Saturday, November 12, 2011

Professional Learning Group: The community grows

The level of interest in open learning spaces and modern learning environments in New Zealand is really growing. This week’s professional learning group was held at Epsom Normal Primary in Auckland and saw three new schools getting involved in the dialogue.

Epsom is a great example of how schools can convert existing spaces and ‘single cell’ environments into open learning spaces that value collaboration, student empowerment and a focus on strength based learning. Much of it has been the vision of principal Jane Cavanagh-Eyre and during the meeting she shared her own journey, from open-plan to modern learning environments.

The school has really set out to celebrate the environment around them. As Rachel, one of their teachers suggested ‘you don’t need four walls to learn’. Consequently they have made excellent use of the outdoor spaces including a bank being turned into a student garden just outside the shared space. The addition of some strategically placed windows has not only lightened the learning spaces but also increased the connection with the outdoor areas and century old pohutakawa trees. They have really set out to celebrate the environment around them. The redevelopment of the library has helped turn what was once a resource room into a facility that has become very much a space shared by children and adults.

What was particularly exciting though was the level of collaboration evident among the teachers. They talked of reaching new levels of collegiality, of positivity and stronger staff relations- much as a result of opening up the space.  The team involved in teaching in the new space acknowledged that they had many questions remaining- they only moved in in April- and many of them related to collaboration. It is certainly a reoccurring theme at the PLG. There seems to be an inextricable link between these new spaces and the level of sincere collaboration required to make them work. The teachers were keen to look ahead and explore how teacher collaboration relates to student collaboration, and how the space can contribute towards it.

As the Ministry of Education moves ahead with its School Property Strategy 2011-2021, we will see more and more of this type of conversion going ahead. It is a key part of the strategy: “modernizing classrooms and converting them into modern teaching spaces will be a high priority over the coming years” (p. 13). Epsom is certainly an excellent example of what this might look like.  

We are keen to grow the PLG further and are aware of more school starting to investigate new spaces and collaborative teacher practice. Details of the first Auckland meeting (mid March 2012) will be available on the website (just getting started!) and via Twitter @chrisbradbeer #openlearningspacesplg Please get in touch if you are interested in coming along.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A legacy of open-plan

Open-plan classrooms have left trailing behind them somewhat of a legacy in terms of the way we think about newer open learning spaces. One legacy in particular, I suspect, is an enculturated hesitancy for schools to open up spaces again. The collective memory of an education innovation that generally speaking did not work is a strong one and comparisons between the two are understandably inevitable.

Imagine you'd spent several years teaching in an open-plan space back in the seventies or eighties and you hadn’t enjoyed it. You'd found it a challenging experience and certainly not a professional fulfilling one. You remember the noise, the poorly designed spaces and the stress that teachers often found themselves working under...and now you see the introduction of what appears on the face of it to be similar open classroom spaces being constructed. How would you feel? Well, perhaps a slight sense of déjà vu coupled with a dose of skepticism.

It is not entirely surprising to hear then that those teachers who taught in these spaces earlier in their careers are viewing our new teaching and learning environments with some suspicion. At a recent conference our team was presenting at, the by now familiar catch cry of the return to open-plan came up again. Are these new open learning spaces, these modern learning environments, not just a re-hash of an idea that didn’t work before, one teacher questioned, recalling her own experiences three decades ago.  To all intents and purposes, she suggested, they look much the same. This is not an uncommon response to our spaces and one I believe that represents a quite deeply held belief about what a classroom should look like.

The tendency it seems is to superimpose 'open-plan' memories onto new open learning spaces and to recall all that that represents. Maybe the language is partially to blame. Perhaps it’s the word ‘open’. I think we need to focus less on the ‘open’ now and more on the ‘learning space’. I wonder if in fact calling the spaces ‘open learning spaces’ at all could be construed as misleading and setting ourselves up for failure. It’s certainly something that I’d be guilty of. Perhaps I should be using flexible or purposeful as is the vogue in Australia, agile as Stephen Heppell would prefer to call them, or Modern Learning Environments, the New Zealand Ministry’s preferred nomenclature.