The Most Open of Classrooms

I’m grateful to be teaching in a school that is constantly nudging me forward. There are so many exciting changes on the British School in  the Netherland’s horizon. Matt Bennett’s blog looks at our most recent shift with technology (https://mattbennettsite.wordpress.com), electronic reporting should come to fruition soon enough and we all seem to be making the most of the Twittersphere. The thing that I’m most excited about is the new teaching space that we will have at our school’s hub: BSN Connect. You can read about that development at www.Kieranearley.co.uk . It will seek to unite our multi-campus school and challenge us to use space in new ways.

If there weren’t so many of these developments to push me forward, my lazy inclination would be to just coast. I don’t necessarily embrace all change but I’m quite enthusiastic about it and keen to give most things a go. On reflection, I think that this attitude took root in the early stages of my own education and wonder about its relationship to general intellectual curiosity. For me, nothing does this better than playing around with learning spaces and I am, right now,  resolving to do more of this.

Before BSN Connect and our new campus open, we are going to face the challenge of extremely full corridors and classrooms and many busy peripatetic teachers.  That classic start of the year job – organising the classroom and thinking about space seems even more important now.

Learning Lessons from the Past

In the 1970s, I attended Lord Roberts Elementary in the then very hippy and eclectic neighbourhood of Vancouver’s West End. For a time, I was educated in an “open area,” which was basically a large classroom with movable walls that housed four different Grade 1 to 4 classes. Have a look at  the clip below to get a flavour of the innovation. My school was so “forward” thinking that it even allowed a gay baseball league to use its grounds on the weekend for their tournament. (The subject of a future blog, I’m sure.)

What are my memories of the big space? I loved it! I was there for Grade 3 in Mrs Whitehead’s class. When I had mastered long division, I could look over to my friend’s classroom, where they might be singing “Frére Jacques” in their French lesson. I loved the way that we all met in a common, middle area from time to time to sing or listen to a poem or to hear about current events. I loved the feeling of community!.  This space was so much better than the conventional classroom and when I moved to it from a “walled area,” I felt myself opening up with it. This clip shows how an open space works in a modern environment:

 

Of course, not everyone appreciates the open classroom. Have a look at this short clip to see how it can go wrong:

I have no idea if the space helped or hindered my development. Supposedly, I was quite bright and a bit of a show-off, so the public environment probably suited me better than it did my more timid classmates. The clip above and much subsequent research suggested that the noise levels were not helpful for learning and created too much distraction. This led to the decline of these spaces in favour of conventional “walled” rooms. Anne Knock’s blog is quite helpful in illuminating us further on the issue with several interesting posts on innovative uses of space.

The Little House on the Prairie-style Shared Classroom

From my lovely, liberal West End education, I moved to its opposite extreme, both geographically and pedagogically. My next school environment was in Grade 5, when I moved-in with my father and stepmother, to a southern Saskatchewan elementary school. This was a school that was part of an evangelical community that made use of former WWII RCAF buildings to construct a Christian municipality. There were not enough students to fill one whole grade so the teacher taught both Grade 5 and 6 in the same classroom. When one group was working independently on an activity, the other would be taught by Miss Dyck from the front. As a teacher now, I bow to the incredible levels of planning and preparation that that must have required.

There was a lot that I loved about this environment. In Grade 5, I looked up enviously to my older Grade 6 peers, stealing future knowledge whenever I could. As a Grade 6 student, I loved showing off (I was insufferable) to my younger peers. However, I remember being bored quite a lot. I certainly didn’t fit in here and felt like a freak every day. The worst example occurred when, in a joint Grade 5/6 Bible class, I was the only pupil to put my hand up when asked: “Who would deny Christ as their saviour if it were the only way not to see your family murdered in front of you?”  Needless to say, it was pretty intense and a far cry from my weekends watching gay baseball back in Vancouver.

Open Space, Shared Space and Culture

My view on these experiences centres more around culture than it does around the physical spaces, though the two are clearly connected. All that we know about modelling and peer evaluation suggests that these sorts of open and shared spaces should be fantastic for learning. Certainly, for me, I thrived on them but there were plenty of my friends who went home exhausted from the stimuli and the constant need to perform. These spaces were great for sharing but not so great for quiet thinking or (God forbid) individual work.

