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Knocking down the barriers to learning (also known as walls)

A traditional Victorian school in West Thornton is being transformed into a beacon of collaborative learning by its visionary leadership team. Inspired by Google’s offices and other forward-thinking open plan workspaces designed to be enjoyed rather than endured, headteacher Di Pumphrey and her deputy Karen Dugan have designed a hugely creative learning environment that is truly inspirational.

We met West Thornton Academy through our work with Huntingdon Primary School, which partners with West Thornton for its CPD programme, and even though it’s not a Spaceoasis project we are delighted that we can share it with you.

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The journey towards independent learning

Over the last six years West Thornton Academy has been on a journey towards independent learning, founded on the principles of self-help, choice and accepting struggle and challenge. This pedagogy needs an environment that offers the children choice in where and how to work, which their small, traditional Victorian classrooms simply couldn’t accommodate. After a great deal of thought about how the environment could enable independent learning, Di took the decision to knock three classrooms into one, to allow the whole year group (at this point Year Four) to work together.

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Creating an open learning space

Working with a local builder, they knocked down the walls between the Year 4 classrooms, installed a mezzanine and a glass walled ‘room within a room’ (for small group work and intervention groups), a row of shed-like booths (known as ‘the caves’), a learning pit (the shell of a hot tub mounted into a carpeted platform with steps) and tiered seating along the whole of one wall (known as ‘the stage’). They furnished this highly innovative space with a variety of sofas, upholstered stools, dry wipe writable tables and walls, chairs, benching, lockers and many different types of shelving and storage. ICT is fully integrated into the space with laptops available throughout the day, along with banks of fixed computers. The walls are covered with motivating affirmations to inspire confidence and a ‘can do’ attitude while placing a high value on the learning process. The décor is colourful, eclectic and highly creative, the kind of place children can let their imagination fly. The furniture is a mix of Ikea, which is just round the corner from the school, and statement pieces. The space was so successful, the school created similar spaces for Years Five and Six in the subsequent summers. You can see from the pictures that the design evolved with each iteration while remaining true to the original principles.

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High levels of engagement

When the open learning studios are occupied you’ll see small group teaching taking place alongside independent work, some children will be off on their own researching a topic or reading, others will be working together in pairs and threes. Noise levels are no higher than you’d find in an ordinary classroom and there is an industrious atmosphere of purposeful activity. You might see children sprawled on the floor, sitting on a sofa, at a table, in the ‘cave’ or on the steps, alone, with peers or working with a teacher’s help. They may reach the conclusion that lying under a table isn’t the best place for handwriting, but they will have worked it out on their own, (quite possibly with an adult prompting them to think about it!). Children who are struggling can go to the ‘pit’ which is a physical representation of the struggle we all go through as part of the learning process. The message is loud and clear: it’s fine to fail, it’s ok to struggle, that is how we learn.

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“The children are very focused on their work and low level disruption has been pretty much eliminated,” explains head teacher, Di Pumphrey. “These spaces are designed to make the children work harder than the adults. The teachers plan the children’s objectives for the week but then it’s a case of ‘here’s your goal, how you get there is up to you’. You can’t predict how children will learn, it’s not linear, you could map it but then the learning’s not there. We constantly review where we are so we can push children who are flying along and help those who are stuck. Our teachers are very clear about standards for our learners and the appearance of pupil free choice is underpinned by very high expectations and clear outcomes. Parents tell us that their children are so motivated to learn that they get home and simply carry on – and it’s because this environment blurs the boundaries between school and home.”

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What the teachers think

All the theories around independent learning come together in these open learning studios and it has a ripple effect. When they saw open learning in practice, teachers that were still in the traditional classrooms started to think about how to offer choice within their environment, perhaps by adding a sofa, taking out a table, getting some lap trays, allowing students to sit on the floor, taking their first steps towards a more independent learning environment. Despite this progress, there were some initial concerns.

“When we first set out to go towards open learning, the staff were worried because it’s challenging to change how you’ve always done something,” explains Di. “I think it was about lunchtime on the first day when they said it was as though they’d never been anywhere else, it was so natural.

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“Teachers are hardwired to be at the front of the class,” she continues. “You can’t do that when there is no ‘front’. This space forces you to change your behaviour, it’s about the adult being supportive, not the font of all knowledge. Everyone is learning in this space and that makes it ok to not know, ‘how do we find out’ is where the learning happens.”

“They are also very supportive spaces,” says Deputy Head Karen Dugan. “As a teacher, you’re not alone in your classroom so you can share ideas and best practice and get help when you need it. For the children, it means they make friends across the whole year group, not just in their class. It also balances things out because you don’t end up with one class that’s weaker or stronger, we all have a collective responsibility for the whole year.”

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No rules, no shoes

As a three FE school, 90 children share each open learning space with three teachers and two TAs, the same ratios as you’ll find in most state primaries. Children remove their shoes, to feel more comfortable and to keep the floor and furniture clean. Only PE is timetabled, so if teachers want to spend an entire week on a DT project at the expense of daily maths, they can; the balance will be redressed the following week by focusing on maths and writing for the following few days.

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“There are no rules,” explains Di, “As soon as you try to apply a formula it takes you away from the learning. The children know exactly what their learning goals are and they know it’s up to them to achieve them.

“We haven’t abandoned whole class teaching, we just can’t think of many situations where that’s the best way to learn. If you look at the skills our children need, it’s collaboration, teamwork, independent learning, time management, rising to the challenge – it’s all here, that’s what they all do every day.”

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