Sunday, March 10, 2013

Open learning spaces…and the smaller spaces within

As we get close to finalising the design for our school’s second stage build much of the attention is on the nature of the smaller spaces within. We know that our new hubs will accommodate three teachers and up to 90 learners but exactly what is the nature of the smaller spaces within? What size should they be? And should they have doors?

Currently within each learning hub we have one larger space that can be closed down - it’s equivalent in size to a traditional classroom (about 64 square metres) – as well a couple of smaller (11 sq m) breakout spaces. They both have glass sliding doors and good acoustic separation.

The ability to close the doors for a while is important for some children. One of our youngest students, referring to a small glazed breakout space, reported that “I like to go to the small room because it is quiet. Another suggested that, I like this space because it can shut its doors and it will be quiet”.

However a couple of our older students made an interesting observation:
Student 1 - I like the quiet room because it’s easier to work in there because there’s no noise
CB – Which one’s the quiet room for you?
Student 1 - The one with the books in it - the library. The Google room’s cool too because it’s a big area and you can close it off.
Student 2 – But it’s annoying when there are millions of people in there
CB – Do you think it’s important that you have spaces that you can close off?
Student 1 – Yes because if you’re going to be noisy, if you were doing a film or something, you can close it off so that people don’t get distracted by our learning. And it’s also good if you want to have quiet and so you can block off all the noise.

So these two students considered a space that they referred to as a quiet room to hold dual purposes. Firstly that it was a place to find quiet, and secondly a place that you could close down in order that it was quiet for everyone else.

The Professional Learning Group has recently toured a couple of business environments in order to draw some comparisons with the types of spaces we are designing for schools. Both the bank and the architects that we’ve visited have an emphasis on open, collaborative and highly interactive spaces. There are hot desk stations, settings for teams, presentation spaces as well as food based spaces; the coffee bar, the shared kitchen, and outdoor seating.

These are the sort of spaces that Jonah Lehrer refers to in Imagine: How creativity works, when he talks about the Pixar Animation Studios. They are the places of the incidental encounters, casual conversations, the places for connections to be made, networks to be broadened. They are Ray Oldenburg’s ‘third places’ - spaces that bring together diverse talents and view points. Not that all the conversations that are going to go on there will be of high significance, just that some of the are. What characterises these spaces is the openness, accessibility and proximity for all.

But although there was an emphasis on collaboration and openness in the places we visited, both environments still had a need for closing down spaces at times – to hold client meetings, for team meetings, presentations, phone calls, interviews and confidential conversations - and so had rooms set aside for just that purpose.

It’s a point that Fayard and Weeks (2011) make in discussing the transition from private office work environments to open, shared spaces. They discuss that even though there are positive behavioural effects of the redesigns there is also counter evidence to suggest that opening up the space may actually inhibit casual conversations and encounters. “Though it may seem counterintuitive, research shows that informal interactions won’t flourish if people can’t avoid interacting when they wish to” (p. 105). Herman Miller Inc’s recent paper on collaboration makes a similar point. “Smaller rooms and alcoves a little off the beaten path can provide a person with the peace and quiet needed to synthesise a large amount of information and write a report” (p. 5)

Shift that thinking into a school context and what does it suggest? Well it’s about students having access to some spaces that can be closed down, while at the same time having the affordance of visibility. I like the notion of having a ‘room within a room’ that Stephen Heppell refers to - and I like the way he frames it - “agile little spaces-within-spaces that have proved so popular with children and teachers alike - they offer a space for mutuality, for an intimacy of collaboration, for serious study and focused conversations, for peace & quiet sometimes, for focus and of course, with always one side open and an eye line in, for safety too.”

And I think that our children have discovered this for themselves. When you walk into a learning hub and observe they have rearranged furniture, or sit behind a teaching station, or a couch, or nestle into a corner or up against a window, or on a stage block, more often than not they have created their own spaces that purpose their own learning. When asked to design potential new environments, the idea of creating nooks and crannies was a common theme among children. Take this model for example.

When asked about the zig-zag wall, the two children who’d built it talked about the little spaces that it created – small environments our architect might describe as ‘worlds’. Corners it seems to our children are important places for learning.

Another couple designed this sunken amphitheatre with group dialogue and discussion in mind:

On a recent trip to Melbourne University I came across this ‘room within a room’. It’s open, visible and whilst not acoustically separated from the larger environment it is part of, there was a sense of purposeful separation. The lines delineated by the carpet too added to the concept.

This couch area too, at the architect office, despite being right in the middle of the practice, forms it’s own little world for people to meet and discuss, and learn. Strangely enough and despite its centrality it affords  a surprising amount of noise insulation from the general murmur of work and keyboards around it.

