Are our schools as responsive, dynamic and engaging as the world we live in? – Physical Spaces
At my school, we are working on a range of factors that foster pedagogy that is responsive to the learners we are working with. One of these elements is the disruption of the physical spaces to allow for more dynamic learning experiences for both staff and students (all learners). My own exploration of the power of space in supporting different pedagogies has been facilitated through the development of three large spaces in our school. The first, The Learning Hub (LH), was instigated over five years ago, and whilst I didn’t have a direct role in managing the build, I along with other staff played a key role in utilising and re-imagining the space over time. This year, it is exciting to see the space once again transform under the leadership of my colleague Melissa Smith (nee Mulholland).
The second opportunity emerged as we developed our Senior Space which was completed in March of last year. This space built upon the understandings developed over time using and reimagining the LH along with ongoing reading, collaboration, exploration and site visits.
The third, is by far the most extensive, with a makeover of our science and maths areas into a flexible, multipurpose interdisciplinary space, due to begin later this year.
In planning and leading out such a significant change, consideration must be given to the following:
- How will the environment promote new pedagogies requiring a variety of spatial settings (e.g. inquiry learning, problem-based learning, interdisciplinary approaches, vertical grouping)?
- How will learning be facilitated by multi-disciplinary teams of teachers who need agile and flexible spaces?
- How will the space support and coerce collaboration between groups of staff and groups of students?
- How can the environment and configuration generate creativity and curiosity over a focus on productivity?
- How can the spaces foster ubiquitous learning, i.e. learners becoming more self-directed, collaborative and flexible in using a variety of spaces/settings?
- How will the space support and enable teachers and students to develop digital literacies and competencies that enhance the use of space in a variety of ways to good pedagogical effect?
- How will the environment utilise natural light and natural environments to incorporate light and air?
- What PD will be required to support teachers to visualise and understand spatial possibilities – including modelling the use of such spaces?
Making over physical spaces can soak up a lot of time, energy and money. In the end, you can achieve “beautiful” results in the aesthetics, but if genuine collaborative consideration is not applied to the factors above, what will emerge is beautiful spaces with 20th century pedagogy staring back at you from comfortable chairs, behind tables on wheels!
No amount of consultation with those who have tread the road of disrupting spaces is adequate. I am particularly thankful to the wisdom and generosity of Stephen Harris, Anne Knock and the team at SCIL in addition to Stephen Heppell, Matt Esterman and a range of other online eduadventurers who have been open either online and/or in person sharing their wisdom, experience, successes and mistakes.
A small sample of research utilised in planning for and designing learning spaces:
Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., Aranda, G., 2011. Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes. http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/infrastructure/blackmorelearningspaces.pdf. [Accessed 30 January 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Rethinking the Classroom” 2017. Rethinking the Classroom http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/solution-essays/rethinking-the-classroom.html. [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Adaptable Spaces and Their Impact on Learning” 2017. http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/research-summaries/adaptable-spaces-and-their-impact-on-learning.html. [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Wolff, Susan J., “Design Features for Project-Based Learning, February 2002, http://www.designshare.com/Research/Wolff/Wolff_DesignShare_3_7_02.pdf
I have spent a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about how to improve professional development and meeting structures. The early focus was in considering how to make meetings meaningful and productive, where everyone’s input was essential. Since that time I have endeavoured to develop structures and models that ensure that all required time together, whether that be professional learning of the entire staff or small team meetings, be essential to all those involved.
Last year, as Deputy with oversight of curriculum and PD, I knew that not only did I want to rethink the structures that support our student learning (stay tuned post to come), but I also wanted to rethink the structures that define our staff learning. Fortunately, I work in a school where the leadership team are open to approaching things differently.
This led me to think about what needs our previous formats fulfilled and whether they reflect the significant changes in the way we collaborate as professionals today. My conclusion was that in a transparent and open environment, where ongoing communication, feedback and input is fostered, the formal meeting procedures are not necessary.
Our meeting structures were very typical of most schools. Our whole staff meetings were structured by an agenda and run by a chair, with minutes taken. The agenda was dominated by the delivery of information with intermittent opportunities for staff to provide input. Predominantly the information was relevant to most but not all, sometimes, only relevant to a few. Staff were generally accepting and compliant of being talked at, however, this was completely in contradiction to the discourse we aspired to promote in classrooms. Our school’s vision is driven by developing creative, vibrant and resilient learners guided by knowledgeable, innovative and passionate staff. These meetings were certainly none of these things as a standard.
