Monday, 25 January 2016

The Physical Environment and it's impact on learning

In September of last year I started a new position within the HWDSB at the Enrichment & Innovation Centre. I knew the job would be different as soon as I had stepped through the door. Why? Because of the obviously different arrangement of the physical learning space.

The Centre looks like no other classroom that I have ever worked in.
Throughout my career as an educator I have grappled with the question regarding what has a greater impact on learning - the personality of the educator or the pedagogy used by the educator? Am I an effective teacher because of who I am or what I do? I have always thought that the answer was that both matter. My new position at the Enrichment & Innovation Centre has created a third variable to the question of what element of education impacts a learner the greatest. It calls into question the physical environment in which students learn.

My work environment is very unique. ( link to video showing the Enrichment & Innovation Centre ) . It is the result of the innovative researching and thinking of Z. Pipe, B. Carey (former teacher of gifted) and B. Nywening.

We are a maker space. In addition to running planned Inquiry lessons, we also provide time for students to engage in learning of their own choice. I wanted to begin my research into how this space came to be by looking at the philosophy behind “Reggio Emelia”. I have heard the phrase thrown around before, but have not completed any personal reading on the philosophy.

My research into this affirmed that my colleagues are on the right track when they  begun to put an emphasis on not only the pedagogy that we use when teaching, the relationships we form with our students, but also addressing the physical environment in which we teach. I read a couple of times that the environment can be referred to as the third teacher. A key sentence phrase I read was that our environment defines how we see children as learners. This resonated with me. In classrooms where educators see themselves as the holder of knowledge that is to be distributed when they see fit, we are far more likely to see rows of desk and the focal point of the room would be a front board where the educator would stand. In rooms where educators see themselves as a facilitator of learning and where they view children as capable of making choices related to their own learning, than we are for more likely to see a room with a circular flow to it. My research indicated that rooms would have purposeful centres that students could gravitate to. In our Centre we have a variety of Centres and locations, all with a specific purpose in mind.

The Kitchen is the place we gather to eat our lunch, discuss nutrition and join together as a community in the sharing of healthy foods such as smoothies and soups. It is a place where plants grow, tea is brewed and we discuss personal issues such as mental illness. Our kitchen reminds us all that our whole self must be nurtured and cared for in order to grow and learn.

The Living Room is the place where we curl up with a good book, strum on a guitar, listen to music or knit or crochet a homemade item. The living room allows us to relax from a busy day and engage in conversation with friends new and old. In our Living Room we let our imaginations soar by diving into a great book or writing an adventure story. It is in our living room that we can let down our guard and ponder the events and issues occurring in the world (also known as Critical Literacy).We can express our thoughts and opinions through our writing and acquire new knowledge through our reading.

The Maker Space ( although the whole place is a maker space!) is the place where we get to not only make, but take apart inventions and creations both new and old. It is in this space that we are designers, planners, engineers and developers. We can be electricians, seamstresses, architects and computer technicians. It is in this space we must be patient and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. We must be willing to dive into the unknown and be willing to problem solve along the way! It is in our makerspace where we realize that we are problem solvers and can make things for ourselves.

The Art Spot is the place where we get to enhance the world through the creation of beautiful pieces of art. We get to enjoy the thrill of designing something from scratch using a variety of mediums. We can get dirty. We can be meticulous. We can imagine. The confidence that can be gained through Art is tremendous. Each medium is a craft to be mastered. It is in our art spot where we can find a tranquility to our busy lives and just enjoy the beauty surrounding us.

The Computer Lab is the place where we join together with others to collaborate online. It is the place where information is at our fingertips. The computer breaks down the walls of our classroom and transports us anywhere that we want to go! It allows us to learn without anxiety and assist us in skills we may have difficulty with like writing. It is the computer that allows us to value our thoughts and opinions and share them with others. It is in our computer lab that we excel as researchers, journalists, writers, readers, and learners.

I have spent the last few weeks reading about learning environments and am happy to report that research supports what I am seeing live - the environment in which we learn can impact our learning. I may not be able to quote all the research behind it, but having seen over 400 students successfully learn in this non-traditional environment, I feel very confident in saying that it works! My next point of interest is WHY? - Please feel free to refer me to any art articles or current research on the topic of learning environment. For now - I am going to start asking the students! I can’t wait to hear what they have to say!

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