Learner led learning space makeovers

header collage of learmning spaces link to UCJC link to SEK International schools

this is a narrative resulting from three learner-space conversions across a three year research period, in 3 SEK schools, 2012 - 2015


This project was with three SEK international schools in Spain.
T he research was led from the Universidad Camilo José Cela in Madrid.
The project ran over three years, 2012 - 2015

why we did it

Asking learners to reflect on how their learning might be better, whether or not it is already good, offers a number of gains, including:

what we did

This was a three year project, led from UCJC in Madrid and based in three SEK schools (see below)

Each school was unique. But in each case the students, guided and supported by their teachers, were asked to make their learning spaces better (cue debate about what "better" meant of course). They looked at the work done by other students elsewhere, explored examples from places like Pinterest, they Skyped to other students and read quite a lot of material.

Their detailed research in every case was the starting point for their makeovers, which were budget limited. The project ran across three years which were effectively:

The students' views and the progress of their learning spaces were captured throughout.

Importantly, it simply isn't enough to build these spaces; how they are used, the protocols and pedagogy, all matter a lot. The learners found it helpful to produce guides to users and there are some examples linked from here.

the three schools:

In each case we would like to thank the school leaders and the school teachers for their initial patience, then their hard work, and finally their unequivocal support.

SEK El Castillo

overview: the school is in Madrid alongside UCJC, the students began the project aged around 11 and by the time it had ended were around 14 years. The school was a radical design from 1973. It was a visionary space, open aspects, breakout rooms, a resource hub in the centre and more. But the upstairs part the students were researching was really quite dark, had a lot of (very 1970s!) orange glass and there were other issues too.

finished learning space

The students measured sound and light and more. They started their transformation by zoning the space for different learning activities, they asked for the light levels to be significantly improved - some of that was done by clearing the windows completely, some by fresh bright paint, some by replacing the orange glass.

See the images linked below for details but the students' researched design included these key features:

  • very clear zoning - with instruction for the functioning of each zone
  • a standing "bar" which also featured high stools
  • a student designed, school facilities team built, circular family learning table (see below) with a rotating centre
  • low level writeable surfaces
  • multiple points of focus characterised by flat panel screens including one very large screen
  • very much better light levels

other resources:

a starView more images from El Castillo with descriptions

measuring sound levels everywhere - here on the noisy stairwell to perfect a quiet way to walk inthe stairs

their very neat rotating-centre table with writeable surface; the students designed this and the schools support staff built it - it proved to be very effective

the lower level writeable wall surfaces

pdf of the students' presentation (to be added shortly)


SEK Ciudalcampo

overview: the school is in Madrid, the students began the project aged around 11 and by the time it had ended were around 14 years. The space was effectively two teaching spaces - one end of the space with an IWB was notably dark and rather gloomy for Madrid. The space was narrow and long.

finished learning space

See the images linked below for more details but the students' researched design included these key features:

  • some standing desks - the variety of working heights was a strong feature
  • zoning of their space - quiet reading with low relaxed seating, shared discussion spaces, a vast (17m long) writeable surface, material strips hanging to break the eye line, better choices of colour (a lot of grey was lost!)
  • letting in more of the Madrid light
  • creating their own "home made" interactive surface - from instructions on YouTube

A particular the success of this project was the way that adjacent spaces were also changed and redeveloped as a result of the effectiveness of this slearning space. See the interview with their teacher

other resources:

View images from SEK Ciudalcampo with descriptions

a stara pdf of the students' presentation

a stara Tweet showing the succession group, presenting their fresh ideas on how they plan to move the space forward after the original group had moved on.

a starTeacher Michael van Ostran reflects on his project's 3 year journey at SEK Ciudalcampo - an informal chat between Michael and Stephen reflecting on the success of the project from a teacher's perspective. Michael recalls how unsure the starting year seemed, but how it ended so well.
"I'd go as far as to say if it's not student led, it's not worth starting"

SEK Catalunya

overview: the school is in Barcelona, the students began the project aged around 8/9 and by the time it had ended were around 11 years and at the end of their primary year. The space was challenging - it was a good size, and it had some issues with its flooring. The students had a tiny initial budget and this led to a very different approach as they prototyped their ideas and research of better learning - the used cardboard and wire and a lot of ingenuity to build a space that allowed them to role-play future learning. Interestingly the role play was itself more effective - for example in engagement - than the space they started with.

finished learning space

other resources:

a starView images from Catalunya with descriptions

The multicoloured table above is made up from individual "wedges" rather like the counters in the game Trivial Pursuit.
The table segments can simply move apart when needed.


some video conversations

At the project's close we got all three teams together (partly by Skype) and asked some of our students to compare notes - here some of them share their reflections for others following in their footsteps.


In a sentence: building better learning is complex, but it isn't difficult.

There are a lot of variables, the learners need to be authentically central to the process, with voice and vote, but this is not difficult to achieve; they want to be.

Our learners considered everything from the light and sound levels to the zoning of different learning activities, from teachers' line of sight to the places for shared presentation and celebrations. They proved to be very mature, patient, critically aware and insightful designers.

Many of the learners' solutions - starting as they did from others' effective practice but building on their own clear understanding of the context of their own learning - were very effective indeed. From furniture redesign / reuse, to the zoning of rooms to support discrete learning acivities, they posited solutions that the professionals had missed, ignored or hadn't imagined.

None of this needs to be expensive - our budgets were tight, in one case astoundingly so. However, building learning environments without the learners' research and input is hugely expensive because (a) it is so often wastefully wrong and (b) it misses the opportunity to engage learners better. Disengagement is always very expensive to repair.

Adoption and permeation of these ideas across our three institutions varied. At best different ideas from our changed spaces spread like a pedagogic virus, throughout buildings, across to other parts of the schools. At the least it became a catalyst for conversation and reflection elsewhere.

As an outcome, the community of reflective learners, children and their teachers, was for many observers as impressive as the ambitious changes they made to their learning places.

There is very much a sense of the "baton" being passed on. Other schools around the world have embraced and localised the ideas from our learners in this project and others before it. Our learners' research has been shared around the world, including some significant pesentations in London the vast annual BETT Show; their impact has been far in excess of what we planned or expected.


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this page update last on 24/11/15 5:24 by Professor Stephen Heppell, Felipe Segovia Chair of Learning Innovation, UCJC