Is the classroom obsolete in the 21st century?
School of Education
Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Lefebvre’s triadic conception of spatial practice, representations of space and
representational spaces provides the theoretical framework of this article, which
recognises a productive relationship between space and social relations. Its writing
stems from a current and on-going qualitative study of innovative teaching and
learning practices in new technology-rich flexible learning spaces, characterised by
large open spaces, permeable boundaries and diverse furnishings emphasising student
comfort, health and flexibility. Schooling in the 21st century, certainly in the
developed world, is required to ensure that children and school-leavers have
appropriate life-long skills in preparation for participation in the 21st century
knowledge economy. This world is characterised as complex and dynamic, deeply
influenced by globalisation and the revolution in digital technology. Developing these
skills calls into question ‘outmoded’ transmission models of teaching and requires
teachers and school leaders to approach their work in radically new ways. Open
school design encourages flexibility in learning and teaching, and allows
collaborative, team teaching, with designers claiming significant educational benefits.
This arrangement of multiple classes using innovatively designed, technology-
enriched common space, facilitated by multiple teachers, working in collaborative
teams, is far-reaching in its likely implications for community expectations and
responses, relationship-building, assessment, student learning, teachers’ work and
initial teacher education.
Key Words: flexible learning space; modern learning environment; innovative
learning environment; Lefebvre; 21st-century learning; futures education.
Is the classroom obsolete in the 21st century?
Schools’ architect, Prakash Nair (2011), boldly proposed, “the classroom has been
obsolete for several decades. That’s not just my opinion. It’s established science” (p.
1). This challenge was intended to question traditional ‘classroom-based education’ as
appropriate preparation for the 21st century. Nair went on to outline design principles
which embody the worker of the 21st century, a self-directed, ‘critical thinker’ and
collaborator able to work in a globally connected technologically rich environment.
While Nair’s brash pronouncement may not find favour among all educationists, his
comments give rise to multiple questions of significance. Suggesting the classroom is
obsolete seems to imply too that the practices taking place within are obsolete. Nair’s
remedy (and that of other designers, such as Fisher, 2005, and Tanner, 2009) is to
redesign learning spaces that will bring about 21st century teaching and learning
practices. Notwithstanding this apparently linear running together of space and
practice, the subject requires attention, not least because of the present proliferation of
modern educational facilities, both in schools and in higher education. McGregor
(2004), writing a decade ago, noted a lack of educational research into the physical
domain of teachers’ work. There is little to suggest that this has changed, though the
rapid proliferation of new, innovatively designed flexible learning spaces suggests a
greater need than ever to embark on such research.
This article grows out of a current and on-going qualitative study of teachers’ work in
flexible learning environments. These learning spaces are intended to encourage
innovative teaching and learning practices that focus on the preparation of students for
the 21st century knowledge economy1. The practical, real-world context for observing
teachers’ work are the innovatively designed flexible learning spaces of two New
Zealand primary (elementary) schools (‘Innovation Primary’ and ‘Angelus School’).
The underpinning theoretical premise is the notion of space as socially produced,
advocated by Lefebvre (1991). This theoretical perspective challenges history or time
as a sole factor in understanding social relations, and allows such questions as: what
are the ways in which the actions and attitudes of teachers are shaped by, and help to
shape, the space they work in? What is the relationship between what space affords or
constrains, and these actions and attitudes? Do innovative classroom and school
building designs render the classroom obsolete? What is the significance of that
It is appropriate at this point for me to address the inevitable question philosophers of
education will pose: what role can empirical research play in the context of the
philosophy of education? The answer lies in part in this editorial comment on the back
cover of Lefebvre’s book: “The Production of Space is a search for the reconciliation
between mental space (the space of philosophers) and real space (the physical and
social spheres in which we all live)” (1991). Merrifield, author of Henri Lefebvre: A
1 From the New Zealand School Property Strategy 2011-2021 (MOE, 2011: “The Ministry of
Education, as the owner of state schools, requires a portfolio of well-maintained schools
supporting a modern education system that produces skilled people who can contribute towards
a productive economy.” (p. 3).
Critical Introduction, adds this dimension: “Theory must render intelligible qualities
of space that are both perceptible and imperceptible to the senses. It’s a task that
necessitates both empirical and theoretical research, and it’s likely to be difficult:”
(2006, p. 108). Once recognising that there is a productive relationship between space
and social relations, the significance of conducting empirical research and considering
its findings in relation to theoretical investigation, becomes more obvious. There is an
ideological purpose too; such research enables the demonstration of how a materialist
interpretation of spatiality can be applied to real world politics (Soja, 1989).
