Using archetypes to match learning spaces with physical and digital spaces

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 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' Model T anyone? I doubt any parent would like to think that 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?

Recently 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 the Digital Education Revolution 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 by Steve Collis, Director of Innovation at Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning, 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 1990s in an article by Prof. David D Thornburg titled 'Campfires in Cyberspace: primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century'. In his article Thornburg (1997) 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 are 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. As 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 teachers - especially those of us working in a government 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 unlearning and learning if they are to effectively utilise these 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 'storytime', 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' with which they were struggling. 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 cyberspace 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 spend 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 - let's 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/campfire/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 whiteboard. 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 preservice teacher I supervised, Lauren Forner, created beautiful posters as visual reminders to my students of the expected behaviours within each 'space'.

85.Using archetypes image2
Campfire behaviours
85.Using archetypes image3
Watering hole behaviours
85.Using archetypes image4
Cave behaviours

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, videoconferencing, 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', Australian Teacher Magazine: ICT in Education Guide, vol 6, no 8, pp 26-28.

'Design Pattern: Language of School Design, Traditional Classroom',, (11 January 2011).

Nair, P., Fielding, R. and Lackney, J. 2009, The language of school design: design patterns for 21st century schools, DesignShare, Minneapolis, USA.

Thornburg, D. 2007, Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century. Thornburg Centre.

85.Bianca Hewes 

Bianca Hewes

English teacher and blogger at