Vittra Telefonplan is a new elementary school in central Stockholm and opened in August 2011, with children and pupils from the age of six up to eleven. The school looks like nothing else. In the center of the school is a large blue mountain, seating one hundred children. Inside the mountain you will find a movie theater, enabling a group of students viewing film, the news or showing their own digital presentations to their peers. The open learning environment in the school is flexible and consists of site-built elements, like one four metre high tree with a garden beneath it for play or assemblies or The Island which is a large green laptop sofa shaped as an island, to create a varied and stimulating learning environment. Chairs and tables are available. Like the traditional classroom, without being the dominant feature in the environment. The colours are bright and appeals to our younger generation.
The idea behind the school was to push the pedagogical methods Vittra already established in their 25 elementary schools throughout Sweden. As digitization made its entry into the schools, a need arose to further develop the learning environments and above all, the didactics of instruction. Digitization provides completely different challenges to how one can and should work in school while the need for other kinds of learning environments was made clear. Does the didactics of reading and writing demand a different take today when we know that children meets image and text-based online communities even before they start school? What happens if we start from the innate communicative momentum, throw the traditional ABC book away and replace it with the moving image and sound, chat, games, blog and community? How does society look like in 2025 when our children takes graduates and what do they need to be prepared for? This was questions we posed ourselves and they resulted in a learning environment and an educational practice that has received considerable attention around the world. We wanted to plan our environment as well as our pedagogical activities around how learning takes place, not how we so far has organised learning.
With my background as a media educational developer,in a municipality south of Stockholm, I had experience working theoretically and practically with digital skills and thus had the realization that digital literacy is a complex skill and requires solid work continuously to master it, ie, designing learning situations to develop skills. The definition of digital literacy as presented in EU’s key competencies for lifelong learning, I thought was to widely held and wanted to find a simple model that could be translated into educational practice. I needed a model that would be more fruitful and at the same time would be considered to have credentials by educational professionals. I found Melbourne University KSAVE model, where they carefully define different areas of 21st Century Skills and embody every ability, tools and attitudes in matrixes associated with each ability. It was a concrete way to tackle such a complex task to define a definition of for example creativity. As an evaluator in the Swedish part of the 21st Century Skills Innovative School Programme ***, I gained a valuable introduction to the evaluation questions to assess how well the teacher’s tasks actually developed future skills. The tool I created was a simplified version, a version that would make it easy for educators to evaluate their own practice. With my model, I also developed a matrix of digital literacy and its different competencies, a way to asses that for the educators that they were doing the right thing in the classroom. The youngest children, aged 6-9, and the children aged 10-12 and the oldest children aged 13-16 had different competencies to attain on a progressive scale. Sweden introduced a new curriculum in July 2011, a month before we started our school, where digital competencies and skills was stressed more than it was in the previous curriculum. With a concrete matrix for the digital skills the children would obtain at a certain age, and a simple assessment tool for teachers to measure the learning situations they designed would definately take us to the next generation of learning. Together with the encredible learning environment, especially designed according to the principles we constructed, we couldn´t see any obstacles ahead of us.
Planning, evaluating and designing the learning process
As part of modernizing Vittras pedagogical model I used the 21st Century Skills spider I constructed inspired by Microsofts innovation programme and Melbournes KSAVE-model.
The spider consists of four legs; Creativity, Digital Competence, Relevant knowledge and Collaboration. The legs are questions you ask yourself as you design a learning situation. I will examplify with one of the most common tasks given i schools. The activity of this question in a traditional math book:
This is a well known type of question given in schools. There is one correct answer to it. If I ask the questions from the Spider, we will see how well we give the student a chance to develop 21st Century Skills in this procedure.
Creativity: In what way is the learning individual engaged with her own thinking, ie asking questions, solving problems?
Digital Competence: To what extent is the learner using or understanding digital technology and its impact on our society?
Relevant knowledge: In what way is the operation connected with deeper learning and understanding? Learning how to learn.
Collaboration: Does the task provide communication and collaboration within a group, inside our outside school?
These questions show us that if we would only design learning situations like these in maths we would not offer the students possibilities to develop the skills we want. If we instead give another task:
We write a number on the whiteboard. 2. This is the answer. And then we ask the students to work in groups and find as many ways as they can to come up with questions that has that answer and then present it in class we would have provided opportunities for deeper learning in several of the spiders legs.
Vision based leadership
The vision for the school was key to building a strong sense for what direction and what goals we set up for our school. With a strong belief that teachers are professionals and must be given freedom to design and design their teaching together in the team. As the principal, I did not dictate a particular methodology or a set of didactics. I believe in people’s innate creative force and know that motivation is one of the strongest forces for change. The only requirement was that you as a teacher would be able to describe your practice based on how they were designed to develop children’s abilities. To be able to verbalise your practice is key to evaluate the results and make adjustments and more interesting trying new ideas and experimenting. In order to make that happen we needed to create an atmosphere of trust between colleagues and design structures for collaborative learning. A lot of time and effort was put in to working with the team of teachers with the vision, as it would give direction, and the team needed to have a joint understanding and interpretation of what we wanted to achieve. One way was to live as I learned, being a role model in my leadership and take advantage of the opportunities to use digital tools and forms of expression to describe and portray the vision and thereby strengthen it. We made a movie for teachers, but also parents. The film shows the environment, describes why we want to work with the future in mind and the social expectations of the school. This way of communicating the vision of the school proved to be very powerful and triggered the teachers to experiment with different digital tools. The vision itself was more like a declaration on how we want to operate in an ever changing world. To be brave and continue to ask questions to your own practice. We wanted to be the lighthouse for school development.
Five cognitive principles for learning
The idea of learning environments has been largely inspired by David Thornburg’s Campfires in Cyberspace were we have devised a tool consisting of five different learning environments, each one based on distinctive cognitive processes as well as a physical and digital learning environment. There, he presents four different cognitive principles of learning and how these can be translated to the online context. We found the principles interesting and valid also for the physical learning environment. We do have knowledge about how different cognitive principles affects learning and how they need to be facilitated, but it doesn´t show in how we design learning environments. Schools and it´s classrooms is an organizational and historical heritage so strong that you barely question their existence.
A practical example is the activity of reading, one of the core skills in the educational system, hardly visible in Reading is a process and an activity that is not best suited at a table, on a chair, with thirty peers in the room. In order to be able to engage in deeper, reflective learning or activities you need to be able to cave yourself in, by the help of the environment or have the ability to shut out the surroundings. We wanted the environment to answer the question, how do we learn and how can we facilitate learning? We lacked a principle in Thornburgs model and added one, The Lab.
”Campfire” situations are characterised by communication flowing from one or few to many, requiring a space that can accommodate a certain number of people in a group situation, where everybody can focus on the person talking or presenting.
”The Watering Hole” is a place where people come and go, and a learning environment where you can gather in groups of different sizes. The communication is informal, many to many and based on sharing.
”Show-off” situations are where one person communicates towards the rest of the world, showing what he or she can do or has done, requiring a physical or digital space for display, exhibition and feedback. The communication is one to many and feedback is essential for learning.
”The Cave” is where no extra input is needed, requiring a physical frame that furthers seclusion and contemplation.
”Laboratories” are places where the students can acquire hands-on experiences, working physically and practically with projects in a societal and experimental context. Communication in Labs can be in any form but there is always hands on experience. This environment isn’t part of Thornburg’s original model but something I wanted to add, since it was missing.
When we developed the pedagogical principles of the learning environment, both physical and digital, we worked with the Danish interior designer Rosan Bosch, who was commissioned to design the five pedagogical principles. The assignment was to design a physical environment, which gave way to the digital practice and would be appealing to children. The result was a colorful and inviting environment in which playfulness is evident. A comment from a seven-year old student illustrates it´s success: “My school is better than an amusement park!” Even more illustrative is an eleven year old student, with experience from traditinally built schools asking me as he saw the large treearea for the first time:
“Whats rules do you have at a tree? What are we allowed to do?”
It is a statement that displays the power structures in schools, between teachers and students, but also how the environment becomes a part of it.
Metacognitive learning and professional development
A couple of months after the school opened we came to a point where we thought we did everything wrong. We underestimated the impact the learning environment had on our pedagogical practice. The confident teachers I hired, most of them highly experienced and known for wanting to work with school development, felt like they were the worst teachers ever. Their professional confidence were blown away. “The things I used to do doesn´t work anymore” or “I don´t know if the students are learning anything”. Parents started to wonder if the kids were learning anything because at home they said that they were just having fun. As a principal I needed to change my focus. The teachers learning curve were steep and we needed to shift the attention from the students learning to the learning curve the professionals were engaged in. Sharing the feelings of incapability and creating awareness on how difficult and painful it is to learn because when you learn something it means that there is something you don´t master and it creates a lot of anxiety. Embracing the feeling of not knowing and try to approach it with curiosity and finding ways of analyzing the pedagogical situations and reqiured leadership from a professional point of view. The challenges were huge. A school without walls controlling the whereabouts of the group, laptops in every students lap and students not used to the new way of working. As a principal I had been to engaged in the pedagogical matters concerning the students learning and needed to revise it and I did it by applying the models we worked with on the teachers development and learning. I used the five pedagogical principles and asked myself; How do you design different learning situations for your teachers? How do you create opportunities for your teachers to learn how to learn? The key in our pedagogical platform.
From control to motivation- leadership in the “classroom”
The new learning environments made it painfully obvious to us that the environment is indeed a major influence on how what kind of leadership is needed. The environment did´nt help us supervise or control the students and their activities. The teachers needed new leadership tools. They asked themselves the question on what gave the kids motivation and how can we together with the kids visualise their learning so that they become more aware of their own progress. They looked into Gamification and translated it in to a simple model for student involvement and evaluation. The skills they focused on were their own learning, the ability to collaborate, to keep focus and to have courage in their learning, to dare to leave their comfort zone. The new take gave effect right away. The teachers summarized the challenges they were facing by saying that we needed to shift from control to motivation. The environment forces us to construct meaningful tasks and working with a transparency with the children, the learner must in every step understand the value of every task. The environment, both the physical and the digital, does´nt allow us to be pedagogically lazy and fall in to our traditional way of educating based on control. It forces us to develop pedagogy. Later that year, when it was time for the National Tests and we followed the instructions for organizing the testing situation by closing down the internet, tried to fix seating at benches for every student we realized again, how unique our school was. Our school is not built for testing, it´s built for learning.
Creative Strategies at Rektorsakademien Utveckling (Academy of Principals)
Former Principal of Vittra Telefonplan, Stockholm Sweden
Marilyn Binkley, Ola Erstad, Joan Herman, Senta Raizen, Martin Ripley
with Mike Rumble; ATCS21 University of Melbourne 2010 http://atc21s.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/1-Defining-21st-Century-Skills.pdf