Modern Learning Environments

I used to love my four walls. Four walls of a traditional classroom with burgeoning displays of superb student work. And a door. Appointments would be made to watch my ‘best’ lesson for appraisal. People said, “see me any time, the door is always open” and it was most definitely a metaphor.

For those of you who have yet to step inside the large open learning spaces of schools such as my current place of work, you may be wondering what I am talking about. But we don’t have walled classrooms in my current kura. The doors are see through. We never say “my door is always open” because our spaces always are, literally.

Why?
What is the benefit?

Both my recent teaching experiences and the research, suggest to me that there is one overwhelmingly positive benefit of an open learning space, where several teachers and classes work concurrently and in the same large area. This modern learning environment enables the best kind of teaching and learning to be embedded, it enhances COLLECTIVE TEACHER EFFICACY.

Professor John Hattie at the Festival of Education http://www.festivalofeducation.org.nz/ held over the weekend, made it clear yet again that ‘collective teacher efficacy’ is the biggest single factor in making sure quality learning happens for our students. This is our core business.

If that is the ‘why’, what then, is the ‘how’?
How does one teach and learn in such a space? Which systems and values are prerequisites to success and which should be ditched?

Last week I was part of a team which hosted the Auckland ASDAPA Group, part of http://www.nasdap.org.nz/ at our school. It was very exciting to have the opportunity to listen to questions and share some answers. Of course, the greatest benefit in having to articulate your own view is that it gets refined in the process. Some questions were posed that I hadn’t considered before and now, having reflected, I have an answer. All of the questions were robust and relevant. Here they are;

1) How do you prepare teachers and students for the change to MLEs?
2) How do you accommodate visual learning with film and with students from years 7 – 13?
3) If you are only refurbishing part of the school and have limited money, what are your top three priorities?
4) How do you share and display student work?
5) We have a large tail in New Zealand of students who are not achieving so well. What are the positives and negatives of this design for them and what is the research telling us?
6) How is teaching and learning impacted by MLEs?
7) If you are building a new and large block (for 11 spaces) how do you manage the transition for/with staff from traditional ways of working and the new MLE?? Help!!
8) Should we focus our open learning spaces on single curriculum subject areas or cross curricular?
9) How do deaf students or students who have high learning needs (autism, Asperger’s) cope in this kind of environment?
10) How do kura kaupapa with a fewer number of teachers fluent in te reo available to employ in any case, deal with the challenge?

These are my thoughts.

1) How do you prepare teachers and students for the change to MLEs?

Firstly, your own context is paramount. You know your students and colleagues the best.

For students: explicitly teach the behaviours that are needed to flourish. Don’t expect them to guess what these are.

For teachers: my biggest mistake when I first moved from a trad class room to a MLE was to let the space dominate me. The trick is to see the potential for space to be an invaluable tool to progress learning. Pedagogy first. As with the use of technology, the pedagogy always needs to come first.

For senior leaders: if you have great teachers, don’t worry. The most important thing to consider is how your systems support collective teacher efficacy. Does your school engage in robust professional inquiry already? Is there a climate of trust and of seeing teachers as learners? If you are a senior leader you need, more than ever, to be able to walk the walk. Not because you should be actually teaching (necessarily) but because you shouldn’t forget how it feels to have someone else watch you teach and pass comment on the learning of the students during that time. And that should be happening all the time.

Are you an instructional leader as described by Viviane Robinson? http://www.conniekamm.com/sg_userfiles/Vivianne_Robinson_Instructional_Leadership.pdf
Have you investigated cognitive coaching? Something I am keen to explore further as a way to grow our team.

Furthermore, when our spaces are transparent and we are on show, trust is a crucial disposition.

My guess is that some teachers are scared. Not because they are worried about noise levels, or classroom management, or how they will do what they have always done (coming up, more on that) although those things will all be voiced and are valid concerns. Perhaps the biggest fear is that they will be visible for 100% of the time in 100% of their lessons. They will be living visible learning whether or not they wish to. They will have to be more engaging for their students than the other teachers who work alongside them, or their own students will be directing focus to the class next door and not the teaching in hand.

Set these concerns against a political context of performance pay as a likelihood and historical situations within school where relationships between staff members may have been less than congenial and this is an important factor to deal to. Effectively. If you don’t already operate in a climate where all teachers know they are valued as learners too, then whatever buildings you inhabit will be irrelevant.

2) How do you accommodate visual learning with film and with students from years 7 – 13?

