A school without the pressure for change
Ask somebody you know to describe a teacher. Or just ask Google. Make a quick search of teacher and see what hits you get. Yes, the majority of pictures will depict a woman standing behind a lectern, a small, antique blackboard in the background. It’s easy to laugh and think that this doesn’t reflect reality but the fact is that this picture of the mediating teacher behind their lectern perfectly captures the image of school that has persisted for many decades, even if many schools now have interactive smartboards instead of blackboards. Change does not come of its own accord but is almost always driven by external pressures bought about by the fact that the organisation no longer functions in a satisfactory manner. That schools have not changed more over the last hundred years is due to the fact that until now they have functioned reasonably well, both structurally and substantively, by doing as they have always done.
All this changed as digitalisation began to permeate society to a greater and greater degree. As information became available everywhere and communication became possible in the most unexpected ways, the schools fundament as a mediator of knowledge began to creak at the joints. The logic in the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil as a one-way street began to be questioned along with whether the traditional classroom was really the most effective way to organise teaching in schools. Suddenly there was that pressure for change that had so long been missing from our schools.
The digitalisation of a school
Åke Grönlund, in his book Att förändra skolan med teknik – Bortom en dator per elev (Changing schools with technology – Beyond one computer per student), divides the digitalisation of schools into five phases:
Phase 1: Procure computers
Phase 2: Technical teacher training, IT teachers
Phase 3: Trial teaching
Phase 4: Organised educational development with defined overall responsibility
Phase 5: Tried and tested methods, knowledge bank, unified digital teaching environment
It is relatively simple for a school to accomplish the first phase, even if it demands a growing level of expertise on the part of those implementing it as the choice of digital tools also affects the type of teaching methods they will be applied to. Even Phase 2 is made easier as the level of technical competence among teachers and students alike increases as the day-to-day use of technology in society as a whole becomes more widespread. At the present time the greatest challenges for schools are therefore to be found in the later stages of the digitalisation process as it is here that ingrained structures and attitudes are put to the test. Merely transferring traditional teaching methods to the new digital tools is not in itself a major change and in all probability will at first lead to deteriorating results. It is for this reason that the socio-cultural learning environment is crucial at this stage. This environment must provide support for practical exploration in which allowances are made for personal and collective failure. This is a precondition for taking the necessary steps toward a more organised pedagogical evolution where new roles and structures can be defined that meet the requirements of the new methodology. Based on current tendencies and my experience of developments in schools I would also like to add a Phase 6, regarding adapting the school’s physical environment to the working methods developed during phases 3 to 5 of the digitalisation process. This should really be a parallel process as a well-thought-out physical learning environment can act as a strong incentive to change teaching practices. Based on this I will describe Fjällenskolan’s evolution, including both set-backs and advances in its ambition to provide students with the best possible prospects in a digitalised society.
One computer per student
Fjällenskolan was a relatively early adopter of digitalisation. By 2011 they had already equipped all of their teachers and students in years 4-9 with laptops. The school has been in existence since 1984 and is situated in Järfälla Municipality around 20km north of Stockholm. It is the largest school in the municipality with almost 1000 pupils. The traditionally designed school building nestles in a socio-economically prosperous area of suburban houses. As the school had a good reputation with a strong parents group and stable student base there was no outside pressure for change. The parent group were satisfied with the relatively traditional curriculum on offer and the faculty was competent and engaged. The head teacher at the time, the driving force behind this visionary investment, therefore committed considerable resources to promoting an understanding of the new digital investment program and the changing approach to learning. A number of teachers were trained and charged with dispersing their new knowledge and supporting their colleagues through this pedagogical evolution and external training resources were also employed.
Gradually the base level of technical competence was raised and a number of teachers progressed further by making use of the GAFE (Google Apps For Education) platform which was introduced the following year. GAFE quickly provided everyone at the school with a common digital learning environment and a culture of sharing soon began to blossom within the school.
Between two leadership
A couple of years after the introduction of computers the head teacher responsible for the initiative decided to leave the school and it immediately became clear just how important leadership is in the implementation of any major change process. Those teachers who spearheaded the process were no longer given the feedback and encouragement they had received previously regarding their development efforts and many began to question whether the new pedagogic methods had actually had any positive effect on the students’ results. This, according to Grönlund, is also common when schools find themselves in Phase 3 of the digitalisation process and it becomes apparent that technology is not the sought-after universal panacea. In the vacuum left by the more visionary leadership, the traditional ideal also began to regain ground. The classroom’s traditional layout in the form of straight rows of desks signalled that a studying tradition in which students sit in silence, working on individual tasks after the teacher’s initial briefing, was somehow desirable. This was most definitely not the situation the school had hoped to find itself in two years earlier when the computers were introduced.
