Episode Five: INNOVATIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

My guest today is Associate Professor Dr Wesley Imms from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.  Dr Imms is a skilled educator with teaching awards spanning his primary, secondary and tertiary teaching career. He holds education degrees granted in Australia and Canada, including a research MA and a PhD in Curriculum Studies from the University of British Columbia. Dr Imms is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is that Schools Head of Visual Art Education, and its Research Higher Degree Coordinator for Curriculum and Teaching.  Dr Imms has an extensive developing research profile, with approximately $10m in solo and collaborative external grant earnings since 2000, over forty peer-reviewed publications, many invited national and overseas lectures, and major reports completed for state and national governments. He is a member of the University of Melbourne’s Graduate Research Scholarships Committee, and a member of the Steering Committee of the university’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network. Tracy: Professor Imms, thank you so much for joining me today: Wesley: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you. Tracy: You have an extensive career in Education and research having worked on numerous ground-breaking projects. What do you hope to achieve through your educational research, generally speaking? Wesley: The improved teaching practise that I have done has been very teacher focused. I come from a teaching background myself and my PhD and all of my research in getting my qualifications to come to the tertiary sector has been around those issues of teaching better within the classroom and better results for kids and I have now been at the University of Melbourne for about sixteen years and during that time I have gone through a range of projects and all of them are focused on improving teacher practise and through that improving, education outcomes for children. Tracy: If we look at your current work, you are a member of the Steering Committee of the University’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network.  What is the latest research telling us about 21st Century learning environments? Wesley: It is not the sort of thing to answer quickly and easily. Let’s just say that what we are showing through our research is that space does make a difference and a lot of teachers, certainly my own teaching and working with colleagues and thinking back on their comments and actions. A lot of teachers really take space for granted: they walk into a classroom, they use it, and they walk out again. They might tidy it up and they might move the table and chairs a bit but what our research is moving towards is making it a really compelling case that actually the manipulation of and the design of a classroom and how that teacher uses that classroom and how they manipulate that space is a significant part of their pedagogical arsenal. You can really make a difference to students learning and the quality of your own teaching by being spatially literate. Tracy: Can you paint us a picture? Wesley: An Innovative Learning Environment is one that has got a great deal of flexibility to it. If we go backwards a bit, in the 1970’s there was the open plan movement where school basically had their walls demolished and large spaces were put out there so the kids can move around. We call it free-ranging these days. Go to which ever teacher that they want to go to. Whichever teacher they think has the most knowledge that they after, can go with groups that they would like to work with. The 1970’s open plan classroom fell apart largely because they simply dumped teachers into them. They built them, handed the keys over; put the teachers in with almost no training. So teachers tend to teach the way that they always taught and of course when you have no walls etc. it’s noisy so you can’t do didactic teaching that sort of thing. So the 21st Century learning environment that we are working on with schools and architects and that we work on with teachers and actually moving into them, are characterised by having the same flexibility inherent to the open plan but a much wider range of spaces within. So an example would be that you walk in to one of these spaces and there would be a place where you can do traditional didactic teaching. You can sit the kids down and face the front, watch the whiteboard or the data projector and have the teacher teach to them. Because we have to be able to do that every now and then, because the type of learning, the type of teaching that’s required requires that sort of space. But you also might like to look off to one side and see that there is a spot over there where a whole bunch of kids are milling around and make a space for creating things. Or another spot where they might be working on IT, issues around computer lab. So there might be a computer lab space. There will be break out spaces where five kids, eight kids can sit around a table and have a talk with doors closed so they can focus. The other spaces where for instance you might walk through a door into a very small spot which has black carpet on the walls and a TV screen on the wall and a curtain across the wall and a single child can sit in there and work on their work. So their modern day learning environments are characterised by an extraordinary range of spatial opportunities. To make that happen in terms of being efficient we have a lot of modern technology in terms of movable walls, better acoustics, acoustic treatments, ICT and high quality unique furniture. So by the time that you combine all those things you do have a new generation of learning spaces that is not the traditional classroom, it is not the open plan that was pushed on to us in the 1970’s but it is some of that. It is actually quite a unique different thing. Tracy: Is this the response to the learning approach of the 21st century students?  