As I've reached the halfway point of my Fulbright scholarship, I took an opportunity to revisit conversations I had with leaders from 15 Texas school districts prior to my February 2017 departure for Australia. Districts ranged from small to large, rural to urban, and discussions centered around direct experience, or lack thereof, with a shift to innovative spaces. My goal was to venture to Australia understanding the state of play in the United States— specifically in Texas—and knowledge gaps school leaders hoped I could help fill. This post discusses the former: What is working, and what are the struggles of transitioning to innovative learning spaces?
Embrace Guerrilla Tactics Many leaders mentioned the elusive "critical mass" and how it, while hard to obtain, is crucial for creating real shifts in school culture. One superintendent found success in what he called “guerrilla warfare.” While the negative connotation caught me off guard, there is some truth to the premise: Empower your motivated educators to do things differently. Be bold. Break the rules. A certain level of risk must be tolerated to see substantive shifts.
Guerrilla educators are critical in the formation of groups such as the deskless tribe. These teachers embrace free form seating and are replacing their provided desks with IKEA furniture, camping chairs, bean bags, etc. And they see great results. Their students are having fun, and they share their stories. This guerrilla strategy is also used in schools that embark on partial school renovations, or create centralized campus training centers that embrace space variety and support multiple modalities. Teachers can then opt-in to use these spaces. They model new strategies for other teachers, share their successes, and snowball into a critical mass of whole-school change.
Ormeau Woods State High School in Australia is an excellent example of this concept. Located in Queensland, the school features fairly traditional architecture but is led by a visionary principal. Teachers are encouraged to make their classrooms their own and give students a five-star experience. Students are excited to come to class, behavior management is vastly improved, and slowly, more educators are opting in. The spirit of this school is palpable.
Principals are the Linchpin
More than half of the Texas school leaders I interviewed indicated the principal was the make-or-break hiring decision for the success of any initiative. A motivated principal can make great strides despite systemic or top-down barriers, but a passionate school board or superintendent can fall flat when pushing initiatives to an unwilling principal.
When faced with brand new schools, districts that have seen success:
hired their principal at least one year prior to occupation;
afforded principals great levels of autonomy; and
prioritized the creation of a clear vision to guide their own hiring of teachers and the construction of school culture.
The same focus on school leadership rings true here in Australia. Templestowe College (TC) is a secondary school outside of Melbourne that faced dwindling enrollment and threats of closure. As a state school, TC must still work within the systematic requirements of the Victorian Department of Education. However, leadership completely disrupted the system and did away with grade levels, initiated a hyper-individualized philosophy, while demonstrating a continuous commitment to innovation. Their enrollment numbers have soared and TC is often highlighted as one of the most successful government schools in the area.
A Simple Communication Problem? This last point is a complicated one involving a variety of opinions on accountability and assessment, yet boils down to the toleration of risk at a community level. Parents are a powerful force opposing change in schools, and can be most resistant in districts already doing well in terms of student achievement. In these situations, best intentions can fall on deaf ears so some districts are creating new, in-house public relations positions to bolster communication with parents.
This is needed for a couple of reasons. First, there is a common failure to communicate the "why" of shifting to more student-centered learning and student-centered space. The world is different than the one in which most parents matriculated and what set them up for success likely won't do the same for their children. Second, it is commonly accepted with any new initiative that there is an initial dip before gains are realized. However, starting early and purposefully with hiring and professional development can minimize this impact. The goal is to "do no harm" to test scores while bolstering engagement and building soft skills most impacted by the implementation of multi-modal, student-centered spaces. Community expectations must be set appropriately.
I had a recent conversation with the leadership at Ruyton Girls School in Melbourne, where I learned about their exhibition utilization to bring the community along on their journey. With a focus on project-based learning, parents are invited at the end of a project to view all student work. As a result, parents have become incredibly engaged and can witness their children’s learning experience that eventually overcomes the unknown. Further, parents often end up pushing the educators when they see different levels of rigor in the various types of projects assigned, encouraging educators to try new things. It’s a win-win situation with growth all around.
These are just a few specific examples, but these themes are consistent with my experience with Australian schools as a whole. Many have started small with educators ready and willing to stand on the front lines, and a priority to hire the best principal. Parents need to be brought along the same growth journey as teachers and students. In these scenarios, communication is key, risk is embraced, and growing pains are expected.
I want to start by saying that yes, open spaces can be effective if the pedagogy aligns. Schools that have great success realize they are not intended for direct instruction and leadership and teachers shift pedagogy to focus on team-teaching and leverage the space to support multiple modalities and differentiated instruction. However, even when pedagogy and the space align, if the acoustics are not addressed, what could be an exciting, collaborative atmosphere with a healthy "buzz" of learning, can become a loud, ineffective space and up go the walls.