I may be being extremely critical here because having recently sat in a very traditional and boring meeting run by an external facilitator outside of education, I know that as a school we have come a long way in our structures that relate to PD and meetings. Continuous development and growth can go unnoticed, and I know that others who come into our structures are surprised by the way we facilitate staff collaboration.
Nevertheless, by the first term break of last year, I was already frustrated by the manner in which we were continuing to conduct our meetings and professional development, and ultimately I am the one responsible.So hand in hand with the opportunity to shake up our teaching timetable structure came the opportunity to shake up how we come together and collaborate as staff.
My experience in schools has been staff meetings and professional development occurring at the end of the day. Personally, as a participant in PD or meetings, the end of the day was always a challenge. I had a growing pile of emails and marking, not to mention I was fatigued from a day of work. If I learnt a strategy or approach in a PD session I had no opportunity to put it into action immediately as my teaching day had ended. My energy was low and I was less likely to contribute as energetically or spend any time reflecting on how the PD was relevant to my practice. As a facilitator of PD or convener of meetings, I was always conscious that others involved potentially felt similar. I would try to streamline the meeting structure as much as possible, not to keep people longer than necessary, and I would try and facilitate PD that was meaningful and interactive with a range of success.
So what did I do about it?
Initially, I looked at what we had historically used meetings for and I asked questions about the purpose of these meetings.
- Can the information be communicated in a different way?
- Is the information necessary for all stakeholders?
- Do staff have the opportunity to contribute and how is that possible with over 80 people involved?
- How long do meetings need to be?
- What happens when critical information needs to be shared but doesn’t align with meeting days?
This resulted in 5 aspects that I wanted to drive the structure of meetings.
- More personalised, only those who are invested or required need attend
- When it can be communicated in a memo or email, then so be it
- Keep gatherings short and targeted so that there is no time to waffle or waste time – so short that people can stand during the meeting
- Utilise the morning when staff are alert & can immediately act, or put strategies/learning into practice
- Allow flexibility for staff to schedule time for their own collaboration with peers
As a firm believer in the power of language, I also knew that in changing any structure, I had to think about how the terms we used would inform a change in approach. I considered how language often dictates our expectations. If we have only experienced meetings in traditional ways, then we tend to expect the same. So “huddles” became the word I used to describe how the new approach could work. Huddles for me implied short urgent periods of time when teams come together to share critical information or make collaborative decisions that are relevant to everyone in the huddle (my basketball background influence).
Whole staff after school meetings were eliminated.
Morning Huddles were introduced: a maximum of 30 minutes starting at 8:30am and scheduled via our Learner Management System (Daymap) so that all staff can see scheduled times on their teaching calendar. Huddles could be used for whole staff quick touch base, teaching teams, year level teams, quick PD, PLC’s, professional practice, committee and action group planning – pretty much anything that means bringing a group together to collaborate.
Three weeks in, there has been a range of positive feedback from staff. No after school long, drawn out meetings has meant that staff are free to utilise their afternoons to work in their teaching teams to plan and design or even to go home!
This time last year, whole staff were scheduled to have spent up to 480 minutes together in whole staff or Learning Area meetings. This year staff have spent up to 390 minutes in required sessions which have mostly been Professional Development. So already in the first three weeks of school, staff have gained an hour and a half more to utilise for their benefit.
What have I noticed?
I have seen more staff choosing to use their afternoons to catch up with their peers to program and design learning and I have seen five optional Professional Development Huddles offered (in just 3 weeks) in the morning with fantastic staff buy-in. These have included Google Apps, designing and using flexible learning spaces and strategies to facilitate responsible behaviours. Previously optional sessions run at lunch times, before or after school would attract minimal staff, which is always discouraging.
Time will tell if these structural changes facilitate the professional practice we aspire to achieve, but so far so good!
At school, maths was actually my favourite subject. I loved the challenge of solving problems and I will admit that memorisation in primary school was not the struggle it may have been for some of my peers. I am not advocating for memorisation at all, but this was certainly the focus of my schooling in the 80s.
I continued with my math studies throughout my schooling, completing what was then called (24 years ago) Maths 1 & Maths 2 in South Australia at year 12. Looking back now, I was probably the only girl in the class, but I never really paid much attention to that and I simply don’t recall. I was a confident, competitive young person who relished in challenging the boys whether it be in my studies or on the basketball court.
