At a meeting I attended last week a group of people were discussing approaches they might use to 'bring teachers up to speed' with the ideas and approaches they were discussing (in this case, computational thinking). The discussion that ensued raised all of the usual issues around why it's difficult to find effective PLD solutions: teachers are time poor, the overloaded curriculum, lack of expertise, reluctance to change etc. When turning their attention to finding a solution the predictable list appeared: provide more teacher only days (TODs), introduce a range of incentives (carrots), introduce mandatory requirements (sticks) etc. The discussion also ventured into the problem with providing PLD support that is 'just in time' rather than that which is 'just in case'.
As one of the few professionals in the group whose work is built around designing and delivering professional learning and development, I was asked to offer my thoughts on what makes for effective professional learning and development. Having spent much time exploring what the literature says about this, and being involved in significant national research efforts to identify the same, my list was easy to share:
Effective professional learning and development has the following four characteristics:
- It is in-depth
- It is provided over time
- It is related to practice
- It is contextually relevant
I use this list as my litmus test when designing PLD approaches with principals and schools. Based on more recent experience, I think I'd add a fifth point: 5. It is collaborative. I see this increasingly as the differentiating factor in the level of success with PLD programmes in schools I work with.
Clearly, it would be easy then to eliminate the one-day workshop, or attendance at a one-off seminar or conference if using this list. So too a one-size fits all style of 'course' that is 'delivered' on a large scale with no provision for customisation or adapting to a personal need.
This sort of thinking is certainly contributing to the current government policy in NZ, where the 'evidence' suggests that most forms of PLD to date have been ineffective, and that a new approach needs to be taken. In NZ's case this appears to be based on recognising the expertise that exists within schools and clusters and providing support for internally designed and developed approaches to PLD.
Such moves are not surprising. In the US, similar dissatisfaction with existing PLD approaches has been reported, with a recent publication titled "Teachers Know Best" from the Boston Publishing group, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, reporting that large majorities of teachers do not believe that professional development is helping them prepare for the changing nature of their jobs, including using technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the Common Core State Standards and other standards. The report provides a detailed breakdown of the types of PLD that teachers consider work or don't compared with what is provided.
Based on their research, the report authors suggest that principals and teachers in the US largely agree on what effective PLD looks like, and it is summarised in the paper as:
Characteristics of professional development associated with improving student achievement:
- Sustained and content specific
- Teacher learning goals aligned with standards
- Involving active learning techniques (e.g., observing expert teachers, leading discussions)
- Including established teams to facilitate “collective participation” and teachers using data in making instructional decisions
Two formats that hold promise:
- Coaching has been shown to improve teachers’ abilities to adopt and implement new teaching practices
- Collaboration helps to build relational trust in the school building, which enables teachers to more effectively make difficult decisions
In a recent blog post titled Developing Great Teaching that explores these same issues I referenced a report from the Teacher Development Trust which identifies 8 characteristics of effective PLD (repeated below)
- Duration: effective professional development lasts at least two semesters, and needs a ‘rhythm’ of follow-up and consolidation;
- Targeted: the content should be relevant to the teachers’ needs and day-to-day experiences;
- Aligned: no single activity is universally effective – instead it is a combination that reinforced the message from different perspectives that works;
- Content: successful development must consider both subject knowledge and subject-specific teaching techniques;
- Activities: successful development features common types of activities including discussion, experimentation and analysis and reflection;
- External input: constructive external input provides new perspectives and challenges orthodoxies;
- Collaboration: peer support gives participants an opportunity to work together and refine new approaches;
- Leadership: effective leaders get involved in development, define opportunities and provide the support needed to embed change.
While there are some differences in each of the three lists above, there are also some very strong alignments. These are the sorts of things that we need to be taking notice of and building our future PLD programmes around.
It's too easy to look at PLD in a 'fractured' sort of way, thinking about each PLD event in isolation, without appreciating how, if a systemic view was taken, these elements could actually be aligned and understood as a part of a continuum of development, rather than an isolated experience. This is where the analysis in the Gates report is weakened, as it examines the reported effectiveness of each PD event (i.e. workshops, conferences, in-class observation etc.) without referencing how that might 'fit' within the overall programme of development of a school or district. Clearly, since the reports were based on teacher perceptions, those who were surveyed didn't have an appreciation of that – or the survey design didn't allow them to report that.
