At the recent CORE Education breakfast on Auckland’s North Shore, we in the future-focused education team set ourselves the goal of offering a set of ‘Top Five Tips’ for the effective use of Innovative Learning Environments (ILE). It’s always a great mental exercise to limit oneself to a ‘top three’ or a ‘top five’ because it asks you to be ruthless in your evaluation of all available options. We based our tips on research rather than just word of mouth, and here’s what we came up with:
- Innovative Learning Environments are not just about physical spaces. Although it’s true that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” (Churchill), it’s equally true that “buildings alone are not enough; it is about relationships and changing cultures and practices.” (Blackmore et. al. 2011). In the same way that pens, or desks, or Chromebooks might or might not increase outcomes for learners, the physical environment is merely a tool to be used by educators to enact their vision for powerful learning. Without deep, reflective thinking about how all of the elements of the learning ecosystem relate to each other, the physical learning environment on its own won’t achieve anything at all. The most important space is the one between the teacher’s ears.
- Collaborative environments are often more effective for both teachers and learners. Not only do learners make better progress when they have opportunities to learn with others collaboratively (Hattie 2009), educators also make better progress when they teach (and learn) collaboratively. The advantages to educators include higher quality professional learning, and opportunities to pool insights about individual student’s learning (York-Barr et al., 2007). Spaces that facilitate and encourage collaborative teaching are likely to lead to improved student outcomes (Darling-Hammond, 2002).
- Start with inclusion in mind. Inclusive education invites us to look at every learner is our care and ask, “What potential barriers to learning might exist for this person?” The challenge then becomes to use Universal Design for Learning to ensure that we have worked as hard as we can to remove those barriers for those learners. If a learner struggles to maintain focus in direct instruction for longer than 5-7 minutes (and who doesn’t, sometimes), a design response to this might be to make sure our instruction sequences are shorter, closer to the learner, or can be recorded for viewing later. If learners work better at times on their own, or in small or large groups, our choice of furniture should allow all of these possibilities. If learners prefer to demonstrate evidence of learning orally, using pen and paper, or via technology, they should be able to do this. (National Center On UDL. 2012)
- Design acoustically supportive spaces. Acoustics are crucial to a learning environment. While research suggests that it’s not so much the total amount of noise, rather the quality of the acoustics that makes the greatest impact on learning (Schneider 2002, 21st Century School Fund 2009), it’s important to provide learners with a range of acoustic spaces to ensure they can access areas designed to support quiet, conversational and noisy activities without impacting on the learning of others. (Von Ahlefeld 2009).
- Spaces should be varied and purposeful. The greater the variety of potential learning settings in a learning environment, the greater the likelihood that spaces will be able to cater to a wide variety of learner needs and curriculum contexts. Learning environments that offer direct access to breakout spaces impact on learning to a more positive degree than learning environments that don’t offer breakout spaces or those where the breakout spaces are not immediately accessible — down a corridor, for instance. (Barrett et al., 2015).
So, there are our top five tips. What would yours be?
- How well do the learning spaces you have available to you support or promote these ideas?
- Which of these ideas or suggestions might be easiest for you to implement?
- If you and a colleague were to implement one of these ideas, what support might you need?
Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., & Aranda, G. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes.
Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Ort, S. W. (2002). Reinventing High School: Outcomes of the Coalition Campus Schools Project. American Educational Research Journal, 39(3), 639–673.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. London, New York: Routledge.
National Center On Universal Design for Learning. (2012). What is Universal Design for Learning?
Schneider, M. (2002). Do school facilities affect academic outcomes? National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Washington D.C.
21st Century School Fund. (2009). Research on the impact of school facilities on students and teachers. Washington D.C.
Von Ahlefeld, H. (2009). Evaluating Quality in Educational Spaces: OECD/CELE Pilot Project. CELE Exchange. Centre for Effective Learning Environments, 2009, 1–5. http://doi.org/10.1787/220802117283
York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative Teaching to Increase ELL Student Learning: A Three-Year Urban Elementary Case Study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR).
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