The flexibility of ‘flexible learning environments’ is a big part of my ongoing PhD research and I find it a thorny, intriguing ‘thing’. Flexibility is problematic in lots of ways and one of them, I think, is time – specifically the timescales over which we mean flexibility to apply.
Without an understanding of timescale, we don’t know:
(1) What type of flexibility is being discussed. Flexible as in I can switch things around now? Flexible as in I can adapt my space for next week’s project on aerodynamics/WWII or whatever? Flexible as in the space can be made larger, added on to, walls can move?
and these questions bear on…
(2) Who or what is responsible for making flexibility happen. Is it just the designed space? The space + teacher? Site staff who are going to move the partitions/tables? An engineer/architect to build a new wall?
An excellent insight into these issues comes from the schools’ architect David Medd (1970) – yes, an old paper, but I think that’s partly the point. It’s perhaps a story for another day but briefly it seems to me that flexibility has become an end in itself, no longer a means for helping teachers to achieve their purpose, it is now oriented to space per se. You could argue, flexibility for flexible learning but that defers the issue of purpose and the problems are anyway explained better elsewhere – see the interview with Gert Biesta on purpose and learnification.
Medd’s whole focus is on resources and enabling the teacher. He discusses furniture, layout, partitions, openness etc and then writes:
…these attributes have to be invested with flexibility in order that the school becomes an instrument that teachers can manipulate, in order to provide the day to day changes that education demands. This day to day change can be defined as flexibility – the tactical means the designer must offer the teacher. A school has to be a tool in the teacher’s hands… (Medd, 1970:179)
There’s a lot of similarities here with Herman Hertzberger’s thinking on space and if you’re interested in that, Emma’s interview with him is superb. I’ll be writing about Hertzberger’s ‘articulation’ and his re-working of flexibility as ‘polyvalence’ soon.
My point, though, is that Medd’s thinking about tactical means is powerful – it gets beyond the passive, assumed provision of flexibility i.e. it being simply a property of a space and moves attention to its use and purpose and what and who that involves. I do think it needs fleshing out in terms of teachers’ work and time and below is a first attempt to do that.
This is a work in progress –feel free to comment! I’m suggesting a breakdown into four categories (i.e. Immediate / Short-term / Medium-term / Long-term) based on the literature and fieldwork. The key point is that the logics of the time categories should respect the perspectives of and uses by teachers:
CABE (the UK’s government advisor on architecture) notes that for a well-designed secondary school, there should be: ‘Flexible design to allow for short-term changes of layout and use, and for long-term expansion or contraction.’ (2007:7)
But, it’s not just the timescale that changes in CABE’s advice: these are very different types of flexibility with different ‘perpetrators’ and they require very different resources. ‘Flexible design’ is being asked to do an awful lot by covering all of these different uses, actors and resources.
From a design perspective, having two time-based categories of flexibility (short- and long-term) might be enough. It seems simple enough: short-term changes are the domain of the user (facilitated by the design); long-term ones the domain of designers and engineers (actioned by builders). But a focus on what happens in schools would benefit from more subtle disaggregation of these categories. Of interest to the teacher might be ‘What can I do now in this lesson since Jo isn’t working well with Sam today?’ or ‘Do I have enough time to take lunch and move the tables for debate set-up in the lesson after lunch?’ For the teacher these are different types of flexibility that matter. However, they are often below the threshold of visibility for the designer’s language/concepts/way of seeing.
The logic of time categories should reflect the perspective of people using them. This would steer things towards the resources that changes require. It would also help to identify the significance of any changes so not just who else might be needed in order for the changes to be made but whether the changes are likely to be temporary or permanent. It’s worth asking is this change just for Period 4 with Year 9 or a change for all of next term’s lessons?
The appropriateness of these distinctions will vary from teacher to teacher and probably school to school etc. I intend them as heuristics – so ways of recognising that flexibility is a rather complex thing, means different things, may involve different kinds of time and financial resources and certainly differing amounts of teachers’ time.
Any thoughts, please do leave a comment or get in touch via Twitter: Follow @woodadam_