The first environment was incredible but this was probably because the school suited me. This was a school that offered disco dancing at lunch alongside baseball and soccer. I got fit learning The Hustle with an option to hustle around the sports field should I want it. What joy! That environment came back into the classroom after lunch. I’m sure that it was that culture that made me flourish, not the movable walls. In my second experience, I was desperate for walls at times.

However, aren’t I lucky to have experienced both? Schools that are staffed by people who want to try new things are full of the excitement of change. New spaces can contribute to this. Movement can contribute to great learning spaces but so can quiet, conventional spaces with a teacher at the front of the room, leading. In my view, it’s not the walls or lack thereof that create great learning, it’s the commitment to experimentation that builds, moves and removes walls.

The Virtual Classroom

The parallels between the open space classroom and the virtual classroom are really clear to me. There are opportunities for collaboration, for “peering” into another room and checking out what’s to come. There are opportunities to show off but there are also opportunities to hide. While I plan to make the most of this new space, using our VLE, my reflections above remind me that it is only one type of classroom and not one that can or should dominate the learning experience.

For me, these are the features of my ideal, open classroom that I’ll try to build this year:

  1. Ensure there are spaces for collaboration that go beyond “discussing with your neighbour.” Both group and seminar set-ups are fantastic for all key stages.
  2. Change it up from time to time. Agree on a few floor plans with colleagues so that seating plans can be invoked when necessary
  3. Use the virtual classroom to enable quiet contemplation and to encourage leadership from quieter students.
  4. Find a new way to use movement at low energy points of a lesson. Ideas anyone?
  5. Share classroom space with other groups when possible. A highly successful attempt at this took place last year in GCSE revision when a colleague and I used a speed dating format with her group and mine in order to share the different ways that they learned Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

Good luck everyone for 2017-18. Tear down that wall, Mr Gorbachev! (And then put it back up again.)

4 thoughts on “The Most Open of Classrooms

  1. I love your use of visual aids (and a sense of humor) in writing about this topic. So often educators discount, or neglect entirely, people who are visual learners. Kudos on that.

    I grew up in Minnesota (in the USA) in the 1970s and I spent grades 1-4 in an open classroom setting. It was a brand new school. There were a total of six “pods” each one containing four “classrooms”. Three pods were for grades 1-3 and three pods were for grades 4-6. Essentially the school was a big rectangle with a media center (library) in the center with three pods on one side and three pods on the other.

    Each pod was named after something and had mascots. For grades 1-3 there was the Pirates with a Pirate theme and mascot, the Guess Whos with an Owl theme, and Snoopy’s Gang with Charles Schultz’s Snoopy as our mascot. Happily I was in Snoopy’s Gang. Each homeroom within our pod had a cardboard dog house (just like Snoopy’s) of different colors hanging overhead. I was in Mrs. Sanudo’s Green Room. I went to math in Mrs. Felska’s Blue Room, didn’t really have Mrs. Atkins in the Yellow Room for anything, and I don’t even remember who taught in the Red Room.

    The pods were separate by cabinets, shelves, and white boards that were maybe 7 feet tall and then open up to the ceiling. The “rooms” within each pod where separated by even lower furniture.

    I don’t remember it being a problem at the time, but I don’t know how in the world the pupils or teachers managed to filter out all of the noise from other classrooms and other pods. As an adult I have almost no ability to filter out background noises and conversations at other restaurant tables or in open offices. I wonder if there is a connection.

    In 5th grade I was transferred to an older school that had old fashioned closed classrooms. It was the best year of my primary schooling. We had our own little world. We elected a student Mayor each quarter and were able to be noisy when the lesson called for it and had our own little wonderful world.

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    1. Thank you for the reply, Thomas. I know what you mean about noise. I’m the same way now as an adult but it just didn’t register as a child.
      There’s something about the visibility of these spaces that creates energy. I just wonder how best to capitalise on it with older students, where the sheer amount of content delivery might make walls necessary.

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      1. Thanks for opening up my mind to the importance of physical space as a means of enabling learning. When I read your blog I found myself going back to how do our students learn – by making their own meaning. I guess it’s our role to create the right climate and conditions to promote meaning and the environment can be one of the tools for this.

        That said, for some students the environment is not just about walls but a space to foster peer relationships, provide stability, offer varying levels of stimuli and also a place for meaning to happen. So, it’s not just the walls that are important but also the connections students can make with the space, albeit real or virtual.

        I find the more I involve students in creating these spaces the more they can own them as their own…

        Elaine – England

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