David Instance (OECD): “Look beyond the structure of schooling”

Access and Inclusion January 28, 2014

Why innovation? Why learning?

In 2009, nearly 20% of 15-year-olds participating in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures learners’ knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and science, failed to perform at levels commonly seen as the basic minimum needed to function in the contemporary world. That percentage was higher in some systems. The speed of change is itself a very powerful argument for innovation. Education cannot and should not change as rapidly as the technologies or the events of the world in which young people are being raised. But it does call for innovation so that they will be better equipped to live in that rapidly changing world. Young people, surrounded by digital media and interacting with each other in different ways from generations past, are themselves part of the rapid change.

The arguments for innovation are thus based both on observation that existing models are failing too many young people and that the goal posts have not ceased to move and more is constantly being expected. With this comes the more demanding agendas for learning manifest in the contemporary discourse: deep learning (genuine understanding of subject matter and the ability to use and apply it), 21st-century competences (including the capacity to work together creatively), and laying robust foundations for lifelong learning

This should avoid viewing learning as a narrow technical matter for individuals at the expense of education. The continued need for socialization into shared culture and the development of robust personal values has if anything been accentuated in light of changes in the work, family and media environments of young people. Our focus is not on learning as a private matter associated first and foremost with the individual, but as an accomplishment with and through others – i.e. learning environments.

How ILE conceptualizes “learning environments” 

Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) is one of the main projects in the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

As the focus for reform has been increasingly to look beyond the structures of schooling to arrangements for learning no matter who organizes them, we have sought a broader understanding of “environments” than simply as settings (place, physical environment, technological environment) though these all come into it. From the learner’s point of view, the environment is more holistic than this – it is the entire teaching, knowledge, peer, and pedagogical environment in which his or her learning takes place. Therefore, we conceptualize learning environments as the interaction of four key elements – learnersteachers (including other adults and para-professionals), content, and resources (facilities and technologies) – through the intervening relational medium of the organization. Organization is at the center of our schema as the “engine room” connecting the other key elements.

An important development in understanding learning has been recognition of the importance of context. For ILE, instead of context being seen as somehow external to the main players and processes – the setting in which the learning environment is “located” – we prefer to view it as embedded. The “learners” bring with them particular social profiles, knowledge sets, experience and values. The “teachers” have particular age, gender and qualification profiles, and their employment is shaped by wider regulation and social factors. The “resources” (facilities and technologies) are shaped by contextual factors. “Content” is an expression of all these elements, plus curriculum, regulations, etc. In other words, we see context as directly coloring the learning environment.

The ILE Project

ILE is squarely focused on innovative ways of organizing learning for young people and on evidence of what makes the environments in which this takes place effective. Specifically, ILE aims to:

  • Analyze and synthesize international research findings from different parts of the world – theLearning Research strand – to inform the design and creation of environments supporting deeper and more effective learning. 
  • Identify and analyze concrete examples of innovative learning environments from many different countries and contexts – the Innovative Cases strand. Many innovations have been gathered and work is well underway to produce the next ILE publication based on these due later in 2012.
  • Engage with the many systems and stakeholders involved to identify ways ahead to implement desirable change – the Implementation and Change strand. This began towards the end of 2011 and will be continued until 2014.

Over 25 countries and regions are active in ILE, providing examples of innovative learning environments and discussing practical ways ahead. We are working with innovators, leaders, decision-makers, experts and practitioners in these different systems. The aim has been to avoid a purely analytical exercise and instead to engage with such stakeholders as an integral aspect throughout the work. 

The “learning research” strand

The main outcome to date under this first strand of the ILE project is the volume published by the OECD in 2010 – The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice. Leading researchers from Europe and North America were invited to take different perspectives, summarizing large bodies of research and identifying their significance for the design of learning environments,

The Nature of Learning proposes that, in order to be most effective, environments should embody all the following: 

  • Make learning central, encourage engagement, and be where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
  • Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative.
  • Be highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions.
  • Be acutely sensitive to individual differences including in prior knowledge. 
  • Be demanding for each learner but without excessive overload.
  • Use assessments consistent with its aims, with strong emphasis on formative feedback to identify learner needs and shape next steps for teaching and learning.
  • Promote horizontal connectedness across activities and subjects, in- and out-of-school.

These “principles” offer foundations for the rest of the project and a lens through which to assess designs for learning as well as for learning spaces. They do not provide hard and fast rules but instead they suggest important questions such as: is collaborative learning possible in this design? Is there sufficient flexibility to respond to the varied needs of learners? Is the physical environment engaging and motivating? Do learning activities define the space? Does it permit connections to be made with other subjects or age groups and with out-of-school learning?

