Leading the Implementation of Dynamic Innovative Learning Environments

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 By Geoff Edwards 

In my previous school, one of my science teachers invited me to attend a virtual field trip. His students were studying genetically modified foods and a simple search identified that a professor in Saskatchewan was holding an online interactive lecture on that very topic. The teacher emailed the professor and asked if his students could join in and he promised that they would listen and prepare questions. I sat at the back of the class and watched as the students were intently focussed on the material. They then used the backchannel to offer questions not simply on the science, but also on the ethics of the various processes. The professor was energized and amazed at the depth and knowledge of the students and commented that it was one of the best lectures she had ever delivered because of the input of the secondary students. It also demonstrated how innovative practices can help to create deeper and rich learning environments.

In my present school, St. Mother Teresa C.H.S., our teachers have embraced (among other innovations) the integration of technology across the curriculum, the use of dynamic furniture to enhance  pedagogy, and Peter Liljedahl’s techniques of using non-permanent vertical surfaces (NPVS) to support “Thinking Classrooms.” It is  common to see students working in various groupings standing, sitting, or working collaboratively through digital platforms in all of our classrooms from grades seven through twelve. Though this blog focuses primarily on secondary school, the following video features Yolanta Krawiecki from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Elementary school and one of my teachers Jaime DePippo featured in this video, Learning Environments-Deep Learning at the OCSB, explaining how the “Thinking Classroom” and the Deep Learning framework support a dynamic learning environment.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) has embraced the model of Deep Learning which challenges teachers’  planning and pedagogy to consider Learning Partnerships, the Learning Environment, Leveraging Digital, and Pedagogical Partnerships alongside the global competencies of Collaboration, Creativity, Citizenship, Communication, Character, and Critical Thinking. At the centre of all we do are our faith teachings, Gospel Values, and Catholic Graduate Expectations.  When considered in their entirety and in relation to one another, the learning environment becomes alive, dynamic, relevant, and engaging. The diagram below is familiar to all of our teachers and the bulleted lists on the second diagram give substantive examples of what Deep Learning look fors.

Creating the Physical Environment

Changing the physical environment of a classroom comes with challenges. There are additional costs for new furniture allocations but more importantly, teachers need to see the value in adjusting the environment for their students. We collaborated to see how we could utilize existing class structures with new furniture and came up with the following setup that can be altered to each teacher’s needs.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 10.04.43 AM

Teachers adjust the furniture to maximize the needs of the lessons. The setup offers the opportunity for stationing and it is just as functional for those times that teachers need to provide direct instruction. The curved table creates a great environment for individual teacher support. The whiteboards and smartboards allow students to get out of their seats to engage in collaborative work. The traditional desks offer students a chance to work individually when that is appropriate. The flowdesks pull apart to form smaller groups or individual stations. Both the flowdesks and the square table are tall with high stools allowing students to lean in on their work or to stand if that is preferred to the high stools. This new dynamic environment offers an unlimited array of learning and teaching opportunities. A quadrant could be a digital station for times when access to devices is limited. It is in and of itself more engaging but when coupled with new pedagogies and the Deep Learning framework, students begin to thrive. In terms of assessment, teachers need not lean as frequently on end product style of assessments. Rather, the physical environment lends itself to opportunities to give credit for conversations and observations that the student is demonstrating the curriculum expectations.

Educator Katlin Tucker describes on her website the“Station Rotation” model which challenges the way we may view the classroom environment. Supports such as hers are important professional development tools to use when asking teachers for such a significant paradigm shift away from traditional teacher fronted classrooms (e.g., refer to the YouTube video, How and Why to Integrate Station Rotation into your Classroom). Among the benefits of changing the physical learning environments are these:

  • Opportunities for individual and group work
  • Opportunities for differentiation and personalization
  • Superior means to support students with Individualized Education Plans without stigmatization
  • Creating open-ended stations means that students thirsting for challenge can be satiated
  • Creating a station with 5 devices allows for equitable access to limited resources
  • The “Thinking Classroom” model and the use of “Non-Permanent Vertical Surfaces” promotes effective collaboration and assessment practices and gets students more physically active rather than passive learners
  • By de-fronting the classroom teachers are able to give individual attention; enhancing the teacher-student relationship

