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Different Learning Styles and Needs

STRATEGY: Encourage using space and time differently to address students’ various learning needs and styles.

Differentiation is a hallmark of modern education. Most schools have long-since moved past the school-as-factory model in favor of strategies and practices that support students through more personalized instruction. This has taken the form of IEP and 504 plans for students with special needs, and blended learning, flexible grouping, and student-centered learning for all students. Beyond instructional changes, schools also have the opportunity to address the wide range of students’ learning needs and styles by adding variety and flexibility to the way they use space and time. Much like differentiation, the goal is not to move to a different structure, but to create options that give students and teachers choices. In this way, students and teachers are able to meet their differing learning needs and styles, while building a culture of mutual respect, understanding, and acceptance about those differences. Ultimately, when students’ needs are met, they will be more engaged and successful in learning.


Using educational space differently can mean both redesigning the traditional classroom, and also rethinking what counts as an educational space. The strategies below offer a variety of options for using space differently:

  • Design for flexibility. The constantly changing nature of technology means we cannot know what the future holds and how it will affect schooling. The best-prepared schools include designs with moveable furniture and classrooms – and even whole buildings – with spaces that can be reconfigured
  • Creating spaces with engagement in mind. Reading nooks with bean bag chairs, an investigation station with sand and water tables, and a carpet for group discussion or read alouds can help with engagement in elementary classrooms. Secondary school classrooms should include spaces where students can engage in peer discussion to meet their need for social interaction, as well as lab tables and other kinds of technical work stations that provide for hands-on learning.
  • Design for social interaction and collaboration. Adding classroom and community spaces that allow for group work for both students and teachers, and for school/community interactions.
  • Active seating. Stools that wobble, yoga balls, and standing desks may help students with attention deficits to stay focused.
  • Re-conceiving the library. School libraries should be not only places to get information, but also places for formal learning where groups can collaborate on projects. Libraries can also play a virtual role, supporting students by providing resources, tutoring, IT support, and other academic services online.
  • Creating makerspaces and adopting a school makerspace mindset. Makerspaces build on constructivist ideology to form an approach to education where learners create their own knowledge by creating and interacting with physical objects. Treating schools like makerspaces would mean moving away from ready-made knowledge to a classroom that is based on exploration, creativity, innovation, and collaboration, with hands-on materials and focused on real-world problems. Makerspaces transform the way both time and space are used.
  • School outside the classroom. In addition to common practices such as field trips to museums, performances, and events, schools can expand beyond traditional classrooms through outdoor classrooms with picnic tables and an outdoor whiteboard, or school gardens where students can grow their own vegetables and flowers. Simply going outside to the schoolyard provides opportunities to use nature as inspiration to write poetry, or to create scale drawings of a playground. Venturing just beyond the school grounds also provides students to connect with their community; place-based education like this has been shown to have numerous positive effects for students. Indoor spaces like the school auditorium can be used to study light mixing, and the gym to study the physics of motion. All of these alternative spaces also provide students the space to move, something which can be sorely lacking during the school day.

Using time creatively also offers opportunities to meet students’ needs:

  • Re-conceptualizing the school period. Traditional 50-minute class periods limit time for project-based and interdisciplinary work that allow for deeper learning. Building flexibility into how time is spent during an individual class period or learning block can also provide students with greater agency with how they use their time.
  • Re-conceptualizing the school day. Lengthening the school day allows schools to diversity programs offered during the regular school schedule, including arts, language, and STEM programs, as well as clubs such as chess, Scrabble, and debate which normally occur after school. These programs help students connect to the school community which results in improved school culture. Adding early release days for students also provides time for teachers to collaborate and engage in professional development.
  • Re-conceptualizing the school year. Schools that operate year-round have reported significant improvements in eliminating summer slide for “at-risk” students. Schools can also make adjustments to the school calendar by adjusting dates for professional development or by adding intersessions between traditional semesters that allow students (and teachers) to explore interesting topics outside the traditional curriculum.
  • Building time for collaboration. Just as physical space for collaboration is necessary, so it is providing the time for teachers – and students – to do it.

First Steps to Consider

Changes in the way a school uses space or time can cause significant disruptions for teachers and students and should not be rushed through. Important first steps include:

  • Talking to members of the school community – teachers, students, parents, and other staff members – about how the building is being used and how it might be used differently, and how the school day or calendar could be changed to better meet school goals
  • Implementing physical changes to a few classrooms, for example by experimenting with active seating, will allow interested teachers to try out new ideas and provide useful guidance for more widespread adoption
  • Visiting schools and speaking with school leaders and teachers about their experience with various changes. Changing the length of the school day or the school year is not a decision that can be easily or quickly changed again, so going in with knowledge from others’ experience can be extremely valuable.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Rethinking space and time for school is more challenging than it might seem. Many teachers and administrators have deep-rooted beliefs in the way schools look and feel, and some of the recommendations challenge those notions. Additionally, many of the physical changes require funding that schools and districts might not have. Existing policies might not be conducive to some of the recommendations, such as more common planning time, allowing students to learn outside the school building, and changing the conception of “seat time.”

Common pitfalls

  • Ignoring mindsets: If educators’ beliefs about how time and space should be used are not addressed before making changes to physical and temporal structures, these changes can be undermined or wasted
  • Failing to get input: Students, teachers, and families can provide valuable insights into potential changes to the physical building or the school day or year. This input also creates buy-in into the changes
  • Inadequate training: Students (and teachers) need to learn how to use new materials (from wobbly chairs to 3D printers) appropriately
  • Not considering all students: Special needs of students with disabilities or other physical restrictions must be taken into account, both students who attend the school and who may in the future

Guiding Questions

  • How will this space be used now and in the future?
  • How will input into changes be gathered from all members of the school community?
  • What changes to the school (both physical and temporal) will help students develop skills for life in the 21st century?
  • What curricular or pedagogical changes need to be made to support changes to the way the school uses space or time?
  • Does the physical layout of the school encourage collaboration for students and for teachers?
  • In what ways might the library enable students to develop their knowledge and skills?
  • Is the school day broken down into units of time that align with the school’s vision for teaching and learning?
  • How does the school utilize the greater community as a place for learning?
  • Are there other ways of organizing the school that might make cross-curricular and cross-departmental teaching and learning easier and more beneficial?