What do we mean by innovative, modern and flexible learning environments?
New and transformative environments in education, whose design is based on our current understandings about how learning occurs and what supports are needed, are referred to as Innovative Learning Environments (ILE), Modern Learning Environments (MLE), or Flexible Learning Environments (FLE).
The ‘learning environment’ in the terms ILE, MLE and FLE refers to the way that learning is organised for a group of students. It indicates pedagogical components as well as the particular spatial design.
ILEs are not to be confused with the open-plan environments of the 1970s and 1980s. This is because open plan classroom designs are not necessarily adaptable to meet students’ learning needs, and in fact may constrain potential for learning and teaching. There is an argument that new, flexible and learner-centred spaces coupled with new technologies can facilitate a paradigm shift from teacher-led, traditional pedagogies to the personalisation of student-centred and inclusive approaches in which all students are involved in educational activities in a way that meets their individual needs. However research is clear that a change in spatial design will not achieve this paradigm shift alone.
Key physical features of ILEs, MLEs and FLEs include:
- Sufficiently sized space to include a range of different learning activities and diverse groups.
- A central open space that can be shared by classes, enabling collaboration and learning between classes.
- Break-out spaces which offer a range of different activities, such as group work, reading, creative work, reading, reflection and presenting.
- Mobile and flexible elements such as sliding partitions.
- High levels of visual transparency created through fewer walls and a greater use of glass.
- Integration of technology allowing access to a range of resources.
Organisational features of ILEs, MLEs and FLEs afforded by the physical features include:
- Flexibility in groupings, for example, combining two classes into one for team-teaching, or splitting a class into smaller groups and spreading them out across the spaces.
- Cooperation and collaboration with other teachers.
- Student choice of where to work or how to configure the learning space in a way which is most suited to them.
How effective are ILE – what does the research say ( Principal Sabbatical 2018 N Reed)
According to Mark Osborne, there is a “growing body of hard, concrete evidence connecting learning environments with increased student achievement. In particular, two crucial studies have been published in recent times. One of these studies is from the University of Salford entitled ‘Clever Classrooms’ that found that “differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16 percent of the variation in learning progress over a year”.
This work is also supported by NZCER’s First National Picture (pg. 39), where it was shown there was a slight linear trend for teachers who team taught reporting that they carried out practices very well compared to those who did not team teach.
- flexible groupings to meet the changing needs of individual students (48% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 27% of those who did not)
- taking responsibility for the wellbeing of all the students taught
(45% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 29% of those who did not)
- providing students with opportunities to use different approaches to demonstrate their learning
(41% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 29% of those who did not)
- using parents’ and whānau knowledge of their child to support the child’s learning
(27% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 19% of those who did not)
- collaborating with parents and whānau to use their expertise to support class or school learning
(27% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 16% of those who did not)
- believing in their ability to improve learning outcomes for all students they taught
(55% of those who team-taught all the time said they did this very well, decreasing to 43% of those who did not).
Students learning in a team teaching environment gain the benefit of multiple perspectives on the curriculum and the opportunity to observe the dynamics of a range of teachers (Buckley, 2000). This an an argument put forward by schools as to one of the major benefits of innovative learning practice, both from a students and a teacher’s perspective. A number of teachers I spoke with suggested teaching in this way was the best professional development they had had as they were learning from their colleagues constantly.
Schools could not all categorically say the learning in the core areas had increased as a result of ILP, although they had a hunch it had. There were other factors that came into play such as the quality of the teachers working in these spaces. They could not say it was strictly the environment that was responsible for the increase. However, they could affirm, based on student feedback, the softer skills (key competencies) had been enhanced. They considered more time was able to be offered to priority learners due to the flexibility of the personnel.
One school was implementing some innovative practice around maths and had seen some pleasing results. The maths programme was made up of four days academic teaching and one day problem solving with students in groups of three with the pod teachers acting as coaches. These groups comprised of one high achiever, one middle achiever and one low achiever. The problems started off easy and branched out from there with the learners supporting and challenging each other’s thinking along the way. There are considerable academic improvement for the middle learners in particular and increased engagement with the lower learners. What is known is that quality teaching leads to quality learning outcomes and in many cases the quality teachers had opted into working in these spaces.
One school showed ERO that data had improved in the core learning areas and that this was due directly to collaborative teaching. They felt the students now had more time for learning and teachers felt their own practice had accelerated due to observing colleagues on a daily basis. The student voice was considerably more positive due to increased student choice and control over their learning. This feedback was consistent with all the schools I visited.
Another school with a high population of Maori students, felt the the innovative learning environment, with its broader understanding of success, is more like a Marae and better suits the learning of Maori students. They had received excellent feedback from both the students and their whanau in this regard.
Neil O’Reilly (2016) from his extensive thesis work supports this by stating that, “co-teaching in a FLS can make a significant positive difference for all learners and improve the quality of teaching, teacher efficacy and well-being”.
Self regulated learners and personalised learning are at the heart of a student centred learning environment, whether that be a single cell classroom space or a shared teaching space. “Research shows that teacher controlled environments limit student self-regulation and force students to be reliant on the teacher and teacher control of the learning environment”. (Absolum 2006).
Conclusion and Implications for Havelock North Primary School
This sabbatical gave me a timely opportunity to engage with many inspiring professionals who had been through the “grind” of implementing innovative learning pedagogy and creating flexible spaces. I say grind, because this shift in practice is considerable. Convincing the parent body that ILP was the correct path to take was extremely challenging for many and in some cases it still presents an ongoing battle. This issue was more prevalent in higher decile schools and was not helped by the negative press in the media.
