Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Open Learning Spaces-Ignite

Ignite Talk | Chris Bradbeer from Emerging Leaders on Vimeo.

Last week I had my first go at presenting an Ignite presentation as part of the Emerging Leaders Symposium. It's not easy condensing all your thinking into five minutes and twenty slides! So here's a brief look at open learning spaces and what I've discovered so far.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Collaborative teaching: How long should a team work together?

One of the questions to emerge in the recent PLG was the question of how long teachers working collaboratively in a shared space should stay together? Is a year long enough or is there potential for greater student outcomes if they remain together longer?

It was suggested that the initial part of the first year in a shared learning space was all about developing the trust and relationship amongst the teachers in order to get the learning space really humming and that a new team each year could well necessitate a new stage of relationship building and potentially a shift back in what was being accomplished.

In setting up learning hubs where children stay with the teachers for certainly two years, there was a feeling that learners wouldn’t experience that ‘dip’ of lost learning that is always evidence post summer holidays, as teachers and children get to know one another. If we were to swap teachers around learning spaces each year though, would a similar dip be caused by the fact that the teachers were in that relationship building phase?

How much time needs to be invested in learning to work alongside each other? One team leader at the PLG considered that by the second year of working together there was a common understanding of how the team worked, how the space operated and that there was not a need to come back to the basics of beginning from scratch (This in turn raised the question as whether or not collaborative teaching spaces needed a team leader at all, but that’s a question for another time!). On the flip side is the concern that teams become too insular and ‘comfortable’ in a particular learning space and that there is a tendency for people to get locked into a particular team for the duration.

Villa, Thousand and Nevin (2008), who liken co-teaching to a marriage, refer to the level of trust, communication, conflict resolution that is required for a team to operate successfully. They explore a number of different interpretations of collaborative teaching and intertwine theoretical perspectives with examples from co-teachers.

In one example they refer to two teachers given the opportunity to co-teach for a second year. Reflecting on their decision to continue working alongside each other the teachers said that “We were deliberate about attending to the same collaborative ingredients (ie face-to-face planning time, positive interdependence, individual accountability, monitoring and processing of accomplishments)” (p 163), that had allowed us to succeed in our first year. The teachers sensed that there was a potential for some complacency occur in a second year and that the emphasis needed to be on moving beyond the established routine and towards refinement and improvement.

York-Barr, Ghere and Sommerness (2007), in a case study looking at teachers collaborating over a two year period, recognized that there are important considerations in building teams of teachers in order to support what they termed ‘instructional collaboration’. It took time to develop the level of collaboration that will optimize student learning. “As the Washington teachers worked more closely together, trust increased, which in turn fostered greater collaboration and more in-depth reflective practice” (p. 329).

The authors reflect on the demanding nature of establishing new collaborative working relationships and advise caution when making changes:
“Making frequent team member shifts is ill-advised. Sometimes, however, changes are warranted and even appreciated when creating more effective and energized working relationships. There are trade-offs in making instructional assignments: Decision-making principles and cognizance of the trade-offs are important” (p. 328).

Decisions about how long teachers work together in collaborative instruction comes back to raising student outcomes. York-Barr et al. (2007) note at the start of their paper that little research has been conducted that provides evidence of collaborative instructional models on student outcomes. However their own subsequent case study illustrated one example of how collaboration between teachers did result in real shifts in student achievement.

This is certainly an area that is in need of further research. I’d be interested to hear from any teachers who are working in a collaboratively instructional model and how they view the question in relation to their own experience.


Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Funky School

The videos accompany an article that cropped up in The Australian recently. It describes the so called ‘renaissance’ in Australian education resulting from the massive investment in facilities, in every school, as part of the Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) strategy.

Many schools have opted to spend their money creating flexible or open learning spaces, housing between 80 and 200 children and four to six teachers, and author Caroline Overington raises the question as to whether this is money well spent. She suggests that despite all the rhetoric spoken in praise of the new buildings there’s little evidence to suggest that a child learning in an agile learning space is going to do any better than in a traditional classroom. And she’s got a point. This is a common argument in the field of modern learning environments.

Overington presents a fairly critical piece, particularly on the subject of how the new schools have been rolled out. She reminds us once again that the walls have been down before, that there’s not much evidence supporting agile spaces and that some teachers and parents simply don’t like them. Overington has done her research, quoting John Hattie, Jillian Blackmore, Greg Whitby and Elizabeth Hartnell-Young in the piece.

The videos here tell part of the story and the article is worth a read too. The concerns that Overington voices are no doubt ones shared by parents and teachers and it's as well for teachers working in these spaces to be aware of them.  It is perhaps a timely reminder too that we need to start gathering research on the subject. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Collaborative teaching: Advantages and challenges

Teaching and learning in an open space certainly presents a number of challenges that are not faced when teaching in a ‘single cell’ classroom. It was one of the criticisms of the open-plan spaces in the 1970’s (Woolner, 2010). But it also presents a number of advantages too and the case study by York-Barr, Ghere and Sommerness (2007) details them well.

The research, conducted in a Mid-west urban elementary school found that ‘collaborative teaching relationships were productive and rewarding’ (p. 301) with a substantial increase in student achievement. The study focused on English language learners (ELL) in a diversely populated K-6 school of about 600 students. Prior to the study English language learners attended separate classes taught by different teachers. Against a backdrop of declining performance on statewise tests the school set out to establish a greater level of collaboration among teachers focusing on creating a more coherent educational experience for students.

