Designing Inclusive Learning Spaces

"Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others."– Jonathan Swift

Over the past few years, learning space redesign has become one of the trendiest topics in education. Yet, it's imperative to remember that redesigning learning spaces is about how design impacts the brain and learning; NOT about being pretty for Pinterest. If the focus on your classroom space is about being pretty and cute - you're caught up in the fluff; stuff that really doesn't matter. Simply put, there's no connection between decorations and learning.

In this #LeadershipMinute, I connect with my good friend Adam Phyall, the Director of Technology & Media Services for the Newton County School System in Georgia. As you saw in the video, I asked Adam to reflect on an area for which he is well-known; creating inclusive learning spaces. In under 60 seconds, Adam shares how vital the communication of the space is, especially for students that are not coming there. As Adam shares, "If it only looks like your space, they won't come."  ...and ultimately, who can blame them? What do students think about your space? Have you asked? Have you leveraged student voice to improve the inclusivity in your space?

To create inclusive spaces, research points to the notion of "Individualization," the thought that as individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized, and as such, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success (Barrett, et. al). [Think Maslow 101 and a sense of belong here as well.] What does student choice look like in your space? Which brings me to a recent trend that I've seen that's bothering me. Flexible seating can be a great support for student agency, or a trendy disaster in the making. Flexible seating is about student choice and agency, NOT about forcing all kids to sit on bouncy balls and bean bag chairs. The day we see bouncy balls in a chemistry class, or bean bags for the tuba player, maybe we'll realize that we must always maintain a commonsense mindset when it comes to things like flexible seating.

In this Leadership Minute, Adam shares the idea of creating "Watering holes, campfires, and caves," which are terms being used to describe how to set up zones of space for different activities. For instance, a "watering hole" is an informal space set up for learners to share information and all have an equal say. At times, some may assume the role of the teacher and others the role of the learner. A "campfire" is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. Storytelling is one example of communication that may occur here. Finally, a "cave" is a reflective, often quiet space where a learner can think and work independently. Each of the spaces is intended to be flexible in nature as students move to different places based on the task at hand.When investing in learning space redesign, it's essential to prioritize mindset before money, every time. Throwing money at new furniture, in a teacher-centric environment where pedagogy doesn't shift is a complete waste of resources. However, in a more learner-centric environment, flexible seating can promote voice and choice, while increasing comfort, something in which we can all relate.The notion of creating inclusive spaces goes far deeper than one can cover in a Leadership Minute or a short blog post. Yet, it's impossible to mention "inclusive" without mentioning gender, race, and culture. Consider these two [common] scenarios:

Scenario 1: A first grade boy walks into his classroom each day and the space is consumed with pink, purple, polka dots, flowers and chevron print. Each morning as he enters, he thinks how much he despises those "girl" colors.
[Disclaimer: This example includes an obvious male/female stereotype.]

Scenario 2: An 11th grade, African-American female student walks into her U.S. History classroom space and each day she looks around the walls, every image of success from our country's history is a white male; someone who doesn't look like her.

In both scenarios, do the students feel a sense of belonging?  In these scenarios, do students see themselves as a vital part of the space? No...and these are common everyday examples.It's imperative that educators consider such scenarios, and actively ensure inclusion so that all students feel welcome in their learning space. It's not a nice-to-have as it's grounded in learning sciences. More importantly, it's our moral obligation to ensure every child feels welcome and part of the group.

Consider doing the following:

Tip #1
- Have colleagues of the opposite gender give you feedback. Rule of Thumb: If a learning space screams overly male or female, it needs to be reassessed and made more inclusive for the other gender. Remaining gender neutral in space design is vital.

Tip #2 - Have colleagues that look different than you (race), celebrate different holidays than you (religion), and have different beliefs than you (political, etc.) give you honest feedback about your space. Ask them what you can do to make others feel as if they belong there.

Tip #3 - Ensure that classroom resources and libraries are diverse in nature. There has been a large push in recent years, and rightfully so, to ensure that there is access to diverse literature. Can students see themselves in the stories? Are the characters reinforcing stereotypes or breaking traditional boundaries?

Tip #4 - Ask students! As Adam mentions in the video, what do our students think? Too often we work to solve problems without asking those we are working for! When designing an inclusive space, focus on the why, and leverage feedback of those that will use the space regularly.

In both cases, honest feedback may cause some difficult conversations. Please know that these conversations need to be had as sometimes it's our own lens that gets in the way. Many times it's our lens that is our biggest roadblock to ultimately redefine what's possible. Although I go much deeper into some of the research on inclusive Learning Space redesign in Chapter 4 of Learning Transformed and in my chapter of the new book 10 Perspectives on Innovation in Education (Routledge, Dec. 2018), the issues of "Individualization" (Flexibility and Student Ownership), Stimulation (Visual Complexity and Color), and Naturalness (Lighting, Air Quality, and Temperature) are all things that are evidence-based and should be considered when designing spaces (Barrett, et. al).

As I share at the end of the video, "Every child needs and deserves a space that they can be a part of." It's our moral and ethical obligation to make that happen.

All for the kids we serve,


For resources on the Use of Space and Time, be sure to check out the resources from Future Ready Schools.

Barrett , P. , Zhang , Y. , Davies , F. , and Barrett , L. ( 2015 , February). Clever Classrooms: Summary Report of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design). Accessed October 9, 2018: cleverclassrooms/ 1503- Salford- Uni- Report- DIGITAL.pdf

Maslow, A . H. (1 943) . “A theory of human motivation. ” Psychological Review, 50 ( 4 ), 370 – 96.

Steele , C. M. , Spencer , S. J. , and Aronson , J. ( 2002 ). “Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 379 – 440 .