This evening I join the Board of Trustees on our first site visit. Having followed the web cam and driven [slowly] past the site on numerous occasions it will be a thrill to actually set foot on the school site for the first time but it has got me thinking about a couple of things.
First, I have always considered myself a visual person but I have been surprised how big a task it has been to actually see the paper plans as a real physical entity, walking the site will certainly help me make some significant leaps forward in that respect.
Second. We are building a new school here in Rolleston, a secondary school that is going to prepare our children for the exciting and as yet unknown future that they will face. It will look different to the schools that we went to when we were growing up, and so it should. As with anything new though there is always some concern and apprehension and some of this been played out in the media lately where there has been some interesting comments made regarding the new learning spaces that are being developed across New Zealand.
One thing that I am not interested in is getting involved in a debate about how and what the media presents regarding education but I do think it is a shame and a little simplistic to set up the debate about modern learning spaces and approaches as if it was a matter of making a choice. It is not really a simple case of the old versus the new or the traditional versus the modern, we are not really being presented with a black and white decision between two different positions.
I do not believe that it is not a case of old approaches versus new ones or older traditional classrooms versus new learning environments. In the same way teaching is not a choice between traditional approaches and more discursive approaches [something I will develop in future blogs]. I see it as a development. Development that is natural, logical and reasonable. Development that is informed by what has happened in the past, informed by international trends and inspired by the desire to create flexible and transparent learning environments that enhance and not restrict the learning experience.
I have read comments in the press lately [admittedly the Auckland press] that have claimed that the new build schools are an attempt to drag us back to the open plan classrooms of the seventies. The claim is made that they were a failure then so why wouldn’t they be a failure again. This concern seems to be based on the fact that there are some bigger spaces available in these new build schools and therefore open plan education is back but it is important to remember that we are developing not returning. We are learning from the past and predicting what we need for the future, we are developing, the fact is that we have to develop quickly to keep pace with the demands of a world that is changing at an ever increasing rate. At my previous school we had a mantra for staff, ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable.’
The modern learning environments of which Rolleston is one are not a return to open plan classrooms, they are a development towards flexible learning spaces. Flexible enough to accommodate larger learning groups where appropriate but with break out rooms and smaller meeting rooms. Spaces that can be made bigger or smaller according to need and responsive to the leaning situation. Quieter spaces combined with spaces for collaboration. Taking the best of what the traditional classroom offered but removing the constraints of those rigid rooms and adding the opportunity to have flexible learning areas that are appropriate to a variety of educational contexts and situations.
Let me give an example to illustrate why this is important. Two years ago I had the pleasure of being the teacher of an amazing Year 10 class. They were one of the most talented classes I have had the privilege to share time with. They were bright, creative, excited and full of joy. They relished the opportunity to take risks with their learning and produced the most amazing work. There were also quite a few of them. Thirty two very engaged and demanding learners. At times we were in a fairly traditional learning space, a modern version of a traditional classroom and it was challenging, there was no room to move, it was all I could do to physically move right around the room. Luckily I was at a school that was only twelve years old and so there was some flexibility. I could have small groups working out in the commons area where I could still monitor them through large glass windows. I could have groups work in the downstairs commons and by merely looking over the balustrade I could monitor them. The ability to work in different areas enhanced their learning, Sometimes a group preferred to be on the soft furnishings downstairs, sometimes they wanted to be behind traditional desks in the classroom. Very rarely did they use these opportunities to ‘slack off,’ quite the opposite, they thrived. If we had been confined and restricted by having to operate within the confines of a traditional classroom we would never have had the opportunity to push learning as much as we did. The opportunities to make animated film, produce prezis on their poetry, produce drama and performance poetry of a stunning quality would all have been made more difficult, not impossible just more difficult. The flexibility of space allowed the learning to be broad, exciting, responsive, transparent and alive. It was exhausting but a good class will always exhaust you more than a non engaged one.
The design of our new school takes these opportunities to a new level. The video below is from Hobsonville Point, a school that is two years old and built along a similar design to ours. I am not saying we are going to do things exactly like Hobsonville but I post it here so you can see what opportunities flexible leaning spaces provide us with.
You will never hear me say that everything about our traditional approach to schools and learning, either by way of the buildings or what takes place within them, as being bad or needing to be totally replaced. There is so much about what has been done in schools for many years to educate our children that is wonderful and this needs to be preserved, acknowledged and cherished, but, as we are so often told, we live in a rapidly changing world and our education system needs to adapt or perish. We need to keep what is the best from what we have done in the past and also respond to the demands of the new. After all your hairdresser in the seventies and eighties was very good at their job and provided a great and very appropriate service but the world has changed and the world of perms and, for some of us, mullets is no longer what we would demand from our hairdressers now, in fact we would be horrified if they kept on cutting and styling hair the same way that they did twenty years ago, is it really any different for our schools?
Finally and most importantly the one truth that holds true no matter what the environment looks like, the buildings will never be as important as what takes place within them. The relationship between a learner and a teacher is crucial, when it works it is a wonderful thing. This is the main aspect of New Zealand schooling that we must cherish and nurture as we move forward. The environment will never replace the importance of that relationship but it can hopefully play a part in enhancing it.