"exchange" in Review


With the multidisciplinary muscle of more than 800 delegates and global leaders in learning and learning environments, exchange promised energetic big thinking.  And it didn’t disappoint, running the gamut of ideas, successes, obstacles and fears that go hand in hand with fundamental change.    Here are some highlights from the main stage.

The curtain raiser was the feature documentary “Most Likely To Succeed”, a look at San Diego’s High Tech High and its transformative impact on freshman students through project based learning and the soft skills approach. In the Q&A that followed, director Greg Whiteley revealed his children now attend High Tech High. But Whiteley’s anxiety as a parent persists: are we doing enough to prepare our kids for the jobs of the future, the jobs that don’t even exist yet?

The stage was set, and coordinating everyone on that stage was MC Maxine McKew. Having charted the transformations of some of Australia’s most challenging schools in her book “Class Act”, McKew’s insights added another layer of depth to the stimulating discussions.

In the first keynote presentation, Professor Richard Elmore demonstrated that there is no simple correlation between learning and the physical design of learning environments. He compared The Learning Community Project in the Mexican village of Tutoria and Boston’s Nuvu Studio. Powerful learning is taking place in both schools, yet their physical learning environments are polar opposites in resources and modernity.

Understanding the relationship between learning and physical learning environments requires strong and clear theories of learning. Professor Elmore delved into the neuroscience of learning and emphasised that a strong learning theory needs simple designs that blend expertise in design and practice. Spaces should be modifiable with open boundaries, and real tools need to be integrated for dealing with real problems.

Professor Kim Dovey’s keynote on assemblage learning illustrated how changes in architectural design reflect who holds the power and control over knowledge and learning. For example, although there is a move towards dedicated classrooms that reflect new pedagogies, some institutions have difficulty reconciling their desire for progressive architecture with reduced student surveillance in examination rooms and classrooms.

Professor Dovey also showed how cities can work as learning environments.  Ideas, vitality and transparency result from a great flow of people from different backgrounds sharing public space.

The principal of Auckland’s Stonefields School, Sarah Martin, shared her school’s vision for learning. Stonefields regularly reassesses its direction with questions like:

  • How do we continue to grow a culture that allows teachers and students to take risks, to be comfortable in the uncomfortable, to innovate and push boundaries?
  • What do we need to stop doing or think differently about in order to get the children future-ready?

Techniques like the “learning pit” grow the students’ comfort in risk taking and failure. Students also practice breakthrough learning, where 20% of their week is allocated to pursuing their own passions. Soft skill development is a high priority. Respecting differences and gaining a conceptual understanding of the world means students connect with a range of perspectives and people for each learning purpose.

Change consultant Jude Horrill outlined the new reality where all organisations are operating in networked environments, with a stakeholder at the centre. The individual has choice, and choice equals control. What happens if students are at the centre of this new reality, and in control of learning spaces? And how might this influence change implementation for creative learning environments?

Leadership is decentralising. Collaboration is a necessity and expertise is collective. Communication needs to be frequent, visible, meaningful and inclusive. Change can be implemented by focusing on the problem to fix, not the culture itself. Horrill advocated that ideas and solutions be experimented with, assessed quickly and failed fast in order to make great leaps forward.

One of Dr Yong Zhao’s many entertaining anecdotes echoed issues that arose throughout exchange. An Adelaide taxi driver complained to Dr Zhao that his university educated adult children were still living at home and couldn’t find work. “Living in the parents’ basement” is global symptom of education systems miseducating students for jobs that that new machine age has, or will, make obsolete.

Machines can solve problems, but they cannot identify problems worth solving. Only humans can recognise opportunities and their value to others. To beat the machines, education systems must nurture student differences and unique human traits instead of imposing a standard curriculum and assessments. Developing an entrepreneurial mindset in tandem with a child’s individual strengths will get the next generations ready - not university-ready or career-ready, but “out of the basement” ready.

The Q&A panel of keynote speakers provoked a lively discussion about the complexities of the way forward in keeping kids “out of the basement”. The transition towards new pedagogies and learning environments is hard and painful. Parents, students and institutions often fear an escalation into chaos when confronted with innovative learning environment designs.

Whiteley was on a site visit when he met a Year 10 Caulfield Grammar student who confessed he had been frightened of the school’s new collaborative learning space. The student simply didn’t know what to do with the freedom it afforded.

One audience member raised the ABC TV documentary series Revolution School ‘s conclusion that the teacher is the pivotal factor in effective education. Given this, is the design of new learning spaces irrelevant? Panel members agreed that learning spaces absolutely add value to the learning process – the problem is that we do not measure how design and setting complement learning. That’s a great challenge: how do we measure those intangible things that we know space can facilitate like respect, regard and inspiration?

Dr Zhao warned that simply improving the curriculum, the teachers, or the classrooms is like adding things to a horse wagon and hoping it becomes a car. Panel members agreed that we let go of the past and experiment in “inventing the new, and inventing the future”. Fear is an unavoidable side effect but it is not a permanent one. Just ask the Year 10 student who was frightened by his new learning space - he now loves it.

exchange covered the canvas with big ideas, but the conversation doesn’t end there. November’s Big Day Out in Adelaide and the 2017 Experience Asia Singapore Conference will pick up where exchange left off, exploring ways and means for the future of learning and learning environments.




This page last updated: Wednesday 13 July 2016