“What I really wanted was to try other things, allow the students to take a more active role and discuss among themselves but at the same time there was a certain amount of uncertainty as I was worried that it would lead to an unruly classroom. One was wary of colleagues passing by and seeing a commotion, nobody wants to be that teacher, the one who can’t maintain order in their class,” says Ingrid Palmqvist, Swedish language teacher.
However, during the spring of 2014 the new school leadership began to settle into the job and realised that there was a need for structure and fresh impetus for the development of the new pedagogic process.
“I had so many ideas about the organisation and how we could make it easier for teachers to implement major projects, in which they could fully exploit the computer’s potential and collaborate more closely with one another, but nobody would listen. I could see that the teachers were under stress but we had different opinions on the causes and solutions. Whereas I believed that we could plan and organise in such a way that they collaborated to make each other’s lives easier, with longer teaching shifts making the day less fragmented, the discussion instead became much more focused on limiting time and cutting back on teacher’s tasks to avoid them burning themselves out,” says Jessica Blomqvist, deputy head teacher.
Any school that attempts to drive through changes within the existing framework and structures will eventually find themselves at an impasse. Jessica and the new head teacher Per Nilsson say that the things that they would like to see happen are not happening. Certainly they still have a stable school with competent teachers but on the whole the majority of staff continue to conduct relatively traditional lessons.
The dream classroom
In order to break the impasse that the school found itself in the leadership came up with the idea of holding a competition among the classes. They set aside a budget of SEK 100,000 and offered each class the opportunity to describe their dream classroom.
“The idea was to investigate whether a change to the learning environment would make teachers more inclined to change how they organise lessons,” says Jessica.
Ingrid Palmqvist and her class, then in 7th grade, immediately leapt on the idea and the school leadership were impressed by their sketches and ideas regarding the classroom. At the beginning of the autumn 2015 term, as the newly employed development manager I was given the task of collaborating with the class and their teacher to look at how we could realise some the class’s ideas. It quickly became obvious that it’s hard to think outside the box when one has no idea of what might exist outside of it. The changes one saw were primarily of a cosmetic nature, such as new curtains, more comfortable chairs or coloured walls. A working group was therefore formed consisting of pupils and teachers who together with myself visited Skapaskolan, a school renowned for its awareness of the importance of the physical learning environment. Meeting with the teachers and pupils at Skapaskolan opened our students’ eyes to a new schooling reality where rooms were organised for various types of learning activities and in which the school’s core values permeated the entire working process. The teachers there seemed not to have the same need to physically control the room as the students knew what was expected of them and the assignments contained a high level of motivation driven content. Both the teachers and students from Fjällenskolan liked what they saw, even if there was a certain wariness as to what it might mean for them to change their own classroom.
“How will we take tests if not everybody is sitting at a desk?” asked one student. “It will be easier to look over someone else’s shoulder for the answer.”
In this way the discussion soon came around to education and learning in itself.
“Could there be something wrong with how the test is designed if it’s that easy to copy someone else’s answer?” “Is it possible to formulate the test questions in such a way that you can’t simply copy somebody else’s answer?” “Are tests really necessary?”
Suddenly the traditional educational mediation of knowledge found itself in a context where it was no longer functional!
In collaboration with an interior designer, the students were able to make suggestions regarding their new classroom based on the concept of a room that supported a range of different learning and teaching methods. We took as our template the five learning environment principles as used by Rosan Bosch in the design of Vittra Telefonplan School:
It proved to be a challenge to fit so many different areas into one classroom and we realised during the process that it would have been ideal if we were instead able to develop a number of different rooms that complemented one another. However, in June 2015 the room was finished and ready for inauguration. There were mixed reactions from the schools staff, although most were cautiously positive:
“We’ll have to see how it goes, maybe I will have to move my lessons to another classroom. It’s difficult to see how they will have room for computers and books as well as writing in their books.” Says Sune Stridfeldt, mathematics teacher and one of the classes’ two mentors.
Sune is aware that he prefers things somewhat simpler and although he did not initiate the changes he has great belief in the class and their ability to adapt to a new environment. Throughout the process he has also participated with suggestions and followed developments with great interest.
“We have previously had set places and the pupils are used to this, but they themselves have expressed a wish to dispense with this and have more freedom so, to begin with at least, we will see how it goes, otherwise much of the purpose of the classroom’s design will be lost,” says Ingrid, the classes’ other mentor. Sune agrees with this.
“I believe that they can cope, we have talked a great deal during the process regarding the need for them to take responsibility and the increased demands on them to maintain a tranquil, good working environment.”
