Which do you choose?
Option 1: Learning in the 2030s has what I need, when I need it, nothing like my parents’ generation. They went to this thing called ‘school’, it looked like a prison!
Option 2: Yeah, we tried those open, flexible classrooms in the 1970s and then again in the 2010s. It was never going to work, we decided to go ‘back to basics’. It didn’t do me any harm.
As part of the PhD research project Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change I’m immersing myself in reading, my 10,000 hours, creating a new perspective on the world of school. In addition to this, over the past six weeks I have visited maybe 20 schools in UK, Europe and Australia, on the annual SCIL Vision Tour and for some additional work I have been undertaking as part of my role at SCIL. I guess a common theme has been the ‘innovative learning environment’ (ILE), either in aspiration or practice, it’s a global movement. I have concluded that designing and building an innovative place for learning does not magically create an alignment with culture and practice that is consistent with the opportunities the physical space offers, and which then transforms student learning.
This weekend I am reading Evaluating Learning Environments, edited by and with contributions from my new colleagues at Melbourne University (reference noted below). In his chapter on “Emerging Issues”, Wes Imms paints a challenging picture,
The huge open plan movement in the UK, USA, Australia and many other countries in the 1970s pursued a similar goal. Each flourished, each faded and each revisits our consciousness on occasions in the form of a new initiative. Sherman (1990) laments this cyclical nature of education as being a distraction to the point of an illness. Her regret is not so much education’s slowness of change, but its seemingly incapacity to sustain change. That incapacity, she argues, stems from “…pitfalls of bandwagon movements that are born from serious reform efforts but falters with shifts in the political and social climate” (p. 44)
Imms states that “Good evaluation…is the antidote to the sickness of the ‘bandwagon’ cyclical developments in education”. Many of us have often heard the adage along the lines of ‘if you stand still long enough it will all come around again”. It has probably been over the last decade that we have seen the emergence of the flexible, open, agile learning spaces, but now I am hearing of schools where ‘the walls are going back up’ as a political and community and pressures move in.
Can I hear the ‘bandwagon’ coming toward me?
Many of us believe in the opportunities of the ILEs and have deeply invested in the conviction that they will make a difference to the relevance, quality and depth of learning for our students, but only if supported by the complementary pedagogical practices and optimal culture.
So what do we need to do? It is probably too early for me to sufficiently answer that question, but I have a few hunches:
- Attend to the physical elements of the space, especially the sound levels. Don’t let acoustic treatment be a casualty of budget cuts.
- Engage teachers in the adventure as early as possible with enthusiasm, inspiration and vision.
- Provide professional development for teachers – pre and post occupancy, meaningful and strategic.
- Give teachers time and give them agency.
In 2030, I will have completed my studies and perhaps I will be working somewhat less and most importantly, my grandson who was born this year, will be in the early years high school. My desire is that his school experience is unrecognisable from that of mine and that of his father’s. The only way we can be sure is if we take the wheels of the bandwagon once and for all!
Ref: Imms, Cleveland, Fisher (Eds.) 2016, Evaluating learning environments: Snapshots from emerging issues, methods and knowledge. Sense Publishers