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.

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