Lefebvre (1991) saw a critical link between the spaces of our daily reality and the
production of the particular social form and relations envisaged by the dominant
society, leading Chapman, Randell-Moon, Campbell, & Drew (2014) to suggest we
ask critical questions “regarding the ways in which schools and classrooms restructure
education to actively constitute production and governance in the knowledge society”
(p. 46). While there is the ever-present danger that the theorisation of space will slip
beneath the waves of School Effectiveness and Improvement research (McGregor,
2004), if space is recognised as socially constructed, then it is less likely to be
regarded as an objective collection of entities independent of the people who work in
One final question I would like to address regards the priority I give here to teachers’
work. My decision reflects deliberate ideological intent. First, teaching is taken here
to be an ethical act (xxx, 2012), consistent with the overt decision to become a
teacher. This decision to teach is best portrayed as Freire (1998) did, namely that
teachers opt to make a difference. Second, echoing Biesta’s resistance to the steady
learnification of the curriculum (2014), the study on which this article is based (and
the larger enquiry of which this study is part) is premised on a rejection of the
marginalisation of teachers and their work. Thus, it is neither accident nor oversight
that the experience of ‘learners’ is underemphasised in this study.
Schools and schooling systems, in the 21st century, certainly in the developed world,
are under pressure to ensure that children and school-leavers are able to acquire
appropriate life-long skills. These include critical thinking and problem solving;
collaboration and leadership; agility and adaptability; initiative and
entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; accessing and
analysing information; and curiosity and imagination (Wagner, 2008, cited in
Saavedra & Opfer, 2012, p. 8). The concept of 21st-century learning reflects fluidity,
unpredictability and complexity (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012). Teaching and learning for
the 21st century prepares young people for engaging in a complex and dynamic world
deeply influenced by globalisation and the revolution in digital technology (see, for
example, Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Loveless & Williamson, 2013).
Developing these skills calls into question ‘outmoded’ transmission models of
teaching that persist in global compulsory education systems (OECD, 2009). Teachers
and school leaders must approach their work in radically new ways (for example,
Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012). This transformation is increasingly evident in new
technology-rich flexible learning spaces, characterised by large open spaces,
permeable boundaries and diverse furnishings emphasising student comfort health and
flexibility. Open design encourages flexibility in learning and teaching (Chapman,
Randell-Moon, Campbell & Drew, 2014), and allows collaborative, team teaching,
with designers claiming significant educational benefits (Fisher, 2005; Nair, 2011;
New Zealand provides a specific national context, and over the past five years or so,
the New Zealand Ministry of Education has committed itself to a programme of
providing significantly upgraded and modernised buildings. As it notes:
We want all schools to have vibrant, well connected,
innovative learning environments (ILE) that encourage and
support many different types of learning.
An ILE is the complete physical, social and pedagogical
context in which learning can occur. We used to refer to these
as modern learning environments (MLE). An ILE is capable
of evolving and adapting as educational practices evolve and
change. (2015, “Flexible learning spaces in schools”)
This inquiry forms part of a larger project of study that commenced in September
2013 (author details removed). The two case study schools referred to in this article,
have been part of the project since it commenced. A qualitative case study enables the
development of a deeper understanding of the way individuals within the cases
operate (Berg 2007). Of particular interest in this study is the view of Ary, Jacobs,
Razavieh and Sorenson (2006), who see in case study design the opportunity to
understand how and why individuals respond to changes in their environment.
In this phase of the research, all classes at Innovation Primary (Year 0–2; Year 2–4;
Year 4–6; Year 6–8) were observed once each (approximately 2 hours’ duration each)
and two were observed twice, a total of six observations over a five-week period in
May and June 2015. Detailed observation notes were kept, informal conversations
took place with students and teachers during observations, and field notes were audio
recorded immediately after the observations, and later transcribed. The principal was
interviewed and the teachers whose classes were observed (seven were present)
participated in a focus group. At Angelus School, the Year 1–2 and Year 5–6 classes
were observed three times each, over a three week period from May to June 2015.
