The result of the Indire research group on school architecture, the book, “Teaching in flexible spaces. Designing, organising and using learning environments at school” (Giunti, 2019) has some interesting ideas on the relationship between pedagogy and architecture and proposes solutions and concrete examples to reorganise school environments without having to resort to structural interventions and relying purely on the resources available. The intent is to support design processes or the reorganisation of learning environments and to support an idea of school well-being that recalls modern standards of comfort and habitability.
“With the Indire group of researchers, we asked ourselves a series of questions on the theme of physical learning spaces and on the characteristics they ought to have in order to respond to the needs of a society which, today, has radically changed; a society in which the students too, are very different from those who sat at the benches only a few years ago”, says the book’s editor, Leonardo Tosi. “Having looked at those years, certain tools and proposals have been suggested that invite us to rethink the school environment and that indicate a path towards ‘well-being’ at school, with a vision that exceeds the traditional model of desks, classrooms and corridors and that defines new models that involve the entire school community and the surrounding area”.
The opportunity to develop an innovative type of teaching is linked to the definition of new environments which are more focused on the student. In fact, there are now many documents that stress how the environment affects the quality of learning processes, from guidelines for school construction to indications for the curriculum, up to the documents on cultural guidance issued by bodies at national and international levels. What is never explicit, however, is how physical space can concretely contribute to the quality of school life and learning, what the margins for intervention should be, and what tools can be used to help create an effective place for both teachers and students.
To respond to the need, increasingly felt by students, families and teachers, to be able to count on a space that accompanies and strengthens education, the book offers a useful set of tools to help transform the classroom into an expanded and flexible learning environment. An accommodating environment in which it becomes possible to design educational programmes that “come out” of the classroom and that exploit the potential offered by all the other places within the school, including unused spaces and apparently “useless” spaces. Here, among the many ideas, are some useful indications for creating a MakerSpace in schools where students can, in a collaborative work space, develop skills related to “building”, observing phenomena, analysing and describing the results of their experiments and improving problem-solving skills.
As the researcher, Samuele Borri, explains, the starting point of the reflection is the 1+4 Manifesto for educational spaces for the school in the Third Millennium, presented by Indire in 2016. The document lays out a vision that deviates from the idea of a school as a “sum of classrooms” and extends, beyond the didactic dimension, to the social context and the ability of an environment to affect the quality of social relationships. For Borri, “Going beyond the idea of the classroom as a unique spatial reference for teaching, we want to embrace a vision by which every place inside or outside the school should be considered a place to learn”.
But the study outlook, proposed in the book, is quite different, the one that starts directly from the school, through ten Learning Stories told by as many teachers who wanted to consider the physical environment as a strategic element in the quality of school life and learning. These are examples that have the function both of touching the experience of those who have already begun to transform their school spaces and of triggering a reflection on possible ways to reorganise and adapt existing spaces.
Through the contribution by the university professor, Beate Weyland, who, for years, has been proposing a new way of relating to the idea of designing Learning Environments, the book thus seeks to promote a new idea of educational space: “Schools, today, have been enriched with new functions. They are not only places dedicated to training, but are environments that stimulate the construction of ‘bridges’ between different generations and cultures; they are spaces and opportunities for dialogue between the public administration and citizens; they are learning environments, but also service centres for the area; places intended for children, but also reference points for that archipelago of associations that operate and gravitate in urban settings. In this new cultural humus, even the school building changes and needs accurate pedagogical information, to embrace the full potential of a society in the making.”
Using the words taken from the foreword by the teacher, Franco Lorenzoni, “The question we need to ask ourselves forcefully is why we teachers are still largely almost illiterate when it comes to the ability to organise the spaces for education in different and flexible ways. Classrooms and the arrangement of desks and chairs continue to evoke, in most of our institutes, the school of the nineteenth century. Moreover, in many education faculties, chairs are screwed to the ground and there are few or no spaces suitable for working in groups or for making a circle to start a discussion. And it is perhaps in this early discouragement of the body of us teachers, even before the bodies of students of all ages, that one of the roots of our poor ability to imagine, live and organise different spaces lies”.
This is how the book is organised:
PART 1 – DESIGNING AND ORGANISING EDUCATIONAL SPACES
Chapter 1: Designing new school spaces
Introduction: what identity does the school of the future have?
Designing a new school together
A pupil-friendly school: the case of the Alemannenschule
A school on the move: the case of the Labyrinth School
Rethinking the environments for teaching: the case of the San Filippo Educational Club [Circolo Didattico San Filippo]
Chapter 2: Designing and organising a MakerSpace environment at school
Introduction: from exploration space to MakerSpace
Designing and setting up a MakerSpace at school
Creating a MakerSpace at school: the cases of the Largo Castelseprio Istituto Comprensivo [Unified School] and the Second Montessori-Bilott Istituto Comprensivo [Unified School]
PART 2 – TEACHING IN FLEXIBLE SPACES
Chapter 3: Organising spaces and furnishings for a flexible environment
Introduction: the learning environment in national guidelines
Principles for preparing student-centred environments
Educational spaces and educational environments
New words for new spaces
Reading the physical environment
Mapping situations and educational settings
Teaching tools and furnishings
Evaluating Learning Environments
Chapter 4: Designing teaching activities for flexible spaces
Introduction: the toolbox
Learning Activity: the ingredients for designing active teaching
Learning Story: scripts for teaching in flexible spaces
A useful “toolbox” for schools that want to rethink their environments without resorting to structural interventions and with only the resources available
Teaching in flexible spaces