Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Open Learning Spaces: Where's the evidence?

Underlying the whole purpose or this blog is really to ascertain the evidence that supports and challenges the use of open learning spaces.

The challenges of teaching in open learning spaces raised during the recent PLG related to factors such as parental expectations of what a classroom should look like; to ensuring that students don’t slip through the gap; and to maintaining rigour in teaching and learning.

The biggest challenge though came down to evidence. We’re used to working with evidence to support approaches to learning in our schools when it comes to curriculum delivery and we strive to be working at a level of best practice. But what evidence can we collect that will ascertain whether or not working in an open learning space with, for example, two teachers and 60 learners, is any better than learning in a single cell classroom? Are the differences actually measurable and in which case, what should we be looking for?

One of the schools present was taking part in an NZCER engagement survey this year so will be able to compare data from learners in a shared space with those from more traditional classroom set ups. The comparison will be interesting. But what other sources of evidence are there?

A good place to begin looking for measurable outcomes is John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. But it returns very little by way of studies related specifically to open learning spaces and what is there is somewhat dated.

The closest match is where Hattie pulls together reviews of the open education programs of the 1970s and 80s, where open learning spaces were considered at the time an essential, if only one feature of good practice. Other features included a greater emphasis on the child guiding their own learning, diagnostic evaluation to guide instruction, the use of manipulative materials to stimulate student exploration, individualized instruction, multi-age grouping and team teaching.

Giaconia and Hedges (1982) study found “that open education programs can aid in producing greater self-concept, creativity and a positive attitude towards school.” (Hattie, p. 89) They also found that multi-age grouping, open space and team teaching were not factors that distinguished the effective open learning programs from the less effective. These later factors Giacania and Hedges termed administrative or organisational features, and suggested that any effect was purely indirect. “Open space may be conducive to the child's self-initiation of activities and learning. But the effects of open space per se are probably less direct in this regard than the effects of an open education program where the role of the child as self-initiator of learning is an explicit part of the program” (Giaccania & Hedges, 1982, p. 599). The space itself wasn’t so much as a factor as what was happening in it.

According to this evidence therefore the open nature of the space in these situations didn’t make a huge difference. It’s an interesting starting place in a search for evidence. With Hattie’s book open at the moment though I’m intrigued to view his high ranking interventions and practices and see which if any are space dependent.


Giaconia, R.M., and Hedges, L.V. (1982) Identifying features of effective open education. Review of Educational Research, 52(4), 579-602
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge

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