Learning hub, Stonefields School
Breakout spaces offer flexibility
When Henry Ford said of his Model T cars ‘You can have any colour you like… as long as it’s black’, he could just as easily have been talking about high school when I was young. Apart from a few amazing teachers who were as inspiring as they were enthusiastic, most lessons were pretty black and grim. For the most part we sat down, faced the front, and copied down notes from overhead transparencies. If we were lucky, once or twice a year we might do something interactive or practical.
Thankfully, Henry-Ford-style learning has disappeared from most classrooms, but there’s no escaping the fact that we ask many of our best teachers to inspire and engage young people in buildings designed around the time Henry Ford was making cars. Unless you’re lucky enough to teach in a classroom that’s less that 10 or 15 years old, it’s a fact that the design of your school was not informed by a good understanding of how the brain learns. We’ve made huge strides in cognitive science over the last 15 years, and this has resulted in pedagogies that embrace the nature of learning: they are personalised, socially constructed, differentiated, responsive (and often initiated by the students themselves), and connected to authentic contexts and the world outside.
So if we were to design physical learning environments that matched and supported what we know about learning, what features would they have?
- Flexibility: the ability to combine two classes into one and team-teach, split a class into small groups and spread them over a wider area or combine different classes studying complementary learning areas.
- Openness: modern learning environments traditionally have fewer walls, more glass and often use the idea of a learning common (or hub) which is a central teaching and learning space which can be shared by several classes. The ability to observe and learn from the teaching of others, and be observed in return. Access to what other learning areas and level are learning so that teaching complements and builds on
- Access to resources (including technology): typically a learning common is surrounded by breakout spaces allowing a range of different activities: for instance some students reading, some engaging in project space or using wet areas, reflecting, presenting and displaying or learning in a group. There is often a mixture of wireless and wired technology which means students have access to technology as and when they need it, within the flow of their learning.
So modern learning environments promote better student learning, but are there other advantages? Well the big one is teacher learning. More open and flexible spaces also create more collaborative communities of practice for teachers. Having access to the teaching practice of one’s colleagues; to model and to be modelled to, supports the development of effective teaching practice far more than teaching in an isolated, private space. This ‘de-privatisation of practice’ means that honest exploration of teacher strengths and weaknesses can take place in an open and supportive environment.
Beginning and provisionally-registered teachers have far more support around them in open learning spaces. Their progress can be monitored, supported and celebrated by their more experienced colleagues and ongoing low-level mentoring is easy to put in place because they have seasoned professionals to the left and the right of them.
Note: this blog post contains extracts from a CORE Education white paper on Modern Learning Environments.