 

Designing for flexibility is often the ‘go to’ for classroom solutions. A general understanding is that a flexible design “adapts to new situations,” and when incorporating it one is attempting to have a one-size-fits all solution set up for a variety of teaching practices. It suggests if a flexible solution is used, all design issues are solved, and teaching practices are made easy no matter how one delivers one’s practice. Design solutions must support the users’ needs and intended behaviors —that’s a given. But do designers and educators speak the same language and have the same inference regarding terms? Let’s examine the design and teaching practices continuums along with what we know about how we learn, and then provide some linkages in terms of language and solutions.

How we learn is being studied ever more intensely by brain scientists than ever before. We know so much more about how we learn, what it takes to stay focused and why engagement in one’s learning is key to overall student success according to research findings[1],[2],[3]. That evidence indicates sitting still is not conducive to learning. We need to move to learn and we need to stand to stay focused longer. Research further argues it is OK for the mind to drift; in fact it must, as focusing for too long is just not possible. Our brains can truly focus for about 10-15 minutes and then need a break. Postural change helps us all particularly when we are working on computers and focusing or working on a particular problem; standing up, sitting down and lying down should all be considered.

And the more we can connect students emotionally to the learning tasks/problems kinesthetically [through our senses] the more information is retained. As advanced learning designs supporting active learning increase and classrooms are replaced with ‘learning suites and maker spaces,’ we have the opportunity to challenge and invent a new language, bridging the perceived gap between design’s language and the educator’s. Thus, this article presents the 3 F’s, or F3 – Fixed, Flexible and Fluid. The information shared here is an attempt to bridge a perceived gap in language between a design language and a teaching practice language. F3’s are explained first from a design solution perspective and then from a teaching strategy one.

This article suggests design solutions work within a continuum of F3 – Fixed, Flexible and Fluid. It is this continuum that needs further explanation and understanding.

FIXED represents all of those items physically built into the infrastructure of a building. In other words, if you turned a building upside down those items would not fall out. Examples include cabinetry, bolted down seating, and of course the building’s entire structure and infrastructure.

FLEXIBLE may translate into several design opportunities. Solutions are often categories as items with castors, fairly lightweight tables easily moved, and items that are ‘wrenchable,’ but all with predictable and set patterns for alteration. An example of wrenchable might be an open office cubicle situation. It can be moved, but not easily, but it is not built into the building. The challenge with ‘flexible’ is that most often furnishings are heavy, or awkward and thus not easily reconfigured. So, guess what? They don’t get reconfigured. In fact, these flexible places become more fixed just for the fact that items are not easy to move.

FLUID in the design sense might translate to a swivel seat on a chair, a clicker that allows for a digital screen to be changed, and lights/temperature changed with the flick of a control — perhaps like a Google home devise. Little movement or rearrangement is required in a fluid situation, and all are not predictable. Where students choose to move in a chair with wheels is not necessarily in a specific pattern. If these examples illustrate a ‘design language’ for educators to interpret, how might designers interpret the educators’ needs with a variety of teaching practices?

Teaching practices have a continuum of sorts as well from the very traditional lecture to a simultaneous, multi-modal strategy, to a fully operational tinker/maker/production space as some of the most creative. Each of these practices elicits strategies and places that must support them. Types of strategies might also include problem-based, project-based, inquiry-based, etc. approaches to deliver content. A lecture as we have come to understand it is teacher-centric. The teacher comes in prepared to share knowledge and may utilize a projector and screen to support a visual connection to the content accompanying the verbal one. Often we think of the design solutions as fixed seating, or tiered lecture halls. Here students should be in active listening mode, perhaps taking notes, but nothing more is typically expected.

In the second practice described, it could be likened to a one-room schoolhouse, or more student-focused. Thus, in a simultaneous, multi-modal strategy, multiple learning activity situations, and content delivery approaches are going on at the same time and in fact some students may be leading certain components while the educator leads others. One-to-one, peer-to-peer and small group to whole group situations strategies are incorporated. Here the educator is more of the ‘guide on the side’ acting as a facilitator allowing students to discover on their own in a pre-planned and purposeful strategy(ies). Multiple types of postures, equipment, technologies and places within a room(s) are needed to orchestrate these situations successfully — a fluid solution is best here. For example, the simplest and most impactful furniture solution for fluid connection is a swivel chair. The individual does not have to reconfigure anything and can simply and easily move slightly or swivel entirely without getting out of one’s seat. He/she can connect to others, or see content wherever it might be presented.

The third scenario, or a creative space, acts in much the same way as the multimodal ones, is still student-centric, however depending upon the type and more importantly the equipment required; a balance must be struck between students being on their own and the educator directing their discovery. This type of pedagogical practice is more likened to an apprentice / master one. As equipment and access to tools are most often needed, this type of space may be designed supporting a fixed to flexible solutions.

This article has explored the language given to F3, or fixed, flexible and fluid, in an attempt to align design language to the language of teaching strategies. The bottom line is both design and pedagogy solutions need all three F’s; essential for appropriate advanced learning solutions. However, we seem to have a design predisposition to the fixed and the flexible ones. It is further argued here to be truly active as an educator and to have students actively engage in their learning processes, we need to push the boundaries of fluid. Easy access and ability to follow content wherever it may be displayed, shared, talked about could be a new driver. As active learning practices increase in more advanced learning places, it is ever more important to allow for fluid and quick transitions from individual work to small group work and back again.

 About the Author:
“Dr. Lennie” is a leading thinker on the evolution of what we know about learning, the learner and the learning place has pioneered research strategies addressing how the built environment impacts student engagement factors and learner success, and has designed future-focused, evidence-based design applications for 20+ years. Currently, she is the Owner / Principal of INSYNC: Education Research + Design. She is also acting as the Education Research Leader for DLR Group’s K12 Education Practice. She was formerly the founding Director of Education Environments Globally for Steelcase Education; tenured, full-professor and chair of two design schools; Director of the iLAB Research Center, Radford University; professional interior designer, author, published researcher, national and international speaker.

[1]Scott-Webber, L., Konyndyk, R., French, R., Lembke, J., & Kinney, T. (2017). Spatial design makes a difference in student academic engagement levels: A pilot study for grades 9-12. European Scientific Journal. 13(16), ISSN: 1857-7881 Doi: 10.19044/esj.2017.v13n16p5.
[2] Kilbourne, J., Scott-Webber, L., & Kapitula, L.R. (2017). An activity-permissible classroom: Impacts of an evidence-based design solution on student engagement and movement in an elementary school classroom. Children, Youth and Environments 27(1): 112-134.
[3] Nissim, Y., Weissblueth, E., Scott-Webber, L. & Amar, S. (2016). The effect of a new stimulating learning environment on pre-service teachers’ motivation and 21st century skills. Journal of Education and Learning: Vol. 5, No. 3. pp. 29-39. Doi:10.5539/jel.v5n3p29.

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