Procedures were replicated. Six teachers attended the focus group of teachers. Themes
were developed inductively as data was collected and subsequently analysed, and
NVivo (http://www.qsrinternational.com) was used to support the process of
The learning spaces of both schools allow the flexible arrangement of a variety of
educational furniture arranged in several ways to suit various purposes. Around 90
students can be brought together if required. Several breakout spaces, some walled, in
single cell design, come off the central open space. These allow smaller groups to
work on specific tasks (such as a small-group workshop run by one of the teachers).
As Innovation Primary is a new school with a growing roll, it uses only four of its
available learning areas, that currently accommodate around forty students each, with
two teachers (called ‘learning advisors’). By contrast, Angelus School has a full (yet
growing) roll, and almost 100 students are located in each of its flexible spaces, with
three teachers each.
This arrangement of multiple classes using innovatively designed, technology-
enriched common space, facilitated by multiple teachers, working in collaborative
teams, is far-reaching in its likely implications for community expectations and
responses, relationship-building, assessment, student learning, teachers’ work and
initial teacher education. Common concerns and breakdowns in practice abound,
however, including teachers attempting to conduct ‘business-as-usual’, teachers
anguishing over how to keep track of three times the number of students and over
how to report knowledgably to parents, who in turn question ‘hands-off’ teaching and
‘self-managed learning’. Managing an understanding of this interesting confluence of
practice and space goes beyond mere behavioural observation, or chronological
analysis, instead inviting engagement at a deeper, conceptual or theoretical level. For
this purpose, I have taken up the insightful ideas and theories proposed by Henri
Lefebvre, in his classic text, The Production of Space (1991).
An introduction to Lefebvre
Lefebvre became, post-1950s, an influential figure in promoting the role of space in
critical social theory. He sought to reclaim spatiality over time/history in critical
social analysis (Soja, 1989). Soja argues that Western Marxism and critical theory up
to the 1980s had failed to pay sufficient attention to the role of space in determining
social relations, and social relations in producing space. There were agendas in these
camps uncomfortable with the displacement of historicity as a determining factor. The
English translation of The Production of Space gained Lefebvre an Anglo West
audience in the 1980s, making up for an apparent lack of appreciation among his own
French audience, where he was “misunderstood and overlooked” (Merrifield, 2006, p.
101). His humanistic Marxist perspective on spatiality and urban life, offers
considerable scope to think theoretically about ambitious and progressive educational
The basic account Lefebvre proposed is of space as social, and as a social product.
What are the implications and consequences of the proposition that social space is a
social product? The first implication is that nature is being destroyed, and Lefebvre
concluded that natural space will disappear. A second implication is that every society
has its own identifiable space and spatial practice. Therefore, any effort to understand
the space of any particular society requires understanding that society and its people,
texts and practices. Third, if space is a product, our knowledge of it must be expected
to reproduce and expound the process of production. Finally, if production is a spatial
process, then it must have a history. This history of space is, however, not to be
confused with history and any causal chain of events.
Lefebvre’s triadic conception of spatial practice, representations of space and
representational spaces constitute the load bearing walls of his epistemological
project, but “loses all force if it is treated as an abstract ‘model’…amounting to no
more than that of one ideological mediation among others.” (1991, p. 40). Spatial
practice, which can only be assessed empirically, is discerned by deciphering the
space of a society. “The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space…”
(1991, p. 38), thus it might be said that spatial practice is widely, if not universally,
understood by members of a society in which that practice is embedded. This practice
provides some continuity and coherence and thus implies that it guarantees a level of
competence and level of performance. Representations of space have a practical
impact on our lives. This is the space conceptualised by planners and technocrats.
“Their intervention occurs by way of…architecture, conceived of…as a project
embedded in a spatial context…” (p. 42). These representations are “shot through”
(p. 41) with both knowledge as power (ideology) and critical knowledge, have the
power to modify and are informed by ideology, have links to the relations of
production, and to that which provides order in a society. Representational space is
space as lived experience, the space of inhabitants and users. “It has an affective
kernel or centre: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or: square, church, graveyard”
Thus it is now possible to perceive representations of space in the notions architects
and designers have of educational buildings, as they grapple to create unique and
innovative designs to convey the (ideological) messages of learning and teaching for
the 21st century knowledge economy. The way a school implements and uses its
flexible learning space amounts to its spatial practice—perhaps providing guidelines
to its users on how the space ought to be lived. Simultaneously, members of society,
driving past the school building recognise it as a place of learning, as they no doubt
recognise a cemetery as a repository of the deceased. Accordingly, they are aware that
certain customs and behaviours pertain to such spaces.
