Teachers plan for learning and do so intentionally. We consider learning intent and how students will demonstrate their thoughts, skills and understandings. We embed opportunities to provide ongoing feedback and do so to enable further growth and development. We support, nourish, provide counsel and encourage. But how often do we consider the role of the physical environment in learning? The environment can significantly impact student learning with flexible and inviting spaces acting not only as enablers for learning, but when designed intentionally, can strategically disrupt the learning process.
At Wirreanda Secondary School in South Australia, we embarked on a journey to disrupt and transform a traditional Library into a Learning Hub to foster innovation, collaboration and creativity.
“If campuses exist to foster specific kinds of learning, they should inspire and foster this work physically as well as intellectually1.”
Intentionally disrupting learning required forethought. Initial discussion focussed on why our library setting was not meeting student, staff and community needs? How could be better utilise the space? How would it be used and by who? How could the space foster a culture of learning? What do staff and students want from the space? Just like planning a unit, a backwards by design approach was implemented with the focus remaining on learning intentions.
Developing strategic direction
The physical construction was obviously a key component of this change but developing purpose began long before. Consultation was a high priority with a series of opportunities for staff and students to discuss what the library transformation could involve. It began with an open invitation to staff to attend a voluntary forum, guided by a series of questions including:
- What does innovation look like at Wirreanda Secondary School?
- How can we do things differently in a secondary school focused on “subjects”?
- What can creative learning look like within the constraints of the curriculum?
- What should the focus be for our Learning Hub?
- What are the possibilities?
Discussion focussed on the need to create, “spaces and culture where staff and students want to come to for learning and for sharing… where classes are working side by side, where teachers can see, hear and be involved in another teacher’s lessons”. The role of the space and the technology to enable learning were also considered. Furthermore, a “need to invest in our people first and foremost [was identified]. We need to build opportunities to have staff share, learn, plan and teach together.”
Another opportunity for consultation occurred in July 2013, when staff were asked to respond to three questions:
- What types of learning spaces would support and promote engaging and innovative approaches to learning?
- How would you envisage the Innovative Learning Hub supporting your development in terms of pedagogy and professional learning?
- How would you like to see students learning in the Innovative Learning Hub?
Again, this was voluntary. Rhoni McFarlane, now Deputy Principal, responded:
“I think that in designing an environment that is innovative I would first be honest about what type of learning I value. One that is quiet and compliant or one that is collaborative and dynamic.
I would see the space dominated by lead learners focussed on connecting learning for students and staff. A place where taking risks and trying new approaches, collaborating both within and across faculties could be facilitated. People passionate about resourcing, media and construction of understanding over “filling of the bucket”.
I see the “Hub” as a space where community and belonging is promoted and the flexible spaces evoke collaboration. Participation could be inspired through engaging learning opportunities and teachers modelling collaboration and reflection through team teaching and planning. Eventually I would like to see staff and students engaging different year levels together with a focus on personalised learning, mentoring and even student led staff development.
Such a space could support a move towards a culture of ideas, inquiry and suggestions, with higher order thinking and greater opportunities for students to be “creators”.
Following this, executive members and whole staff had opportunity, during formal meeting times, to shape the process. The scene was set by a TED talk by Adora Svitak titled, “What Adults Can Learn from Kids”. Staff were then asked to use Post-it Notes to respond to a serio prompts all of which were compiled and informed later stages of the process. These statements included:
- Wow…. wouldn’t it be amazing if our students could/would do this ….
- Wow…. wouldn’t it be amazing if our staff could/would do this ….
- Wow…. wouldn’t it be amazing if our leaders could/ would do this ….
- Wow…. wouldn’t it be amazing if our school looked like this …
Staff were asked to think ‘big picture’ and the responses absolutely reflected this with a number of key elements evolving through this process.
Staff and students acknowledged that the space should be a place to plan, be immersed in and showcase learning. Thus, it became clear that flexibility was important and that furniture must be able to move easily, but still help to define learning zones. Furniture including bookcases and tables on caster wheels were selected in response to a demand for flexibility.
