Episode 9: Talking flexible learning spaces with Aashna Khurana

In this conversation Aashna talks with me about flexible learning spaces and creating making within and outside our school building..

Resources from this episode

BaLa Manual

Project Report

Transcript of this episode


spaces, , universal design, content, udl, learning environments.


Aashna Khurana, Margaret Flood

Margaret Flood  00:00

Welcome to talking about all things inclusion, a podcast where I get to meet and learn from people in the field of inclusion in its broadest sense that inspire me. I hope they’ll inspire you to. Today I’m talking to Ashna, who is a PhD student at Lynch School of Education Boston College. She is from India and has worked as a research associate at a profit Education Foundation, where she developed inclusive large scale assessments and contributes to projects to curriculum design, promoting life skills for si WDS. Currently, she is a co chair of site UDL sake, and a steering group of include the international Collaboratory for leadership in universally designed education. Ashna we met on our first day in Boston College and soon found we have much to talk about. One of the areas you focus on, which is not often focused on is flexible learning spaces. And we had great conversations about your vision for inclusive learning environments. And that is why I’m so delighted to be chatting with you today about that work and what is happening in that area.

Aashna Khurana  01:04

Thank you so much,Mags. I’m really delighted to be here. And I really look forward to this conversation with you.

Margaret Flood  01:11

Thanks, Asha. Ashna, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what it is that has inspired you to explore this concept of flexible learning spaces?

Aashna Khurana  01:23

Yeah, sure. So much, honestly, for me, it all began in 2017, when I was doing my master’s in special education, that I had to choose a topic for my thesis. And that is when I came across Universal Design for Learning Framework and prepared a teacher training module to train language teachers and seeing the effect of the training and their knowledge and, and their skills as well as their students achievement. Although the difference of the study was significant, I always felt that something is missing there, and you just can’t train the teachers in implementing UDL. And that magic will happen. And you will start seeing that the learners are learning in a better way, or they are showing significant improvement in their results. So I always knew something more can be done. And, and that is something that I’m not able to see clearly right now. And then in 2018, I attended a conference on inclusive education, this was in India. And that is where I attended a presentation on building as learning aid. So this was presented by a group of architects who designed the learning spaces by looking at the content and the change the entire school infrastructure. So that at that moment, it all just resonated. So bear with me and later I got an opportunity to write a chapter on a book on it the international perspective on Universal Design for Learning in which I underscored the importance of flexible learning environment. The thing is that the school buildings have traditionally been conceived and created merely as brick and mortar structures to house education activities, the interface between the building design and the design of Teaching and Learning programmes has never received much attention or has received scant attention and that is possibly that is what that is possibility of using the physical spaces as a learning resource has not been explored much. And so that is how I feel that this check on building as learning aid or which is popularly known as powerline, India, is all about developing school spaces, the classrooms, the floors, the walls, windows, pillars in the schools, and their corridors, the outdoor spaces and the natural, the natural environment. All of these are turned into the learning spaces, which were earlier just the physical space in the school building, so not just these learning resource. So these are not just a learning resources, but flexible learning environments that are inclusive, as well as child child friendly. And so I believe that children should be encouraged to use school spaces to learn through an activity based approach and of discovery exploration which is mandated under so many laws and so many apps policies and schemes. And what it will do is that it will reinforce their observation skills, but involving multiple senses, in the learning process, it will facilitate understanding of the abstract notions through concrete examples available from the school environment, and also develop in children respect for the nature and the environment. So it is also equally important for this that the teachers also are supported parents as well as the educational officials that work together to create these flexible learning spaces. And these flexible learning spaces need to be complemented by good management and maintenance of those old manuals for the school facilities and to provide parents barrier free access to all children without any kind of discrimination. So so this was this whole idea about creating the flexible learning spaces and and I believe that we need to fold wasn’t providing opportunities to promote equity through school design and use. And the primary reason behind it is that if you remember about Bronfenbrenner ecological systems theory, it clearly says that under child’s microsystems School is one of the core places where the maximum learning is happening. So promoting equity will require giving child irrespective of his or her background, the ability to use every feature of the school environment, then, easily and freely without any fears on integrations, then school should also focus on reflecting the the local context, the local flavour of the culture that it supports the language and also the use of local resources, which are more relatable for children. So, if you are creating a flexible learning space, you do have to take into account the language that is spoken in that area, the kinds of contexts they have the kinds of resources that are available in their society, the their own culture, as well as practices, so that the learning or the experiences that their students are getting are more relatable, and they are more meaningful for them. Throughout talking specifically about this,

