Empowering learners (that includes you, teachers)

First week of school is always a roller coaster of anticipation, planning, adapting, winging it. There a things about it I love: like meeting my new class, getting to know them, seeing the potential for the year; and bits that are harder to fully appreciate: last minute changes to classes, timetables, rosters; realising after 10 minutes that I’ve pitched a lesson at completely the wrong level and the constant thinking, planning, worrying. On the whole though, for me the good far outweighs the challenging. Fresh starts, shiny shoes and that buzz of excitement that fills the first week win every time.

This year one of the things that’s made the first week particularly exciting is that I’m trying out a more flexible learning space. I spent a lot of time over the summer reading, talking to people and thinking about how a space impacts on learning. This is one of my favourite parts of being an educator, the potential for change and improvement. I believe that teaching is at it’s core fundamentally innovative, every day, every lesson we are in a position to innovate, to respond to students flexibly, to adapt, to experiment. I just love it.

I’ve started small with changing the learning space, I wanted my students to have something familiar to begin with so they felt comfortable and could interact with the environment as they felt ready. It has been so inspiring to see how they chose to use the different spaces and furniture and the care they took with these decisions. This week I only had half my class, the Year Ones, as the Kindergartens start on Monday. This has made it easier for them to explore different options. The thing that stuck out for me was how much they thought about where and how they would work and how well they worked in these spaces. When they chose their space they all, without exception, focused on their task fully in a way that I hadn’t expected. It was also interesting to see who consistently chose to work alone, in spaces very much apart from other students, something that I had deliberately allowed space for after reading Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’.

On Friday afternoon I asked them what they thought about the classroom and if we should change anything. They had amazing, practical ideas. We need to move the bean bag because it’s in the way at the moment, we should use the cushions better and the coffee tables should be together, for a start. They are so excited to take responsibility for this environment, one student has allocated himself ‘cushion organiser’ and will set up the cushions every morning. They pack away the furniture at the end of each day without being asked and they are the most settled I have ever seen a class by the end of week one. Why? I believe it’s because they feel empowered, they’ve been given the opportunity to make choices about their learning and they have risen to this challenge. I can’t wait to see what impact this has on their learning and their social and emotional development over the year.

As to me, I also have been empowered, I was able to choose the furniture for my classroom, I haven’t had to work with a set of standardised desks and chairs. I was empowered to research, to explore and to present my rationale for these changes. I was empowered to reflect on my practice and to seek to change it in order to improve the outcomes for my students. This is what excites me, this is what makes me love my job. As empowered learners there is no end to what my students and I can achieve.

How was your first week? What are you trying this year? How are you empowering your students and yourself?

This is how my classroom looked this week, it will look different on Monday and I can’t imagine what it will look like by the end of the year. Exciting times.

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7 thoughts on “Empowering learners (that includes you, teachers)

  1. What a great start to the year, Michelle. i’m looking forward to hearing how it progresses. I had a similar experience with my Year Two’s when I introduced a more flexible learning environment, also partly inspired by Susan Caine’s Quiet. Like you, I found that some children were drawn to the corners or the quieter nooks, while others were drawn to the more social, crowded areas. We had lots of conversations about how they learned and the type of space that would suit different learning activities. I saw an increase in metacognitive skills and children began choosing different spaces for different activities. They became quite empowered learners, choosing group spaces for when they knew they would work best collaboratively and quiet spaces for when they felt they needed to focus on something without being distracted by others. I wasn’t sure that such young children could be so self aware or take so much responsibility for their learning, but it turns out they could – and it was an empowering year for all of us.

    • Thanks Corinne, it has already surprised me how mature and responsible the students have been when making choices. I’m really excited to see how it changes and plays out over the year.

  2. I’m so interested to see how this goes! It looks like a really interesting idea.

    Fantastic that you’re getting the students so involved in the process of organising their space as well: necessary for creating ‘ownership’ over their learning.

      • Sounds interesting! I think in general kids are much more capable than we give them credit for, and it’s only when we give them opportunities to be autonomous and respect their opinions (and intelligence) that we become aware of this.

  3. I love how much more space there is in the room when the majority of the desks and chairs are removed. I would really have enjoyed seeing the excitement on your students faces when they first entered the room and hearing their conversations as they took ownership of the arrangements. Thank you for sharing. It’s inspiring.

    • Thanks Anne, it was just so rewarding seeing them think about how they wanted to learn and adjust that for different tasks. They also gave each other advice about where they could get a cushion from, or what they could try. Just lovely. Excited to see how the Kindys go…

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