collaborative learning, Instructional Design, Learning Spaces

3 Different Collaborative Learning Spaces and What We Can Learn From Them

By Kirk Lunsford

The old way, “Push” classroom. Photo credit: Allie Sandler, 5th grade classroom at Virginia Court Elementary School.

How can we create more collaborative learning in the classroom? There are a number of ways to do this, such as project based learning (PBL), and working in small groups. To do this effectively, we should really be thinking out the space and the setting for learning, otherwise known as the collaborative learning space (CLS). For many teachers, it can be a challenge to balance the number of students with the given furniture and space. The goal is to create spaces that allow for better interaction between students and access to the instructor. The instructor should be able to observe and wander between these groups freely.

The classroom can be set up in both formal and informal ways depending on the needs of the students, space, and curriculum. Here we explore three different collaborative learning spaces and discover what might be learned from them.

1. An Informal and Homey Setting

A collaborative learning environment. Photo source:

Let’s look at “The Learning Lounge,” an informal learning setting for 5th graders with flexible seating. Teacher Sherah Cash explained that she wanted to eliminate the desks and make a comfortable ‘home-like atmosphere.’ She says, “the space invites more conversation and deeper connections to content through peer interaction.” Students are also presented with the freedom to choose from different areas to hang out and learn. Each area is designated to a task such as reading a book, playing a game, or studying the “Facebook” board which is utilized for social studies. Students play a large part in their own learning by the agency provided. Some of the furniture is ‘fold-up’ and portable and can be taken into the hall or outside for even more areas to engage in learning. Much of the furniture Sherah found at yard sales or thrift stores and dressed them up a bit. She has some furniture in progress (examples of her DIY furniture) to share. Other pieces of furniture have come from DonorChoose. A program where people can choose to donate funds to school projects of their choice online.

What can be learned from The Learning Lounge?

  • Deeper connections through authentic peer interaction
  • Agency in one’s own education by choice
  • Separate areas of distinct focus provide variety
  • Informal learning environments provide less stressful and natural engagement

2. A Functional Co-Designed Remake

(Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment. Edutopia. August 6, 2013)

Steve Mattise, a math and science teacher at Roosevelt middle school was looking for ways to promote more collaboration and deeper learning. His classroom was too small for the amount of students. The Third Teacher+ and Steve came together with their students and the community to redesign the classroom. The focus of the collaborative effort was to create an environment that meets the learning and teaching goals with limited means. The Third Teacher+ worked with the students and collaborators to draw out ideas by use of image boards and post-it notes. Faculty members, community members, the students, and The Third Teacher+ all came together in a weekend to remake the classroom. You can watch the transformation in the three part video series:

Remake Your Class Part 1: Planning for a Collaborative Learning Environment

Remake Your Class Part 2: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment

Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment

What can be learned from the classroom remake at Roosevelt Middle School?

  • Rely on students, members of the community, and experts to create valuable stakeholders and economical solutions
  • When students are involved in the remake process agency and ownership is achieved
  • Creative ways to re-use furniture and resources can promote function on a budget
  • Getting creative with space design allows for better traffic flow even with many students
  • De-cluttering can open up new places for much needed storage

3. Where Formal Lecture Meets Collaborative



The CLC at John Hopkins is a space for a variety of courses and workshops that have previously presented themselves as lectures. As opposed to other spaces with loose frameworks and varieties, the classroom is designed to provide singular group focused activity with brief lecture periods. Each round table group area has white boards directly adjacent and a screen where laptops can be projected. The instructor has two screens to project onto and access to each of the groups. The instructor, Rebecca Pearlman says students seem to intuitively know what to do. Their grades have stayed relatively the same, but engagement has increased and the quality of work has improved. The format was seemingly more pleasant for both the students and the instructor. Although this is a higher ed setting, this format can be applied appropriately to grades 7-12.

What can be learned from the CLC at John Hopkins?

  • Students are more actively engaged
  • Quality of work improved
  • Students were more ‘on task’
  • Defined expectations for the course

There isn’t one clear cut way to design a learning space. You need to rely on the students, members of the community, teachers, and experts to make the best decisions. Some spaces are flexible while others are more rigid. I hope these examples have provided you with some motivation to think critically about your learning spaces and if they are serving you and your students best needs. If you are looking for ideas on how you can design your own collaborative learning space, check out the Pinterest board for Collaborative Learning to get some ideas!



2 thoughts on “3 Different Collaborative Learning Spaces and What We Can Learn From Them”

  1. Lots of great information! Thanks for sharing. I especially loved the video: Remake Your Class Part 3. Don’t you wish you could go back and attend classes in grade school again in places like that?


  2. I love these pictures! I know a few teachers who had moved toward flexible seating options in their classrooms. I am very interested in changing the environment of my 5th grade classroom but don’t feel the support from my admin in doing so. I am hopeful that they’ll be funding available some day to make flexible seating possible!


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