Learning is....
Planting a seed in our brain... learning to water, nurture and grow it.... so we can live on the fruit of our learning and plant more seeds.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Modern Learning Environments - how the furniture and space work with learning.

Modern Learning Environments or MLEs - this is the big catch phrase floating around in education at the moment.  Schools are reinventing their spaces, opening up single cell classrooms to join the spaces together and create breakout spaces.  Along with it comes the notion of teachers sharing students and working with all the children that would normally be with two or more teachers in a single cell classroom.

Our Lady Star School - sourced through Google.
Alongside the opening up of spaces is the modern classroom furniture that has been popping up.  Bright and colourful, and not always the dreaded beanbag, classroom furniture has been reinvented for the modern learner with low tables to work at while sitting on the floor to normal height to "bar leaner" table, with cushions, blocks, chairs and tall stools to sit on (or you can choose to stand).  Individual desks have become a dirty word; the theory is that the child will work where they are most comfortable and may change where they work according to the task, who they are working with or how they want to sit.

With desks gone, it then requires other storage solutions for students to keep their exercise books and writing implements.  Storage cubes and shelving is therefore employed to do the job, with tote trays holding classroom learning and teaching resources.

Te Puru School - sourced through Google.
I haven't had the opportunity to create a MLE yet.  But I have admired a few classes.  Last year I went to Hautapu School near Cambridge for an EduIgnite.  They held it in their junior class block which had recently been remodelled as an MLE opening up two classes so they could work together.  Each class had a slider if they wanted to close off from the other, and inbetween was a shared wet area for art and cooking.  There was also access to a toilet from the classes.

These were the things I noted at the time that took my fancy:

  • it was bright and colourful and had lots of natural light.
  • it opened up to a shared courtyard with other class blocks off a deck.
  • there was a variety of storage, including under seating.
  • there were a variety of options of chairs to sit on and options for putting together some of the furniture to create couches in a circle or S bend.
  • the table that you could draw on with whiteboard markers - we all had a go and it was fun.
  • a variety of table heights, and a variety of sorts of tables.
  • the fact there was a cooking facility within the class to enable cooking to be part of every day class work.
One thing that I noted, that would distress me, was the lack of wall space to display student work.  I love to have lots of work up and I don't want to have to take stuff and change it every week.  I want enough space to display lots of work over a period of time.

The next EduIgnite was held at St Peters on State Highway One north of Cambridge.  We were meeting in their newest block of classes for their Year 7 and 8 students.  Again they had tables of various heights and an array of chairs and stools.  Classrooms were off a corridor on one side of the building, which doubled as shared space, separated with a clear bank of windows and were able to be closed off from the corridor with a clear sliding door.  There was also a large shared space in the middle of the building.
Stonefields School  -  sourced through Core Education via Google
Recently I have done some relief teaching at Cambridge Middle School.  I also did some relieving there in 2007/2008 while studying my GDITE qualification, and back then many of the rooms felt cold, dark and over crowded with students and resources and classroom equipment.

Russley School - sourced through Google.
While Cambridge Middle School does not have shared spaces as such, they have obviously taken on some serious modernising in the last six years since I was there.  The classrooms seem to be decluttered, more natural light is able to enter, most of the prefabs have been fitted with ranch sliders onto newish decking that connects them, new carpets, wall coverings and paint have lifted the rooms, and there are a variety of desks, seating and storage solutions in each space around the school.  They also installed heat pumps, which is great because I remember those rooms being like freezers in the winter.  The rooms appear bright and friendly and have a sense of "lets learn" in them.  The whole feeling of the school is respectful, relaxed and friendly, but we're here to learn.

And last year EducampTheTron was held in the library at Maeroa Intermediate.  I had the pleasure of sitting on a wobbly stool.  I hadn't seen one before, and I'm not sure I'd be that keen to have them in my classroom initially, but I loved being the naughty teacher in the back row wobbling away on this novel piece of furniture.

