Being More Flexible

This article was originally published at on 8 March 2020.

I’m fortunate to have spent the past five years at a school that values experimentation. It’s exciting and inspiring as a teacher and, on a personal level, dovetails nicely with my own novelty bias. So, when my school announced in early 2019 that it was constructing a few prototype flexible learning spaces on campus for teachers to work on teaching and collaborating differently, I was one of the early volunteers to be involved.

With the high school space, we considered it a good opportunity to put many of our ideas about interdisciplinary teaching and learning into practice and to provide a more personalized experience for students. We formed a team of teachers, coaches and administrators to get started, gathered relevant research articles to inform the experience and began meeting with the architect the school hired to convert our high school library into a new flexible space complete with a theatre, a design lab, a variety of seating options for students and a pretty nice café.

Our high school library was converted into a new flexible space complete with a theatre, a design lab, a variety of seating options for students and a pretty nice café.

Obviously, attempting something new is full of difficulties. Teachers respond to ambiguity differently; some try immediately to plan away all ambiguity while others become paralyzed by worst case scenarios. I personally found it difficult to have architects explain pedagogy to me and reveal to me that kids learn in more ways than just a single teacher delivering content. I considered coming to meetings with my own unremarkable takes in the field of design and presenting them as though they were revolutionary: you know, a building is more than just its façade.

When our space opened, it was impressive. A few students said it looked like an IKEA showroom while another said it was “like the Big Brother house”. It did require us as teachers to plan and teach differently. A few members of our team tried to recreate their typical practice and found it nearly impossible. Some of us attempted a flipped model with a lot of small group tasks and near-complete student self-direction and found it difficult to monitor progress, give rich feedback or keep some students from doing nothing. Sometimes it seemed like students were just hanging out and socializing with their friends or paralyzed by indecision from having been given too much autonomy. To be fair, these problems also happen in traditional classrooms.

When it works well, however, it’s a pleasure to see students having a personalized and highly-social learning experience. Some of them are huddled together planning on the space’s writable whiteboard tables. Others are showcasing their work for peer feedback in the theater space or on one of the school’s touch monitors. A few are working independently or reading quietly in a tucked-away nook or in one of the treehouse bunk spaces. A team of teachers are cycling through, stopping periodically to interact with small groups or individual students rather than addressing the whole group en masse.

It’s still a work in progress, but after a semester I think I’m in the position to offer some advice teachers volunteering or even being voluntold to teach in a flexible learning space. For one thing, accept the messiness of the situation. A lot of things aren’t going to work the way you want them to. At our school, the space is often full of grade 11 & 12 students with free blocks, creating the challenge of having to teach grade 10 courses around them.

At our school, the space is often full of grade 11 & 12 students with free blocks, creating the challenge of having to teach grade 10 courses around them.

Scheduling and timetabling can be a challenge. At our school, we originally wanted multiple disciplines scheduled together to allow for interdisciplinary links. It became unmanageable and didn’t happen this year but is still something we’d like to do in the future. This year, we had all grade 10 English and I&S (Social Studies) courses in the space along with grade 10 Design. My preference would be for courses to have both traditional classroom days and flexible learning space days in their schedule and a wider variety of disciplines and grade levels using the space. It’s something to consider for next year.

I think it’s also important to think carefully about which courses will be working in the space. Some courses aren’t actually all that flexible, so a chemistry lab or design workshop in the middle of this kind of space just creates a situation where other courses have to find ways of working around the perimeter without engaging with a large portion of the space.

For teachers, I think it’s worth getting involved in this type of initiative. There are plenty of opportunities to learn new skills and approaches. It also gives a teacher a better sense of what’s happening in other courses and what the daily experience actually looks like. Selfishly, it’s also a nice experience to bring up in interviews at your next school. I certainly did during my job searches this year and found principals and directors very responsive to the fact that I was undertaking this experience.

For schools, the benefits are obvious. Of course, it looks great on Twitter and in promotional materials. More than that, though, it really does involve experimenting, considering new approaches and not resting on an institution’s laurels. If all of these competing incentives converge in the service of student learning, that’s undoubtedly a positive development on the path to greater student autonomy, engagement and understanding.

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