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


Learning with Augmented Reality

For my third Toolkit challenge, for my “Universal Designs for Learning” grad class, I wanted to discuss a relatively new technology tool for use in the classroom called Augmented Reality. Please also see my previous Toolkit blog posts on Living a Responsive Curriculum & Learning to “Leave” the Classroom: Differentiating Programming. This tool has many potential benefits for removing barriers for learners when utilized within the pedagogical framework of UDL. 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 the learners.

What is Augmented Reality?

In basic terms, AR layers computer information over real life perception. Mashable (2014) defines Augmented reality as “a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. One particular free AR app, called Aurasma, works by using the camera on mobile devices to capture an image that is “triggered” and shares interactive content. For example, a learner draws a picture on paper. He or she then takes a photo of the drawing on a device to create a “trigger”. Then a video, audio recording, graphic, GPS location etc. is linked to the “trigger”. Later, when the drawing is scanned, the device or another device if shared on a channel, recognizes the “trigger” and then plays the connected song, video, graphic etc.

Augmented Reality- Explained by Common Craft (Illustrated youtube video).

Matt Mills: Image recognition augmented reality. Ted Talk on AR.


Providing Multiple Means of Representation

CAST (2011) states “learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them.” Also, David Rose & Bridget Dalton (2009) argue we should “present text in individualized ways to reduce the barriers that might interfere with learning to comprehend”(p.80). Therefore, Educators need to help provide an array of options for accessing information such as videos, audio stories, images, songs etc. Augmented Reality can assist in providing multiple means of representation. No longer must knowledge be accessed by printed text alone. Here are a few examples:

1) Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Sign Language: Using AR, flashcards of vocabulary words can contain a video overlay that explains a word/concept/task in Sign Language (representation).

2) Offers auditory alternatives. Learners can access videos, sound clips, and other information connected to a “trigger”. An example: an image on the wall plays a recording of a pronunciation of a word or a video explanation. A piece of paper can explain a mini-lesson. An educator does not always have to be around to help a learner for any surface potentially can speak to a learner. Words of encouragement can be embedded also.

3) English Language Learners: AR can provide overlays over word walls or images which speak or show images of words to learners in their familiar language. Thus, increasing personal understanding  by removing language barriers.

4) Learners own Pace. If one were to use a flipped classroom or pre-recorded teacher/learner instructions for a lesson, a learner could complete challenges or tasks at their own pace. Instead of every learner sitting and watching a lecture at the same time, a lecture could be pre-recorded and then when/if needed scanned by a learner. They could fast forward, pause or start again or skip if they already know the content/task. For example, for a science lab, directions could be scanned on labels to remind learners of concepts or purposes of a tool. If a learner needs more time to complete a lab they can take their time. Thus, fostering learning at your own pace environments.

5) Customizes displays of information. Learners can zoom in on images, view a math equation in 3D, pause a track/video, listen to audio, share a link, increase font size….

6) Experiential: Connect to the community and world. Viewing art images in a book is never the same as walking the halls of an art gallery of watching an artist create in action. And often, taking an entire class to another country or another city may simply be unfeasible. Check out this video on teacher Andrew Vanden Heuvel who explores parts of the world teaching physics online and takes learners on virtual field trips around the world. (Although Google Glass is being pulled from the shelves temporarily, this form of AR technology may provide more uses for removing barriers for people unable to physically attend a location in the world).

7) Provide access to information/communication for people with physical disabilities. See this video about Alex Blaszczuk, a young girl who can not use her hands and Google Glass helps her take pictures, find information and connect with others through voice activation.

8) Visually Imparied. One system being developed, called NAVIG (Navigation Assisted by artificial Vision and GNSS), is a wearable device to help ease navigation in the community. The device, much like a smart phone AR app, can recognize and locate objects as a person walks around. Providing help with navigation and connecting people to the surroundings using auditory communication. (Please see article “NAVIG: augmented reality guidance system for the visually impaired“, Virtual RealityPublished by Springer-Verlag London: 2012.)

Learners can create! Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Creating in the hands of learners. A learner can create a video or voice recording of their learnings, questions or comments and attach these clips to other items. For example, a child paints a mural. He/she then creates a “trigger” so when another classmate or an educator scans the created mural, their trigger plays perhaps a self reflection or a video sharing their creative process. This could potentially be used in countless ways when allowing student choice.

Risk Free Experimenting & Prototyping. With Google sketch up, a learner can design an idea to make in shop class, for example, a chair. They can then sketch their prototype and view the sketch in life size 3D, using AR to critique, alter and edit their idea before actually hand building the real thing in wood. This may help some learners visualize their ideas before fruition and also help with confidence by allowing students to be creative, take risks, and make mistakes without consequences (Thornton & Ernst, & Clarke, pg.20).

Learning can take place anywhere & Incorporate physical movement. AR does not mean sitting at a desk being complacent. Scavenger hunts are one idea. Create, or better yet have your learners create, scavenger hunts around your school and playgrounds locating and solving “triggers” or “QR” codes. Learners can run or walk around figuring out the hunt, solving questions, finding information for any subject. What a great way for learners to create interactive demonstrations of learnings for their peers. Further, students could use their mobile phones for learning while exploring their own communities, essentially learning can take place anywhere, and not always within the confines of school walls.