Some of the most voiced complaints publicly are centred around ILE spaces being noisy and having a lack of structure. Once again it all comes back to the quality of the teacher(s). A single cell could quite easily be chaotic too. Run well, ILE spaces are more structured than a traditional classroom space for obvious reasons. “Little Johnny” can still have his own desk just like before if this is how he learns best. From a noise perspective, these new spaces offer breakouts encompassing both quiet and collaborative zones. Therefore the assumption that noise is a factor is misinformed. However with the wrong personnel operating these spaces I am not denying it could certainly be a circus. It all comes down to quality teaching. Great teaching is great teaching, whether in a single cell or a flexible shared space. Explicit teaching is at the core of what a great teacher does.
The pedagogy associated with these innovative learning environments can and should be practised in single cell classrooms too, allowing students to have a far great level of agency.
The ILE approach had some obvious benefits for our priority learners. These centred around more teaching time, a more personalised approach and higher levels of engagement.
Derek Wenmouth states the following, “does an MLE suit all learners?” When the equally valid, yet often uncontested question is, “does a traditional egg-crate classroom suit the needs of all learners?” I think it is about looking at the child first and then deciding on the best environment for them.
Several of the schools were offering flexible options and some had been full circle in their thinking and were now considering some single cell alternatives for next year. Some schools left the choice to the teachers, but found it was rare for teachers to want to go back to the single cell approach. These teachers could see the professional benefits and enjoyed the support and the collegiality. A large number of schools felt the organic approach was the purest and most effective way to introduce ILEs and engage staff in the associated professional learning. As Osborne stated, “it was not being done to them”. Through inquiry they had figured it out for themselves; that working in a collaboration potentially has benefits for all stakeholders.
It is common knowledge that it is often not the difference between schools that is the issue, it is the difference within schools. As alluded to earlier, this variation can be reduced by de-privatisation of practice, encouraging shared problem solving, having robust discussions around the evidence of student learning and engaging with research-informed approaches. While these are approaches we have adopted at HNPS, we still have some way to go to embed them into regular practice across the school.
I do like the idea of developing a “wellbeing” committee. Staff satisfaction and health is vital to the overall success of our school and directly impacts the quality of learning our students receive. I think our Board would be particularly interested in this work.
I would like to explore our current leadership model and look for ways to make this more effective. Lencioni’s work could be a good place to start.
With any new initiative, schools leaders and boards of trustees have a responsibility to place learners at the centre of the decision making. As a larger primary school we are in a position to be able to offer flexibility. For some children having their own classroom with one teacher is their safety net. Nathan Mikaere-Wallis talks about the need for the dyadic relationship. Naturally the perception is that this would be stronger where there is one teacher working with one class. The student would get to know that teacher much better right? However, it can be argued that there is more chance of a student forming a strong dyadic relationship when he or she has more than one significant adult in the teaching programme. Where there is a poor student-teacher connection in a single cell classroom, that could well transform into a difficult year for all stakeholders.
Moving forward at HNPS we will continue to embrace ILE’s and refine our practice in this area. Exciting times lay ahead for us with two significant ILE upgrades on the horizon. It is critical our teachers to have a strong grasp of the cultural competencies in order to strengthen relationships. These competencies are about knowing, respecting, and working with Maori learners.
Successful collaboration is vital to the success of any school. Sir Ken Robinson (2010) is of the belief that most great learning happens in groups and that, “collaboration is the stuff of growth”. It is about creating a culture where collaborating is a way of being and is a natural habit for students and teachers alike.
At HNPS we need to continue to strengthen student voice and ensure this work influences teacher practice. Teachers need to be comfortable to have their practice scrutinised and be open to feedback from both students and colleagues. We know the world is a rapidly changing place and we need to empower our learners with the tools to be ready for this change. Effective leadership coupled with a strong vision is at the heart of this.
Please visit the link below which gives some more interesting insights around Innovative Learning Environments.
We have several Innovative Learning Environments at HNPS. The success of these spaces is directly related to the quality of the teachers operating them. Run well, they have the capacity to see students flourish and teachers grow professionally through regular and robust interactions with their colleagues.
Student voice is an integral factor. Good teachers talk to their students and make changes to their practice as a result of the feedback they receive.
The below is a recent example of student voice collection in our senior school.
- 75% enjoyed the learning environment. 25% enjoyed it sometimes
- 70% thought the spaces were good to learn in. 23% said sometimes, while 3.5% (2 children) said they were not.
The Good Bits
- The breakout spaces were seen as a positive
- The kitchen
- The teachers
- Quiet spaces
- Joining with the other classes
- Two teachers
The Hard Parts
- Maths was something that was raised by 12 students.
- Noise (loud) (4)
Does the Learner Pathway Help?
- 43% said it did help
- 30% said it was of no help
- 17% said it sometimes helped
The Pathway could be improved by;
- More stages and making it harder (12)
- Couldn’t think of anything (5)
Do you know your next steps in Reading, Writing and Maths?
- 30% Maybe
- 18% No
- 52% Yes
How could the learning spaces be made better?
- Bean Bags (7)
- Less Noise (3)
- Didn’t know or keep the same (13)
- Add another breakout space (3)
- Teacher aides (2)
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Great teachers were mentioned on several occasions, otherwise there were not any real trends coming through.
The “So What” for Teachers to Consider………….
Consideration needs to be given to the following:
- Noise levels (a minority)
- Breakout space use and trying to add another one into the mix. One of the special needs children uses one on his own currently.
- Ensure children are aware of their learning goals and next steps are made more explicit. There are still 18% who were not sure of these.
- Only two children did not like the learning spaces.
- More student voice is required around the layout of the classroom and the furniture. Bean bags were popular options.
- A good number of pupils were keen to keep things as they are.
- Maths is seen as an area of difficulty for many. Maths has been a major area of professional development for our teachers over the past 18 months.