The Modern Learning Environment Debate.

First and foremost I must say that I have an intense dislike of the term ‘Modern Learning Environment,’ I find it to be almost meaningless and counter productive to what is a very important broader debate.

In fact in many ways I think we have set the parameters for the debate about learning environments incorrectly.

We have allowed ourselves to become engaged in a debate about whether modern learning environments or flexible learning spaces or responsive learning environments are better or worse than traditional classroom spaces. We have allowed the physical structure of schools, new and old to become the point of discussion and debate. This, I believe, is a mistake as it implies that schools and educationalists can be divided into two opposing camps, traditionalists versus innovators. It implies that the physical space is the primary point worth discussing and that we are in one of these two camps. This is convenient for the media as it is a simple and simplistic way of presenting the debate but it is not very helpful, as I hope to explain.

The question that precedes any debate on environments and buildings must be one centered on learning and learning with a future focus.

The initial question that we need to ask before we get into the habitats debate is,

‘Does the way we enable learning in our schools need to change?’

The need for how schools facilitate learning is quite possibly the most significant educational debate taking place right now and it is taking place internationally. As the world changes at an ever increasing rate do schools have to change to ensure that they remain relevant and able to give learners the skills that they need to succeed in the modern world? The argument simplified is that schools and how we deliver learning has changed little over the decades and is in danger of becoming irrelevant in our modern world. In fact many argue that school environments have not changed much in over 100 years whereas the world has changed almost beyond recognition.  Educationalists are divided over this issue and are positioned at every point on a continuum from resisting change and maintaining traditional standards and approaches through to embracing change as an opportunity and a necessity, what is important is that the debate is centred on learning and not buildings. Buildings are only important when they are part of the discussion on how we effectively facilitate and enable learning, they can not be seen or discussed in isolation.

If we believe that the way we deliver learning and facilitate learning needs to change and continue to change then we are ready to ask the next question, that is;

“What environments best suit the needs of a modern education system?”

It is not a case of traditional versus innovative but a question of what spaces are needed to facilitate the various forms of modern learning.

I have always argued that the space is of secondary importance to what it happening within that space. You do not need to be in a modern learning environment to provide responsive and flexible learning situations…but it helps.

This then is where I see the heart and validity of this debate.

Yes learning and how we facilitate it now and in the near future does need to adapt and change. It needs to be more responsive and learner centered. Flexible learning spaces that provide a variety of learning habitats make this responsiveness easier. They do not guarantee it in the same way as a traditional single cell classroom does not make it impossible but they do make innovation and providing a responsive environment easier.

It still depends on the teacher and vision for learning within a school to make real learning happen. Responsive, learner centred learning can, and does take place in traditional single celled classrooms in every school in the country but it is just a bit harder because the environment is less flexible than in modern spaces.

Providing choice and a variety of learning experiences is restricted within a fixed single cell classroom. It is not impossible just challenging. In a more flexible environment it is just that bit easier.

I feel confident about making this claim as I have taught in a wide range of learning environments and I can well remember having classes of 30 plus Year 10 learners who were enthusiastic and open to learning but being restricted by the physical confines of the single cell room. Once we started working in spaces that surrounded the room, like the corridors, then real learning and real engagement started to happen and the quality of the work that they produced took off.

Does learning need to change? If the answer is yes then how do we ensure that our new and existing educational institutions are able to provide appropriately flexible learning spaces?

It is not an ‘us or them’ argument it is more a case of how we are all in different habitats and how are we going to make the changing demands for what learning looks like work for all of our learners.

The important thing as outlined in the quote below is that we need to realise that we do need to change.

“In times of change the learners shall inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”

[Eric Hoffler]

A number of aspects about the current debate do frustrate me though.

The first of these is the concern about the lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of new learning spaces. At times, I want to ask where is the evidence that single cell classrooms are effective?

There isn’t any. They are very effective in managing groups but there is no evidence that single cell classrooms and a ‘cells and bells’ approach is actually the best way to facilitate learning. It bears a frightening similarity to the way we run traditional prisons so it is hardly surprising that it is a very effective way of managing people but as for maximizing learning opportunities, there is a dearth of evidence. Yet we have stuck with it for over 100 years, with little evidence of its effectiveness and little questioning. Surely we should be asking where is the evidence that what we currently have is working especially as we are now needing to provide more responsive environments?

We do however have ample evidence that students traditionally survive  secondary school rather than thrive in it.

