Tuesday, 18 August 2015

What's Wrong with Modern Learning Environments?

Modern learning environments (MLE) are getting a pretty big buzz these days in the education sector and wider training areas too.  If you're not in the know, the move is away from the traditional classroom - four walls, whiteboard, projector - everything facing the front - to a more dynamic space encouraging different types of learning. The move seems obvious enough doesn't it?  We've generally recognised that the old model of learning; master who knows everything and student who knows nothing, isn't really the way the best learning takes place.  We've seen a big shift towards social learning and a generally more student focussed approach, combined with the flipped classroom which focusses more on the problem based learning activities in 'class' than the knowledge transfer which was once the foundation of educational practice.

So what's the big deal, if we're all agreed it makes sense, why not just throw up some life reflecting collaborative and shared spaces with funky colour schemes and let the magic happen?  And that's kind of where the problem lies.  Largely that's been the case, learning spaces have been transformed and the idea is that the learning would simply follow on - or if the assumption was that learning was already 'modern' in its approach, simply be grateful for the better designed spaces.

Unfortunately the reality often doesn't quite match the intention.  Our teachers, educators and trainers are somewhat used to their space, their walls and their environment the way it was and their teaching has grown into that space.  Sure the new furniture is nice, and the colour schemes are cool, but where's my walls, my privacy... my control?  The key it seems is often in flexibility, the ability to quickly and easily change the design of the room, the size, configuration, desk, wall, group spaces etc.  The flexibility though provides a raft of options for teachers and whilst from an outsider that appears to be all good, for the teachers themselves that simply means more work and learning new things.  If you think being a teacher automatically makes you a good learner think again - and think hairdressers and their own hair!  Teaching and learning were once often poles apart and only in recent years have we tried to bring the two together.

What do student think of these new spaces?  Generally students are comfy; for example we transformed our library here at the Polytechnic a year or so ago to include a cafe, open meeting areas, some closed, some collaborative and configurable meeting spots - students love the area, it has a great feel and is even self-regulating around volume.  In fact it's become a popular meeting area for staff too and everyone agrees it's a success.  So again, surely we can make these new MLEs work for our lessons too?

So here we hit the main issue.  The problem isn't actually with the spaces that encourage and allow for collaborative and shared work and flexibility or with the modern theory of teaching and learning, the issue is that we've not got enough teachers, trainers and educators who are fully prepared to take advantage of this together... at least not yet. If we throw old-school (excuse the pun) teachers into our modern environment with a few pointers in how to do it and a bunch of theories, most will quickly revert to what they know.

This is actually a space in which we can learn a lot from early and primary education, where collaborative work and activities centred on the student are not only good for the learning, they're a necessity for young minds. If you combine this with the the fact that many of the young students coming through to tertiary and higher education now will have very little 'formal' student experience where they sit for several hours a day listening to presentation style lessons, we're definitely in need of these MLEs and perhaps more importantly the ability to use them effectively.

It's very much a change management piece as well as a learning piece and when you think about it, it doesn't make much sense that we lecture and send out information on MLEs to teaching staff forcing them to change their practice without doing the same to ourselves and our method of delivery.  In fact, it's more than just a change management piece, it's a culture change and that is something that doesn't just happen overnight or by itself.

How do you do it then?  Largely the only way to change a learning environment and be successful is to apply the same principles to the space as you are expecting from the learning.  Collaboration, sharing, learning from everyone and centring your learning around the students, which in this case is the teachers, which is the whole point isn't it?

Simple answer to the first question posed in the title?  Absolutely nothing.  But there's plenty that might be wrong with our approach to using them.