Wednesday, December 14, 2011

PLG getting organised for 2012

This year has seen the start of the open learning space plg, a place for teachers to talk to teachers about collaboration, about learning and about teaching in modern learning environments. 

With many schools investigating flexible/ open/ agile/ purposeful/ innovative (there are lots of different terminologies in use!) learning spaces, what are the opportunities and challenges that they present? What can we learn from each other about what we're discovering as we seek to maximise the benefits of these new spaces? This really is the purpose of the group.

It's been an exciting journey so far with the group growing from a couple of schools to representatives of eight schools involved. We've visited three schools so far, heard some great presentations and engaged in some stimulating dialogue. And in 2012 we're really keen to grow the plg further. 

So if you know teachers and leaders who might be interested please pass the details on. They might be already teaching in a modern learning environment, or just thinking about it. They might be at a school looking at rebuilding or remodeling a part of it. Or they might be in a brand new school. Alternatively, they just might be interested in coming along to find out what the talk is all about. All are welcome.

So please pass the details on. We'll be kicking off next year with a visit to Freemans Bay School who have just completed a brand new block and have more building ahead of them. Later in the year we hope to visit three more schools including a high school and a new school.

The website is now up and running with a few details and resources on it. You'll also find a registration page, so please sign up if you’re interested in coming along.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

CEFPI launches in New Zealand!

CEFPI has launched in New Zealand!
The CEFPI (Council for Educational Facility Planners International) organisation, which aims to bring together architects and educators, designers, administrators and suppliers, has for the last ten years had a strong presence in Australia. Now, after a launch event in Auckland, the organization is set to grow on this side of the Tasman too.

The launch event hosted by Stonefields School in Auckland was attended by about thirty architects, educators, suppliers and representatives of the Ministry of Education. Following an introduction from Andrew Pender, chair of the Executive Committee and a presentation from the school, there was an opportunity for a tour of the new buildings.

In 2012 the intention is to grow the organization in New Zealand in order to provide a forum and network for people interested in school building design, from both an architectural and pedagogical perspective. There will be opportunities to attend regular site visits, seminars and forums as well as the CEFPI conference to be held in May next year on the Gold Coast.

Anyone interested in becoming involved can email for further details and to be added to the database.

(Photo courtesy of Anne Knock)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Professional Learning Group: The community grows

The level of interest in open learning spaces and modern learning environments in New Zealand is really growing. This week’s professional learning group was held at Epsom Normal Primary in Auckland and saw three new schools getting involved in the dialogue.

Epsom is a great example of how schools can convert existing spaces and ‘single cell’ environments into open learning spaces that value collaboration, student empowerment and a focus on strength based learning. Much of it has been the vision of principal Jane Cavanagh-Eyre and during the meeting she shared her own journey, from open-plan to modern learning environments.

The school has really set out to celebrate the environment around them. As Rachel, one of their teachers suggested ‘you don’t need four walls to learn’. Consequently they have made excellent use of the outdoor spaces including a bank being turned into a student garden just outside the shared space. The addition of some strategically placed windows has not only lightened the learning spaces but also increased the connection with the outdoor areas and century old pohutakawa trees. They have really set out to celebrate the environment around them. The redevelopment of the library has helped turn what was once a resource room into a facility that has become very much a space shared by children and adults.

What was particularly exciting though was the level of collaboration evident among the teachers. They talked of reaching new levels of collegiality, of positivity and stronger staff relations- much as a result of opening up the space.  The team involved in teaching in the new space acknowledged that they had many questions remaining- they only moved in in April- and many of them related to collaboration. It is certainly a reoccurring theme at the PLG. There seems to be an inextricable link between these new spaces and the level of sincere collaboration required to make them work. The teachers were keen to look ahead and explore how teacher collaboration relates to student collaboration, and how the space can contribute towards it.

As the Ministry of Education moves ahead with its School Property Strategy 2011-2021, we will see more and more of this type of conversion going ahead. It is a key part of the strategy: “modernizing classrooms and converting them into modern teaching spaces will be a high priority over the coming years” (p. 13). Epsom is certainly an excellent example of what this might look like.  