Supporting The Virtual Environment

It ought not be a discussion any longer as to whether or not students benefit from being digitally literate. Whether students graduate to the world of work, apprenticeships, college, or university, they will all need proficiency determined by  how their chosen pathway uses technology. By breaking down the walls of the classroom and considering how the global competencies are enhanced by the use of technology, we seek a more dynamic learning environment beyond the physical. Students are energized when they can attempt solve a real world problem. The earlier example of creating partnership with the professor from Saskatchewan added an authenticity and an energy to an otherwise knowledge based study.  The opportunity to collaborate and share on various platforms increases student voice and activates the introverted student. Increasing student engagement and de-stigmatizing tools for students with learning challenges so that they too can access the curriculum are all noble endeavors. These students not only benefit from accessible and adaptive technologies but they have a right to them. Thus, creating a dynamic virtual environment becomes a question of equity. As leaders, we have a duty to ensure that the IEP accommodations are met.    

As school leaders we know the preceding is all true and yet leading technology can be one of the most challenging parts of our job. We may struggle with access to technology, professional development opportunities, and working with staff of various levels of proficiency. We may feel as though we lack the necessary practical knowledge to support our staff and to advocate for change. Dealing with changing paradigms is intimidating for  leaders and teachers, and staff can be left feeling inadequate. The fear of a lack of self-efficacy can be paralyzing. We may also be concerned that our staff is resistant to change or worse, complacent. The good news is that this last, is not altogether true. In Douglas Reeves’ book The Learning Leader (2006) he surveyed 6000 teachers about their willingness to try new initiatives. 17% of teachers indicate a willingness to lead initiatives. 53% would model the change in practice. 28% stated they would “fence-sit” waiting to determine whether the new practice was indeed effective and thus worth the effort.  Only 2% would actively resist. He calls these the “toxic two percent!” And yet, we often avoid these changes ourselves for fear of alienating or causing anxiety in our staff. We do this not because we don’t believe in the benefits but rather because we care about the people for whom we work.      

The reason teachers are in fact open to new and challenging ideas such as new physical and virtual dynamic environments is because they care deeply about their students. Teachers and those who support them are among the best people we know! We ought to believe that they embrace their vocation and that they are capable of being lifelong learners. Having said thus, without proper planning and pace, we will indeed stress our staff and we will lose their commitment. It is here we should consider Mishra and Koehler’s (2006) TPACK model.

tpakThe authors assert that when leading a new technological innovation, we need to consider in our planning the receiver’s technological knowledge content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge. If we do not plan effectively, it is likely that the receiver, in our case the teacher, will either fail to implement the strategy effectively or they  simply avoid the change entirely. Consider my opening example. The teacher in my school was open the change entirely. He was open to the idea of extending his learning partnerships. Because we had taken time to instruct teachers how to use video conferencing tools, he had the “know how” as to how to actually make it work (the TK) in the classroom. The Content Knowledge (CK) came from the teacher’s knowledge of the curriculum expectations and how this lecture may fit into the classroom goals. This is typically the area where teachers feel most comfortable. The Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) comes from knowing how to use the particular tool as an classroom practice. The confluence of the three is what supports the Deep Learning framework, enhances teacher efficacy, and increases student engagement. And…it takes time.

The absence of planning at a school or system level for effective professional development leads to frustrating failure. However, by pacing your innovation with effective professional development and supports, your staff will take on a learning stance that will extrapolate to all areas of their practice. Over time, teachers will begin to deliver and  model more and more of the professional development themselves. Their newfound confidence will lead them to a collaborative for of leadership. Though the TPACK model was created for the implementation of technology, it is just as useful for any innovation. This explains why research shows that simply flooding classes with laptops or new furniture result in only modest gains in engagement and limited gains in academic achievement.

As leaders we have an amazing opportunity to both steer the course and learn alongside our teachers and students. Leading the implementation of dynamic innovative learning environments is one way that we are able to make a tangible difference for all students across all pathways.

Geoff Edwards is an Ottawa Catholic School Board Principal at St. Mother Teresa High School. He has been a CPCO member since 2004. He is a Technology Enabled Learning Leader (TELL) mentor with the CPCO PQP program and he is a current instructor with  the PQP program. Geoff coaches volleyball and basketball at school and in the community. His wife Rebecca, an amazing teacher, and his two inspirational teenage daughters Sophie (15) and Hillary (13) keep him grounded! Follow his school journey @motherteresaHS



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