A Different Direction – Thinking about learning spaces.


I have always felt that flexible use of space in classrooms makes sense. My early years teaching were in Infants (K – 2) classes and teaching in these classrooms carried a multipurpose intention. In later years I was lucky to team with some other teachers, with great Infants experience, while teaching Year 4. This was like a perfect storm for me in many respects. Our rooms opened out onto a large multipurpose hall which ended up becoming an extension of our classrooms. We also teamed with other support teachers and learning environment became a supercharged, differentiated, dynamic place. I believe the learning was rich as a result and the teaching was immersive for us as teachers too.

One of the most visible impacts of mobile technology is that there has been a discernible shift in the way that the students work. Classrooms are being used differently. They are starting to evolve into more collaborative, versatile spaces. The more traditional chair and desk arrangements of the Primary 3 – 6 are where change can be observed most dramatically. In Infants classrooms the change is less discernible as they are already structured to be flexible. I am observing that activities being undertaken are more eclectic and the classrooms along with ancillary learning spaces need to become more versatile to accommodate different needs of both teachers and the students.

I am conscious that sometimes change can be daunting. In our own circumstances teachers shouldn’t be concerned because I am seeing change in classrooms happening organically anyway. Additionally the journey we are undertaking in our Professional Development both around differentiation, curriculum and technology are taking us in this direction too.

Last year I visited The Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney’s North. I loved the ideas being generated there. They seemed to be leveraging mobile technology, pedagogy and spaces to create synergy of learning. Clearly the vision was strong, and inspired in part, by looking at examples of best practice occurring in Europe and Scandinavia. Many of those countries leading the world (PISA Assessments) are moving to versatile learning spaces.

In a recent study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates, it was found that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25%. Once again here I am forced to reflect on Hattie’s, influential work, which places little value on the space. He states “buildings are important as they must be there in some form for a school to exist, but that is about it.”(John Hattie, University of Auckland, Australian Council for Educational Research, October 2003). I take a more wholistic view as would Michael Fullan – it is about finding the right drivers. (Fullan Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204, April 2011)

Similarly a paper by Bocconi et al. consider the advent of Creative Classrooms (CCR) which are conceptualized as innovative learning environments that fully embed the potential of ICT to innovate learning and teaching practices. (Stefania Bocconi, Panagiotis Kampylis, Yves Punie, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, http://www.elearningpapers.eu n.o 30 • September 2012)
In contrast to Hattie’s view we see the worlds best systems innovating in wholistic ways and this includes learning spaces.

In Sweden about 30 secondary schools were “designed using KED’s architectural programme, which has been developed over the years by all our school principals, teachers and our architect Kenneth Gärdestad, is the last important element in this equation. The starting point is not to divide space into static classrooms with connecting corridors, but to regard the entire space as a potential learning area. Rooms are conceived in different shapes and sizes; they range from a large arena to rooms for small groups and have sliding glass walls. Most areas have multiple functions.” (The Kunskapsskolan (“the knowledge school”): a personalised approach to education CELE Exchange 2011/1 © OECD 2011)

Here I am compelled to grab a big chunk of text from Stephen Harris, Director, Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning & Principal, Northern Beaches Christian School. He says it far better than I can and with greater authority.

“Today’s students are immersed in a world of technology from birth. It is natural for them to live within the internet, rather than using the internet as is likely the case for their teachers and parents. Seymour Papert was among the first to make statements calling for a complete re-think of education models, with the advent of ubiquitous computing. In an essay co-authored with Gaston Caperton, they commented that educators have tried ‘to use new technologies to solve the problems of school-as-it-is instead of seeking radically new opportunities to develop school-as-it can-be’ (Papert and Caperton, 1999, p.2).
The essay goes on to suggest that conversations about schooling ‘ought to be about developing and choosing between visions of how this immensely powerful technology can support the invention of powerful new forms of learning to serve levels of expectation higher than anything imagined in the past’. Somekh and Mavers picked up this conversation adding that ‘teachers are not resistant to change, but are caught in a constant tension between the technicist demands of the system and their instincts to assist children to learn by engaging actively with ideas and concepts’ (Somekh and Mavers, 2003, p.3).
Papert used the concept of ‘Megachange’, to describe the immense shift that
has occurred in the last twenty years as so many of the systems of our society
– banking, health, shopping, communication, have been fundamentally altered through the advance of ICT. But he pointed out that ‘megachange’ was not evident in the school system.
More recent researchers have been quick to highlight that in a world of rapid technological change, today’s students are demonstrating serious signs of disengagement. As Marc Prensky highlights in ‘Engage Me or Enrage Me – What Today’s Learners Demand’ (Prensky, 2005,p.2):
“Rather than being empowered to choose what they want … and to see what interests them … and to create their own personalized identity – as they are in the rest of their lives – in school, they must eat what they are served. And what they are being served is, for the most part, stale, bland, and almost entirely stuff from the past. Yesterday’s education for tomorrow’s kids.”
The challenge is patently clear – schools have to embrace the ‘megachange’ required and construct new paradigms for learning in the twenty first century world. Mavers made the comment that:
‘As digital technologies proliferate and become established in the everyday world of home, work and community, schools are inhabited by young people who are experienced users of a range of media and whose use is characterized by agency and adaptability.’ (MAvErS, 2007, P.52)
(The Place of Virtual, Pedagogic and Physical Space in the 21st Century Classroom)”
(Stephen Harris, Director, Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (Australia) Principal, Northern Beaches Christian School, Australia)

Anne Knock (SCIL) provides useful questions which helps to provide a framework with which to consider how we can shape learning and spaces to meet the changing needs of students.

“1. Human resources (staff and students):

How do we support staff to work in new ways?
When building new spaces, what work is undertaken prior to occupancy to help change mindsets?
How does the activity of learning need to change?

2. Technology:

Who is making technology decisions in your school?
Does the infrastructure enable movement, flexibility and productivity?
Is ICT seamlessly and almost invisible, or is it still about ‘whistles and bells’?

3. Physical space

What do the learning spaces say about your culture and values?
Are there walls and structures that can be eliminated?
Does the furniture and the spaces cater for different working styles and activities, for collaboration and for physically appealing environment?” (Ref: Anne Knock, SCIL)

There is a sense that shift is inevitable and that while we are starting our journey there are those who are further along. One of the great things about the Education Community is the delight educators have in sharing. Leveraging the experience of others can help to make the journey easier and the choices less complex.