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Why I let my pupils sit in my storeroom, if they want to

| November 17, 2017 | 0 Comments


At Dainfern College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, teachers are giving the classroom a 21st Century makeover, to improve the learning experience.

Sandi Tyson walked back into her Dainfern College classroom after a 12-year break from teaching, and her
first thought was: “My classroom hasn’t changed at all.”

But instead of giving Tyson (a Grade 4 teacher) a comforting sense of familiarity, it caused her concern.
“There’s been a huge change in the technology we use in education. And the pedagogy – the methods and practices of
teaching – has become much more progressive and relevant. But school classrooms haven’t changed. They look the same as they did in the 1920s,” says Tyson. Classrooms back in the 1920s looked much like the offices
and factories of that time; schools were preparing children then for jobs of that era. Workplaces today look very different. But the classroom has – save for the blackboard, which has turned white – remained the same: rows or clusters of brown desks, and hard, upright chairs. “This means we’re sending children into office spaces that look nothing like their classrooms, and which are not familiar to them at all,” says Tyson. “We should be
concerned, because the antiquated classroom space has had a serious impact on the child, and his ability to learn and become a critical thinker in the 21st century.” Tyson points to research that shows that the traditional
classroom space does not match the high-tech, colourful, digital, connected, social world that today’s students inhabit. In fact, pupils find the traditional classroom space boring, uninspiring and uncomfortable. And when they’re uninspired and uncomfortable, they don’t learn as well as we’d like them to. Their critical-thinking abilities simply do not develop, and the child cannot achieve their true potential effectively.

Giving students more choice, to give them more power so they can learn better
These insights inspired Tyson to revamp the Dainfern College classroom space, with the school’s endorsement. She attended various courses on the topic of flexible classrooms, and started testing out new furniture items in her classroom. She is driving the adoption of flexible spaces at Dainfern College, in line with the school’s commitment to innovation and top-class education. “The need to work collaboratively and cooperatively has long been in existence. The expectation that we continuously strive to satisfy varying learning styles and explicitly develop skills within the context of our contemporary world is most certainly upon us,” says Brendan Quinn, principal of Dainfern College
Senior Preparatory. “The concept of implementing flexible learning spaces is simply one facet of providing for the needs and expectations of our students.” Tyson explains that in a flexible classroom, there are a variety
of seating options available to the pupil – from beanbags to stools and rocking chairs. And they’re colourful and attractive. “The pupil decides where he’d like to sit, depending on the task he’s been given by the teacher, or the way he’s feeling.” And as for the teacher: she has greater flexibility, too, and it’s giving her new superpowers. Previously, the teacher occupied a position at the front of the class, where she lectured (and hoped her pupils were listening). In a flexible classroom, the teacher  stands where she feels best positioned to reach her pupils. This arrangement makes it easier to interact with every pupil – something that’s easier to do now that pupils are seated more organically around the classroom space. Isn’t this precisely what a teacher should do – travel to every pupil, to inspire, guide,
encourage, correct and connect? Today, Tyson’s classroom looks nothing like a classroom.
There are beanbags in bold colours, stools that are designed with rounded bottoms to enable wobbling (which we’ll talk about in a minute), and desks shaped like rainbows. And you’ll notice that her pupils wear big smiles and are very alert and engaged.  “The biggest change I’ve witnessed since adopting a flexible classroom is that I am reaching more children on an individual level. This learning space has sparked their interest and their enthusiasm for learning. They’re also taking ownership for their learning, because they are choosing where they sit. What’s
more, the groupwork noise is more constructive. I hear pupils really engaging with the groupwork task and seeing it through, rather than losing focus and becoming distracted,” she explains. The growth in the confidence of her Grade 4 pupils is also a significant measure of the success of this initiative. “For me as the teacher, the flexible classroom has proved more user-friendly, because I can see what each child is doing. I can help them manage their work,” she says.

