Our educational environments speak powerfully about our expectations of students and our beliefs about what learning can look like in schools. Only last week, I found myself reconsidering the ‘space’ I work in. Three days a week I work as a Year 4 teacher at my local public school. My space just fits me and the 28 children in my class. I am in a muddle about how I can embrace my particular environment and lay out the furniture so that it will enhance (rather than constrain) children’s learning. A tough assignment.
I believe in the social construction of knowledge. I want the students I work alongside to be able to work together in meaningful and engaging ways, connect in small groups every day – think together, challenge each other and build on each other’s knowledge and experience. And yet, shadowed by my convictions about teaching and learning, my space is shouting at me about its limitations.
I find myself, despite my beliefs and ideals, considering surrendering to the limitations of my space and putting the students back in rows. I am tired of working against the architecture, attempting to make grouped tables fit in a space designed without this in mind. The space was designed for a teacher to stand at the front and download content to students, who would all face in one direction, silently and compliantly. And some days I wonder, maybe if I just used the space as it was intended, maybe just maybe, it would be easier.
Last Friday, I was challenged to reconsider my surrender after I had the opportunity to visit a school on Sydney’s Northern Beaches that is pushing the boundaries of what learning environments can look like in schools. As I walked around the campus I observed a range of ‘spaces’ in action. The design of these spaces left the factory model of schooling behind, offering instead a symphony of welcoming, human, interactive and open spaces – environments that powerfully and boldly opened up possibilities for new ways of teaching and learning.
Significant was the way the learning environments offered choices to the inhabitants. There were options for students and teachers – lots of options! There were spaces for working together or alone; spaces for thinking, doing, performing, reflecting; spaces to connect; spaces to retreat. Somehow, for me, these choices embodied an inbuilt respect for the users of the spaces. The environments declared loudly that students were expected to have needs and desires and that learning can flourish in spaces that embrace these human needs and differences.
I was also struck by the absence of a ‘turf’ mentality in the way the spaces were designed – reflected seamlessly in the comments of teachers and students to whom these spaces belonged. There was no observable ‘claim’ over space. There was none of that, all too familiar attitude, “This is MY classroom and these are MY students.” Spaces were shared, just like the ideas buzzing around them. Teachers and students, alike, were working together – crossing traditional boundaries, both in their use of space and their commitment to partner together as learners.
But what left me dumbfounded was what I witnessed in the staffroom. When I walked in it was filled with students and teachers. At first, I assumed there must be a special reason why these students had been allowed into the teachers’ space. What I discovered left me humbled and hopeful about the future of schooling.
The students were in the staffroom because the teachers had invited them! The staff of the school had agreed to invite the Year 12 students to share their ‘resting place’ within the school!
On the day I visited, it was cold and rainy – as such the staff room was a hive of activity as these senior students and their teachers sat alongside each other to unwind between lessons. I could hardly believe these teachers had been willing to give over their right to this space, offering it powerfully to their students as a visible endorsement of their place in the learning community. A student in the space commented, “They recognise us as adults. It gives us a chance to bond with them in our final year.” What a generous and powerful message these teachers are giving to these students.
I walked away from this school, no less muddled about how to work within my own learning environment, but much clearer in my commitment to be intentional and aware in how I respond to this dilemma of space. The assignment remains tough, but the inspiration to persevere has been bolstered.