Ken Robinson has said that to change educational outcomes we need to look at habits and habitats. The two are linked. Habits are the practices that take place within schools and the habitats are the environments.  Again it is not a case of being in one camp or another but rather a case of how does each teacher and each school use what they have to meet changing educational demands.

We are all investigating how we use our spaces to meet changing educational outcomes, it makes no difference whether we are in a new or an older school. Being in a newly built or rebuilt environment just provides more obvious choices and possibilities.

But if we are wanting to reassure ourselves that rigorous academic research is taking place around the effectiveness of modern learning spaces then we do not have to look very far. This week alone I have come across three international research based reports/books on this very topic.

The first is the “OCED Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments.” the link is below.

While this is not specifically detailing the physical environments it does outline what learning could look like now and in the near future, it does explain that there is a  need to have flexibility in our methods and environments if we are to progress towards the goal of providing relevant contexts for learning.

The second is the initial results of research being undertaken by the University of Melbourne into innovative learning environments that is starting to look at how environments facilitate deeper learning on the part of students.

The third reading was, ‘”Learning Through Academic Choice,” by P Denton [2005] which details how flexible learning spaces do actually meet the needs of learners with diverse needs insofar as students who have emotional needs that often lead to behavioural problems have decreases in problem behaviours when they are given choices about what or how they learn.

The evidence is often embryonic as we are dealing with innovation, but it is there.

None of this evidence relates specifically to new spaces as being the key ingredient here but as I have already argued that this is not the issue. The issue is how do our spaces for learning accommodate the needs of our learners now and in the future and therefore the connection between learning needs and physical spaces cannot be separated.

Steve Jobs designed his working environments to incorporate open spaces and break out spaces for a reason. If we want evidence then maybe we should look at modern working environments at Pixar, Apple etc. to see how they maximize work and creative efficiency.

If we waited until we had 100% proof that an initiative was going to work then we would never act on anything.

Innovation by its very nature rarely deals with cast iron certainties. I am sure that most scientific break throughs, most discoveries, space travel and exploration etc. lacked total evidence that everything was going to work perfectly prior to commencing.

Development and progress depends on innovation and we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we are guaranteed that every thing is perfect before we embark on the journey, the world moves too fast for that .

What we do have is our knowledge, our ongoing research and review and a professional approach to taking calculated risks without experimenting.

I do get frustrated when our modern schools are compared to the open plan schools of the 60’s and 70’s. The claim being they didn’t work then so we are just resurrecting something that has already failed once. This again is simplistic and based on two false assumptions.

  1. That the designs are the same, they are not.
  2. That it is the buildings that are the key ingredient. It could be argued that many practitioners in the 60’s were not sufficiently trained through professional development to know how to effectively use the spaces. I believe we are in a significantly different position now. There is a wealth of material around collaborative teaching and cooperative strategies.

It is not a relevant comparison, teaching practice has evolved and changed over the last 50 years, the buildings are now starting to catch up.

Another frustration I have is the implied assumption that there is some sort of Modern Leaning Environment movement or collective. It is sometimes assumed that there is some underlying shared philosophy that binds all new schools. This is just not the case. It frustrates me that we naturally accept that if we went into any three or so existing secondary schools in New Zealand we would expect, and feel comfortable, with seeing similar spaces used very differently or different spaces being created to suit contextual needs. We don’t assume that there is a shared mode of operation regarding form and function in existing schools but we seem to believe there is one regarding new schools. This is again convenient to the media as they can then discuss new schools collectively rather than individually.

Last year I was lucky enough to be based at a new primary school, West Rolleston. It is a new school, opened a year before the College but is a very different physical environment. The design and shape of the buildings are designed to meet the needs of their learners and are contextualized for those needs, these are naturally different from those of Rolleston College and so the designs are very different.  I came from a fairly new school in Auckland that again is significantly different in design to Rolleston.  The other secondary school that opened in Christchurch at the same time as we did is again a very different design. We are one U shaped building they consist of several buildings and the learning spaces tend to be a little larger than ours. Every new school has a different feel and a different design,  there is no movement beyond the fact that they are all designed to enable flexibility.

The bottom line is that irrespective of building design it is the relationships that are formed within them that makes the difference. We need to create spaces that move beyond ‘cells and bells’ to spaces that are like living museums, spaces that are thought full, vibrant exciting spaces that meet the needs of all the individuals that inhabit them. This is the debate, this is the issue and any new versus old, traditional versus innovative division is just a side issue, unhelpful and unproductive.

For me the spaces we have at Rolleston enable the following examples of learning from a single class at a single moment in time. They allow learners to work in different locations, using different tools and different groupings to achieve their learning objectives.





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