‘Creating spaces for learning has been an art for too long - in practice, it is a science and very complex one at that. There are a huge number of variables - everything matters.’
There is clear evidence that well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths. (HEAD Project 2015). So, two years ago, we began to research an area that had interested us for a few years - were our classrooms optimising learning? We knew how we wanted our children to learn; what we wanted from them:
Children who talk, who share ideas, co-operate, collaborate
Children who are engaged, rather than contained
Children who feel ownership of their learning and their learning space
Children who feel in control of the learning process
Children who are becoming independent, lifelong learners
Children who learn different things in different ways, yet tackle each new piece of learning with confidence and enthusiasm
We looked long and hard at our Year 6 classrooms to consider whether they facilitated this style of learning. We spoke to our children, asking them questions about how well the classrooms suited them, without suggesting to them that we might make changes. They told us about the things that helped them to learn - feeling comfortable, feeling relaxed, being allowed to move around, having a choice. They also told us about the things that hindered their learning - having to sit in the same place for long periods of time, completing all learning at a desk or, worse still, trying to learn in an active way in a classroom filled with furniture that stopped them moving around. They were sensible, respectful and explained their thoughts well. From our research we knew that many children feel constrained by traditional classrooms, that they prevent them from learning in a range of different ways and they very definitely to not encourage collaborative learning!
We knew that some children preferred to complete some activities sitting on the floor, on cushions, on a rug, on soft furniture. We know that we, as adults, don’t sit at our dining room tables when we want to lose ourselves in a good book. We sit on the sofa, curl up in a chair or lay on the bed. We were actively trying to promote a love of reading, yet insisting that our children sat on rigid chairs at rigid tables.
When we want to talk something through with a partner; when we want to solve a problem or communicate with one another, we don’t sit side by side, both facing in the same direction and not making eye contact. We actively teach children to make eye contact whilst talking, yet we prevented them from doing so in the classroom.
So we conducted a trial. We removed some (not all) of the chairs and tables in our classrooms. We gave them rugs and cushions, sofas and chairs. Our research showed us that some children prefer to stand to learn, so we trialled standing tables. Some children told us that they’d prefer to use a clipboard, so we bought some!
The feedback from our children was overwhelmingly positive. They rated their school experience at 85% positive; compared to 69% from the same group of children in the previous school year.
They reported that they appreciated having the right to make their own choices - they can choose where they work and this can change depending on the activity. They talked about feeling more responsible for their learning - they have the right to choose where they work sometimes, but with this right comes the responsibility to ensure that they are learning. They talked far more about independence; about being in control of their own learning; of being more engaged in their learning. The research agrees with their conclusions - ‘Flexible spaces, educators agree, alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment’.
We discovered that our fidgeters did not fidget as much when allowed to work in their preferred position. Equally, their excessive movement did not disturb other children as much as when everyone HAD to sit at a table. Our standing tables were immediately popular and in every class, we have children who prefer to learn whilst standing up. So we allow them to stand, but we also insist that they sit when it is appropriate for them to do so or when they are asked to.
Our new style classrooms support the way in which we teach and the way in which children learn. Research tells us that formal classroom layouts lend themselves to the ‘Stand and Deliver’ style of teaching; where the teacher spends the majority of the lesson standing at the front, talking at the children. Research also tells us that this is not an effective method of creating independent learners. ‘The move to agile spaces does not compromise the quality of teaching or the ambitions for each learner. It expands teachers’ options regarding how they might use the learning environment to support learning and teaching. It also shifts the teacher’s position from authority of power, to leader of learning.’
Interestingly, this isn’t a new-fangled idea for the 21st century. Primary school classrooms have often had soft furnishings and comfortable spaces for reading. They used to be called ‘Book Corners’ and children have always loved them! Children have always wanted to sit on the floor and in many primary school classrooms, this has always happened at certain times each day; at story time or during phonics for example. Children sit on the floor every day in assembly and there is often a child who wants to lay on the floor of the classroom to write their story. This can be seen as a problem; unless you are in a flexible learning space that encourages children to be comfortable and relaxed in their learning environment.
Our classrooms have enough hard surfaces for every child in the classroom. They are at different heights and allow children to sit or stand in the way in which they are most comfortable. We still value good presentation and neat handwriting and we still insist upon this. We don’t force children to stand for long periods of time. We don’t force children to sit on the floor if they do not want to. Rather, our classrooms allow us the flexibility to meet the needs of all children - no longer do we insist that children sit at tables regardless of whether this suits them and their learning. We give children choices - they can move wherever they want to, whenever they want to; but they have to consider the needs of others in the classroom. We encourage independence, responsibility and control of their own learning.
The 21st century will continue to bring new technologies, new industries, new job-roles that we cannot yet imagine. What we do know about the future that our children will inhabit is that the skills of independence, responsibility and collaboration will be highly prized and valued and we are delighted that we can begin to equip our children with those skills.
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Failing Fearlessly (Why we should teach our children to fail) 8/9/19
Can you remember the first thing that you failed at?
A spelling test in primary school?
Not getting picked for the school team?
Your driving test?
I’m thinking that most of you will remember the first thing you failed at and will vividly remember the feelings that failure produced. I do! I certainly remember how that failure made me feel and all of those feelings were negative. I was 15. Funnily enough, I don’t remember failing as a child. But I know I didn’t excel at everything and so I must have ‘failed’ over and over again. But I don’t remember it and I certainly don’t remember negative feelings around childhood failure.
But times have changed and there are different pressures on children today. They have access to a world that is much wider than my IT-free childhood. They have far more ‘friends’ to share their successes with, even if they’ve never met those friends face to face. Those same ‘friends’ also witness our children’s failures and there are so many more opportunities for bad news to spread, more quickly, in the modern world.
I wonder if this is the reason why some children struggle to fail and struggle to cope with failure.
At school, we actively teach the children that they will fail. We share our stories of times when we have failed. We tell the children the things that we cannot do well. We teach them that failing is how we learn. We teach them that they need to make mistakes in order to learn. We teach them that making mistakes is ok. We teach them that far from being bad news; failure is good news - it means we’re on the way to learning something new.
We need to teach our children resilience, teach them to persevere, to try, try and try again and that failure simply means that we’re just not quite there yet.
In assembly this year, we’re exploring our school motto of ‘Dream Believe Achieve’. We’ll be concentrating on failure too, in the hope that we can teach our children to fail fearlessly, as this will help them towards a lifetime of success.