building our learning environment, one brick at a time

Six months into the academic year and I’m still on the journey to create the right learning space. Actually, 11 years into this teaching lark and I’m still on the journey however I’ve figured out a lot in that time as I move toward that perfect learning space (that I know I’ll never reach!). I’m definitely not a ‘sit in rows’ kind of teacher – completely pointless as I rarely have students do any task that requires them to look at the whiteboard or screen from their seats. I tried clusters of tables but found noise levels a little high as students called out across the space to those on the opposite side.

Here is my current layout which has served us well over the last term. The pods of tables are nested around central storage areas which also give a bit of flexibility for students to move chairs to the middle if they need to work collaboratively (but quietly!). It has also, somehow, given us the illusion of more space. We still have a carpet area which allows the class to sit in a circle when needed and a few hiding spots for those in need of quiet working nooks.

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However we still have further to go. The space we have is quite small and very boxy which is a bit of a challenge, albeit a common one faced in schools. We have a lovely outdoor area beyond our door with tables and seats which we have started to refer to as ‘our outdoor classroom’ which is in operation whenever the door is open. We’ve also adopted a shoes optional policy when inside the classroom which is making our carpet more sitting/lying friendly as well as having a positive ‘grounding’ effect on many of the students (and myself!)

Next, I’m on the lookout for a wider range of seating options – tall tables for those who prefer to stand as they work, a round coffee table for those casual meeting times, some blankets for cozy reading time. As a class, we’re getting better at noticing the way we like to work and making suggestions to change what we do or what we have to suit that. In the back of my mind, I’ve always got the amazing work of Stephen Heppell and others floating around, making me question, probe and push the boundaries of my current learning space and wonder what is possible. And I’m loving this journey 🙂

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From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

As usual, I’m using my holidays to plough through my pile of books which I collected throughout 2015 and didn’t get time to read. This one – From the campfire to the holodeck – has been shouting at me to read it for a while and, having just finished it, I can officially say my mind is expanded.

In this book, David Thornburg takes us through some different ideas about spaces (both real and metaphorical) for learning – campfires, waterholes, caves and life.

Campfires are where learners gather around a more experienced person and learn from their stories. Sound familiar? It should – this has been the dominant educational paradigm forever. Or at least a really, really long time. In most classrooms you walk into around the world, this is how most students will be learning, for most of the time. And there are far too many ‘mosts’ in those sentences.

Waterholes are where peers gather and learn from each other through conversations, working together and general social interaction. The latest buzzword for this is ‘collaboration’ but how many times are we truly allowing our students to learn with and from each other? And how often is this valuable time cut short so we can move on to the next thing?

Caves are spaces for quiet reflection and contemplation – time to be alone and think. I think this is an area that needs to be worked on – how much time and space do we give to students to do this?

And life is the practical space where all of the skills and knowledge acquired in the other settings come together to be put to work. Taking the abstract and making it real, giving it purpose. Transfer the knowledge gained across disciplines and see how it all fits together.

Before you start imagining students running off to build caves under tables and setting fire to your carpet, these aren’t necessarily actual spaces, more ways of thinking about learning and the different ways it happens. However some people involved in classroom design have certainly gone down a more literal path and I can see how this could be quite successful.

Further chapters in the text talk about how these spaces can be seen and utilised in the virtual world and how technology can support such a framework.

Most mind-blowing of all is the section of Thornburg’s book about holodecks. These very game-like spaces allow learners to be immersed in real, captivating scenarios where learning is critical to the success of the mission (not just required to get a good score on NAPLAN). At first, I will confess to being a little sceptical but, by the end of the chapter, I was completely won over. I’ve now started reading a little more on the work of Woorana Park Primary in Melbourne – looks to be an amazing school doing truly groundbreaking things.

