Case study: ILEs in action

November 2017


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Teachers of Dunedin’s Fairfield School share their candid assessment of introducing innovative learning environments.

Case study ILEs 2
Fairfield School is a decile 9 full primary school in Dunedin with a roll of 420 children. The school has slowly moved to the innovative learning environment (ILE) model. There are currently two single cell classrooms for most year levels within the school, however the Year 1, 2 and 4 groups are working in ILE with two teachers. A new purpose-built ILE has also just opened for the Year 7 and 8 classes.

The Year 2 experience – Donna Nichol

The first environment was established four years ago in a prefab class area with bifold doors in the middle. The area is designated Year 2, with 47–53 children any given year with two teachers. The space was transformed by removing desks and replacing them with standing tables, kneeling tables, couches, bean bags and writing boards. We improvised on costs by making our own writing boards (to press on when writing) out of wood or bought TV dinner tables at cost from Briscoes. We also made caves in our rooms to section off areas for learning by using old material and wall units that were being thrown out.

When we first began our journey four years ago, we found it to be a trying process with managing the children, curriculum needs and our own teaching practice. During the first year we developed simple systems that we both agreed upon, such as behaviour management steps, curriculum targets, reporting, getting to know each other’s teaching style and intense work on setting up one curriculum successfully using innovative learning as our focus. This took a whole year of talking and discussing, changing things that didn’t work and revising aspects that needed adjusting.

The subsequent years included the setup of maths and writing, fine-tuning routines, developing areas of the timetable to include critical thinking and collaboration and developing a space that could include all types of learners that would meet their needs. The early days of teaching together in an ILE were stressful at times, but this was offset with being able to express yourself to the other colleagues and have them understand what you are going through. Both of us are experienced teachers and had taught together before, so we were familiar with how our different areas of strength complemented each other’s teaching.

As we progressed throughout our time in an ILE, we underwent various professional developments, including readings, CORE Education mornings and visits to other schools. The best professional development we have had recently was the Incredible Years teacher course run by the RTLB service. It is primarily a course on behaviour management and even though we are experienced teachers, we found it very useful for moving large groups of children at a time, noise control and setting expectations. It allowed us to chat together away from school about things we wanted to change and develop a specific behaviour management plan for 52 children.

Although the first year is the hardest in teaching in an ILE, it becomes easier as time goes on as certain systems are put in place. The children learn routines quickly and enjoy having choice about where they can learn – for example, standing tables are very popular with the boys.

The children set the expectations of work level at the start of each term. Our class timetable consists of making time for celebrations of learning to create a cohesive and supportive atmosphere. We included things such as super learner of the week, and reflection of the week, looking at things we found easy and why, and things we found tough.

We also facilitate a problem-solving/critical-thinking activity on a Friday that encourages group collaboration. This activity is usually a basic problem but we are mostly trying to facilitate learning the skills involved in communicating to a group.

Our two joined classes have a celebration at the end of the year by holding an activity day where the children are challenged in their mindsets and have to use critical thinking to achieve a common goal, such as pitching a tent or scaling a wall. This is the highlight of the year for the children as they love achieving something they thought they could not do.

An ILE environment enhances student agency as the children observe others’ learning, discussion and group work. They develop friendships with a wider group and their strengths in areas are more easily accommodated through different teaching styles.

Students learn more about themselves and how they learn as they can bounce ideas off more than one adult or peer. Children become very good at self-managing themselves, communicating in a group, streamed learning and working in large spaces. From a teaching point of view, the benefits are more colleague collaboration and the chance to learn off each other, less workload, change and new ideas happening all the time.

However there are still challenges in an ILE. Noise level is very much a concern, with large groups of learners, especially at the younger age level. Priority learners need extra time and space to meet their learning needs and an old class environment has difficulty meeting those needs where the child is not being interrupted or distracted by large volumes of noise.

Squeezing all of the curriculum obligations into the timetable is still an issue, the age and maturity of students can hamper an effective ILE, and we still grapple with an effective system of reporting to parents. It is also difficult when one of us is away sick as the onus is on the remaining teacher to be the teacher and organiser for 52 children.

I love working in an ILE. I love the talk, learning and collaboration that happens. It takes a while to set up, but when it is, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

The Year 4 experience: Debbie Garth and Jo Cook-Bonney

Our journey began four years ago when teaching Year 4 classes in single cell classrooms alongside one another. With the aim of the school being to move into the ILE model, we began thinking about what we could do to begin moving in that direction.