Back to the NZ scene, I'm very excited about the increased emphasis on supporting schools and clusters to take a more proactive role in designing and developing their own PLD processes and approaches as clearly the mandated, imposed sorts of approaches are becoming less relevant where the needs are so diverse. There's a danger we must be aware of, however, in that cluster leaders will themselves need to be fully aware of and able to lead PLD approaches that are founded on the key principles that the research and evidence reveals, or else they two run the risk of implementing some of the very same practices that we know don't work.
The secret is to take a system-level view, one that is designed to take all staff on a journey, over time, towards achieving both personal and school/cluster goals. and which has strategic means of measuring impact and outcomes.
So much of the work I do currently involves working with education leaders and school communities who are confronted with change as a result of one or a combination of new buildings, investment in technology or adopting modern learning practices. Typically there is a mix of reaction, from those who are keen to embrace the changes through to those who fiercly resist, preferring to defend the traditions of the past.
Whatever the reaction, we need to recognise that we are living in a world characterized by change, complexity and paradox. These changes signal the emergence of a new global context for learning that has vital implications for education. It requires that we revisit the purpose of education and the organization of learning.
Here's a great new release from UNESCO titled The Future of Education – Towards a global common good (PDF downlaod) that explores the context for this change at a global level. This report reconsiders the purpose of education and the principles that govern education and knowledge as common goods. The publication is intended as a call for policy dialogue and as a platform for research on the future of learning, but makes for excellent reading for those interested in education from whatever level of the system they are involved in, whether principals, teachers or parents.
The report argues that the complexity of today’s world requires a comprehensive approach to education policy embedded in a better understanding of the way in which knowledge is created, controlled, disseminated, acquired, validated and used. It also requires further development of the ethical principles that govern education and knowledge as common goods.
I found reading this both refreshing and challenging. Too often the dialogue around educational change is anchored in the surface features of schooling – and in the materialistic context of NZ, focuses on things such as decile ranking, status, architecture, resources etc. instead of the outcomes in terms of what will best serve the future of our nation and our planet. This quote from the foreword by Irina Bokova Director-General of UNESCO, emphasises my point:
There is no more powerful transformative force than education – to promote human rights and dignity, to eradicate poverty and deepen sustainability, to build a better future for all, founded on equal rights and social justice, respect for cultural diversity, and international solidarity and shared responsibility, all of which are fundamental aspects of our common humanity.
Of course, a particular interest for me is the perspective on the impact of digital technologies, and how the ways in which the emergence of a 'cyber culture' is likely to shape and change our modern world. Here's the section from the report that deals with this (p.26):
One of the defining features of development today is the emergence and expansion of the cyber world, stimulated by the spectacular growth in internet connectivity and mobile penetration. We live in a connected world. An estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population now uses the internet and this number is growing at a remarkable rate.35 While there are significant variations in internet connectivity among countries and regions, the number of households with such links in the global South has now overtaken those in the global North. Moreover, over 70 per cent of mobile telephone subscriptions worldwide are now in the global South.36 Five billion people are expected to go from no to full connectivity within the next twenty years. However, there are still significant gaps among countries and regions, for example between urban and rural areas. Limited broadband speed and lack of connectivity hamper access to knowledge, participation in society and economic development.
The internet has transformed how people access information and knowledge, how they interact, and the direction of public management and business. Digital connectivity holds promise for gains in health, education, communication, leisure and well-being.38 Artificial intelligence advances, 3D printers, holographic recreation, instant transcription, voice-recognition and gesture-recognition software are only some examples of what is being tested. Digital technologies are reshaping human activity from daily life to international relations, from work to leisure, redefining multiple aspects of our private and public life.
