Using archetypes to match learning spaces with physical and digital spaces.

(NOTE: The following is an article that was written for a teaching journal, after a bit of an anxious wait it was rejected – didn’t quite fit in with the focus of the edition. It’s somewhat dated now, but thought some of you might find good in it. Some of it is from older blog posts, sorry for those who’ve been reading my drivel for a while now.)

We all know that education is changing rapidly. We’ve all been to conferences where the keynote speaker shows slides depicting how vastly different the world is now to 25 years ago and how vastly different it will be in another 25 years. We know that the internet has lots of information and that the educator’s job is to support students as they wade through the mire that is the world-wide-web. So just how is this changing the physical education landscape? For many, it’s not. The traditional classroom stands tall, defying the agitating of edupunks around the world.

The traditional classroom originated in the throbbing heart of the Industrial Revolution – that was over 200 years ago. As pointed out by Nair and Fielding the ‘early 20th century school design standard (was) modelled after Henry Ford’s factory production methods’ ( . [BH1] Model T anyone? I doubt any parent would like to think that in 2011 their child was being viewed exactly the same as the child beside her/him. So why set up an environment (a visible embodiment of a teacher’s education philosophy) that fails to differentiate between human beings?

Over the last twelve months the way I view my (physical) classroom has changed significantly. These days I encourage my students to align their physical learning space with their mental learning space. I’ve been interested in the role that physical spaces play in learning since the introduction of DER and the immediate discovery that a 1-1 classroom will not function effectively with students sitting in rows facing the front of the room. However a chance encounter with the article ‘Classroom for the 21st Century’ (‘Australian Teacher Magazine’ – the ‘ICT in Education Guide 2010′)[BH2]  by Steve Collis, Director of Innovation at SCIL, gave me the impetus to think more seriously about the interplay between spaces and learning. Collis’ discussion of the ‘mythic notions of the campfire … the watering hole … and the cave’ (Collis, 2010, p.10) really grabbed my attention. I blame this on the fact that I’m an English teacher and salivate upon seeing metaphors. Inspired by what I had read, I was keen to see how I could (re)organise my classroom space to better match my students’ learning.

Collis’ ‘mythic notions’ of learning spaces were discussed back in the ’90s in an article by Prof. David D Thornburg titled ‘Campfires in Cyberspace: primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century’. In his article Thornburg identifies four ‘archetypal learning spaces’:

1.    Campfire: A place ‘where the storyteller … shared wisdom with students who, in their turn, become storytellers to the next generation.’

2.    Watering hole: A place ‘where we learn from our peers … each participant at the watering hole is both learner and teacher at the same time.’

3.    Cave: A place where learners ‘isolate themselves from others in order to gain special insights.

4.    Life: ‘The application of knowledge … is an essential component of the learning process (because) when we learn something in anticipation of its immediate use, we not only reinforce our understanding, we increase the likelihood that what we have learning will not be readily forgotten.’

These have been adapted by architects responsible for designing new educational spaces, and images of these designs can be seen on the DesignShare website:

I have had great success introducing my students to these archetypal learning spaces and helping them to learn how to match their learning space with the physical space. Like I mentioned earlier, I am a public school teacher with very limited resources, so I have to be creative and really embrace the ‘failure is the road to success’ mantra. Ultimately my students have learnt that their physical learning environment is flexible as they rearrange furniture each lesson (and often during the lesson) to ensure it meets their specific learning needs.

There has been a lot of talk in the media and in the academic world about ‘learning spaces’ in the 21st century. Often the term ‘21st century learning space’ is accompanied by images of students lounging in brightly coloured beanbags looking into the screen of a Macbook or iPad or working in groups at jellybean shaped tables. The rooms are large, flexible spaces that allow for many more than 30 students and one teacher. But the reality is that for many of us teachers – especially those of us working in a public school – these types of spaces won’t be available to us for a long time. Furthermore both teachers and students must undergo a process of un-learning and learning if they are to effectively utilise this more flexible spaces being made available. The aforementioned archetypal learning spaces metaphor can support the successful transition from traditional to 21st century learning spaces. I am a public school teacher and I have managed to transform a very traditional learning space (4 walls, a door, two windows, a whiteboard, 30 plastic chairs and 30 small desks) into a flexible 21st century learning space.

