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
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.
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.
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
I love the word potential. It is full of hopes, dreams and possibilities. I believe we all have unlimited potential and the journey of our lives is how we cultivate and utilise opportunities to achieve our hopes and dreams. There are however challenges in how many opportunities we can create and how many opportunities we have access to. Unfortunately these challenges are harder for some groups than others, and as an educator, as a parent, as a human being, this frustrates me.
Public schools in more affluent suburbs have self-fulfilling prophecies. They attract their cohort because of their perceived success and have success because they attract affluent families. This does not necessarily correlate to good teaching and learning, but it does mean that they can demand more of their families in terms of contribution; be that money; devices; uniform; or extra-curricular involvement.
As schools increasingly innovate and utilise technology to improve learning, this generates a greater disparity for schools with higher numbers of low-SES students. If schools in more affluent communities can insist (as does my own children’s school) that families provide a device (in my case an iPad) for middle school and another for secondary (in my case a Macbook Pro), how does this leverage opportunity?
There is undeniable evidence that when students have access to technology it increases their opportunity for learner led construction of understanding and personalised learning. If schools are able to demand the best of devices to be accessible to individuals 24/7, this of course enables a range of innovative approaches including the breaking down of traditional education. When students do not have access 24/7, this limits the opportunity for schools to challenge traditional systems, approaches and structures and ultimately makes it more difficult for them to foster and cultivate learning that leads to critical, creative and independent thinkers who can leverage a range of technologies.
The ultra-conservative approach to education reform and funding is failing a significant proportion of our young people to compete with their privileged peers. I do not believe for a second that the young people I work with could not have the same opportunities as those living in the leafy greens. In fact, I truly believe that the resilience and determination embodied in their daily actions would lead to the achievement of even greater potential if they were afforded the same opportunities as more affluent teens.
If we do not address this issue, and do not support schools by subsidising technology in lower SE areas, then we will not long see the limitations upon social mobility, further widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Part of my leadership responsibilities this year has been to support the development of student voice. There have been multiple highlights throughout the year with students being involved in a range of key decisions, and instigating change at our school in the ways we approach making decisions and managing processes, some of which have been entrenched for a significant time. Developing these opportunities for students has been a natural fit with the way I work with students and an extension of the way my classroom teaching has evolved. Listening and acting upon student ideas and feedback has always been important to me as I imagine my own children in the young people I work alongside daily.
This past term though has seen a shift in Student Voice at my school with the opportunity to plan and organise a forum inviting a range of student leaders from other schools. This would be the second student forum for our school, the first one held last year.
I am well aware of my inclination to be particularly controlling over events/activities that I am responsible for. To say it was only a little unnerving to relinquish the control would be a significant understatement. Allowing students to be in control within your own community is very different to inviting the outside in and risking failure on a very public scale. Yet this is exactly what I did and, how they rose to the occasion (you can see a post about the forum here).
The difference with students being involved and heard versus students owning the project/event is tremendous. One allows the student to feel valued and the other empowers them to be invaluable. I look forward to making space for more authentic opportunities for students to own.
There are a range of different representations of the concept of innovation in schools. It’s a word that I don’t particularly like to use, in fact when my school was looking to name its new collaborative open learning space I strongly contended for the word “innovative” not to be included in the label.
Buzz words fly around business and education continually as we reevaluate what it means to develop successful organisations. This is even more true now as change accelerates with modern technology and access to a global learning and business community. Just recently my son’s school rolled out their new promotional campaign of being “Future Proof” claiming the aim is “teaching children at all ages to be happy, resilient, adaptable and inquisitive, … future-proofing its students, to be the leaders of tomorrow.”
The Edtechteam promote the “Future Ready Schools” initiative, claiming that “Future Ready means having a comprehensive approach to the technology integration”. Furthermore they claim “Being Future Ready is a mindset, not a destination… In order for students to have agency, learning should take places in inspiring spaces where teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions.”
I think we spend a lot of time generating labels and linguistics to represent modern learning and modern spaces and by the time they are adopted, things have changed once again. It’s no wonder schools and teachers become overwhelmed and even despondent as new ideals are continuously rolled out.
So where am I going with all this? Well for me it’s trying to make sense of how I can be part of a leadership team that supports and develops continual and sustainable change in a school without it feeling like an entire makeover every year. How can we develop an emerging culture that embraces disruption as an ongoing response to making choices about what is best for kids in the now, which could ultimately mean rapid change in some respects in short periods of time. A definite challenge, but ultimately what choice do we have if our ambition is to do what is right for kids?
Each year that I teach pre-service teachers as part of their undergraduate teaching degree at Flinders University, I am both inspired and filled with hope and pained by some of their confessions.