But how is the space actually lived? Do, as Merrifield suggests, “spatial practices
structure lived reality” (2006, p. 110), or do the occupants and users of a space create
their own lived reality? Lefebvre’s project is thus an ontological one too—exploring
the connections between being and space. For Lefebvre, it was important “to point up
the dialectical relationship which exists between the triad of the perceived, the
conceived, and the lived” (1991, p. 39. Emphasis added). The triadic of spatial
practice, representations of space and representational space, all combine in the
production of space. The three moments of perception, conception and living are
simultaneously conscious and unconscious.
Understanding precisely what is intended by ‘space’ is challenging in itself. I am
concerned in the current context to make sense of the notion of ‘flexible learning
spaces’. These have variously been termed ‘flexible learning spaces’ (State of
Victoria, 2011, “Making the most of flexible learning spaces”), ‘modern learning
environments’ (MLE) and now, more recently, ‘innovative learning environments’
(ILE) by the New Zealand Ministry of Education (2015), “Flexible learning spaces in
schools”)2. It is a theoretical error, suggested Lefebvre, to see space as a container, as
a ‘thing’ and to fail to see the holistic interrelationship of things in space with the
space. Space also disguises underlying social relations. Lefebvre’s great contribution
was to distinguish between physical space, the space of cognition and the space of
2 The lived reality is interesting, as the short-hand preference of many teachers, principals and
others is ‘MLE’, and it may be some time before the Ministry of Education succeeds in shifting this
usage to ‘ILE’.
representation. He was thus able to reject a physical space-mental space binary, by
inserting social space as a category of significance, so that space does not simply
situate itself outside of our bodily experience of space, but is instead applied to real
Lefebvre was deeply critical of a wide range of theorists who used the concept of
space loosely, as a mental construct, leading to a fascination with such notions as
‘literary space’, ‘ideological space’ and so on. In this way, any ‘set’ or ‘ensemble’
could be put together according to the author’s liking. Yet this way of thinking about
space fails to provide a clear understanding of space, or the place of people in space.
He was cutting of Foucault for having no clear explanation of what ‘space’ means,
reducing it to discourse, leading to the burial of the lived experience of space under a
mound of meaningless language. Linguistics too came under attack, as a
“metalanguage, empty words and chit-chat about discourse” (p. 134). In the process,
one of the victims is “the forbidden fruit of lived experience [which] disappears under
the assaults of reductionism” (p. 134). Lefebvre also laughed off the idea that space
may be read, as semiologists may imagine. Space is first and foremost produced, and
it is produced “in order to be lived by people with bodies and lives…” (p. 143).
Husserl was accused of perpetuating the Cartesian project, while Heidegger was
critiqued for giving space no greater status than simply ‘being-there’, and for
emphasising time over space. Heidegger’s understanding of production was dismissed
as restrictive because of his notion of the process of emergence, bringing things to
appear. In the end, for Lefebvre, descriptive understandings of space must give way to
the analytical. He warned against an understanding of space replicating a kind of
commodity fetishism, whereby the labour value of commodities is reduced to its
exchange value—soon we see the commodity as a ‘thing in itself’; in the same way,
we may come to see space as a thing-in-itself, or, on other words, we cease to view
space critically, and imagine it has an unproblematic taken-for-granted aspect, a
natural part of the world.
What are the philosophical underpinnings in Lefebvre’s work?
Confusingly, Lefebvre’s project was “to expose the actual production of space by
bringing the various kinds of space and the modalities of their genesis together within
a single theory” (p. 16), yet he argued for a right to difference, pre-empting
postmodernism. His vision of an embodied space pushed back against the
homogenising power of models and ideologies. His ‘unitary theory’ would connect
disparate fields of the physical, mental and social. In this regard, Lefebvre’s
postmodernist interest in difference responded to the totalising effect of spatial
development, which he observed as the impact of capitalist development and
instrumentalised spatial planning on the rural countryside where he originated (Soja,
1989). The homogenous, fragmented and hierarchical effects of this development
helped capitalism to keep a veil over spatiality, mystifying it and shielding it from
critical analysis (1989). Yet, Lefebvre argued, it is in space where the relations of
production are reproduced—an argument that caused him to be rejected by many
Marxists. He was further rejected for his humanistic Marxist perspective, which saw
space not as a container to be filled, of a vacuum populated by human imaginings, but
as “the milieu of accumulation, of growth, of commodities, of money, of capital…”
(1991, p. 129).