Wesley: A lot of my colleagues talk about the concept of the 21st century learning and I must admit I am a little bit of a sceptic. I have presented two or three times and I am just writing a chapter for a book at the moment for a colleague in New Zealand. My argument is actually, what we are doing in the 21st Century isn’t actually different to what we have always done but it is part of this long continuous development of education. In that bit of writing that I am doing, and in the presentations that I am doing, I actually trace it back to 1726 and Emule (7:15) where the concept was that putting the child in the environment and letting them learn from the environment is good for the education for this person. That was in 1726 and then you go to Pethstilolicly and you go to Riso and you go to Dewi. You have got this time lapse going over the last 250 years of slowly but surely educators working towards differentiated learning recognising that each child does learn differently and also we know that each teacher teaches differently. To me it’s that ongoing development and we go through band wagons. We get into a fashion and we try something out and it fails so we dip down a bit, but we never dip back to where we were. We take some of what we learn from that and then we continue the growth again for the next concept. So my theory is that the 21st century learning really is just that difference from 1726 say, through to now, of all of this experimentation happened. There are things that are unique in the 21st century:  technology is a good example. We have never seen information so freely accessible and so easily shared that we have got now but the reality is that when I was growing up there were huge technological changes, like there was a speaker box in the corner where the teacher could turn it on at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning and there was a central lesson being sent from Canberra to every school in Australia. That then was a huge thing. When hand held computers came in and calculators changed the way that Maths was taught. So we have always had technological changes. We have more at the moment but it’s not like we have been teaching in a really, some people call it an industrial age model, but I really disagree, I think that we have been slowly but surely pushing ahead towards where we are now. Tracy: When you are evaluating the success of a learning environment to make sure what you are saying is having an impact on the students and it is better model indeed, what is the first step you take towards accessing that environment? Wesley: We have to work out what the purpose is of the assessment, what are we assessing for and what are the needs from it. So we are slowly but surely developing better techniques of assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of the learning environment, the spatial component of the learning environment and it can be quantitative and we are getting better and better at actually using things like NAPLAN tests, standardised tests and things like that. Using that as a mechanism to come in and do what we call a quasi-experimental design where you put some kids in some type of room and some in another type of room and over a period of times statistically you look at changes arguably caused by the types of spaces that they were in. So we can do that sort of thing and that is useful as it gives you some data but probably the best stuff that we are getting and the most interesting stuff is much more qualitative which is where you are sitting and watching what the teachers do and you listen to what teachers say about what they do. And we are getting better now at things like tracking kids around the rooms to find out what spaces they go to and what spaces they avoid. We have observations, sub metrics which are getting better and better at us mapping how much time the teachers spend in direct instruction, how much time in questioning and how much time in listening: and obviously the same for the students as well. When you combine all of these things you are getting a better and better picture of what spaces are working best under what circumstances. Tracy: So what advice then do you give to today’s teachers? Wesley: Well, the best advice is to do what teachers do well and that is to remain open and ready for change. I think that all teachers want to be a better teacher. I think that my own time in classrooms and the time that I have spent in teacher education and also in doing research in schools says that a lot of teachers find it difficult to embrace change because of the extraordinary work load that they are under. Perhaps sometimes it is that feeling that they are being criticised and that what they are doing is not good enough. As opposed to what we are doing with our new project is that you are already doing well. Let’s see if we can do it better. So it is those sorts of things that our evaluation is trying to focus on, but teachers are amazing creature s in that they do an extraordinary job you know standing in front of 30 kids and delivery a lesson now under our antiquated timetable system it’s a thing that not many people would have skills at. Teachers are good at it and but what we are finding are that teachers can change. They tend to change for a whole range of reasons so we have got to work out what are the barriers and how can we help to overcome them to allow teachers to really experiment and work on how to improve their pedagogy. Tracy: And what are those barriers. Have you actually been able to document that? Wesley: We are documenting them in different ways and I am again about to write another paper. My theory is, what I am working out is, that there are four factors that tend to stop teachers from changing. The first factor is that the thing that pre-empts that is the concept that teachers are good evidence based practitioners. If they find evidence for something there is a reasonable chance that they will try it. So the first bit of evidence that the teachers need is that there is a problem. Unless that you can convince teachers that there is something wrong you are not really going to get them to change much. So in an environmental space for instance we will meet resistance from teachers who believe and who honestly believe that actually the classroom that they teach in the way that