Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Teaching in a Modern Learning Environment - with a twist !

Teaching in a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) or an ILA – innovative learning environment or a FLE – flexible learning environment.

Theme based on Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea
Teaching in a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) offers an opportunity to extend the educational opportunities that can be offered to students.
To achieve anything that is more than an extension than which can be achieved in ordinary classrooms is the problem.
Architecturally ‘opening’ out the classrooms will naturally make quite a difference to the learning situations for both learners and teachers.
 Students will be able to feel part of larger more complex and initially exciting unit and this will apply to the teachers as well but for the teachers in particular will be the feeling of being in a team. This will allow teachers to share their problems and successes – and most importantly will enable a variety of organisational arrangements to be made imposable in self-contained classroom.
Theme based on local and famous churches
These gains in themselves for both teachers and students are considerable but if the teaching methods are only an extension of ‘traditional ‘ subject centred teaching then the advantages are minimal.
 New classroom design asks for a more imaginative approach.
Modern Learning Environments must be more than an architectural innovation. Modern Learning Environments provide the means to devise learning situations which open up the potential for extending the learning of the students. It means attempting to develop within the individual learner all the skills and attitudes of a competent independent learner.
It means giving the students the chance to learn for their own reasons rather than completing teacher arranged tasks which in many traditional classrooms are completely divorced from the learners own reality. These newer opportunities requires a new philosophy towards education.
It will mean different things to different people but essentially it is a learner centred approach which has as its key the need for all students to become successful learners. Failure as a concept must be minimized and seem as a learning opportunity and not a dominant feature as it is in our present traditional approach.  The needs and attitudes of the students are of greater importance than the needs of any traditional subject. 
It can be seen that to operate a Modern Learning Environment can be simply an extension of traditional teaching. 
In the present educational climate Modern Learning Environments provide the glamour but innovative teaching can often be seen in ‘ordinary’ classrooms.
Much of the current Modern Learning Environment teaching is more correctly ‘team teaching’, a devise to teach subjects using traditional methods in a new situation (streaming, ability grouping and a focus on subjects). Merely individualising learning is an extension of current practice and not an innovation.
To best take advantage of a Modern Learning Environment best requires teachers who have achieved success developing creative programmes in a contained classroom. 
It will be a challenge to extend such a philosophy in a diversified space. Necessarily there will a considerable transitional period to introduce new ideas; a time for all to adapt to the new conditions.  No doubt for a considerable length of time methods may have to be utilised that may be contrary to the spirit of a Modern Learning Environment until new methods and new confidence are gained by both teachers and students.

  I wrote the above  in the 1970s. 

‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’ Edmund Burke

In those times such flexible buildings were called open plan schools. I have simply written in Modern Learning Environment to replace the original phrase of open plan schools. In the 1970s there was a movement (centering in the USA) known as ‘open’ education.
I worked with one of the few very successful open units in the 70s one led by John Cunningham at Waitara Central in Taranaki 1974-5. 
Most of the open plan schools eventually replied or closed off their walls and their success, or lack of it, provides valuable learning for teachers involved in today’s Modern Learning Environments.
The ideas that John and his team implemented were (based on his notes):
1.       To develop a diversified day utilising group organisations to allow students to work as individual with, where possible, a choice of activities; to develop a ‘workshop’ type atmosphere with a number of subject areas progressing at any one time.
2.      To develop a curriculum based largely on the immediate environment (historical and natural), student’s interests, all with a focus on providing students with first hand experiences. An emphasis to be placed on careful observational work.
3.      The importance of the development of skills  to assist the students to become independent and self-motivated learners, in particular the  need for students to work carefully by slowing down the pace of their work and also to develop a range of presentation skills.
4.      Appreciating the importance of the total learning environment. This require students’ work to be carefully displayed and new topics introduced by well-arranged teacher displays. All visual space should be thoughtfully utilised. Every attempt should be make the classrooms as stimulating and challenging as possible.
5.      Every learner should experience success and appreciate the need for self-discipline. Learning should be personalised as well as individualised.

The Waitara open unit was based on a ‘nook and cranny ‘model rather than the ‘open prairies’ of the architecturally designed units - an approach more suited for team teaching.
Theme based on Mount Taranaki Study
Open plan units (or Modern Learning Environments) require an evolutionary programme.
The 100 students and 4 teachers structured around four home groups deliberately keeping the security of conventional classrooms but care was taken to avoid home rooms returning to conventional teaching. The daily programme was evolutionary and as teachers and students gained skills more choice was offered to students. Programmes ranged from formal to flexible. As the year progressed programmes became more student orientated.
There was a need to ensure a balance of content areas to be covered and teachers focussed on ensuring students’ were not occupied by busy ‘shallow’ work particularly when given choices. Basic skill teaching to ensure independent was covered by withdrawal groups as required.
Cooperative planning is a strength of open plan teaching and the main themes of the activity programme were planned together
Within this planning there needs to be the necessary element of choice for teachers and students – teachers strengths can be shared with all.  From the ‘master plan’ teachers choose areas to develop and share. Check lists are used to ensure all students cover planned areas. At all times the unit has a number of activities being undertaken. The current theme is introduced by teacher arranged motivational displays that are added to by student work as the study progresses.
Science maths technology study based on  local bridges
Themes are chosen which offer a diversity of subject areas and creative activities and are introduced to the whole group by a selected teacher. Integrated learning.
After starting in the home group students are involved in mixed ability groups with the maths programme which features activity problem solving challenges and related to the current theme study if appropriate. This is followed by language time – once again integrated as required with the theme study. Students with special needs are helped in small withdrawal group and then returned to the main groups.  Language time includes research reading, spelling (words from the current
Snail art, maths and language 
study) and handwriting also linked with the current theme.
Literature usually starts the afternoon programme in home groups. The remainder of the day involves students undertaking a range of tasks based around the theme working with teachers with strengths in the area. Times are programmed for Maori culture, music and PE with groups rotating. Whole unit singing on Friday and sharing of work finish the week
For all this there is no one system of organisation and the open unit offers opportunity for flexibility and change. 
 Sometimes an activity and withdrawal programme; sometimes whole day student choice (true open education); sometimes students take up choice from a range offered by the teachers.
Students are given considerable choice and are free to move about and talk about their work.
 Success depends on student ownership of tasks (group or individual) and having the opportunity to have the skills in place to achieve quality work – this includes presentation skills.
Special attention is given to finished work that reflects the students own questions and research
Student completed work – their research, language, art and maths is displayed with the care it deserves.
One quote that underpins the unit comes from Charles Silberman author of Crisis in the Classroom, ‘Happiness has got to derive from achievement and success not by just having a good time’.
Themes introduced through teacher displays with student work later added
Relevance to today’s Modern Learning Environments.
Obviously the ideas above were pre modern information technology but the basic issue remains that to make such flexible, or innovative learning, spaces work depend on: pedagogical leadership and alignment of staff; relationships between all involved; and the quality of the learning undertaken by the students.
In all areas of life we need to look backwards to move into the future.

' Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it'  Santana

We build our building and then they shape us’ Winston Churchill.
Local historical  swing bridge basis on an integrated study

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