The “innovative cases” strand

The “innovative cases” strand complements the research on learning by identifying and analyzing concrete examples of innovative learning environments from many different countries and contexts. They offer a multitude of fascinating examples of what is being tried in different systems, with “thick descriptions” of how they work in practice. 

The examples compiled may be found at our website (www.oecd.org/edu/learningenvironments).  We refer to the basic pool of cases as the project “Universe”. To be admitted, they have met the following criteria:

  • They serve the learning needs of children and adolescents (approximately aged 3 to 19 or some band within that), whether exclusively or in mixed-age environments.
  • They are intentional departures from the large body of general or vocational education – i.e. they are deliberately innovative.
  • They cover holistic learning arrangements for learners in the same context through time – they are more than particular learning episodes or even courses. They may be located in places called “schools” but they may be partly or entirely outside school if they meet the other criteria.
  • They are cases with a track record that are embedded in practice rather than prototypical experimental ideas, however promising, that have not yet been implemented.

Around 40 cases were identified for more in-depth case study and analysis. These constitute the project “Inventory”.  The methodology is more rigorous too, drawing in researchers rather than relying on self-report. The case studies address four key areas: a) The aims of the ILE and the nature and history of the innovation; b) Its structured patterns and characteristics; c) The nature and quality of the learning taking place in classrooms, workshops, laboratories, and in the non-formal and other settings; c) The impact and effectiveness of the ILE.

Examples of innovation using different types of learning spaces and resources

Courtenay Gardens, Victoria, Australia: This is a primary school in a low-socioeconomic area which uses various multimedia facilities and research-based personalized learning frameworks. Students have access to a multimedia television studio and a radio broadcasting station. Additional learning resources come through such means as the performing arts center and the outdoor fitness stations. Classrooms are technology-rich and purpose-built with shared learning spaces for team teaching and group work. Student progress is registered in an electronic school-wide data tracker that allows evaluation against whole class and year performance. Parents are able to follow training so that they can become classroom assistants. 

Culture Path, Kuopio, Finland: This is aimed at enhancing the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of 7-16 year-olds by ensuring that every student has access to the city’s cultural services. There are practical tools for teachers to implement goal-oriented cultural education. The program is divided into nine “paths” related to art, libraries, theater, etc., which are designed for each grade level within and across different subjects. Students visit at least one local cultural institution outside the school environment every year. After eight years on the Culture Path, 9th graders can use the city’s cultural services for free.

Escola Movel, Portugal: This is a distance-learning initiative aimed initially at circus and fairground adolescents (aged 10-17), and later widened to other “at-risk” groups. It aims to give permanent access to a virtual, national-curriculum-oriented learning environment. The content is both subject-specific and cross-curricular, and is personalized through an individual tutor. Each learner works with a tutor face-to-face over four weeks a year.  They must log on to online sessions from a school or library wherever the traveling learner is based at the time. 

Enrichment Programs, Rodica Primary School, Slovenia: The objective of the enrichment programs is to complement regular school curriculum with additional contents, thereby increasing student motivation and fostering social skills, learning strategies, independence, and self confidence from grade 4 and onwards. Teachers use alternative forms of assessment, for example, pedagogical dialogues with the students about their individual progress, and students present their results and products at the school level (e.g., in films). Learning often takes place outside the classroom – in nature, camps, etc. – where active learning takes place and interactions with parents and community members are stimulated.

The “implementation and change” strand

Underpinning much policy discussion and analysis are the conventional bureaucratic layers of systems and institutions. We propose instead a framework with the classroom-level arrangements for learning and networks/clusters across learning environments at the center. The larger system context is important but addressed first and foremost as to whether it enables or inhibits learning. The framework has four layers:

  • Creating and sustaining effective learning environments around 21st-century agendas, while at the same time forging the learning episodes in classrooms into whole learning environments.
  • Ensuring consistency, even synergy, at this classroom level between learning and the wider organization, i.e. between the “technical core” of learning and pedagogy and their institutional contexts (schools and other settings).
  • “Going to scale” through learning networks and communities of practice across environments.. 
  • Pursuing policy strategies that create conditions and capacity to allow learning and networks and communities of practice to flourish.

We expect that the most promising and far-reaching of the change strategies will involve all four of these working together. Without genuine changes in classrooms, networks and communities of practice and across education systems, efforts will not be reaching learners themselves. But with only classroom-level change, on the other hand, very limited scale is achieved and what progress there is may be rapidly undone by the fluctuations of individual leaders or the vagaries of other contextual circumstances.