Designing 21st century learning environments

by Marco Kools
Analyst, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Innovation is a key element of today’s societies and economies, and that includes how we learn. Much has been written about innovation in education, but what does it really mean in practice in terms of content, organisation of learning, roles of teachers, etc.? How does one design a powerful learning environment that enables students to thrive in the 21st century?

The just released OECD publication Innovative Learning Environments responds to these challenging questions. This publication is based on the detailed analysis of 40 in-depth case studies of powerful 21st century learning environments (schools) that have taken the innovation journey. It presents a new framework for understanding these learning environments and is a valuable addition to the toolbox of those who believe in the value of innovation in education to ensure its central preoccupation – improve learning.

The analysis of these case studies shows that rethinking the four elements of the “pedagogical core” – learners, educators, content and resources – is fundamental to the innovation of any school or learning environment. Regarding content, innovative learning environments often seek to develop 21st century competences, as well as innovating specific knowledge domains or subject areas. Many of these practices go hand-in-hand with a more open and flexible use of space, informed by particular models of how learning should be organised. Here the aim is often to open up and “deprivatise” educational spaces, creating visibility and breaking down the close association between a particular learning space and a single teacher.

Innovating these core elements requires rethinking of the organisational patterns that deeply structure schools – the single teacher, the segmented classroom with that teacher, the familiar timetable structure and bureaucratic classroom units, and traditional approaches to teaching and classroom organisation. Many innovative learning environments for example use time more flexibly than is traditionally the case in schools. This flexibility often goes hand-in-hand with individualised learning plans where each learner may be working on something different, as well as with educational philosophies determined to make schooling less bureaucratic.

A key question for governments to consider therefore is what they can do to enable schools to become innovative learning environments, while meeting the requirements of public accountability. This is one of the key issues being investigated by the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) project and its sister project Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES), which are activities of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI).

The analysis of the case studies also shows how learning environments can become “formative organisations” through strong design strategies with corresponding learning leadership, evaluation and feedback, and how opening up to partnerships helps grow social and professional capital, and allows for sustaining renewal and dynamism.

The case studies further confirm and amplify our earlier research findings on learning, and what this means in practice (see The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice). In order to be most effective, learning environments should:
· Make learning and engagement central.
· Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative.
· Be highly attuned to learner motivations and emotions.
· Be acutely sensitive to individual differences.
· Be demanding for each learner but without excessive overload.
· Use assessments consistent with learning aims, with strong emphasis on formative feedback.
Ideally all of these principles should be met, not just a selected few.

“Much has been written about learning environments, and about innovation but nowhere will you find such a deep and cogent portrayal of the key principles as in the OECD’s report, Innovative Learning Environments. Learners, pedagogical core, learning environments, partnerships, sustainability – it’s all captured in this remarkable volume.”
(Michael Fullan, OC, Professor Emeritus, OISE, University of Toronto)

“Everyone in education is talking about innovation. What is different here is that the best of what we know about learning is at the centre and is richly illustrated with real cases to answer the question, ‘What will this look like?’”
(Helen Timperley, Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland)


Photo credits: Cover © Inmagine LTD.

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