Learning Plazas - a reflection

Published: Wednesday 19 June 2013

Following the CEFPI NSW visit to the MLC School "Enlightenment" spaces they reminded me of the use of prototype "learning plaza" spaces at New Line Learning Academy in Kent (UK).
There is surprisingly little good material on the net. New Line Learning's website (http://www.futureschoolstrust.com/New-Line-Learning/We-are-NLL) lacks detail on the prototype spaces, so I thought I'd bash out my own thoughts from visiting the first two plazas in 2009:

New Line Learning had the challenge of transforming a challenging "failing" school in a post industrial area (the pedagogical response is obviously different from that at MLC). The Academy built three "learning plazas" to trial new learning environments while the brief and design for a major new-build redevelopment of the existing school site was developed. Instead of combining adjoining classrooms as has been done at MLC, New Line Learning built their plazas in existing under-utilised gyms, refurbishing them with extensive IT, acoustic treatment, moveable furniture, glazed break-out rooms etc. This allowed both teachers and students to explore team teaching and collaborative project based learning in spaces sized to be occupied by 60 or 90 students supported by 3-4 teachers and additional teaching assistants.

The Academy's intention was to develop the students' emotional intelligence and support team teaching by allowing teachers to learn from each other's practice and work to their strengths. Lessons plans were developed to encourage student engagement, with rapid transition between different learning modes and associated settings - for example from large group activities at the centre of the space, large group presentations on the moveable "banana" seating, to creative small group project work at tables or reflective independent study at the perimeter. Walls are articulated to incorporate IT, study niches, projection and display as well as acoustic panels. Ceilings incorporate coloured LED lighting to set the right mood for different activities.

The head teacher, Chris Gerry, was passionate about ubiquitous IT with all students allocated laptops which can interface with displays and projection surfaces on the walls. He's also an advocate of the extensive use of data to track student attainment for mentoring and early intervention where there are concerns. I think the school works to a programme of fortnightly one-to-one mentoring sessions.

I suspect the final new build school, which incorporates a series of double height plazas where students spend 70% of their school day, may be vulnerable to criticism for replacing one industrial model for school design (30 student classrooms) with another (90 student plazas) however there are obviously two sides to this argument.

Another good example of prototype spaces are the pilot projects in the UK Department for Education's "Space 4 Personalised Learning" (Space4PL) research project (www.space4pl.net). This was a two-year government funded research project which explored the spatial implications of personalisation. Designs were developed for ten pilot projects which would support innovation in teaching and learning and in several cases serve as prototypes to test changes in pedagogical approach prior to future investment at each school. In addition to the "exemplar" prototype spaces, the research project sought to develop a flexible methodology for innovation by disseminating a tested process and set of tools for creating new learning environments generally. It was intended to build up a knowledge base on personalisation and gear up schools for subsequent investment in the (now discontinued) BSF and PCP programmes. The project was developed by DEGW with Penoyre & Prasad, FutureLab and Edison Learning.

Noam Raz

CEFPI Member