Recently, in education circles, the “where” of education has become almost as important as the “what”. In other words, education is not only about learning your three “R”s. It’s also about understanding the conditions within which learning happens best. An effective “learning environment” can go a long way towards student success and when it’s good, it produces creative, confident students with a life-long love of learning. Some schools have been investigating these principles in practical ways, and recently I had the opportunity to see for myself a wonderful example from the other side of the world.
In the sprawling metropolis of Melbourne, nestled in a bustling, inner city suburb, sits one of Australia’s oldest and most respected “progressive” schools. Preshil has spent a great deal of time crafting its learning environment. Once you pass through the school gates, the first thing that strikes you is its homey feel. It seems like a small village built especially for children. The classrooms are freestanding “huts,” of different shapes and sizes, connected by paths and decks. Some are raised higher than others with an appealing “tree-house” vibe. Between the buildings are various courtyards and play areas. The grounds are dotted with shady trees and low maintenance garden beds.
Inside the classrooms, the plan is open and bright, with few walls and lots of windows. Classrooms are large and are often combinations of different grade levels. Team-teaching is the norm in this school, with multiple teachers in each room. Each classroom has the feel of a comfortable home, complete with sofas, beanbags, a large dining table and even a kitchen sink. In fact, classrooms have deliberately been designed with a kitchen at their centre. The thinking here is that for young children, the kitchen is the heart of the home and one of the most comfortable places for them to be. This doesn’t mean that teachers are spending a lot of their time cooking for the kids (although, they do cook ‘feasts’ with the kids every now and again), but it has the effect of creating a familiar environment within which children are at ease and naturally social and responsive learners.
Everything about the classroom environment sets the children up to learn, and learn they do. While students do very well academically at Preshil, they also clearly love their school very much.
What strikes me about Preshil is its ideal learning environment is modeled on a small, close-knit community. I couldn’t help thinking of my experience living in Sackville. It seems to me that so much of what Preshil is cultivating in its students comes from creating a small town feel within a big city context. This is a school where people know each other and look out for one another. And yet, Sackville has it even better. Unlike Preshil, Sackville’s learning community is not hedged in by the walls of a school. What’s more, we don’t need to manufacture a caring and integrated learning community, we already have one. We are one.
Learning is a community effort, and it seems to make sense that our schools model this reality.
As we consider what steps to take for the future of education in our community, it may be worth envisioning schools that build on what we already do well. Learning is a community effort, and it seems to make sense that our schools model this reality. It’s exciting to think about what Sackville offers to education and amazing to consider what it is that we are already doing so well. Sackville is already a wonderful learning environment and maybe our schools should be modeled on what we most value about our town. We often hear the expression “It takes a village to raise a child.” Maybe we should change that slightly to “It takes a town…”