I am lucky enough to have been in an open learning space for 7 years now. Would I go back? No way! Open learning spaces create one thing that money cannot buy: flexibility. It allows educators and students to be flexible so needs can be met. All needs addressed. Open learning has a variety of definitions. It seems that almost everyone has a different definition or take on what open learning is and what it is supposed to be. I find that most people are stuck in the “space” aspect and the actual opening of the doors. This way of thinking for some people is a huge mental shift. Keep in mind that all teachers are at different stages and ages. Open learning for some may need to start with just the opening a door or running a workshop. I am no expert on open learning spaces. I am just another teacher who teaches in one. What I can do, is offer you some advice on what I have discovered over the last 7 years working in different open spaces with different students and people. Believe me; I have had some epic fails and disasters over the years. I have spent 5 years in a senior (grade 5 and 6) space and am now in the second year of junior space (grade one and two). Here are a few tips that I wish that I had known at the start of my journey:
1. Have a clear vision of what the environment is going to be and why: this was the best thing that a team I worked with ever did. 3 colleagues and I just sat down and documented a vision. There was an in depth discussion of why we wanted to head in this direction. What is important? Why is it important? As soon as this discussion was documented and finalised, I felt like from then on the direction and decisions became easier and clearer. It was then about striving towards living that vision. If I could suggest to anyone the best first few steps, this would be number one.
2. Accept the frustrations, trials and errors: Remember that heading towards that vision and change is frustrating. Things do not always go according to plan. I had days where I didn’t know what I was doing, I was exhausted, I felt confused and lost and even times when I wished that I just had four walls. There is a certain type of connection required in an open space. A connection with parents, students and your co-workers. Trust. Just accept the fact that mistakes need to happen for change to happen. Being frustrated, confused and unsure is all part of the journey.
3. Be open-minded: some of the things that we tried in the early days, I would never have tried 10 years ago. I had to open my mind and learn to love trying new strategies. I kept an open mind to new experiences as well as other ways of doing things. Often as teachers, we think that we know how to do things. Being adaptable to change and new ways of working really helped me to move forward. I have the pleasure of still being at the same school. I am now after five years, in a new year level. It gives me great pride watching how the decisions that one team made many years ago, have grown and developed over time. I look back and was glad that my colleagues and I were open minded enough to take risks.
4. Reflect and reflect and then reflect some more: This is an essential aspect of working in an open learning environment. Or any space. Take the time, as frustrating and time consuming as it can be, to stop and think of where you are at and where you are heading. This is where having a strong vision helped. We could use something as a guide to reflect on. Changes were made and things were adapted. Being honest about the good, the bad and the ugly certainly helped us to make better decisions and well as informed choices.
5. Time: This is an interesting one. Do not get stuck in unrealistic time frames. Yes, you are moving into an open environment. Do not make the mistake of thinking that it has to be done now and this year. Strong change takes at least 5 years. In reality, you are a small cog in that machine. The other side of time is sticking to it on a day-to-day basis. At the start, things took so long for everything to be established. It often felt like we would never be close to our vision. That was partly because we kept stressing over time. Rest assured, things do improve as time goes on. ‘
6. Persist: The persistence to keep striving towards the vision and met goals is necessary. As a teacher, it feels easy to go back to what you know. What you feel good at. Part of persisting is learning to step out of your comfort zone. Not to go back to the familiar because it gets tough. And it does get tough. The noise levels at times drove me nuts. The mess at times drove me nuts. When people were late or disorganised, I almost tore my hair out. However, those were not excuses to quit. Looking back, they were just hurdles along the way. So when you come to a hurdle, keep trying to get over it.
7. Focus on personal and interpersonal skills of the students: This was a massive revelation for me. It was not just the teachers who made this work, it was also the students. What made it work was their interpersonal and personal skills. No use planning great experiences, workshops, groups etc. when your kids cannot read or use a timetable. Or use technology. Or arrive promptly. These skills needed to be clearly scaffolded and taught properly over time. If you do not take the time to teach these skills effectively, then kids will not use them effectively. It fills me with a great sense of pride when I now see some of my grade one and two students using a diary to organise their day. And they can. Why? Because they were explicitly taught over time. Teaching children these skills is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle.
8. Get organised: This is one that adds to the stress and often created the stress. Planned workshops? Then stick like glue to time frames. There is nothing more frustrating than having a great workshop planned and the kids are still arriving late from other workshops. This in turn can put stress on your learning experiences. We currently send a student around to tell teachers when it is two minutes until change over. This has helped eliminate lateness. Having your learning experiences prepared is also key. Open learning can require strict time frames for teachers. Do not spend ten minutes of a twenty minute workshop getting ready and organised. Open learning is about maximising student learning time. Know where you are, what space you are using when and have things organised in advance. Many epic fails have been because people were not organised and ready.
9. Use data: If you want decent targeted workshops that show results, you need relevant data. You want student opinions or staff ideas then you need data. The data can be used to make informed and relevant decisions about where you are at and where you need to be. The use of data also means that students are engaged at learning relevant to where they are.
10. Be clear and consistent on roles and expectations: This aspect is one that strengthened and help to facilitate success in an open learning environment. Consistent guidelines, clear expectations and role clarity meant that I also knew what I was doing and why. Disagreements or clashes were often created by a lack of role clarity or people not meeting agreed expectations. When everyone is on the same page, open learning flourishes and shines. Teachers feel comfortable, secure and more confident in what they are doing. Setting up these before the start of the school year meant that people were quickly on the same page and heading in a shared direction. Making sure that roles and expectations are truly shared also helps facilitate the process. We empower students to have a say and the same guide applies for staff. If you want cohesion, ensure that all parties have the chance to be heard and are clear about expectations. The more people “own” it, the more that they tend to engage and want to move forward.
11. Celebrate the successes: This one is often easily overlooked. We are so busy and moving forward that we forget to look back. I even look back to the start of this year when the juniors introduced workshops into our open learning toolbox. The first six weeks we were tearing our hair out and thought that we would never get there. Yet when I stop and look back now, I cannot believe how far we have come in such a short amount of time. Remember to take the time to stop and celebrate your achievements.
Moving into an open learning environment is hard work. Some people find it challenging to set aside their beliefs about learning or to change something that has worked for them. The benefits of an open learning environment are too many to list. I have also heard some horror stories about when things are rushed or not introduced properly. No matter your age and stage, moving forward and understanding the benefits of open learning is important in our current educational climate. #openlearning #teacher #education #twocreativeteachers
Annette Palma and Carley Rogozik/ Dawson