The final assessment piece for the course I teach requires students to evaluate the teaching they observed in their placement schools, remark on their conversations with staff and mentors and reflect upon their own teaching experiences. I believe this is the most beneficial of all the assessments required of our students as I am of the belief that the most valuable skill we can develop to transform our practice is the ability to discuss and reflect upon our own teaching and that of others and develop intentions based on this as to how to improve.
For each reflection I read, I am encouraged by the aspirations of these young people to continue to grow and it is encouraging to read about so many learning environments instilling the importance of a growth mindset in both students and teachers.
Amongst the wonderful inspiring reflections are also moments of disappointment. Over a semester, I get to know these students quite well, their honesty and enthusiasm for learning and their thirst for any guidance from teachers and mentors is heartening. However, when I read that “mentor” teachers tell their pre-service teachers that their lessons and courses cannot be differentiated, or is too hard to adjust for students, a little part of me aches.
I have no delusion that each and every one of these student teachers will have a practicum experience with perfect expertise (no such thing) but still, without fail, each year I read a few statements that make me want to scratch my eyes out.
Throughout our course I remind them that that ultimately they will develop their own beliefs, their own values and should surround themselves with people that will support and encourage them to achieve these. I can only hope that “too hard” doesn’t stick and that they see the inherent value in the things that will ultimately impact on their students growth.
Oh and P.S EVERY course, at ANY year level can be differentiated. Just like EVERY child and how they experience learning is personal and different. Differentiation is not about providing individual programs, it is about knowing your students needs and responding and planning to meet them.
One of the favourite parts of my job is the opportunity to observe other teachers in full swing in the classroom. I think often when we approach classroom observations we are expecting to highlight deficits of practice and this may lead to judgements not founded in developing others, but instead on comparisons and negativity. Of course it is crucial to identify opportunities to challenge ourselves to always improve, but this post is my opportunity to shine a light on someone who may not typically be spotlighted.
At our school, we have been implementing Feedback for Learning strategies over the past two years and I was delighted to see this practice embedded in a year 9 music lesson by Miss D. I only wish I had recorded it so that others could see how well she applies the strategy of no hands up (mental note for next time).
When I gave feedback to Mel about how well she utilised this strategy, she responded to effect of;
‘Well otherwise, it’s just the same kids answering isn’t it!’
Exactly! Succinct and to the point, we know that when we only call on those who raise their hands, we are choosing to only teach to the group of students who are mastering the content.
Another powerful strategy Miss D used and one which I was extremely delighted to see in action after facilitating a whole school session this week on Growth Mindset, was clarity and purpose for students into the reasons why she was testing their understanding and knowledge.
In the lesson I observed, Miss D explained to her class that they were about to complete a test, she also explained that on the test there was a question that she did NOT expect anyone to be able to answer. She explained that this would not contribute to their grade, but instead was a way for her as their teacher to determine if there were any students who already understood this concept and could be challenged further, any who may have some idea which she could work with to embed over the coming weeks and those who had no idea at all yet and that she would be working with over the coming months.
I was not only impressed with how clearly she explained the purpose of having question 12, but I was really interested to see how the students responded. Instead of being daunted by question 12 those students who’d had no prior exposure to the material appeared more confident. They may not have answered the question, but I do believe that when they handed in the test, they would have felt that the focus was on their learning continuum and not a fixed sense of ability.
Thanks Miss D!
Our families are crucial to our success and the risks we take in our Unit. Without their support we would not have the freedom to push boundaries, try new things and ultimately make mistakes. Involving our families and providing them with voice is essential to developing the trust this requires. The introduction of our Unit Blog has provided a space to connect and has been an amazing avenue for sharing our experiences in “real time”. The truth is though that not all our families have access to the internet nor the inclination to get online to see what has been happening. It is thus important for us to connect and involve our families in multiple ways.
Connecting with our families using texts messages and sending pictures via mobile has proven to be a great way to engage them in real time. We almost use this in a similar fashion that most would use a twitter account. We send out general reminders, updates and information. We also share photos of what we are doing and places we go. One consideration we negotiate is having students who cannot have their images shared on social media. This means these students are never included in photographs on our blog, in our newsletters or on our YouTube channel. Sending pictures via our mobile means these students can still share these experiences with families and carers.
We engage our families in many other ways including open forums, technology workshops, student led expos, family conferences, celebrations, volunteer opportunities and invitations to participate in learning experiences. Our reporting process (Semester Reflections) is another way we ensure that our communication to families is valuable and meaningful. This was a priority for me when I came to my current site and I was very fortunate to be given the flexibility to start from scratch. I wanted to ensure that our families knew we were responding to their children as unique individuals. This process continues to evolve and it is through the feedback we solicit from our families that we continue to develop and grow.