Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Teaching /learning in flexible spaces - Modern Learning Environments MLEs - New Tech High



In 1932 a report on primary education in England recommended that 'the primary curriculum should be thought of in terms of
Published 1964
activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired '.


It was a revolutionary idea as schools at the time were very traditional and streamed by ability as they were in New Zealand..

After World War Two many teachers, returning from the war, were resolved to break down the pre-war segregated and fragmented education.  As well many city children had been shifted to rural areas where they learnt from their new environment.

Post war  many schools developed child centred learning  based on providing such an enriching environment and, within this framework, the basic skills were taught not as an end in themselves but as a means of extending activities and fostering self expression in the fullest meaning of the term. Such schools valued the learners own experience and promoted the child's curiosity and independence. Each child was to be treated as a unique personality with great potential and creating environments to achieve this was now the function of the school.

In 1967 a major study of education in the UK ,the Plowden Report,  was published supporting and encouraging such developments. Ironically the report also encouraged a 'bandwagon effect' and this, combined with the freedom of the sixties, led to reactions.against such teaching.

Dr Beeby
In NZ, in the 1940s, under the leadership of Director of Education Dr Beeby schools were being encouraged to develop along similar lines.

Perhaps NZs most well known educator was Elwyn Richardson but there were many other teachers - most often in rural schools - who were developing exciting similar language arts and integrated programmes.

The art advisers, under the leadership of Gordon Tovey played an important role in identifying and encouraging such teachers.

Elwyn Richardson saw his class as a community of artists and scientists exploring their personal world and their immediate environment. It was what some call a holistic approach to learning.

 I worked with a group of teachers in Taranaki along similar lines - our special feature was the development of room displays that celebrated the achievements of the students. Reading  ( the language arts ) and maths played supportive roles and eventually all ability grouping was done away with - students being helped at point of need. The discovery programme was central in such rooms.

By the late sixties, in England, flexible school buildings were being specifically designed to allow a varied combination of individual and group work as well as for class and inter-class activities. 

And in the 70s ( inspired by American school critics such as John Holt) an open education movement started which culminated in the development of open plan schools.

When asked what giant step forward American schools needed to make towards a better tomorrow Holt replied:

'It would be to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him , with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he had to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it. It would be to make our schools......a resource for free and independent learning where everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much , or as little, as he wished.'

John Holt eventually gave up on American education ever being transformed and became a 'de-schooler'. He wanted ( along with others) to make classrooms a very different place. He wanted all students  to gain a genuine sense of, not just their own identities, but also their own worth and felt that schools did more harm than good for far too many students.

 A Modern Learning Environment
This bring me up to the current Modern School Environment, or Innovative Teaching Practices, movements.

I am not sure how they will be developed by teachers other than those who already have  an open approach to education. Time will tell but the flexibility of such buildings are a  great improvement on the limitations of self contained classrooms - sometimes disparagingly described as 'single cell classrooms'.
1970s open plan

As illustrated by the demise of the 1970s open plan schools,  creative education is more than the provision of building and, in today's environment, modern information technology. They  do however provide an opportunity to transform education and to realize John Holt's 'better tomorrow'.

In primary schools the issue of ability grouping in literacy and numeracy, with their genesis in the now out of date  industrial aged schools, has to be faced up to.

These 'basic' areas need to be 're-framed' and seen as 'foundation skills' to enable student personal discovery.

 My observation is that many MLEs are still too focused on such skills for their own sake and that this not helped by accountability demands based on the reactionary National Standards.

Those developing MLEs in  middle or secondary buildings may be better placed to develop innovative teaching although in secondary schools there is always the problem of subject fragmentation and associated 'silo' teaching.

I was heartened to see an example in a major paper on 21st Century education  which  reminded me of the best of integrated teaching in the 60 and 70s:


Mountain study 1970
'One great example of this kind of connected, relevant learning activity was a school-wide learning project that focused on ringforts.27 Ringforts are circular earthen mounds built as houses in the Bronze Age, which have long been associated with the presence of fairies. There are 204 ringforts in the school’s parish and many of the students were interested in them, felt connected to them through their own ancestry, and chose them as a focal point for learning. So students aged eight to 12 studied the history of ringforts, including what people ate and wore when they lived in them; they visited them with an archaeologist; they mapped the forts using mathematical models; they built their own version of a ringfort in their school; they wrote a script and acted it out in their own film; and they travelled to heritage meetings throughout the country and gave presentations. Ringforts became a meaningful focal point for the achievement of multiple curricular learning goals making learning come alive for the students. When teachers and students connect the learning it is something that is natural, instinctive and embedded in their aspirations and their world.'

Such learning experiences were once a feature of New Zealand schools.

I have also watched a number of u-tube videos about Modern Learning Environments and one speaker, Larry Rosenstock, particularly really impressed me.  He has several  u-tube videos to watch - one features a visit by Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey!
Larry Rosenstock - philosopher principal New Teach High

I liked that he was an ex carpenter ( and law school graduate) and commented that through making things as a carpenter you can integrate all areas of learning. Making things ( project based learning) is a feature of High Tech High School - the information technology, and more traditional machine tools, are very much means to an end.

Even the school building is a converted air force building that has been adapted for educational purposes but once you get inside and see what the students are creating that is a revelation.

Larry strongly believes in not segregating students and believes by
Testing bridge strength
working together students are able to help each other. 


Even the school's name is a misnomer. There is no courses on technology and Larry says that 'it's a liberal arts school in disguise....  technology are tools to help students achieve their creations'. 'When you know how to use them you can make things that demonstrate to others what you can do'.

Full of student creativity
The school is based around the concept of Project Based Learning (PBL). Larry says that 'this is a place where you are going to find out who you are'  which is the essence of personalized learning. A place to discover and amplify whatever talents students have.

World wide there is an emphasis on STEM ( Science. Maths , Engineering and Technology) but High Tech High  believes this is  to 'the detriment of the arts'. The school obviously covers a STEM curriculum but it is 'loaded up with design and the arts... art is integral' to all they do.

Larry's philosophy is clear. He shares that he 'supported himself  through university through being a carpenter. When you are a carpenter  you are making things. It is really easy to put in the maths. You can study the world through anything.'
Part of student project

Everything the students do is documented  and students can demonstrate their achievements. The students, says Larry ' are doing what adults do - students have a purpose and a reason.' 'The maths, the biology, the arts are packed into projects'. Literacy and numeracy requirements are 'wed into all activities'. 

I loved seeing all the creative art around the school.

Rosenstock quotes John Dewey,  ' children are people, they grow into tomorrow only as they live today'.  High Tech High very much follows Dewey's experiential learn through action  - a curriculum based on real experiences .

He continues that 'High Tech High  'doesn't look like a school  - it is more an incubator to develop students' ideas'.

'The school is designed to  exhibit students work - it's about curating students ideas.'.. 'Having kids present their work gives us a benefit - and it gives student the opportunity to evaluate their own work and to learn from others to  get ideas for future improvement'.  Students presentation he calls 'stand and deliver' where students explain, demonstrate and defend what they have developed. Assessment is central to group projects and this includes individual  contributions to projects.

Displays of work feature finished products and process.

 At High Tech High peer pressure is used as a positive way to encourage other students.  All students graduate.
Carpenter days

The school is based on respect for the students  - 'if you treat them as adults they will behave as adults'.

Education, Larry believes, is the one intervention that plays a positive role in our society.

Teachers need to be 'evocative - midwives to students' ideas' 

Larry believes a good teacher  'is recognized by the sophistication of their students' work. He wants his teachers to replicate the 'memorable experiences of their own time at school.' 

He wants teachers to 'bring what they do outside of school into their classes. Bring it it in.Integrate it. Connect what you love with the subjects you teach. Then you will be moire passionate'.

'Students learn rigour by being in the company of a passionate adult who by doing inquiry in their subject invite students to participate.'

It seems MLEs are  more about passionate learning than technology or buildings.

Larry 'wants kids behaving like an actress, like a scientist, behaving like a documentary maker, a photographer,  a journalist- trying out new roles and sampling new identities.'
Student project

I kept thinking of the work of Elwyn Richardson, the work of UK pioneer teachers,  and the work we did in school in Taranaki. Same philosophy different times.

And I thought  it was a great message for those keen to develop innovative teaching practices - with or without  modern school buildings.



Some useful resources.

 Project Based Learning at New Tech High.

Essential Lessons from High Teach High

Oprah and Bill Gates visit High Tech High
George Lucas

An introduction to Project Based Learning ( Edutopia)


Edutopias Ten Big Ideas to Improve Learning( George Lucas)

Project based learning with 5 year olds

Project Based Learning at a South Auckland Middle School

Transforming Secondary Schools -Charity James








George Lucas’s Edutopia site  isa great practical resource for project based learning integrating the use of technology


This paper addresses the issue of the new pedagogy, which is central to the future agenda. The authors show that the new pedagogy is based on a learning partnership between and among students and teachers that taps into the intrinsic motivation of students and teachers alike


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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bruce for your valuable insight in the development of the philosophy behind the Modern Learning Environments.

It will be the creativity of the teachers that will make the difference.

Bruce said...

i have been reflecting about Modern Learning Environments and just wanted to say that the buildings and the technology may be modern the philosophy involved all too often isn't. A modern learning environment, at any level, is an extension of the default way the very young learn - until schools all too often distort it.

And for primary schools that still use most of their time using ability grouping they can never really be called modern.

What I liked about High Tech High was the emphasis on making things and celebrating student achievement through displays , exhibitions and demonstration. Just like an early education school - that is one based on exploration, making things and play.

All too often when people discuss their MLEs all you hear is about the special colors, the learning spaces, the furniture, the bean bags and kids using computers. All too often there is little evidence of the creativity of the students to be seen.