they teaching the space arrangement of let’s say the table in front is by far the best. Unless you can convince them that there is an actual problem with that you are not going to get anywhere. The second bit of evidence that you actually need with teachers is that you need to show that there is a solution and that the solution is out there. So if this is a problem and then this is the thing that has been tried and in these places this is what other people have found and this is how it is working. And if you can convince them that the thing that you have got there is workable that’s good. The third thing is that you actually have to show them evidence that you can put this into place to some affect. The fourth thing is that you then actually have to give evidence that when they have done it and that they have put it in place and tried it that it has improved. So by the time that you get those four bit so evidence together you have got change in a teacher. Tracy: What sort of change are you asking teachers to make? Wesley: I am not advocating for any particular type of change because every teacher teachers in a way that is unique. And every teacher tries to teach in a way that suits the learning of the children that they are working with. In a class of 30 kids you do have 30 people who work differently who will need teaching in slightly different ways, some of which in dramatically different ways. So a teacher does have to be a lot of different things to these kids. So I suppose the thing that we are asking of teachers is them to be more reflective and reflexive in their teaching practises that have been up to date and for us its about please look at the space, look at the way the spaces are put into place. Look at what you are capable of changing with that space and experiment with it to find out is this actually improving my teaching practise. If you are open to that then that’s the change that we are after. Tracy: What if you were in a situation where you as a teacher want to make the changes for example and we were talking about this earlier, where the budget won’t allow it? What do you do and what can schools do? Wesley: The funny thing is that budgets do allow for it and you have to be cunning. Now most school spaces have got a recurrent budget for fixing broken chairs and things like that. Why just buy the same chairs again? If you are going to buy a replacement chair try some different types of chairs. Heights of tables considerably; now one of our research groups plays around with the heights of tables in a space. They did a little experiment where he came across by accident. He had a group that he was trying to work with and they simply weren’t working together. They weren’t making comments, they weren’t discussing things and they were sitting around a table and they got kicked out of that space and he couldn’t find another place to move them to so he actually went to an outdoor area. It had the stand-up type bar tables and he said that almost straight away conversations happened. So A it was the change of environment and he felt that it was the table because rather than have a big table that you sit around and feel protected behind by standing around this round table people tend to walk forward to the table and say something and then step back again and the table almost acted like a prompt or  a place for people to make comment. Now this is a little example in the way that teachers can when replacing furniture on a limited budget try different types of furniture. And that is just furniture. Walls have to be painted think about the colour that they need to be painted. The acoustics of the space; if you have to put book shelves in if your roof height is more than 2.8 meters in height then the sound reverberations for the teacher at the front of the room speaking across the room bounces back and dramatically decreases the quality of heard sound in the space. Book shelves if you have to put them somewhere put them at the back wall where actually they absorb the sound and increase the quality of what the kids have got. These are all change that happen within a budget. If you are lucky enough to be a school that does get 100,000 or 1 million or 5 million then use the right people to get assistance in how to make that money really work. Put aside a bit of the budget to get a professional to come in somebody like the researchers in our team people like us who are familiar with the spatial design, familiar with architecture, familiar with acoustics, and  familiar with teaching practice and teacher pedagogy. The people who come in and they will do depending where they are in the project if you are for a new build they will come in very early and start talking about the educational vision that you have got. What sort of teacher do you want in this space? Therefore what sort of space is required. And then they will work with the architect and designers. We will do experiments and we will run little projects to work out the quality of those design, when it is actually delivered and when you move in and people like us stay with you and we work with you on how you would occupy the space, move into it, set it up, use it, timetable it and all those things. Then there is the concept of habitation the long period. So over time you change things. You might move a wall; you might close a door off an open another one up; you might paint something; you might put in new things that will improve the acoustics. So its that sort of support that you can get from professionals like us and it does result in an increased quality of education experience of the child within the classroom and it does not cost a lot  Tracy: Whereas teachers and students spend a lot of time inside the classrooms. Is this partially contributing to the reasons we need spaces that are conducive to learning and that influences students in positive way. Wesley: You are exactly right. And why then do we traditionally put them into boring spaces and make then do boring things in terms of sitting down and not moving around and not interrelating to each other as much as possible. Having said that teachers are good at getting kids to do group work