Modern Learning Environments – the underlying philosophy to success

Modern Learning Environments (MLE) are all the talk in educational circles right now. Schools, around the world, are knocking out walls and creating bright stimulating classrooms with multi purpose furniture and giving students access to technology. On the surface it looks fantastic, however I am concerned that without a big pedagogy shift, students will be simply just learning the same way many teachers have been teaching – just in bigger classrooms with new furniture.Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 10.19.03 pm

MLE’s are so much more than the bright new furniture and the technology. What makes an MLE work, and in fact ANY successful classroom is the relationship between the teacher and student and the underlying ethos of learning to learn.

When moving from a structured, and often heavily teacher-dominated classroom, to a less formal student led environment it is paramount students understand their role and responsibilities as the learner and indeed the learning process. It is totally unrealistic to say to students; “Here are your tasks, now go do them.” Teaching students to be independent and self directed learners needs to be at the centre of a successful MLE and this does not happen overnight. It requires scaffolds, stepping-stones and a safe environment.

Here are five considerations that are vital to address for success.

  1. Be clear on your underlying philosophy of learning.

In a busy, over crowded curriculum taking time to consider what you and your students believe about learning is important. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you believe all students can learn?
  • Do you like learning?
  • Is learning always a simple process?
  • What happens when learning is hard?
  • How do you define learning?
  • How do you know when something has been learned?

These questions and more apply equally to the teachers as well as the students. I believe it is important to understand that learning is finding out what you don’t know. Learning what you don’t know is often hard and I often use the mantra – “Everything is hard before it is easy”. This is a fundamental idea key to successful learning. What do your students do when the task gets hard? How do they handle situations when the answer is not immediately apparent?

An important piece here is to understand and discuss with students the work of Carol Dweck and the role of Mindset. Do you and your students fully understand that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed.

Explain to your students that your job is to cause learning to happen and this will not occur if you give them easy work. However you must also give them the skills to cope with the hard. Can your student persist, think flexibly, be creative, take responsible risks?

I personally like the metaphor of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. It is the struggle that makes the wings strong enough to fly and if you help the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis it will die. I belief this is true in the classroom. Allow students to have time to work out their own challenges, rather than jumping in and rescuing. Now I am not suggesting we allow our students to drown, however in an encouraging way, explicitly teach them how to solve their problems effectively.

  1. Create a safe environment by redefining mistakes and failure

Part of this learning philosophy is also about creating a space where students are free to give new ideas a whirl, make mistakes, fail and use what they know.

Redefining mistakes and failure is crucial. If students are fearful of making a mistake or scared of being wrong, then they are less likely to push themselves to their learning limit and more likely to stay within what is conformable and known. Again a great metaphor is to talk to students about learning to walk or ride a bike. To learn both these activities you have to ‘fall over’ or ‘fall off’ and get back up.Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 10.41.37 pm

Steve Gurney, nine time winner of the NZ Coast to Coast race, a gruelling multisport event, said at the Teachers Matter Conference 2015; “I never learned from winning, except to increase my ego. I learned most from losing.”

Create an environment in you classroom where it is OK for students to make mistakes and fail. FAIL stands for: First Attempt In Learning.

Take time to discuss what went wrong and celebrate the failures, so they will not be repeated. Of course if someone makes the same mistake more than once, it simply means they did not learn the lesson the first time.

  1. Teach students to take ownership

So what do students do when they make a mistake or get things wrong? Do they automatically become a victim or a victor? A victim chooses to blame others for their mistakes and failings or make excuses. Common phrases of a victim include; “She made me do it” or “He’s doing it too.” They might also often choose to put their head in the sand and pretend the result did not happen or choose not to see the consequences of their actions – the “I don’t care” attitude.

On the other hand, the victor is able to take ownership and admit they have it wrong and go about working out how to fix the problem or remedy the result. A key to hearing this dialogue is the victor will use the word “I” in their explanation demonstrating they are taking responsibility.