Aashna Khurana  06:16

this project building as learning aid, and my experience with it was when I was writing this chapter, in the book, I was asked to visit the school to take some pictures. And when I visited this school, so this group of architects led by Kabir swatch by who is the head of that organisation Vilnius who develop these schools. When I went to this school, I was amazed to see the work done by him and his team. And I observed that the windows and window cleaners were designed for children to practice prewriting skills. So usually what we have in our classrooms is that the windows would be the window grade would be either vertical or horizontal, and they are just plain straight grades. However, in this school, they were curved, they were in zigzag pattern, and so that children could trace their fingers on it, and that helped in improving their prewriting skills, then the floor had a range of angles marked under a door to the explain the concept of angles, then the ceiling fan was painted with different colours. And so so when the fan was turned on, children could see different formations, different colours, different patterns. So that was quite fascinating to see, to be honest. And then if you step up to this was within that classroom, but you when you go out of the classroom, in the open space, there is a flagpole. And that flagpole was used as a Sunday to see the moving shadow. And so that space was used by teachers and students to measure the time, then there was a mystery wall in the school compound, which was just an open space that can be used in any way the teachers and the students wanted to use it. Then, in the playground, again, there was the Solar System painted on the floor, and a group of teachers and a student was sitting there, they were talking about the movement of planets around the sun. And then if you go to the corridor, there were pillars, pillars that support the ceiling. So those pillars were used to depict different cycles. So what a cycle was depicted on one of them, life cycle of a frog life cycle of a butterfly was depicted in in the other pillars. So this, this is also allowing allowing children to move out of the classrooms, and explore different spaces in the school. So that learning is not just limited to the four walls of the classroom, it is happening beyond the classroom and in different spaces that are there in the school. So the point that is worth noting here is that why are we limiting the teaching learning experiences just to the classroom, and especially when we claim that school, which is the institution that offers education, so, why are the other spaces in the school not being used to, to provide learning experiences to the children. So, and especially when we are seeing that, like I said, school is the institution so we are not seeing that classroom is the place where teaching and learning should be happened. So it is about the entire school building. And so but in reality, we only teach in the classrooms and corridors are used just as like the passages to go from one room to another, and playgrounds are used just to play then labs are used for further experimentation and that tool. Every lab has a specific purpose in the school. So and the sounds honestly took very compartmentalised to me like every part of the school every room has a specific function that it is serving and it is used only for that particular function. So where is the creativity here? Where is where are we talking about exploration, critical thinking and when we talk about Universal Design for Learning we say that we are focusing on creating expert learners then how are this? How is this current system of education where every room has a specific function is actually addressing the Universal Design for Learning? And how are we creating expert expert learners when we are not mixing up anything we are, and we are just focusing on teaching within those four walls of the classroom, and nothing is interlinked. So, so So that is, was that is something that was very thought provoking, thought provoking for me. And that is how I started working more into the physical spaces and understanding how we can create flexible learning environments.

