sustainable learning spaces

Instructor Perceptions of a Flexible Writing Classroom

Dana Gierdowski, Elon University



The results of this research indicate that the flexible classroom can offer instructors greater opportunities to vary their pedagogical approaches, particularly for collaborative small-group work. In this study, the mobile furnishings made small group assembling and collaboration easier and encouraged more active participation from students who were reluctant to engage in whole class activities or discussions. While the instructor perceived that, at times, the flexible room could be disorganized, he reported his overall experience as positive. This study further illuminates the role that innovative classroom design can have on a teacher’s pedagogical choices and demonstrates that the instructor’s experience and comfort level in the space can influence those choices.

The results suggest that some issues an instructor may have with a flexible design are merely logistical and can be easily solved; however, other barriers hint at comfort levels within that space that could be attributed to a teacher’s own pedagogical philosophy. As shown here, just being situated in the flexible classroom encouraged the instructor to reflect and allowed him the opportunity to think more critically about his own pedagogical practices.

This work also suggests that low-tech resources, such as mobile whiteboards, can be used to engage students as much as, if not more than, digital technologies in writing classes. A flexible classroom, when used to its potential, has the ability to encourage more peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration, promote engagement with course content, and increase reflective teaching practices.

Most importantly, this study suggests that the flexible classroom is not a panacea for the challenges composition instructors—or any instructors for that matter—face when teaching. As learning space researcher Jos Boys (2011) has written, having a flexible space with mobile furnishings “does not automatically mean that students will feel empowered or that equipment will be moved … it depends on the conventions and assumptions—the ordinary social and spatial practices—that participants bring to a space, the activity and the context” (pp. 129-130). The comments from the instructors in this study demonstrate that while the space is something that can inspire our thinking about teaching and can make particular activities easier to facilitate, it is not the single factor that determines success.

Boys’s (2011) argument that “learning activities are always about more than the space; and space is always about more than just the activities that go on in it” is applicable here, and it can also be applied to both learning and teaching (p. 85). In other words, teaching activities are also always about more than the space. The instructor’s teaching philosophy, comfort levels with the material affordances in the room, and relationship with the students in the class can all potentially play a part in how a learning space is perceived and used.

These results further the idea that we should be careful not to attribute sole agency to the learning space itself and its impact on teaching and learning (Brooks, 2011). As Boys (2011) argued, “we cannot separate out the participants, the activities and the contexts in analyzing how space works; to do so is to over-simplify and potentially misunderstand” (p. 129). “Space and pedagogy,” as Hunley and Schaller (2009) argued, “are undeniably intertwined” (p. 34). Similarly, Carpenter et al. (2013) stated that “we should not view pedagogical approach as isolated from learning space design” (p. 316).

The immediate implication of this study is that it can inform the kinds of research questions we ask about the role an innovative classroom plays in teaching processes, as well as how we design learning space assessments and studies; that is, if the space, pedagogy, and social dynamics are connected, we must include questions that address these variables in our research design. By itself, an innovative classroom will not improve student learning or engagement, nor will it be the sole determinant of effective, teaching practices. Flexible classroom design is not the answer to increasing active, student-centered pedagogies or increasing student engagement in the writing process. It is, however, one variable in the larger equation of the classroom experience.

Appendix (Instructor Interview Questions)

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