We are keen to grow the PLG further and are aware of more school starting to investigate new spaces and collaborative teacher practice. Details of the first Auckland meeting (mid March 2012) will be available on the website (just getting started!) and via Twitter @chrisbradbeer #openlearningspacesplg Please get in touch if you are interested in coming along.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A legacy of open-plan

Open-plan classrooms have left trailing behind them somewhat of a legacy in terms of the way we think about newer open learning spaces. One legacy in particular, I suspect, is an enculturated hesitancy for schools to open up spaces again. The collective memory of an education innovation that generally speaking did not work is a strong one and comparisons between the two are understandably inevitable.

Imagine you'd spent several years teaching in an open-plan space back in the seventies or eighties and you hadn’t enjoyed it. You'd found it a challenging experience and certainly not a professional fulfilling one. You remember the noise, the poorly designed spaces and the stress that teachers often found themselves working under...and now you see the introduction of what appears on the face of it to be similar open classroom spaces being constructed. How would you feel? Well, perhaps a slight sense of déjà vu coupled with a dose of skepticism.

It is not entirely surprising to hear then that those teachers who taught in these spaces earlier in their careers are viewing our new teaching and learning environments with some suspicion. At a recent conference our team was presenting at, the by now familiar catch cry of the return to open-plan came up again. Are these new open learning spaces, these modern learning environments, not just a re-hash of an idea that didn’t work before, one teacher questioned, recalling her own experiences three decades ago.  To all intents and purposes, she suggested, they look much the same. This is not an uncommon response to our spaces and one I believe that represents a quite deeply held belief about what a classroom should look like.

The tendency it seems is to superimpose 'open-plan' memories onto new open learning spaces and to recall all that that represents. Maybe the language is partially to blame. Perhaps it’s the word ‘open’. I think we need to focus less on the ‘open’ now and more on the ‘learning space’. I wonder if in fact calling the spaces ‘open learning spaces’ at all could be construed as misleading and setting ourselves up for failure. It’s certainly something that I’d be guilty of. Perhaps I should be using flexible or purposeful as is the vogue in Australia, agile as Stephen Heppell would prefer to call them, or Modern Learning Environments, the New Zealand Ministry’s preferred nomenclature.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stephen Heppell on the future of education

Stephen Heppell, in this latest offering from Edtalks shares his thought on what the future of education might look like. He discusses how online learning spaces he was developing fifteen years ago have essentially become prototypes for what the physical buildings now need to look like. They offer students the chance to work with each other, to talk with others globally, to have peer support and affirmation, to exhibit and celebrate their learning, and to be totally absorbed and immersed in the environment. Stephen believes that “'structures and strictures of education will be swept aside by the engagement, seduction, delight, passion and astonishment of a new learning world”. It’s an exciting prospect.

Stephen is a real visionary and it was great to be able to hear him talk at this year’s Ulearn conference. I’m always struck by his passion, energy and firm belief in keeping the learners at the very heart of what he does. The video is well worth a look.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Collaborative teaching: What might it look like?

When we talk collaborative teaching in open learning spaces shared by a number of teachers, I’m not always sure we’re talking about the same thing. There are a number of approaches that can be considered as ‘collaborative’ but there are some substantial differences between them. This is very relevant when looking at open learning spaces and shared teaching areas.

Often I hear comments from teachers who used to work in open-plan units that they’d still have their own class, occupy their own part of the space, plan work for their own students and rarely engage in working alongside colleagues. Whilst the space offered potential for collaboration it wasn’t always harnessed. I acknowledge that this wasn’t always the case but it was a big factor in the failure of the open-plan schools.

Collaborative teaching can be defined as “two or more people sharing responsibility for educating some or all of the students in a classroom” (Villa, Thousand and Nevin, 2008, p. 5). They suggest that it “involves the distribution of responsibility among people for planning, instruction and evaluation for a classroom of students (p. 5). What it’s not they add, is one person teaching, to be followed by another teaching a different subject, or one person teaching while the other one’s preparing material at the photocopier!

