The World as a Flexible Learning Space

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed.” (Pico Iyer, Writer and Essayist)


Those familiar with Iyer’s sentiment will know that he also believes that we travel to “become young fools again”. The desire to embrace this conceivably unwelcome state – that of being young and foolish – derives from the understanding that experiencing the world anew, in all its challenging, unfamiliar glory, leaves a powerful impression that is felt on fewer occasions the older we become. Eye-opening ‘Aha’ moments when standing at the gates to another era, the feeling of communicating in a language that’s not our own, the natural learning cycle of immediate or concrete experiences leading to observations and reflections – there is no denying that our understanding of ourselves and others expands through experiential practice.


We know this for the students we teach as well. As facilitators of learning, teachers are aware that effective education doesn’t just occur within a classroom’s walls, through interaction with a screen or within the boundaries of school grounds. Of course, we continue to enrich our classroom lessons with stories, we utilise online programs to view, interact with and appreciate other worlds and we invite guest speakers to meet our students and share stories about realities that students may not have considered. For the most part, we’re ticking all the boxes, implementing the key ideologies and functioning within a dynamic environment where the term ‘flexible’ has become a mantra for all that we do, from our assessment to our presentation techniques and the spaces within which we teach.


School leaders thoughtfully evaluate the built environment and its capacity to provide engaging, adaptable learning spaces. A flexible learning environment isn’t a new concept in education, though it’s most often considered in the scope of the school classroom environment. A space outside of a school – an historical site, a museum or library, a river, a jungle, a busy marketplace or a Broadway performance space – is also a dynamic learning environment that fundamentally changes the way students and teachers consider themselves and their place in the world.


When we begin to consider the world as a flexible learning environment, one that is open and adaptable and includes a range of areas conducive to individual learning, collaborative learning and small group work, we recognise our students as being global citizens. There are a variety of influential ways by which we already connect our students to this world; however, in line with D.A Kolb’s research on Experiential Learning Theory, offering a rich and diverse variety of learning spaces for our students to interpret allows them to “adopt new ways of thinking, acting and relating in the world.”


Additionally, a mindful connection with an unfamiliar culture “has the potential to change [students’] worldview, provide a new perspective on their course of study, and yield a network of mind-expanding relationships.”


In relation to powerful experiential learning opportunities, the notion of making a journey outside of a school environment may seem unattainable for some educational facilities for a variety of reasons, most generally associated with cost. This needn’t be the case, as programs can be developed ranging from day excursions within the towns and cities in which individual schools are located, to multi-week national and international tours. Local historical and cultural sites are sometimes overlooked, despite providing interactive and affordable opportunities for experiential learning.


Carefully developed, personalised and curriculum-linked tours within Australia and overseas recognise that education is holistic and, like Kolb notes, reveals that the organising school’s “goal of education is not solely cognitive knowledge of the facts, but also includes development of social and emotional maturity… Rather than acquiring generalised knowledge stripped of any context, learning is situated to the [student’s] life setting and life path.” Australian schools are accessing a wealth of ‘backyard’ learning experiences through History, Science and Geography Tours to sites such as Ubirr in Kakadu National Park, where students experience Aboriginal rock art up to 20, 000 years old, and the Great Barrier Reef, where studies of marine life and coastal rainforests support curriculum.


Performing Arts and STEM tours to the United States are becoming increasingly popular as schools seek to support students in becoming conscious, confident and creative individuals who take balanced risks and reflect on their experiences as global citizens. Melbourne Girls Grammar School returned from a U.S STEM tour in April this year that saw students take part in a simulated space mission and attend collaborative Flights of Innovation workshops, among their many experiential learning activities. Language and History tours to Europe are broadening the experiences of Australian students who have the opportunity to live a past they may only have read about or viewed on a screen.  French Revolution Tours in Paris, Literature Tours of Italy and England and tours of the Western Front are only a small number of tours available to Australian schools.


Positioning the student ‘in the picture’ allows for rich experiential learning that encourages student inquiry, a deepening retention of factual information and the social and emotional development of individuals.


For schools, one of the most significant impacts of supporting groups in journeying outside of the classroom into the most flexible learning environment of all – the world at large – is on the school community itself. Students and teachers typically return having experienced a transformation of self that prompts a renewed approach to their studies and work, the development of stronger critical-thinking skills, a more constructive relationship with others and an appreciation for the roles they play in society. In essence, a relatively short trip can yield powerful personal growth opportunities that lead to students and teachers interacting supportively and progressively within their school community.


The vast potential of utilising the world as a flexible learning space can be observed in student reflections on overseas educational tour experiences. A Melbourne Girls Grammar School student reflected that one of the most positive outcomes of travelling to the U.S on the STEM tour was “being able to do things for myself and be independent – being trusted to organise myself and my belongings.” She notes that she also “liked the fact that [she] recognised so many more people after the trip (including teachers) and made friends with people that [she] would not have had the chance to meet with or talk to during school.” Another student notes that attending the Journey to Mars program changed her view on space travel and women’s role in science.  The potency of learning discoveries such as these will have an ongoing impact for students and schools alike.


The world is a classroom containing all of the resources necessary to develop and present enriching experiential learning opportunities for students who need to connect with worlds outside of their homes, school boundaries and screens. In participating in resonant social, cultural and political lessons, the whole school community continues to grow as balanced and flexible 21st Century learners and educators.

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