Margaret Flood  10:43

And spaces is so, so important. And also that that sensory aspect that you touched upon, just using our senses, within the environment to support access and engagement in our learning, could you talk a little bit more about that part of using the senses, and you gave some really good examples of moving outside the classroom. But I just suppose for our listeners to be able to get a little bit of a visual, could you just give us one, maybe one example of how we could use those multiple senses in a flexible learning space


Absolutely. So, so before we talk about that, I think it is very important for us to understand how children learn. So as teachers, I remember when I was doing my bachelor’s in education, and master’s in education we were taught, we were told that, as teachers, we need to understand that children learn better when you link the new content to their past experiences, then, also, when you allow children to construct their own knowledge rather than spoon feeding them, which is constructivism, then provide them multi sensory experiences. So learning is not limited to the four walls of the classroom, it is happening all the time, like I said, within the classroom, in the playground corridor everywhere, it is also spiral in nature. And that is so because the brain does not stop functioning once the child is out of the classroom. So and they also learn by interacting with their peers with teachers, we need to provide opportunities for cooperative learning as well. But unfortunately, this practice is only limited to the classroom. And like I said, it has to go beyond the classroom. So I’ll give you an example that will link all of this together, providing multi sensory experiences within the classroom and beyond it and how different spaces can be used, and to teach your concept. So like I said, there could be so much that can be done with the school building, for example, to teach about numbers, you can make a number line in the hallway, the corridor, the passage of the passage right outside the classrooms, and you can take students there to explore. And then you can also use the playground, you can maybe draw, make a hopscotch game there, and you can ask them to jump and then play that game. So that is way. So that is how you are doing the same number of concepts in the playground, you are doing the same number concept outside the classroom in the corridor using the number line, then you’re using hopscotch game. And then you can also use to stay a case. So you’re using three different spaces in the school building. And you are teaching that same number concept in different ways. So that is also promoting generalisation of the concept of the topic that has been taught. And then that will also allow children to explore different spaces to have more concrete learning experiences. And they will also be applying the same knowledge in different contexts. Similarly, if you say are teaching about angles, a teacher may use the floor. And I guess, like I gave you the example in the beginning of the door angle where the angles are drawn on the floor, and then you just open the door at a certain angle and students have to read at what angle the door is opened. Another way to teach that is take the students out to the playground, if you have a basketball coat there, you can use that coat because there are different shapes drawn in the basketball court, there is a semicircle there is a rectangle. So you can ask students to measure the angle there, maybe you can also talk about symmetry over there. So those are like a couple of ideas that can be incorporated. Then if you’re talking about say another topic on area and perimeter, so if the school has Lawn Tennis fists or lawn tennis court or badminton court, so the Netcat net can be used to teach them about perimeter and area because the net is designed in a grid form. So topics like area perimeter, they can be easily covered there. And you are again taking the students out of the classroom to the playground, you can do that same concept in the classroom as well. You can use the board the smart board or Blackboard green board, whatever board you’re using to teach it and then you can Want to take them out of the classroom to teach the same concept that again for say language, we anyway use word vaults. That is, again, using the books, grid infrastructure, as well as merging the content in that physical space to make that a more meaningful and enriching learning space in the school infrastructure. So yeah, so that’s all making use of school designing, building to make learning fun and more realistic for the students and national community

Margaret Flood  15:29

The building as learning aids project that you talked about, that the architect, the architects have to read the curriculum specifications wasn’t that you’re going portal Asli, and just throwing up anything, that if this flexible learning spaces is about actually thinking about the the curriculum, or the subjects that are being taught in that classroom, or as you said, that can be extended out into the yard or into the corridors. And I know when we talked about this in the past, we did talk about so like not every teacher is going to have an architect who can come in and help them design this. And you’ve already said that the teachers need the supports here in the parents needs to be supported here. How What recommendations would you give to teachers? And is there anything you took from that Indian project with the architects, that community relations to a teacher who is not an architect?

