Flexible Learning Spaces: Inclusive by Design? A new article

A feature of both Ministry of Education policy and those who criticise flexible (‘open plan’) learning environments is to call on physical property features as drivers—for the Ministry, of inclusion, and for the critics, of exclusion. An example of Ministry statements that property features can ensure students are catered for and included, can be found here, while examples of critique, that say property features exclude certain categories of students, can be found here, and here.

Can both be right? Is it as simple as suggesting that because a learning environment (ie ‘classroom’) is large, open, airy and colourful, with movable furniture, it is going to be overwhelming to some students? Or that, given the same features, this space will be naturally inviting and engaging and a great place to learn? In a recently published article, I consider this problem, using the language of inclusion and exclusion, but also of equality and equity.

That is because, as I see it (and others too), the question of inclusion is a question of equity (a matter of social justice), meaning that it is about making sure that not only is everyone catered for, but that those who need more assistance and support, are in fact, catered for. The trouble is, New Zealand has had a long educational history of equality, which is concerned with ensuring everyone gets in, or gets to the same fence—but is less concerned with whether they can all see over the fence. And even in more recent times, when policy talk has focussed more on equity, this has tended to be about equitable outcomes (everyone should end up with a qualification, for example—or, everyone should be a ‘digitally connected, responsible global citizen’).

It’s this kind of thinking that helps support the shift into ultra-modern, cutting-edge facilities, as they, in turn, are said to support attempts to prepare all New Zealand youngsters to be these kinds of successful, ’21st century learners’. In these new, radically-designed buildings, teachers will be able to exchange ‘front-of-the-room’ teaching for collaborative teaching, working as facilitators in teams, with multiple students in shared, common learning spaces. And it is aspects of these designs that, as stated above, potentially lead to contrary outcomes.

In my response, what I argue is that that just as much as inclusion and exclusion are affected by the design features of  a space, they are arguably more influenced by the social practices that teachers and students bring to a space. What that means is that working in a single-cell space is no more likely to ensure that all students will be included and catered for in equitable fashion, than if they are in a modern, shared environment—and what my research has demonstrated, is that flexibly designed spaces create more opportunities than single-cell ones do.

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