Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Modern Learning Environment or Mindset?
MLE or MLM?
To clarify MLE meaning Modern Learning Environment and MLM meaning Modern Learning Mindset (self derived title, I confess).
As a teacher I coveted the new and shiny. I loved fancy new furniture, concepts and cute gadgets and due to budget constraints I 'made do' with my own versions of the new fangled. It is amazing how you can transform your classroom space into different learning 'zones' with a simple cardboard box and real kiwi ingenuity (a husband with creative skills was also an added bonus). In some ways I think I may have been well ahead of my time. My classroom had 'waterholes' and 'campfires' and 'caves' well before such terms as these were invented. Frankly, it just seemed common sense to set up a classroom with variable spaces for learning. I knew students learnt in different ways, some needing quiet, others more collaborative, and setting up spaces within my classroom to foster this was as natural as breathing.
It was this understanding that students thrive in variable spaces and when provided with different opportunities to learn in a manner that suits them, that also made me covet teachers who had the opportunity to work within collaborative work spaces. Especially in new schools, where furniture buying was not a barrier.
Interestingly, as a principal I still feel the flutterings of envy when I see the variable learning spaces and opportunities that new builds can afford. Especially when I look at how much money I have to spend on buildings, how my 50 year old school is currently designed (which makes redesign a little bit harder - ok - a lot harder) and then feel the constraints of the 'rules'. By the time I have factored in the first two priorities - the first being health and safety, and the second essential infrastructure (we are over 50 years old - there is always something else that needs dealt with on the property front, from drains to hard play areas being ruined by tree roots). There is never enough money left for the final priority, which is modern learning environments. Nothing sucks up money like school property.
I have been fortunate to have experienced the designing of a new school and the incredible freedom you have when you look at what is important for learning and teaching, and when you have a blank canvass. It is quite exciting to look at space and determine its use and how it matches your vision. Although the design never had the opportunity to be more than lines on a page (long story) the process was an interesting one.
Here's the interesting thing about MLE. It is not about the physical (as in building space and furniture) but about the mindset.
On the surface of it, new schools and new builds are exciting. The opportunity to do something special and to really be innovative appears to be all laid out and ready to be capitalised on. I have seen stunning examples of how new schools and redesigned spaces have allowed teachers to set up flexible, open and accessible learning spaces. Whilst the fancy furniture and flexibly designed spaces assist it is not the space or furniture that makes the difference. It is the teacher. They are the key driver that makes the spaces come alive as they implement modern pedagogy and work collaboratively alongside students. In that situation the modern environment exists to complement and support good educational outcomes.
It is the modern mindset teachers' have about teaching and learning that makes the difference. A flexible learning environment with movable walls is pointless if the teacher closes the wall and creates a single cell environment. All the expensive furniture and technology any teacher could wish for is useless if the teacher reverts to traditional pedagogical practices and fails to maximise its potential. I have been to 'modern' schools where they espouse to be 21st century, cutting edge providers of modern teaching and learning, only to find 1950s' pedagogy complete with desks in rows, and methodologies no different from when I was a child.
That is not to say that if I was gifted the opportunity to redesign our classrooms (with our community) that we would not do so. The likelihood of this transpiring is microscopic. I do not have enough control of the actual physical space to the extent I would like but as a school we do have full control over the most crucial of all drivers for MLE.
We have control over our Modern Learning Mindset.
We may not have the flexible spaces that enable observations of our colleagues with ease on an everyday basis, but we do have the ability to go and observe each other - some moveable walls should not be a barrier to that. We may not have flexible learning spaces, but we can change what we do have with ingenuity and creativity. We can be innovative with furniture - if we choose to. It may be harder for us to collaborate from a single cell classroom environment, but it is not impossible. Furniture and learning spaces do not stop us from being innovative, creative or from growing our understanding of what it is to be a modern educator and what 21st century learning looks like, feels like and simply is. It does not stop us from co constructing learning with our students and our community and it sure does not stop us from growing student agency. In fact, it makes us work harder to find solutions.
As a teacher I sought solutions to creating flexible teaching and learning opportunities within my classroom, and it is this mindset that has laid the foundations to do the same as a school leader. As a school leader I look at what we can do to create the space (pedagogical, creative and where we can, physical) for our teachers to be innovative and collaborative. To find ways to support their MLM and to grow them as educators. I will still secretly covet your MLE, but only from the viewpoint that our MLM could really make them fly.
So I leave you with this, it is not about Modern Learning Environments but more about Modern Learning Mindsets.