  1. Ensure students know the learning process

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 2.38.16 pmOur job as teachers is to take students to the edge of their comfort zone and invite them to step out. Teach students about James Nottingham’s ‘The Learning Pit.’ Often, when students start a new project they seem to be clear of the task and have a positive outlook towards the completion. However somewhere along the learning journey, they get stuck, unsure, confused and the work gets hard. These are signals to suggest learning is about to occur! At this point the key is to teach students the strategies to get themselves out of ‘The Pit.” This may include; persisting, thinking flexibly, using past knowledge, using your senses, finding humour, asking for help, working with others and questioning. These are some of the Thinking Dispositions that are the rungs of the ladder used to climb out of ‘The Pit”. Once out of the pit and the project is completed, it important to take time to reflect on the journey and the next steps.

  1. Celebrate the learning – not the end result

Take time to celebrate the learning in your classroom. Have conversations about the steps and not just the end result. Display the ‘work in progress’ and not just the final result. Ask students to hand in their drafts, attached to the final copy, with evidence of growth and learning. Invite students to reflect on the process and what they might have done different next time.

Once students understand the learning process, what to do when they are stuck, how to deal with failure and have a big picture view of learning, working in an MLE is sure to be easier. Students will not be so reliant on you as the teacher and will be able to work effectively independently.

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Published on Thursday, March 26th, 2015, under Learning, Modern learning environment

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

36 Responses to “Modern Learning Environments – the underlying philosophy to success”

  1. Michael Cowley says:

    Thanks Karen,
    A succinct piece that sums up the ingredients that support a shift from seeing a room’s aesthetics to utilising a room’s functionality for improved learning. Michael

  2. Chic says:

    Karen you have captured the essence of the challenges faced by so many schools and classroom teachers. This post would make a great starting point for deliberate professional inquiry in preparation for starting out in an MLE and for on going reflection as the shift unfolds in the MLE setting. In addition to a pedagogical shift it requires a review of how effectively curriculum design and development addresses the relevance and authenticity of learning for our learners today. Thanks for framimg the conversations necessary in order to reshape learning today.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Thanks Chic – I do believe these ideas are important in any classroom not just MLE’s.
      You must be jet lagged to be writing this at 4am!

  3. Barry Roberts says:

    Nicely done Karen, a really good piece. Part of the enquiry needs to be how can we do the pragmatics of this? I am old enough to have taught in the open plan classrooms of the 70’s and 80’s and they were a disaster because the pedagogical work hadn’t been done and nor had anyone figured out the process of theory into practice. (I well rember the DSI saying that we hadn’t used our spaces at Te Kuiti Primary as they envisaged. Hello, we weren’t mind readers and in those days professional development was only for the chosen few!). The scaffolding that students need as well as the scaffolding that teachers need is a huge requirement. It can work and work well, but much work needs to be done before walls are torn down or new learning spaces inhabited.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Barry
      Yes I also taught in open plan in my first 2 years of teaching and was not told how to make it work. The other teacher was also a new teacher (2 terms experience ahead of me!) We basically taught our classes traditionally in a big space. Thanks for your comment 🙂

      • Susan says:

        Please remember that not everyone experienced negative teaching in open plan some of us taught in the way MLE are intended and our students and teachers had very positive experiences.

        • Karen Boyes says:

          I agree Susan – it was definitely not a negative experience in the open plan – I loved it – I loved having other teachers close by, the buzz of all the students, the ability to work in different spaces- however – I would do it very differently now. The philosophy I’m talking about is pretty much how I ran my single cell classroom. I’d be keen to know what are some of the success factors are in your MLE??

  4. Chris France says:

    Morning Karen,
    Excellent article that should also be a really powerful proactive starter discussion for boards when thinking about MLEs in their schools. Thanks so much

  5. Sue McIntosh says:

    Thanks Karen – a great summary and shows how the philosophy is more important than the room or the furniture. You don’t need a million dollar makeover to achieve this shift towards student ownership.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Yes Sue – It is not about the money, space or technology. I have always said a great teacher with a great philosophy can teach in a garden shed 🙂

  6. Julie Small says:

    Hi Karen
    An excellent piece to read-thanks
    We are currently continuing to explore the pedagogical shifts needed to increase student agency in learning while considering how modern learning environments can enhance learning. One of the areas we are exploring is how a Roskill Effective Teacher Profile could support teachers to place effective pedagogy ‘front and centre’ to enable student agency.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Julie – I looked up the Roskill Effective Teacher Profile and it looks interesting. How do you balance all of this with the pressure of exams and qualifications?