The reshaping of my room has pushed me into reshaping my pedagogy – a most desirable outcome. I am more conscious of the types of learning that are implicit in the activities I create and the outcomes I expect students to meet. Essentially I have created a space where the class can come together and discuss, present and listen (our campfire) as well as spaces for group work (watering hole) and individual work (caves).

It’s true, my students did think it was a bit odd when I started saying, ‘OK, everyone into their cave for some quiet reading!’ but after a while they just ‘got it’ and they now happily move their chairs into the campfire position for ‘story-time’, into bunches for ‘watering hole’ chats or find their own personal ‘cave’ for reflection and internalisation of knowledge. When students need to move into the ‘cave’ I allow them to listen to quiet music on their iPods, sit on the floor, sit outside in the hallway or move their tables and chairs somewhere solitary in the room.

Here’s how it’s working for my classes right now:

Year 9: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to chat about their test results and the features of ‘persuasive texts’ that they were struggling with. Then they moved to the desks (watering hole) to work on their projects … some more successful at this than others.

Year 10: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and discuss what the novel is teaching us about ‘resilience’.

Year 11: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘A Property of the Clan’ and discussed the focus question ‘Should Art Imitate Life?’. Students then moved to the desks (watering hole) to work on a mini-group task based on one of the Five Elements of Writing – these were then shared in our cyber-space campfire – edmodo.

Year 12: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘Notes on Nationalism’ by George Orwell and discussed the similarities between Orwell’s world and our own. Our discussion led us to the killing of Osama bin Laden and how the celebrations of the Americans reflected their nationalism.

When thinking about how you could transform your own space, it is important to acknowledge two things:

1. Many teachers do not have their own ‘home room’ as they spent much of the day ‘travelling’ around the school from room to room. This makes it very difficult to have a permanent furniture arrangement. I think that this restriction should be viewed as a challenge rather than a barrier. Sacrificing time during the lesson to arranging and rearranging the furniture to suit the learning occurring is really worth it.

2. It is important that you do not try to create a space that is inflexible – try not to allocate a specific area for ‘caves’, ‘campfire’ etc. What a classroom needs is flexibility of space and furniture this allows for an ever-changing, dynamic learning environment. This approach to classroom layout can be quite intimidating for teacher and students initially as it is unfamiliar. It takes time to create a thinking culture and requires a much more relaxed attitude towards classroom furniture being moved – in fact, I’ve changed entirely as I now actively encourage my students (nay, require) them to move the furniture to suit the learning experience they will be involved in during our lesson.

What is important to acknowledge is that my classroom is different not simply because I am flexible with its daily design. My classroom is different because I use metaphor as a means to help my students develop metacognition. Using the metaphor of ‘archetypal learning spaces’ my students are actively engaging with their own learning. They must consider what type of learning will occur in each lesson and how the design of the physical space needs to alter to meet the learning taking place. I do feel that my students are developing learning autonomy.

My room is a little different to most I see daily because I have considered the impact that physical space has upon intellectual and emotional space. This is not to say I (and others) haven’t ever (re)designed a classroom to maximise learning – I have been known to do this frequently and have been an advocate for groups/bunches that allow students to work together, especially with the introduction of the Digital Education Revolution’s 1-1 laptop program in NSW. The introduction of mobile digital technologies into the classroom necessitates a transformation of the learning environment. A failure to consider the impact of the relationship between these technologies and the physical learning environment can seriously undermine the value of these technologies in a 21st century classroom.

For me the current design is different because it drew on the mythical archetypes of the campfire, watering hole and cave. This philosophical underpinning gave me a metalanguage with which to speak to my students about ‘why’ the room is configured in this new way. This ‘language of myth’ actually works as a cue for my students. Yes, they think that it’s pretty uncool to start with – but once you get them thinking about WHY these three types of learning are relevant to their world, they just get it. Plus, kids like it when you show enthusiasm for their learning – they love it when teachers throw caution (or is that fear?) to the wind and take a very visible risk. I can now be heard saying to my students, ‘Alright – lets have a chat around the campfire and then you’ll spend some time in your caves.’

