Developing the spaces and places where children learn and thrive

Terry White and Bhavini Pandya

“Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” – John Holt, American author and educator.

The concept that childrenʼs learning does not follow as an automatic consequence of what they are taught is well established. Loris Malaguzzi, in developing the Reggio Emilia approach, believed that children are capable individuals with the ability and desire to develop their own knowledge. He recognised, as part of his work, the value of space and, in his own words, wanted to ensure “a handsome environment with its potential to inspire social, effective and cognitive learning”. His thinking was influential in developing the concept of space being described as the “third teacher”.

Such an approach focuses on meeting the needs of the whole child and involves moving from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning, and where learning experiences move towards the design of a meaningful, empowered and creative world for children, enabled by the teacher.

The spaces and places where children learn therefore matter and they are inspired by aspirational pedagogy. It follows that the design of all environments for learning should be both learning and learner-led and set within the distinctive culture, ethos and values of the school and its learning community. Our experience working with many schools has been that you canʼt successfully design education spaces unless you fully understand the learning and teaching practices that they need to support.

Planning Learning Spaces in Practice, and Autens, have worked together in collaboration with Gesher School to help make a reality of the schoolʼs vision for learning through the design of learning environments for the school and community. Gesher is developing an approach that is focused on a learner-centred curriculum and is designed to develop the whole person, balancing “head, heart and hand”.

The scope at Gesher embraces conventional areas such as ʻclassroomsʼ (flexible furniture design and arrangement, decor, resources and equipment, images, fluid links between rooms), display areas, corridor environments, dining and social areas.

It also involves the co-design of an ambitious integrated Maker Space; creation of large exhibition areas; and creative incorporation of external environmental features into the everyday learning ecosystem of the school.

Lene Jensby Lange at Autens recognises that “learning environments are an expression of a learning culture and need to be designed to strengthen that culture”.

As a team we are excited and honoured to be part of the learning journey of Gesher School seeking collectively to reimagine opportunities for learning. We are confident that by creating an active engagement process around current and future practice with teachers, learners and community, a transition to new and innovatory learning environments can occur. We believe that teachers and learners must be fully engaged and empowered to fully contribute to the design process.
As a design team, we have engaged with learners and school staff to develop thinking about what will excite, motivate and interest learners and teachers in the design and furnishing of the learning spaces. It has been inspiring to see the level of detail and innovative thinking that learners and staff have brought to the design of spaces, both inside and outside the building.

Learners and staff together are becoming the creators and designers of the spaces and places in which aspirational learning will occur.

“The task of good school design is to create the best physical environment – the best habitat — for that to happen. For that reason, reimagining schools is one of the most creative challenges in contemporary education.” Sir Ken Robinson. Planning Learning Spaces. (Hudson and White) Laurence King Publishing.

Bhavini Pandya and Terry White are co-directors of the Planning Learning Spaces in Practice Projects. Sir Ken Robinson was a British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education and arts bodies.


Professional Prompt Questions

  • Is the vision of the school reflected in the day-to-day learning experience for all?
  • Whose needs does the learning space serve?
  • What value do you place on learners taking responsibility for their own learning?
  • How dynamic and adaptable are your learning spaces?
  • Are your learning spaces encouraging enquiry, collaboration, creativity and physical movement?
  • Are you placing equal value on inside and outside learning spaces?