In parallel with the design of the classroom the school also undertook an active pedagogic program to develop digital competence and 21st Century skills. Together with me the teachers planned and tested various models of ability-based teaching that to a great extent took advantage of the students’ own experiences and motivation to learn. The support given to project-based working methods had the added effect of changing the attitudes of several teachers to the school’s organisation. Many of them now requested both longer lessons and the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers in order to augment their own subjects with the support of their colleagues’ competencies and the varying knowledge demanded by other subjects. Many teachers found the new classroom exciting and completely in line with the positive developments flourishing at the school.
Where’s my lectern?
It is now August 2015 and the new term has just begun. Ingrid and Sune’s 7th graders are now beginning life in the 9th grade in a classroom that sticks out from the rest of the school with its high, slender stools in turquoise and green, a corner lined with soft beanbags, a sofa and table for group discussions. The class are extremely pleased but their teacher is frustrated. Teaching in this new classroom is difficult and many of them describe the same situation:
“I feel so exposed, almost suffocated by the new classroom,” says one of the new teachers at the school who did not previously participate in the process. “Firstly, I don’t know what to do with myself, where am I supposed to be? And some of the students just lie in a beanbag. How will we find time to get through everything we want to do this term? We shouldn’t be experimenting on a 9th grade class that will soon be getting their final grades,” she sighs resignedly.
“Well, it really isn’t working out. I find it difficult to know where I should be when they are spread out and all working,” says one of the experienced teachers who was previously extremely positive about the learning environment project.
As a part of our developmental work on both the physical and digital learning environment, one of our senior teachers, Anna Gentula, has been given the task of investigating events in the new classroom. She will both teach in the classroom herself and observe other’s lessons. Anna is an experienced and proficient teacher who is used to undertaking developmental work but even she finds the new learning environment a challenge at first. When we meet for our first briefing she is dejected and negative. Anna feels that the students lose focus and take a more slapdash attitude to lessons than she is used to. And where should she stand to teach? We decide that she should try making a few adjustments based on the same learning environment principles on which the classroom design is based. For example, her position should be based on the situation at any given moment. If the learning situation implies Campfire, none of the pupils should be lying in a beanbag but should be together with the others. Anna also attempts to plan the lesson so that more of the various learning environment principles are activated and the room is used to greater effect.
After a run-through/Campfire a laboratory exercise follows which then leads to exercises in pairs which allows for the opportunity to move around in accordance with the Watering Hole principle. After only a few occasions Anna is already far more comfortable with the room and believes that she sees the students’ creativity being positively stimulated.
Ingrid also notices positive effects after a couple of months:
“The students are comfortable and feel that they are more involved in discussion now than previously! I also feel that my own relationship with the students has improved, encounters in the classroom have become more personal now they are no longer sitting in rows.”
How did it go for Sune and his maths lessons? Just as he believed, the vast majority of students behave responsibly, using the room in the manner best suited to the teaching of the subject. For those pupils who may fail to do so he has found the solution himself. This week, on Sune’s initiative, they will go to IKEA to purchase tray tables, so they can make better use of the entire room.
Lessons learned and the way forward
Either the learning environment comes first (as for example at Vittra Telefonplan), creating pressure for change for teachers to challenge their methods as the old ones cease to function in the new context or alternatively, we attempt to change education to such an extent that we instead create pressure for change on the learning environment as is the case with Fjällenskolan. The second option is a considerably slower process but one that brings with it the same challenges although in micro-format. It is not possible to pull down the traditional structures, seated as they are in the walls of the school, without replacing them with new structures. For example, many teachers allowed their leadership in the classroom to be undermined by the students desire to decide entirely for themselves where they would sit, even though the teacher felt that this was not conducive to a successful lesson. The teacher’s leadership must rather provide even clearer leadership in this new environment, though aimed at making the student aware of their own learning process and those choices and actions that contribute to a better or worse result the pupil themselves. Another thing that became apparent in conversation with the students was that things that the teacher sometimes saw as a problem (that a student always chose a particular seat in the classroom) was not seen as a problem by the pupil themselves, but rather they had simply found a place that worked well for them. Working actively on the teacher’s metacognitive understanding of the environment in terms of learning environment principles was also a factor in our success. As leader of this process I was constantly required to emphasise that the room in itself did not constitute this positive change, but rather it was the educational interaction between teacher, student and the physical environment that would hopefully give the intended results. Here schools have much to gain by following Fjällenskolan’ lead in working intensively on the change process itself and on their teachers’ willingness and courage to challenge themselves to begin learning new skills even before the physical environment has changed. In this, leadership is the decisive factor in what impact the work will have. We teachers are professionals when it comes to working on other people’s learning and development but it is only when we begin to understand our own need to learn, and are challenged to do so, that the real magic happens.