Friday 23 June 2017

Flexible space can be the right fit

Gary Lawrence, Principal at Vauxhall School in Devonport, says that flexible-space learning allows both students and teachers to collaborate and support each other.
Variable space has been a way of life for us here at Vauxhall School for as long as any of us can remember. It is a model that can work for everyone, yet presents challenges. It’s not the only way to set up collaborative classrooms, but it works for us – and we wouldn’t have it any other way! It works because our teachers believe in the benefits that flexible space provides for the children and for themselves. It is a highly collaborative and organised approach to learning and teaching. Lots of new schools are being built with adaptable spaces, and existing schools having flexible space and withdrawal rooms being added to create modern learning environments. We feel proud of our well-established, successful approach to teaching and learning in an agile environment.
The secret is sharing
Each year level or syndicate has between two and four teachers sharing a variety of spaces and students. Students work in small groups that meet their needs like any well-run classroom. The difference is that they have the benefit of forming strong relationships with more than one teacher, have current connections with all children in their year, and have a variety of stimulating workspaces.
With more than one teacher, students may only open up to the one they feel comfortable or confident with, but they have a choice. As adults, we are selective about who we trust and connect with, and students are no different. A year is a long time for a teacher or child to work together if they find it hard to connect.
Students have a wide circle of friends throughout their syndicate. They work in a variety of classroom spaces every day. Students learn about tolerance, consideration, independence, flexibility, and caring for each other, as these qualities are vital when sharing spaces. Individual problems are collective problems. Whanaungatanga, or a sense of belonging, is one of our key school values. Teachers work hard to build a sense of togetherness through the syndicates and the school.
Teaching as a team
Teachers work throughout the day with other teachers in the shared spaces. It is quite a shift to teach in a team, sharing the responsibility for achievement. Our teachers find it rewarding and fulfilling to have constant adult/peer interaction and camaraderie.
“We learn from each other, as we each have our own strengths as educators. This builds confidence as we review and plan together” says Carol Rowe-Mitchell, Vauxhall School Deputy Principal.
Our students see teachers working together, sharing, collaborating, learning from each other, problem solving – it makes for ongoing role modelling in relating to others.
What is the downside? Teachers who want their own room and unchallenged autonomy would compromise our system. Our teachers take part in the staff selection process to help avoid a mismatch. Since I have been here, all new staff joining the school find the support and collegiality fulfilling and are committed to the school.
Shared decisions
The ratio of teachers to students is the same as any school, of course, but we have the flexibility to modify the number of students a teacher works with depending on the learning needs of a particular group, whether it be reading, writing, or mathematics. During the afternoon, teachers can regroup and arrange for students within a syndicate to mix through arts, health, and PE, or inquiry-based investigations. If teachers want to switch around the timetable for the day, it is a shared decision. Shared decisions mean teachers have confidence in what they are doing.
“We are able to meet with parents together, answer questions knowing we are all on the same page, and learn from each other. Self-review is ongoing and a natural part of flexible-space teaching. We are always talking about what works and what doesn’t for our students,” says Sue Roberts, Assistant Principal.
Minimising disruption
The most common questions new parents ask me are “is it noisy?” or “do some students find it distracting?” After a tour of the school, they see how teachers and students have their own space at any given time and respect each other’s learning environment. Noise is not a consideration for us as it is just not an issue. At times they have to look hard to find the teacher! Classes are not set up with a front and back of room. The teacher can be leading an exercise from anywhere with various whiteboards on different walls, whiteboard tables, portable TVs connected through Apple TV, children with school or BYOD iPads, and furniture of different heights and functionality.
Because teachers are organised, students’ learning needs are understood and disruptions are minimal. Parents can’t believe there are 60 Year 0 and 1s in a space where the students are spread between three withdrawal rooms and a larger shared area. Being aware that there are students learning with other teachers and being respectful of each other’s space and environment is a natural way of life from each student’s first day.
Sharing with other schools
We have been lucky enough to modernise our learning environments over the summer, creating more effective withdrawal spaces with furniture that can be mixed and matched for individual or collaborative group work. One of our goals for the year is to develop relationships with schools outside of our own Devonport community. We were fortunate enough to be able to partner with Henderson North School and provide some of our surplus furniture in exchange for a cultural performance visit from four of their Pasifika groups. We are hoping this may be the start of shared opportunities for learning that can extend beyond our classrooms.
At the end of the day, the space and the furniture provide an environment conducive to collaborative teaching, but it is the teachers’ desire to work together that really makes us ‘flexible space’, and provides benefits for student achievement. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Gary Lawrence