Comfort and variety
Students sought comfort and variety in the furniture options. In response, we embedded furniture pieces that enabled the staff and students to choose the most appropriate zone for the learning experience. Importantly, different furniture heights were incorporated to enable standing and seating options as well as a range of formal and informal gathering spaces.
The school community placed great value in working together and wanted a space designed to be a centre (or a hub) for collaboration between
- Students – students
- Teachers – students
- Teachers – teachers
- Learners – experts / community
Jelly bean shaped tables, large round tables and conference settings provide a range of meeting and sharing options. As a result of intentional staffing, formal opportunities to collaborate on the creation of learning experiences and resources with Lead Teachers is possible. The role of the Learning Hub Team also consciously supports a culture of reflection and sharing though whole staff TeachMeets each term.
The opportunity to be creative existed prior to the Learning Hub but school community felt that it should be a space to foster and encourage creativity. In consultation with the Principal, students indicated that Movie Making was of particular interest. As a result, a Media Room and Recording Room exist, each with green screen facilities, supported by iMacs for professional editing.
As always, staffing is a delicate matter and this was no different. A range of Teacher-Librarians and SSO’s were based in the space. But, discussion again focussed on learning intent and a need to ‘better’ serve this objective. Hence, a shift from Teacher-Librarian to a team of Lead Teachers and a significant HR change from SSO’s to Student Teachers employed in support roles. To enable this method of staffing, the Learning Hub Lead Teachers have either a .2 or .4 load in the Learning Hub with an annual application process occurring in Term 4 each year. It is an expectation that as lead learners in the space, they are actively seeking and promoting opportunities to innovate teaching and learning. With weekly meetings, the team work together to plan, share and reflect on everything from whole school to small group learning experiences.
Intentionally, feedback was the foundation of the design brief used with the architect.Designs were created, debated, modified and revised until finally we could go to tenure. In total, the space was out of action for approximately 4 months, which did put pressure on other areas of the school but the community focussed on the final product with many staff and students trying to sneak a peek of the space!
“Reconstruction of the library to our Learning Hub has been a great movement to assist in students learning and students’ attendance, including mine personally. The Learning Hub is an attractive place as it is colourful, quiet in some areas and has comfortable spaces to study. Students like to study in the Learning Hub especially during their study lessons. Teachers use the space effectively as a place to engage in learning, with students able to move out of a normal ‘classroom’ to a modern space e.g. the board room and a variety of different zones. Technology is available to utilise which helps students to get set task done. Learning Hub Lead Teachers are available to provide help to any student. I find this very beneficial because I can get more work done without waiting for my normal teacher for that lesson. I like that accessing multiple teachers provides me with different learning techniques and feedback.”
“I think the Learning Hub is more organised especially for classes booking zones. When I use the space, I am studying or working on my own movie making projects either on the purple couches or high tables.”
“This is a lot better than the library. No-one wanted to study in the library. In the Hub there is stuff happening, we are immersed and it seems more exciting to go to. You look forward to going to a nicer environment.”
“I actually prefer it when I can go off and sit somewhere a bit different… I prefer it when I can sit at the Jelly Bean tables or at one of the couches.”
“More support and opportunities are now available in Learning Hub for creative projects. In Research Project, I used the Media Room and the greenscreen to construct my Outcome. I was able to work with my peers as actors and access the mentor teacher for help with the technology to edit my final product. As a result, my outcome was more interesting and innovative.”
Laura deGaris, Teacher
“Students love working in the Media Room. They think it’s creative and fun.”
Brett Whittaker, Learning Hub Lead Teacher
“The way the Hub is staffed provides innovative benefits. The Learning Hub utilises Lead Teachers as its custodians, acting as ‘mentors’ within the space. These mentors provide basic troubleshooting and support to teachers and students, but are also innovative educators themselves and use their skills to enhance Learning Hub experiences. This might involve connecting and supporting teachers from different faculty areas to create cross-curriculum experiences for students, or working with a faculty area to facilitate an event or exhibition that uses the space. It might involve working with teachers to develop the use of a specific technology (such as the collaborative suite represented by Google Apps for Education) in their classroom or across the school. This element is also responsive to student and teacher needs, allowing the Learning Hub space to adapt to what is required.”
