Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald featured an article on the learning spaces at one of our schools, St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta. Our approach as a system of schools is to to ensure the provision of a relevant and contemporary learning experience for every child, and to create a professionally rewarding professional life for all our staff. To do this, means developing the capabilities of all teachers by introducing structures and processes that will encourage critical reflection of practice and reflective dialogue and analysis of data, since we know good teachers improve student learning.
Professor Richard Elmore wrote in The Age in 2007, “Teaching, as a profession, is undergoing a dramatic transformation, from isolated work in self-contained classrooms to collaborative work designed around challenging problems of student learning, from simple routine tasks that require continuous monitoring of how students learn, from the profoundly anti-intellectual, anti-professional culture of schooling represented by (Christopher) Bantick to one characterised by respect for the knowledge of educators.”
The move towards agile learning spaces is not some sort of quasi social experiment neither is it a short-term fix; it is a response to the transformation happening in knowledge societies and in the profession itself as teachers and students develop high levels of knowledge and technological skills.
I am often surprised at the defensive position taken when attempts are made at improving learning for children. While I understand some of the shortsighted and silly attempts made in the past to supposedly improve schools should never have been entertained let alone implemented, too often we use the past experience to shape the future and doom ourselves to the same mistakes. We seem to value conformity at the expense of placing teachers in environments that will encourage and empower them to work collaboratively, to learn and plan together and to build their skills base.
The move towards agile learning spaces is driven by the goal to improve learning – student learning and teacher learning. The 1970s experiment of pulling down the walls in classrooms was doomed to failure because teacher learning was missing from the equation! The classroom may have been around for thousands of years but we need to ask ourselves whether the traditional classrooms are actually providing the kind of learning and learning experiences today’s students deserve?
John Dewey wrote in The School and Society:
Some few years ago I was looking about the school supply stores in the city, trying to find desks and chairs which seemed thoroughly suitable from all points of view – artistic, hygienic and educational – to the needs of the children. We had a great deal of difficulty in finding what we needed, and finally one dealer, more intelligent than the rest, made this remark: “I am afraid we have not what you want. You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening”. That tells the story of the traditional education. There is very little place in the traditional schoolroom for the child to work. The workshop, the laboratory, the materials, the tools with which the child may construct, create and actively inquire, and even the requisite space, have been for the most part lacking.
We know that lower class sizes don’t necessarily guarantee better learning outcomes yet somehow we equate this with good teacher practice. Good practice is teachers getting to know each student as individuals and employing flexible teaching strategies that respond to these differences. Traditional classrooms make it difficult to change the space in order to create a multitude of learning activities (group, one on one, independent learning etc).
Agile learning spaces are the response to not the reason for. We know from the research that good teachers have a positive influence on student learning outcomes. Building the skills of all teachers requires a courageous cultural shift. It is about understanding the nature of the world today and the nature of learning.
If we are to learn lessons from the past, then we need to realise that not every child had the kind of learning experience they deserved and we have to be honest about that. We can no longer rely on the ideological vending machine to deliver quality learning and teaching. We look to contemporary theory, research and best practice to guide us in our work, we rely on good teachers to deliver quality learning and teaching and we design learning environments that will enhance it.
The replacement for the ideological vending machine is I think, developing trusting relationships with teachers and their school leadership teams.This recognises that as professionals they will take responsibility for their own professional growth which has at its very centre a deep commitment to improving teacher practices that are evidence based, reflective in nature, collaborative by choice and innovative by preference.
In my experience most teachers either do this now or yearn to do it, so let’s all back them.