My mind is well and truly buzzing right now, full of possibilities and ideas. As well as a few potential walls (and people to convince). So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my cave for a while to contemplate. Catch up with you around the waterhole about it later…

105521304_e0f096f2a3_zimage ‘By the campfire‘ by Cape Cod Cyclist at https://www.flickr.com/photos/capecodcyclist

Contemporary education – what it is and what it should be

I’ve been going through some boxes which have been gathering dust in my garage (as I’m prone to do over Summer holidays) and have stumbled upon something which has me a little sad, a little perplexed and, if truth be told, a little angry.

It’s an essay I wrote in the early stages of my Masters of Education (Educational Technology) which I started in my 2nd year of teaching, 8 years ago. The topic? What role should technology play in contemporary education. However, more than just a discussion of technology, it was a lot more a discussion about contemporary education itself – the role of education in the present day, how it manifested itself in classrooms around the world, what role teachers played in all of that and what educational researchers, commentators and futurists thought of it all.

My initial smiles as I reminisced turned into a haunting realisation that this essay contained all the ingredients of what education could and should be vs what it was. And that none of this has changed since 2007. Or, really, any time in the 1800s.

Now I feel a little disheartened as well as being a bit angry. At myself mostly. I remember the person who wrote this essay – full of idealism, enthusiasm and a solid and unshakeable belief that we could change the path of education in general. I remember being so excited at all the different ideas and possibilities I was exposed to during my Masters study and where such knowledge and innovation could take education into the future. So when exactly did I sell out and go along the with the flow?

This takes me back to a life-changing presentation from Misty Adoniou earlier this year encouraging us to stage a revolution (albeit without a t-shirt and untelevised) where teachers stand up for what we know is right in education and push back against trends that aren’t in the best interests of the students we have in front of us. Particularly trends which are started by politicians and those who have a vested commercial interest. And, for me, this does include researchers who are in the pockets of big education businesses. I understand that research needs an outlet for dissemination and financial backing but wonder about those who choose to go down strictly commercial pathways rather than allowing their research to reach the most students possible, without the massive price tags of the educational publishing marketplace.

Next year begins a new chapter for me – I’m returning to the classroom after 3 years of visiting them as a literacy coach. I think I owe it to myself, my students, my colleagues and the profession in general to spend the rest of my holidays stoking the fire of the teacher ‘I used to be’ and start the year full of idealism, enthusiasm and that solid and unshakeable belief that we can (and should) change the path of education. My apologies if I come across as a little bolshy – Misty started it 🙂

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

The title of this blog post comes from another blog post I stumbled on via Linked In recently, which talks about James Dyson and his thoughts on the creativity process.

Finding this blog post came at the perfect time, as I have been thinking a lot about creativity, innovation and how they work. This is partly from a teaching standpoint – how can I teach my students to think more creatively and be innovators? How do I help them see that they aren’t just ‘ping’ moments that happen to Einstein but are things you can plan for and work towards?

I’ve also been thinking about it from my own perspective – how can I be more creative and innovative as an educator? In the post linked above, Matthew Syed wrote about how to be creative, you first need a problem. As an educator working in a system which still has many remnants of 100 year old schooling, problems are definitely not in short supply. I’m in a very fortunate position to be working somewhere that is giving me opportunities to look at some of these problems and think creatively; to reconsider and adapt some of the supposed ‘givens’ of school life. Hence why I’ve become so interested in the process.

I’m at the start of this journey and I know this blog post is necessarily sketchy as I grapple with all of this. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more posts brewing – these are a great way to get out my ideas and thoughts and reflect on what I’m learning, doing and seeing. It’s kind of like Dumbledore’s pensieve – taking the strands of thought out of my head and putting them here for safe keeping so that I can view them when needed and make sense.

Stay tuned 🙂

5276887620_f4d6e10e22_zPhoto by Eric C Castro (adapted from an image by Alec Couros) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

leading schools in a digital age

I’m sitting on the train on my way home from the final session in this Bastow course which has taken me on a journey over the last 15 weeks, so this seems a fitting time to sum up what I’ve got out of it.