Collaborative teaching, at times called co-teaching or team teaching, has been around for quite a while in one guise or another. It first gained popularity in the 1950s, then evolved during the 1960s before becoming widespread in the early 1970s, particularly in open-plan primary schools, before enjoying something of a resurgence in the 1980s (Friend & Reising, 1993). Now as we move into modern open learning spaces teachers are once again examining how teaching collaboratively can impact on student learning and outcomes. There is though I believe a resistance towards collaborative practice, at times caused by the legacy of open-plan.

Villa, Thousand & Nevin (2008), and I’ve included a few of their references here, report four different models of co-teaching, (developed by the National Center for Educational Restructuring and Inclusion, 1995). These are supportive, parallel, complementary and team teaching. It’s worth exploring the differences between them.

Supportive teaching describes the situation when one teacher takes the lead instructional role and the other moves around the learners to provide support on a one-to-one basis as required. Friend and Reising (1993) refer to this as ‘one teachers/ one drifts’.

Parallel teaching is when two or more teachers are working with different groups of learners simultaneously in different parts of the classroom, what Friend & Reising (1993) calls ‘station teaching’.

Complementary teaching is when “when co-teachers do something to enhance the instruction provided by the other co-teacher(s). For example, one co-teacher might paraphrase the other's statements or model note-taking skills on a transparency” (Nevin, Thousand, & Villa, 2007).

Team teaching by comparison is when two or more teachers do what teachers do for a class, to plan, teach, assess and take responsibility for all the students in the room, taking an equal share of responsibility, leadership and accountability (Nevin, Thousand, & Villa, 2007).

A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning is a very useful read for anyone interested in collaborative teaching models and the authors extensive work is key for anyone interested in further reading. It unpacks the four models extensively with plenty of examples. The authors suggest that no one approach is better than the others and all have their merits. Their suggestion is that as teachers gain confidence in a collaborative situation they will find situations where each of the four models are useful and appropriate. The case study by York-Barr et al (2007) which I’ve looked at in a previous entry looks like a good example of the team teaching approach.

I’d also highly recommend looking at a great post on team teaching by Kathleen Morris. She talks about the day to day running of a collaborative pair of teachers and addresses issues such as planning, assessment, reporting etc. Judging by all the responses she’s had there’s a lot of interest in the subject.

I’m interested in how these different approaches apply to modern open learning spaces and what sort of evidence is available on how they impact on student outcomes.


Friend, M., & Reising, M. (1993). Co-teaching: An overview of the past, a glimpse at the present, and considerations for the future. Preventing School Failure, 37(4), 5-10.

National Center for Educational Restructuring and Inclusion. (1995). National study on inclusion: Overview and summary report. New York: City University of New York.

Nevin, A. I., Thousand, J. S., & Villa, R. A. (2009). Collaborative teaching for teacher educators: What does the research say? Teaching and Teacher Education, 25, 569-574.

Nevin, A. I., Thousand, J. S., & Villa, R. A. (2007). Collaborative teaching: Critique of the scientific evidence. In L. Florian (Ed.), Handbook of special education research (pp. 417-428). London: Sage.

Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Image retrieved from

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stephen Heppell’s rule of three

Stephen Heppell is somewhat of a guru when it comes to learning space design and the move to what he terms agile learning environments. In this interview with Trung Le (education designer and involved in The Third Teacher project), he answers the question, “What should the third millennium school look like?”. I like his simple rule of three.

“I have a simple rule of three for third millennium learning spaces:

• No more than three walls so that there is never full enclosure and the space is multifaceted rather than just open.

• No fewer than three points of focus so that the "stand-and-deliver" model gives way to increasingly varied groups learning and presenting together (which by the way requires a radical rethinking of furniture).

• Ability to accommodate three teachers/adults with their children. The old standard size of about 30 students in a box robbed children of so many effective practices; these larger spaces allow for better alternatives.”

Stephen Heppell is going to be at this years Ulearn conference in Rotorua, NZ. I’m looking forward to what he has to say.


Le, T. (2010). The End of Education Is the Dawn of Learning. Retrieved from

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Incidental Professional Development: What do teachers learn from each other in a shared teaching space?

We're interested in the notion of incidental professional development in open learning spaces where teachers are working collaboratively. Does the very fact that we are teaching alongside colleagues have an effect on our own professional formation? To what extent are we influenced by the way our colleagues teach, interact with students and cause learning? Is it an assumption that this incidental learning is going on in our learning hubs, or is it in fact a reality? And in which case, what is the nature of it?

I spent some time this week listening to teachers as they described how they’ve been influenced by colleagues in their learning hubs. I wasn’t concerned with the more traditional notion of professional development that tends to happen at set times outside the teaching day but with the anecdotal and ‘incidental’ (for want of a better word), things they had taken on as a direct result of sharing a learning and teaching space.

I was surprised at the extent of what had occurred in such a short time. The teachers cited numerous examples of how they had learned from their colleagues and how they had adapted and adopted new practices themselves. And it wasn’t just surface level management and organizational strategies that they were absorbing.

Teachers described a real depth to their professional learning. They often commented on picking up on the way their colleagues questioned learners, how they pushed children’s thinking to a deeper level, and extracted as much ‘learning juice’, as Guy Claxton would say, from a particular learning situation. They discussed how their ability to give timely feedback was growing as a result of watching and listening to each other teach.

There was talk of the way colleagues introduced learning tasks, how they captured reflection during and after learning, and picking up on new strategies for developing critical thinking in reading. They spoke about how they observed each other utilizing our learner qualities- a language of disposition- to engage children in the learning process, or their observations around the use of the inquiry model and how it was being utilized across the curriculum areas.

There was other evidence too; teachers talked about how their colleagues modeled the use of e-learning and multi-modal artifacts, how they observed each other building assessment literacy in learners, or encouraging the children to problem solve.

All this learning sits outside the more usual frameworks for delivering professional learning. On top of this again, is the dialogue and ‘bounce’ that goes on before, during and after teaching as well as the more planned reflection sessions during the week.

The common thread that ties the teachers’ observations together is the idea of teaching in an open learning space being extremely ‘visible’. There is, as I was reminded, no-where to hide. This is nothing new to our colleagues in Early Childhood Education but it is for many in the primary sector. And it’s a rich thread of learning for teachers.

Villa et al (2008) suggest that “people who co-teach are in an ideal situation to spur their own professional growth through dialogue with their co-teachers” (p. 138). They suggest that co-teachers can also engage in more structured approaches to observation and feedback as part of their professional growth.  

York-Barr et al (2007) reflect on the, “learning boost that transpired when teachers taught side-by-side, sharing the same students and instructional space. Teachers indicated the ability to observe one another while teaching was a means by which they expanded their own instructional repertoires” (p. 320). This is certainly congruent with what I found.

Interestingly though this is not a new idea. 74.5% of teachers working in open-plan spaces in New Zealand in the 1970s felt that there had been greater opportunities for professional growth and development than for those teachers in more traditional settings (Department of Education, 1977).

This idea of ‘incidental’ professional development is certainly one worth exploring more. I know that we will be back again listening to the teacher voice in this area.


Department of Education. (1977). Report on open plan education in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Education.

Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Innovative school designs

Designing for Education: Compendium of Exemplary Educational Facilities 2011 (free preview available) is a new publication from the OECD launched this week. It showcases over 60 state-of-the-art schools worldwide that have been recently built or refurbished.

The book recognizes that the design of learning spaces is evolving as understanding of pedagogy, new technologies and community engagement is impacting on learning. It presents examples of the latest developments in educational facility design worldwide.

As the introduction states, “They do not need to be iconic pieces of architecture, but they do need to be fit-for-purpose and appropriate for their context. They should provide children with the best possible learning environments within which to grow and develop” (p. 5).

The schools were selected for inclusion based on a criteria of innovative design, fitness for purpose, sustainability and safety. It’s great to see a couple of New Zealand designs in here too, Snells Beach and Albany Senior High ( A more recent OECD update on Albany is also available).


OECD. (2011). Designing for education: Compendium of exemplary educational facilities 2011: OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Open Learning Spaces-Ignite

Ignite Talk | Chris Bradbeer from Emerging Leaders on Vimeo.

Last week I had my first go at presenting an Ignite presentation as part of the Emerging Leaders Symposium. It's not easy condensing all your thinking into five minutes and twenty slides! So here's a brief look at open learning spaces and what I've discovered so far.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Collaborative teaching: How long should a team work together?