Significant emphasis was placed on teacher professional development and support with collaborative practice prior to the setting up of the collaborative teaching classes. Teachers timetables were reorganized and new structures created in order to support collaborative planning and instruction. Once set up teams met regularly to discuss ongoing assessment data and differentiated teaching and learning strategies.

In most cases the instructional teams developed in ways that supported not only student but also teacher growth. The teams didn’t all work out though; some struggled due to different learning philosophies, content knowledge and the value they placed on collaborative teaching. The perceived benefits though looked like this, and it’s worth detailing them in full:

“• More flexible and creative use of instructional time that advantaged students;
• Knowing more about all the students and seeing different student strengths given the opportunity to view them in varied learning contexts; 
• Greater shared ownership of students and student learning;
• Increased reflection on individual and collective teaching practices;
• More learning from and with colleagues about students and about teaching and learning;
• Increased collective expertise resulting in greater effectiveness with a variety of students;
• Decreased teacher isolation, increased support and feeling valued by colleagues;
• Itinerant teachers experiencing varied collaborative designs and strategies then being able to share those experiences and ideas across classrooms; and
• Having more energy and greater enjoyment from teaching.” (p. 317)

Of course it wasn’t all positive and it’s important to read the challenges that teachers found too:

“• Loss of instructional and decision-making autonomy;
• Decreased flexibility and creativity given a set schedule for when additional instructional personnel  would be present in classrooms;
• Increased communication demands given instructional interdependence
among teachers;
• Role shifts and confusion about how to share instructional time (e.g., who leads, who follows, how to co-teach) and how to share responsibilities (e.g., assessment, reporting);
• Feelings of insecurity because teaching became public and teachers were expected to work with more diverse students than they had in the past; and
• Differing “philosophies,” which was the term often used to describe differences between teachers related to orientations or beliefs about instruction and professional practice.” (p. 318)

The findings from this group of teachers, and in particular their lists of challenges and opportunities makes a very useful starting point for schools setting out to explore collaborative teaching situations. These points might well form the start of a number of conversations about how an open learning space with collaborative teaching can be best utilized. How can the opportunities be maximised and the challenges minimized in order to create the best possible learning and teaching environment?


Woolner, P. (2010). The design of learning spaces. London: Continuum.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The impact of learning environments

In an effort to collect research about learning environments I’m looking into a number of literature reviews at the moment. One such example is the review produced for the Design Council by Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner and McCaughey (2004). It set out to investigate what makes a good school environment and looked at collecting evidence around student motivation, behaviour and achievement.

The review uses four elements of a conceptual framework in order to categorise and organize the review. The authors looked at Systems and Processes, Products and services, Environment, and Communication. Learning is places at the centre of these four in order to indicate that improved student learning is an outcome of changes to these four elements.

One of the first comments that the review makes is an acknowledgement that there was relatively little research on effective learning environments at the time, particularly when concerning the communications and systems needed to underpin physical environments. What evidence there was available was largely based on “a traditional view of ‘chalk and talk’ learning in standardized ‘one size fits all’ institutions” (p. 3). Contemporary moves towards personalized learning, formative assessment, self-directed learning, as well as technological transformations were shifting notions of what a learning environment should look like and the report recognises the lack of a robust research base for informing new approaches.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the literature reviewed falls into the Environment category. So there are some useful links into research on factors such as lighting, ventilation, noise, colour, temperature and air quality. The review confirmed that there was clear evidence that extremes of environmental elements like poor ventilation and excessive noise have negative effects on student outcomes. But it also found that once school environments come up to minimum standards the effects are less defined.

The key finding however relates to the extent to which, and the ways in which school users are engaged in the design process. The greater the involvement the greater the success. “The message is clear. School design cannot be imposed nor bought off the shelf” (p. 3). Here it’s worth thinking back to the open-plan classroom movement when often standard templates were designed and then rolled out to subsequent new schools. The review recognizes that by purely providing this physical design solution without ownership by its users, nor effective systems to support it, it is unlikely to be successful.

“It is important, therefore to beware of ‘architectural determinism’ of plans for renewal and development that do not allow for both local variation and ownership and of programs which do not budget for an ongoing investment in and iteration of school environments” (p. 6).

The review concludes by calling for locally driven, user-led pedagogically embedded environmental improvement to schools. It recommends too that policy makers summarise the lessons of the past for a range of audiences including teachers, architects and education authorities. It suggests that investment in change should be an iterative process as opposed to one driven by a five year building plan. And it finishes with somewhat of a warning:
 “Building Schools for the Future pre-supposes a commonly held view of what the future will look like: unless this is generated collaboratively and implemented flexibly, there is a significant risk of expensive failure’ (p. 37)


Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., & McCaughey, C. (2005). The impact of school environments: A literature review: The Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Newcastle.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The third teacher

This is an inspiring read! Put together by a team of architects and designers it explores the link between school environments and how children learn. It includes 79 ideas that form great starting points for schools thinking about new learning spaces. These include thinking about furniture, community engagement, outdoor environments, agile classroom spaces, lighting and acoustics. Stephen Heppell suggests that it will help to give schools and children a language to help articulate ideas about learning environments. “Children looking around their schools can’t articulate what’s wrong, they haven’t got a vocabulary, they don’t know any other experience” (p. 242). There are lots of ideas here that will certainly get schools and children talking about the spaces they’re learning in. There's a useful website that accompanies the book too.


OWS/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The Third Teacher. New York: Abrams.