As we move into finalising our hub designs, when we think about the spaces within, it’s about exploring a balance between open spaces where shared teaching, collaboration and group work can go on, and at the same time providing a couple of smaller breakout spaces which can be acoustically separated. Teachers have commented that we probably need two closeable spaces; one for a larger group of students (although not as large as a classroom), and another one for small groups. The visible nature of spaces with large glass doors is seen as a real positive too.

Also though its important to look at creating other spaces, alcoves and worlds within the larger one; perhaps through the use of the corners, nooks and crannies, hinging screens and staircases that are so popular with our learners. Over the next few weeks the designs will continue to evolve and we'll be going to our teachers and students for some all to critical feedback.


Fayard, A.-L., & Weeks, J. (2011). Who Moved My Cube? Harvard Business Review(July-August 2011).

Heppell, S. (2012). Rooms within rooms, from

Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place : caf├ęs, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York : Paragon House, 1989.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Collaborative teaching - The emergence of Collaborative Teacher Efficacy


Listening to teachers talk about teaching in a collaborative learning space – three teachers and up to 90 students as opposed to one teacher and 30 students - and one is struck by how much ‘we’ there is in the teacher voice. There is a firm belief that as a team, they are able to shift student outcomes, raise achievement, and meet the needs of a diverse range of learners. Teachers often cite examples of the advantage of working and teaching together: 
  • “You are not alone” is one phrase that has been used throughout the year - incidental successes and challenges can be shared and attended to in the moment.
  • Daily professional learning opportunities - you observe your peers teaching because of the visible nature of the spaces.  You pick up lots of ideas and different ways of approaching.
  • Planning sessions where student achievement is discussed and groupings flexibly organised to best meet needs.
  • More space and furniture possibilities to facilitate different learning
  • A Healthy sense of accountability when your practice is so visible in front of your colleagues.
  • The children benefit from the skill each of the teachers.  They can approach the teacher that is fit for purpose.
  • Shared planning as an opportunity for critiquing and talking about ‘how do we know these children need this learning at this time?’ 

This deep belief that as a small team a group of teachers are able to have an impact, to make a difference, to be more than the sum of its parts, leads me to wondering if there is a level of collective agency that is emerging. And there’s a relationship I believe to be formed with the construct of collective teacher efficacy which stems from social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997) – the level to which people believe the exert control over their lives.

Collective teacher efficacy relates to the level of confidence that group members have in their collective ability to be successful – and often at the school level this is measured in terms of student achievement. It is a level of belief and of conviction. As Goddard, Hoy and Hoy put it, collective teacher efficacy is ‘‘the perceptions of teachers in a school that the efforts of the faculty as a whole will have a positive effect on students’’ (2000, p. 480)

How does this differ from an individual’s own teacher efficacy? Well if teacher efficacy is seen as an individual teachers perception of classroom performance – the level to which they can stretch student’s ability, to raise achievement levels, to work with those students who need extra support, and to set challenging goals - collective teacher efficacy judges how teachers see the whole school. Instead of being an aggregate of individuals’ efficacy, it is a group attribute (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004), “the product of the interactive dynamics of the group members” (Goddard et al, 2000, p. 482).

So what are the characteristics of a school with a high level of collective teacher efficacy? Essentially it’s about shared responsibility, about setting challenging benchmarks for students, belief that students can achieve high academic goals, deliver mastery instruction and that do not accept that low levels of achievement are a byproduct of low socio economic status (Bandura, 1997). There is also a willingness to own not only the successes of students but also the failures and setbacks. Schools with high levels of efficacy are open to new ideas and to change, they test new strategies to meet the needs of the students, they are environments of high trust and openness, where teachers have a high level of commitment to the profession (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004).

So does it make a difference? Well in a nutshell, yes. Research points towards a correlation between collective efficacy and student outcomes. Tschannen-Moran and Barr (2004), for example, found that collective teacher efficacy accounted for 18% variance in maths, 28% in writing and 14% in English. Goddard, Hoy and Hoy (2000) also found positive relationships between collective teacher efficacy and student achievement in reading and maths. Collective teacher efficacy, it seems, is a strong predictor of levels of student achievement.

So what connections can be made between the construct of collective teacher efficacy and teachers working together in a collaborative learning space? My wondering is if collective teacher efficacy can be found to make a difference at a school level, then whether the same concept can be applied on a more localised teaching team scale. Does the fact that a team of three teachers working together - in a sense a micro organisation - impact on student outcomes as a direct function of their collective belief in what they are doing? Perhaps the construct of Collective teacher efficacy gives us a tool with which to measure it.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy : the exercise of control: New York : W.H. Freeman, c1997.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. W. (2000). Collective Teacher Efficacy: Its Meaning, Measure, and Impact on Student Achievement. American Educational Research Journal(2), 479.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (2004). Fostering Student Learning: The Relationship of Collective Teacher Efficacy and Student Achievement. Leadership & Policy in Schools, 3(3), 189-209.