Such technologies have expanded opportunities for freedom of expression and for social, civic and political mobilization, but they also raise important concerns. The availability of personal information in the cyber world, for example, brings up significant issues of privacy and security. New spaces for communication and socialization are transforming what constitutes the idea of ‘social’ and they require enforceable legal and other safeguards to prevent their overuse, abuse and misuse. better prepare new generations of ‘digital natives’40 to deal with the ethical and social dimensions of not only existing digital technologies but also those yet to be invented.
My earliest experiences of professional learning and development (PLD) tended to be short courses focusing on introducing a new skill, strategy or technology. I can remember as a young teacher being 'sent' to courses on how to use an overhead projector, or how to use simulation activities in social studies classes. Sometimes these things were useful to me when I returned to the classroom, other times they were more 'just in case' courses, simply provided because the opportunity was there.
Since the time I began as a teacher the expectations of teachers have increased, and so to have the expectations of PLD programmes and providers. My professional career has been focused on the professional development (PLD) of teachers for nearly three decades now, and in that time I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of educators across all sectors of the education system. In the work I have been responsible for I have seen a significant shift to participation in programmes that provide quality professional learning that is in-depth, in context, sustained over time, and designed to meet the needs of individual staff and whole schools.
I am anticipating that the findings of the NZ PLD Review (when it is eventually published) will support this – empahsising that the most effective professional learning is that which occurs within schools and is focused on supporting school goals targetting the improvement of student learning and achievement.
Whether the PLD focus is on individuals or whole schools, whether short programmes or longer term engagments, the common concern of most teachers remains "where do I find time to fit this learning in?" The increasing demands on teachers across a range of areas means that PLD is often relegated to the 'nice to have' pile, instead of being accorded the priority it deserves. This creates challenges in terms of the sorts of PLD activities and approaches that should be offered.
A new report, Developing Great Teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, sheds some light on the sorts of activities that are worth our while. Written by researchers from Durham University, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) and UCL Institute of Education, the report confirms that the right PLD (or CPD as it is known in the UK) not only improves teacher practice but also improves outcomes for pupils.
Key findings include (emphasis mine):
- The content of effective professional development should involve both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy to achieve its full potential, with clarity around learners’ progress. Activities should help teachers to understand how pupils learn, generally and in specific subject areas.
- The duration and rhythm of effective CPD requires a longer-term focus – at least two terms to a year or longer is most effective, with follow-up, consolidation and support activities built in.
- Participants’ needs should be carefully considered. This requires stepping away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating content for teachers that integrates their day-to-day experiences.
- There should be a logical and consistent thread between the various components of the programme and creating opportunities for teacher learning.
- Certain activities are more effective – these include explicit discussions, testing ideas in the classroom and analysis of, and reflection around, the evidence and relevant assessment data.
- External input from providers and specialists must challenge orthodoxies within a school and provide multiple, diverse perspectives.
- Teachers should be empowered through collaboration and peer learning; they should have opportunities to work together, try out and refine new approaches and tackle teaching and learning challenges.
- Powerful leadership around professional development is pivotal in defining staff opportunities and embedding cultural change. School leaders should not leave the learning to teachers, they should be actively involved themselves.
One thing that the report identifies is clearly not helpful is sending teachers on one-day external courses which they say is likely to be wasted time unless participants also have in-school collaborative and iterative activities for preparation and follow-up.
The report also emphasises that schools that have stopped using external expertise completely are missing out on a key ingredient of effective PLD. It says that external experts and courses are an important element of in-school processes if we want to improve pupil outcomes. The point here is that the external 'expertise' can no longer be the person 'wheeled in' to provide the new ideas and strategies etc, but their role is changed now to being the critical friend, mentor and strategic adviser, allowing the leadership within the school to take responsibility for leading and managing the PLD programme. This is a particularly interesting to me as the pendulum appears to be swinging here in NZ, away from external providers to supporting the internal PLD leadership of schools.
What do you get when you achieve a state where everyone 'buys in' to the change that is happening and feels that they are a part of it? You get systemness – a state where there is a 'harmonisation' among all parts of the system, each working towards the same vision and doing their part to 'make it work'.
