A learning eco-system where the fluidity of where student thinking occurs is based upon the needs of the child and is framed to encourage critical thought, creativity and collaboration with a diverse group of peers.
The world is ever changing and the “institution of school” is evolving with it. For those of us who want our children to be the creators, designers and leaders of the future, we recognize that how learning happens, and where it happens, must progress from how we experienced school.
At GEMS Dubai American Academy our elementary school continues to be at the forefront of future focussed learning. Our students and staff are process driven learners. We understand that learning exists on a continuum and that the big questions we delve into have relevancy and applicability far beyond the days and weeks we explore the concepts. Our students excel as critical and creative thinkers but there is always room to grow.
Where we are inspiring that growth this year is in our learning spaces. Visit any technology company, design firm, start-up, or forward thinking enterprise and you will see that the “workspace” is very different than it has been in the past. The “why” behind this is that entrepreneurs and out-of-the-box thinkers have realized that space matters because it influences thinking and mindset.
Last year we began to learn from the world beyond the walls of our school. We began with two pilot classrooms exploring the idea micro-environments in the Spring and the success behind that became a full school redesign for 2019-2020 that focussed on enhancing the thinking we foster in our students. Our spaces foster student voice, choice and freedom of movement so students can create more connections with their peers and build the confidence to take ownership of their learning.
Our school is a learning eco-system of spaces and people working together to ensure all our students excel in their learning and social-emotional development throughout the day. Through our purposefully designed micro-environments within the classroom our students learn and work in the spaces that best connect to their learning needs. Rather than a room of similar furniture that can be moved to be flexible, our students have the choice of very different spaces designed to match their learning needs throughout the day. Students can sit or stand at the tall table (Watchtower) if they wish, work autonomously in the single desk (Office), or talk and learn collaboratively with others in our shared spaces (Campfire and Watering Hole). These micro-environments do make a difference.
Optimizing all of these physical characteristics of classrooms improved academic performance in reading, writing, and mathematics by 16 percent.
The personalization of classrooms—including flexibility, which Barrett defined as “student choice within the space”—accounted for a full quarter of that improvement.
Learning and school are not necessarily what we remember, and shouldn’t be in my opinion. The world is a changing place and we want our students to be at the forefront of that change. Our students will develop the self-awareness to understand themselves as learners and their learning needs. Students in our school will learn how to navigate their relationships with others in a choice environment as they no longer are told where to sit and who to sit with. Our students will know the power of being empowered and they will become the creators, designers and leaders of tomorrow that we need.
This week our students shared their thoughts on our new learning environment in this podcast. As you hear the words comfortable and fun, I would like you to keep this piece of research in mind:
Flexible, welcoming spaces had a startlingly large effect on learning in math—73 percent of the students’ progress that was attributed to classroom design was traced back to flexibility and student ownership. The reasons are a mystery, but Barrett and his team hazarded a guess: Academic subjects that provoke anxiety—in math, that’s a known issue—are better addressed in classrooms that feel comfortable and familiar to students.
Finally, as our learning eco-systems evolve and students engage with their spaces, our teachers have been providing their feedback as well. As you can see the themes of collaboration and connection have come to the forefront:
My lessons/teaching has been more engaging with students organically coming together and finding places to sit that best fit their needs. Students are collaborating together and have really enjoyed watching them get adjusted to flexible seating.
It has helped me grasp a better understanding of the various learning styles in my class. Seeing where children work best gives me insight into the approaches to teaching and learning I will take with my class this year.
It appears to more readily encourage collaboration and is more inviting to the early years learner as opposed to a traditional classroom setting. It is also better suited for project based learning.
In previous years I have always started my year with name tags and assigned seating. The flexibility has allowed students to make their own choice and also to take ownership in making wise choices. I have encouraged children in choosing a new table after each period and invited them to work with a group they hadn’t worked with yet in that same day. This has supported our class in building a community a little faster as children are getting to know each other more. It’s also allowing children to see who they work well with and which table fits them for that specific lesson/activity.
The micro-environment approach has made me re-consider my teaching approach in lessons. I am having to be more flexible in my approach and more trusting of students to make the correct choices independently. As a class we are gradually understanding how to use the micro areas and once we are better at this, I know the learning in the classroom will excel as students take ownership for their learning.
During a recent presentations my students each bring their own seats and they naturally created their own tier stadium system. Tall chairs in the back, short chairs next, cushions, then friends on their bottoms. It was amazing to see them create that rule on their own and hold each other accountable for sticking to it.
My “ah-ha” moment came last year when I transformed my classroom. Sitting with the kids in the different spaces and observing them use the different spaces teaches you so much about each child’s unique learning needs, that are not visible on answers given during a pre-assessment.
I firmly believe that elementary school is the incubator for change in the education system. Inquiry-based pedagogy and micro-environments are a perfect combination for as school of progressive thinkers who want our children to be the creators, designers and leaders of the world. We know the magic happens when we leave the comfort zone and challenge ourselves to move beyond the norm. Through our future fluent learning and learning environments, our students are going to have the confidence and the future ready skills to excel wherever their personal excellence takes them.
“Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.”