One of the questions to emerge in the recent PLG was the question of how long teachers working collaboratively in a shared space should stay together? Is a year long enough or is there potential for greater student outcomes if they remain together longer?

It was suggested that the initial part of the first year in a shared learning space was all about developing the trust and relationship amongst the teachers in order to get the learning space really humming and that a new team each year could well necessitate a new stage of relationship building and potentially a shift back in what was being accomplished.

In setting up learning hubs where children stay with the teachers for certainly two years, there was a feeling that learners wouldn’t experience that ‘dip’ of lost learning that is always evidence post summer holidays, as teachers and children get to know one another. If we were to swap teachers around learning spaces each year though, would a similar dip be caused by the fact that the teachers were in that relationship building phase?

How much time needs to be invested in learning to work alongside each other? One team leader at the PLG considered that by the second year of working together there was a common understanding of how the team worked, how the space operated and that there was not a need to come back to the basics of beginning from scratch (This in turn raised the question as whether or not collaborative teaching spaces needed a team leader at all, but that’s a question for another time!). On the flip side is the concern that teams become too insular and ‘comfortable’ in a particular learning space and that there is a tendency for people to get locked into a particular team for the duration.

Villa, Thousand and Nevin (2008), who liken co-teaching to a marriage, refer to the level of trust, communication, conflict resolution that is required for a team to operate successfully. They explore a number of different interpretations of collaborative teaching and intertwine theoretical perspectives with examples from co-teachers.

In one example they refer to two teachers given the opportunity to co-teach for a second year. Reflecting on their decision to continue working alongside each other the teachers said that “We were deliberate about attending to the same collaborative ingredients (ie face-to-face planning time, positive interdependence, individual accountability, monitoring and processing of accomplishments)” (p 163), that had allowed us to succeed in our first year. The teachers sensed that there was a potential for some complacency occur in a second year and that the emphasis needed to be on moving beyond the established routine and towards refinement and improvement.

York-Barr, Ghere and Sommerness (2007), in a case study looking at teachers collaborating over a two year period, recognized that there are important considerations in building teams of teachers in order to support what they termed ‘instructional collaboration’. It took time to develop the level of collaboration that will optimize student learning. “As the Washington teachers worked more closely together, trust increased, which in turn fostered greater collaboration and more in-depth reflective practice” (p. 329).

The authors reflect on the demanding nature of establishing new collaborative working relationships and advise caution when making changes:
“Making frequent team member shifts is ill-advised. Sometimes, however, changes are warranted and even appreciated when creating more effective and energized working relationships. There are trade-offs in making instructional assignments: Decision-making principles and cognizance of the trade-offs are important” (p. 328).

Decisions about how long teachers work together in collaborative instruction comes back to raising student outcomes. York-Barr et al. (2007) note at the start of their paper that little research has been conducted that provides evidence of collaborative instructional models on student outcomes. However their own subsequent case study illustrated one example of how collaboration between teachers did result in real shifts in student achievement.

This is certainly an area that is in need of further research. I’d be interested to hear from any teachers who are working in a collaboratively instructional model and how they view the question in relation to their own experience.


Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Funky School

The videos accompany an article that cropped up in The Australian recently. It describes the so called ‘renaissance’ in Australian education resulting from the massive investment in facilities, in every school, as part of the Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) strategy.

Many schools have opted to spend their money creating flexible or open learning spaces, housing between 80 and 200 children and four to six teachers, and author Caroline Overington raises the question as to whether this is money well spent. She suggests that despite all the rhetoric spoken in praise of the new buildings there’s little evidence to suggest that a child learning in an agile learning space is going to do any better than in a traditional classroom. And she’s got a point. This is a common argument in the field of modern learning environments.

Overington presents a fairly critical piece, particularly on the subject of how the new schools have been rolled out. She reminds us once again that the walls have been down before, that there’s not much evidence supporting agile spaces and that some teachers and parents simply don’t like them. Overington has done her research, quoting John Hattie, Jillian Blackmore, Greg Whitby and Elizabeth Hartnell-Young in the piece.

The videos here tell part of the story and the article is worth a read too. The concerns that Overington voices are no doubt ones shared by parents and teachers and it's as well for teachers working in these spaces to be aware of them.  It is perhaps a timely reminder too that we need to start gathering research on the subject. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Collaborative teaching: Advantages and challenges

Teaching and learning in an open space certainly presents a number of challenges that are not faced when teaching in a ‘single cell’ classroom. It was one of the criticisms of the open-plan spaces in the 1970’s (Woolner, 2010). But it also presents a number of advantages too and the case study by York-Barr, Ghere and Sommerness (2007) details them well.

The research, conducted in a Mid-west urban elementary school found that ‘collaborative teaching relationships were productive and rewarding’ (p. 301) with a substantial increase in student achievement. The study focused on English language learners (ELL) in a diversely populated K-6 school of about 600 students. Prior to the study English language learners attended separate classes taught by different teachers. Against a backdrop of declining performance on statewise tests the school set out to establish a greater level of collaboration among teachers focusing on creating a more coherent educational experience for students.

Significant emphasis was placed on teacher professional development and support with collaborative practice prior to the setting up of the collaborative teaching classes. Teachers timetables were reorganized and new structures created in order to support collaborative planning and instruction. Once set up teams met regularly to discuss ongoing assessment data and differentiated teaching and learning strategies.

In most cases the instructional teams developed in ways that supported not only student but also teacher growth. The teams didn’t all work out though; some struggled due to different learning philosophies, content knowledge and the value they placed on collaborative teaching. The perceived benefits though looked like this, and it’s worth detailing them in full:

“• More flexible and creative use of instructional time that advantaged students;
• Knowing more about all the students and seeing different student strengths given the opportunity to view them in varied learning contexts; 
• Greater shared ownership of students and student learning;
• Increased reflection on individual and collective teaching practices;
• More learning from and with colleagues about students and about teaching and learning;
• Increased collective expertise resulting in greater effectiveness with a variety of students;
• Decreased teacher isolation, increased support and feeling valued by colleagues;
• Itinerant teachers experiencing varied collaborative designs and strategies then being able to share those experiences and ideas across classrooms; and
• Having more energy and greater enjoyment from teaching.” (p. 317)

Of course it wasn’t all positive and it’s important to read the challenges that teachers found too:

“• Loss of instructional and decision-making autonomy;
• Decreased flexibility and creativity given a set schedule for when additional instructional personnel  would be present in classrooms;
• Increased communication demands given instructional interdependence
among teachers;
• Role shifts and confusion about how to share instructional time (e.g., who leads, who follows, how to co-teach) and how to share responsibilities (e.g., assessment, reporting);
• Feelings of insecurity because teaching became public and teachers were expected to work with more diverse students than they had in the past; and
• Differing “philosophies,” which was the term often used to describe differences between teachers related to orientations or beliefs about instruction and professional practice.” (p. 318)

The findings from this group of teachers, and in particular their lists of challenges and opportunities makes a very useful starting point for schools setting out to explore collaborative teaching situations. These points might well form the start of a number of conversations about how an open learning space with collaborative teaching can be best utilized. How can the opportunities be maximised and the challenges minimized in order to create the best possible learning and teaching environment?


Woolner, P. (2010). The design of learning spaces. London: Continuum.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The impact of learning environments

In an effort to collect research about learning environments I’m looking into a number of literature reviews at the moment. One such example is the review produced for the Design Council by Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner and McCaughey (2004). It set out to investigate what makes a good school environment and looked at collecting evidence around student motivation, behaviour and achievement.

The review uses four elements of a conceptual framework in order to categorise and organize the review. The authors looked at Systems and Processes, Products and services, Environment, and Communication. Learning is places at the centre of these four in order to indicate that improved student learning is an outcome of changes to these four elements.

One of the first comments that the review makes is an acknowledgement that there was relatively little research on effective learning environments at the time, particularly when concerning the communications and systems needed to underpin physical environments. What evidence there was available was largely based on “a traditional view of ‘chalk and talk’ learning in standardized ‘one size fits all’ institutions” (p. 3). Contemporary moves towards personalized learning, formative assessment, self-directed learning, as well as technological transformations were shifting notions of what a learning environment should look like and the report recognises the lack of a robust research base for informing new approaches.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the literature reviewed falls into the Environment category. So there are some useful links into research on factors such as lighting, ventilation, noise, colour, temperature and air quality. The review confirmed that there was clear evidence that extremes of environmental elements like poor ventilation and excessive noise have negative effects on student outcomes. But it also found that once school environments come up to minimum standards the effects are less defined.

