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Will innovative learning environments work for everyone?

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Innovative learning environment

Schools that have introduced Modern or Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) are striving to provide learning environments that are flexible. ILEs usually have flexible learning spaces that may include larger, open plan areas, along with smaller breakout and meeting style rooms. But, they are characterised by a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning that is much broader than just a change to physical spaces.

Innovative Learning Environments are places that are ‘open, flexible learning environments where inquiries are shared, interventions devised collaboratively, and reflections based on both self and peer observations’. (For more information see CORE’s white paper on Modern Learning Environments by Mark Osborne).

For those looking in from the outside, ILEs can sometimes look chaotic — they may not look like some more traditional classrooms with all the students working quietly at their desks.

Recently, I've had a number of conversations with parents who have said that ILEs won't work for their children. Some told me that their children need more structure and strong teacher-led learning. Others said that their child, given some choice about their own learning, would choose not to work hard. A few noted that their children would be lost, forgotten, or overwhelmed in larger open-plan-style learning spaces.

ILEs are not simply about giving learners choices; they aim to give learners agency. Agency involves choice, but also the power to act on choices, and accept the responsibility that comes with exercising that choice. (See CORE’s 2015 Trend – Learner Agency for more information).

So do ILEs work for everyone? It depends …

An Innovative Learning Environment (just like any learning environment), will only work well for everyone if it is designed to do so.

The idea that Innovative Learning Environments, by definition, don’t work for a particular type of student is flawed, just as much as the idea that more traditional environments always work well or badly for certain students.

Designing learning environments that work well for everyone has always, and will always, be a challenge. To make sure that learning works well for everyone, the learning needs to be designed from the outset with everyone in mind.

How do we design for everyone?

Design for predictable variability

A key idea behind ILEs is that learning is more personalised and student-led. This means that designing learning activities for a range of students is absolutely integral to the concept of ILEs.

We can begin the process by designing for predictable variability. This means that we know that there will be a diverse range of unique learners, each with their own strengths and challenges.

We know that some students will like order and structure while others will like flexibility; some will be academic, some athletic, perhaps some will like horses and others will like Minecraft. We also know that about one in ten students will have a difficulty with reading and writing, and some will have hearing or vision impairments. Each student will learn, think, and express themselves in different ways, and their needs will change as the learning contexts change throughout the day.

As long as we keep in mind the predictable variability of learners, we can plan ahead of time to cater for everyone.

Know your learners

Another key to ensuring that any learning environment works for everyone is to know your learners. Relationships are critical because having an in-depth understanding of the learner’s needs allows us to further refine the learning environment to cater for those needs.

The best way to understand a student’s learning needs is to ask them (Causton-Theoharis, 2009). Although some students and their family and whānau may not have had experience in providing teachers with feedback on their teaching, or, on what helps them learn, having a good relationship is likely to improve the quality of the information shared. Having ongoing opportunities for sharing and building understanding is essential.

For example, a young man I know started secondary school this year. In one of his classes he approached the white board with his iPad to take a photo of the writing on the board. The teacher immediately told him off and said that he should have been taking notes in his book, as instructed. What the teacher did not know was that the student in question has severe dyslexia and dyspraxia, and therefore was unable to do the book task.

If the teacher had been aware of the student’s needs they could have designed the task in a way that worked for him.

For more ideas about knowing your learners see the Ministry of Education’s Inclusive Education website.

Knowing your learner to create an inclusive classroom from Ministry of Education

Cater for all

How exactly do you cater for a range of students who are all different?

Teachers know when things are not working well for everyone, but what they often struggle with is knowing what to do about it.

That’s where Universal Design for Learning (UDL), coupled with technology, can be so powerful. UDL is a tool that uses the science behind learning to help us design curriculum and environments that cater for everyone from the outset. Technology offers students and teachers flexible options for personalising learning.

UDL is a term coined by education research and development organisation, CAST. They define it as …a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. The UDL framework is based on neuroscience and learning sciences, and gives practical ideas and guidance about the things to think about when designing for everyone.

It identifies three key principles based on learning science:

  • Engagement: creating engaging environments and sustaining motivation
  • Representation: supporting independent access to learning materials
  • Expression: providing multiple ways to create, learn and demonstrate understanding.

UDL frameworkUniversal Design for Learning framework

For more information:

Addressing some common concerns

Students who thrive on structure can be supported to utilise the flexibility inherent in the ILE to create structures that work for them.

Environments and strategies can be designed to cater for those who can be overwhelmed by sensory overload. For example, in collaboration with students, staff can design:

  • strategies for students to independently manage overload
  • movement breaks in the daily schedule
  • personal spaces and items to create a sense of belonging (see more in Mark Osborne’s earlier blog for more information)
  • quiet times and options for students to listen to music via headphones
  • seating options and fidget objects available for students to use when needed.

For more simple ideas see: Working with Schools (Raising a Sensory Smart Child).

On top of design for the whole class, an individual plan can be developed based on the type of overload the individual student is experiencing. Special Education staff or Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) will be able to provide additional advice to support students with more complex needs.

The verdict — yes (but it still depends).

ILEs can work well for everyone as long as they are specifically designed to do so.

At the forefront of everything we are doing, it is critical to connect with students, parents, and our communities. By creating opportunities for feedback, we can examine how well the learning environment is working for each and every student, and respond appropriately.



Causton-Theoharis, J. (2009). The paraprofessional’s handbook for effective support in the inclusive classroom. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Consider also: