Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Teaching in Modern Learning Environments (MLEs)/ Innovative Learning Environments ( ILEs)

What do such environments mean for the use of space, time and student grouping?

What are the barriers to realizing the full potential of such environments?

A number of trends have influenced the way schools and classrooms have been organised over the decades; trends moving from traditional classroom teaching to  a more student centred learning - from 'the sage on the stage to the guide on the side'.
'We don't want your education!

Today we now have have the concept of 'innovative learning environments'  linked with the development of 'modern learning environments'. Not that the practices actually 'new',  more that they have failed to be implemented in the past, or only to be found in a few creative classrooms. And certainly such innovative learning environments are rare  in schools 'educating' adolescent students.

As for the  'modern learning environments'   designed to allow for collaboration and flexibility the concepts behind them are not new such schools were first developed in the UK in the 60s and in the US and Canada in the 70s. In the 70s open plan schools were established in all areas of New Zealand based an 'open education' philosophy - the ' innovative learning environments' of the day.
1970 open plan school

After initial enthusiasm for such developments most of the 70s open plan schools closed their spaces  and reverted to traditional class teaching.

Now there is a new enthusiasm in in the air for such teaching but I wonder if teachers involved have learn from the demise of the earlier open plan schools and are in a position to create a lasting change. Today schools have the advantage of new modern information technology to assist them but will it be enough?
A modern learning environment

Looking at past innovations it is possible to see  'a topography of change'. First  pioneers introduce new ideas, then the ideas are officially accepted, and  then this approval  all too often leads to  a 'bandwagon' approach where ideas lose their  authenticity  and come under criticism,and then, all to often,  are lost.

The enthusiasm  current modern school environments have not been inspired by innovative teacher practice but more by forces outside of the school. Cynics might say that the corporations  providing the technology might well be the greatest benefactors.
Beyond the factory metaphor

So with this in mind I have been wondering exactly how time, space and students groupings are being used in such schools. Beyond the glitz and glamour of such building and all the talk of flexibility, collaboration and ICT how much has really changed?

 In t 1970s the 'open education' movement, arising in the USA in spread to New Zealand and eventually led to the development of open plan schools. These were to be the precursors of today's 'modern learning environments' and their associated 'innovative teaching practices' even though they have all but been forgotten
Rotational tasks

In  the UK in the sixties progressive teachers developed innovative child-centred programmes where teachers organizing a number of different curriculum activities across across the day .  Such teaching could be seen as the beginning of 'innovative learning environments'. Such programmes moved well away from traditional timetables where morning programmes only covered literacy and numeracy involving  the use of ability grouping.with afternoon time covering the remainder of the content areas.

These  innovative English classrooms usually had four groups rotating - an art group, a maths group, a studies group,and a language group., Where possibles, such groups integrated learning. 

Topics for study were introduced by motivational displays and the room environments featured well displayed student finished work. A feature of such rooms was the need to 'slow down the pace' of students' work so as to allow teachers time to interact. The emphasis was on students taking responsibility for their own learning.

Tarananaki classroom 1970s

In NZ in the 1970 teachers a group of teachers in 'our area' introduced similar rotational ideas for afternoon programmes and 're-framed' their  literacy and numeracy programmes so as  to develop skills and content for use in the afternoon activity time.

In such classrooms, as  students and teachers gained confidence, an integrated day  developed .Teachers introduced studies through provocative displays and displayed students' completed studies with great care.  Such classrooms in New Zealand were the exception..

So that brings us to today.

Creative  teachers, unlike in earlier times, are no longer the source of educational innovations and, as well,  are  now constrained by accountability pressures and the narrowing of teaching demanded by the National Standards. In the UK , Australia and the US teachers are further constrained by  politically inspired National Testing and 'league tables' all in the name of  parental choice.

As a result of such compliance requirements a visit to most current primary classrooms  will  still show
How to do it?
that the morning programmes concentrate on literacy and numeracy and the use of ability grouping. The remainder of the curriculum is left to the afternoon and there is, all too often, little integration of the morning and afternoon programmes

In secondary schools fragmented specialist subject teaching is still the norm.

So it is time for transformation change; difficult when schools have to  both comply with the narrow accountability targets required by National Standards and at the same time being encouraged to develop 'innovative teaching practices'..

How is time spacing and student grouping changed in 'modern learning environments' ; how have the 'innovative learning practices' changed how time is utilized?
A balance between structure and freedom

Only a visit will confirm my thoughts but I am guessing most of the morning is still being dedicated to traditional literacy and numeracy teaching and that ability grouping will still be in place. In some cases I imagine the setting of students to cater for the diversity of abilities in literacy and numeracy.  Little progress here?

Exploring a bridge
I would hope that the new 'modern learning environments' would inspire transformation approaches to learning and teaching

Learning in such schools would be based around integrated authentic learning experiences and basic literacy and numeracy skills would be taught  at point of need as well as being an integral part of student studies.  I imagine the development of such 'modern environments'  might even be easier in lower secondary schools where teachers are not as 'hardwired' to teach literacy and numeracy are better able to collaborate and share their subject specialist knowledge as required.

In New Zealand we have the lessons learnt from the 1970 open plan education to learn from and  have a New Zealand Curriculum to encourage such a transformation plus modern informational technology to assist. The curriculum asks teachers to ensure all students to be able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

Developing students' talents
Innovative teaching practice and modern learning environments call for new thinking - or in many cases learning from the past. But to do will mean leaving the standardization imposed by National Standards and narrow NCEA Level Two targets and move into the 'personalization'  of learning that allows teachers to develop the gifts, talents and passions of all learners.

An art exhibition
A look at the learning seen in New Tech High gives an idea of what can be achieved; an education based on Problem Based Learning; an education best seen at Science, Maths and Technology Fairs or Art exhibitions. Teachers in modern school environment need to work together to introduce learning challenges that cover the strands of the New Zealand Curriculum appropriate to the level of the students.
Time for thinking out of the box

Nothing however will change until the means of assessment changes. Assessment and focuses on  valuing the learning attitudes and strategies and the depth and their  understating of what is included in their portfolios - the so called 21stC skills.

So far I am not sure things have changed that much.I do hope however that  I will be proved wrong. Maybe it is all about going back to the excitement and creativity  of the sixties but this time doing it right.

Some useful resources.

 Project Based Learning at New Tech High.

Essential Lessons from High Tech 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


Anonymous said...

Bruce you have identified some important issues for those teaching in these new flexible buildings. Such innovative learning environments, to be successful, requires a new pedagogy to make use of advantages the buildings offer. This applies equally to the successful use of modern technology. If such environments transfer ability grouping in literacy and numeracy, as in traditional classrooms, then they will not deliver their full potential. In contrast teachers developing new pedagogy in traditional rooms may well be more successful in developing personalized and project based learning. It is the pedagogy that counts. And then, as you say, there is the issue of current restrictive assessment requirements centred around National Standards that distort teacher's efforts.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, I want schools to be transformed into learning communities that help all students develop whatever talents and gifts they potentially have, equipped with the disposition to thrive in an uncertain future.

This will not be achieved if the teachers in the new flexible environments transfer traditional approaches to such buildings. If much of the available learning time is focused on literacy and numeracy associated with ability grouping then there will not be enough time for developing integrated collaborative rich learning tasks. Tasks that will naturally make best use of modern information technology.

Time will tell. My feeling is that they might be more successful at the middle school and secondary levels where literacy and numeracy skills ought to be in place? Currently the best place to see such innovative teaching will be in early education centres but, even at this level, an emphasis on getting students 'school ready' is distorting pregrammess based on play and exploration.

So it is all about new pedagogy and powerful learning challenges.