Allow me an anecdote. You will be familiar with the scenario. Carefully planned lesson involves watching a short film. Check with other colleagues prior to the event to ensure it’s not going to disturb learning for their students. No need to book the presentation room this time therefore. The technology fails me. Something is ‘buffering’, or not. The students are already arranged in small research groups of three, at least one web capable device is in each group, the benefit of being a BYOD school. I panic briefly as I want to have the whole class watch the text together and listen to the benefit of my expert instruction. Instead, we decide that each group can view the text on their own devices. Some have headphones, some go into the fishbowl (quiet working area at the side) and others watch quietly together. What happens next is great. Students who need one viewing get straight to the analysis. Students who need more then one, well, that’s what they do. They go back and check for quotes, at different parts because their thinking is personal to them. A worthy, differentiated lesson evolves, far more rapidly than I had planned for and I tailor my input to the needs of each working group far more effectively. I wonder why I hadn’t planned it like the the first time.

As for the year 7 -13 aspect of the question. Get ready high schools! Our primary students expect us to be able to work like this!

3) If you are only refurbishing part of the school and have limited money, what are your top three priorities?

This question was expertly answered by the architect on the day who said ‘acoustics’. In my opinion, however, it is the size of the space that matters most. A cramped open learning space isn’t a lot better than a cramped traditional classroom. I think it’s the largeness of our space which proves to be so calming for students. No one likes to feel claustrophobic. Plus, most of the 16 and 17 year olds that I teach are ginormous, they need the space!

4) How do you share and display student work?

I used to share it on the wall. Production values and pretty handwriting do tend to dominate such displays though. (Yes, I am talking decades ago here.) Now students use Google docs and view each others work frequently and with reason. It is shared far more effectively with home and even world audiences. We can tailor our virtual spaces so that display is a significant part of boosting achievement rather than a mere summative celebration.

5) We have a large tail in New Zealand of students who are not achieving so well. What are the positives and negatives of this design for them and what is the research telling us?

Hattie’s research has many of the answers. Firstly, the ‘tail’ does not exist as it used to. There is more than one. We are failing our students in the ‘middle’ and at the top. So I would question this very premise.

The positive for students is that positive relationships in our MLE have to matter. Teachers place relationship as the foundation of everything else and the relationship between teachers is based on teaching the child rather than the subject – so all students benefit. You only have to look at Professor Russell Bishop’s work in ‘Culture Counts’ to see how placing relationship at the core is good for all.

Another positive is that students see that teachers are in it together, supporting each other. A far better work environment is a sure plus for all students.

The negatives. I guess every context has its drawbacks. Just don’t make me go back to the old ways! In other words, I can’t think of any negatives.

6) How is teaching and learning impacted by MLEs?

Some of you are being put in such buildings because you have no choice. If you are reading this from Christchurch, contemplating the new building that your school community will be housed in, arohanui. Your mana and mahi under conditions I fail to even imagine, inspire the utmost respect.

An anecdote. As I have mentioned, I used to love my four walls. My students and I inhabited a little kingdom, an entirely different country to the wider continent of the school beyond. In my class, students could step away from harassment about regulation shoes and be transported to the world of stories, language, drama. It was a refuge from boring conformity and a haven for creativity, deep learning and fun. Outside was quite different, at least I thought it was. But of course, in a walled kingdom, you never see beyond. I didn’t know what was going on beyond my own class. I didn’t know. And I didn’t grow.

If you want to grow as a practitioner, you will love the MLE. You will be able to see, easily, the best practise that goes on around you.

Some people will say that being able to change seating arrangements is a benefit of a MLE. Not so.
It’s perfectly possible to be responsive to learning needs by use of furniture in a traditional class and just as possible to have a traditional seating arrangement in a MLE. A story to illustrate…

Seating arrangements and desk configurations were routinely changed in my traditional classroom, in order to help deliver my learning intentions. Students new to my class did not like this at first. It was very different to their experience in other classrooms at the time and it unsettled them. On entering the room, there would be a collective Edvard Munch scream and they would hold their hands up to their faces, mouths all horrified Os, “You’ve changed the furniture AGAIN!” and “You’re obsessed!” Not forgetting the heart rending, “Why are you doing this to us? Where’s my seat?”

Silent, individual work – single desks. Pair or group work – push desks together. Speeches and drama – make an auditorium. Mix up people and build a safe environment for all to feel comfortable to speak up. Push desks aside and arrange seating to make it easier to have guided conversations. Hattie’s research tells us that class discussion is the second best technique to get deep learning. Surely this can happen and should be happening, in whatever type of room we are learning.

No. MLEs are not about the pretty furniture (but if that is being offered, take it, it’s great!) or moving it around. It is about great teaching. Take heart.

7) If you are building a new and large block (for 11 spaces) how do you manage the transition for/with staff from traditional ways of working and the new MLE?? Help!!

I hope I have answered some of this already. I would add though, that whilst I might champion ‘traditional’ skills of classroom and behaviour management as very relevant to the MLE, we do have to change. Why do things as they have always been done, if there is a better way? It’s just not good enough.

Embrace your staff who ask ‘why’. They will. Don’t shut them down. If you can’t answer them , their misgivings may be well founded.

