I am currently teaching in an open plan learning environment.
This space was formerly 3 classrooms with a shared central space and a staff library room.
I have always had an interest in the workings of open plan, I had some experience of it when teaching year 7 and came into this space a year ago with many questions.
Ownership of Space
Where do I belong?
Open plan learning spaces have the potential to disown teachers.
We do not have a desk, we do not have a wall-mounted whiteboard each, and sometimes parents do a few laps of the space before they can locate us. We are nomads.
To tackle this, we have a teacher table where we meet and work outside classroom hours, some bookshelves for storage, and we have a portable whiteboard each.
We have experimented with having all 5 classes in a central area, as this is something that was suggested to us to develop our practice.
After vigorous trailing 5 classes of roughly 27 students each, aged 6-8 was a little too ambitious (at least for term one).
Can I put up my own displays?
In an open plan learning space, it’s not ‘your classroom’ or ‘our room’.
We have named the spaces after local places so they remain neutral.
I am reluctant to create displays, as I don’t want to mark a particular space as “my classroom” and make students from other home groups feel as if they may not be welcome to use the space.
What about cleaning?
In addition to general mess, as in every work place there are “dumping grounds”, a place where things seem to accumulate.
As we don’t have designated spaces, I at first found this a particular issue.
To battle this, some responsibility from the children was required.
We now have tidy teams for each area in our space, and the children on these teams have worked hard for the privilege of being on a tidy team.
What about the ones who get distracted, lost or can’t concentrate?
This was my main concern going into open plan, I was unsure how students with no self-direction managed in this environment.
This turned out to be my biggest misconception about open plan learning.
A great deal of our teaching is directly related back to independent learning skills, such as how to be organised, stay on task and work with others.
Students who began with little resilience or ability to self-direct are actually thriving on explicit instruction about how to be a good learner, and opportunities to apply their new skills.
In a traditional classroom setting, these students would not have the same opportunities and may not be able to develop these skills as they have done.
How does the mix work?
In a traditional classroom teachers plan together, but for the most part they are on their own.
In an open plan learning area, I continually learn from my colleagues, enjoy their company and feel supported as we have each other on hand at any time.
Most importantly, we are fortunate in that we respect each other and believe in our team.
If the mix of personalities did not work, if one or more members of the team did not share our goals and understand the direction we want to go, I would imagine the function of the space and our teaching practice would not work in the best way it possibly could.
Can you be “contemporary” on your own, in a singular room with a singular class?
Yes. Unequivocally, yes.
Current pedagogical research does not prescribe open plan as the only way to teach in a contemporary way.
From personal experience the majority of what I do every day works just as well in a traditional classroom, if not better as some would argue, as teachers would only need to build relationships and manage students in their class, rather than collective classes.
None of us were trained in open plan classrooms, none of us came into the profession expecting to work in one, I know teachers in traditional classrooms share the same understandings, goals and practices that contemporary learning promotes.
The biggest difference for me as an educator is the access I’ve had to PD in the area of contemporary learning, with this and collegial support, my learning experience has been enhanced beyond my expectations.
I would challenge any educator to spend a year teaching in an open plan learning space without rapidly developing their flexibility, understanding of curriculum, knowledge of pedagogical research and communication skills.
Keep in mind this is my experience, there are many different ways to adapt open plan learning and I certainly have not experienced them all.
If you have any questions about how this works or would like to know more feel free to contact me.