Lefebvre accepted Marx’s position on the primacy of material life in producing
conscious thought (Soja, 1989). Social being produces consciousness, not the other
way around3. He was anti-reductionist and anti-structuralist, and was critical of
Althusser, and yet while he discarded the weaknesses of existential phenomenology
and structuralism, he absorbed their strengths into his theory, creating an eclectic
brand of materialism. Without having to revert to Sartre’s almost morbid focus on the
isolated individual, Lefebvre was able to dwell on the relationship individuals have
with space, both creating distance, (thus creating space) while yet being able to relate
to it. In this regard, flexible learning spaces contain within themselves the enforced
requirement that their occupants relate to the space and each other collaboratively, but
do so against a primal urge to seek solitude and privacy. Soja (1989) points out the
dilemma of alienation versus meaning that is central to this kind of ontological dance.
It is critical that we establish a point of view, even as we seek to relate and establish a
Application to the flexible learning spaces
Such tension as just described—and more—is evident in both student and teacher
experiences of working in flexible learning spaces. For the purposes of this article,
however, only teacher experiences will be directly highlighted, student experience
somewhat indirectly. Before proceeding, however, there is some value in providing
further contextual reference points, with specific focus trained on the spatial
dimension as observed during the period of research.
Innovation Primary is a Year 1–8 state primary school, established in 2013, and
designed according to innovative educational design principles. Externally, it appears
as a continuous, linear, industrial building on one level. Internally, it resembles a
contemporary 21st century airport concourse, with a spacious and wide flowing
walkway. Learning and workspaces are located off the walkway. There are few
internal walls and the egg crate design of traditional schools is absent. Similarly, the
administration areas are open plan, with no designated closed offices, to the extent
that the principal and staff share common areas for work. Outside areas are visible
through very large and generous glass walls and windows.
Angelus School, a Year 1–6 state-integrated special character (Catholic) school4, was
established in 2010. It is a two-storey school, and though designed using
contemporary materials and techniques, the core design of its initial building is typical
of egg crate or single cell traditional schools. The ground level verandah and covered
upper walkway look on to a large quadrangular and playground area. The classrooms
enjoy the benefits of natural light, with very large windows looking out to the
quadrangle on one side, and the currently undeveloped land on the opposite side. The
second building phase introduced, on both levels, two large flexible learning
3 This is an arguable position, even within a humanistic framework. I refer here to Paulo Freire,
who argued strongly for greater dialectical flexibility in seeing society and being, as acting on one
another, and having mutual influence.
4 By a 1974 Act of Parliament, formerly private schools (such as religious schools) are able to opt
into the New Zealand state system, with certain conditions attached.
The ‘third teacher’
The spaces within these buildings, their environmental design, technology integration,
furnishings and walls (to the extent these exist) create a specific milieu, and with it, a
set of behaviours and discourse less likely to be present in a regular single cell
classroom arrangement. Indeed, it is argued that the environment is the ‘third teacher’,
an integration of pedagogy, technology, curriculum and facility (Sullivan, 2012).
There exists an interesting tension between porosity and parameters or informal
boundaries. Where walls are missing, creating much larger spaces (that can take as
many as 90 students), furnishings create new dynamics (and language) of space. The
large space allows the students to take up various positions in a variety of places, in
various seating arrangements (ranging from the floor, to a variety of seating types and
modes). It is possible for the students to clearly set aside their work (to return to later)
and devices, and to take up a different position and role. They switch from being
active and crafting a reflection, for example, to being seated more or less passively,
listening to the teacher.
The learning areas are well lit, but not glaring, shedding softer light than might be
associated with the kind of fluorescent lighting typical of many standard classrooms.
Sound is muted, despite the congregation of such a large group of students. The walls
communicate a teaching narrative—one, for example, that emphasises the importance
of numeracy, such as seen when students self-select ‘basic facts’ numeracy tasks,
displayed prominently on one of the walls. This strategy was observed at both
schools. The walls at Angelus School also communicated the narrative of progress
and surveillance. The whole class (of 90 students) is subdivided into sub groups, each
of which has its own 'student radar'. The children maintain the radar with various
levels of ‘smiley’ face (emoticon) to plot their progress against their tasks. The ‘radar’
suggests both (self) surveillance while also providing an alert of impending danger (to
the teachers?), while the emoticons give the act of surveillance a benevolent character.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the function and significance of furniture. As
Sullivan (2012) notes, collaborative teaching and learning requires flexible furniture
that can be easily moved to match the activity, and be used in multiple ways.