The key finding however relates to the extent to which, and the ways in which school users are engaged in the design process. The greater the involvement the greater the success. “The message is clear. School design cannot be imposed nor bought off the shelf” (p. 3). Here it’s worth thinking back to the open-plan classroom movement when often standard templates were designed and then rolled out to subsequent new schools. The review recognizes that by purely providing this physical design solution without ownership by its users, nor effective systems to support it, it is unlikely to be successful.

“It is important, therefore to beware of ‘architectural determinism’ of plans for renewal and development that do not allow for both local variation and ownership and of programs which do not budget for an ongoing investment in and iteration of school environments” (p. 6).

The review concludes by calling for locally driven, user-led pedagogically embedded environmental improvement to schools. It recommends too that policy makers summarise the lessons of the past for a range of audiences including teachers, architects and education authorities. It suggests that investment in change should be an iterative process as opposed to one driven by a five year building plan. And it finishes with somewhat of a warning:
 “Building Schools for the Future pre-supposes a commonly held view of what the future will look like: unless this is generated collaboratively and implemented flexibly, there is a significant risk of expensive failure’ (p. 37)


Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., & McCaughey, C. (2005). The impact of school environments: A literature review: The Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Newcastle.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The third teacher

This is an inspiring read! Put together by a team of architects and designers it explores the link between school environments and how children learn. It includes 79 ideas that form great starting points for schools thinking about new learning spaces. These include thinking about furniture, community engagement, outdoor environments, agile classroom spaces, lighting and acoustics. Stephen Heppell suggests that it will help to give schools and children a language to help articulate ideas about learning environments. “Children looking around their schools can’t articulate what’s wrong, they haven’t got a vocabulary, they don’t know any other experience” (p. 242). There are lots of ideas here that will certainly get schools and children talking about the spaces they’re learning in. There's a useful website that accompanies the book too.


OWS/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The Third Teacher. New York: Abrams.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Innovative interiors

A year ago I was lucky enough to visit Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne as part of a few days visiting modern learning environments. One of the most striking aspects of the interior of the school are the incredible structures that Principal Ray Trotter has constructed in the classrooms. One space had a two storey red bus at the centre of it and another a cylindrical tower leading up to a reading area. Under construction in another room was a dragon boat.
A team of our teachers returned there last week and were pleased to report the completion of the construction. Upstairs is a library area and there a couple of computers hooked up to google maps and downstairs there's a computer space and a workshop space. Surely this is a space that would qualify as a space that stimulates and a space to play.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Connecting learning spaces and student outcomes

Much of the dialogue around open learning spaces seems to focus on student outcomes and whether or not the space is making a difference.
The literature review by Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin and O’Mara (2011) goes a long way to gathering together relevant research in order to help answer just that question. Commissioned by Victoria, Australia’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, it acknowledges that despite all the recent state investment in building, there has been little international research connecting learning spaces and student outcomes. This, therefore, is an important document.

The question that the review asked was: “To what extent does the literature show connections between learning spaces and student learning outcomes in schools?” It presents information on theoretical and empirical connections made between the space and outcomes, identifies gaps in the research, as well as reporting emerging themes.

The report takes a broad view of learning outcomes to include social, affective, physical as well as cognitive changes in students. These include such elements as standardized test scores, learner engagement, quality of student and teacher interactions, evidence of increased interpersonal competencies, individuals’ perceptions of belonging and inclusion, and behavioural indicators such as retention and absenteeism.

The findings are very valuable as they not only pull together themes and findings from a wide range of literature but also because they reveal gaps that need to be filled:

“Much of the literature focuses on the quality of conditions, perceptions or tangibles rather than educational practices or intangibles in terms of how space is perceived, used, and with what effect. The research literature is concentrated in the design phase. While informed by both contemporary architectural and educational research as to what is best design and best practice, there is little empirical research that considers what happens once in the space” (p. v).