In our current education system, particularly since the 1989 reforms in NZ, we have seen a pervasive spirit of competition and divisiveness among schools in our system, brought about largely because of the emphasis on the 'self managing school', and rewards for leaders who are successful in making their particular school successful (often at the expense of or in spite of what's happening elsewhere). While this may be a good thing in terms of the experience of students in that partcular school, the result is fragmentation at a system level, with significant variations among schools and learners, depending on where they are learning and who they are learning with.
This thinking has been reinforced for me as I've worked recently with Michael Fullan with the NZ cluster of schools participating in the New Pedagogies project. Systemness is one of the things identified in Michael's 2011 paper titled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform, in which he identifies four policy and strategy levers that have the least and and four with the best chance of driving successful reform.
A ‘wrong driver’ is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students.
Systemness is not simply about aligning our activities and focus at a system level, it is about system coherence – it involves a mindset change. "Systemness” means that you develop experiences in people where they start to identify with the bigger part of the system itself. So a teacher, for example, who moves from just thinking of “my classroom only” to thinking of all the kids in the school—that’s “systemness”. It becomes a case of thinking in terms of "we, not me".
At the system level, ‘systemness’ means all schools work to improve the learning of each and every student across the system. Within the local school context, ‘systemness’ means each teacher isn’t just responsible for the learning of his/her own students, but for each and every student in the school. Structures won't achieve this – it requires a change of thinking and mindset.
- commitment to a common vision and aspiration for our learners across the system
- shared goals
- a high level of trust among all participants
- a focus on 'we, not me' at all levels
- the right support at the right time to the right people
- inherent values of sharing and collaboration
This post has been prompted by some thinking I've been doing as I returned from the EduTECH conference last week in Brisbane, where I met and talked to a number of educators from Australia and other parts of the world who, like me, are involved in thinking about and working towards education change at a system level. It seems that no matter where we came from I heard common questions being asked around 'how to make the change scalable and sustainable?'
For too long we've tolerated a high degree of fragmentation in our school system, celebrating the achievements of individual schools at the expense of their neighbouring ones, and we've promoted the teacher and principal 'heros' at the expense of their colleagues. We have to change this mindset and work more determinedly towards a state of 'systemness' – a refreshed way of thinking that places the wellbeing and needs of every learner in the system at the heart of our thinking and decision making.
I've just been browsing this recently released report from the Economist Intelligence Unit titled The skills agenda: Preparing students for the future which draws attention to the challenge in education to prepare our current students with the skills and knowledge they'll require to participate fully in the future, in particular, in a digitally-enabled future.
The EIU embarked on a research programme, sponsored by Google, to examine to what extent the skills taught in education systems around the world are changing. For example, are so-called 21st-century skills, such as leadership, digital literacy, problem solving and communication, complementing traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic? And do they meet the needs of employers and society more widely?
Their key findings are:
- Problem solving, team working and communication are the skills that are currently most in demand in the workplace.
- Education systems are not providing enough of the skills that students and the workplace need.
- Some students are taking it into their own hands to make up for deficiencies within the education system.
- Technology is changing teaching, but education systems are keeping up with the transformation rather than leading it.
These findings are consistent with the work of many other reports I read in the course of my work, and very consistent with the work of a group I am part of here in Christchurch where I live comprising members of local IT-related companies, the local economic development agency and some educators. Key issues that this group are considering include the fact that while there is a bias toward increasing demand for employees to fill positions in the IT sector, there is a distinct lack of sufficiently skilled staff available to fill these roles, which in turn is becoming a barrier to companies being able to grow and achieve their organisational goals. The same concerns exist in other parts of NZ – in Auckland earlier this year a survey of 61,000 secondary school students found that less than 6 per cent had a qualification in basic ICT, raising concerns among the Auckland Business Leaders Group about the ability to find staff for the growing number of IT-relaed jobs appearing in the city.
The EIU report does contain several examples of where, at a strategic and systemic level, initiatives are under way that are addressing these issues, with students proved with opportunities at all levels of the school system to develop the range of digital literacies required to prepare them for their future. One example comes from New Zealand – featuring the work of the Manaiakalani Education Trust in Auckland (see page 11 in the report) where the provision of devices for each student has resulted in significant gains in learning for students, and preparation for their digital futures.
