Open-plan learning: tear down the walls

The 70s saw unprecedented political and social change in Australia: anti-war marches, environmental activism, land rights. And the walls broke down in schools and universities – figuratively and literally. Today, La Trobe's Dr Craig Deed is a leading proponent of open-plan flexible environments and the impact they have on teaching and learning.

A blueprint for learning

In the 70s, proponents of open-plan learning saw traditional classrooms as places of servitude, alienation and constraint. They wanted to open up these spaces and, with them, the teaching practices. Schools, they said, should be places of flexibility, integration and choice. And this had to be reflected in the space.

‘It was part of a wider societal reaction to challenging authority and trying new ways of doing things,’ says Dr Deed.

But it didn’t last.

Since then, there’s been more research into different forms of teaching and learning, such as team teaching and creating communities of learners. This has led to fresh debates about the value of removing walls, opening up classrooms, and creating flexible study spaces.

Dr Deed's research focuses on open-plan flexible environments – both physical and virtual – and the impact they have on teaching and learning in schools and universities.

Dr Deed was visiting an architecture exhibition in Barcelona when he formed the seed of an idea.

He realised that when it came to conversations about schools and education, architects and teachers spoke vastly different languages.

From a teaching perspective, how does a building create democracy? What does democracy look like in a classroom?

‘There were these wonderful new schools with all these expressions of democracy, but the teachers had no idea what it meant,’ says Dr Deed. ‘From a teaching perspective, how does a building create democracy? What does democracy look like in a classroom?’

These questions formed the basis of his research project.

‘We can’t just put up new buildings and think it will lead to better outcomes. There has to be complex thinking about how teachers use these new spaces for the benefit of their students.’

Challenge or opportunity?

Students who like to work in social groups and physically active students respond well to open-plan learning. But what about the more introspective kids who need individual space?

Also of concern is the impact on teachers. It can be difficult to maintain control in a classroom with 25 students – imagine an open space with 100 kids being taught different lessons by three or four teachers.

When you think of such a space, you probably imagine a room full of noise and distraction, but Dr Deed insists that's not the case. He says removing walls can lead to less disruption and aggression.

For students, lessons are no longer based on compliance, taking place in a learning neighbourhood belonging  to them.

‘This can make for a calmer environment,’ he says. ‘They don’t want to disrupt other students. Which means more time for learning, and more opportunity for deeper learning.’

He and his colleagues are tracking more than 3000 students and 150 teaching staff as they transition from traditional classrooms to open plan. Participating schools are all in a low socio-economic catchment in the Bendigo area.

Looking at a broad range of indicators, including NAPLAN test results, the researchers discovered significant upswing for open-plan students compared with like schools.

Dr Deed is excited about the results 'because it means these learning environments are having an impact in communities. A key part of being in a university is identifying and explaining impacts on learning.’

Teaching the new generation

Teachers also benefited. As they got used to open-plan classrooms, they found that good teaching practices were modelled then shared. Conversations became less about compliance and control and more about best practice and learning.

‘How am I going to control these kids?’ was replaced with ‘How can we focus more on the teaching?’

‘It can be quite confronting to move into a space where other teachers are watching you,’ concedes Dr Deed. ‘But in fact that leads to an overall increase in the quality of practice.’

Incorporating IT into new classroom designs will be a critical factor, says Dr Deed.

‘Virtual learning environments, including social media, are challenging teaching and learning practices. These are open spaces – networked, connected spaces – so teachers need to think about how to deal with these environments.’

The sense of community that open plan classrooms create will be leveraged to encourage conversation, co-operation and collaboration.

New designs will also cater for different types of teaching. There will be spaces for project-based, social and individual learning. There will be varying levels of comfort, light, noise and movement. And the sense of community that open plan classrooms create will be leveraged to encourage conversation, co-operation and collaboration.

As well, there are implications for not only the design of learning environments but also for educators. If open spaces are the future, this will impact how educators see their careers.

‘Open spaces prompt more questions about what is effective teaching and learning,' Dr Deed explains. 'Graduates need to start thinking about this because they’ll be employed in these spaces. A lot of what we do feeds directly into our education programs and degrees.’

Redesigning education systems around the world

Now, the world is listening: recently, the team's findings were presented in Europe and the UK. That's a critical region, because in those territories a lot of money is invested in new schools. These schools then shape the design of learning environments worldwide.

For Dr Deed, it's no surprise that La Trobe’s pioneering research is having a global impact.

‘These days, it doesn’t matter where you’re based,' he says. 'If you’re doing interesting research, then you can make an impact. Exciting things are happening in regional Victoria.’

Not only are we preparing our graduates for new and diverse teaching environments, we’re also shaping the future of those environments – and, with them, the future of learning and the success of future generations.

Dr Craig Deed is Associate Professor in Education in the Department of Education, La Trobe University.

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