Wednesday, March 28, 2012

PLG- Collaboration is the key

Little did we know a year ago when ten of us sat around in the staffroom talking about open learning spaces that twelve months later the Professional Learning Group would grow so quickly. So it was wonderful to see 42 teachers gather at Freemans Bay School to talk learning and spaces. And in a wave of trans-Tasman collaboration it was wonderful to also welcome Erin, skyping in from Canberra. Word is obviously spreading! It’s great to see so many new schools also getting involved and the network widening. There’s a real interest in looking at how to maximize the opportunities presented by new learning environments.

Freemans Bay School has recently added a new learning block, with five teaching spaces and a shared awhina area, furnished and utilized as a breakout space. A video that some students had made shared how they use the new space and the new furniture as part of their day. They talked of comfortable furniture and being able to make decisions about where they were learning.

The nature of learning spaces at the school has evolved from open plan to more traditional classrooms over the years, and now sees a transformation to modern learning environments. It’s an evolution that’s set to continue for a while with a lot more building on its way. A combination of subsidence, asbestos and leaky buildings has meant that essentially the school is, over the course of the next couple of years, going to be reconstructed. It represents a real opportunity for the school to look at what learning and teaching spaces might look like.

Collaboration formed the main theme of the afternoon with World CafĂ© style groups looking at what enhances and what forms barriers to teacher collaboration in open learning spaces. Interestingly the more the dialogue around new learning and teaching environments develop, the more emphasis is being placed on the teaching practice that goes on within the space rather than the space itself. Space can certainly act as an enabler if designed well but it’s what happens within it that really matters. And it’s the nature of teacher-teacher collaboration, those crucial interrelationships that become really key. This was very much reflected in the pluses and minuses that were raised:

What enhances collaboration?
·      Having a shared belief and understanding- teachers, students & community- are we all kicking the ball in the same direction?
·      Teacher relationships with each other – what organizational norms do we need in place to develop the high level of trust necessary?
·      Teachers learning from each other, the notion of incidental professional development- we can learn so much from each other
·      Teachers utilizing their own, and each other’s strengths- how can we build on these?

What are the barriers?
·      A lack of understanding as to how to run shared spaces- what are the systems underpinning shared spaces and the common pedagogy required?
·      Teacher’s mind set- What if some people don’t buy into the notion of an open, shared space?
·      Communication- How do you ensure teacher-teacher and teacher-student communication is optimized?
·      Responsibility for students in a shared space- Whose is it?
·      Teacher’s attitudes and willingness to explore new opportunities- what if some are more willing than others?
·      Community attitudes- previous experiences people bring with them- have they seen it all before?

This is really healthy dialogue to be involved in and certainly there are themes here that will be common to the many schools present exploring new concepts of learning spaces. The PLG offers real diversity in terms of peoples experiences and ideas around learning environments and it’s great to be able to have a forum in which to share them.

Of the barriers that emerge, many I suspect are barriers to good teaching and learning regardless of the nature of the space. They are all about mindsets, communication, relevant pedagogy and ideas of ownership- both of place and people. Decades of teachers working in isolation in single cell environments has undoubtedly entrenched some notions of ‘my space’ and ‘my class’ and many aspects of open and shared learning environments challenge some of these practices. New spaces might well act as a catalyst to change but change won’t be sustained without shared belief and sincere collaboration.

So where to next? As we move forward with the PLG group this year the dialogue around collaboration will no doubt continue and deepen. It’s certainly one of the reoccurring themes that bubblesup. The next get together will be on June 7th and hosted at Hingaia Peninsula School. A great chance to look at some new spaces and to see how students and teachers are using them. Register your interest here.

Thanks to Freemans Bay for being such great hosts, to everyone who came along, and to Furnware for supplying the afternoon tea.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Studios and cave spaces: Hingaia Peninsula School

If there’s any publication that might be considered a seminal work in the field of learning spaces, then The Language of School Design is quite possibly it. What it helps to do is to give educators and architects a common language in which to talk schools and learning spaces. And that’s important, because quite often, let’s face it, we talk different languages.

One of the significant set of vocabulary to come from the book is that of the notions of the Campfire, the Watering Hole, and Cave Space. The terms were first coined by David Thornburg in his Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st Century, but Prakash Nair et al have somewhat put legs on them and considered what they might look like in learning and teaching settings. Generally speaking the Campfire suggests a place to learn from an expert, the Watering hole- a place to learn from peers, and the Cave Space, a place to learn from yourself.

In the old days classrooms were well set up as campfires. Not surprising really as past notions of learning have often been set around the ‘sage on the stage’ transmission model of teaching and learning, with the teacher up the front and students there to absorb as much as possible. Now though with pedagogical advances and new energies being put into designing innovative learning environments schools have got a real opportunity to consider not only how they can redefine campfire spaces but also to investigate alternative modalities of learning and teaching. It was a real privilege this week therefore to have the chance to walk around Auckland’s newest school - Hingaia Peninsula School – because here there are learning settings, and cave spaces in particular, galore!

