Slättgårdsskolan, a red brick building located in the Stockholm suburb of Bredäng, looks like any other school. Narrow corridors lined with student lockers and traditionally furnished classrooms with pairs of desks in two straight rows. For the most part the teachers merely accept this and adapt to the existing framework, but not Linnea Sahlin, 25 years old and one year out of teacher training college:
“When I stepped into the classroom I was immediately concerned. Everything felt old, almost rotten and I hate it when the desks are in rows facing forward. It’s as if the students only come to look and listen to the teacher with no thought that there might be room for discussion and a variety of learning methods.”
The first thing that Linnea did was to clean up and rearrange the furniture. The desks were arranged in groups and she introduced mats and other textiles. Now things felt better but at the same time there was a gnawing anxiety about the following year. As Linnea was only too aware, the number of pupils occupying the same area was to increase from 36 to 60. For most people this may have seemed like an impossible equation but in Linnea’s mind a solution was already taking shape:
“If we were to remove the dividing walls between the classrooms and instead create a variety of learning environments whose areas overlapped one another it would be possible for more teachers, with larger classes, to make use of the same space. This would also have positive side-effects such as better opportunities for collaboration between teachers and the students would have a greater variety of places in which to work. The traditional classroom layout is definitely not suited to everybody,” she says emphatically.
Linnea was given a free hand to redesign three classrooms into an open-plan, cohesive learning environment that could be divided by sliding walls as and when required. In one area a large section of tiered seating was installed, as per the Show off and Campfire learning environment principles, for film showings, lectures and other types of presentations. This was complemented by round tables for discussion and group work, somewhat more secluded study areas and a relaxation area equipped with soft couches and cushions enclosed by bookshelves.
The design of this new learning environment meant that the members of the teaching staff were required to cooperate in order to succeed. This placed demands on the organisation to come up with a schedule adapted to collaboration and a common approach to educational planning. It was no longer possible for anyone to do things their own way and everyone was forced to respond to the pedagogical ideas inherent in the new classroom; that the students would have the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways and that nobody would be forced into a mould intended to fit all.
As yet results have been variable but the project as a whole has only been running for a month.
“When we utilise the learning environment in the intended manner, planning and working together, I immediately notice positive results. The students have more adults to turn to and their days are not as fragmented. Different tasks can run into one another, it creates a sense of calm. However, it is difficult to set aside enough time for joint planning and sometimes we even have to meet at weekends.”
The changes have not received positive reactions from all quarters:
“Of course we have to struggle with the preconceptions of both the students and their parents. Some of them believe we’re crazy for creating a room where all sixty pupils can be together at one time, and it makes almost no difference if we teachers tell them that things actually work better now than previously. They’ve already made their minds up.”
Change requires time, determination and new structures. Linnea has confronted people’s concerns by creating well-defined and transparent routines for the classroom and ensuring that these are common knowledge for both students and teachers alike. The head was so impressed that she has circulated them to the entire faculty!
“I am convinced about this, I know that it will be fine when the dust settles. I believe that a classroom should be able to offer a variety of experiences and moods,” she says with a smile.