Climate change in learning environments

Blending the indoor and outdoor — the Arts West building foyer at University of Melbourne

If you are an adult living in Australia or any other developed nation, it’s likely you have a drivers’ licence and own — or have access to — a car. It’s also likely that you have some experience driving it on the roads. In fact, driving on roads is precisely what we’re trained to do in order to obtain and maintain the very licence required to drive.

When it comes to learning environments — what most people broadly call ‘classrooms’ or ‘learning spaces’ — i.e. dedicated spaces designed with the intention of teaching and learning occurring in that space, most teachers have been trained to teach and have vast experience in teaching in traditional settings. Generally speaking, we grew up being taught in them, we trained in them and we’ve taught in them for most of our careers.

Sometimes, schools, universities and many workplaces suddenly move their people into a fancy new facility with very little vision as to what will go on inside the space and the support required to get people from “what we’ve always done” and “what we do now” to “what we will do”.

To me, this is like asking a highly skilled and fully licensed car driver to fly an advanced attack helicopter through a canyon… in fog.

You know that travel will occur. You know that this thing does fly. But you have no idea how to do it all, let alone begin the process. The terrain is unfamiliar and tools and strategies you now have to deploy are things you have never really experienced yourself (except for that lovely flight over Hoover Dam back in 2006 where you spent more time trying not to look directly down than taking photos).

We always show off the ‘what’ — the new building(s) — with swish visuals and presentations. Perhaps even a slick video tour on a website. We often don’t formulate the ‘why’ and we rarely articulate the ‘how’ clearly enough for all stakeholders to feel a genuine sense of involvement or commitment to what can be a significant change to practice and process.

Let’s take a look at one particular area of this, the changing role of teachers from one environment to the next. There are two key things often missing in the transition of teaching and teachers from traditional settings to innovative learning environments or ILEs:
A reliable and sustainable research base that is well communicated to practitioners and engages them in a feedback loop to make sure it stays relevant to a quickly changing educational landscape.

The professional learning and support that is required to fully explore and exploit the possibilities of teaching and learning in the ILEs.

There is a climate change underway in research circles that is shifting the conversation from “what we think” to “what we know and what we have to find out.” As made clear by the recent research conference hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) team, whilst there is currently a dearth of reliable evidence to prove (or disprove) the impact of ILEs (or any learning space) on teaching and learning, this is an important and cutting edge area being led by researchers in Australia and New Zealand. There have been hotspots of research in the past, now there seems to be a concerted effort underway.

Why bother with learning environments? Kids are flexible right? Some keynote speakers I have heard recently like to throw out comments like “give a kid a knife and drop them in the forest and they’ll still learn and grow.” But if we agree that school is the best place for most students to go to learn (so we force them to), and if we agree that where we learn must have some kind of impact on how we learn (Sydney has had the hottest temperatures on record just in the last few weeks of January and February — I know I wouldn’t want to learn calculus or anything else in those conditions), we therefore have a duty to think about the way we design those places when we have the opportunity and means to do so.

In short:

  • we spend lots of money on building and maintaining facilities and we spend a lot of time in these spaces with the aim of learning, and
  • we spend a lot of our time within these environments with the explicit aim of learning, and
  • we value the people within these environments enough to acknowledge they can lead learning or undertake it, and
  • we can measure some elements of the use of the space in order to understand how we might use it more effectively.

According to Barrett et al (2015), moving to optimal use of learning environments have a 16% positive impact on the progress of learners. Whilst there is not a wealth of evidence from the last 20 years to support this to the point of consensus, this evidence base is growing.
So if we agree with the reasons why we need to think about this more deeply and act upon what we know (and can explore what we don’t know through innovative means and wait for the research to catch up), then it becomes a question of how to do so.

In most places of learning (including workplaces, hospitals etc), the spatial literacy of those leading learning and those undertaking it are essential. LEaRN is doing some great work in this area and I’d like to explore it more myself. Another layer to this is that well before anyone moves in, before the concrete is poured, before — in fact — the designs are finalised, the architects, engineers and other professionals involved in the creation of the spaces must develop educational literacy or a literacy of learning. On both sides of this experience, which can be driven within a truly collaborative pre-design process, the end result is not a deep and expansive understanding of the others’ world but actually a much more simple, complex, and powerful force: empathy.

We also need to invest more of a project budget into the skills and capabilities of those for (and hopefully with) whom the space is being designed. At the LEaRN conference, Associate Professor Wesley Imms suggested that we need to allocate 0.1% of a budget to teacher PD. I’d like to up that to 1%.

Here’s my thinking:
A major new facility (or facilities) is being constructed for $10 million. Every staff member at the school will, at some point, be required to use the space either individually or as part of a team. A 1% allocation for PD = $100k. In terms of a $10 million project, surely a valuable investment of $100k is not a number that causes blood to drain from the faces of even the highly prudent.

Assuming you can access some useful PD for around $200 pp per day, and including the $300-ish cost of a casual/replacement teacher, that means you have allocated around 200 days of learning to teachers specifically for this new mode of teaching and learning. A fairly typical high school staff of 100 will therefore each get two full days to immerse themselves in training and learning relating to the types of learning spaces being designed.

This could also be done by closing the school for a day, arranging some other kind of half-day or study sessions to release staff to attend on-site PD, there really are many options on how to do this.

Naturally budget is only one of many issues that need to be considered before designs are undertaken. Others that I won’t delve into in this post include:

  • Leadership: it may seem obvious, but many projects fail to launch, splutter and die, or cause unnecessary anguish across the community involved because of a lack of leadership. Effective leadership (or support for leadership) can sometimes come from outside the hierarchy of the school, through an architect or project manager or other person who can best assure the best communication possible (see below).
  • Connection: the organisation undertaking the design must connect with other organisations who have, are and will undergo similar projects (such as connecting with the Association for Learning Environments). Also connecting to researchers, and other schools through formal relationships and informal networks.
  • Community: including the parents, students (past, current and future), members of the wider local community and so on.
  • Sharing: whilst respecting privacy and relationships present in the context, sharing the successes and failures of the project as it is undertaken in order to gain feedback. (I’m working on a place to do this)

Whilst researchers here in Australia and around the world explore this new field of learning and practice, we need to realise we are battling against time as well. At the conference it was clear that in areas of growth (metro Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane amongst others), dozens of new schools — or their equivalent in ILEs — will be needed simply to house the population of school age citizens we will soon have.

Whilst the LEaRN project seeks to find “what works” between ILE design & educational outcomes, this will certainly build a consistent quality of thinking in this area, though not a standardised approach to practice. We need to make sure each and every ILE is designed for the purpose and context in which it will exist. Both today and for the elusive future we are all trying to predict. As practitioners, we need to draw on the research to be well informed but also confident and skilled enough to make the professional judgement about what happens in our contexts, so, eventually, that our students may begin to exert increasing influence over their own learning.

Research and practice in relation to ILEs must exist in partnership and genuine dialogue, with ongoing engagement from both sides to build a platform of respect and empathy from which to launch new levels of learning.

By doing this, we will, eventually, be able to have teachers and students sit in the cockpit of their new learning environments and truly fly.

Originally published on Medium