Education, learning

Your First Inquiry: Design a Collaborative Learning Space

One of the finest aspects of being an educator is the opportunity to begin anew each school year. (That, and our annual pilgrimage to the dollar bin at Target. Helloooo, notebooks!) In what other profession does the end of summer bring with it a chance for a full-blown reboot, an occasion to annually re-invent ourselves?

For many, this renewal starts at the spatial level as we re-configure our learning spaces, carefully arrange our bookshelves and bins, and painstakingly design our “Welcome Back!” bulletin boards. This long, sweaty, back-breaking process is clearly a labor of love, as demonstrated by the beautiful photos of our classrooms we proudly post to our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

But what if we decided not to do this? What if we broke tradition, spent a few more days eking out our summer “break” (wink, wink), and, instead, focused our efforts on sketching out an inquiry that challenged our students to collaboratively design their own learning space?

Think of the possibility: a chance to integrate a whole host of content areas (art, math, science, etc.) as you and your students take the time to get to know one another’s needs and interests, consider the research on the design of learning spaces, and collaboratively think “outside the box” in order to meet as many needs of the group as possible while working with a limited (or, in some cases, frozen) budget. Starting with questions like, “What do we want our learning space to look like?” “How do we want our classroom space(s) to function?” or “What do we need to design as inclusive and useful a space as possible?” can be the starting point for weeks of inquiry and exploration around spatial configurations, planning, design, and aesthetics (among other things!). Even better, consider launching an inquiry into Learning Spaces Across the Globe to help students engage in meaningful discussions around equity, consumerism, and wants vs. needs.

For younger students, a  “mini” inquiry might feel less risky–for example, asking kindergarten students to collaboratively design their morning meeting space, reallocate materials within their school/pod, or help develop centers for choice time. Even focusing such an inquiry on a specific kind of space–wall space, for example–can bring about the deep learning, questioning, and collaboration that is potentially lost when students enter a learning space that has been pre-designed from top to bottom, days (or even weeks) before the school year has even begun.

I’m well aware that such an inquiry may not work for everyone–those educators who teach multiple classes a day, for example, may find this kind of work difficult to manage–but I would invite us to draw upon our most creative, imaginative thinking to consider if anything even resembling such an inquiry might be possible.

We advocate for student collaboration in book clubs, in writing groups, and in regard to a whole host of situations we intentionally design within our schools and classrooms. The time has come to up the ante and to offer our students the opportunity to develop a collaborative space that is accessible and engaging for all learners–and to nurture an inquiry mindset from Day One of the school year.

If you are interested in collaborating on an inquiry like this (or just bouncing some crazy ideas off of one another), find me on Voxer (shawnacoppola) or on Twitter (@shawnacoppola). I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Additional resources:

From the Edutopia blog: “Why Learning Space Matters” by Ramona Persaud, “Collaborative Learning Spaces: Classrooms That Connect to the World” by Jennifer Williams

“16 Ways to Involve Kids in Creating Their Own Learning Spaces” by Stacy Tornio (We Are Teachers blog)

Infographic: Design engaging learning spaces (Michelle Manno)

From TeachThought20 Things Educators Need To Know About Learning Spaces

How Classrooms Look Around the World–In 15 Amazing Photographs (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post Answer Sheet)

Quiet at the back: classrooms around the world- in pictures (The Guardian)

4 thoughts on “Your First Inquiry: Design a Collaborative Learning Space”

  1. I love this blog post, Shawna. For the last two years my first graders have designed the classroom library at the beginning of the year (and again throughout the year as our needs as readers changed – more emphasis on informational texts during a unit of study focusing on info texts, re-designing again as we focused on getting to know characters in our books later in the year). I did a brief blog post for parents about it here a few years ago: Not only were the kids deeply involved in creating a part of our classroom that we would be using each and every day, getting their hands on the books during the process helped them learn about the books we had and be able to find them and recommend them to each other. They also re-designed the pre-made signs that were on the book baskets that were left behind by the previous teacher which showed such thoughtful attention to detail. This is a powerful way to teach for sure, and you’re making me think about other aspects of the classroom that we can co-create together. Thank you for that!


    1. Sarah, that is amazing! I love having students help design and organize the classroom library. It truly does guarantee that they get their hands on most of the books. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing your experience by providing the link to your blog post! I can’t wait to check it out.


    2. Sarah, as I was reading Shawna’s post I thought “Will this work for 1st graders” and you were there to answer my question! I was wandering the teacher store with friends today picking up the bare minimum necessities so the room can be the students, not mine. Thank you Shawna for the inspiration to dive into inquiry in a new way, and to you Sarah for reminding me that 1st graders can dive into this as well.


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