Aashna Khurana  16:29

Right? So yeah, so as you you correctly mentioned that this project was carried out by a group of architects who studied the school curriculum, and then they decided what content will go at what physical space, so it was completely their imagination, their creativity. One thing to note here is that this project was a very cost effective project, it did not involve use of any high, high tech aid. So it was purely about using the available resources and putting them to use. So I think when a teacher like you and me, when we are doing that in the classroom, I think it is very important first to have a good understanding of the content. So what we are going to teach, and then think about different ways we can teach it. So one has to be very creative as well in the sense how you can use different spaces and to teach that particular concept within that within the classroom, and then how you will put that into use outside the classroom. So you have to think about different contexts. And so just as an example, so if we are teaching about, say, a science topic, about safe plants, and different types of plants that are there. So while teaching them about the plants, the different kinds of plants that are there, say you’re talking about her shrubs, peepers, you might be showing a presentation, and then take the students out to the, to the garden, and then show them all of those plants that are there in this school, ask them to identify them, ask them to name them. So that is how it can be incorporated in the real school environment. So first, the understanding of the content is very important, then the teachers need to be creative, and use whatever material is available in their school building or in their local area.

Margaret Flood  18:21

Super national, like another part of the flexible learning spaces is actually that physical environment of where students are sitting or how students are expected to be positioned when they’re learning. And I know again, we we talked about, you know the rows of chairs in classrooms, and you have really interesting ideas about kind of that physicality, forgetting about the content, but even setting up the space that is welcoming and accessible to all learners.

Aashna Khurana  18:53

Right. Yeah. So first, it depends on the kind of lesson that you are taking, you just cannot have like a linear, one desk arrange right after the other for every single lesson, sometimes you will have to have group activities, sometimes you will have to have different seating arrangement for the students. So I think it is very important to explore that and not always focus on one kind of seating arrangement. Sometimes you will have to take the students out of the classroom, you’ll have to focus on making groups of students sometimes you’ll have to ask them to make a sit them in circles, sometimes just in a straight line. So all of those spaces and all of those seating arrangements also need to be explored so that they are accessible to all the students and they can be modified according to the activity that is going on in the classroom and that is also relevant to the content. So if you are having any sort of discussions, having small groups and then the floor time can be incorporated, their students can be asked to sit on the carpet, have that discussion within their groups. Then if there’s a any activity that requires movement from one place to another. So I remember when I went to the school, there were measuring board, the students were asked to measure their heights, students were standing in a line, there was a group of four or five students, they were standing in the line, once one was coming, and the other one was just marking the height of the student, then the next one was coming, then he was marking the height of the other student, third one came, fourth one came, and then they were looking at the chart together, and seeing which student is the tallest, and by how many inches or how many centimetres, the other one is taller. So it all depends on. So there is no I would say one size fits all your like one approach to seating arrangement, but it has to be according to the activity that that you are doing. So so that needs to be kept in mind.

Margaret Flood  20:48

Yeah, and I thought you actually brought up floor time and actually removing the chair. Because again, it doesn’t have to be about just moving your desks and your chairs into different positions, it can be just getting rid of them having been by a standing. And again, we all learn differently. Even when you and I are in the office together, when I start fidgeting, you have to leave because you like your quiet space. differently. Teachers working around that, you know, they have like 20 students in the classroom. We all learn differently. And we engage differently. I mean, you learn I fish a lot when I’m thinking.

Aashna Khurana  21:33

Yes, yes, I know. Yeah. And also give you another example of this abusing this physical space. And so my issue with the teaching sometimes is that why are we only focusing on those traditional ways like sitting in the classroom, on those same desks and the teacher is constantly speaking, students are listening. So there’s another idea to approach it. This is again, something that I explore I observed in this school. So this was a history lesson that was going on. And the teacher was making use of the corridors. So what she had done was she took there were 25 students in the class, she took all of them out to the corridor. And on each side of the each side, there were some posters that were there, they were talking about the Indian independence. So the timeline of the Indian independence was depicted on those on the walls of the corridor. And the students were moving from one poster to another discussing about what events took place in in which year and then how that was linked to the other movement that was happening in a different part of the country. So that way, like in for this specific example, I would say there was no seating arrangement, there was no desks involved, there was no setting inside the classroom that was there, it was happening in the corridor in the hallway, where students are just observing different posters that the teacher has put on the wall. So this was more like a, like a visit to the museum, more like a gallery walk that you are just going you’re observing and you’re talking about things. So, it was such an informal way of teaching and very discussion oriented way of teaching, all the students were engaged in the discussion. So that is, and that is what authentic learning is all about. So you have to when we when Universal Design for Learning talks about multiple means of presentation, action, expression, engagement, this is what true UDL and true sense is that you are focusing on the textbook, you are providing learning material, then you are also using different spaces, you are using different approaches to depict that content. As this in this particular case, the teacher is using posters and having this can leave of activity. So and then, after this, they were again taken back to the classroom, they saw the videos on different movements. So I mean, it’s all multiple means multi sensory approach that was being followed, and it was very UDL in nature. So so so this is, that’s one thing that having a flexible learning spaces does not just mean changing the like moving out of the classroom and studying in a different space. But it is all about integration of all the spaces how you can teach this teach one concept in different spaces and how you can generalise that how you can follow that spiral approach of learning that you are constantly revisiting the same content, but in different situations.

