In the classroom: Planning your learning spaces

Written by: Mel Shute | Published:
Spaced out: Pupils and staff at work in the new classroom at Trumpington Park Primary School which has been transformed in collaboration with the Planning Learning Spaces project (Images: Planning Learning Spaces)

How can we transform traditional classroom spaces to achieve more personalised learning? Headteacher Mel Shute describes her school’s involvement in the Planning Learning Spaces in Practice project

How does a school translate its educational vision into the design of its learning spaces? How do we ensure that learning spaces match the school’s ethos and enable the successful delivery of vision?

Is it through pedagogy? Classroom layout? The choice of furniture, fixtures and equipment? All the above? And most importantly, would this “hands-on” approach to creating our own learning environment produce quantifiably improved learning outcomes?

The background

These are the questions that we have been exploring at Trumpington Park Primary School in Cambridge. Two years ago, we were invited to take part in an international pilot of Planning Learning Spaces in Practice (PLSiP), an approach to learning space design which aligns physical learning environments with a school’s educational vision, while also supporting personalised and independent learning.

The book Planning Learning Spaces (Hudson & White, 2019) brought together expert contributors from across the spectrum of education, architecture, design and furniture, fittings and equipment with the aim of inspiring the design of more effective learning spaces.

To support this, PLSiP was launched 12 months later to help schools translate their educational vision into learning space design principles, enabling them to create new or refurbish existing spaces that actively support learning goals.

Trumpington Park Primary

We are passionate about exploring the potential of “learning by enquiry” – essentially giving children more freedom and responsibility to organise their own learning.

Ours is a new school, having opened in September 2017. This means that not all classrooms are in use yet and so by joining the pilot project we had the opportunity to develop our learning spaces in alignment with our educational vision.

While we want to emphasise collaboration and ownership of learning, this can sometimes feel restricted by the furniture and fixed features of a space, which make it harder for children to be able to do some of the things we feel are fundamental in their learning.

We had the standardised classrooms (approximately 55 square metres for up to 30 children) in which to work and wanted innovative and cost-effective ways to transform these spaces.

Using the PLSiP Design Framework, we started with our vision, values and ethos and looked at those in terms of what we wanted to achieve in our teaching and learning. We then assessed the constraints of the current classrooms in this context.

A series of six workshops covering pedagogy, curriculum experience, organisation of learning, leadership of learning, and community engagement were held with the PLSiP team to define our ambition.

From there, we were encouraged to identify the practice, learning behaviours and activities we hoped to see in the new spaces, considering how we would overcome potential challenges and what this might look like in terms of space and design.

From all this, the PLSiP team developed a design brief that considered the learning activities and different zones that would be required.

What we changed

We chose to work in a year 4 classroom. It was intentionally zoned with specific areas to provide a variety of both independent and collaborative opportunities. We now have a range of desk seating which the children choose from session to session. This includes triangular tables which can be moved easily to create different groupings or a space for independence. These have write-on and wipe-off surfaces for sharing strategies, knowledge and to try-out ideas. We also have higher working desk areas for those who prefer to sit on a stool or stand at a desk and again these can be organised to maximise collaboration.

Elsewhere, we have round tables for guided groups to work with an adult and also a circular table which can flip into a shared whiteboard group thinking area. At the back of the class, we have a fake grass area with beanbags and many children like to utilise these when grappling with particularly complicated concepts or when brainstorming or researching. We also have a write-on wall surface for the children to collect key ideas, questions and vocabulary, which can then be shared with the whole class.

The impact

With social distancing in place during the pilot period (spring and summer term 2021), the year 4 pupils were more separated than we would have liked, especially bearing in mind that one of our key values and drivers for the space is collaboration!

However, we could see that having a high level of flexibility around the organisation of a space had a huge impact on the way in which teaching and learning happens there.

Pupils showed real thought about the areas of the classroom they choose to work in for different lessons, which led to more concentration, collaboration and independence.

The children showed more ownership over their learning, having the freedom to select and use the varied resources and areas to improve their own learning as well as assisting the learning of others as appropriate.

We wanted to embed the vision of children taking more ownership of their own learning, supporting each other and working together to strengthen understanding.