Grand designs for better classrooms
At this point, it’s pertinent to note that Tyson didn’t simply throw funky new furniture into her classroom and hope for the best. She has designed her classroom learning space according to the principles of HOMAGO, and also the Campfire/ Waterhole/Cave principle – all recommended by experts. HOMAGO is an acronym for Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out – the three spaces that each classroom should comprise so as to engage learning, according to one of its creators, Mizuko Ito (a cultural Professor in Residence at the University of California Humanities Research Institute in the US). The Hanging Out space is a casual space, where you can sit
comfortably with friends around you and chat. It’s easy to see how this sort of space lends itself to groupwork tasks. The Messing Around space is your play area. And the Geeking Out space is where the pupil can work (be it in a group or by themself ). This is usually a quieter space. Then there’s the concept of the Campfire/Waterhole/Cave,
developed by David Thornburg. Again, the classroom should have a “campfire” space, where the pupils gather to learn from an expert (who isn’t necessarily the teacher). It should also have a “watering hole” space, which is more informal, and where everyone gets to be both the teacher and the pupil. And it should have a “cave”, too, where it’s quiet, and where the pupil can reflect and work independently. So Tyson’s class has some round tables where pupils can gather and chat, some beanbags where they can stretch out to read, and a low bench by her window where pupils can sit and gaze out while they think. And she has cleared out her storeroom, to make space for pupils who want to sit there. “Yes – I have pupils who ask to sit there because they want a quiet space where they can work alone. And then I have pupils who get their assignment and then sit outside my classroom, because the corridor space appeals to them,” she says.

Are we inviting chaos, and putting challenged learners at risk?
This all sounds amazing. But is there not the potential for chaos in this sort of classroom? It raises questions about the demise of classroom discipline, and also about the risks to pupils who have learning challenges. And what about the effect that some of the furniture may have on pupil posture? “I had expected the excitement
and chaos that we experienced on the first day or two in our new learning space,” says Tyson. “But since then,
I’ve actually found it easier to maintain discipline in the classroom, because the children are taking
greater ownership for their learning and their behaviour in general.” She adds that the children are more
engaged with lessons and learning tasks. Pupils have signed a “contract” and observe certain rules; they know
that if they’d like to swap seats during a lesson, they need to tap their peer on the shoulder to request the swap They are not under any obligation to switch seats, but Tyson has noticed that they are learning a great deal about negotiation,compromise and respect through the process. Even her shy pupils, who held back during the first few days under this new regime, are now confidently taking the lead in choosing where to sit. As for the children who need to fidget, the flexible classroom has proved a wonderful solution. “I find that those pupils who experience difficulty with concentration are much happier and better able to focus. The new learning space has
taken away their anxiety, because they have the freedom to choose where they’ll sit most comfortably. And for the children who feel the need to move to help their focus, the round bottomed stools that we use allow them to move around without disturbing their classmates, so they’re focusing better, too,” says Tyson. When it comes to the design of the furniture and its ergonomics, Tyson is clear that the new furniture is superior to the traditional desk and chair. “The traditional plastic we used made it easy for the children to slip into the incorrect seating posture. The backless chairs, stools and ottomans in my classroom encourage the children to sit up straight and engage their core,” she says. “And they are free to move to a chair that does have a backrest, should they feel that they need it.”
The children don’t stay in one spot for more than an hour, or the duration of a single lesson, adds Tyson. “They move around the classroom, from one lesson to the next. What’s more, they have the freedom to switch places during a lesson.” This also helps to maintain their interest throughout the day, and it means that they can seek out a spot that’s physically more comfortable. “I watched one pupil who had picked a seat and started working. He realised he was uncomfortable, given the task he’d been given, and he moved to a different seat,” she comments.

The future is bright. And it’s shaped like a beanbag…
Sandy St Clair, a Grade 5 teacher at Dainfern College, is also making good use of flexible learning spaces. In teaching new mathematical concepts, she created maths stations: her pupils rotated between the different stations in different groups (and the groups were organised differently, depending on the tasks). And she found it very useful. “It was most valuable having small groups when introducing a new concept, as it was far easier to spot those children who had not grasped the content,” she reports. Grouping children according to their ability for some tasks meant that she could pitch the content accordingly, and thus teach more effectively, too. “The only negative aspect was that some children battled to read the instructions at the different stations, and to work on their own. They needed constant reassurance that they were on the right track. With more exposure to this system, I think they would soon feel more confident about the tasks to be done,” she says. High school natural sciences teacher, Liesel Keyser, says that
she, too, has started adopting flexible spaces principles, by rearranging her students’ desks so that some are in pairs, some are in groups, etc. “I thought this would create discipline problems, but it hasn’t. In fact, the students seem to react positively to it. There is definitely more engagement during lessons,” she says. The expectation is that these flexible spaces will lift student grades, since they promote better engagement and happier learning. It’s too soon to tell if Dainfern College students are emerging from assessments with better grades. But the teachers say that if the initial results are anything to go by, their students will perform better and enjoy school more, too.

Fulvia Stoltz is the digital communication assistant at
Dainfern College.

References and resources:
1. See: Ito. M., Horst, H.A., Antin, J., Finn, M. et al. (2013) Hanging Out,
Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New
Media (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on
Digital Media and Learning). Boston: The MIT Press. See also:
2. See:


Category: Summer 2017

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