The emphasis therefore for future research needs to shift away from the design process and next to consider how teachers and learners operate in the space once it has been established. What are the key pedagogical changes needed to teach in the space and how are they different from teaching in a ‘single cell’ classroom? Importantly too to look at new possibilities; what teaching and learning opportunities are engendered by the provision of these new spaces?


Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., & O'Mara, J. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes: Literature review. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shared leadership space

In a school where we are setting out to use spaces to develop and enhance collaborative practice, it seems only natural that the leadership team work in the same way. So instead of having separate offices for the principal and associate principals, we have a shared space where the three of us work. There’s also a couple of smaller rooms close by for those phone calls, parent interviews and learning conversations that require more privacy.

It was a decision our principal made early on in the building process and one that seems to be paying dividends. It’s about having congruence between our beliefs about the type of learning environment and culture we want to nurture and develop, and the practical ways we demonstrate it.

It’s been interesting to reflect on how things might be different if we were in individual leadership offices. Would the culture of collaboration and of dialogue about learning be the same? And how about the incidental professional development that occurs in a shared space? I wonder too if there are any decisions that we’ve made that have resulted from being in a shared space?

In the same way we’re asking about the relationship between pedagogy and space in teaching and learning spaces, perhaps we should be asking the same related to our leadership space. What opportunities are engendered by the provision of this different use of space?

I’m only aware of one local high school that has a similar shared leadership space and it would be interesting to learn about how others have found this approach. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open-plan in New Zealand

Much of my own reading around open-plan schools has been centred on research carried out in England. A recent visit to Auckland University library though uncovered a Department of Education publication, a Report on Open Plan Education in New Zealand Primary Schools, published in 1977.

By the mid 1970s, according to the report, there were 200 open plan units in New Zealand, catering for 3.5% of primary children. This was set to grow to 474 and 8% by the end of 1978. At the time of the report two-thirds of the units had been operating for less than two years. Many of these units existed in schools that also had more traditional teaching classrooms.

The report was the result of a systematic study into open-plan schools, albeit in their early stage of development in New Zealand, and brought together views of teachers, principals and architects. What it recognized was that increased numbers of children were being taught in open-plan schools, and that whilst there was a body of evidence in the UK in support of them, the debate “lacked an adequate empirical basis in New Zealand practice” (p. 9). The report therefore set out to address such areas as the adequacy of training of teachers for open-plan, the attitudes towards it from teaching staff and the professional educational practices required from teachers.

The report’s primary recommendation was that:
“We recommend that the development of open plan education be continued and that this development be subject to continuing evaluation” (p. 11).

The report discusses the general satisfaction with open-plan education and the “favourable views of benefits for children expressed by a majority of the principals of schools with open plan units, teachers in open plan units at the time of the survey, and teachers who had formerly taught in open plan units” (p. 12).

Despite its recommendation the report did make some qualifications; that many principals and teachers were dissatisfied with some features of the open-plan units; that 55% of teachers reported a higher level of stress that when working in a traditional classroom; that some teachers were concerned about the effect on new entrants, disruptive children and shy children; and that only a minority of teaches received any training for teaching in the new spaces.

In response to some of these qualifications the report suggested that in building schools with open-plan units, there should also be provision for more traditional spaces as well. It noted that spaces should not be built to accommodate any more than the equivalent of four classes of children, and that there should be a withdrawal space large enough for fifteen children. It also suggested that pre-service training be provided in areas of co-operative teaching and in the use of open-plan spaces.

I think what’s interesting looking at the report now was the relatively small amount of it dedicated to student outcomes and learning. The information collected on students consisted, as it says, “of the opinions of both present and former open plan teacher, principals and inspectors” (p. 57). Of these a large majority surveyed agreed that achievement was “at least as high as in conventional classrooms” (p. 66). Of real interest though is the fact that of the principals (83% of whom headed schools that also had traditional classroom spaces) a large majority favoured open-plan.

There’s a lot more to be pulled out of this report and I’m interested to look further into the views of teachers at the time. It’s interesting too, to consider the projections that there would be potentially close to 500 open-plan units in New Zealand schools at the end of the 1970s. I wonder how many there are left now?


Department of Education. (1977). Report on open plan education in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Education.