"Having a student-centered space is not the same as having student-centered learning, nor does it equal a change in pedagogy."
-Prakash Nair (paraphrased). 22 March 2017.
Disclosure: My attendance at FutureSchools is under a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
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FutureSchools 2017 began, for me, with a nice walk in miserable weather from my hotel to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) for the Masterclass Day. I planned to sit in on Prakash Nair's masterclass examining "Practical Strategies to Maximize Teacher Effectiveness in New Student-Centered Learning Spaces" which, for me, was something of personal and professional interest when the arrangement for me to attend FutureSchools was initially made. As my regular readers would be aware, my school has been undergoing a capital building project, and I was intriguied as to what I would be able to take back to my school about using learning spaces and designing them for students benefit and to change pedagogical practices. However, as I sit here now, my context has changed significantly and school design is not on my radar personally or professionally. I therefore struggled, significantly, to engage with what Prakash was saying and asking us to do as I struggled to see where I could connect with it.
Prakash opened by commenting that in his experience, Australia is often one of the key innovators in learning spaces, which I found a genuine surprise. Moving forward, he indicated that his view is there are three types of learning (as seen in the above tweet) and that these take place in a range of contexts, at a variety of times and that they can occur side by side with each other in the same learning space. He then showed us some examples of what these look through a series of photographs of learning spaces around the world.
Changing tack, he then noted that they believe in sharing and that everything they do, they share, that they hold no intellectual capital. I find this an interesting stance to take from a corporation, however, some of his comments over the course of the morning indicated that the contextual approach to school planning that they take means that a design may be transferable in the physical sense to another location, but that they are highly personalised to suit each individual context and thus may not fit in the community they have been transferred to.
Prakash spoke to this for a lengthy period of time, showing some examples of school change they had worked on in poor areas of the world as well as in affluent areas. It came across quite clearly that he believes that change can occur anywhere and on any budget but the key is changing the learning space to suit what is needed pedagogically. He commented that buildings often negatively impact on what teachers want to achieve which is not how it should be, that they should facilitate the achievement of learning for students and that when a cohort of pre-service teachers were challenged to come up with what they would do if they had no resources whatsoever, they came up with a list of things that we often spruik; collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. When they had produced this list and went into a classroom and asked to list of what they could achieve now, he said the list actually shrunk.
The discussion then changed to talking about types of learning theory, based upon a free course that Harvard University run online (see tweet below for the link).
He posited that there are four main theories of learning that traverse a spectrum from students having no choice and teachers deciding what they will learn to completely student centered learning. He showed us a few videos from a free online course promoting an understanding of your own theories of learning that defined each of these and asked to talk in our table groups about how we felt about each type. Hierarchical Individual is effectively the completely teacher-driven model and is very common in schools in Australia now due to the pressures around NAPLAN and the final Year Twelve exams (HSC, VCE etc) that are what entry to university is based upon. IT was also noted in the discussions on my table that even when schools do move to open learning spaces, that teachers often put up their own walls, even if they are invisible ones to maintain the facade of their classroom and their students because that is what they know.
The second model that Prakash spoke about was the hierarchical collective, which someone on my observed seemed like a good compromise for schools wanting to be progressive whilst maintaining some traditional aspects. Schools using this model often have close connections with their community based upon the belief that education is not necessarily for yourself, but for the community as a whole. It is an interesting concept. It was noted that primary schools typically find this an easier model to use than secondary schools do, once again, noting the pressure around high stakes exams at the end of students' schooling.
"If a teacher teaches a lot that does not mean that students learn a lot"
The distributed individual theory of learning is underpinned by the belief that students are natural learners and want to learn with the ability to direct their learning to their interests. This can be seen in a lot of areas in students lives, but more commonly, their lives outside of school. The number of conversations I have had with students about something they went to YouTube to learn, or have seen students join a lunchtime club to learn and engage with something they are interested in is phenomenal. However, I cannot recall seeing this model in classrooms. This model, it seems, comes down to having the strong relationships with students and knowing their and understanding their interests and being able to meet them at that place with the learning task when it is appropriate to do so. However, once again, the elephant in the room called Mandated Testing raises its ugly head and trumpets loudly through parents, administrators and the media (among others) about the need to do better and improve our results because our ranking in PISA and TIMMS is declining; and other similar arguments.
The final theory of learning is identified as the distributed collective and is groups of learners coming together around a common interest with varying levels of expertise for varying lengths of time and in different self-organised contexts to learn from and guide each other. There are lots of examples of this in the lunchtime and after school programs, however, this is limited in the classroom and comes back to a question that I have seen popping up time and time again in various contexts over the last eighteen months; which is what is the purpose of schooling and education?
The first two theories of learning were based around the way the teacher teaches while the second two models are about how the student learns. There seems to be a common view, Prakash noted, that students are lazy. You only have to see a student devouring player guides for games, or manuals for a model, or coaching sessions for sport or musical instruments to know that students are not lazy when they can see that the hard work will lead them towards the thing they want to learn. Intrinsic motivation is key and we need to stop motivating students to do things they do not want to do. This raises further questions.
Prakash said that as someone who hires employees that he is more interested in what prospects can do than in what a piece of paper says and that he often finds that those without a formal architecture degree are better at designing than those who are formally qualified. The key to the distributed collective is that any one student can be simultaneously involved in multiple collectives, at different expertise levels for different lengths of time.
The above image from Prakash's slide deck shows the spectrum of learning opportunities and that the black vertical line shows the point where students are typically limited to due to the design of buildings and the educational paradigms used where the left hand side is completely isolated content and the right hand side is where students are learning things by doing those things that interest them. Prakash said that if you walk into a learning space and there are twenty-five students facing one teacher than the paradigm chosen is pretty clear. I am not entirely sure that I agree with this as there are going to be times when it is authentic and necessary to address everyone at once, however, I can see his point.
It was at this point that we were given a series of school buildings that Prakash's company had worked on and redesigned, and asked to select one and have our turn at redesigning it, keeping in mind everything that we had heard about thus far. I made the decision, that mentally I was struggling to engage and that in my new context this conversation was not one that was particularly relevant to me and so I made the decision to step out, which was effectively the end of my involvement in this masterclass. I did come back in for a short period after lunch to hear how people had gone about their design changes, and there were some interesting concepts, with some tables here in school groups and choosing to work with an existing school building. I have some photos below of those designs, and some of them were fairly close to what was actually achieved in reality.
I personally found Prakash to be an engaging speaker, and I apologised to him for popping in and out and then effectively leaving the session. I think that if I was still in my previous school that it would have been a session I would have engaged with wholeheartedly. As I am in that awkward phase of having just started a new role, I was mentally distracted and struggled to to focus and engage properly. If you were in the room, please comment and share your thoughts and reflections on the session. There were also other masterclasses running parallel to Prakash's, tweets from which can be seen in the Storify here (which I need to redo as it is missing a significant number of tweets).
As always, thank you for reading. I hope to get the first article from Day One of the FutureSchools later on today. Keep your eyes peeled for it.