Margaret Flood  24:33

Yeah. And what’s the example their rationale is that for schools where they don’t have access to museums or stuff like that, that gallery walk is bringing that museum experience to them. Yeah. versus having to experience it today.

Aashna Khurana  24:53

Yeah, exactly. And recently, I was reading this book by Deborah Meyer. It’s called in school speech. Last, and the book is also talking about a similar thing. So I just noticed we just focused on Universal Design for Learning, then creating flexible learning spaces, but using the physical space to debate the content. However, this book was talking more about the social emotional side of it. So in this book, she focused on community, she focused on building, trusting and trustworthy school community to help children to have children learn in more efficient and natural ways. So this focuses on building communities of learning amongst different stakeholders like teachers, parents, school management, or learners. And one idea that stuck with me in is where she talks about the shared spaces in the mission Hill School in Boston, they’re in the hallways. So now you see how this would be linked. Right now we were talking about hallways, as a place of teaching. But now she’s saying that we’re in this hallways of this permission and permission Hill School, the hallways, in the lobbies of the school are like marketplaces where gossip is exchanged, workers displayed and birthdays taken note of, and children and adults, they exchange their ideas so that it can so it is more like an open corridor of goods and services, goods and ideas, which people across ages are sharing. And they are coming there, they’re having different discussions, they’re sharing their insights, their thoughts, their ideas. So so that is what I’m saying, like I say, use all the spaces all the time, and do not keep it limited to a particular period of teaching. So it can be used to have discussions, it can be used to have, like sharing ideas, it can be used to teach a particular concept. So an most important aspect of it is that you need to focus on interactions between teachers and students, and then peer interaction as well. Because learning is not just happening, when the content is being delivered. It has to be done in a way that students and teachers are interacting the and then there’s also peer interaction, so everybody can support each other’s learning.

Margaret Flood  27:12

Yeah. And Ashley, I know that your PhD work is on assessment in for students. And I’m just wondering, where assessment can support teachers in designing their physical spaces for students as well it like is it going to help them set a basis like getting to learn how their students learn best is that the approach you’re kind of thinking?

Aashna Khurana  27:38

I think when we’re talking about assessment, we also need to keep in mind that when we are saying that teaching needs to be done in an authentic way, then assessments also need to be authentic in nature, you cannot have a paper based assessment for students when you are teaching them through multi sensory approach. So I think when we are designing assessments, we also need to keep in mind different approaches that we are following while teaching that concept, or the topics that are being covered in the assessment. So while designing the assessment, focus on multiple modalities, multiple ways how students can express their learning, then, if it can be expressed in different physical spaces, that would be amazing. Like, you can just have like a discussion there, like in one space, how a particular ideas link into to a particular concept and how it can be implemented in a different learning space to meet. So yeah, so I think authentic assessment also needs to be designed. And it should link to the authentic instruction part of it. no small task. no small task. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And

Margaret Flood  28:57

I also know that you’re involved in include and you do a cut you do a couple of different things include and in the slide UDL SIG, are you bringing them concept of the flexible learning spaces into those positions as well? Honestly,

