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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?

Rubbish.

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.

 

I’ve been dabbling with digital badges in my literacy sessions for the last two weeks. I made up a bunch of interesting badges on Credly such as ‘Feedbacker’ for asking others for feedback, ‘Thesaurus Rex’ for upgrading words with a thesaurus, ‘Curious George’ for asking a great question or wondering about something, ‘Plan(et)’ for having a full and well thought out plan, as well as one week only badges related to the writing of the week. Students then insert the badges they earn into their ePortfolios.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • They are motivating for almost all of my (most especially my) reluctant writers. I’ve gotten writing this week which was more carefully edited, more thoughtfully constructed, and in which more time was spent on, than what I was getting previously.
  • They provide a checklist of things to remember in the writing process. Planning – editing – feedback (both giving and receiving) + holding your ideas lightly and being curious. In the hubub of getting a draft out and delivered, these things can be put to the side. Badges provide a visual prompt and motivation to make sure to do these things independently.
  • They provide a talking point and buzz. They are conversation starters with parents and friends and prompts into talking about the writing process.
  • They can be reflective prompts. “So you got the planning badge – what happened with the editing? What can we do differently next time to meet the requirements of the badge?”
  • They appeal to the hoarders and collectors. Students are watching their badge page fill with badges as they achieve them each week – it’s a visual sign they are achieving those particular elements of writing.

But where does the line end? How long should I keep this up? I’m painfully aware that extrinsic motivation / external awards (as Mr Dan Pink explains) are not particularly helpful in the long run. Am I building a reliance on these badges? Am I only able to get decent writing if there is a reward at the end?

On the other hand – these students are now more regularly displaying characteristics of good writers.

Perhaps these badges are the ‘training wheels’ needed to build up the routines and habits around the writing process – much like this #28daysofwriting gig. At some stage the training wheels go, but only when they are ready and have built the confidence and expertise needed. Perhaps it is a just a Term 1 thing? At the moment, I’m happy with how things are going, but keeping an eye to the future when we move past badges into more intrinsic motivations for writing.

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There are a few traditional staples which spring to mind when you think of Author’s Purpose – to persuade, to inform, to describe, to entertain. They do indeed intermingle and intertwine almost always, but they are there, and they are handy when breaking down a text or writing your own. They’re more than handy, actually. Figuring out the purpose of a communication can reveal it’s intended audience, explain language and structure, and empowers an author to make their own informed, purposeful choices from these elements.

A completely valid purpose which you don’t see very often, though, is … to think.

You can conceive of this in a few different ways. The first of which is in the more poetic, expressive sense of the word. Many people author something to make sense of how they are feeling – to think through their emotions. Some people write to get all their thoughts out of their head, and to be able to think more clearly. For some, grappling with this process of scribing your thoughts and bringing them into reality can enable you to stumble upon meaning, to come to terms, and to get closer to truths. Your purpose for writing is to provide the conditions for which this kind of thinking provides fertile ground to emerge from.

The other side of the “To Think” purpose for writing is related, but slightly different. You can write to make sense of complex ideas and to find connections, new avenues of thought and inspirations where there were previously none. Many writers would do this at the start of the writing process – scribbling down their half-brewed thoughts, potential plot lines and themes.

An example from myself – I spent the summer holidays immersed in a some key educational books, blog posts, and research papers. To make sense of all this input, I needed to output. So I wrote down all the little chunks of knowledge and thoughts which resonated with me on Post-It notes and stuck them to a wall in my house. I was writing to enable thinking. I could then see the big picture of all the bits I was learning and from there, start to find patterns and goals and clusters of similar and dissimilar pieces of the puzzle. I arranged and rearranged my Post-It notes as I synthesised my thoughts, combining ideas and extending others. Eventually it lead me to some professional goals and areas of focus for me as I entered Term 1, 2015.

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This kind of writing is done best in a form which is easy to move around or change – hence the use of Post-It notes but also whiteboards, blackboards etc. It speaks to the fact that thinking is not set, it’s in the process of being discovered, so you will need to erase and go over and scribble and change. It’s tentative writing. Writing straight into a document on a screen makes you write a certain way, confined by the boundaries of the screen, the linear lines, and the quirks of the particular programme. It doesn’t particularly lend itself to highly-flexible, visible, moveable, collaborative types of thinking and writing.

A few other examples of writing “To Think”:

  • Planning of any kind (like planning an assignment)
  • Annotating and marking up some text
  • Writing a To Do list or reminders
  • Brainstorming
  • Collating information when the links are yet unclear
  • An ideas wallet and bug list
  • Our weekly timetable at school, before it is finalised

Empowering students with the language and ways of doing that this term suggests, opens up a range of interesting avenues. Is writing to think something you can get better at? Does it happen at certain stages of the writing / creative process? How might it be woven into other parts of school / home life? How can this kind of writing and thinking boost serendipitous and innovative outcomes?