and to break away and do things and those sorts of things. The quality of that experience is so much better. There is a new school being built its called Caulfield Grammar in Wheelers Hill. Haybald architects have designed it. It is a relocatable. Now the memory of a pod or a relocatable classroom for people like us is horrendous, its horrible low roof, hot tin things on stilts outside on the basketball court. And what Haybald has done is reconceptionalised it. So they come in in 14 units. They get put up in about 5 days .Those spaces inside; every imaginable type of space is inside of it. But it is not just the space it is the treatment of the services, the types of colours, the amount of glass walls and movable walls compared to the amount of open space compared to the closed off space. All of these things are thought out really thoroughly. They experiment with the types of carpet that gets put down. They experiment with the types of paint that gets used and the types of finishes and the smells that it gives off. They experiment with the acoustical treatment and try to get the best possible results. You don’t want a space that is too dead or you don’t want them with too much reverberation. So all of those sorts of things make a huge difference in terms of the ways that we enjoy the space that we are in. But I think that the research that we are doing at the moment with the latest grant that we are working on is a really really big grant. It is going to run for four years across New Zealand, Queensland and across New South Wales and the ACT. We have research partners like Telstra, Steal Case Furniture which is a US firm, ECOFONT which is an acoustics firm from Sweden. And that project is looking solely at teachers using these spaces well, what it is that we are already doing well and what is it the gaps that we need to design mechanism to help the teachers to use them better. And a clear part of that is this notion habitation that actually teaches in these spaces when they do get a learning environment really are more often than not dumped in them and said here you go, go ahead and teach. So they are not getting any professional development in how to now utilise this space well. And I equate a bit to this to being like a house, you have got an architect who would design a space like the Wheelers Hill thing that Haybald did and they had very clear intentions on how people should live in that space. But guess what people do? Like in a house they don’t move in and they use that room as a bedroom they might convert it into a dining room because of the way that the light is or the view out to the garden something like that. People in schools are the same. They move in and they start to use it as intended but if we use them well we will totally turn the thing upside down. We will start to cut holes in walls. Put a door in where there shouldn’t be. They will put things up to decorate to make it feel like the sort of space they want it to be. School shouldn’t be any different to our homes that we live in. We inhabit a home, we don’t occupy it, we inhabit it, we live in it, we make it a part of us, and we are habituary. We are the occupiers of the space. And teachers and kids need to feel the same about this space, they own it and its theirs, its theirs to change and to make it suit depending on what they need to do. So empowering people to do that is the critical thing. It is not easy to do. Tracy: It sounds as though that having a creative mind and an open mind and a flexible mind is really what you are saying here as well. Wesley: And teachers have got that. I think that the majority of the teachers are creative and that the majority of the teachers are flexible. Majority of teachers are totally committed to improving practice. They have to be given an opportunity to do it and while people like us researchers we can’t do much about timetables and about workloads and things like that. The part we can offer that big equational teacher change is the awareness of spatial literacy and it’s within your power of a teacher to manipulate space to a huge degree. Tracy: And your evidence is saying that this new style of teaching is a better approach? Wesley: Well it is not necessary a new style of teaching. I think that it is ideal for the society that we move into that the kids do have to be more collaborative, they have to be able to share space with each other, they have to bounce ideas off people, they have to be able to go to the source of knowledge that’s the best which might be a teacher or it might be a computer or it might be a book. How do you create space so that can happen is the issue? Let’s not forget that we have always had creative teaching and we have always had creative space. It has been around since the year dot. I have come from the visual art background. Visual Art teachers have always taught by manipulating space, moving chairs and tables, taking kids outside and bringing them inside and things like that. And so there is about a number of different types of teachers. All of us would have examples of teachers who in the past have manipulated space really well to make learning more interesting. So it is not like it is brand new but what we are trying to do is make it more wide spread. Tracy: So I suppose Wes, it’s a critical question. Does changing the environment improve student outcomes? Wesley: It does. We have evidence it does make a difference and a positive impact. I have to say that it is limited evidence because we are talking about few studies done under very controlled circumstances. An example would be that a school in Queensland with Dr Terry Byers who was doing the PhD on the topic. He and I did a controlled experiment where we put the kids into three different types of classrooms, a traditional, a semi informal and a quite informal classroom which we rotated term by term. The same teachers were teaching the same content but just changing the environment. We looked at the outcome of the standardised testing in English and Mathematics across the time. That showed us a statistically significantly improvement in kids Mathematical learning outcomes in Mathematics in the informal