While these examples are something to celebrate and share more widely, for the bulk of our education system we are simply moving too slowly, and putting the future of our young people – and the economic future of our country – at risk because of our conservative approach. What we now know about knowledge building, skills transfer, how learning occurs etc. has yet to fully impact the changes in education that are necessary to provide the sorts of programmes and environments that will prepare our young people for these futures. As the report states in its conclusion:
This style of learning places new demands on teachers, who may themselves not be universally equipped with the competencies to lead a more fluid, interactive class. It also requires governments to be willing to rethink their approach to teacher training and professional development. It is no longer sufficient—if it ever was—that teachers are well versed in their subject. They must recognise that the skills a student acquires through learning are as important, if not more so, than the content, and be able to incorporate opportunities for the development of problem solving, collaborative, creative and communication skills into their teaching. These skills cannot be taught in isolation but must be present across the curriculum, embedded in the fabric of how teachers teach.
We have this happening in pockets aroun the country – but how can we link it up and ensure that every student in every school has these sorts of learning opportunities as a matter of course? This is what the transformation agenda is about!!!
Tony Bates has done it again – completing an extremely useful volume on ‘Teaching in A Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning for a digital age’. It’s available online in a range of formats and its FREE! It’s an excellent resource.
There's something in this book for everyone involved in education in the digital age – from an examination of the drivers of change in education and the changing nature of knowledge, to an analysis of the pedagogical benefits of particular technologies, an overview of MOOCs and online teaching and a few chapters designed to translate all of this into practical, effective teaching in a digital world.
At nearly 500 pages it's one of those volumes you'll want to dip in and out of, with sections broken down into easily digestible 'chunks', each with a call to action included to provide a focus for how this may be translated into something meaningful in your own context.
I particularly liked the breakdown and explanation of a 'learning environment' that is added as an appendix – the broad definition Bates references appeals to me:
Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example. The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class—its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another—as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning…..’ (The Glossary of Educational Reform, 29 August, 2014)
If we situate our thinking about modern learning/teaching in a digital age within this broad understanding of a learning environment then our appropriation of the ideas, frameworks and strategies suggestd by Bates in his book will be more likely to yield the results our digital age students deserve.
I currently have the privilege of participating in and contributing to a variety of working groups and reference groups that are concerned with the future of education, each addressing various aspects the traditional education system, including the future of assessment, the development of modern learning environments, the impact of technology etc.
A central premise of much of this work focuses on just how well education is managing to keep up with the pace and scale of the rapid change that is experienced in the world in general, and how effectively we are equipping young people for life in a constantly evolving work environment. This is the question explored by Maha Barada in the latest edition of Learning World who presents three stories exploring this theme from different angles and in different locations.
The three stories explored in the video are:
- The LINQ Precinct at Sheldon College in Brisbane, Australia, an innovative, interdisciplinary education centre designed to equip students with skills they can hopefully adapt to any new technological advances.
- A pioneering project from a public high school in Rio, Brazil, where students are encouraged to take more responsibility and manage their own affairs, and is producing amazing results.
- The work of Graham Brown-Martin, founder of Learning Without Frontiers, a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning.
Throughout the video the same themes and challenges in our traditional education system are addressed – particularly the issue of assessment, and how the continuation of traditional approaches is fast becoming a 'handbrake' on the appropriation and development of the sorts of approaches to learning we should be taking in our schools and classrooms.
I've just been browing a new report A new report tiled "Technology-Enabled Personalized Learning: Findings and Recommendations to Accelerate Implementation," from the US. The report is based on the recommendations and observations of over 100 educators who gathered last year for the TEPL summit at North Carolina State University's Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. It summarises advice and insight on how to use technology to facilitate personalized learning, and seeks to help users work towards goals based around: data, content and curriculum, technology architecture, research and development, and human capacity.