Visual cues really help orient students with the lesson’s expectations and prepare them for the transitions between cave/camp-fire/watering hole. A chronological list of the lesson ‘goals’ matched to the appropriate learning and physical spaces can be written on the whiteboard or projected onto an interactive white board. This visual cue gives students the opportunity to self-direct their learning. The metalanguage of the archetypal learning spaces similarly engages students in metacognition as it forces them to think about the types of learning behaviours associated with each learning space. Ultimately students, familiarised with the notion of ‘mythic spaces’ to enhance learning outcomes, will self-select the appropriate ‘space’ to meet a task. It is this which is my ultimate goal – to encourage self-direction and an appreciation of the influence that physical space can have on intellectual/emotional space. Speaking of visual cues, the pre-service teacher I have been supervising this year, Lauren Forner, even created beautiful posters as visual reminders to my students of the expected behaviours within each ‘space’.

Of course there are risks to be taken in this approach to classroom design. There can be a great deal of noise as the students move furniture (where necessary) and as they move themselves into the appropriate ‘space’. But the fear of noise in a classroom is simply a veiled fear of that which is natural and normal.

David Thornburg was interested in how these mythic notions of learning can be replicated in ‘cyberspace’. Since the theorising of Thornburg, a plethora of digital tools have become available to teachers who wish to replicate the physical archetypal learning spaces in cyberspace. From my experience it is possible to use just one flexible online tool to facilitate this shifting from physical to online space (such as the social networking for education site edmodo) or multiple online tools. For example, my Year 10 English class have successfully used edmodo for their cyberspace campfires, watering holes and caves.

My students often use the small-group function on edmodo as their virtual ‘watering hole’ – a place where they discuss and collaborate on projects. Posting to the class group facilitates whole group discussion for an even larger ‘watering hole’. Students wishing to work independently in the ‘cave’ can read and view posts made to the edmodo group or write and create posts of their own that can be shared privately with their teacher, with a small group or with the larger class group. Edmodo is also a wonderful presentation tool for those ‘campfire’ sessions where the teacher or student adopts the role of ‘storyteller’ or ‘expert’. Files, videos and other learning objects are easily accessed and larger group discussions can occur in ‘real time’ by students interacting with polls or responding to group posts.

Here are just a few examples of other digital tools that facilitate online archetypal learning spaces:

  • Campfire – videos (youtube, teachertube), virtual worlds, video-conferencing, Skype, transmedia texts (including interactive narratives like Inanimate Alice)
  • Watering hole – social networking (twitter, facebook, google +), wikis, google docs for collaboration, multi-player games, virtual worlds
  • Cave – blogs for reflection, interactive learning aids, single-player games, the web itself for independent research.
  • Life – the web itself is pure Life space. The most important digital tools that allow students the opportunity to apply their learning in the Life space are social media, blogging and youtube. These tools provide a powerful, immediate and global audience for student projects, discoveries, ideas and experiences.

Given that most teachers will (at some point) incorporate the first three spaces – campfire, watering hole, cave – into their lessons, it is pertinent to note that the final space – Life – is ironically missing from most classroom ‘learning’. Student-centred pedagogies – like Project Based Learning – force students to grapple with real-world problems and share their products and presentations with an authentic audience. These pedagogies provide students with the opportunity to apply the knowledge, skills and habits of mind developed in the campfire, watering hole and cave learning spaces to the final and most important space – Life. It is because of these reasons that Thornburg states ‘The pedagogical model most closely aligned with the learning space of Life is inquiry-driven project-based learning.’

I’m really happy with my new approach to learning spaces. Through my continued experimentation with learning spaces, it has become evident that a 21st century classroom is not, nor has it ever been, about the screens, gadgets or funky furniture. Rather it is about developing a heightened awareness of how the digital and physical learning environment being created helps to construct each learning experience. I firmly believe that the true 21st century teacher embraces a changing learning landscape and is as much at ease facilitating a group discussion on Macbeth outside under a tree as she is moderating a Skype call between students and a published author.  I do hope that in the future more schools will be approaching learning spaces in a far more flexible and student-centred/learning-focused way. So whilst it might initially feel a little contrived, I encourage you to use the metaphor of the archetypal learning spaces to help your students develop an appreciation for the need to alter their physical and digital spaces to match their learning space.