Aashna Khurana  29:16

not right now. Because include focuses more on higher education. And so we are not really focusing on the physical aspects of the physical environment right


now. However, when I

Aashna Khurana  29:29

challenge chairing the Universal Design for Learning set for sight, I do keep on posting content, but again, nothing is very specific to learning spaces right now. And it is more about different conferences that are happening but right now I haven’t looked at the integration of physical learning spaces are flexible learning environment, with include or with universal design for learning, because the purpose of these two institutions is very different right now. St. Louis for because I’m on higher education, and more to work more on the leadership side of it. So some learning spaces is not taken into account as of now. But on the website, we do have the, the tab that has some ideas on physical spaces. So we do put the content related to physical spaces there, how the learning environments can become more inclusive and flexible. But the but there is no work that has been done on the physical learning flexible learning spaces right now. And in

Margaret Flood  30:33

actual fact, even though the concept has been around for a long, long time, I remember reading the book, the third teacher, many, many years ago, but in fact, there’s very little written or available out there.

Aashna Khurana  30:50

The I agree. So like I said, In the beginning, this whole area of flexible learning spaces is not been explored well. So because most of the times when we talk about the factors that might not be good, like reasons behind not having good results, so always the teachers and the students are being blamed or third element that is blamed is the curriculum. Nobody talks about the physical space, like the way it has been delivered? And are you actually making the learning experience more authentic for the students or not? So I think that is why these linkages have never been made with respect to the learning environment, the learning space, and learning achievement of the students or the content. So So I guess this area needs some attention, and some sort of research as well. So that we can actually think of making the entire school system more inclusive and not just focus on inclusive instruction or inclusive assessment. So the entire school system, the school infrastructure needs to be inclusive, so as to have, like, more inclusive learning experiences for our students.

Margaret Flood  32:10

Yeah. Which Which brings me to a question that I asked all of my guests. We’ve already said, there’s limited reading out there. But can you direct us to any readings or resources for further independent learning that we could be doing based on this conversation today.

Aashna Khurana  32:28

So I haven’t come across many books on this. But I, so one book that I just mentioned was in school speech was by Deborah Meyer. So this is one book, which is a good read, I would say talks about creating communities of learning, and that we’re in the era of testing and standardisation, which is very relevant in today’s time. And this is talking more about the, like I said earlier, social emotional side of it, or not on the physical spaces that much. But if you want to know more about the physical spaces, I would say, read this report by author on building as learning aid. And it’s teacher’s manual, because the report talks about how this project came into existence. And the manual is like the teacher’s guide of how to create lessons which are, which would use different spaces in this school. So I guess these are two resources that I would recommend our listeners to read so that they understand what exactly this flexible learning spaces mean, and how they can be created in their in different school environments. And one very interesting thing to note here is that as this project was carried out in India, India is a country which has no resources and has overcrowded classrooms. If this can work well in India, then I guess it can work well in many different parts of the world. Because it does not require very high technology or very high tech resources. It is something that has been taken from the society from the local area, and it is very close to what students experience in their life. So that’s I think this project is really powerful that way, and is very impactful.

Margaret Flood  34:16

Absolutely. I’ll put both with resources into the transcript ashleigh. And what might be nice is to also put in a link to the book where your chapter is as well. Sure, yeah, sure. Even Even if there’s a presentation that you’ve recorded that we could share, that will be really just because there’s so little in this area Ashna before we finish up, say do you have any final words that you would like to share with everyone

Aashna Khurana  34:44

final votes would be to this message would be to all the teachers that be more creative, be the Picasso’s of the classroom and paint the classrooms in different ways, not just the classroom but the school building. For that you To provide meaningful learning experiences to the students.

Margaret Flood  35:03

That is brilliant Asha, you’ve, you’ve seen my Picasso attempts they weren’t very good. But that is a fantastic challenge for teachers and educators out there. On that note, I will say goodbye to everyone and thank you so much for joining myself and Ashna for talking about all things inclusion, and I hope that you will join me again soon. Thank you again Ashna for sharing with us today.

Aashna Khurana

You’re welcome.

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