Firstly, we decided to start with one core curriculum area and begin working more collaboratively, cross-grouping, and having students moving between our two rooms. We also thought about how we could begin utilising our individual strengths as teachers to benefit the students. We chose numeracy as an area to develop. Using assessment, we then divided the students into two ability groups. In the beginning we both taught each of the groups at different times, as we each felt responsible for our own class’s assessment and reporting. We also realised that for any of this to work we would have to align our daily timetables.

Next, we changed the furniture around in each of our rooms, getting rid of some desks and using low and high tables and purchasing bean bags in order to create different areas around the classrooms. Because the students were going to be moving from room to room, it was an ideal opportunity for them to begin making choices about where they sat and with whom. This required discussions about making good choices and the consequences of not doing so.

We were lucky enough to have a deck that ran along the outside of both classes, so we began using it as an additional working space/breakout area.

We quickly found ways of working together that capitalised on our strengths. While one teacher took swimming classes, the other took grammar and spelling. For the school production, one taught dance while the other took the remaining students for inquiry. One teacher worked with a small cohort of reluctant writers on devices, the other took the remaining students.

We carried on finding other opportunities to further develop this way of teaching, although we often found that we had to tweak our initial ideas. Something that was absolutely essential was making time (which wasn’t always easy) to discuss how things went, how we were both feeling and what, if anything, needed to be changed, as well as the obvious, ‘Was this working for the students?’

Another thing we had to consider during the early stages was ensuring that we were both on the same page with regard to management and discipline, in order to keep the consistency among the two class groups.

The following year we had the same year group but were moved into one larger space, something that we had always dreamed of. This was not a purpose-built area, but an old technology room with ovens, benches, and a fridge, with a smaller room off it. The two areas could be separated by a bifolding door. Our new space came with some modern tables, stools and bench type seating. We set up the furniture and were ready to go – or so we thought!

As the year began, we suddenly realised that there were many things we had not considered. While one teacher was 100 percent ready to proceed with the full ILE experience, the other wanted to take smaller steps and felt as if she would be relinquishing control of her students, even though she would still be responsible for all of their assessment and reporting throughout the year. How would that work?

We also needed a consistent approach to things like taking the roll, transitioning the students between areas and activities, storage, sharing workload, reward and discipline systems, displaying students’ work and daily routines.

It wasn’t until we got into this space that we found we had quite different routines, expectations and teaching styles. At first we both felt as if we were losing our identities, the things that made us special as teachers, and we weren’t sure how to deal with it. After much discussion, we began sharing the responsibility for different subject areas and decided that whoever was delivering the concepts did it their way. We then agreed that we would be happy for the other teacher to jump in with any extra information or content that they thought was important.

After visiting another couple of schools where we picked up new ideas, we eventually had reading and maths well organised. We could both be working with small groups while the remaining students worked independently on other tasks. This took a lot of setting up and relaying of expectations and practising for the students, but eventually it all came together.

The benefits of working in an ILE for teachers are the discussions that take place, the problem solving, the collaboration, the opportunities to use your strengths and above all, the learning that takes place when working alongside your colleague.

From a student’s point of view, many become better at taking ownership of their own learning and making choices about how, where and with whom they learn. This includes managing themselves, being responsible for their belongings, learning routines quickly, communicating in a group. It is also essential however, that children realise that the wrong choices can lead to that choice being removed. We also think that with the continual movement around the learning spaces, students seem to get along with a wider range of their peers.

One of the difficulties we faced in the first year was getting to mid-year reports and realising that we hadn’t actually had certain children from our class group in any of the maths or reading groups that we had taught. Now, in our second year, we swap the groups that we take at the beginning of each new term. This way we both feel that we know all of our students better. We also have a lot more discussions together when writing reports.

Another challenge was noise level, mainly because of the sheer number of students, particularly when they are all working collaboratively on group challenges. It was distracting for us and the students when we were both teaching small groups at the same time. In some cases when we wanted to have students discussing concepts or working together, we felt as if we couldn’t because it would disrupt the other group. Even closing the bifold door didn’t really help.

Luckily, this year we were given an additional space within the same block that we were able to use, which has certainly made things much easier, and provided opportunities for more targeted learning with smaller groups.

Another area of difficulty is when one teacher is sick the other teacher becomes responsible for not only the teaching but also organising the reliever.

There are certainly more challenges ahead; although now that we have an excellent working relationship and will openly and honestly share our ideas and discuss what we think, we feel that we would like to continue our work and perfect our learning model. This would put us in a good position to share our experience and knowledge with other teachers to support them in their ILE journey.

After having had the opportunity to work in an ILE environment, it would be hard going back to a single cell classroom, although, as we’ve discussed, if we were working alongside another teacher, we could simply start the whole process over again, but with a lot more knowledge and experience.

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