Collis, S. (2010). ‘Classroom for the 21st Century’ in Australian Teacher Magazine: ICT in Education Guide 2010. Retrieved September 12, 2010 from

DesignShare. (n.d.). DesignShare Traditional Classroom. Retrieved January 11, 2011 from <>.

Nair, Prakash, Randall Fielding, and Jeffery A. Lackney. (2009) The language of school design: design patterns for 21st century schools. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: DesignShare, 2009. Print.

Thornburg, D. (2007). “Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century.” Thornburg Centre. Retrieved October 22, 2007 from <>.

My first teachmeet #TMWR2012

Last Friday night I did something very different. I attended a TeachMeet. If you don’t know what one is, I recommend you watch this video. TeachMeets have been happening for a while now, but it’s really only be in the last twelve months that I’ve seen them happening consistently as part of my own PLN. But up until now I haven’t been motivated to attend one, which is kinda odd I guess since I spend so much time on twitter talking with my PLN about education. I guess I haven’t attended because I haven’t felt the need to go – the ideas I would share in a 7 or 2 minute presentation have been shared via this blog and via my tweets. To repeat those to the same audience strikes me as being redundant. And yes, attending would not be all about me and what I could do, but I also feel that if you attend a teachmeet, you should present at one – even if it’s for 2 minutes.

I attended Friday’s TeachMeet for two reasons: 1. I was asked by one of the organisers (Matt Esterman) to present on PBL. 2. The organisers are genuine, committed, hard-working people who were attempting to break a world record and I wanted to help them out. I could lie and say that I was motivated by the names of people presenting or by the excitement of being part of an event that big. But then I would be telling a lie and that’s not cool at all.

I had offered to present a 7 minute pechkucha on Project Based Learning and a 2 minute micro-presentation on Learning Spaces. At 12 noon on Friday I was emailed by Matt Esterman asking me if I minded presenting for 2 minutes as part of the opening ‘hello everyone’ session. I was shit scared at the prospect, but I also knew that if Matt was asking 5 hours before the event he was probably pretty desperate for someone to fill a gap. So I said yes. What did he want me to present on? Anything at all. Right. Let’s just say the following five hours were full of anxiety and doubt. I had to talk about ‘anything’ for 2 minutes in front of up to 300 people on a rainy and cold Friday night. Hmmmm.

After getting lost on our way and then frantic dialing Matt, we finally found our way to building 4 at Australia Technology Park. I must say walking through those doors and seeing Mitch Squires, Pip Cleaves, Megan Townes and Malyn Mawby was pretty neat. I didn’t stop bumping into my twitter PLN – in the flesh (no, not naked, although that would have been hilarious) for the rest of the evening. I must take this sentence to apologise for my blank stares at times, it really is hard to match faces with avatars and twitter usernames, I feel like I was rude to a number of people and seriously didn’t intend to be – the night was nothing short of overwhelming. When I finally found Matt and Simon Crook (another of the key organisers of that massive event) I was surprised to learn that my 2 minute Learning Spaces presentation had been bumped from the program – I was meant to present on Learning Spaces in front of 300 people? That wasn’t going to happen.

A glass of wine and a series of reassuring words from my English-teacher pal Mark O’Sullivan at the front of the ‘Theatre’ and I was feeling a little, tiny bit less stressed. As Ewan McIntosh spoke to us all about the origins of TeachMeet (which was actually really cool and I hope to revive pubmeets very soon), I hastily typed up an outline for my 2 minute talk and asked the guys near me to read through it and check it’d be OK. I even started smiling at someone sitting beside me whose face I recognised, only much, much later to realise it was Chris Betcher – no wonder he looked surprised and a little put off by me, lol. Anyway, here’s my notes:


Wow – three paragraphs into this post and it’s all about me, me, me. Oh, wait – that’s the point, right? This is my reflection. I walked up on stage and grabbed mic from Ewan (when he had finished speaking, of course). I hate microphones. I think I told everyone that. They are awful things. Despite my nerves and my insanely shaking hand, I managed to speak for 2 minutes. If you wanna see it, you’ll have to click on the link below and watch the Ustream that was recorded. I went 20 seconds over my allocated time – oops!

