Re-designing spaces for learning

(This is a copy of a my guest blog post published this week for the World Innovation Summit for Education – WISE, Qatar – on re-designing spaces for learning: http://www.wise-qatar.org/content/stephen-harris-redesigning-spaces-around-collaborative-teaching and slide show:
http://www.wise-qatar.org/node/16860
RE-DESIGNING SPACES FOR LEARNING

There is a clear movement occurring in education globally right now – a movement that is seeking to shift the epicentre of educational paradigms from an industrial-era experience to something more relevant to the ever changing and dynamic contexts of the 21st century. In the first decade of this new century, much great work has been done articulating what 21st century skills might be – www.p21.org is a great example of this.

My focus is the key importance of spatial awareness in redesigning spaces for learning. I hope the second decade of this century will be marked by an awareness that redesigning spaces will be as important to change processes, as describing the new skills deemed necessary for learning and career creation in the last decade. I will focus on our journey of change as a case study for education redesign.

Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) is a co-educational K-12 school of 1300 students in the northern region of Sydney, Australia. The school draws from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, is located within a site that was built to support an industrial-era education philosophy and like most other non-government schools in Australia, it is funded through a combination of Federal Government support and parent fees. In the Australian context, we would be regarded as an upper range, low fee school.

In 2005 NBCS planted a research, development and innovation unit within the school – the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL). It was a means by which to support educational innovation at the grassroots. Seven years on and SCIL (http://scil.com.au) is now the public interface of the school with the global education community.

As part of its focus on leading the change in learning, SCIL has deliberately grown its understanding of the interplay between spatial concepts as a means to accelerate change. Much work has been done in the last two decades revisiting pedagogic space. Many schools have created virtual spaces to support face-to-face learning, enabling transitions from the real world to virtual spaces and back again, seamlessly in diverse contexts. Likewise attention has been focused on the key role that relationships play in engaging students into learning – with the social and emotional spheres of school life being under focus. The area of least attention has arguably been the key to global change – the importance of physical space as the cohesive component that facilitates global change.
What change has NBCS nurtured and why?

The industrial-era experience of education is centred around ‘separation’ as a key concept. Separate teachers working in separated classrooms on separate programs, created separately by individuals. Regrettably many tertiary institutions reinforce this in their education courses assessing the worth of teachers as potential separate deliverers of curriculum and engaging as behavior managers in solo contexts. It is a recipe for emotional meltdown. Why has it taken so long for the educational community to work this one out? Why do universities that offer MBA courses where students are expected to work in networked teams ignore this key element for pre-service teacher education?

Our experience has been that change comes from these key elements:

- Redesign spaces around collaborative teaching,
- Retrain teachers to work collaboratively and
- Empower and resource teachers to be the agents of change in any context

As a result the learning experience changes rapidly – leading to improved academic outcomes, greater alignment with the skills that will be valuable in post-school contexts and a far more obvious and positive culture of engaged learning will be evident.

We have learnt that space is both a fixed and fluid notion. It has an enormous impact on how we feel and think – the very core of our experiences of life. The challenge for schools is to identify the different spaces it inhabits – virtual, pedagogic and real, and to draw these together in meaningful ways so that learning can focus forward, enabled through technology.

NBCS has created some new spaces for learning:

- The flowing ‘nooks and crannies’ of the SCIL building
- Design and Production suites of the Undercroft
- Multimodal agile spaces of the Marina Prior Centre for the Performing Arts.

We have renovated existing spaces:

- The Zone (an open learning environment for 180 students and 6 teachers)
- Rhythm & Blues (a shared space for music learning) and the Hub.

We are now about to challenge school design thinking with a current sustainability project in the making – the Marketplace, which seeks to combine social and learning space as one concept, breaking down any concept of ‘separate’ classrooms.  The Marketplace is an active glass canopy positioned over old spaces in order to radically transform the heart of the original school from industrial-era design to agile spaces suited to community life, engaged learning and enhanced through mobile technologies.

We have seen that if you place vision at the heart of school’s operation, and then share and grow that vision with high purpose, then innovation becomes a natural by-product. People are encouraged to take risks and condense any ideation and action phases of change into an accelerated journey that embraces failure, as much as it values success. We learn by doing – and if schools wish to transform, then they need to adopt this philosophy in tangible ways.

At the heart of our transformation has been the shift to collaborative learning. This has necessitated a lot of unlearning by the teachers, in order to build their new skills as collaborative designers of curriculum delivery. The trade-off for them has been the rapid decline in the required role of behavior manager, as this becomes a minor component of their daily function. We have watched a new creative energy emerge as teachers across the campus have all embraced the change process. No longer is it 20th century ‘push’ for change, rather 21st century teachers are ‘pulling’ in the new paradigm. Our role as educational leaders becomes one of facilitating new ways of learning. It is a powerful and exciting process. We also believe it is highly replicable and scalable. It is innovation at its dynamic best.
Examples of spaces for new learning

The Zone: the Zone is simultaneously a space and a project. The Zone is represents the learning program for 180 Stage 3 students (10-12 year olds) with 6 teachers. It is one group, not six groups. Learning is differentiated to the needs of every learner, every day, in a personalized process that tracks individual development. A day in the Zone involves sustained focus on:

- Literacy skill development
- Numeracy skill development
- Integrated studies (where students can create their own journey through a matrix of activities and select the spaces and teachers that will best support their learning)
- Specialized learning of foreign languages
- PDHPE and sport.

