What are the challenges of working in flexible spaces?

New flexible learning environments are being built in schools as rate never seen before [and given the country’s debt probably never again] in this country. The ‘Building the Education Revolution’ Commonwealth Government initiative was part of Australia’s economic recession proofing strategy.  

In talking with the builders and the various sub contractors over the past 2 years I can assure you they are quite happy about the initiative.

New facilities are always welcomed with a sense of excitement by their communities and my school is no exception. There is some research around improved student learning in new environments and I think some people may just expect this to occur just by doing the same things except in new buildings.

However I would suggest that the new learning environments will not impact on student learning unless there is a significant cultural change in schools for both teachers, parents and students. The cultural changes requires multiple actions to occur at the same time which is a challenge in itself. The multiple actions I would suggest include: the organisation of learning into flexible students groupings of different sizes, the use of data to inform differentiated instruction, the design of complex and challenging tasks to meet student needs, the de-privatisation of instruction between teachers and the use of digital tools to guide student learning and inform parents about their child’s journey[the new online learning environment is called the Ultranet in Victoria].

Imagine if you didn’t learn in the same standard size grouping of 25 but had a timetable that had you in groups on 50 for some collaborative work and 5 for some direct instruction in say “sentence construction”. Imagine that you as a student might have some elective workshops that you sign up for when deciding to learn to write in a particular genre and that the curriculum is more customized to your interests. Now you as a student have to develop many more learning relationships [possible up to 70 in year], learn to manage time and resources, be reflective, be prepared to be challenged and be able to substantiate, to take and respond to challenging feedback from different teachers to name a few challenges.

Complex cultural change can unsettling for all involved indeed may theorists like James Nottingham suggest that people need to be challenged and experienced time in the learning pit for real change to occur

There are often may obstacles that will challenge prople involved in working and learning in flexible spaces that include

  • Lack of clear goals, theory of action or perceived need to learn new skills or capacities
  • Resistance to change for fear of failure
  • Lack of tools, resources or systems to meet teacher or student needs
  • Perceived public criticism of the new work
  • Inappropriate time lines for change

The purpose of this post is to set the scene for a number of articles on the changes so far and the perceived work ahead in using these spaces to improve student learning. We are over the initial honey moon period involved in shifting into new facilities [we found it last somewhere between 6 – 18 months depending upon who you talked to] have had a change of staff in these spaces and are now in that innovative learning pit where some things are tough going.

The following links are snapshots of other community’s journeys into these spaces as well as department resources that some might find useful.

Stephen Heppell

Bentleigh West’s vision for learning spaces

Point Lonsdale’s vision for learning spaces

Pedagogy and Space DEECD Manual

Student Needs, teacher practice and learning spaces brochure

As I conclude this article about the cultural challenge we face I want to build the focus of the next post which will be about the general principles behind learning in these flexible 21stcentury spaces and some of our early discoveries.

I have great faith in teachers capacity to learn to use these spaces well over time.

I’m interested in hearing about some other general principles teachers engage with when working in these spaces. Please share.

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