This confidence and success in maths did not lead to a field in the maths or sciences, but it has certainly influenced the way I approach problem solving and my resilience in sitting with a challenge that takes time and patience. My daughter (Year 11) has rarely sought my support with her math homework, but when she does it is not my capacity to recall number facts, formulas or procedures that makes my support valuable, instead it is my ability to rely on my understanding of number and mathematical concepts that helps. It may mean I take the long way around and eventually come back to the formula which provides the efficient process, but I am able to explain the reasoning behind what she is being challenged by. No doubt this will become less likely as she advances through her studies.
My willingness to struggle and work through a problem is not only evidence of my own confidence gained through my maths experiences, but it also provides a model for my daughter. She won’t hear me say “I have never been good at maths” or “I just don’t have a maths brain” which unfortunately is the message many girls receive. For girls, it is the attitude of their mothers that has the most significant influence on their own mindsets.
Not all girls are equal…..in attitudes to maths!
I recently connected with a school friend whom I had a healthy rivalry with throughout primary and middle schooling. She was a great problem solver and we relished many afternoons nutting out maths challenges and were fortunate to have some great maths teachers that stretched us. After year 11 I moved from Darwin to Adelaide which meant we were no longer classmates. It wasn’t until recently when we reminisced about our competitiveness and how she always had the edge in writing whilst I the more logical subjects, that we came to discuss our year 12 experiences. She avoided maths in year 12 because, without me, she would have been the only girl! This in 1993, in a secondary college of over 1000 students!
So how much has changed?
Last year at my school, girls made up only 9 of the 26 students in Maths Applications and only 1 of the 9 in Mathematical Studies. It is simply not good enough.
You don’t have to look far to find research around girls lacking confidence in maths and science today, even to be labelled “maths anxiety”.
So it seems our work needs to be dedicated to creating curious, creative and confident girls willing to take risks and tackle hard problems, in spite of the cultural conditioning that sees lower expectations of them. This work is critical for more than just gender equality. Achieving parity in maths and science fields between women and men offers significant economic as well as social benefits. I look forward to the day when our physics and specialist maths classes are equally taken on by girls and boys.
“When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.” – OECD 2015
Part of my leadership responsibility is to oversee professional practice at my site, which I see as a responsibility to foster and promote a professional learning culture.
A professional learning culture is one in which we, as educators, are committed to our own growth and development as professionals as well as that of our peers. It grows out of a desire to continue to develop our knowledge and practice and to maximise opportunities for learning. Such a culture is integral to the high-quality teaching and development of innovative approaches to learning that we aspire to at my school. It means that, as leaders and teachers, we see ourselves, and are seen by others, as lifelong learners both of the speciality areas we teach and the practice of teaching itself. With education rapidly changing, we play a role in determining what “education” means in our context. This means that we need to continue to keep up to date with new developments and opportunities.
Every leader is critical in fostering a professional learning culture within a school. It is not only classroom learning or an individual teacher’s learning, instead, it is a commitment to learning as a valued activity in its own right, whether that be within formal learning settings or informal settings. It is also our disposition to learning that is critical. Are you engaged with issues and questions related both to your speciality areas and teaching and learning? Are you enthusiastic about sharing and learning with others, whether they be young or old? Are you actively engaged in the practice that is happening within our school and others? Do you model and champion an inquiring approach to professional practice? This is more than just keeping up with the latest initiatives, it is opening a dialogue and examining whether those initiatives are applicable to your context and whether the iteration of such initiatives can be developed to improve them for your community.
Dialogue is critical! As a profession, our growth is dependent on interactions with others whether they be students, peers, leaders, experts or industry. A professional learning culture requires collaboration in formal and informal ways, where the sharing of expertise and experiences benefits all. Observations and walkthroughs are effective ways of sharing and celebrating practice and opening opportunities to engage in professional reflection. A professional learning culture also relies on the essential input of students, the extent to which cannot be underestimated.
Whilst at my site we have established structures to support a Professional Practice Program, our professional learning culture is dependent on each and every individual, embracing and modelling a learner disposition.
Really keen to read and hear about other examples of work around professional learning cultures. Feedback and input is awesome!
Over the Christmas break, I spent a great deal of time reading, listening and watching a wide range of media. I have consumed more than I should have in relation to US politics, plus research and discussion on climate change and current environmental concerns. I live by the philosophy of know better, do better so this culminated in a range of actions and lifestyle changes including choosing to eliminate meat and dairy from my diet, establishing a worm farm to reduce wastage and a range ethical shopping changes. Several realisations ensued, in particular, how hard it is to determine the ingredients or origin of many products that I would normally purchase with the assumption they are locally sourced. My growing understanding was also supported by healthy debate and the need to justify my actions to a range of friends and family. Some were quick to raise stereotypical vegan memes whilst others acknowledged they could probably make some better choices themselves. My learning was self-driven, in my own time, at my own pace and to be honest, when I was most open to acknowledging these issues and I had space and time to respond.