8) Should we focus our open learning spaces on single curriculum subject areas or cross curricular?

Cross curricular. Absolutely no question in my mind about this.

9) How do deaf students or students who have high learning needs (autism, Asperger’s) cope in this kind of environment?

I taught a deaf student last year. It was the first year of his schooling that he experienced significant success. Every child is different but we have an excellent track record with students with specific learning needs. This may be as much to do with our systems and curriculum as our building though. For example 1) our student directed learning days every Wednesday, where each student can pursue their own passion for learning, supported and guided by mentors and specialists. 2) our 200 minutes a week tutorial time where this student’s tutor, mentored him superbly.

10) How do kura kaupapa with a fewer number of teachers fluent in te reo available to employ in any case, deal with the challenge?

This is the easiest and most exciting question to answer. MLEs are Māori. They embody mātauranga Māori as I understand it. Ako? Check. Manaaki? Check. Kotahitanga? Check. Tuakana – teina? Check.

I find it fascinating that Māori ways of being in learning are entirely consistent with the MLE. It is an aspect that I would love to research further. Not only that but innovation and communication are inherently Māori ways of being too. Maybe this is not so modern after all when one considers the wharenui and the concept of wānanga. Maybe the M in MLE should stand for ‘Māori’. All students benefit where these concepts are lived.

The MLE is about transparency, trust and above all, our learners. It is ako in action.

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25 responses to Modern Learning Environments

  1. stevemouldey says:

    Ka mau te wehi!

    This is quite simply the most comprehensive analysis and answer of MLE concerns that I have come across. Thanks so much.

    (And welcome to the blogosphere!)

    • kaiakonz says:

      Wow Steve, I am super flattered. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Yes, inspired by all you HPSS bloggers, here I am!

  2. whaeajo says:

    Kia ora rawa atu whaea, he rawe tēnei tuhinga! You have so much valuable advice. I am going to share this with our little Hangarau team at my wharekura, who are looking for ways to inspire the rest of our kaiako. Ngā mihi!

  3. Karen Stimson says:

    Michaela I got goose bumps reading your blog!!
    You have put it so eloquently and I found myself nodding along while I was reading. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • kaiakonz says:

      Thanks Karen! The senior leadership team has everything to answer for… We’re all made to feel that we have a voice 🙂

  4. msolpersson says:

    Reblogged this on PerssonalityPlusTeacher and commented:
    Thoughtful, insightful and sobering post. It is about quality teaching and learning and its about pooling resources (things and people) and giving the best we have. You’ve expressed very well a few key points: a continuous flow of communication at multiple levels, building trusting relationships, encouraging healthy risk taking for all involved. I love your words – “if you want to grow as a practitioner, you will love the MLE” – grow you will! Kia Kaha. Thank you for letting us into your NOT 4 walls!

  5. What a wonderful insight into your thoughts on space, Michaela. I particularly liked the ‘Maori’ Learning Environment comments about whare and wananga. Makes perfect sense. Awesome first blog post. I’d love to see some photos of you using the space to complement your words.

    • kaiakonz says:

      Thank you Ros! Visuals would be useful, I know. It’s your blog I look to for inspiration about how to integrate them beautifully into the text!

  6. Heather Eccles says:

    Yes, I could agree more – found myself nodding in agreement the whole time! Thank you for sharing.

    • kaiakonz says:

      Thank you Heather! I appreciate your encouragement, especially as we work in similar environments.

  7. Mark McGuire says:

    Very good, well argued post, Michaela. You would think we would have figured out that the assembly line, factory model wasn’t necessary or appropriate anymore (if it ever was). I’ve had similar thoughts about university lecture theatres (http://goo.gl/BSdVHp), but I haven’t backed it up with research as you have. I teach design, so the open studio is my preferred teaching context. Most academics still give traditional lectures, and if we want to do something different, the lecture theatre we’ve been assigned may make it very difficult. It’s hard for individual teachers to break old habits; it’s even harder for institutions.

    • kaiakonz says:

      Thank you Mark, both for your positive comments and for providing me with much more to think about. You are right about the challenge facing academic institutions and it’s one that will be fascinating to see unfold. I’m really hopeful that there will be increased liaison between tertiary and secondary educators and I wonder about lecture style instruction in both of these contexts. I can’t access your writing at the moment but will work out what button I am not yet pressing and look forward to reading your thoughts too.

      • Mark McGuire says:

        Yes, the gap between the schools and the tertiary sector could and should be bridged. I understand the schools will be accessing a “Pond” of resources as part of the Network for Learning initiative (http://www.n4l.co.nz/). Perhaps that can be one place for meeting and exchanging views, resources and strategies.

      • kaiakonz says:

        Definitely. In addition, I’d recommend #edchatnz for a fortnightly way to collaborate with teachers from all sectors.

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