Author Archives: Derek Wenmoth

Does a MLE suit all learners?

Open space

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.
  • etc.

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. 


Learner Orientation

tentrends15_smallThe latest of CORE's Ten Trends has just been released, focusing on the issue of placing the learner at the centre of all decision making and activity in our education system.  A learner oriented system requires reversing the “logic” of education systems so that they are built around the learner, rather than the learner being required to fit with the system.

The video above is available on EdTalks, and provides a useful introduction to the issue – great for use in staff meetings or other gatherings of educators interested in re-conceptualising how our educational institutions and programmes may better serve the needs of students. 

Global Story Map

Digial Promise map

In a world where "connectedness" is a prevalent theme for future-focused learners and learning, understanding what is happening at a global level becomes important, and making connections with others in other parts of the world an essential part of that. Increasingly, teachers I work with are finding ways of using digital technologies to mediate connections that provide authentic learning opportunities for their students.

Stories have the power to cut through rhetoric, data points, and policies to show what globally connected learning truly looks like – the successes, challenges, and everything else. The map above is curated by Digital Promise Global and links to stories that are submitted by people from around the world.  Digital Promise Global launched the Global Story Map to showcase stories from educators, schools, and programs that support global learners. Start exploring stories here.

If you have a story worth sharing then add it to the map.

Clever Classrooms

Clever Classrooms coverI've just been reading "Clever Classrooms", a report from the University of Salford. (PDF download) After studying 3,766 students and 153 classrooms in 27 primary schools across the United Kingdom, their researchers concluded that simple changes to classroom design can have a significant impact on a student's success.

The schools studied varied widely in size and building age, and the researchers looked at a classroom from each grade in as many schools as possible. The size and layout of each classroom was recorded, as were various environmental measures like temperature and humidity; each teacher also filled out a questionnaire about their classroom experience.

To measure student performance, researchers looked at the students' academic levels in reading, writing, and mathematics. By comparing the change in a student's level from the beginning of the year to the end, they found that variations classroom environment accounted for 16 percent of a student's progress over the course of a year.

The researchers looked at three factors in relation to the question "what makes a classroom "effective"? The factors found to be particularly influential are, in order of influence:

  • Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality – accounting for half the learning impact
  • Individualisation: ownership and flexibility – accounting for about a quarter
  • Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and colour – again about a quarter.

Surprisingly, whole-school factors (eg size, navigation routes, specialist facilities, play facilities) do not seem to be anywhere near as important as the design of the individual classrooms. This point is reinforced by clear evidence that it is quite typical to have a mix of more and less effective classrooms in the same school. The message is that, first and foremost, each classroom has to be well designed.

Innovating to create 21 century learning environments

OECD-ISTP15 The International Summit on the Teaching Profession is under way this year in Banff, Canada, with a contingent of NZ educators attending. Last year I had the privilege of attending this event when it was held here in NZ, and it provided a a great opportunity to hear from a variety of international 'experts' and leaders from a range of countries in the OECD. 

Among them was Andraes Schleicher who is the OECD's director of the Directorate of Education and Skills, and the person most will associate with the research behind the PISA results. He is also author of a new report titled Schools for 21st Century Learners which has been prepared for this year's Summit. 

I've only had a chance to browse the document, which has three key themes  around building responsive schools for 21st Century Learners:

  • Promoting effective school leadership
  • Strengthening Teacher's confidence in their own abilities
  • Innovating to create a 21st Century learning environments

Each of these themes is already a strategic focus in our NZ education system, and no doubt we'll see some of what happens at the Summit feeding back into our context. 

Of the three, however, I have spent a little time looking at the third one, Innovating to create 21st Century Learning Environments (p.61 in the downloadable PDF). 

The study concludes that schools and education systems will be most powerful and effective when they:

  • Make learning central, encourage engagement, and be where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
  • Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative.
  • Are highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions.
  • Are acutely sensitive to individual differences, including in prior knowledge.
  • Are demanding of each learner, but do not overload students with work.
  • Use assessments consistent with their aims, emphasising formative feedback.
  • Promote horizontal connectedness across activities and subjects, in and outside of school.

The chapter describes how some schools are regrouping teachers, regrouping learners, rescheduling learning, and changing pedagogical approaches – and the mix of those approaches – to provide better teaching for better learning. These are all themes that CORE is currently addressing in our work on Modern Learning.