classroom. So that’s the first thing and similar things have been found in studies nationally but it is rare because it is very hard to isolate the variable of just space. Education is a really hard area to do that type of highly controlled research because we have what we call confounding variables so for instance a teacher might teach the same class to two different groups but they are two different groups of students so any change from the outcome of that is probably the kids who are different as opposed to the teaching that’s what a confounding variable does. It might have rained and so the second group comes in after being playing in the playground when it was raining and they get different results as the rain caused it. So the causality is hard to prove in educations. So Terry got to the stage where it is reasonable well found that that was the case. But the interesting part of that research is that Terry had moved away from just proving that space does make different to kids learning outcomes, he was fascinated on the why. Is it the space or is it the teacher’s practices in the space? And that is where he did the rest of his PhD. Tracy: Well that will be my next question. Why? Wesley: We don’t know and this is why we do research. I suppose the first part of it is do we need to know? When it comes down to it people’s perceptions on how kids are learning, teachers perceptions are equally as valid as the statistical outcome. An example of this would be that within that study that we did one of the teachers resisted. She was a front of the room, tables stay at the front, resisted to go into the other rooms. By the end of it she said if you are going to take me out of my informal space I am going to lock myself in there with a padlock. She totally changed the way that she taught. Now that happened because she realised the difference it made in the types of things that she could do with the kids and the feedback from the kids and what they were doing was so positive for her so it built her up as a teacher professionally. It had all those sorts of qualities. That’s what you call a sample of one but the reality is it is important for that persona and those kids so therefore it is valid. We cant turn around and say that across the board if you put in an informal classrooms and teach Mathematics to kids that their Mathematics scores will go up. You can’t say that. You can’t generalise it. But you can say that in this instance it did and it had this impact on that teacher and therefore that little bit of money in putting that in the formal classroom paid dividends.  Tracy: Its sounds like it would be worth a try? Wesley: I think that all of us are wanting a better education for our students. That is ultimately what every school, private, public, large, small, tertiary, and primary, everybody wants the same thing. We are saying one of the significantly under researched and underutilised and under examined and misunderstood parts of that is the space that we do it in which is common across all of us which is bazaar. Every school is a physical learning environment and yet where teachers know bugger all about it. Tracy: Finally, where will your research into Learning Environments go from here? What are you hoping to achieve, ultimately? Wesley: Ultimately we need to have teachers at a higher degree of spatial literacy and it is expensive and difficult to do with teachers in the work place but that is what research is doing. The ideal way to do it is to effect teachers at the training process. So it is like the University of Melbourne and other like it and the teaching training process ought to have built into it the types of knowledge we creating throughout the research that we do. It is not there though we do run master level subjects now on this topic but it is not imbedded within or the knowledge where the teachers are being trained in. So one of the outcomes has to be that. The second is that we going to have to have architects think like educators and educators think like architects. Developing and learning that common vocabulary about space and about learning has to be part of the outcome of what our research is. I think the third thing is that we have to make schools fun. I mean that they already are. A lot of schools are brilliant places to be but space is a fantastic thing to mess around with so you and I had a quick walk around the space that we built upstairs. It only cost about a million dollars more to make it really fancy than it would of cost than to put in the standard structure. I mean out of the 6 or 8 million dollar budget the extra money was phenomenal because of that space every one walks out of the lift and everyone goes wow. People say every time I come into this space I feel enlivened. We now have teachers who don’t occupy their office space they go off and they do their marking. I went up there the other day and there were kids working and there were three teachers and I said who is actually teaching and one said I don’t know is it you or is it you. We had to ask around who was actually teaching the class but the kids were coming to all three teachers because they were there so the other teachers were there as they were doing work and they prefer to sit in that space. That is what schools ought to be. Tracy: Dr Imms thank you so much for talking to me today I really appreciate it. Wesley: It was a pleasure as it was fun. And I hope you enjoyed my interview with Associate Professor Dr Wesley Imms from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.   If you would like to know more about the Learning Environments Applied Research Network follow the links provided in the transcript of this podcast on the CCPS website or check the Soundcloud episode description. WEBSITE LINKS: https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/learning-environments-applied-research-network-learn https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/learn-projects #Interview by Senior Teacher, Tracy Burton, BA Arts (Communication – Theatre/Media), Grad Dip Ed Download the podcast transcript – Innovative Learning Environments

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