Developing Students' Agency in Schools: Space Organization

In this post I am going to talk about the central issue of developing students agency in schools through the organization of space in schools.  This post is part of a series of posts about student agency and how to develop it through new organizations of time, space, relationships and resources.  These four elements of design: time, space, relationships and resources are how we translate theory into practice, how we make our goals, guiding principles and values come to life.

When we think about the spacial infrastructure of a school we often picture classrooms with individual desks set up in neat rows facing a chalk board.  We think about the teacher standing at the front of the room and all of the students facing them, attentively listening and jotting down notes in their notebooks.  I would like to propose that we step back from this image to reflect upon our goals for schooling and how this organization of it serves these goals or not.  In other words, to think about what our “WHYs” are for schooling, then evaluate whether or not we are expressing WHAT we value and hold as principles in HOW we organize it.  We need to ask ourselves the question: How do we demonstrate what’s important to us in how we organize schooling, namely the development of students’ agency, and how does our organization of space reflect that commitment?

Even in our own lives, it is important to step back and reflect upon how we organize our lives in space, in time, with resources and in relationships.  We need to think about whether or not our goals, values and principles are being best expressed in the ways that we have organized our lives.  In terms of spatial organization, how do we design the spaces we live in to optimally afford the lifestyle we would like to cultivate?  Does our space work well in relation to our needs?  Is it a space that we enjoy being in?  How do we take care of our space for it to work best for us?  We can think about the different aspects of how we design our spaces and the affordances of those designs, considering: indoor and outdoor spaces, green spaces, private and public space, individual and collective spaces, lighting, ventilation, noise, temperature, amount of space, organization of resources in the space, organization of people in the space, flexibility of uses within a space, the aesthetic beauty of a space, amongst other factors involving the organization of space.  How do spatial factors, and the intersection between spatial factors and other factors, such as time, relationships and resources, affect us as human beings?  Specifically in schools, how can we design spaces for optimal teaching and learning?  And, of course, to answer that question we must reflect upon what “optimal teaching and learning” is from an epistemological and pedagogic standpoint.

At the heart of such an inquiry is thinking about what the purpose of schooling is in society.  As discussed in other videos in this series, in schools a central goal can be to develop students’ agency.  Agency is about choice, having the opportunity to make decisions, but also cultivating the ability to critically reason about those decisions in order to make informed, intentional and meaningful choices in life.  If we claim to prioritize students’ agency as a central value and its development as the most fundamental purpose of schooling, then we need to analyze how we are organizing school spaces to achieve this goal.  We can ask ourselves this question: Is this way of organizing space at school the best way to contribute toward the development of students’ agency? 

Do students have any choice about where to be at school and how to organize school spaces?  For instance, can students choose if they would like to do school work in the library or outside under a tree?  Or within a classroom, can students choose if they sit a cushion on the floor or work at a standing desk?  Do students have any say about how their environment is organized?  On a larger scale, how can we question that prominent image of rows of desks in a classroom as a representation of how school spaces should be organized?  How can we re-think this model of schooling and open up new possibilities that may more fully align with our goals, values and principles?   This is what will be discussed in this video.


A space can be calming and cozy.  A space can be busy and exhilarating.   A space can help us gain greater focus.  A space can invite people to think and create together.  A space can nudge exploration and experimentation.  A space can provoke a sense of awe and wonder.  And the same space can be interpreted differently by different people.  How we design spaces and engage with those designs matter and who has a voice in those designs is important.   

In schools, the first question to address in making any changes to how space is organized is to reflect upon what teaching and learning should look like and why.  A school can change its spatial organization, yet maintain a traditional pedagogy that prioritizes a top-down transmission model of teaching and learning.  A school can maintain a traditional pedagogy, but add a maker space for STEM or design thinking classes once a week with a non-traditional pedagogic approach.  A school can re-think its traditional pedagogy and fully transform pedagogically to put the development of students’ agency as its central focus.  The point is, it is important that changes to a school’s spatial organization are responses to larger discussion on epistemology and pedagogy.  


