Thursday, 2 October 2014

(Modern) Learning Environments

"She (was) a Mod" - but not today.

I'll be honest. It's taken me a while to explore this topic, for two reasons:

I took it literally. I was in an existing, older environment, with no power over changing "how we do things here."

The term grates on me. It's another bit of jargon. It's fashionable. It's a trendy term to throw around. Sorry Stephen Heppell, Mark Osborne and others who have been part of this conversation for ages. It wasn't in my "to do" pile.

I fell into the trap. 

Modern Learning Environments are not about the age of the school, the amount of glass, the trendy green, geometric, vinyl ottomans or the orange, corduroy bean bags. It's about how kids want to learn. Actually, about how each of us want to learn, including me.

A light goes on. I start to take notice. The twitter stream starts to ripple with how teachers in traditional schools are recreating their classrooms.

from "Teaching the Teacher"

Anne Keneally uses her efellow year to explore modern learning environments and I send out a challenge in our school for teachers to get their students to redesign the classrooms. Not much changes.

It is not that simple when you have a long tradition of classroom layout in your heads - even for the students. It's about deep and meaningful inquiry into how we like to learn. Without that, we fall into recreating traditional models or being mesmerised by the furniture catalogues and all that lime coloured vinyl - which our budget won't cover. Sigh. But it's not about the trappings. 

The word modern though, does conjure up a particular look. But how long will "modern" be modern?  I've seen a traditional classroom stuffed full of modern furniture that was showcased as a modern learning environment. I've seen an older block with walls punched out to make open spaces and one end furnished with old, donated, comfy sofas. Another modern learning environment.

We really need to delve into how we like to learn. We need that other modern gem, "student agency." We need learner voice and I'm a learner too, so why not start with me?

I liked school. I liked collaborating at school. I didn't think much of any of my classrooms; cold, rattly, grafittied, wooden chairs that ate your tights. 

For individual work, I preferred to wait till I got home. One of my favourite places was spread out on the floor with books all around me. I wanted space and I wanted it on my own. When I was reading I stayed in my small bedroom or tucked myself into a sunny corner of our sun porch, another private, enclosed space.


My own kids begged me to be allowed to come home to study, especially in their senior years, nearing exam time. The school was too rigid in its timetable, the teachers were boring, they were reviewing stuff they already knew, other kids were mucking all sounded very familiar. I have to say I was torn between meeting their needs and being a school leader who couldn't condone truancy! 

So let's look at that middle word: "learning". That's the key. Where do we learn best, as opposed to "do school"? Where you learn might not be where I learn. Whether extrovert or introvert we have different needs and at different times. And how do we learn?

I love to discuss things to clarify my own thinking; I read and I write to reflect. I like listening to other experts in their fields - but I want to choose to listen to them and I can't be under stress to take it in. I need to be well fed and watered, warm but not too warm and be able to at least, for a time, shut out any worries in my life. I like to be in an ordered environment; my room has to be tidy wherever I am. Sometimes I want background noise and sometimes I need silence. I want time to consider.

And does "environment" mean a building? I've talked about the spaces I like. But how else do I learn? 

I love my digital devices. I love that they allow me to connect, converse, collaborate anywhere I want to: on the sofa, in my car, in the doctor's waiting room...I love that I can talk with someone in Singapore or Orlando. I love that the only barrier about time is that I need to sleep sometimes when people are working elsewhere in the world. I love that I can replay or rewind that learning if I can't be there. I love that I can learn anywhere anytime. I love the word ubiquitous. It rolls off the tongue.

So now I'm watching how you want to learn. If you choose to play Minecraft, could that be a learning environment for you? Why am I spoiling it if I call it a learning environment? Is learning only a school activity that has been prescribed in a curriculum document or examination prerequisite? Of course not! 

Gone are the days when a school leader told me that it was unsuitable to call a game at school a game. It needed to be called a "learning activity". Oh dear. That sort of says that fun is not allowed.

We know better. We acknowledge that learning happens through play: life lessons like collaboration, creative thinking, problem solving, give and take, communication, disappointment, resilience, all take place in the sandpit. Hang on - these are pretty important tools that a citizen needs in their kete. 

And what of the teacher? How does that role fit in to a real learning environment?
I think of the teachers who have had the biggest influence on me:

  • My form 2 teacher who allowed a small group,of us to write our plays. We were fully immersed and presented them to real parent audiences.
  • The junior high teacher who let us explore the imaginary back worlds of novels like "The Sword in the Stone" about Merlin and Arthur.
  • My mother who always supported learning by attending every interview; who filled a chest of drawers with cuttings and project material.
  • My friend Sara who showed me that every four year old's "why" question was important and who could discuss why clouds were pink at sunset and why the sky was blue. Our kids were allowed to paint their faces and dig huge mud holes in her backyard.
The adults were there for the children: making sure they were safe, picking up the pieces, refereeing disagreements, scaffolding understanding, modelling good practice, making sure there were available resources, watching that the children ate and dressed warmly.

So if we learn through play, by being in comfortable, flexible spaces, or even uncomfortable outdoor risk-taking environments, face to face or virtually, in the real world or in worlds we have created online, let's get on with it. We are individuals and don't go out into the world known as boxed sets: "class of 2014."

It's time for real conversations about learning and the learning environments that have always worked. Forget the modern. Learning is not schooling. And modern becomes "how we do it around here" too quickly. And that's the point.


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