The benefits are well captured in this equation:
180 students + 6 teachers + one agile space + collaborative learning + BYOD (bring your own device) = engaged learners + zero behavior issues.

Rhythm and Blues: At the end of 2011, secondary music teachers requested that a wall with an operable door be completed removed between their two larger teaching spaces. This would enable them to teach two music classes in the one space, regardless of the level of musicianship or age. The space became like a large living room with immediate and obvious high engagement, across the age range of students. Again, a radical shift in thinking, led to a radical and highly effective shift in learning engagement.

Zone - The Sky

Immersive gestural French: NBCS language teachers tackled the issue of gaining total student engagement in language learning who are undertaking the mandated 100 hour course in a foreign language in early secondary grades. The challenge of addressing student engagement in a mandated course was to adopt a Canadian approach where language is acquired in a fully immersive context, using signing gestures to reinforce vocabulary and the structure of the spoken sentence. The beauty of this approach is that it can be located anywhere.  And it is. Visitors to the school will commonly come across a group of 26 students focused intently on second language acquisition through high kinaesthetic activity.

The greatest challenge to change in learning is our reticence to simply take action:

- change the space
- change the program
- expect high outcomes.

The formula – do, then think!

(Authorial note: This is a edited copy of the same blog post that appears as a ‘guest’ blog post on the website of the World Innovation Summit for Education - http://www.wise-qatar.org/content/stephen-harris-redesigning-spaces-around-collaborative-teaching . The original blog post on the WISE site also contains a sequence of images illustrating the different spaces.)

11 comments for “Re-designing spaces for learning

  1. Alan
    April 18, 2012 at 9:18 am

    I love this series of statements:

    “We have learnt that space is both a fixed and fluid notion”.

    “Our role as educational leaders becomes one of facilitating new ways of learning”.

    “We have seen that if you place vision at the heart of school’s operation, and then share and grow that vision with high purpose, then innovation becomes a natural by-product. People are encouraged to take risks and condense any ideation and action phases of change into an accelerated journey that embraces failure, as much as it values success. We learn by doing – and if schools wish to transform, then they need to adopt this philosophy in tangible ways”.

    “The greatest challenge to change in learning is our reticence to simply take action”.

    “The formula – do, then think!”

  2. April 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I led a rapid renovation project that rebuilt two campuses ($70 million) in under 8 years. It won a number of awards; you can see the results on the Francis Parker School website. We built many collaborative spaces. But if I had to do it over again, I would really challenge that sacred cow of the classroom itself. Taking on the faculty is tough; probably would have been impossible a decade ago and highly improbable today. But the idea of one silo per teacher is just so out of touch with where education is heading. I talked last week to a school in North Carolina that is going to rebuild a Middle School with virtually no walls.

    We need to tackle the physical and pedagogical changes of the future at the same time, and the time frame to do this is vanishing. I am writing about these disruptions on my blog at http://learningpond.wordpress.com. Just today I wrote about the Coursera consortium of universities testing fully-stocked, free, online university coursework. In this case: no walls, no campus, no tuition. That is the future we better prepare for!

  3. April 20, 2012 at 2:18 am

    - Redesign spaces around collaborative teaching,
    - Retrain teachers to work collaboratively and
    - Empower and resource teachers to be the agents of change in any context

    For the past 6 years we’ve consciously evolved our high school library to address these three action plans. The goal was to develop a new space within our walls to serve as many learning needs as possible. Our grade10-12 library looks, feels and functions like a learning commons- not just in name but form and function. This evolution took support of our new vision by admin but really grew from building capacity in the space and then serving our school culture. Visit us at http://www.kss.sd23.bc.ca/rc/commons.html

    I really appreciate your healthy provoking and sharing. Thx.

  4. It oklahoma
    April 24, 2012 at 5:19 am

    thank you so much for the amazing info for my project! i wish i could give u something back for the amazing help and effort! and this is 1 of the best sites i found, i appreciate it a lot and this is totally true!

  5. May 7, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    I work in an at-risk school that is in the final stages of a renovation. Teachers in our building now have laptops, wireless access, and some classrooms even have interactive whiteboards. Knowing that the building probably won’t get renovated for another 40 years, I look around and wonder if the environment really facilitates 21st Century learning. While new furniture was provided for the new classrooms, many of our classrooms have the same old 1-piece slanted desks that facilitate nothing but “sit and get” learning. In addition, the renovated library is still heavy on books, overhead projectors, and rigid learning spaces. Money is tight, so the process upgrading furniture and materials will have to be very strategic. In addition, the skillset of the staff will need an upgrade as well…continued training in the 21st Century methods and skills school systems, and future job employers now demand.

  6. June 11, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Wow! The connection of fluidity and fixed is a huge deal, here in the States. The need for both as self-soothing(breaks,boredom,engagement,rest,whatever), we need both, especially now, in this era, where our youngest students are suffering with visual-spatial awareness, and we think our jobs are to “make” the children think that this is the normal way for everyone, being and talking all day. Multiple intelligences, moods, and force or freedom may make or break any assignment or works. This is wonderful… Congratulations…

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