Modern Learning. What is it? Is it even a thing? Are we to say all learning that’s not happening now is not modern and therefore not as good?
Here’s something: modern learning ain’t the furniture. It ain’t the devices. It’s ain’t the amount of 20% time you give your students.
It’s much more than the environment, the apps, the beanbags, the 3D printer, the interactive books, the e-newsletter, and the paperless records.
It’s about the learning. Good old learning. Good old solid old learning. Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.
It’s about maximising the learning opportunities that a student encounters. It’s about developing understandings of the world. It revels in holistic, authentic, complex contexts. It is dispositional and reflective. It’s collaborative. It’s worldwide and connected. It prepares students for their future – and yip, you know what – that means learning how to get by in our education system as well as the world they are growing up in, digital and otherwise. Modern learning is in the moments – those times when the teacher / student relationship is challenging yet supportive, providing guidance when the times get tough. It’s about providing students the chance to play and tinker and find their talents. It’s based on research as well as hunches. It’s hugely personal. It’s hard work for all involved.
It’s about heaps of other stuff I haven’t even thought of / come across / do yet.
Why then is the acronym ‘MLE’ so pervasive? The environment is a piece of the puzzle, for sure, but it’s not the whole puzzle. You can have a stunningly new environment, but not be a place where great teaching and learning happens and likewise, you can be in an old-school building and still provide those students with a meaningful, effective, freakin’ fantastic education.
In saying that, when an environment as well as a teaching and learning approach are running in tandem, good things can happen. Spaces can have an impact, but only when they are used critically and purposefully to enhance effective pedagogy, relationships, and student agency. The spaces and the things in those spaces and the things those spaces allow become tools in a battery of ways that learning experiences find fertile ground to emerge from.
What follows is a few lessons we’ve stumbled upon in our four years exploring what learning can be like in one of these ‘Modern Learning Environments’. It’s always changing though, and always up for discussion, so they’ll probably be different next month. That’s OK though – it’s part of the game: always changing, always based upon the students, the current research, and the current passions of the teachers. I’m not saying these things are universal, or they will work for you, or even if they are really working for us – just things which feel right and that seem to be going well lately. They are probably more structural than pedagogical, but they’re something, at the very least. Many of you will be doing this stuff already too – I’m not claiming any unique knowledge.
So, some current rules of thumb:
1) Integrate reading, writing, and inquiry
Reading and writing and inquiry flow in and through each other. They are so interrelated and can build on and support each other. This grows strengthens understanding across all sectors. We have termly inquiries where big ideas frame students’ personal investigations, and our literacy falls out of these – we don’t even call it reading or writing, just the name of the big understanding for that term. Integrating maths is on our to-do list, but this is slightly more complex – a work in progress.
2) Only work with groups of students / individual students whom need that particular learning experience
This means knowing your students at a fine-grained level, across a range of skills, knowledge and competencies. We use a web-based tracking system called the Amesbury Learning Framework which breaks down the core learning areas across the years. Teachers and more importantly students upload evidence to show they are meeting specific criteria. A student can be both a traditional Year 8 in one area, a Year 6 in another, and a Year 3 in another. This also helps us form targeted groups from a wide range of students. Students can “use their feet” if they feel they already know the material.
3) Talk less, way less
Let the students work the hard parts. Stop waffling. Be succinct (but this requires you know your stuff). Delineate your instruction – is it a nugget of knowledge you want students to learn, is it practising the application of the knowledge, or is it self-directed / independent learning time?
4) Team teach
Team teaching allows a number of things. It means not every teacher needs to be teaching – a teacher can be “roaming” supervising independent students. It allows flexible, needs-based grouping regardless of year level. It allows students to work with a wide range of students and be challenged or supported as necessary. It allows teachers to work together as a unit and learn from each other. It lets you be efficient with planning. It models effective (mostly!) adult relationships for students. It lets you have close, deep learning discussions with one particular student or massive collaborative discussions with 100 of them.
5) Independent Time
What are students doing when they are not with you? Cutting down on instructional / waffle time means students have more time for independent / collaborative time. When students are not in a workshop with a teacher they can be following a Must Do / Can Do set of tasks targeted personally to them by their particular subject teachers. Students have the ability to choose how long to concentrate on a certain task, and which ones to do and in what order. They have time, too, to follow their own passions. Because we team teach, these students can be supervised and supported as necessary. And yip – students will make the wrong choices all the time, but this is a rich opportunity for learning and if that’s not what school is for then what is? Reflective conversations abound in this environment.
6) Keep the doors open
Be open and transparent. It’s confronting at first, as a teacher, but there is so much learning to be had. Students can then choose the best places and spaces which work for them as learners too.
7) Go online and offline
Be critical about the whole IT thing. Don’t force it. Know when offline beats online (hint: it’s quite often).
8) Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water
Education isn’t new. Being a “21st Century School” means taking what we have learned from the past and moulding it with what we know now, not completely reinventing the wheel. Much of what worked 40 years ago still works today (albeit slightly more quickly, personalised, and connected!).
So, a nonexhaustive list of a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.
School should be a place to maximise the learning experiences students encounter (whether teacher led or student led). It’s about the teaching / learning relationship. It’s about being open and transparent and helping each other. It’s about growing dispositions as much as knowledge and skills.
A ‘Modern Learning Environment’ isn’t just about the environment.
Heck, it isn’t the modern part either.
It’s about the learning.
Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.