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We need a bold new approach to learning environments

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Lauren Costello was awarded an OBE in 2015 in recognition of her services to education.

Over the course of her career Lauren has led several schools out of Special Measures to Outstanding Ofsted ratings and is now the National Director of Primary Schools for the Academies Enterprise Trust. In her previous role as Director of Education at The White Horse Foundation Multi-Academy Trust Lauren explained why The Croft Primary School is embracing a bold new approach to their teaching and learning environments.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Building Schools for the Future initiative, looking specifically at how children learn in the built environment and what might be possible if we consider how a building could have greater impact on children’s learning journeys and experiences.

Through research and visits, it became obvious that reception class children were more creative, learned more, were more resilient and had no caps on their imaginations when the environment was free flowing or open planned so that they were more compelled to self-regulate, self-select and  were in charge of their own learning.

Surely it’s time for a radical change?

So, if that produced the best learning when children first started school, why were we not looking in greater depth at how other year groups were learning and taking the very best practice from the early years and applying across a whole school? Although technology has changed and facilities have improved, fundamentally learning has remained the same. Children of a certain age enter a box and as they get older they move to a new box; 4 walls, windows and a board at the front. Essentially the same as it has been since 1840. Surely in the 21st century we could consider making radical and fundamental changes based on pedagogical evidence of how children succeed and why they fail?

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At The Croft we designed classrooms to be open plan where possible. We used the ideology of best early years practice and exported it to the whole of KS1. For Years 3 and 4 we understood that children also needed to experience a class situation using more traditional learning skills. This was a deliberate move to further help children to adjust to their learning to the environment and to develop a wider set of skills. In Years 3 and 4, we focus on traditional resilience and basics. For this focus, a standard single classroom suits.

Preparing to succeed at secondary school

The biggest and most dramatic change to using the building effectively to promote learning comes in Year 5/6.  From research, both in this country and especially in Australia, one of the barriers to children succeeding immediately in secondary school centres around them not having the necessary organisational skills or resilience to take control of their own learning, to meet new friends in different lessons, to be with a number of new teachers through the day, or to have the confidence to still know that they were good learners with great skills and abilities.

In recognising this, we looked at how we could use the learning environment to develop these learning behaviours and social skills so that independence and working in different ways with a number of students and adults became second nature to our children at The Croft. We had a great opportunity to add another dimension to preparing children for the next stage of their education by being creative and courageous with the environment.

The brief was given to Alison Capstick, Head of Teaching and Learning at The White Horse Foundation Multi-Academy Trust and Jo Scanlon, KS2 Leader at The Croft Primary School. They looked at what The Croft children needed, how their resilience and independence as learners could be further developed so that their ability to work in different contexts with different people was secure in any area of the curriculum.

A fluid and adaptable space

At the heart of the way the space looks is the need for it to be fluid and adaptable. The removal of any internal walls or barriers means that 120 children can be taught in a variety of ways with no pressure but totally dependent on the need of children or the demands of a particular subject area. The space transforms easily for art, drama, DT, as quickly as it closes in for small group work. In addition, independent learning, or study is encouraged and children can move to a space of their choosing to learn. We looked at how the furniture needed to adapt to a different way of working as well as how IT would be a daily part of the learning experience for our children. The next step is to ensure children have individual tablets and IT to meet their learning needs and that it is linked to home and accessible wherever they choose to learn.

It is courageous and different and a little scary, but it is based on sound pedagogy and we know it will ensure our children at The Croft have such a head start as they begin the next phase of their education as they will have the confidence they need to learn in different ways and maintain their confidence and resilience as successful learners.

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