The commentary and examples provided, together with the conclusions that the reearch team draw from, this will provide a useful reference for school leaders pursuing modern learning approaches in their schools, and who may find themselves responding to requests for 'the evidence' that this will contribute to better learning outcomes. 


Information Fluency

I've been reading a little lately about the notion of information fluency and digital literacy in relation to some work I've been doing, and came across this interesting infographic below from Denis O'Connor. It's an interactive infographic which allows you to click on a topic and you're taken to resources on the 21st Century Information Fluency website.

I like the way the five key questions in this diagram supports an agentic approach to thinking about information fluency, with the embedded links taking you off to more information to help resolve your personal response to these questions. Could be a useful poster in its existing form in a classroom too. 


Pocketlab video

A colleague, Dr Paul Lowe, sent me a link this evening to this intriguing project called "Pocketlab"

Before he left NZ to take a job in Abu Dhabi, Paul was a leading science teacher here in NZ, and I remember well his experiments with using geo-location technology to monitor the downward movement of a parachutist, measring acceleration, velocity, and the size of the arcs through which the parachutist moved as he descended. All of this intrigued me – physics in the real world instead of the traditional trolley on rails in a lab – and measured through the imaginative use of computer-linked sensors etc. Paul was very imaginative in this way and through his work I came to appreciate the incredile potential of sensors in the real world to bring science alive. 

So it came as no surprise tonight to receive this link – with the promise of a very simple sensing device that can be used in conjunction with a mobile phone to carry out a range of scientific experiments "in the field". Here's how it's descibed on the website:

PocketLab is a wireless sensor for exploring the world and building science experiments. We built PocketLab for the curious explorers, educators, students, and makers to bring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to life like never before. PocketLab connects with a single button to a smartphone or tablet and instantly streams measurement data that you can see and record. PocketLab measures acceleration, force, angular velocity, magnetic field, pressure, altitude, and temperature. Using our cloud software, you can easily analyze your data, create graphs, and integrate your data with other software. PocketLab has the same features as lab equipment that costs thousands of dollars but is low cost and intuitive to use.


Digital Makers

Nesta-digital makersThe idea of encouraging young people to become creators with technology rather than purely consumers has been present in education circles for some time – but in recent years the impetus to see more of this happening in schools has increased, particularly given the high demand for technology-realted skills, including coding, in the current and future workforce. 

Young Digital Makers is a report just out from Nesta in the UK that highlights the opportunities and identifies gaps and next steps for young people to create with technology across the UK.

The report explores the emerging field of digital making for young people in the UK. It charts the organisations providing opportunities for young people to make things with technology; looks at how these opportunities relate to what young people learn in school; and explores the attitudes of young people, parents and teachers towards digital making.

The rationale for the focus on digital makers is described in the report as..

For most young people digital technology is an everyday part of life. Many are avid consumers of digital media. However they often don’t understand how to manipulate the underlying technology, let alone how to create it for themselves.

As technology shapes our world, young people need to be able to shape it too. As skills and work become increasingly technologically mediated, the need for digital skills is paramount with some calculating a potential £2 billion loss to the UK economy from unfilled roles requiring such skills.

In New Zealand we have yet to see this emphasis emerge as a serious focus in our education system, yet the need is the same. We do have the emergence of the Maker Movement present in initiatives such as Maker Crate, Fab Lab and Mind Lab – and there is evidence of programmes developing in some schools, usually led by the enthusiasm of a particular teacher. We have yet, however to design and implement a national level initiative that  makes this sort of experience a part of what every student has while at school. 

Coding is a key part of this thinking, and in the UK this also is receiving large scale government and business support. There, Samsung, Microsoft, ARM and the people behind Raspberry Pi are collaborating with publicly funded UK broadcaster the BBC on the Micro Dot device in an effort to provide 1 million UK children a free computer for coding.

Such initiatives prompt me to consider how seriously we are thinking about the future of our young learners in NZ schools, and how well we are preparing them with skills, competencies and knowledge required to participate effectively in the knowledge age. We are a small, island nation of just 4.5 million people, over 10,000km from our key markets, contributing globally in a world that is increasingly digital and where the traditional approach to exchanging goods and services will be challenged considerably in the lifetime of the current generation of school students. With or without any form of national initiative, schools need to be promoting maker opportunities for their students, combining with local businesses and the community to ensure they can provide authentic, rich experiences that develop the foundational knowledge and skills required. 