It's always interesting to read this sort of document, particularly as it has been developed through the collaborative activity of practitioners. While there are a number of references to specific technololgies such as student data projection, student ownership of devices and calls for the development of technology standards, it's interesting to not an emphasis also on more professional development as the role of the teacher shifts from presenter of knowledge to facilitator/coach/guide
The link between the pedagogical construct of 'personalised learning' and the role of technology is something that needs much more discourse among educators. There has been a lot of use of the idea of personalising learning as a justification of pursuing 1-1 and BYOD programmes, but too often, it's nothing more than a 'smokescreen' attempting to provide a pedagogical rationale for a technological imperative – and too often also, the learner centred pedagogy turns out to be based purely on the assumption that a personally owned device will provie a more personalised experience of the 'delivery' of content.
The document offers this explanation of personalisation:
Personalized learning is not simply about differentiating the method or approach of instruction or about individualizing the pace of learning. Personalized learning further seeks to empower the learner to shape what, how, and when they learn, thus engaging them through their explicit and implicit choices. Authentic implementation of personalized learning requires fundamental redesign of the school structure and of the role of teachers.
This appeals to me – it suggests more than a personalised delivery experience – and gets more to the point of learner agency. This is a key affordance of technology – empowering and enabling learners to have choices about what and how they learn, and the power to act on those choices in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them.
The document also states…
Personalization is necessary for educational equity. Educational equity is not simply about equal access and inputs, but ensuring that a student’s educational path, curriculum, instruction, and schedule be designed to meet her unique needs, inside and outside of school.
With this level of understanding of personalisation we can begin to consider the contribution that technology can make in quite different ways.
The report goes on to identify specific challenge areas and ways in which technology can support and enhance personalised approaches. There are some useful ideas and recommendations, supported by case studies and descriptions in this report – all of which will help prompt further thinking in your own context.
As schools and teachers embrace modern learning practices there inevitably emerge a range of different beliefs about what works and why. Some of this becomes a part of the popular culture of education, and some of it even makes its way into policy at a national level.
Not everyone forms the same view, often leading to debates about what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'. What it really reflects is the differences in values and beliefs that drive our practice as educators. I read this week a Herald article about the decision of Auckland Grammar to stick with a more traditional approach to teaching and learning as they designed their new buildings. Here's a quote from the article that outlines very explicitly what the values and beliefs are in that school …
Headmaster Tim O'Connor said because Grammar's teaching style was to teach content, rather than focussing on student-led learning, the 12-classroom block's layout fitted it better. "Our teaching style is teacher-centered learning," headmaster Mr O'Connor said. "The key thing with the new classrooms are that they are wide not deep – so those in the back row are closer and it's all about the relationship between student and teacher."
In the rush to embrace modern learning practice there is inevitably a storng focus on the practices that may change – the practical, observable things that will impact on how things happen in schools. For example, the emergence of large, free-flowing spaces, moving from indiviudal desks to group tables etc. But these things alone will not change the effectiveness of our educational provision unless they are matched to our shared beliefs and values. It is there that we need to start – and continue to reflect and refine as we seek to develop an educaitonal approach that is relevant to the lives of our modern learners and their future.
What shapes and forms our beliefs is important. Our own school experience, our particular world view, political or religious perspectives and the influence of particular thought leaders are all key influences on our thinking when it comes to forming our values and beliefs about education. A key challenge is to ensure that we are critically engaged, and constantly reflecting on these things in order to distinguish between the ideas that have substance and those that have evolved as 'myths'.
An Edutopia article titled "8 myths that undermine educational effectiveness" exposes some of the ideas that are currently influencing or informing our practice. The 'myths' presented here provide a challenge to some of the things that we may be adopting in our own mindsets – or feel that we're obliged to work within. The key point here is the reminder that we need to remain vigilant as educational professionals and be continually assessing and being critically engaged with the new ideas and thinking as they emerge.
Over the past few months I've received emails from a number of teachers, principals and university students asking me for my opinion about whether Modern Learning Environments (MLEs) are appropriate for particular sorts of learners. This weekend I received on from a Masters student asking for my gut feeling as to whether dyslexic learners in a MLE thriving or barely surviving? Inevitably my response is "it depends".
