Modern Learning Environments in Blenheim.
Depending on the individual, a person who is required to work in a context independently either faces a challenge or focuses their mind; for a teacher that spends most of their time with the class of children that they have responsibility for – often with very little interaction with other adults – it can feel quite isolating at times.
INTER RATHER THAN IN-DEPENDENCE
New Zealand – where there has been a move away from individual classrooms towards spaces that two or three teachers share – offers an alternative: interdependence rather than independence, and not just for the teachers.
With a balance between children working with the teacher/s, and children self-managing their work – either collaboratively with others or independently from others – ‘Modern Learning Environments’ being very much student-led leads to each child understanding their role and responsibilities in their own learning process.
In June, we had the privilege of visiting two schools in the north of New Zealand’s South Island – Whitney Street and Grovetown – both in Blenheim, both working with Modern Learning Environments. The latter visit focused on spending time within a 5 and 6 year old space, the former on a 7 and 8 year old space.
From a young age, New Zealand children are being taught and encouraged ‘to learn by being self-managing thinkers who are connected’. Children were given certain ability-related activities that they needed to complete each day, and which they self-manage. Alongside this, reading and math were taught each day in small – ability related – groups, whilst writing was taught as a whole class of about 25-30 children. Technology – laptops, rather than tablets – was utilised for real-life purposes and tasks; an integral part of learning and the environment rather than a tool to reinforce teaching or confined to a totally separate subject or physical space.
Children own their own learning, since they self-manage some tasks and take responsibility for themselves. Different abilities of children are well catered for with teachers working with small groups ensuring children make good progress.
Modern Learning Environments encourage teachers to be part of a team, to be accountable to one another, to collaborate, and to be part of a community of learning / teaching. Where there are challenges, the perspectives of another can be voiced and heard; ways forward can be found collaboratively. Teachers can plan together, bounce ideas off each other, and seek different solutions. Teachers can play to their strengths; in fact, it is welcomed / expected. One teacher shared how she works with the reading groups – since this was her strength – whilst the other teacher preferred to focus on mathematics – which was their strength.
All the teachers were very active throughout the school day, working with different groups on specific activities.
Since two or three classes share a space, Modern Learning Environments provide children with the opportunity to belong to their own class and to be part of a much bigger, broader, diverse and varied community of learners. They are encouraged to collaborate when and as it is appropriate; they support one another and have time to solve their own-problems, independently or together. Children can work in groups, pairs or individually; at a desk, on the floor, in the corner – whatever spaces they feel most comfortable, safe and / or learn best in. Every child doesn’t need to sit in a chair, at a desk, all of the time, and / or all sit in a circle, at the teachers request.
CALM AND COLLECTED
This may all sound a bit messy and chaotic, but the first-hand reality of these Modern Learning Environments is totally the opposite. Teachers are quietly spoken, clear with their instructions and calm. Children work well and remain on task in spaces that feel homely, peaceful and relaxing. It is amazing to observe how motivated these children are, and how they own their own learning, especially considering some of them were only 5 years old.
Modern Learning Environments set a context for children to develop skills in problem-solving, the appropriate use of technology, collaboration and decision-making. As the school building is designed or redeveloped in Durban, due consideration will need to be given with regards to how best to develop modern learning environments that are suitable for a South African context that is in need of equality and more inclusive spaces.