JUDE BARBACK asks Hautapu School teachers about the benefits and challenges of moving from single cell classrooms to an open-plan, multi-teacher approach to learning.
Waikato primary school Hautapu School warranted a visit from the Minister of Education when it opened the doors to its new Pohutukawa Pod.
Actually ‘doors’ are a scarce commodity in the new pod, which features an expansive open-plan layout as currently favoured in most modern learning environments these days.
Principal Marilynn Jones’ exposure to the open- plan classroom began at the beginning of her teaching career. As a new teacher, she was placed in a teaching hub – essentially three classrooms with the walls knocked out – for 120 Year 7 and 8 students with three other teachers. She credits this experience as giving her the readiness to embrace change and new ideas.
“My colleagues were very skilled practitioners, so I was immersed in a rich environment of teaching practice and pedagogy. This de-privatised my practice and allowed me to become open about my teaching, with year-long professional development. Along with this came many skills like being open to change, flexibility, cooperation, collaboration, sharing, seeking help, and helping others!”
It wasn’t until many years and schools later that Jones was faced with the opportunity to create an open plan teaching space at Hautapu School, with the two new entrant classrooms in need of refurbishment.
“After many meetings, drawings, and discussions with the architects and Ministry approval, our plan came into fruition. We had created the plan to connect these classrooms together by knocking out two walls and adding the space in between which is now known as the ’Pohutukawa Pod’.”
Jones and staff members were able to link and formulate their ideas for the new pod through visits to other schools, including to Whitiora School in Hamilton and Stonefields and Hingaia Peninsula in Auckland. They also gleaned much from Core Education’s Mark Osborne’s research on Modern Learning Environments.
A multi-teacher approach would be one of the key features of teaching and learning in the new pod. The school had prepared itself accordingly by actively promoting student self-regulation, encouraging students to take responsibility for their learning and developing their competencies.
Before the students could move into their new environment, the teachers and students worked in the school hall for the first term of this year, giving them an opportunity to work together collaboratively.
Leadership in multi-teacher setting
A criticism of the multi-teacher approach is sometimes that teachers clash as they all strive to lead, or conversely, that all shy away from leading. However, Jones says that in the new Pohutukawa Pod, while overall leadership is provided by the senior teacher who takes responsibility for curriculum, school reports, and budgets, generally leadership is shared between the three teachers.
At times, there are deliberate acts of leadership – for example, when a lead teacher for a new learning programme will introduce and implement said programme; at other times, intuitive acts, if a teacher is busy with a parent at roll time, for example; and at other times, leadership is planned around the strengths and particular interests of a teacher, like visual art or singing.
Jones says while teachers certainly retain their own style of teaching, they also need to be adaptable and remain consistent.
“There are multiple opportunities to model teaching styles and learn from other teachers,” adds Tina-Maree Thatcher, assistant principal and senior teacher for the Pohutukawa Pod.
“We plan our topic work and key competency and health/PE work together as a team. We plan individually for our targeted learning groups for maths, writing, and reading. We collaborate over the content of the learning, its relevance for the learners, trends we are noticing, schoolwide foci areas, and particularly students who may have transferred into our groups from another teacher. We share assessment information so all teachers share the responsibility of each student.”
Another benefit Thatcher notes is if a teacher is absent, having two others already with working knowledge of the Pod and students on site to assist a reliever is a definite advantage.
The effect on students
Thatcher dispels the notion that new entrants need the reassurance of having the familiar face of one teacher. She points out that in early childhood education, children have several teachers, so school is just an extension of this.
“We recognise that students form bonds with different teachers for different reasons and we monitor this. We see this as a positive thing because it gives the child choice as to whom they connect with.”
She says that in terms of ‘playing favourites’, the teachers aim to achieve consistency with expectations – for example, the behaviour required when they come together at mat time and with positive reinforcement, such as sticker charts that encourage and acknowledge progress using the key competencies.
Thatcher says for the new entrants, they tend to have a smaller group to establish regular and stable morning routines. The teacher for this group will be the same teacher these students have for news, writing, and reading – “a literacy group that we keep together to provide stability in the first term of schooling at least.”
Beyond the new entrant group, the pod operates small and targeted learning groups focused on the needs of the learners, with students moving between learning groups based on individual progress.
Thatcher says the children are flourishing under the multi-teacher approach, with evidence of smooth transitions from early childhood education.
She says it has also increased students’ autonomy.
“We have deliberately provided students with opportunities to develop genuine ownership and autonomy of their learning environment, to improve learning, engagement and belonging.”
She cites many examples: student selection of cubby holes for bags and belongings, freedom to choose how to use furniture and where to put it, and choice of which learning space to work in at selected times.
Jones adds that the teachers benefit too, with more opportunities for sharing expertise, modelling and collaboration and day-to-day professional development.
Not without its challenges
Inevitably, there have been a few teething problems with the move to a new learning environment.
Thatcher says it is a challenge for teachers to fine-tune their intention for learning.
“If the intention for this writing lesson is for the child to draw a picture that corresponds with their news sharing, then does it matter if that child is lying on the floor writing, on a cushion, or kneeling at the table?
“But if my teaching is explicit teaching for letter formation, I might require the children to be at a table on a chair with back supported. It comes down to truly allowing the physical environment, the furniture, and other resources to truly support and enhance the learning and for the teacher to actively consider the purpose of the lesson.”
She says there is definitely more noise from the furniture and increased movement.
“It’s important to notice this, recognise that it is an example of the need for students to move, and work with it,” she says.
The pod is divided into three zones, which can be closed via sound-proof sliding doors and teachers make deliberate decisions to close the doors to support learning. For example, at phonics time, students watch a video clip, which may be distracting to children in the next zone, so the doors are closed for this.
“We are aware that we don’t want to be competing with teachers for engagement! We are sensitive to and respect each learning group.”
Thatcher says they are having trouble naming the three ‘zones’ because they don’t want to assign a teacher-name.
One enjoyable challenge has been the trial of new furniture, a departure from standard desks and chairs. The children now have a wonderful learning environment with bright, colourful furniture purchased from Furnware.
Rolling out to older students
Based on the early success of the Pohutukawa Pod, Jones says she is keen to roll out the multi-teacher, open-plan approach to older students.
“We already cross group between our classes and our teachers would jump at the opportunity to move into an environment similar to the one we have created,” she says.
She says older students’ increasing ability to self-regulate their learning means they would be well-suited to such an environment.
“We have been trialling ways in which to allow the students genuine autonomy so that they have a fully developed sense of belonging in their learning environment,” says Jones.