The more conversations that I have about future-proofing the learning environment the more I am convinced that while the physical environment is important, the real initiatives that will make a difference lie in working with teachers about how they might use the learning environment.
Italy’s education research agency INDIRE brought together educators from around the country at its DIDACTA Fair held in Florence 9 – 11 October. Listening to co-speakers as well as the questions from the 200 or so people from the audience it was clear that people wanted to know how to effectively implement future-proofed learning environments.
Leaving schools and teachers saddled with buildings that they cannot use is not the answer, yet there is still the tendency to design schools without listening to the users themselves. Transforming a learning environment is a conversation – a conversation that needs to take place continuously throughout the life of the school, not just a one-off few minutes somewhere near the building or when the design has been finalised.
Samuele Borri our host from INDIRE emphasised the importance to radically improving Italy’s schools as INDIRE is focusing on research around transformative learning environments. Leonardo Tosi (researcher, INDIRE) developed this theme showing how their work is developing a set of tools to helps schools and designers.
Peter Barrett (Emeritus Professor Salford University and of the HEAD project fame) drew together further lessons from the HEAD project where he showed that the key is not to look at environmental factors in isolation but holistically as the human brain processes information from its senses in complex ways that defy simplistic linkages between one sense and student outcomes. He showed how simple changes can have a huge effect – whether the space is too visually stimulating or not stimulating at all, air quality, light and so on. This in effect hands back control to those best able to control; the environment – often the teachers.
Teresa Heitor (Professor of Architecture at the Institute of Technology, Lisbon and former deputy chairman of Parque Escolar that renovated Portugals secondary schools) drew ten lessons from her experiences on Portugal’s Secondary School Building Modernisation programme. In summary they amounted to how to better engage the community (teachers, architects, parents, policy makers) to create effect environments. Understanding what different spaces can do to support teaching and learning demands a different approach. Teachers need to be given an opportunity (and time) to explore different approaches whether this is through training programmes or simply time to experiment.
Tommaso Della Vecchia (European Schoolnet) talked about how the European School Net project provides such an opportunity by enabling teachers to use its learning environments where teachers can experiment and try out different arrangements. INDIRE had set up such a space at the DIDACTA Fair and brought in teachers to look at how different types of settings could be used.
It has to be said that this audience may have been self-selecting, it was noticeably larger than at other such events I’ve been to in Italy over the last five years. While this is not itself an empirical measure of change, it does at least signal increased interest. One question from the audience that was missing this time was: “How can we possibly do this in Italy with no money, and our laws?” Funding has not changed hugely, and the laws certainly haven’t, but perhaps hope has.