Which brings me to what has inspired me to write this blog.  This link came through my Twitter feed before I went to bed (so instead I am typing this) called Blame the Furniture for the Poor Education.  I thought, "What the heck?"  So I clicked on it and read it.

In the learning process, there are determinants if the students do really learn as or not. Factors such as the ability and effectiveness of the instructor, the method of instruction, the attentiveness of students But did you know that the furniture arrangement in the classroom affects learning too? Yes it does.

A classroom is called as the learning environment of both teachers and students. The former has the control over the classroom setting while the latter are in one way, is controlled by classroom environment and its elements. According to recent studies, teachers hold dominion over their classroom environment- they even make it personalized in most cases. Teachers believe that through this, they are able to control the social interaction among students. If the classroom is being set in such a way that students would be able to feel free and comfortable, the teacher could ask them or encourage them to participate in much easier means.

Sensory stimulation is another effect of a good classroom setting. For children, it is easier to learn in a very appealing classroom- like the elements of the things that would appeal to the senses are there. Pictures, colors, sound, and so forth. The arrangement of furniture affects space allocation and space allocation has effects to the learning atmosphere. If the classroom looks narrow and small for students, they feel restricted and they do not interact well. On the other hand, if a classroom provides adequate space, students feel that there is space for interaction.

Many teachers and administrators tend to focus on pedagogical and interpersonal issues, ignoring the physical-spatial context in which the teaching-learning process occurs. (Loughlin & Suina, 1982; Weinstein, 1981). As observed, this is indeed true. What is a class of seemingly smart students when a classroom seems too dark for interaction?
In modern times, technology is being integrated to the curricula. On the other hand, if the classroom setting is not improved in such a way that it will not create an atmosphere of participation, it is useless.

By tradition, classroom arrangements come in two patterns: the territorial and the functional arrangements. In a territorial set-up, desks are arranged by ownership while in the functional, they are arranged according to the tasks in an activity. Both may be effective as long as external factors are considered well.

It is surprising to know that furniture arrangement affects learning- but indeed, it is true.

The three schools I discussed above all have these elements in common:
  • increased natural light due to taking down walls, changing windows, putting in ranch sliders or changing window treatments.
  • a variety of tables and chairs for students to use.
  • a variety of storage solutions.
This article states: "If the classroom looks narrow and small for students, they feel restricted and they do not interact well. On the other hand, if a classroom provides adequate space, students feel that there is space for interaction."  The classrooms I have visited have created space artificially with improved windows and doors and, in some cases, the removal of walls and changing usage of space.  By doing these simple (but no doubt expensive) things, the classrooms become so much bigger and are more inviting for students to enter.

The article explores how teachers control the space:  "According to recent studies, teachers hold dominion over their classroom environment- they even make it personalized in most cases. Teachers believe that through this, they are able to control the social interaction among students. If the classroom is being set in such a way that students would be able to feel free and comfortable, the teacher could ask them or encourage them to participate in much easier means.... The arrangement of furniture affects space allocation and space allocation has effects to the learning atmosphere."  It is true that teachers like to control who sits where and why.  And I have witnessed this at the schools I have been at recently.

Some teachers like to know who is sitting where and that they will stay at that seat because when so and so sits beside that kid all chaos breaks loose or so and so gets nothing done!  Yet the philosophy behind MLEs is that children will take ownership of how and where (along with the what, why and when) of their learning and self-manage themselves while choosing who they will work with and where.  Of course, you and I know that this does not happen overnight, and most classes will need to be trained up to even attempt this ideal.  So this concept can be hit and miss from class to class in a school.

