Sunday, March 11, 2012

Building (and biking) the Education Revolution

A recent trip to Australia highlighted for me the quantity of school buildings that have sprung up over the last few years. I’d realized before arriving that education had benefited from the recession avoiding Economic Stimulus Package in the form of new sports halls, performing arts studios and classroom blocks but I think the scale of the project really hit home.

I spent a month biking around Tasmania. It's a fascinating combination of wild mountain landscapes, remote coastlines, historical settlements and long empty roads – somewhat of a magnet for summer cyclists. But when passing through towns- and once the appetite for coffee and a bakery had been satisfied- I often found myself on front of a school. And invariably at the front gate would be a sign akin to the one above.

School building and improvements have occurred on an immense scale, not just in Tasmania but right throughout Australia. It is part of a $16.2 billion commitment to education, with the spin off of generating thousands of jobs in construction and related industries. Since the announcement of the investment in early 2009, more than 90% of the 10,500 projects have been completed. It’s certainly not been a smooth process according to much in the media but no-one can deny that it’s been a quick one. As I pedaled along though, I began to wonder, “So what?”

Take a look at the Final report of the BER Implementation Taskforce and what is clear is that “value for money” was the key evaluation tool rather than looking at how new learning environments could be assessed in terms of educational outcomes. It’s much harder to determine how the buildings impact on learning but the irony that the project was about Building the Education Revolution is not lost. It’s a point picked up by Clare Newton and Lena Gan in this very readable article published earlier this year:

“The economic stimulus required quick action, so the federal government designed BER guidelines to ensure that this happened. On the other hand, the renewal of education infrastructure is a long-term investment that ideally involves school communities reflecting deeply on the kinds of teaching practices and learning spaces that will be required over the next twenty to fifty years.”

Newton & Gan suggest that overall the indications are that the BER project has been a huge step in the right direction in terms of environments. They list a number of positive outcomes including the facilitation of a transition to more student-centred pedagogies, a focus on how the new spaces can impact learning and teaching outcomes, and new buildings exemplifying how new technology can be accommodated. They  conclude thought that “buildings alone will not be sufficient to enable an education revolution. Teachers will need support to optimize their use of these new learning spaces”.

This last one is a crucial point and one I found myself reflecting on as I pedaled my own revolutions up and down Tasmania’s many hills. What is the nature of the support that teachers need, and what have schools with new spaces already put in place?

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