Innovative Learning Environments: 4 ways to think about sustaining change
16 Nov 2016
We love the photos of cool learning spaces with funky furniture. They are captivating, inspiring, but it is impossible to know the full story from a tweeted photo.
Recently I’ve had numerous opportunities to talk about the context for change and several resonating themes are emerging around people and change:
- That chair/table/tech won’t be the silver bullet
- It’s just like Maslow’s Hierarchy
- How does your garden grow?
- This is just the tip of the iceberg
Photo: Derek Bartels
That chair/table/tech won’t be the silver bullet
When I walk around our school with groups, they take notice of the elements, the physical designs, the furniture and configuration of spaces. One thing that people notice in innovative learning environments (ILEs) is the lack of, or perhaps different thinking around, the teacher’s desk.
At NBCS, we have ‘caddies’ in our learning spaces that serve the purpose of storage and provide a stand-up place for student-teacher chat. They have been useful, and have helped to dismantle the barrier and culture that a teacher’s desk creates. They came about through a process of identifying a need, addressing the context and designing a solution. This process is fairly important, as these decisions have greater impact when when there is purpose and intentionality..
It’s just like Maslow’s Hierarchy
The premise of the ILETC research project is: Can altering teacher mind frames unlock the potential of innovative learning environments? I am often curious when teachers say, “Yes, but you don’t know our kids!”
This tells me that they think the effectiveness of changing the learning paradigm to be more relevant to the 21st C is dependent on their students’ capacity to embrace change. Rather, it seems to me, that the educators are the variable here. We need to believe that it is up to us, we are the change agents.
My colleague Steve Collis and I put our heads together little while back to (unscientifically) come up with the key concerns we regularly hear around ILEs. These included:
- Time to plan
- Kids off task
- Acoustics and headaches
- Back problems
- Storage of resources
- Teaching on display to co-workers
- Parent expectations
- General chaos!
When it’s working well many of us can attest to the benefits of the ILE to student learning: increased levels of students engagement, student and teacher agency, creativity, a sense of adventure. The environment of learning becomes more personal, real and fun.
I have started to think of the change process in terms in the style of Maslow’s Hierarchy, If we address some of these issues like ‘Where do I put my stuff?’ and ‘The noise is giving me a headache’ (both real concerns), it may be possible that teachers can move up the pyramid and reach educational self-actualisation: ‘I’ve never been so professionally creative and empowered’.
How does your garden grow?
When it comes to the process of change I love the gardening metaphor. We never reach the place of completeness, something always needs to be done and to explain this I like to talk about the garden. Please don’t think this attests to any capacity on my part, no green thumbs here.
When we design and layout a new garden we can stand back and admire our work for about a week before pesky weeds seem to poke through. Then a little later we may need to prune back some branches, from time-to-time a plant needs replacing and there may come a time when we pull out all the plants and start again on that patch.
When I gave this illustration to a group this week, one suggested that the lifespan of a garden is about five years. That could be a good way to look how we innovate in schools. Think about what stage some of your key projects are at: Is it time to re-landscape?
This is just the tip of the iceberg
When we see the design of an innovative school, or spend a few days there what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. The real work is under the surface. What actually happens to maintain the vision and reinforce the culture?
As I think it through I am developing this diagram as a way of thinking about this. We have a vision and core values expressing what we believe about education and learning, we can articulate the ‘mountaintop’ – what might it look like if we get there? To reach that aspiration the hard work needs to happen:
How do we help our people?
Their mindset, feelings, equipping for the change
What are the practical tasks we need to get done?
Roles and responsibilities, protocols around the use of spaces and places, and articulating systems and processes.
An active Learning Environments Australasia member for six years and former NSW Chapter Chair, Anne Knock is the Director of the Sydney Centre for Innovative Learning (SCIL) based at Northern Beaches Christian School. She is also one of a team of PhD students with the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) at The University of Melbourne who are involved in the ILETC Project.