Until widespread access to the internet, there was a ceiling on learning, limited to the expertise of the teacher, whether that be formal settings such as the classroom or the parent-child relationship. Now that ceiling is broken and we are inundated with information. Our greatest challenge will be to create environments where our students can design their own interesting questions to answer, not teach them answers to questions that already exist. Creating learning that is active as opposed to passive about issues they actually care about or create their own responses to issues that don’t have straightforward solutions. We should endeavour to construct space and time for them to delve into issues that are meaningful to them and then provide the time to enact responses and changes themselves, whether personal or within their community.
Opportunities are endless, but our time is limited, so what we value most will take precedent. My goal this year, is to question these priorities on an ongoing basis. To keep in check, that what time is being used, and the choices I make about other people’s time, whether they be staff or students, is used to address the most important priorities.
Today the South Australian Government and the opposition made announcements regarding intentions to make it easier to prosecute families of students who truant. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH.
Don’t get me wrong, chasing up attendance and connecting with families, some of whom don’t seem to mind that their teenager prefers to stay home, is one of the most frustrating aspects of my job! However….and that is a BIG HOWEVER….. not for one minute do I think that the solution to any social issue is best addressed by punitive approaches.
If we want families and young people to value education we need to build communities that value learning, and hold teachers in high esteem. If we want communities to value learning and hold teachers in high esteem, then we need to ensure our system is able to facilitate opportunities that meet the needs of the diverse cohort and their families and has the resources to intervene and support when needed. We also need to build a Human Resources profile of teaching professionals that our community respects and admires.
But hey, that would take dedicated funds and time, not just a headline grab and or a term of government!
Questioning the purpose and function of schools and systems is an ongoing pressure point for me and is founded in my Foucauldian inspired adolescent exploration of governmentality. The dichotomy of rigid curriculum and testing versus the emerging essential employability skills of collaboration, flexible thinking and empathy challenge the systems and approaches we are comfortable and familiar with in schools.
In the past I have been fortunate as a teacher to embrace different approaches, taking risks and challenging the status quo with freedom. When I was first afforded the responsibility of establishing a learning environment for young adolescents with learning disabilities, I didn’t hesitate to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective not bound by previous experiences (I had none) nor templates (there wasn’t one in the school). This granted, with the incredible support of the school leadership, the opportunity to create learning that was personalised and authentic for the young people and staff, and not contrived or bound by curriculum or structures. This meant that in my first year, students utilised a range of technologies and had dynamic learning experiences including, but not limited to; blogging, passion projects, Identity Days, international collaborative projects, thematic units, authentic work placements and personalised reporting based on skill development and growth against individual learning goals. Not the traditional industrial model of education that is the state of affairs in similar settings, but a modern and responsive learning environment.
Since that time I have been fortunate/challenged to move into a range of leadership roles across the school with responsibility for a spectrum of key areas. This year has seen my responsibilities include oversight of whole school curriculum.
It may be reasonable to suppose that the greater the perceived power in regards to a leadership role, the more influence you would impart on the innovation of curriculum design. Furthermore, that approaches modelled would evolve and amplify with the expansion of innovative approaches and perspectives. Unfortunately, this does not occur organically and just like every young person, each adult is on a personal learning journey with their own prior knowledge, preconceptions and experiences that either curb or drive their openness to new approaches and willingness to take risks and challenge their own conventions.
I am continually reminded that my own zealous approaches to learning new educational approaches and my areas of foci are not necessarily shared by others. This is not to say that many are not equally if not more devoted to the exploration of their educational priorities, it just means that our approaches are informed by different influences. This is by no means a negative, it just relies on greater self-awareness on my behalf when I approach the leadership of curriculum design, trying to ensure a shared purpose and understanding.
Over the past two days, I facilitated the screening of the educational documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The film is a commentary on reimagining the American Education system with a particular focus on one model, San Diego school, High Tech High. Whole staff participated along with a handful of middle school students and were provoked by virtue of the film to consider what sort of learning environment is most likely to “succeed” in the 21st century.
It became apparent from the reflections shared that some had previously grappled with many of the ideas and provocations in the documentary whilst for others, the ideas were unfamiliar and even confronting. Most staff felt inspired and invigorated by the possibilities and models presented in the film, however, for a few, it left them feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. The challenge moving forward is how to foster the inspiration to develop different approaches to our current curriculum design and ensure staff who were overwhelmed are nurtured and supported to feel empowered.