Multiple Means of Engagement

Reflection/Meta-Cogntition. With today’s technology, there is no excuse to not allow a learner the opportunity to reflect, assess, and provide feedback on their own learning. I had a student create a beautiful diorama which she put so much effort into where she then created a “trigger” on a 3D clay character. The trigger opened a video of her explaining her choices in representing images, where she felt she was successful and areas she felt she could improve upon. If a learner is strong verbally…let them voice record! If a learner is strong in drawing…let them illustrate their ideas! The possibilities are endless if we focus on learner strengths and provide choice. Further, by connecting subjects in a cross-curricular manner we can help foster more meaningful connections to the learner.

What if aliens crash landed at your school!? Rebecca Mitchell and Dennis DeBay (2012) created a game called “Alien Contact”, focused on collaboration, problem-solving and AR. “After conducting 17 implementations, mostly at urban public middle schools in or around Boston, Massachusetts, USA, during the 2007–08 school year, [they] determined that AR increases academic engagement by tapping students’ interest in mobile devices, differentiates instruction by personalizing information or tasks for students, and creates situated learning experiences”. Mitchell & DeBay also argue AR simulations “engage students who are typically disengaged in mathematics classrooms, encourage collaboration, allow for differentiation of instruction, and stimulate authentic learning.” (pg.21).

The Possibilities are of integrating AR within educational pedagogy are truly endless. If any surface can essentially become a screen linking you to sounds, images, videos and information than an entire school environment can become interactive in so many layers. Yet most importantly, when used in partnership with UDL principles, Augmented Reality can foster new opportunities by removing potential barriers for learners to access information, share their understandings and increase and foster engagement in learning.

Now, “how” can I use AR within learning environments? Truly, the possibilities are ever expanding and being tested out in education around the world…so here are some sites if you are interested in exploring this technology in your own practice.

Aurasma   –  Layar    –   Two Guys and Some iPads   –   20 Examples from TeachThought   –   Kleinsperation


CAST. (2011). “Universal Design for Learning Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation. Wakefield, MA. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines/principle1

Martinez, Sylvia Libow & Stager, Gary. (2013). “Chapter 9: Shaping the Learning Environment. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, California: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Mitchell, Rebecca & DeBay, Dennis. (Sept/Oct, 2012). Get Real: Augmented Reality for the Classroom. Learning & Leading with Technology. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education). pg.16-21.

Rose, David & Dalton, Bridget. (2009). “Learning to Read in the Digital Age. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society. Blackwell Publishing, Inc. Vol.3, No.2.

Thornton, Timothy, Ernst, Heremy V. & Clark,Aaron C. (2012, May/June). “Augmented Reality as a Visual and Spatial Learning Tool in Technology Education. Technology and Engineering Teacher. 18-21.

Wikipedia. “Augmented Reality”. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality

Living a Responsive Curriculum

My son Jacklayinginthegrass and I set off on one of our many adventure walks, taking advantage of the quickly diminishing summer days. Suddenly, Jack veered from the footpath, ran to a patch of lush green grass, and laid down with a giant grin. He yelled, “momma, come lay on the grass with me!” I couldn’t help but laugh with the energy of his spontaneity and quickly joined him. I looked up at the perfectly blue October sky, felt the soft grass tickle my skin and I smiled at the simplicity of our shared moment. My son is only three and yet emits such a wonderful wisdom on the art of enjoying life, of feeling life and of living every moment.

When approaching my second toolkit challenge, for my “Designing Inclusive Learning Environments” grad class, I felt it was necessary to discuss the concept of supporting an inclusive learning environment through a responsive curriculum. I wrote a post recently titled Learning to “leave” the classroom : Differentiating School Programming, discussing how I see Education should provide students with multiple pathways to learn and ultimately choice in their learning continuum. And in order to support multiple learning pathways, teachers need to connect curriculum in a responsive way to the students.

Why a responsive curriculum?

If I acknowledge and firmly believe that every student who enters a classroom arrives with their own past experiences, knowledge about the world, interests and curiosities, and varying areas of understanding, in order to best differentiate for them I need to facilitate the curriculum to meet their individual learning needs. Doing so honours each student as an individual human being. Not trying to fit human beings into a curriculum. I am teaching students before me today. Not students from last year, five years ago, or students in the future. So then the challenge lies in how do I create a Responsive Curriculum for my students?

Imagine going to see a physician for a leg pain, and then arriving and the doctor already has a prescription in hand before even knowing asking you about your experience in the first place. How often have I planned a Unit, or a lesson plan or thought I had a great inquiry challenge for my students, but had first started with looking at the curriculum. Then later wondered why the students just weren’t hooked? I assumed I should start with the curriculum and then adapt it to meet my learners. Teachers are here to teach the curriculum, right? However, I had it backwards. Instead, I should be asking: how do I help foster a learning experience where the students inform the choices that develop the curriculum of the year?

Because ultimately I need to honor the learner and where they currently are in life’s continuum.

So when does the curriculum come into play? 

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