Thursday, 11 February 2016

Our Learning Environment - it's not just about the physical, there's a social and emotional piece to it too!

In my last post I referenced and talked about the significance behind each of the areas in our Centre: the KItchen, the Living Room, the Makerspace, the Computer Lab and the Art Spot. I used the term, physical environment. As I left the Centre today after an Open Classroom Session (we open our Centre on Wednesday Nights from 3 pm - 5pm to all parents and students of the HWDSB to learn together), I couldn’t help but start to think that when defining and creating a learning environment it is about more than just redesigning the physical layout of the room and filling it with a large variety of materials.

Although, I do know that this is a key and necessary part of the process for creating our effective learning environment. There is something else that makes it tick too.  I stood in awe with my colleague, Zoe Branigan-PIpe, and stated, “You need to video this!”

 As we completed a 360 degree rotation of the Centre the following activities were occurring around the room:

In the Living Room we have the grandfather of a grade 7 student strumming his guitar and singing while surrounded by junior aged students working on homework. His sound permeates through the air and I can’t help but feel a spring to my step as I distribute flyers for an upcoming pottery workshop that another parent has organized for an upcoming Open Classroom.

In our Kitchen a mom has brought in her love for feeding her family healthy and wholesome foods by bringing in the materials to make energy balls. Parents and students gather around to sample and make these delicious treats filled with the goodness of such ingredients as chia seeds and hemp hearts! BRAIN POWER! Two other moms co-ordinate on how they can share their skills of cake decorating with everyone in the future.

In the Science area we have a young boy who has come for the first time. He loves coding and understands a variety of coding languages. His love of knowledge has had him taking apart and building computers since a young age. It is in this area of the room that he finds kindred spirits in a dynamic father/son duo. The trio quickly set to work looking and working with Arduino kits. I have to admit that I find myself a little overwhelmed in this area, but for this team of learners, they are in their comfort zone.

It is in our Art Spot that I find my inner peace. Tonight we wanted to highlight the fact that the United Nations is Celebrating the Year of the Pulses. Pulses are plant based proteins that provide many nutrients to our bodies at a reduced cost, they are versatile, have a long shelf life and offer elements of sustainability that other forms of protein may not. What better way to familiarize ourselves with pulses than through pulse art! We are going to use the artwork as provocations for getting students to ask and think about pulses. Art is a wonderful avenue for not only creating, but allowing students to socialize in a risk free way. Sitting around our table tonight were two girls at different ages (Gr. 7 and Gr. 11) that share many things in common. Their commonalities have caused them both to struggle at times in their lives. We have been hoping for a while that they would connect at the Centre and provide for each other a much needed sounding board of support. I stood back grinning from ear to ear as I watched the relationship unfold. We all need someone who sees us for who we are and truly gets us.

In our Makerspace the sewing machine is once again up and running. The guitar player’s wife shares her love of sewing with those who want to learn. Tonight she reconnects with a young girl that she has been patiently working with for the last 3 weeks. Together they have made a beautiful storage basket and tonight they are starting pajama bottoms!

Tucked into another corner of the room the grandson takes the time to teach and play with a younger boy Magic the Gathering. This same boy spent time on another day patiently showing my own five year old how to build series and parallel circuits using Snap Circuits.

In our Computer Lab a group of Minecrafters collaborate to explore an adventure world on Minecraft EDU. Their energy and excitement can be felt throughout the room.

As we completed our 360 degree survey of the room Zoe turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if all learning opportunities looked like this? This gets me emotional.”

I was thinking the exact same thing! It was so moving and powerful to witness so much reach rich and authentic learning. I know that the physical environment plays a huge roll, but what I also want to know is what drives our families to bring and share their talents with everyone?

When I ponder what makes people willing to share I am drawn to the conversations we had with our grade seven students this past week. Over 4 different classes of students, I repeatedly had students say that one of the reasons that they enjoy coming to the Centre is that they feel comfortable enough to make mistakes. Physical environment alone isn’t enough to create comfort, but it is a part of the equation.

I believe the physical environment supports the creation of a community and it is when we feel a part of something, both socially and emotionally, that we are more willing to share our passions. I have continued to explore learning environments and am drawn to Constructivist Theory. According to this theory we view learning as being constructed rather than a transmission of information. Built into this theory is the use of manipulative materials and that learning is most effective when the learner walks away with a product.

According to the Harvard Agency by Design they see, “ a new kind of hands-on pedagogy emerging, one that "encourages community and collaboration (a do-it-together mentality), distributed teaching, boundary crossing, and a responsive and flexible pedagogy."

When I look around the Enrichment & Innovation Centre this is exactly what I see!