By Julie Keyes Associate, Independent Schools Portal
The world of educational discourse moves in all too familiar cycles, with a school’s focus gently swaying between issues concerning the curriculum and those affecting pastoral care. Most recently, the spotlight has firmly been placed – thanks largely to the new OFSTED framework – on the curriculum.
As teachers, we are asked to demonstrate what motivates our decisions in choosing each individual element of our curriculum, and clearly indicate how we are going to assess its impact. We are led to question the role assessment plays and attempt to determine what influence the school culture has on pupil attainment. Yet this radical departure has led to a more worrying anomaly. With the discussion so firmly rooted in the details of the school curriculum, has this led to the neglect of the learning environment?
There is a long-standing belief, one that is vehemently championed by followers of the Reggio Emilia and the Montessori approach to education, that the learning environment can have a monumental impact on an individual’s learning and attainment.
Famous for coining the phrase ‘the third teacher’, practitioners adopting these methods are so certain of the impact the environment can have on learning, they place the use of space and resources at the very heart of their curriculum.
It's fundamentals form the basis for the current early years programme, and for good reason. The opportunity for regular immersion in natural and tactile materials; the recognition of the need for providing comfortable areas for rest and relaxation, and the designation of specific areas for high-energy activities, all form part of the daily routine in high-quality Early Years provision. But worryingly, that is often where careful consideration for educational stimulus ends. As we rise through the year groups, the classrooms look increasingly uniform, stagnating into very similar versions of each other. This is alarming when you consider that children don’t cease to have unique needs, just because they have reached a certain age.
On the surface, the trend is perhaps bucked by secondary schools. A science lab, for example, is very clearly a science lab, an art room is more often than not, obviously defined by its fixtures and fittings. Whilst on the surface this may appear to set these subjects apart, what it actually illustrates is the blinkered view that we as educators have for our pupils and staff. Classrooms should not be pigeonholed into distinct sectors to allow for short bursts of creativity and investigation. Every room in the school should present the opportunity for awe and wonder, for in-depth inquiry and intricate exploration. Children and teachers should feel inspired by the environment around them, and feel free from the constraints of the traditional classroom.
The world has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years. The expectations we have of our pupils has elevated to new heights. We are asking our teachers to equip pupils with the skills to solve problems as yet unimagined. Yet our classrooms - the spaces where our pupils gain the knowledge to tackle these problems - have remained unchanged. An engineer from the 1900's would look at today’s world in complete disbelief. A teacher from the 1900's would marvel at the invention of the whiteboard, and proceed to go about their business.
So, for a moment, imagine entering an empty classroom, a blank canvas. Ask yourself, what is the core purpose of this room?
Try to elevate the question to one of a higher order, forge an intention that represents an aspirational outcome for the pupils and teachers. Instead of designating a space as a ‘maths classroom’, perhaps opt for: ‘an area that inspires critical thinking’. Alternatively, consider redeploying the reception classroom as: ‘a space that engages our youngest learners during their first encounters with formal education.’
By undertaking this approach, we encourage all those involved in the pupil’s learning journey to begin with the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’. And in doing so, create inspirational spaces for a modern generation of high-achievers •