Robots as teachers?

Robot teacher

Robots are becoming increasingly used to replace human activity in many areas of modern society. They've  been used for decades in various forms of manufacturing such as car assembly, in medicine and and are even used now in the dairy industry in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Tasks that were once considered too sophisticated and something that humans only could do are now being taken up by the use of robots

Education has long been considered sacred in this regard, with the catch cry "robots will never replace teachers" oft repeated. But consider how the repetitive and routine aspects of a teacher's job are already being replicated in the online world with software that provides adaptive learning experiences for learners, with increasing use of artificial intelligence behind it. In recent years, robots have crept onto the education scene, popping up in American classrooms as toy-like teaching assistants and in Japan as remote-controlled novelties.

And now a school in Columbus Ohio has introduced a new robo-teacher into its classrooms to allow staff in other parts of the country to teach their pupils. The 1.2 metre tall robot features a screen that broadcasts a video of the teacher's face and a camera allows the teacher to see what is going on in the classroom. In some ways this is not robots replacing teachers in the conventional sense, rather, robots enhancing the teacher presence by allowing a teacher in one location to be present with learners in another.

The headline in The Mail Online article reads "Is This the Future of School?" and goes on to describe how ROBOT lets teachers take lessons, check work and talk to students from thousands of miles away. The article lists the following features of the robot teacher:

  • A screen displays a video of their face while a camera allows them to see
  • Pupils say the robot felt weird at first but it made lessons more personal
  • The teacher can see the class and their work using the robot's camera

While the idea if a 'robot teacher' in a classroom conjures up images from sci-fi novels, the concept here is really only a step further from the traditional video conferencing approaches that have been used in education for more than a decade. Rather than crowding into a space to interact with the remote teacher on a screen, the remote teacher can now have a 'presence' in the physical classroom, with tools that allow her or him to act more like the traditional teacher might in the physical space. 

Of course, this is where the intrique reduces for me – as the fundamental premise of the robot as presented in this scenario is simply about replacing the physical teacher – not about changing or adpating the pedagogy in any way. So the robot takes on the role of the traditional instructor, with the one to many pedagogy of the traditional classroom – rather like the images from the jetsons some decades ago! while I can see some potential for this sort of thinking in cases where the persistent presence of a teacher may be required, say with learners with special needs, the concept of am instructionally oriented teacher being replaced by a robot like this doesn't exactly excite me – it's rather like replacing the traditional paper based exam with an online equivalent and calling it an advance in assessment. The arguments for and against the use of technology like this in education has long provoked reaction from a wide range of perspectives, as a recent article by Stephen Heppell in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates (read in particular the responses at the bottom). We need to beware of the seduction of technology, yet critically aware of the ways in which it is incrementally permeating our lives, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. Education won't be immune. 

Jetsons robot teacher

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

(Wait for a few seconds for the new article to begin once you've pressed play)

For those who may have noticed, I've taken a break from my regular blogging for the past couple of months as the new year has proved to be particularly demanding on my time and energies. I'm prompted to start again now having spent time this week with Michael Fullan at a number of events, in particular, the launch of an exciting project involving a cluster of seven schools in Christchurch as part of an international collaboration under the banner of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is an international innovation partnership involving students, teachers, school leaders, families and education communities working together to address a key education challenge: how to design teaching and learning that leads to more successful lives for all students. The project is based on the work of Michael Fullan's paper A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies find Deep Learning (PDF download). The Christchurch cluster will be working in close collaboration with around 80 schools in Victoria and another 20 in Tasmania, Australia, which in turn are a part of a larger group involving over 300 schools in nine countries so far.

The following quote from the New Pedagogies website sums up why this project has been established:

There is a growing sense among education leaders, educators, students and parents that traditional approaches are not delivering the necessary outcomes for all students to flourish in the increasingly complex world in which they live. Education is at a major turning point with a powerful push-pull dynamic at play. Push being that traditional school is too often boring leaving students disengaged and pull that the digital world is exciting and ubiquitous. All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

Over the next 2-3 years the Christchurch schools are going to be exploring together how they can create far richer, relevant and engaging programmes of learning for their students, involving new approaches to using technology to support learning, new approaches to planning, learning and assessment, and now approaches to leadership across the cluster at all levels to support what is happening. I'm looking forward to an exciting time working with them.