So, let’s start with the last question: How can we re-think this model of schooling and open up new possibilities that may more fully align with our goals, values and principles?  Do we need classrooms?  Could schools be spaces balanced between multi-use spaces and specific-use spaces?  For instance, could schools have specific-use spaces such as a library and media center, a maker spaces/atelier, a performing arts studio, an athletic court, indoor and outdoor play and study spaces, a garden, a kitchen, a science lab, a audio-visual studio, a space for art installations.  And many multi-use spaces that can be organized with different types of furniture for different purposes - furniture that is moveable (such on on wheels), furniture that is multi-functional, and many different types of individual and group meeting spaces around the school, from long rectangular tables with a screen at the end for presentations to cozy couches and coffee tables for discussions.  Students could have lockers or cubbies for their personal items, but no one classroom that they stay in the majority of the day.  Classes, tasks, projects, workshops could happen in the spaces that best fit the objectives of the pedagogic activity and students could decide how they organize their work in space.  Imagine that a student has a list of tasks from a project they are involved in and they can decide in what order to do these tasks, with whom, with which resources and in which spaces for the time that they deem appropriate, always with the support of educators giving guidance and support throughout the process.  Questions of how to organize space integrally relate to questions of how to organize time, resources and relationships.  Different ways of organizing space, for instance, can lead to  different ways of organizing relationships by not limiting students to their classrooms and colleagues organized by age groups, but groups organized by interests for instance, which is a topic of another video in this series about how relationships are organized in schools.  Rethinking how schools are spatially organized can also be considered with regards to students’ agency.  Do students have a voice in deciding where to work or how to organize their space at school?  Do we, as educators, support students to make meaningful decisions about how they use space in relation to their goals and values?   


Or within a classroom set-up, can students choose if they sit a cushion on the floor or work at a standing desk?  Do students have any say about how their environment is organized?  Even within a classroom, there are spatial organizations from where the books are kept, where the board is located, how the desks are arranged (in rows, in groups, in a circle).  In preschool and early elementary classes there can be a organization of spaces into centers or stations, like the reading nook, the arts area, the building corner.  Thus, some classrooms are spatially organized by stations or workshop areas, each one with a specific function for different types of work, from building prototypes to programming to silent reading to experimentation.  Some schools have shifted toward more flexible teaching and learning environments, with different types of furniture that are adaptable and moveable, so that the classroom can more easily flow from individual work into small group work into a circle for discussions.  Some classrooms even have moveable walls between then to open up spaces for inter-class collaborations.  Involving students in deciding how to design spaces in shared school spaces, giving them choices about when and how they use different spaces and supporting them to develop meaning around the use of space is an important learning objective in schools.  


Do students have any choice about where to be at school and how to organize school spaces?  As I said before, for instance, can students choose if they would like to do school work in the library or outside under a tree?  Furthermore, does school support students to know under what conditions they work best?  Some people work best in a busy environment, while others need quiet.  Some people work best talking to others while some prefer solitude.  Sometimes it is the task at hand that dictates the best space to use.    Sometimes it is the resources within the space that matter most.  Students need to learn that they have some control over their space and how the use of space is meaningful.  There is also the issue of shared spaces and common areas and how responsibility is shared for those areas, and how agency always goes hand in hand with responsibility.   


School buildings do not confine education activities.  Some of the most meaningful pedagogic activities are field trips, using community spaces such as parks and museums for teaching and learning, and doing work in the community from volunteer work to entrepreneurial projects.  Going beyond the walls of the school is a very important aspect related to developing students’ agency and utilizing spaces in meaningful ways.


With vast gains in connecting with people around the world, virtual, or digital spaces are important spaces to cultivate in school and develop students’ agency around.  From learning from experts in another country or discussing an issue with other students in a distance city, digital spaces provide many opportunities for crossing borders and using space in innovative ways for educational purposes.

Wrapping up, this is certainly not an exhaustive exploration of how to develop students agency through the ways that we organize space at school, however it is meant to provoke a reflection about how we are currently doing it and how we could be doing it.  I hope that it is helpful to educators and it can be the start of a critical dialogue that moves towards the transformation of schooling based most fundamentally on expanding student agency.  

Please share your comments and check out Contemporary Education on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook for more information on this important topic.  

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The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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