This is the scenario that happened at a local school in Melbourne. The school is divided into separate buildings operating as neighborhoods for each grade level. When built a few years ago, each neighborhood was nearly completely open aside from a few offices and building support spaces. However, acoustic treatments were non-existent. Imagine having 100+ students all working as separate classes with four educators in an open warehouse space. That was their reality. The noise was unbearable as the metal finishes and hard surfaces created an echo chamber of sound. Thus, after bearing through this for a couple of years, walls were added.
Depending on the type of walls constructed, this moment can be a dismal one. However, lucky for this school, their forward-thinking Principal understood why the space was open in the first place and the educational goals with which it could align. Thus, instead of popping up solid walls, he opted for glass walls and large, sliding doors. This allows for some level of connectivity as it's desired and keeps the visibility between learning groups at the forefront while keeping the acoustical issues in check.
Soon after my visit, I had a firsthand experience with acoustical issues in open spaces, ironically while listening to chat given by acoustical experts, Ecophon. We discovered later that this was a planned experiment. The organizers knew the space, which is intended to be a "teaching space", does not work well due to its close proximity to a student cafe, and lack of acoustical barriers. As the lecture went on, more and more of the audience asked the speaker to talk louder. The organizers finally made the call and moved the discussion to an acoustically separated classroom.
I would like to reiterate that this post is not against more open, informal spaces. Instead, I hope to instill the importance of alignment between the design of a space and how it is meant to be used. The "teaching space" should never have been deemed that. Instead, it can work great as a group study area for those like myself who enjoy a good amount of background noise. Similarly, open plan spaces are not meant to support four teachers lecturing to their individual classes. The most important point, however, is that even if this all aligns, acoustics are the make or break design decision that must be accounted for.
I’ve been in Australia for more than four months now, and am excited to share this latest update on the research variables in my study of innovative learning environments. The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) project, along with the space design itself, is focusing on teacher mind frames and student deep learning.
"It Only Takes One" John Hattie, one of the Chief Investigators on the project, presented this week on the importance of teacher mind frames. The core emphasis of his message was simple: "It only takes one." A single educator misaligned with an overall vision can throw the entire trajectory off track. For example, hiring an educator to work in an open plan school who doesn’t believe in the value of an open plan school would be a critical misstep on the part of the hiring staff or principal.
This discord isn’t isolated to educators – it can be true of any person within any environment or organization – and it gets to the heart of my work with LEaRN and why I believe professional development and organizational alignment are the next frontiers in learning environment research and design. Throughout my experiences, I’ve seen beautifully photographed educational environments that appear to hit all the right marks, yet when you walk the halls of the building, you see only lecture instruction taking place, break-out rooms being used as storage, and an overall sense of disengagement. On the flip side, there are similarly designed schools that seem to foster excitement, and in which the buzz of learning is visceral. So what's the difference? That's what I’m here to find out.
Teacher mind frames are proven indicators of successful learning. John Hattie argues that out of ten identified mind frames, the first is the most important: "I am the evaluator of my impact on student learning." When an ownership mind frame is realized, other mind frames will follow. Educators will begin to see themselves as change agents, paving the way for student engagement that is equal parts dialogue and monologue, and building relationships around trust and collaboration.
Redefining Our Measures of Success Through our research, we seek to understand how the use of space impacts teacher mind frames and student engagement. Success for learners is more so a result not of how an educator teaches, but of how an educator thinks. The same is true for the use of space.
Policy makers and school leaders often look to student test scores to measure success. I contend, however, that using this metric is flawed. Exams often only reflect surface learning – isolated facts, or temporary knowledge usually achieved through lecture instruction and worksheets. Surface learning, while a crucial first step to achieving deeper learning, does little to contribute to the ultimate goal: a student’s ability to transfer knowledge.
If a district is only interested in students memorizing dates or passing an exam, the traditional classroom with one teaching wall and immobile furniture will work just fine. If, on the other hand, a district wants students to think critically, learn to collaborate, and be creative, they should be looking not at test scores, but the learning space as a pathway to achieving this deeper learning. Schools reaping the greatest benefit from space are those with a variety of environments that support all steps in an academic journey: space for educators to gather and facilitate conversations, and areas for learners to work together and brainstorm, to retreat and reflect, create or present. The traditional classroom is not dead, but it is certainly no longer in charge.
I have had many conversations with many school representatives, and we all agree, the skills needed to thrive in the workforce today are vast and evolved, yet often absent in the young people who populate that workforce. We must think critically about how we measure "success,” considering not the numbers on a test page, but the ability of our students to go out into the real world more prepared, more confident, and ready to take on the many challenges they will surely face.