I just want to say that this really was a spontaneous talk (despite my one minute planning) and I hope I didn’t sound like too much of a git. The lovely lady who got up and presented on Google Docs after me was really amazing and she had put so much effort into preparing. The purpose of my talk was to just say, hey we should all be thinking resourcefully, embrace a ‘do it yourself’ attitude and make sure we keep our learners at the heart of everything we do. Yup, don’t stop thinking about the kids. I just wonder what the evening would have been like if we had some younger thinkers there – from the ages of 5 and up. Yeah, a logistical nightmare, but I still think it would be super cool.

My next presentation was also in the Theatre – it really is such a large space, designed for a much grander and more formal presentation than the one I was giving. Actually, filling that space was a tough gig – not filling it with people (I think there would have been 50 or so people in the audience and many, many empty seats) but filling it with your presence, your ideas, your passion, your voice. That was tough! As always I had left my preparing to the very last minute and was still tweaking my slides at 2pm that afternoon. I was happy with the images I had chosen, but really had to make up what I was saying on the spot. I wish I could find a video of what I said, I might learn something from the impromptu me – really, it feels like another person takes over your body and just blabs when you only have 20 seconds per slide to talk. Since I don’t have the video, I’ll just have to post my slides for you. Hope they make sense!

I will also share with you the slides for my Learning Spaces presentation that never was. I guess I’ll have to put my hand up for another TeachMeet so my presentation gets an audience. Lee said this one was better than my PBL one. Glad he told me that after I finished my PBL pecha kucha, lolz. Here are the slides:

 I was really stoked by the support of my PLN during my talk. It sure is an amazing feeling to sit down after a presentation and look at your twitter account to see a whole load of tweets mentioning your name and saying really nice stuff. I kept some of those tweets and I’m going to post them below. How about following the people who tweeted? I can attest that they are awesome – and not just cos they told me I was awesome, lolz.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Oh, and this post is all about me – I know that – and I’m sorry. The next post about teachmeet will definitely be about the presentations that I saw. The people who were responsible for planning, organising and running the WORL RECORD BREAKING TeachMeet are well spoken for in this moving blog post by Simon Crook.

Mythic Classroom – update

A couple of weeks ago I made the decision to transform my classroom into a 21st century learning space with NO budget. My inspiration was the mythic learning spaces of watering hole, campfire and cave. See me post here.

So how did my students respond?

Well, as per my post, my Year 7 students were responsible for the actual design of the space, so once could imagine that they would revel in it. Not so … they LOVE the open space that the arrangement provided at the front of the room – giving space for circle-time and whole-group discussions (campfire time). What didn’t work very well was the division of some students in ‘watering holes’ and some in ‘caves’ – my room was still inflexible when ‘set’ in a specific layout.

What a classroom needs is flexibility of space and furniture. Instead of the design ‘owned’ by Year 7, what has manifested is an ever-changing, dynamic learning environment. I have become far more relaxed in my approach to classroom furniture being moved – in fact, I’ve changed entirely as I now actively encourage my students (nay, require) them to move the furniture to suit the learning experience they will be involved in during our lesson.

My room at the moment still has the centralised green mat (this is our campfire) and has 5 groups of 6 tables. Year 7 and 8 are working on PBL projects (Year 7 is Shakespeare, Year 8 is Burton and Shakespeare) so the groups works well for this. Year 12 are working in a combination of the three mythic spaces (campfire, watering hole, cave) so the tables move often at the beginning of their lessons. The campfire mat has become a much loved space as the students gather together for informal circle-time as well as initial whole-class discussions regards what will be covered in each lesson and the learning goals for each group and individual.

I’m really happy with my new approach to learning spaces. I do hope that in the future more schools will be approaching learning spaces in a far more flexible and student-centred/learning-focused way.

How is your classroom looking these days?