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A Space for Learning?

A Space for Learning?
By Wendy Priesnitz

A reader recently engaged rather passionately with me regarding an article I wrote entitled “The Whole World is a Learning Community.” I wrote, “One of the wonderful strengths of the life learning/unschooling philosophy is the understanding that we don’t need to create separate learning spaces or learning communities for our children (i.e. schools).” Let’s just say she disagreed and feels strongly that children need dedicated learning spaces, but agreed to my mentioning her here.

She actually describes herself as an “almost-unschooler.” She comes from an educational background that includes Reggio Emilia schools and Montessori teacher training. The Reggio Emilia philosophy respects children’s rights and trusts their ability to learn experientially and actively. It does, however, also put a great deal of importance on specially designed environments for learning to occur. Montessori education shares that focus on children’s environment and calls for free activity within a specially designed, proportioned, and prepared environment.

One of the reasons she doesn’t think she can call herself a full-fledged unschooler is that she believes children need adults to create inspiring learning spaces, even as the children have the freedom to use them when and how fits their own needs.

Many homeschooling families – even when they begin to understand the joys of learning as if school doesn’t exist – cling to the idea that kids need a place to learn. When I’m asked about it, my response is as vague as it is when I’m asked to define unschooling! There really is no one-size-fits-all answer, except to remember that learning happens all the time, no matter where we are.

I liken the need for a learning space to the need for a writing space. Some writers – like me, for instance – work best in silence or with quiet, calm background sound. I don’t care where I write, as long as there are no distractions so I can concentrate. Other writers prefer to work in people-filled public spaces like parks and cafés – places where I enjoy going to get away from writing.

"Why not use our real neighborhoods as learning spaces? That is, to me, the ultimate in interactivity and community! And it allows each learner to find her own level of quiet or chaos in the real world. Of course, to do that on a large scale, we’d all have to collaborate to make our communities friendlier, safer, and more secure for kids."

Likewise, for some people, some of the time, optimum learning needs its own safe, quiet, solitary, personal space. But learning also requires the wide-ranging ability to explore in more public spaces, with other people. Letting a child venture out, can be scary, requiring – often at the same time – both boundaries and trust. Those boundaries should be natural, not arbitrary, providing our kids with a sense of security more than safety. We can help kids feel secure that we’re looking out for them, but we can’t always keep them safe. And that’s where the trust comes in – often blind faith that we’ve given them the tools to handle themselves in public situations.

When I think of space, I also think of something less concrete. It might be called psychic space, or breathing room. People have differing needs for it, be we all (including our kids) deserve to be given the room to think, to process what we’re taking in, not to be nagged or hounded, or put on the spot. And I think that lack of coercion and of pressure to perform can only help the learning process.

Most discussion about “learning spaces” is really about instructional spaces – institutional instructional spaces where children gather together to learn something or other, even if that is non-academic things like cooperating and working with others. And they’re not usually very inspiring. In some cases, they’re ugly places in which few would voluntarily spend five days a week. So those Montessori and Reggio Emilia classrooms begin to look pretty inviting – to anyone not having the freedom of the real world, that is.

Even instructional spaces are being rethought these days. Learning space designers are currently pondering how students increasingly employ digital tools to create “virtual learning spaces” in the informal environments on post-secondary campuses. Everyone seems to be realizing that as learners use technology to control their own educations, the formal learning spaces of classroom and laboratory are being somewhat sidelined.

I see discussions about such change at the elementary level too, where it looks like the “open classrooms” that many teachers hated decades ago are coming back. Moveable walls, reconfigurable furniture, interactivity, and teaming are buzzwords. One account I read went like this: “Departments are arranged into areas called neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are made up of classrooms called learning spaces. In the center of the learning spaces are learning hubs. The hubs and common areas emphasize community, transparency, and collaboration.”

Well then, why not save some money on infrastructure and use our real neighborhoods as learning spaces? That is, to me, the ultimate in interactivity and community! And it allows each learner to find their own level of quiet or chaos, solitude or community, in the real world. Of course, to do that on a large scale, we’d all have to collaborate to make our communities friendlier, safer, and more secure for kids. And we have some distance to go before we reach that ideal. Meanwhile, our freely learning kids have, with our support, a whole world to explore and learn from. May we help them use it well. 

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founding editor. A writer and journalist for over forty years, she is the author of thirteen books, a former broadcaster, and a lifelong changemaker. She and her husband helped their two now-adult daughters learn without school in the 1970s and 80s. You can learn more about her and read more of her writing on her website.

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