What makes a learning environment modern?


The term modern learning environments (MLE) has gained currency in recent years as a way of referring to the new forms of school buildings that are being constructed in New Zealand and other places around the world. The term is synonomous with 21st Century Learning Envrionments, or Schools of the Future etc. 

As with any form of language there are those who support as well as those who oppose the use of the term or phrase. For me, reference to 21st Century Learning Environments had meaning at the end of last century, but is a term that loses currency every year we actually enter into the 21st century, and "schools for the future" draws you into the endless discussions about what the future might be, and whether we should be preparing our students for the future, or be considering what education might be like in the future. Both are valid questions, but difficult to ascribe meaning to in terms of school buildings.

Personally, I like the term 'modern learning environments'. I like it for two reasons, firstly because of the reference to learning environments rather than schools. This opens up the possibility for considering all sorts of dimensions to what a learning environment might be – from what we currently know and understand as schools with organised classrooms etc, to community learning spaces, homes and evern the virtual (online) dimension that now forms a significant part of most students' learning experience. 

Second, I like the use of the term 'modern'. I know that many people argue against the use of this term, based on the fact that buildings constructed back at the turn of last century may have been considered modern then, but are 'old hat' and no longer fit for purpose nowadays. Others argue that many of the buildings being constructed now aren't modern, but merely replicas of what we've had in the past. 

For me, however, it's the genesis of the term 'modern' that gives it meaning for me in the context of modern learning environments. 

Going back to Late Latin modernus, "modern," which is derived from Latin modo in the sense "just now," the English word modern (first recorded at the beginning of the 16th century) was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned.  (from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/modern)

Understood like this, to be modern, any thing we're designing or building must be conceived of and developed for what we know and understand 'just now', drawing on our lessons from the past, and considering the demands of the future (whatever they may be) – but in essence, it must capture the essence of "just now" – which, in my view, necessarily means it cannot be then cast in stone and considered "finished", but must be continually refreshed and revisited in order that the design remain current and "just now" as the future unfolds. 

The principles of "open-ness", "flexibility" and "agility" that underpin so much of what is in the literature about modern learning environments underpins the significance of this for me.  While architects may plan and builders construct the sorts of buildings we will then occupy to teach and learn in, it is this very activity that will define them as learning environments, and as such, they need to be able to accommodate our need for change in practice as a result of changes in our mental models and the beliefs we hold and share about teaching and learning. 

Basically, I believe that to be 'modern' means, as its definition suggests, continually "just now", or "contemporary", and as such, means that we must always be in a state of openness to change and development. This is why it's really not possible to copy what someone else has done, or to template the design of a MLE (building) and replicate it in a number of contexts (despite the economic benefits of doing so). While we can certainly draw inspiration from what others have done, a truly modern learning environment will be "just now" for the community that will occupy and use it, reflecting their particular values and beliefs, and be flexible enough to accommodate these as they change and adapt into the future. 

True – we've had buildings constructed for schools in the past that were considered modern at the time – and are now considered 'out of date'. The reason – they lacked the ability to be used flexibly and creatively as the needs and aspirations of those using them changed and evolved. A MLE isn't about the amount of glass and concrete that is used, or about the lines, shapes and angles that are incorporated – it isn't even about the amount of technology that is crammed into every crevice of the structure – it's about the people who use it, and about how flexible, agile and adaptable it is to how it will be used, now and in the future. 

Further questions I then ask include,

  • 'is it a place learners where can feel safe?
  • 'does it support learners with different learning needs and styles?
  • 'what is the link/interface with learning at home and in other community contexts?'
  • 'how are community values, beliefs, activities etc incorporated into the design?'
  • 'does it promote collaboration between and among students? and teachers?'

Lots to ponder here – I'd be interested in what others think?


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