Furniture ought to be designed so that the classroom is an inviting and engaging
space. In contrast, regular classroom furniture is ‘one size for all’, disregarding, for
example, gender differences for body position and posture. Representations of space,
as Lefebvre argued, “are tied to the relations of production” (1991, p. 33), nowhere
better seen than in the instance of furnishings. A significant shift encouraged by
design conceptualisation, is the move away from the doctrine of a seat for each
student. This shift has permitted (required) a form of ‘hot desking’, whereby students
no longer claim territorial ownership of a specific desk and chair, Instead, they are
free to work where suitable, and work at desks, or take up a seat, when these become
available. Furniture designers and education bureaucrats arguably regard this practice
as appropriate preparation for the workplace of the future, where such practices are
increasingly common (Morrison, 2016).
To this mix are discursive practices that have arisen in connection with furnishings
and their placement. The placement of tables and chairs, often boardroom style, is a
place where a ‘workshop’ can take place, facilitated by a teacher, or, more
appropriately, a ‘learning advisor’ or ‘coach’. A private space off to the side for a
small group to work together is a ‘breakout space’. Along with this neoliberal
language of the business conference, is the imagery of the future hunter-gatherers of
the 21st century knowledge economy gathering at the ‘campfire’ (a circular formation
of Ottomans). Redolent of captivating tales or fellowship, this is a space of gathering
together before expedition, or debriefing after. Thirsting for knowledge, some young
cubs work intently at a ‘watering hole’, a circular arrangement of seats and tables,
where they plan their next project. For those who are required to work on complex
tasks (such as numeracy) there are the high tables and chairs that provide a ‘lookout’,
allowing these students to gaze intently into the long distance, as they solve
Lefebvre’s triadic understanding of space is deeply evident in this analysis. Designers
of space and furniture conceptualise their products in ways they believe will ensure
students of the 21st century will feel most ‘at home’ and ‘at ease’ (Oblinger, 2005;
Sullivan, 2012). It is the spatial practice of these schools to encourage self-managed
learning in a collaborative environment, and students very quickly have adapted
themselves to using the furniture and walls precisely as intended.
The teachers at both schools have a unique lived experience of working in flexible
learning spaces, evident in their comments in focus groups and short, informal
interviews. These are analysed according to themes of collaboration and transparency,
challenging personal professional practice and personal investment.
Apart from flexibility, key design concepts are to create possibilities for collaboration
and teamwork (Lippman, 2015; State of Victoria, 2011, “Making the most of flexible
learning spaces”) and transparency, or open plan (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin,
O’Mara, & Aranda, 2011), which both supports collaboration and creates an
awareness of physical presence in the learning process. Assembling and melding
effective teams of teachers to work collaboratively, and create a spatialised practice to
give life to this design concept is, however, challenging, and was acknowledged as a
significant issue at both schools. Bridgette, a team leader at Angelus School, reported
that “it’s highly stressful and very challenging…you have to make sure that your team
doesn’t fall out and…collaboration comes with a huge amount of personal
responsibility”. In fact, Tayla, a senior leader at Innovation Primary, suggested that
the space and furniture is “almost a non-event” in comparison with the matter of
building the correct team. There is little, she believed, to prepare teachers for “the real
relationship stuff of working in a cohesive team together, all the time, five to six
hours a day”, certainly not “those things that were traditionally taught at teachers'
college [which now] have completely been thrown on their head”.
Transparency is an easily identifiable characteristic of flexible learning spaces. Gone
are solid walls and closed doors looking onto darkened hallways. In their stead are air
and light, glass and floating ceilings, buildings with large volumes and dramatic
staircases. Teams of coaches, facilitating learning in full view and in earshot of all
who pass by, now replace the teacher behind closed doors. This sense of “being
exposed [requires] having that high level of trust that people aren’t walking past
going, ‘What’s happening there’ all the time” (Sheryl, teacher, Innovation Primary).
Bella, Angelus School, emphasised this element of trust: “are they observing me?
What are they thinking? That high level of trust just dispels all of that sort of feeling
of pressure, of someone’s watching me, what are they thinking?” At Innovation
Primary, Sheryl and her teammate, Sasha, have to be confident that they are
supporting each other, not judging each other, yet remain open to critical feedback.
The professional practices encouraged at both schools requires teachers to constantly
vocalise their thoughts—referred to by Bina, teacher at Angelus School, as “deliberate
acts of teaching”, actively demonstrating through speech and action to students “how
to lead their own learning…[and]…what a responsible student should look like and
do”. Stuart, teacher at Innovation Primary, stated, “we’re planning aloud, we’re
wondering aloud, we’re thinking aloud, we’re reflecting aloud”. This transparency
and openness to the world extends to parents at Innovation Primary, who, it was
observed, feel sufficiently uninhibited to step into the (relatively non-defined) open
learning spaces prior to the end of the day, where the words and actions of teachers
and students are immediately apprehended by the waiting parents, but as Lilly, the
teacher of that class indicated to me, “[h]ere, we actually want our parents to be a part
of what we’re doing”.
While the preceding analysis of collaboration and transparency in relation to teachers’
practice at the two sites demonstrates the relationship between conceived space
(transparency, openness to encourage particular pedagogical practice), and perceived
space (the actual practices occurring in that space), it also reflects the lived space of
experience—the stress of making collaboration work, the feelings of vulnerability,
and a sense of always being on show. The experience of the teacher participants
chimes with the conceptualisation of education and flexible learning environments
promoted by the Ministry of Education (2015) as sites of collaboration, a practice it
argues underpins and promotes the national curriculum (2007). It is this document
that envisages the digitally connected, confident lifelong learner, able to contribute to
a global economy. As Lefebvre noted, such planners and social engineers conflate the
lived, perceived and conceived, evident in the discursive practices of the teachers,
who at once imagine collaboration and transparency, seek to practice it, and endure
the pain of bringing these notions to life in daily practice.
Teachers working these spaces have found themselves and their conventional
practices challenged, having to re-learn, to learn anew, as they give up their control.
In personal discussions and focus groups, this idea of consciously making shifts was
frequently repeated. Developing student agency (the capacity to be a self-initiated
learner, for example) is a key focus, but as Bina, teacher at Angelus School, noted, a
single-cell classroom experience is not a good grounding for developing this ability,
“because agency is the teacher in a single cell classroom”. Stuart, as a new teacher at
Innovation Primary, empathised with the difficulty students have transitioning into the
new spaces and ways of learning: “the struggles that they were having” were his too.
Some thought of themselves as beginning teachers, such as Tayla, senior leader at
Innovation Primary, for whom “it took a lot of brain power, brain strain initially. We
were spending as many hours as a beginner teacher would spend on looking at
practice.” There is the ever-present danger of back-sliding into a default setting, of
“indirectly doing things…a traditional way” (Bina, teacher Angelus School), and as
Bella, a colleague of Bina noted, “we really had to go back and re-think okay, there’s
something wrong with our practice”. Sasha, teacher at Innovation Primary, was very
conscious of default behaviour, in students as much as herself, admitting “when I’m
stressed or tired I can really slip easily not into innovative practice. The environment
doesn’t make me think about teaching differently enough that that default isn’t still
there” (emphasis added). Thus for this teacher, her default settings in teacher practice
lurk constantly in the background, and her lived experience of the flexible learning
space is to remain ever self-vigilant.
This point regarding vigilance is relevant to the personal investment the
teachers expressed, evocatively captured by Tayla:
[W]e’re all so heavily invested we don’t switch off. I used to
go home and I didn’t think about work. Now I go home and…
I’m still thinking about work and we’re still checking emails
and we’re still texting each other. There’s a higher…
investment and level of responsibility and care taking involved
for each other and the kids.
This personal investment is mirrored in the commitment of these teachers to the
spatial practices deemed appropriate to working in flexible learning spaces. Sheryl’s
reason for opting to work at Innovation Primary is that “this school really understands
how young children learn best and the expectation is that they’re not going to be
sitting down for an hour doing writing all together every day”, while her colleague,
Stuart is invested “not just in the physical space, [but] is buying into…the notions
of…dispositions [and]…values.” A final, graphic evocation of the level of personal
investment was demonstrated by Bella at Angelus School who expressed her keen
disappointment at the imminent departure from the school of one of her team
[N]ow Nicola’s leaving us…we feel like it’s like a part of us
is going because we have worked so closely for so long…It’s
like you’re entering a committed monogamous relationship
with your team and you have to commit to being there
together through everything.