What does the future of the Learning Hub look like?
“The first and most common pitfall is believing the task of evaluating the success of a learning space falls only at the end of the process of creating it2.”
As with any change, continued reflection is key and the Learning Hub at Wirreanda Secondary School is no different. As a new leader, it is an interesting time to coordinate the space. In its third year of existence, the Learning Hub faces a range of challenges.
The first challenge is how to maintain relevance. Current projects such as a senior school space will open for Year 11 and 12 students soon, adopting similar practices and principles but with a specific focus on supporting senior school students. With other plans already in mind, the challenge becomes maintaining relevance among a growing range of learning spaces that are already or will become available. It seems that the answer to the relevance dilemma, is to continue evolving, continue disrupting.
In 2016, the Learning Hub team are working to develop diverse opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning but also to learn through doing. Thus, we plan to establish a MakerSpace that will support the learning intents in mind. Additionally, staff at Wirreanda Secondary School are intrigued by the Flipped/Blended Learning movement and some keen staff members are ready to create resources for use by learners. Similar to the MakerSpace, we plan to establish a location within the Learning Hub that will enable and encourage the development of high quality resources. Across the year, we hope to disrupt the learning process to include a range of learners showcasing their knowledge, understanding and skills to guide, inform and enhance the learning experience for others. The intent is to utilise this space to develop resources but also to create learner centred opportunities, where the learners can self-direct and determine the pace of learning.
Opportunities to redesign tasks and units remain available to staff at Wirreanda Secondary School, but this year, the Learning Hub team is larger. Each with a growing repertoire of skills, passions and interests, we are working to assist our colleagues to develop innovative learning opportunities for students across an array of learning areas. In addition, we are exploring how to engage students in this discussion, to authentically embed student voice in our processes. In 2016, the Learning Hub team will work closely with the Student Voice for Learning Coordinator to embed such opportunities across learning programs. We are excited to lead the disruption of the Year 8 Pastoral Care program with a trial of an externship model based on authentic opportunities to inform change at Wirreanda Secondary School.
The nature of how the team is staffed creates ongoing challenges. The team consists of Lead Teachers and SSOs. Lead Teacher roles are staffed on a yearly basis but SSO roles vary to utilise student teachers. While the choices regarding staffing were deliberate, they do create challenges particularly around the high rate of turnover and thus ongoing training in the SSO role as well as eligibility for staff applying for Lead Teacher roles. Previously, teachers were required to be based at the school site for the year relevant to their application, but like most schools, we have contract teachers that were not eligible to apply. When planning staffing for 2016, we were able to open the application process to all staff which has enabled two historically consistent contract teachers to apply and become part of the Learning Hub team.
Lastly, from a leadership perspective, it is challenging to measure our impact and to do so with data. “Asking questions of ourselves and each other to develop not just better ways, but new ways” is great, but how do we know that impacts are positive or sustainable? This year, the Learning Hub team are tracking our impact by documenting who we are working with and gathering feedback from staff and students. A process that has not previously happened so explicitly.
To conclude, the transformation from Library to Learning Hub was intentional and driven by a need to better serve our school community. On the verge of another redevelopment at Wirreanda Secondary School, it is critical that we do not become complacent, instead, the Learning Hub team must reflect, evolve and disrupt to remain relevant.
Melissa Mulholland is the Coordinator of Innovative Pedagogies (Teaching and Learning) at Wirreanda Secondary School in South Australia. She is passionate about innovation and works alongside a team of Lead Teachers to support the development, implementation and review of innovative teaching and learning across the school. Her role includes supporting learners, staff and students, throughout this process. You can keep up to date about what is happening in Learning Hub by reading the blog.
- Bennett, 2006 http://n.ereserve.fiu.edu/010015694-1.pdf