  7. Dee Gordon says:

    Maria Montessori’s principles from 100+ years ago…actively fostering children’s independence in their daily life and work, creating the perfect environment where the children have access to materials that will inspire, excite, challenge and pique their curiosity and most of all insisting on a climate of respect. .of the environment of each other and their work … excited that main stream tracking is moving towards this

  8. Margi Leech says:

    Thanks Karen for responding well to this demand for teachers to really understand the implications of MLE. Like you, I was also part of the open plan experience in the 70’s and 80’s. Those rooms are still being used. Some have been walled up. My experiences ranged from true MLE to teacher retreat areas. The success depended on the leaders and the mix of teachers and their philosophy and teaching practice. Yes, there was no PD support at the time. I loved working with top teachers and learning from them as a beginning teacher.
    My concern back then and still is for today is for the children who are more easily stimulated and overwhelmed by the sheer size, numbers of voices and activities going on around them. The MLE environment is a nightmare for them. They also need a strong relationship with the teachers. I believe this needs to be the goal #1 and discussion on how teachers do this.

  9. Anna Harrison says:

    I think this article helps us remember that a modern learning environment is not about the enormous space, number of teachers & children in the room and amazing furniture- MLE is about the organisation for learning- the pedagogy and philosophy that encompasses self regulation, inquiry learning, thinking skills and metacognition. You can have a MLE in a single classroom with a single teacher where the philosophy has been embraced.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Exactly Anna 🙂 Whether in an open space, single cell or garden shed it is about the philosophy. Thanks for taking the time to comment – I appreciate it.

  10. Kylie says:

    I am a beginning teacher. It is very difficult introducing the ethos you have discussed to children that have always been teacher led. We have discussed the learning pit, and the environment is working really well – the children feel ok about making mistakes, we are all learning together (it has taken a whole term for many of the children to understand we can learn together and it is not cheating). Maybe because this is new pedagogy, I find there is very little literature about how to apply this in the classroom. Together, the children and I have set up the learning environment but the next step is setting them up as self regulated learners – the logistics of this (teaching self assessment and peer assessment, setting up resources, rubrics etc) is overwhelming. I feel that although I ask the children what they want to learn about and follow their interests, our classroom is still a lot more teacher led than it could be – any advice?

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Kylie – sounds like you are doing a great job and it is simply step by step – I once spent 6 months with a class (Year 2’s) encouraging them to ‘give it a go’ as they had come from a controlling, traditional, perfectionist teacher. Just choose one or two areas you want to develop with your students and work on that. The magic happens, it just takes time and sometimes a year is not enough. Further magic happens when all the teachers are on the same pedagogical page and all striving for the goal of self-directed independent learners.
      This is not new pedagogy – I’ve been working in this field for 20 years. Dr Art Costa’s work on Thinking Dispositions (Habits of Mind) is a great place to explore. Keep going – you are almost one term down – and have 3 more to go:-)

  11. mike says:

    Hi Karen, looks like you are another one of the many teaching experts who have never been a classroom teacher. All the research in the world will never come close to actually teaching, full time, in a classroom.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Mike
      Thanks for reading my blog. I have been a classroom teacher and worked in both open plan and single cell classrooms. It is now my privilege to work with Teachers in 18 countries. One of my goals is to assist teachers to take the research and make it practical – to give them the ‘how to’s.’ I know the art of teaching is very complex and I strive to take my ideas and strategies from teachers in the field as well as hands on experience teaching students.

  12. Lisa Bethune says:

    Hi Karen,
    A fantastic read thank you!!
    I am a facilitator for Incredible Years and several of my teachers have been in a MLE – was really successful for them to have all been trained in IY to increase consistent routines and expectations which assist in increased engagement of learning time.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Yes Lisa – the other part of having a great teaching philosophy is the relationships within the classroom and the IY programme does a great job at teaching those 🙂

  13. Pam Robison says:

    Thank you so much Karen. I have got more tools in my kete towards being a great educator.

