Successful Shifts to Innovative Learning Spaces

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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:

  1. hired their principal at least one year prior to occupation;

  2. afforded principals great levels of autonomy; and

  3. 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.

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