Essentially, I don't find this sort of question helful. There are some more important questions that should precede it. That’s not to be dismissive at all of the fact that people will be interested in these sorts of things – it’s important that these themes are fully investigated as new approaches are being adopted in our schools and learning institutions. It's like asking "does an MLE suit all learners?" when the equally valid, yet often unconcested question is "does a traditional egg-crate classroom suit the needs of all learners?"
There is an assumption implicit in the question that the experience of learners in an MLE will be different in some way to what they are within traditional environments – and that the environment will be the differentiating factor. It highlights concerns that exist about the move to more open environments generally – behind which lies a lot of assumptions about the efficacy of the traditional single-cell classrooms that most of my generation will remember and which still exist in the majority of cases today.
Think about this – what is not 'open plan' about the conventional classroom, with rows of desks facing the focal point of the teacher at a presentation point in the room. Or not even rows but groups of desks etc. At the end of the day it's still an open space occupied by 20-30 people all engaged in some form of learning activity. The opportunity for distraction exists, along with the assumption that all learning will take place at the individual desk/chair arrangement assigned to each learner – with little (or in most cases no) opportunity to withdraw to a space for personal reflection or focus if required.
To clarify my thinking here let’s start with the definition of a MLE. My perspective of a MLE is that it will generally demonstrate following characteristics..
- more open learning spaces, designed to cater for the range of learning activities that occur in a typical school context
- attention given to providing the essentials of heat, light and acoustics that will make the environment comfortable to work in and conducive to learning activity
- consideration given to including spaces that will allow for the needs of specific learners or learning needs to be met as required (e.g. withdrawal spaces)
- includes (where possible) connection with outside spaces in a ‘natural’ or free flowing way
That’s about it as far as the physical spaces are concerned.
The essential thing then is, what are the (desired) characteristics of the teaching and learning behaviours within these spaces – and that’s where the whole issue gets interesting. To be honest, this is the question that ought to precede any thinking or design about the spaces themselves – this is the basis of work that I am doing in many schools currently under the umbrella of ‘modern learning practice’ – exploring just what it is that is either not working or limiting the opportunities for learners to learn within our current ways of working, and changing practice appropriated, including the spaces we operate within.
The characteristics of modern learning practice (MLP) then are likely to include:
- learners having greater agency in their learning, able to navigate their pathways in ways that are appropriate to them
- greater evidence of collaboration among and between students, among and between teachers, and between students and teachers
- teachers working collaboratively with larger numbers of students, ensuring the needs of particular groups and individuals are being met while others are working in self directed groups etc.
- greater focus on self directed learning, including emphasis on learners taking more responsibility for accumulating evidence of their learning for assessment purposes.
Each of the ideas above assumes a lot of thinking leading to this change from the way things are done currently in the egg-crate, single cell classrooms with one teacher conducting the orchestra of 25 or so kids.
So, to come to the inquiry around whether learners with dyslexia (or any other learner group defined by need) have their needs met in a MLE, the inevitable response is “it depends”.
It depends on…
- how are their needs defined currently, and in what ways are they being met adequately and appropriately in current contexts?
- What changes are desirable to current practice that would mean these needs may be better met?
- How may an adjustment in the design of learning spaces be of benefit?
From my personal experience, I’ve seen the needs of learners with all manner of disability being met in much better ways in a MLE than in a traditional classroom, and am philosophically disposed to advancing that approach. Similarly, however, I’ve seen some tragically disappointing examples of kids simply “getting lost” in the turmoil of an open plan environment where little thought or consideration has been given to the way teaching and learning practices must change to leverages the affordances of these new environments.
So my feeling here is, to focus on the causal relationship between the physical environment (MLE) and how the needs of particular learners are being met is to limit the scope of wider thinking and engagement that needs to occur. But let's not stop asking the questions – instead, let's be prepared to dig deeper into examining the reasons behind why educators and education systems around the world are moving towards creating markedly different sorts of learning spaces to what we have been used to. And let's also start to focus on the MLP horse before the MLE cart in the way we approach this.