I taught in a digital classroom for two years.  It was not an MLE, and each child had their own desk with all their own stuff in it and they were rather possessive of their chairs.  But because we had eight desktops and ten laptops in the classroom, and excellent access to the Multi-Purpose Room, my class had a lot of flexibility as to where they wanted to work.  So if they wanted to work on the floor underneath a spare desk at the side of the room, they could.  If they wanted to record something without the extra class noise, they could pop next door to the MPR and use it.  If they wanted to collaborate at tables and move their desks to do so, they could, as long as it went back to the original grouping at when that work was over or at the end of the day.  To me, it was about utilising the space and furniture and tools we had available to us to get the best out of our learning each day.

This statement also spoke to me: "For children, it is easier to learn in a very appealing classroom- like the elements of the things that would appeal to the senses are there. Pictures, colors, sound, and so forth."  In a blog post last year, The Classroom Environment - what makes a class attractive?, I discussed a blog by Bruce Hammond and how it inspired me to look at what was on my walls and why it was there. 

My class at the end of March 2014.
For me, it is essential that the classroom reflect the children in it and what they have been learning.  The children like to see their work on the walls and wires.  They like to show it off to their older and younger siblings, parents and grandparents when they come into the class.  I enjoy watching and listening to the children exclaiming with excitement when they see their work has been displayed and weeks later going back and discussing how they did that piece of work.  That is the essence of a an appealing classroom.


Old school desk arrangements - sourced from MOE via Google
Gone are the days of the desks row on row.  Any teacher still teaching like this should probably be taking a hard look at their teaching methods and classroom management. 

But the Ministry of Education is actively encouraging schools with property money to spend to go in the direction of MLEs.  Many teachers who have been around long enough to have seen and/or taught in the open plan classrooms of the 70s and 80s have voiced that the wheel has reinvented itself yet again.  Some schools like Ngatea Primary School have found innovative ways to create shared spaces and have worked hard to bring their teachers on board the bus to change the way they teach, to work collaboratively with their colleagues and students in shared spaces.

Which brings me to the point that it is all very well having lovely new furniture and bright rooms with natural light streaming in, but if you do not have people working together who have strong, trusting, honest and respectful relationships and a shared pedagogy, then your MLE will fall flat.

In this article, Modern Learning Environments, by Mark Osborne of Core Education, talks about MLEs having these three core elements:
  • flexibility - to work as a whole group, two groups, small groups or independently.
  • openness - a shared space with less walls and more windows that allow observation.
  • accessibility to resources - a variety of spaces: wet area, study areas, reading nooks, group teaching...
Mark emphasises that it is not just about the space, but the people too.  How people behave, learn, teach, believe, commit, participate, access, engage, reflect... this all affects how MLEs work.  Therefore these are some key questions that schools should consider when going down the MLE path:
  • What is your school’s vision for teaching and learning? Does everyone share this vision?  How do you know?  Which aspects of your school culture would you like to improve?  How would you measure the improvement?
  • What are the key pedagogies required by teachers in the 21st century?  Are these the ones in use in your school most days?  What systems and processes are in place to help teachers reflect on their own practice and learn from each other?
  • If you were to build a new learning space that reflected your school's vision and commitment to learning, what would it look like?  What would students need to have access to over the course of a day?  What activities would they engage in over the course of a day?  What technology would be required to support this?
  • If curriculum, pedagogy and learning environments are helping to make learning more personalised, what other elements of the schooling ecosystem need to change?  Who is a 'teacher' and who is a 'learner'?
I am actually rather pleased that I have not engaged in an MLE yet.  Why?  Hopefully everyone else who currently is will iron out most of the pitfalls and then I when I do get the opportunity to be part of an MLE I will have lots of people to turn to for advice.

In the meantime I will continue to make do with whatever furniture is in the room I am provided with, along with what I can scavenge, to provide a safe and welcoming learning space that is comfortable and accommodates the needs of the learners within it, as well as me!
 
I'd really love to hear your experiences, good and still learning from, about how MLE have been implemented and worked for you as a teacher.
     
 
 
 
     
     

     
     
     
     
     

     



     
     


    2 comments:

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