The challenge to professional practice, and the personal investment of the teachers,
both represent a break with the overt place of the body in lived experience. These
experiences have challenged the minds of the teachers in the first instance; as
Lefebvre suggested, “the imagination seeks to change and appropriate” (1991, p. 39)
representational space (the space of lived experience). The teachers articulate their
understanding of what it is to live these spaces in terms of loyalty, commitment and
Lefebvre’s (1991) notion of space as a social product, suggests that space is a place of
relation reflecting wider social and economic relations. It is easy to be dazzled by the
newness and originality of the modern flexible buildings, not to mention their
integration of technology. If, however, following Lefebvre, one attempts to imagine
the human relationships that combined in the first instance to conceptualise, then
create the space, and in the second, to sustain it, then one sees these buildings with
new eyes. It is also important to reflect on the kind of relationships the flexible
learning spaces generate and sustain.
The Lefebvrian notion of representations of space (conceptualised space) as shot
through with ideology; being influential in shaping ideology, yet being shaped by
ideology, allows an opening to consider how flexible space now erodes the previous
boundaries associated with the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of industrialised
single-cell classrooms. Of course, one should recall Soja’s (1989) preference to speak
of post-Fordism, rather than post industrialism, as an appropriate moniker to apply to
present times, so as not to gloss over the reality that capitalist modes of
industrialisation remain an ever-present reality.
The flexible school (and higher educational buildings), ever more evident, are clearly
a product of a neoliberal concern with ensuring that education is relevant to the
realities of the 21st century workplace. This built reality follows on from a conception
of space that reflects this governing variable. Flexible learning spaces emerge from a
history of building for that catered for an industrial age of disciplined workers
guaranteed to turn up at the same place, same time, day after working day. Instead,
educational institutions must reflect the imaginary of ‘21st-century learning’, which
conceptualises a ‘smart’ worker, flexible and agile, able to make a critical and
creative contribution to the workplace of the 21st century.
These flexible buildings and learning spaces present a doctrine, through their implied
practice, and the explicit practices of their occupants and users, of modern approaches
to preparation for participation in a ‘brave new economic world’. To be faithful to
Lefebvre, however, it must be pointed that this world is one in which the best
prepared will be those whose much-vaunted skills of ‘flexibility’ and ‘agility’ will
enable them to cope with the realities of under-employment and partial employment.
A redefined workplace requires that teaching and learning be shifted out of the
confines of the traditional classroom, into hallways, common spaces and any place
that can be connected wirelessly, thus becoming a place of learning (Ford, 2014; Nair,
2011). This move, and spatial practice, replicates the new dynamic of a remote and
mobile workplace, staffed by part-time and ‘flexible’ contract workers, thus
perpetuating the ideology of global capital (Ford, 2014), and the importance of
education preparing young people to be responsive to the demands imposed by global
The flexible, transparent and open learning spaces and their environs are, as Lefebvre
claimed, ‘redolent’ with symbol and imagery. They dictate a certain kind of behaviour
as typical and as ‘appropriate’, such as generating a consensus between the open
spaces and the imperative to collaborate. The representational spaces, the lived reality
of the users and occupants of suggests, however, that practice is not always entirely
according to ideological plan. Lefebvre presented space as hyper-complex and
characterised by crosscurrents and tensions, and this is reflected in the uneasy
transition from traditional to modern in teachers’ practice. An awkward friction exists
at the junction of interior space (teachers’ mental and emotional commitments),
physical space (nature, or for these purposes, the built environment) and social space
(the space of speech, communication and collaboration). The transition from one kind
of physical space (the single cell classroom) to another (the flexible learning space)
requires a transition of inner space that makes the physical shift very difficult.
Any space, suggested Lefebvre, has the characteristics of both object and subject. A
façade, seen from the street, manifests what is on window ledges and balconies, while
from the vantage of the balcony, it is possible to see the street procession. What is not
visible is the obscene—what is behind the façade. While flexible learning spaces will
liberate teachers and students, and while it is evident that different possibilities are yet
to yielded by these spaces, their true value may be obscured by the underpinning
motivation of creating and promoting a vision of the workplace of the 21st century, not
to mention the reluctance of educators to adopt different ways of teaching and
learning, as the earlier open-plan movement discovered (Woolner, McCarter, Wall, &
Higgins, 2012). Flexible learning spaces do not stand outside of their historical
development and definitely not their own socio-spatial development—thus to render
the classroom as obsolete is premature.
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This work was supported by contestable funding awarded by the School of Education,
Faculty of Culture and Society, Auckland University of Technology in 2015.
This research was approved by the Auckland University of Technology Ethics
Committee (AUTEC), on 2nd April, 2015 (ref No. 15/86).