We also wanted to look at our own planning process for subjects like history and ensure that the children were taught high level knowledge and rich vocabulary but in a more child-inclusive fashion – allowing chances for the enquiry and research to come from the children rather than the teacher.

The space no longer restricts the variety of grouping methods, so a teacher is free to completely vary the structures in each lesson and focus on student engagement, ownership and focused learning.


Professor Peter Barrett, author of the 2015 Clever Classrooms report, monitored the PLSiP project to see how the learning outcomes of pupils were affected by this “hands-on” approach.

The assessment is due to be published in February, but the key finding has been that in comparison with the other classes, the children in the PLSiP classroom rapidly regained ground lost due to Covid and ended up ahead of where they were with age-adjusted assessments the previous year (Barrett, 2022).

The teachers in the PLSiP classroom noted that there was improved concentration, increased independent learning, more engagement with curriculum content, more pupil dialogue and peer-to-peer learning.

Specific comments from Prof Barrett’s report include:

  • The ability to independently choose groups led to reduced conflict, promoted independent learning, and children’s ownership within the process was more developed.
  • The write-on surfaces and shape of the tables allowed more pupil dialogue and peer-to-peer learning talk, changing the balance between teacher talk and pupil dialogue.
  • The pupil-led lesson structure has meant more engagement with curriculum content. Children are enquiring into their own interest areas and asking thought-provoking questions.
  • Children are, at times, more able to provide help, support and challenge for each other.
  • The furniture enables a much more flexible classroom and variety of teaching methods. As the tables move easily, no time is wasted reorganising spaces.

What did the pupils think?

The pupils had positive thoughts about their new learning spaces, feeling “more free”, and enjoying being able to work closely with peers and learning from each other. They appreciated the choice of different zones to work in and the variety of table and seating options.

Prof Barrett wrote: “The Planning Learning Spaces process has without doubt led to a transformation in the appearance of the year 4 learning environment. But, much more importantly, it is underpinned by a re-evaluation of the pedagogy and teaching practice to align more directly with the declared ethos of the school. There is good evidence that the project has had a positive impact from the perspectives of the pupils and of the staff.”

Where next?

Trumpington Park is now moving into a “Strategy for Change” phase where we will examine opportunities to embed the gains achieved via our engagement with PLSiP. This includes teaching pupils in this year’s year 4 class to use the space within the first term of this academic year. We then plan to take the same principles into two other classrooms, slowly influencing more of key stage 2.

Elsewhere, we are working with the team on designing a purposeful space which will enable all those subject areas which are trickier to support in a class to be easily taught and accessed, such as areas of design technology, computing and robotics and art.

We are in the process of designing a Maker Space studio area to encompass the key principles of our vision around students driving the learning process, working collaboratively to achieve a common goal, building resilience and problem-solving, and taking the full ownership of gaining knowledge and applying this to further their learning.

We have a small working group looking at undertaking the same process and change an empty classroom into more of a studio concept to make it easier to incorporate subject areas which may need more equipment/setting up considerations.

Conclusions and reflections

When we look at a classroom, we often take it as it is, particularly in a new build school. But this project has really forced our hand to look at that space in a very different way and this has been refreshing.

The whole process is suitable for schools looking to repurpose old spaces, or for those designing new buildings, and helps to ensure a successful transition into these purpose-designed learning spaces. It brought a chance to go back to our values and for us this was a critical component.

We are on a journey and this is not smooth, but from the children’s perspective this project has brought ownership and a sense of value to their own learning. We have seen, once again, how pupil voice is an effective way to improve learning. We look forward to continuing this project, establishing this in other year groups and involving more teachers.

  • Mel Shute is headteacher at Trumpington Park Primary School in Cambridge, part of Cambridge Primary Education Trust.

Further information & resources

  • Barrett et al: Clever Classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) project, University of Salford, February 2015:
  • Barrett: Planning learning spaces in practice: A summary of an investigation into the relationship between pedagogy and space, Expected February 2022.
  • Hudson & White: Planning Learning Spaces, Laurence King Publishing, October 2019.
  • Planning Learning Spaces:

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