One of my major learnings over the past couple of years is the importance of space for children to relax and learn in a stimulating environment, especially students from refugee backgrounds that have experienced displacement and trauma from violence. I’m not quite getting space in New York City at the moment, with daily heavy traffic, and crowded streets of people where being bumped on the corner W36th and Park Avenue is the daily norm.
During my time at Harvard, I had the wonderful opportunity of discussing learning and space with so many fabulous school administrators (equivalent to principals and senior leaders) working in very diverse and often highly complexed environments. These administrators were all at Harvard to make changes back in their own school but quite often hamstrung by external factors. One secondary principal remarked to me that she would love to create learning spaces but concrete walls and a school board are his impediment for change in spaces, while another principal commented that some of her classrooms had tables bolted on the floor and in rows. Somehow, these schools are surviving and more often than not, doing a fabulous job in educating their students with outstanding leadership and teachers despite their context. I know these cases are not true for all US schools as administrators on twitter often share a different story and the change that they are making in their schools.
Over the past couple of year, Merrylands East has transformed many of their classrooms to become learning spaces and addressed an issue of how and where children learn. An old hall dating back to 1928 has become a shared learning space servicing four traditional classes. Isolated classrooms walls have been removed to join up with adjacent rooms to create larger spaces and new furnishings replaced the old desks of the C20th to promote sharing and collaboration of learning.
In the quest to create learning spaces, we must cautionary and remember to create a pedagogy that allows for C21st skills rather than a model of the C20th. There is no point in having different furnishings if students are going to do worksheets or low order learning. Just like there’s no point in having laptops if students are asked to simply google. You might as well keep the furnishings of the last century and invest school funds into something else. In other word, there needs to be meaningful purpose in making change and it’s not about looking good but rather promoting and enhancing student engagement in learning.
Returning back to Harvard for a moment, one of the school administrators asked me about classroom management in an open learning space and whether it caused disruptive behaviours. Here, I commented about pedagogy and replied that the most crucial aspect of classroom management is student engagement. Sometimes, it is easy to provide “work” to students rather than teach and for students to learn. It’s easy to open a textbook and ask students to complete an exercise where the answers are more often than not in the back or in the middle sections
Merrylands East staff is less reliant on worksheets on a daily basis. Some teachers have barely gone near the photocopier and if so, it’s for the purpose of administration rather than for any teaching and learning purpose. Some stages are paperless. I am forever grateful for my teachers who have boldly created teaching than matches their learning spaces and continue to evolve their pedagogy. It hasn’t been easy but now they are seeing the joy of high student engagement, and highly diverse student processes and products.
Yesterday, I took a boat around the Hudson River to view the Statue of Liberty. It started off well with a humid bright day but descended into pouring rain so that I could barely see an outline shadow of the statue. On return to shore, the US aircraft carrier Intrepid was docked about 50metres away and opened for public viewing along with a submarine that could be entered. This is not a major tourist site and certainly not advertised widely. I took the opportunity to visit the ship and learnt the contrast space by walking in the large open spaces of the air craft carrier and then the confines of a submarine – a place of awkwardness. However, I never imagined the opportunity and surprise to view up close the actual Enterprise Space Shuttle covered in a large marquee on the flight deck with all it’s tiles and design in tack as part of the exhibit – a unplanned bucket list tick off!! Comparison between the three vessels indicated that we don’t need small spaces but large open area where we can dream, imagine and learn.