With learning studios designed to cater for 75 children and three teachers, there is plenty of evidence of thought being invested into learning settings. The studios each have a large open space and off it five purposeful breakout spaces (intentionally not designed for a whole ‘class’ teaching)- one set up as a performance space complete with green screen, one a space set up for groups of children, then a creative, arts based space, a space for individual learning and finally a resource/ teacher space. These are spaces that might be used by large groups, small groups or individuals.

Within the main area a variety of built in and moveable furniture provides numerous settings for learning along with a number of nooks and crannies to accommodate the needs of each learner.

It’s these nooks and crannies, these cave spaces, that Nair, Fielding and Lackney suggest are critical for todays learners- “places for individual study, reflection, quiet reading and creative flow are rare in school” (p. 140)- but they argue, it’s in these places of solitude that students, “assimilate, synthesize and internalize” (p. 141). So at Hingaia there are short benches set into the walls and window seats ideal for individual learning and reflection.

The learning studios at Hingaia are exciting to walk around and I can’t wait to return during the day and talk to some children about them. The design represents an important milestone in the design of learning spaces in New Zealand primary schools. In fact I’d argue that the spaces will actually redefine what future classrooms here could look like. Watch this space!


Nair, P., Fielding, R., & Lackney, J. (2009). The Language of School Design (2nd ed.): DesignShare.

Thornburg, D. C. (2007). Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century. Retrieved from

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Building (and biking) the Education Revolution

A recent trip to Australia highlighted for me the quantity of school buildings that have sprung up over the last few years. I’d realized before arriving that education had benefited from the recession avoiding Economic Stimulus Package in the form of new sports halls, performing arts studios and classroom blocks but I think the scale of the project really hit home.

I spent a month biking around Tasmania. It's a fascinating combination of wild mountain landscapes, remote coastlines, historical settlements and long empty roads – somewhat of a magnet for summer cyclists. But when passing through towns- and once the appetite for coffee and a bakery had been satisfied- I often found myself on front of a school. And invariably at the front gate would be a sign akin to the one above.

School building and improvements have occurred on an immense scale, not just in Tasmania but right throughout Australia. It is part of a $16.2 billion commitment to education, with the spin off of generating thousands of jobs in construction and related industries. Since the announcement of the investment in early 2009, more than 90% of the 10,500 projects have been completed. It’s certainly not been a smooth process according to much in the media but no-one can deny that it’s been a quick one. As I pedaled along though, I began to wonder, “So what?”

Take a look at the Final report of the BER Implementation Taskforce and what is clear is that “value for money” was the key evaluation tool rather than looking at how new learning environments could be assessed in terms of educational outcomes. It’s much harder to determine how the buildings impact on learning but the irony that the project was about Building the Education Revolution is not lost. It’s a point picked up by Clare Newton and Lena Gan in this very readable article published earlier this year:

“The economic stimulus required quick action, so the federal government designed BER guidelines to ensure that this happened. On the other hand, the renewal of education infrastructure is a long-term investment that ideally involves school communities reflecting deeply on the kinds of teaching practices and learning spaces that will be required over the next twenty to fifty years.”

Newton & Gan suggest that overall the indications are that the BER project has been a huge step in the right direction in terms of environments. They list a number of positive outcomes including the facilitation of a transition to more student-centred pedagogies, a focus on how the new spaces can impact learning and teaching outcomes, and new buildings exemplifying how new technology can be accommodated. They  conclude thought that “buildings alone will not be sufficient to enable an education revolution. Teachers will need support to optimize their use of these new learning spaces”.

This last one is a crucial point and one I found myself reflecting on as I pedaled my own revolutions up and down Tasmania’s many hills. What is the nature of the support that teachers need, and what have schools with new spaces already put in place?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Open Learning Spaces Professional Learning Group

If you’re in the Auckland area you may well be interested in the Open Learning Spaces Professional Learning Group. The idea is to bring together teachers and leaders who are interested in open/ flexible/ innovative learning environments on a termly basis to investigate the opportunities and challenges that they present.

Each term we’re hosted by a different school with the aim of seeing how different schools are utilizing their new spaces, or how they’ve converted existing ones. We'll be kicking off the year, on Thursday March 22nd, with a visit to Freemans Bay School. They have just completed a brand new learning and teaching block and have another big building project ahead of them later this year.

So if you know teachers and leaders who might be interested please pass the details on. They might already be teaching in a modern learning environment, or just thinking about it. They might be at a school looking at rebuilding or remodeling a part of it. Or they might be in a brand new school. Alternatively, they just might be interested in coming along to find out what the talk is all about. All are welcome. It’s free to come along but if you register here, it just helps with the catering!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning Environments Spatial Lab, Melbourne University

Great to see Melbourne University's Learning Environments Spatial Lab  University of Melbourne featured on the CEFPI website as one of the 2011 award winners. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a couple of days there last year and found it a fascinating space to learn and work in.

Converted from a past life as a gymnasium (look on the wooden panels behind the screens and you can still see lines), it’s now been transformed into a high-tech reconfigurable space used to research possibilities and relationships between space and pedagogy.

As it mentions on the architect’s website, “The Learning Environments Spatial Lab is intended to make problematic a host of matters relating to the design of classrooms, in order to challenge users of the space in regard to their own thinking about what a classroom can be.”

There are certainly more questions than answers out there regarding learning space design and it will be fascinating to follow the learning and research that comes out of the lab.