How To Use Space To Influence Thinking

contributed by Kyle Wagner

Mark, an eager and excitable 7th grader stands over his recently constructed aquaponics system, curious as to why the pump doesn’t work.

He rules out it being clogged, as he spent over an hour the previous day cleaning out the internal components. Seven of his classmates stand at their own food production systems. Some use hydroponics models while others elect for a more traditional method of farming with potted soil and seeds. The work is all part of an integrated project that asks them to develop a way to feed their society after a hypothetical earthquake has rendered thousands homeless.

Mark’s group is guided by a Science Facilitator who stands in the middle of the room, providing a detailed lesson on photosynthesis and how plants convert energy from light to help them grow. The facilitator draws out the process on the movable whiteboard and asks students to discuss with each other how their particular models will use photosynthesis to produce food.

Up a short flight of stairs is Mark’s partner Craig. Craig holds a seat in the recently elected class government. He’s hoping to convince other members of government that aquaponics growth is the most efficient and sustainable method for food production. To learn how to be more persuasive, his Humanities Facilitator offers a mini-lesson on persuasive techniques and how to construct a logical argument. In less than a week’s time, he will have the opportunity to give a short presentation to the class ‘senate’; the class decision-makers.

Half-way between upstairs and downstairs are other students, housed inside a mini-amphitheater that the class has cleverly named “The Colosseum.” These students practice their persuasive speeches to defend their chosen food production models. After each student delivers their speech, they receive detailed feedback from their peers according to a feedback protocol provided by their language facilitator.

Interdisciplinary Learning

The learning described above is real.

It happens daily in a unique program called Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing. This program uses interdisciplinary projects centered on a common theme to deliver learning. Facilitators (more traditionally known as ‘teachers’) serve to guide students through the process and deliver subject-specific knowledge and skills. Rather than dividing students according to a class schedule, they group students according to the needs of the interdisciplinary project.

Flexible Space: The Third Teacher

The learning environment described above would not be possible without the use of flexible space. Three unique, yet related activities were possible because of how the space was configured.

Mark worked on his aquaponics system in a space designated as the ‘messy space.’ In conventional design labs, this space serves for taking apart components; constructing models, reverse engineering tech, and for other ‘hands-on’ projects.

Mark’s partner Craig worked in the ‘thinking space.’ This space maintains an open design with flexible, re-configurable furniture and writable surfaces to help students brainstorm ideas and discuss them with classmates.

The remaining students worked in the ‘performance’ space. This space allows for presentations and community-wide announcements. In ‘DesignShare,’ a manual for the construction of 21st Century schools, they call this space the ‘Campfire’ space–a place for students to learn from experts or storytellers.

How to adapt our classrooms

Not all of us are fortunate to be able to design a school around the thinking patterns we hope to promote in our students. However, as teachers, we have the ability to re-arrange our classroom space daily. To encourage the kind of interdisciplinary learning described above, we have to consider how we use furniture, wall space, and open space in our classrooms. Here are some practical tips offered by DesignShare.

  • Create a welcoming entry: What do students see when they first enter through your classroom doors? Consider lining your entry with student work or a colorful display to exhibit the current unit.
  • Use soft seat furniture: Is furniture taking space in your classroom or it used strategically? Consider soft-seated furniture. If your chairs have a hard surface, consider using small patches of carpet to upholster each chair.
  • Create cave spaces: Are there places for individual study, reflection and quiet reading? Creating these “cave spaces” gives students a great feeling of ownership of the classroom and allows them to focus on more quiet tasks.
  • Make campfire spaces: Do you have spaces that allow for storytelling and mini-presentations? While these spaces are typically at the front of the classroom, they are usually non-distinct. Consider creating a small stage with some 2×4 frames and some carpeting.
  • Create more writable surfaces: How much of your space is reserved for displaying student ideas and thinking? If your desks do not contain writable surfaces, consider a trip down to the local Home Depot for some whiteboard to nail to each desk or borrow some laminate from the copy room and affix it to the tabletops.


Borrowing from the most innovative companies

The most successful businesses are using these very principles of flexible space design. Here are a few designs from the real world that served as an inspiration for the design of Futures Academy and may also serve as inspiration for your own classroom/school design

Writable Surfaces

This innovative company boasts over 70% of its surfaces as being writable. In Futures Academy, 100% of its surfaces are writable. Below depicts one of these surfaces. Students brainstorm the design for their food production models directly onto the tabletop.

Flexible Space

The AIREA studio in Detroit is a free to use public space for independent contractors, designers, and anyone else who seeks a workspace different from their own. The space is designed to promote the kind of informal conversations that lead to the greatest innovation.

Futures Academy also believes in the importance of space in inspiring innovation amongst its students. The “Nexus” or main space of Futures Academy contains a number of nooks and shape configurations to encourage a range of conversations and thinking patterns.

(To learn more about innovative design in the business world, follow this link and see Grasso, Natalie. “Announcing Our 2014 Work Design NOW Projects.” Work Design Magazine. WorkDesign, 02 July 2014. Web. 13 July 2016.)

In conclusion

As a teacher or school leader, you have the great privilege of helping make your space more flexible. What kind of thinking do you want to promote in your students? If it’s collaboration, do an audit of your existing space and ask if it fosters the kind of group collaboration you hope to instill. If it’s innovation and creativity, think about how you might manipulate furniture or classrooms to be more open and unrestricted. Consider creating cross-cutting shapes to disrupt the monotony and tradition of square or rectangular boxed classrooms.

Transforming the thinking of your students starts by transforming the way you use space.

Kyle Wagner is the former Futures Academy Coordinator and Lead Consultant for Transform Educational Consultancy, an organization that helps new school leaders implement simple, innovative strategies to transform student learning. Purchase his book The Power of Simple for more strategies on you to transform learning for your students; find out more about how he can help make your school more innovative at