Learning Spaces Matter

Where do you choose to do “work” outside of your place of work or school building? I sit feet up on my couch, located beside a gas fireplace, with a warm blanket wrapped around me and usually a coffee nestled beside my laptop. Second choice for locale I would be at a Good Earth Cafe table (preferable a tall table with a stool) and a cup of Cinnamon Dolce Latte beside my laptop. If I’m not comfortable, I find it difficult to focus.

Space matters.

For my fourth toolkit challenge for my “Universal Design for Learning” Grad course, I wanted to better understand the concept of the Physical Learning Space through a Universal Design for Learning lens. The Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) argues we need to provide Multiple Means of Representation, Multiple Means of Expression and Multiple Means of Engagement to better meet the diverse needs of learners. Considering CAST’s guiding principles, I began pondering how location and the physical environment could help foster all three elements? While Universal Design applies to the physicality of an environment design being accessible and flexible for all, I want to specifically consider possibilities of the physical learning space through a UDL lens. I decided to form questions to ask when assessing a learning space.

Traditional School layout

 Would you want to sit in the above room for 8 hours straight?

The Third Teacher – case study by Steelcase. A video illustrating flexibility of learning spaces.

Space & Multiple Means of Representation.

CAST (2014) argues learners differ in the ways they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. Beyond the concept of “decoration” of a classroom, the idea of multiple means of representation inherently connects with the physical surroundings and availability of tools to provide multiple means of representation. Providing options and accessibility within the physical environment can help aid in providing multiple ways of accessing and understanding.

Is information communicated or presented in multiple ways? SmartBoards or Screens, are they located so anyone in the room can see? Do learners get a chance to use a Smartboard or is it only used for teacher directed lessons? Can you zoom in on the text or images or provide subtitles for ELL? Are schedules posted so learners can see plans for the day? Are learning goals or learner questions visible? Are there speakers to increase clarity or sound levels? Are personal devices encouraged?

Is uniqueness valued, shared and celebrated in representation?

Who we include or do not include on our walls matters and sends out a message on who is truly valued within the building. Are resources from a variety of cultures and backgrounds being used? Are images and perspectives from of a variety of cultures illustrating a mosaic of human differences prominently used? Is diversity shared on the walls? In the hallways? Online? Are learners with special needs also included in visible learning or only displayed within a resource room?

Digital Connection

An element to support learner individual pace is providing access to learning at any time, anyplace and any pace. By providing an online digital access point for learning, we open up the possibilities for learners to learn at their own pace, integrate personalized technology and provide them with multiple representations.

Space & Multiple Means of Action & Expression

CAST (2014) states “it is important to provide alternative media for expression”. Further “such alternatives reduce media-specific barriers to expression among learners with a variety of special needs, but also increases the opportunities for all learners to develop a wider range of expression in a media-rich world.”

Is there a variety of “stuff” & “things” to create with? I have been blessed to teach Humanities out of an Art Classroom and therefore had a great supply of paper, clay tools, paints, rulers, glue, scissors and recycled items readily available at any moment. Because I taught Art Metal I also had saws, a drill press, pliers etc. Essentially, a mini-maker space at my learners finger tips. The ability to locate tools quickly or “on the fly” helps with differentiation.

Flexibility of Space

Considering space…how quickly can you move furniture around to create alternative learning space? Is there an area to bring an entire group together? Is there a quiet area to record? How do the teachers collaborate to help create experiences as needed based on learners needs? Is the school itself flexible? Is an Art Room open to those who need to make a mess? Is the shop room open for someone to use a spray booth? With the shift from Libraries to Learning Commons this will help learners gain better access to a myriad of tools.

This video shows how simply changing the design of a chair can provide multiple means of expression & action

Space & Multiple Means of Engagement

CAST argues “there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.” One of the most important things a teacher can do is to create a safe space for learners. By focusing on how the physical environment can engage learners, as Carol Ann Tomlinson (2003) states “the classroom environment includes both physical and affective attributes that individually and cumulatively establish the tone or atmosphere in which teaching and learning will take place.” Suggesting the classroom will often be the first messenger of how learning will be in this place.

In fostering learner engagement an educator needs to consider learners’ interests. Does the learning space have a warm ambiance? Do learners have choices to collaborate or work independently? Thus fostering autonomy in learner choice. Are there visible schedules or plans so a learner who needs structure feels secure? Are there areas for quiet concentration and also areas for social interaction? Do the learners have a say in their classroom design?

What does an educator do if limited by physical space design?

Create. Money is always a resource we wish we had more of…so instead of giving up one has to be creative with what one has. I’ve taught in a windowless room for years so we painted our own windows on the walls. This extended into painting cupboards and tables to add learner identity of the space. I brought in a lamp and some cloth to soften the room.

Bargain and ask the community. I went to a local furniture store and bargained for a couch. I explained it was for educational purposes in a school and wanted to help out. Why not ask parents if they have any items willing to donate?

Reach out to peers! I was told my cool green shag carpet was a fire hazard, so I asked a Phy.Ed teacher if I could borrow some gym mats when they weren’t in use. Done! I had comfy mats for kids to lay on or sit and the mats were easy to move around the room as needed.

Partner with Colleagues. As teachers, collaborating to share space is key. Learners should be able to flow from room to room in a building when needed, not always at scheduled bell times. If a learner needs to perhaps drill a hole in a piece of wood for a project would it not be fantastic if the Shop teacher was open to supervising this child, essentially opening up the space to everyone? Agreeing that there are no “territorial” spaces but an entire school learning environment? 


In summary, a major key of UDL is the concept of flexibility, of being able to manipulate variables to achieve high performance for all learners. Which is why Universal Design for Learning extends into the physical environment and deserves thoughtful implementation. In a recent study of physical space impact upon academic results, Christopher Brooks (2010) found “holding all factors excepting the learning spaces constant, students taking the course in a technologically enhanced environment conducive to active learning techniques outperformed their peers who were taking the same course in a more traditional classroom setting.”

Does the learning environment imply a teacher centred focus…or hopefully a learner centred space? Can you walk in and tell exactly where the teacher “runs the show”, or do you walk in and find it is impossible to tell who is teaching and who is learning?

Check out these Resources on Learning Spaces

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. (July 2012).The Third Teacher: Designing the Learning Environment for Mathematics and Literacy, K to 8. Capacity Building Series.Special Edition #27. Ontario, Canada : Student Achievement Division.

K-12 Blueprint

Bill, David. Example of a Redesigned Classroom. 8 Tips and Tricks to Redesign Your Classroom. Edutopia.

Doorley, Scott & Witthoft, Scott. Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration.

Persaud, Ramona. (2014). Why Learning Space Matters. Edutopia.

Brown, Malcolm B., Lippincott, Joan K. (2003). Learning Spaces: More than Meets the Eye. Educause Quarterly.


CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA.

CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.Wakefield, MA.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2003). Teacher Response to Student Needs: Rationale to Practice. Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Image of Classroom from freeimages.com