Whiplash is a newly released, critically acclaimed (8.6/10 IMDB, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 88% Metacritic) movie doing the rounds. It’s about a young drummer named Andrew attending the cut-throat Chaffer School of Music – the top music school in the US – and being absolutely hammered by his teacher, Fletcher. I mean outright, no-holds-barred, verbal (sometimes leading to self-inflicted physical) abuse. He’s a tough, tough teacher. This is Fletcher to Andrew in one of his tamer moments, after a practice set in which Andrew is out of time by milliseconds:

“Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”

Fletcher constantly pushes Andrew to (and over) breaking point in his pursuit of the tightest, most perfect band. He shouts and yells and tricks and schemes to put Andrew in the most challenging of places to see if he survives. It’s a trial-by-fire for Andrew, whose hands bleed with effort and brow beads with sweat.

As I watched the movie I was torn: Fletcher was a horrible, horrible person – abusing and stressing and shouting, but at the same time, he was pushing Andrew to heights he could have never reached otherwise. Andrew was working so hard, practising so much and had so much expectation heaped on him that his potential was unleashed – he became a drummer only one could dream of being. Andrew made it – but only because of the savage approach that Fletcher took.

Fletcher wasn’t his friend.

He wasn’t there to molly-coddle.

He was there “to push people beyond what’s expected of them”

Here is Fletcher explaining his approach, later in the movie:

“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Chaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

This raises the question – was Fletcher an effective teacher?

Effective? Definitely. Good? Probably not.

Where is that fine line between pushing a student to their potential and being a utter tyrant lie?

In my experience there is a sweet spot that Fletcher goes too far over, a “Goldilocks” spot where the learning, feedback, and relationship is “not too hot and not too cold” – where high expectations are balanced with care and respect.

It’s an interesting thought though – if it took you, as a teacher, to be a utter tyrant, to push a student to their true potential, would you do it?

Me and Mike - a fellow BT enjoying the camaraderie.

2015 is my fourth year as a proper, qualified teacher and it’s been one heck of a journey. Compounding this is the fact that I was lucky enough to be a foundation staff member at a brand new school, so right from the very start I was born and raised in a fundamentally open and collaborative environment. I’ve never taught in a single-cell classroom. I’ve never not had visitors walk through constantly. I’ve never not had massive collaborative meetings. I’ve never not had other teachers swirling and bubbling and teaching around me, day in and day out.

We team teach at our place. To explain this a bit more, we have large, open plan teaching and learning spaces. Our “hub” (combined learning space) is ratio’d for 100 students and four teachers. As a four person teaching team we work very closely to squeeze every last benefit out of the fact we team teach – increased flexibility, efficiencies in planning, sociability, role modelling effective (mostly!) relationships, a wider range of personalities and skills students can latch on to, diversity of opinion and ideas, teachers “on roam” supervising self-directed learning while some are in workshops… the list goes on.

As a beginning teacher, team teaching was a phenomenally supportive, safe entry into the world of education. From Day One, I was surrounded by experienced, amazing teachers and because of the open plan learning environment, I was able to observe them working their magic seamlessly and naturally. I learned by osmosis. I learned alongside, much like a apprenticeship.

So I was in a constant state of observing other teachers but also being observed myself. This enabled me to get feedback on every aspect of my teaching – sometimes formally but mostly in the chats and questions and comments which happen all the time when team teaching. I was able to get comments on my planning, able to discuss students at a fine grained detail, able to be supported in tricky meetings. We even found that the traditional PRT mentor role was not really needed – it all just happened as a natural part of the team.

Any downsides? Perhaps. I guess when you are in your own classroom you need to do all the jobs a teacher normally does. In a team teaching environment, it’s easy to share out jobs. What I mean by this is that in some cases, I was “late to the party” learning how to do certain types of assessment, or the planning of events, or the coordination of groups. I’ve never had to deal with a reliever because we just cover ourselves. We’re getting better at this though – about making sure BTs get the same amount of responsibility and chance at a range of jobs. It just takes an awareness of this aspect of team teaching and you can sort it out.

So I can honestly say team teaching as a beginning teacher was a fabulous, rich experience. It nullified a lot of the pain points of just starting in your own single cell classroom and amplified many of the positive benefits of an apprenticeship-type model of learning.

For any schools thinking about embarking on a team teaching adventure – hire a BT! It’s the best start they could possibly get.

***A big shoutout to Urs, Tara TJ, Lisa, Andrea, Ang, Amaria, Demelza, Mike and all the other amazing teachers I’ve had the benefit of learning from. You guys rock!