Wednesday, March 28, 2012

PLG- Collaboration is the key

Little did we know a year ago when ten of us sat around in the staffroom talking about open learning spaces that twelve months later the Professional Learning Group would grow so quickly. So it was wonderful to see 42 teachers gather at Freemans Bay School to talk learning and spaces. And in a wave of trans-Tasman collaboration it was wonderful to also welcome Erin, skyping in from Canberra. Word is obviously spreading! It’s great to see so many new schools also getting involved and the network widening. There’s a real interest in looking at how to maximize the opportunities presented by new learning environments.

Freemans Bay School has recently added a new learning block, with five teaching spaces and a shared awhina area, furnished and utilized as a breakout space. A video that some students had made shared how they use the new space and the new furniture as part of their day. They talked of comfortable furniture and being able to make decisions about where they were learning.

The nature of learning spaces at the school has evolved from open plan to more traditional classrooms over the years, and now sees a transformation to modern learning environments. It’s an evolution that’s set to continue for a while with a lot more building on its way. A combination of subsidence, asbestos and leaky buildings has meant that essentially the school is, over the course of the next couple of years, going to be reconstructed. It represents a real opportunity for the school to look at what learning and teaching spaces might look like.

Collaboration formed the main theme of the afternoon with World CafĂ© style groups looking at what enhances and what forms barriers to teacher collaboration in open learning spaces. Interestingly the more the dialogue around new learning and teaching environments develop, the more emphasis is being placed on the teaching practice that goes on within the space rather than the space itself. Space can certainly act as an enabler if designed well but it’s what happens within it that really matters. And it’s the nature of teacher-teacher collaboration, those crucial interrelationships that become really key. This was very much reflected in the pluses and minuses that were raised:

What enhances collaboration?
·      Having a shared belief and understanding- teachers, students & community- are we all kicking the ball in the same direction?
·      Teacher relationships with each other – what organizational norms do we need in place to develop the high level of trust necessary?
·      Teachers learning from each other, the notion of incidental professional development- we can learn so much from each other
·      Teachers utilizing their own, and each other’s strengths- how can we build on these?

What are the barriers?
·      A lack of understanding as to how to run shared spaces- what are the systems underpinning shared spaces and the common pedagogy required?
·      Teacher’s mind set- What if some people don’t buy into the notion of an open, shared space?
·      Communication- How do you ensure teacher-teacher and teacher-student communication is optimized?
·      Responsibility for students in a shared space- Whose is it?
·      Teacher’s attitudes and willingness to explore new opportunities- what if some are more willing than others?
·      Community attitudes- previous experiences people bring with them- have they seen it all before?

This is really healthy dialogue to be involved in and certainly there are themes here that will be common to the many schools present exploring new concepts of learning spaces. The PLG offers real diversity in terms of peoples experiences and ideas around learning environments and it’s great to be able to have a forum in which to share them.

Of the barriers that emerge, many I suspect are barriers to good teaching and learning regardless of the nature of the space. They are all about mindsets, communication, relevant pedagogy and ideas of ownership- both of place and people. Decades of teachers working in isolation in single cell environments has undoubtedly entrenched some notions of ‘my space’ and ‘my class’ and many aspects of open and shared learning environments challenge some of these practices. New spaces might well act as a catalyst to change but change won’t be sustained without shared belief and sincere collaboration.

So where to next? As we move forward with the PLG group this year the dialogue around collaboration will no doubt continue and deepen. It’s certainly one of the reoccurring themes that bubblesup. The next get together will be on June 7th and hosted at Hingaia Peninsula School. A great chance to look at some new spaces and to see how students and teachers are using them. Register your interest here.

Thanks to Freemans Bay for being such great hosts, to everyone who came along, and to Furnware for supplying the afternoon tea.


  1. Hi, I am curious about your comment "The nature of learning spaces at the school has evolved from open plan to more traditional classrooms over the years, and now sees a transformation to modern learning environments" Why has this evolution from open plan to traditional occurred in your opinion? My other question is around flexibility? I see traditional as limiting and open plan with no option for converting the large space to smaller spaces as limiting as well. Flexibility means being able to open doors and close them? Your thoughts?

  2. Good questions Yvette. The evolution from open plan to more traditional spaces is perhaps, on reflection, somewhat of an oxymoron (perhaps devolution would be more appropriate)- but it is what happened here and overseas. Many of the schools that set out with great educational intentions to be reflected in their learning environments back in the 1970s built open-plan schools, or at least part of their schools, open plan.
    There are several reasons that they didn't really work, and here I'm careful not to tar them with the same brush as I know some were really successful. Essentially the pedagogy didn't shift to maximise the advantages of the space; the architecture, and in particular the acoustics, was poorer; and there wasn't the technology available to support learning and teaching.
    Frequently teachers were working in open spaces but with their own class of children, as opposed to utilising the setting to think more about how children could be grouped, how teachers' strengths could be maximised etc. It's much like the dialogue around class sizes at the moment.
    Changing the space won't inherently improve outcomes. As a result it didn't take long in the 70s before furniture was getting moved in and large plants, shelves and the like brought in to reconstruct 'classrooms' within the open plan space. It was only a matter of time until the physical walls went back up again. And we've seen the same happen more recently. Schools in Western Australia have already been given permission to put walls back up in flexible learning environments built under BER. It's to do between the mismatch between pedagogy and space.
    Flexibility, you're right, is important- but how many spaces need to be close downable? Do they all? And should they all be big enough to hold a class? Investigations here suggest that when schools are built along the 'pod' model, with a shared space between them and separated from it with large sliding doors, they will for 90% of the time be closed, and the central shared space, given over to little more than traffic, storage, and art on a Friday afternoon if you're lucky.
    I'm generalising I know but you get the idea. My preference right now is for a central shared space and a variety of breakout rooms that learners move into, rather than classrooms and a single shared space. Does that make sense? Happy to continue the dialogue.