  14. Carmel Marshall says:

    Hi Karen
    Thanks so much for this – a very timely reflection. I also think the SAMR Model for ICT is a relevant comparison to what you are talking about here: ie if the pedagogy shift doesn’t occur prior to (and simultaneous with) the physical change, it’s just like staying in the S phase (ie pure SUBSTITUTION) – like using ipads as an electronic pen and paper and no more. MLEs are a chance to turn things on their head and go beyond what could be achieved inside the 4 walls of a single-cell classroom (the M & R on the SAMR Model). C

  15. Leigh Rangiwhetu says:

    Kia Ora Karen

    I have just spent my first term teaching in a classroom with different sized and shaped and coloured tables. What I find funny is the number of kids who still want and aks for their own desk with an open lid desk or tote tray. I’m considering bring the desks back in but leaving the MLE furniture out for students to use as working stations or full time options. What do you think? I realise this is a little of the focus but my relationship is strong with the students and learning does take place.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Leigh
      I think the most important factor of any classroom is making sure it is set up for your students needs. I also believe some students need a base such as a deck, tote tray or cubby – a place to call their own. I saw a classroom last term that gave students space on the wall to decorate, display their work etc. It is all a work in progress. Ask the students what they would prefer… and value the differences 🙂

  16. Raewyn Field says:

    What better way to spend school holidays than read excellent material like this to make you think and reassess your teaching and philosophy about learning! After surviving a term with some new furniture and Year 3&4 students who have had a set space to sit with their own chairbag on a set chair every day, I had difficulty developing their thinking and habits to consider a tote tray for ownership and a range of work spaces in a day. We initially didn’t worry about “who sat where” but worked on their attitude to learning. My aim for this term is to continue to develop the support networks for each learner in class (learning buddy, help desk, question mark tokens, front loading, taskboard options, bus stop activities) before renaming the spaces in a modern learning environment. I believe we are on the way to creating MLEs if we change from being teacher directed classroom practitioners and listen to our students. If we communicate about what they want and need to know next and let them take the lead,a learning partnership will successfully happen. The new furniture is only an added bonus!

  17. Tiffany says:

    Kia Ora Karen,

    Thank you for writing this, it was a great read. I love that you have pointed out that creating a class full of forward thinking students relies on teaching techniques and what is valued in the classroom, not the aesthetics or what technology is on offer. This is definitely something to reflect on!

  18. Fiona Harney says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your insightful blog. I am co-teaching for the first time this year. We are trying to establish our MLE teaching pedagogy first, before bringing in all the flash modern furniture and technology. I am trying to establish a checklist of factors that create a successful MLE. What research/articles have you found the most useful? Many thanks.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Fiona

      I think any habits that develop self directed learning would help. I use Prof. Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick’s 16 Habits of Mind for this. there are many other models – however I find their’s is excellent.

  19. margaret says:

    Hi Karen
    Love the explanation of ‘the pit’ and skills needed to climb out of it. It doesn’t hurt for students to see the teacher in the pit at times, particularly if they can help get us out!! I’m referring to their amazing expertise with digital technologies that a techno dinosaur like me can only marvel at – that is until someone takes the time to support me ‘up the ladder’.

  20. Lynda says:

    thank you for an interesting read everyone. Having just started in an MLE / ILE for one term after many years teaching single cell but also having been part of great teaching teams, I am so enjoying the development of our ILE and value the ideas and challenges discussed here. What would you say have been the biggest challenges faced when going into this type of environment after single cell teaching? Thanks Karen for your valuable insights.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Hi Lynda
      Thanks for reading my blog. I would say the biggest challenge for most teachers is the ability to let go and allow students to solve their own problems and challenges. The ‘rescue’ gene in teachers is very strong 🙂

  21. Robin Kirkham says:

    Your blog remains highly relevant when considering leadership and strategic direction in New Zealand schools. The fundamental link back to L2L ethos is a good reminder and I am going to use the “signals to suggest that learning is about to occur” at the next opportunity. Thank you, Karen.

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