It’s quite simple and quite profound – I’ve gained a renewed passion for teaching. That sounds like a big statement but it’s definitely true. Prior to this course, I was certainly doing my job, and doing it as well as I could, but I felt like I was missing something. I thought it was student contact – I’ve been out of the classroom for over 2 years and thought that could be the missing piece. I love what I do and get a buzz from helping and learning with my colleagues, just like I did with my students so I didn’t think that was it. However re-exploring lots of the ideas about learning and what it should look like have made realise what was missing – I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong not with my setting or even my system but with education itself and didn’t feel like I had much power to do anything about it.

So, most of all, I’m finishing the course feeling empowered. And I am very much looking forward to seeing where that feeling takes me.

what is learning for?

I attended an event at Bastow this week titled ‘What is learning for?’ with Valerie Hannon of the UK-based Innovation unit. It was another great opportunity to have my brain stretched in different ways, with some aspects resonating and others making me question my own thoughts and beliefs.

Valerie spoke about the sort of future our learners will face – one with environmental challenges, diverse populations and change in concept about employment being amongst the issues. And how well are educational systems and society as a whole preparing learners for life in this world?

These are all things I think about a lot, particularly doing the Bastow course ‘Leading Schools in the Digital Age’. However I’ve never thought about a very large idea Valerie introduced – that the future will not just be of a different degree to change we’ve experienced in the past but of a completely different kind. This is an idea referred to in Al Gore’s ‘The Future‘ which is very much on my reading list after attending this event.

Valerie presented 4 levels of learning challenges for our educational systems and, indeed, for society:

  • planetary/global: with obvious implications around access to and management of resources as well as global citizenship
  • national/local: reinventing democracy, lifelong learning for all & sharing workplaces with robot workers
  • interpersonal: developing empathy, caring for those beyond our families, developing positive sexual identities
  • intrapersonal: responsibility for self including our health, fitness, mental wellbeing and self-knowledge

As part of our final Bastow assignment, a team from our school are considering change that we can implement in our school and I really like the framework of these 4 levels to help guide some of our thinking.

I’m sure I’ll have more blog posts to follow on this – just wanted to get out my initial thoughts before it got lost in the general fog!

leading. digitally.

I was fortunate enough today to hear Eric Sheninger, author of Digital Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. While I think I would have enjoyed hearing Eric at any stage in my career, coming towards the end of my Bastow ‘Leading schools in the digital age’ course, the timing is perfect. As I listened to his journey in leadership at New Milford High School, pieces I had been pondering over for a long time fell into place and questions that had been simmering were answered.

So what were my key take away messages?

If you want others to live it, live it yourself.
This seems pretty obvious but it’s something that I’ve been reminded of and how powerful and motivating it is. Particularly in leadership, what you do is so much more powerful than what you say, especially if the two don’t match. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few months of this course – I always try to be a positive role model to other staff (and students) but can I do more? Think differently? Am I modelling taking risks? Being innovative? My own personal and professional life is embedded in the richness that the digital world has to offer but do I model this enough for staff and students, letting them in to see the view from my window?

No excuse or barrier is insurmountable.
I’m not someone who easily gives up but the combination of Eric’s talk and the Bastow interactions have made me think differently and push the bar higher. There were things that I wasn’t thinking as barriers, just as ‘givens’ – timetables, subject boundaries – that I had to work with. I’m starting to see that, as long as your purpose is clear, the path can be creatively managed around an array of obstacles, regardless of who put them there or how long they’ve been in residence.

We have to blur the lines.
This definitely isn’t new – I’ve felt for a long time that the lines between ‘school’ and ‘other life’ were far too straight and solid. That many students, who have spent their weekends teaching themselves to weave loombands or play Minecraft via YouTube experts, turn their brains off at 9am on a Monday when school starts. If I’ve known that for a long time, what’s new? I feel like the momentum is there for change, from all directions and it’s time that we all agree that the lines have to blur. Or, preferably, disappear completely. School doesn’t have to involve students sitting in straight lines listening to an all-knowing teacher. Because learning certainly doesn’t involve that.