Making spaces to create: environments for collaborative planning

Of the many roles I play as a consultant supporting teachers and learners in inquiry. – one of my favourites is the opportunity to engage in collaborative design for learning. Effective planning (although I do prefer the word ‘designing’ these days) is an essential skill for teachers who use an inquiry approach. It requires a deft blend of thinking ahead while being responsive to what is happening in the moment. There needs to be just the right balance between elements agreed to by the team and individual freedom to follow the interests and needs of a groups.  Documentation is important for accountability but an over-emphasis on it can detract from the delight of the process and take far too much time.  Increasingly, we understand the importance of inviting the learner’s voice into the planning process, while  attending to curriculum standards and outcomes. Needless to say, true collaborative planning is a complex, multi-layered process.  It is no longer sufficient to simply tweak ‘what we did last year’ nor are we going to foster true inquiry if we studiously plan out 6-10 weeks of detailed learning tasks! 

 The process takes time and a commitment to regular thoughtful, collaborative conversations.  Participating in these conversations can be an incredibly creative experience. In fact, I believe that designing for inquiry learning is one of the most creative elements of our work!   When we truly commit to this approach, we are working with new ideas, multiple elements and authentic contexts. It feels like a combination of choreography and architecture with a generous helping of improvisation thrown in to the mix. 

 Given the significance and artistry of collaborative planning for inquiry, I find myself wondering why we often pay such scant attention to the environments in which these powerful and important conversations take place.  In recent years, many of us have become much more aware of the role that the physical environment plays in supporting learning in the classroom – but do we show the same care and attention to our meeting spaces? 

 Not all schools have (or even want) dedicated meeting/planning areas. For some, classrooms or staff rooms are sufficient or the only option. But many of the schools I work in do set aside a space for teams to meet, plan and evaluate their work. But there are spaces…and there are spaces!  Too often I find myself in ‘meeting rooms’ devoid of anything that might inspire us as we reflect, explore and create.  We’ve all seen them. Boxes of supplies waiting to be opened, redundant resources that are no longer used or available but well past their use by date.  Yellowing notes on a pinboard, dangling by a single pin, last year’s term overview fading on the whiteboard…or nothing at all on the walls.  A mix of furniture crammed in a space that might be too small to accommodate it. Sound familiar?  

 Now of course, great inquiry teachers can plan anytime, anywhere. No one really NEEDS an inspiring environment to design for powerful learning. BUT I wonder what would happen if we did indeed pay a little more attention to the spaces in which we ask teachers to do this important work?  How might it contribute to our wellbeing? Our creative process? 

 One school in Adelaide. – Hawthordene Primary School – recently took up the challenge of re-designing their planning room so that it provided more resources to support the process, offered an aesthetic that was welcoming and inspiring to be In and cultivated curiosity and wonder  - just as we try to do in inquiry classrooms.  Mother Teresa Primary School in Melbourne has long championed the importance of a beautiful, respectful aesthetic for all the learners in its community – children and teachers alike. There are several schools I have the pleasure of working in where attention is paid to the quality of the physical environment to support teacher planning.  Does it make a difference? Well…from my perspective, yes. It feels like it does. It speaks to the importance of the work, encourages creative thinking, supports the conversation through visible reminders of our purposes and pedagogy.  Some of the things I have seen in these schools include:

  •  Easily accessible resources to support inquiry teaching and learning – having great teacher resources on display (rather than hidden in library shelves) may encourage more staff to engage in professional reading

  • Interesting, relevant articles made available for reading – perhaps an ‘article of the week’ posted on the board

  • Art work/objects/photographs that inspire wonder and imagination

  • Natural light and flowers/plants! 

  • Equipment such as chart paper, markers, post its, index cards , whiteboard etc….while planning may be digitally documented, we find the best conversations actually happen when we record in more fluid, shared way. 

  • Access to a smart TV, IWB etc so that we can check out on line resources together

  • An active ‘wonderwall ‘ for staff! 

  • Visible reminders of some of the elements that are important in our planning – inquiry cycles, school values lists of key concepts, teaching practices, reminders of skills and dispositions (in my partner schools these are the ‘learning assets’). I prefer displays of elements that we always need to refer to when we plan … this can really help keep us focussed and mindful. 

  • Some examples of student learning – including photos that showcase some key characteristics of inquiry. 

  • A coffee machine and a bowl of the best Swiss chocolate….OK that might be stretching it!!

  • Now of course, not everyone has the resources to dedicate to this kind of space…but even a few changes to your meeting room might energise and inspire. 

  •  How important is the environment in which you plan/design for learning to you?

 Just wondering…

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS