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.

The Students

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.

The Teachers

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.

(Originally published as a post 13/4/13)

Open Plan Audit

What does “open plan” actually mean for teaching and learning where you are?
After experiencing different variations, I have identified four different styles: community, team, shared, and open plan for the sake of being open plan.

Perhaps your current learning space fits one, or transitions during the day.


Open Plan – Community

It is all about students and their learning.
This is the ideal, an investigative approach.

Teachers: This is where teachers plan as a team and know the students well. They enable students to take responsibility and direction of their own learning, by checking in with them often and setting goals together, or in teams. Teachers differentiate and seek “spot fires” and assist students to extend their learning by creating rich learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. They run workshops and allow students to do the same. Data collection and assessment happens in a range of ways, is shared by all teachers, and made available to all teachers. Teachers want their students to be entrepreneurs, by giving them the skills they will need no matter their job. They teach them how to identify their strengths, to understand the nature of learning, to persist, to problem-solve a number of different ways, and to be efficient researchers. Teachers are not afraid to give up control and change their plans; they plan for creating learning opportunities, not imparting knowledge.

Students: Students know what to do and what is expected of them, they follow their interests and seek learning opportunities that connect them to their local and global communities. They negotiate with teachers before beginning tasks and projects and can justify their decisions. They know how to record their learning in a variety of ways and can discuss their learning with peers and teachers. There is constant discussion and they have the ability to work with any of their peers, in their classroom or wider communities. They can achieve anything, make any connections and use any resources. They are at the center and are aware of the high expectations their teachers have of them.


Open Plan – Team

It’s all about opening the subjects up, an inquiry approach.

Teachers: Teachers set up different, structured experiences/workshops/stations/rotations where students are given a choice of which to go to. Teachers work within the parameters of their area and assist students to identify interests, learning tasks and opportunities, then scaffold them towards producing evidence of learning. They start to connect students to their local and global communities. There are a range of resources to use, appropriate to the focus of that rotation/topic. Teachers monitor student progress, but this may not be consistently shared. Teachers have specific outcomes and expectations of their students, and may have a project approach involving criteria and assessment choices.

Students: Students are given choice, within parameters. They are expected to produce something to reflect their learning in this area. Students who change their mind must persist with their choice and while they make connections to other areas, are not able to pursue them. They are able to work collaboratively or independently with the students in the same topic. They are aware of any criteria and outcomes expected of them, and monitor their progress towards achieving their outcomes.

Where to go from here: Open up the learning. This approach funnels student’s into “topics”, which prevent them from making connections to other learning if it is not directly related, or covered by another rotation. Involve all teachers in this planning, begin by identifying groups of students with similar needs or interests for you to target. Look at the current interests of the students and community and incorporate them into your teaching. Find a way of tracking students that everyone on the team is comfortable with and make sure the information will be useful to you and your team. Open the floor to further investigation, set up inspiration stations to provide a platform for students, but do not limit them to this task or theme. Mistakes are good, especially if they can be explained. It is ok for students to change their mind, it is good for them to experience failure and take risks with their learning.


Open Plan – Shared

It’s all about sharing teaching and responsibility.

Teachers: This is where teachers share classes, and teach ultimately the same lesson, to more students and with more teachers on hand. This can involve separate tuning in, or one teacher tuning all the students in. There is some shared planning and discussions about students. This is really good for teacher professional development, as they can see different teaching styles and forms of discipline. Teachers may then allow students to move throughout the space to complete their tasks, and work with students from different groups/homerooms. They may also identify groups of students with similar needs and one may teach to this group.

Students: Students complete their learning tasks and benefit from their involvement with students outside their homeroom/class. They also benefit from the different teaching styles and perspectives of other teachers. They are aware of the task they need to complete and the success criteria for this. They may have been given some choice as to how they will share their learning.

Where to go from here: A good way to start is by identifying your strengths and interests and use these to shape your teaching. Begin to open up your lessons by providing different topics or choices for students. Allow students to complete their set tasks in a range of different formats, and if needed they can include a written statement about their decisions and learning.


Open Plan – For the Sake of Being Open Plan

The pedagogy does not match the space.

Teachers: This is where teachers stick to traditional methods, but compete with the noise created by open plan. There may be different levels of classes and/or different subjects taught in the same space, but very little connection or interaction between classes and teachers in the space. There may be the same year level in the space, where teachers are teaching the same topic at one time, but they remain with their students throughout the day. Resources may be limited to the classroom. The different classes may follow a different timetable as to lessons or tuning in and pack up times, creating unnecessary noise and distraction from general movement.

Students: Students are aware of their expectations, and interact only with their classmates. They may be able to seek resources from other areas in the learning space. They can hear the other students and teachers, but cannot interact with them and must try not to be distracted by them.

Where to go from here: Begin to make connections between subjects/lessons/year levels. Trial joining classes together for a lesson or two, or perhaps planning with a colleague. Try to synchronise timetables, so the noise levels of certain lessons do not clash, and so you can have similar times for settled work and movement.

(Originally published as a post 26/10/13)

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