The critical takeaway in regards to my current role from the models presented in the film is to have teachers see themselves as powerful designers of learning, not hampered by ticking content boxes, but instead supported to facilitate deep and meaningful learning opportunities with students.
If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. See below for the trailer and this review by Vander Ark is a fair synopsis.
This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.
— Wirreanda Secondary (@WirreandaSS) June 3, 2016
It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)
Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.
Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.
Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools. Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.
feels like home
means family & history
is a comfortable place
is a place of motivation
is a place where I can be me#panapart
— Melissa Mulholland (@MelissaMulh) June 3, 2016
What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.
Easy to be swept up with this wonderful student panel, but important to remember that not every student feels connected to school #panapart
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 3, 2016
This student panel is fantastic, but not all students can articulate what they need/want/feel. Important to ask those students too #Panapart
— rebecca hepworth (@bechep2) June 3, 2016
It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?
So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.
Check out the Storify from the day.
Whilst there were a range of important themes throughout the film, the most significant for me was ‘doing what’s best for kids’. Coach Carter (Samuel L Jackson) choosing to “lockout” his players from any basketball until they met the agreed grades and expectations. Despite incredible pressure and volatility from parents and the Richmond High School community, Coach Carter sticks to his convictions with the bigger picture in mind.
This is the exact challenge that we are faced with as educators today. Imagine if each of us took a stand for the future of our students, did not bow to the pressures of structures, politics, timetables, content demands and even student resistance and actually chose to push for the bigger picture and imagined what could be. If you agree with me that 20th century education and paradigms are not best for 21st century learners, then our challenge is to foster the importance of lifelong learning over the immediate gratification of grades. To break the learners focus on being measured and ATARs and instead have them choose learning and personal challenge over being defined by their final numbers.
I am excited by some of the initiatives coming out of Universities now, where they are honouring students who choose challenge over subjects that will gain them the best ATAR (hat tip Flinders University). Especially exciting for girls choosing mathematics, physics and other STEM opportunities. Even greater reason for us to be forging ahead, reimagining the learning to foster ownership and agency with relevant and meaningful work which sees us (teachers and students) as creators, problem solvers, mentors, and instructors grappling with problems bigger than ourselves.
“We need to teach students two things:
1.HOW TO LEAD
2.HOW TO SOLVE INTERESTING PROBLEMS
Because the fact is, there are plenty of countries on earth where there are people willing to be obedient and work harder for less money than us. So we can not out-obedience the competition. Therefore, we have to out-lead or out-solve the other people… who want whatever is scarce. The way to teach your kids to solve interesting problems… is to give them interesting problems to solve. And then, don’t criticize them when they fail because kids aren’t stupid, if they get in trouble every time they try to solve an interesting problem, they’ll just go back to getting an ‘A’ by memorizing what’s in the textbook”. — Seth Godin
When a student in our class in not growing and learning, do we blame the student or try to develop approaches and strategies that might support them? I would hope to think that we try and figure out why it’s not working for them and develop actions and responses.
Why do we not approach the development of leadership in this way. If we truly believe that leaders are developed and not just “born” then leadership, including our own, is a continuum of growth. I think even the greatest leaders of our time would never suggest that they achieved ultimate leadership capacity.
In our system we define leaders with titles – principal, deputy, assistant principal, coordinator, lead teacher etc. Yet we also know that it is our actions that define leadership and that anyone can demonstrate leadership, regardless of their title or position. At the same time, it is our responsibility as “defined leaders” with titles to develop our own leadership capacity and that of other “defined leaders” in our schools. Just as we wouldn’t let ‘Johnny’ relinquish in our classrooms, why would we allow our coordinators, assistant principals, deputies or principals to flounder without support.
The challenge in our classrooms is to develop personalised approaches to improve each learner. The challenge in our leadership teams is to personalise approaches to improve each leader. Just as in the classroom, sometimes our approaches work immediately and other times they do not, but we must not give up.
I feel that our most powerful weapon as leaders, is continual reflection on what is working and why, and what is not working and why. A principal/deputy/assistant principal who blames individuals for their lack of achievement, their misunderstandings or shortage of actions, is not reflecting inwardly and not taking responsibility for their role in that person’s leadership development. Isn’t it much easier though to play the blame game, deflecting any part in the whole growth process.
The tipping point of leadership occurs when you stop blaming others for your disappointment, frustration, or bitterness.
— Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) April 1, 2016
— Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) April 2, 2016