Final Reflections as a Fulbright Scholar
Prior to departing for Australia, I met with superintendents and school leaders throughout Texas to collect questions I hoped to answer during my work with the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN). In a previous Insight, I addressed their most common requests to ascertain the struggles of transitioning to innovative learning spaces, and to learn what’s working in those schools that successfully implemented change. Here, I’ll focus on how to stay the course once change is embraced.
Sustaining the Change
Understanding how to change is equally important as knowing how to sustain change. A big part of my research focused on the critical steps schools take to embed change so that it outlasts natural attrition and turnover in staff and leadership. This ensures evolution as needed to keep up with current and future educational needs.
- Structure: Structure here refers to policies, processes, routines, and other explicit strategies of space, learning, and organization management. Its root is in purpose and accountability, and is a constant theme across all schools that have effectively implemented change. It is important in a new space to have a plan in howyou will inhabit them; success comes down to the proper induction of teachers and students to create the new normal in the learning experience. Research shows that without any structure guiding use of space, teachers will revert back to what they know. This often means teacher-centered, direct instruction. As one principal in New South Wales stated, they had to “restock their toolkit” with new behavioral expectations. This is important for students as well. When students are no longer required to sit at a desk in a chair, facing the teaching wall, we must guide them into the new behaviors are expected of them.
- Vocabulary: In addition to defining structures, adopting a shared language for new space types and associated behavioral and learning expectations is helpful. One team-teaching-based primary school I worked with was outfitted with a wide variety of furniture options that were configured based on David Thornberg’s archetypes. Teachers developed icon cards for each archetype with a description on the back for students to own. Over time, students associated different furniture arrangements with expectations transforming the novel environment into obvious learning spaces with clear expectations. Teachers in turn became more comfortable with their furniture options and adapted to their new norm. Together teachers and students set expectations through a shared vocabulary.
Supporting Students with Sensory Sensitivities
Schools are shifting to a variety of space types that support multiple modes of learning. This often entails more openness or transparency, and focuses on collaborative learning. But how do students with special needs fit into the equation, especially those with sensory sensitivities?
Innovative learning spaces can at first glance appear to be chaotic, open spaces. However, after gaining a deeper understanding, teachers view them as environments in which students can work in different spaces, attuned to their personal needs for comfort. When students with sensory sensitivities learn in traditional classrooms, they must leave the room if they feel overwhelmed. In an open learning environment, these students simply move to find a more comfortable space if necessary. They blend in and are able to “hide” in the open while remaining within their cohort. In one secondary school in New South Wales, a social psychologist evaluated the open learning space in relation to its impact on students with special needs, and found that students were more adjusted and felt more included in the natural flow of learning.
In this picture, two students are on the autism spectrum and another is chronically shy. Can you tell who they are? Open space accompanied by personalized, differentiated learning creates an even playing field where everyone can assimilate in the mainstream.
Teacher Development and Induction
While the easiest solution to transition into a more collaborative, open setting is to hire teachers already familiar and prepared, this is not practical when a teacher cohort is moved from an existing school to a new facility. Thus, many school leaders are interested in precedents of ongoing teacher development and induction into different space types. The key here is embedding reflective practice into all aspects of the teaching profession with ongoing critical analysis of one’s teaching, and one’s use of space.
One group of educators from a secondary campus in New Zealand reflected on their practice in two-week cycles, discussing which spaces are used best, resulting in the redistribution of students and activities accordingly. Another Kiwi school incorporates the use of space into lesson planning, asking educators to explicitly identify how the layout of furniture or choice of learning space would be leveraged. The use of space is a new language for many educators, making these tasks difficult at first. However, over time, teachers’ spatial literacy increases and the use of space as a tool becomes inherent.
A more open or transparent learning space also proves to positively enable teacher reflection and development. Educators and school leaders involved in my study all mentioned the benefit of being able to easily and authentically observe their fellow teachers. They admitted the difficulty in adjusting to this at first, as teaching is historically an independent, autonomous activity. Yet this discomfort quickly passes, resulting in a culture where teachers cannot, and do not want to, hide practice but instead learn from each other and improve.
This is more traditional example of teaching on display with multiple educators cohabitating results in improved practice. The benefits can be reaped even with separate classrooms, as long as transparency is ubiquitous.
As designers, we must recognize that change can be scary and difficult. It is incumbent upon us to work with our clients to resolve the perceived barriers that come along with these innovative learning environments, so that the benefits of the spaces can be reaped. We must engage in conversation around the issues early in the design process, and challenge educators and school leaders to begin thinking of ways in which they can “restock their toolkit” to help make the new spaces a success.
Over the course of my time as a Fulbright Scholar, I sought to better understand how teachers and students actually use the great spaces we design; shared observations from school visits with LEaRN; focused on teacher mind frames and student deep learning; and explored the struggles of transitioning to innovative learning spaces. Thank you for following my research over the past year.
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