Flexible learning spaces in schools

Most schools were built between the 1950s and 1970s. The way that teachers teach and students learn has been developing since then.

We want all schools to have vibrant, well connected, physical environments that encourage and support many different types of learning. This flexibility helps teachers equip our kids with the skills and knowledge they need.

The evidence shows that the physical design of a space can have an impact on student outcomes. It also shows that physical design and teaching practise need to be closely aligned.

The following factsheets provide a quick overview of what the research says about the link between physical design and student outcomes:

For more information, you can read our full reports:

These documents provide a guide for principals, Boards of Trustees, teachers, and parents who are interested in creating a flexible learning space, but want to know more about what this will mean for their students. 

Planning and paying for upgrades

Plan for upgrades in your 10 Year Property Plan (10YPP).

Pay for upgrades using your 5 Year Agreement (5YA) funding.

Upgrades to create flexible learning spaces are priority 3 projects.

Use the ILE Assessment Tool

The first step to upgrading your spaces is to assess your school property with the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) Assessment Tool (previously called the MLE Assessment Tool).

Designing Flexible Learning Spaces

Flexible learning spaces are made up of many different sized spaces so they can support different ways of teaching and learning and be used for different types of activities. They tend to be more open than traditional classrooms and have spaces that accommodate more than one class and several teachers. Many spaces have glazing between them to create open and light spaces that can be indirectly supervised.

When you are planning to upgrade your existing learning spaces, or to build new learning spaces for your school, consider the Reference Designs for Standard Classroom Upgrade and the design elements below.

To see images of how these design elements feature in New Zealand schools, go to the Innovative Learning Environments website (external link) .

You should also direct your project manager and design team to review the design requirements and tools in the Design Guidance Documents.

Breakout spaces

Breakout spaces are shared spaces between learning spaces that encourage:

  • independent learning
  • small group work
  • cooperative work by teachers and students across classes.

In existing buildings, breakout spaces are often created in spaces that in the past were used as resource rooms or cloakrooms.

Breakout spaces can be built in with walls and glazing, or can be defined by using furniture. When breakout spaces are built in with walls and glazing, they should be:

  • separated from the main learning space with glazing or sliding glass doors so that the teacher in the main learning space can passively supervise the space
  • attached to a learning area (ie not a library, gym, hall, resource room, another breakout space or administration area)
  • no bigger than 40m2 if accessed from only one teaching space.

Each learning space may have up to 40m² of associated breakout space. For a large breakout space shared by a number of learning spaces, we expect the average amount of breakout space per teaching space to be significantly lower than 40m2.

Outdoor learning areas

Outdoor learning areas can fulfil the same function as indoor breakout spaces.

An outdoor learning area must be:

  • directly accessible from an internal learning area that meets the DQLS Guidelines (not resource rooms or a withdrawal space)
  • easy for a teacher in the internal learning area to passively supervise.

Outdoor learning areas should not be built in cold, damp, or smelly places in the school. Consider your local climate before building an outdoor learning area.

You can include fixed seating and a canopy or veranda if it is attached to the main building. You should not include large canopies spanning from block to block or planting and other landscaping in the project budget. This is because the project should be focused on establishing the outdoor learning area only.

Find out more about installing and paying for shade structures at schools.

Large breakout spaces

Large breakout spaces (sometimes called āwhina or whānau spaces) are open congregation spaces that are part of the general circulation space. You can use them for group activities, such as assemblies.

Large breakout spaces must be connected to, and accessible from, learning spaces. People should be able to see from one space to the other, and teachers should be able to passively supervise the large breakout area from the main learning space.

You should not shut off a large breakout space and use it as additional learning space because it will take away the opportunity that your teachers and students have to work collaboratively in a flexible learning space. Large breakout spaces count towards your School Property Guide (SPG) space entitlement and may limit your future property options.

Learning streets

Many existing school buildings have large corridors along one side. One way to use this space more effectively is to turn these corridors into learning streets.

Learning streets should:

  • be directly accessible from an internal learning area
  • be easy for a teacher in the internal learning area to passively supervise
    • have floor and wall coverings that make the space comfortable and functional to use.

You can also install cabinetry for storing resources or bags. Learning streets can be convenient places to install wet areas or art areas because they often already have vinyl floor coverings and are located near the service connections for the toilets.

Storage

Well-designed storage can:

  • help to make learning spaces more effective and flexible
  • improve the aesthetic appeal of a room.

Many different storage options are available to suit different needs. When deciding on the best option for your school, consider that:

  • mobile storage units can take up floor space that may be better used for another purpose
  • if you locate storage over data and socket outlets, the outlets might become inaccessible
  • storage units can have additional functions, such as charging laptops or tablets if they have built-in charging docks
  • the look of a room can change depending on whether you choose open or concealed storage.

When planning storage for clothing and bags, consider that:

  • you should locate this storage near entry doors to preserve the condition of the carpet, especially during wet weather
  • wet clothing and lunch odours can be unpleasant in rooms people are using
  • poor design can lead to congestion at peak times.

Furniture, fittings and equipment

By choosing appropriate furniture, fittings and equipment, you can create a more efficient flexible learning space. For example, you can divide a learning space into different areas using tables, couches and chairs.

For a summary of research findings on how furniture, fitting and equipment can affect teaching and learning, refer to:

  • The impact of physical design on student outcomes

See also furniture and equipment funding for schools.

Teacher work spaces

Some teachers need areas where they can plan, meet collaboratively, interview, store personal items and socialise. This can be important for supporting the way that they teach.

These staff work areas:

  • should be no more than 2m2 per teacher
  • should be spread through the school rather than all in one area
  • are best located close to teaching spaces and with a design that allows teachers in the work area to see the students and vice versa.

The Learning Studio Pilot project

To see how effective flexible learning spaces could be, we set up the Learning Studio Pilot project in 2008 with 5 schools. Each school set up a learning suite, which had studios grouped around a shared learning area.

The spaces supported students to work:

  • individually
  • in small groups
  • as a whole class
  • in larger groups.

The learning spaces had good classroom design, function, aesthetics, acoustics, lighting, heating, insulation, ventilation and air quality.

The project was assessed in 2012 by boards of trustees, staff, architects and project managers and the concept had overwhelming support.

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