Janine Rees 2nd June 2016
It’s highly encouraging to see classrooms are moving away from traditional rows, or groups of desks and making way for a more flexible learning situation, giving students a choice in what kind of learning space works for them. As you can imagine, squashing 30 children into a room the size of most living rooms for forty weeks of the year is not ideal but it’s what we teachers have to manage. We know that within each class are varying learning styles and a huge range of learning needs. The average class might have a range of five year levels in academic abilities. We know that the traditional classroom set up does not work for many students, yet change seems to be very slow in coming. Montessori, Steiner and others such as those based upon the Reggio Emilia philosophy have been using flexible learning spaces extremely well for a very long time.
I visited one such classroom recently and was very excited to see and hear the impact on the students’ learning. There was a calmness to the room, it felt warm and inviting. The Year Four class, lead by experienced teacher Wendy Randall, had in one week been transformed from a fairly traditional set up to its now flexible state. Wendy had been investigating flexible learning spaces for a while and with a spare couch at home, that needed repurposing, the journey began. She discussed her plan with the students and got their feedback on what they would like to see implemented. This is such an important phase of the planning and one that many schools omit.
With the help of Gumtree, IKEA and a few friends’ cast offs, Wendy had totally transformed the room for around $100. As I watched, the class gathered in the “meeting space”. Quickly and quietly they were ready for learning. Wendy checked that her students all understood the learning task and she asked them to “choose a spot that’s good for your learning”. Wendy had explained to me that the fit balls were quite popular and has discussed with her class the notion of sharing the space and there were no problems as the children moved from the meeting space to their desired work space.
I was very interested to see the various choices. Out of the 28 students:
- 8 chose to sit on their own; at a desk, lower coffee table, standing at the bookshelves or sitting on bean bags.
- 5 children chose the couches, 3 chose the lower coffee tables with cushions and the rest chose desks with either chairs or fit balls. Some chairs have been fitted with elastic around their bases for children to stretch with their feet and move whilst they work.
- The children on fit balls were ever so slightly bobbing up and down.
- Two children had to leave for other activities and their leaving and returning caused no disruption at all.
There was that beautiful hum of students working, engaged in their task. There was interaction, with students asking questions of each other and helping each other out. Wendy constantly moved around the space helping students, questioning and guiding them with the task. The class worked beautifully throughout the 40 minute session.
Wendy’s class have a 1:1 iPad ratio but she says she would move to the flexible learning space whether they had the iPads or not. Wendy uses Socrative, an app where children can reflect on their day of learning, and has noted a lift in her students level of engagement but most importantly, Wendy says “the children have ownership of their learning as they know how they best learn”. Wendy has the full support of her students, parents and principal and is a great example to us all of how listening to the students needs and catering to their individuality brings such success.