Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Flexible Learning Spaces and ILE Pedagogy

There has been a lot of talk in our school lately about Innovative Learning Environments (ILE), with the refurbishment of (initially) 7 of our original single cell classrooms due to begin next month.  This discussion is taking place alongside rigorous discussions about curriculum design and timetabling to better support learning.

"Innovative learning environments support strengths-based teaching.  They offer students and teachers flexibility, openness, and access to resources.  Working in an open, flexible learning environment where inquiries are shared, interventions devised collaboratively, and reflections based on both self and peer observations, leads to a more robust, continuously improving community of practice"  (TKI, 2016).

The Ministry of Education define an ILE as an innovative environment "that is capable of evolving and adapting as educational practices evolve and change - thus remaining future focused" and driven by teacher inquiry.  They are spaces that encourage growth and development, that live on a different buzz, beat to their own drums and, simply put, are innovative, forward thinking and exciting.  A space that focuses on learners at the centre and promotes social, educational and developmental growth and development for all.

ILEs provide greater opportunities for students to organise themselves and engage in integrated learning.  When running well with well supported educators and learners, the curriculum is designed alongside their needs and interests.  They are respectful of, and responsive to, individual learner preferences, needs, and values, rather than requiring learners to fit your new system.  Without fundamental changes to the philosophy and structures of the traditional model we are used to, ILEs run the risk of simply becoming MLEs that run as single celled classrooms without walls; as a colleague surmised, teaching in the same way, in a fancy looking barn.  We need to ensure that if we are really genuine about implementing ILEs, we do it in a way that embraces the greater opportunities for students to organise themselves and engage in learning.

So what is the difference between an ILE and a Modern Learning Environment (MLE)?  This has always been difficult for me to describe, until I found clarity through reflective discussion this evening.  An MLE can be an ILE, but I propose that an ILE is more than an MLE.

Mark Osbourne describes an MLE as a space that promotes and supports a range of pedagogies, including delivering, applying, creating, communicating and decision-making.  Like ILEs, they can support strengths-based teaching and can offer students and teachers flexibility, openness and access to resources.  MLEs can provide teachers with an open, flexible learning environment which can lead to the development of a robust, continuously improving community of practice.  For me, the difference is in the word 'can'.

In my eyes, an MLE refers to a physical space.  An ILE refers to a pedagogical shift.  One that encourages and embraces exploration, inquiry and all of the challenges that come with brave, future-focused, innovative thinking.

An MLE can support flexibility.  The physical space enables educators to combine two classes into one for team-teaching, split a class into small groups and spread them over a wider area, or combine different classes studying complementary learning areas.

A MLE typically has fewer walls, more glass and often use the idea of a learning hub, which is a central teaching and learning space that can be shared by several classes.  They can provide opportunities to observe and learn from others and be observed in return.

A MLE is also typically surrounded by breakout spaces allowing a range of different activities, such as reading, collaboration spaces, maker spaces, project spaces, wet areas, reflection rooms and areas for presenting and sharing learning.  There is often a mixture of wireless and wired technology offering access as and when students need it, within the flow of their learning.

I have always ascertained that I have worked in an MLE, and to be honest, without little thought.  It was a purpose built classroom, with breakout rooms, and was exceptionally spacious when you consider the maximum class size I had was 9 students.  The furniture was purpose purchased, and reflected a variety of different teaching styles and spaces.  However, with the exception of when our neighbouring class joined us for a couple of weeks towards the end of their own classroom renovation, I worked in a similiar way to a single celled classroom, with shared, team planning.  (Our team was spread across 5 single cell classrooms, and located at two different schools).

In reality, on reflection, that MLE was actually an ILE.  As a staff, we trialled and explored many innovative ideas and adjusted these, and developed them alongside our students.  Our partnership with Cyclone Education and HP to explore the impact of devices on students learning, within the Special Education sector was explored alongside the benefits of an Arts based curriculum, the development of a sensory area and the design and implementation of our planned play programme, to name just a few.  Throughout this journey I was blessed to have the unwavering support of an amazing Principal who trusted that I wanted nothing more than to see each of my students succeed, and would do whatever I could to support them.  It is within this high trust model that I work best, and it is this same willingness to support professional growth and exploration that I want to empower my team to have.

Interestingly, once I had clarified my own thinking in this area, I then found the following published on the Ministry of Educations webpage: "An ILE is capable of evolving and adapting as educational practices evolve and change.  One part of creating an ILE is to moderise the spaces that teachers and students spend their time in."  This focus on the physical space is what ensures that while an MLE can be an ILE, and ILE is far more than an MLE.

I am confident to say that next year, our school will have MLEs.  The challenge is in creating enough momentum and trust amongst our team to make them truly innovative.  To set them up in a way that enables them to succeed.  Working in an open, flexible learning environment where inquiries are shared, interventions devised collaboratively and reflections based on both self and peer observations, leads to a  more robust, continuously  improving community of practice.