Friday 26 Jan 2018

Breaking with Convention: The Flexible Classroom Comes to La Châtaigneraie

It’s a Monday morning at La Châtaigneraie Primary School and as the Year 5 class file into their classroom, that familiar, grating sound of chairs being dragged across the floor from under tables is nowhere to be heard. Instead, the students calmly and silently choose their place at one of the many different workstations spread across the room. These are as many as they are varied: a low coffee table with cushions all around set atop a soft carpet; a line of balance balls, each carefully secured by a ring to forestall any temptation to roll or bounce away, tucked under a series of triangular desks; a mismatched set of armchairs each as comfy as the next; the traditional school desk with its accompanying set of desk chairs or stools; and even a snug couch tucked in one side of the room for those who may want a quiet space. 

The instigator of this unconventional arrangement – or flexible classroom - is Primary teacher Carole Ly, whose inspiration to try something new comes from her experience in Early Years classrooms. “Usually in traditional classrooms, all the eyes are always on the teacher or on the board. There’s always a point of convergence,” explains Carole. “Yet in this flexible atmosphere, that point of convergence disappears, and the students can reclaim the learning space for themselves.”

Who, where and how?

Students can choose to bounce or roll, kneel or sit, find comfort standing, sitting or lying down. “I will never judge their seating preference because they learned long ago that they need to find the position in which they can learn best at that moment, and which may not be the same as at another point in the day,” continues Carole as she finishes giving the morning’s instructions. But students are not only able to pick their seating preference. They are also given the choice of who to work with. With gentle reminders from Carole to think carefully about who they work best with at that point in time, students are encouraged not only to explore how all of their classmates study, but also to reflect on their own strengths. For what may come easily to one student in maths, may not come so easily to another, but in exchange the latter may be particularly skilful when the task turns to reading or researching. Similarly, while two students may be inseparable in the playground, that might not be the case in the classroom. By reflecting on their own strengths and weaknesses, and taking responsibility for them, students naturally partner up with others who complement their skills, without the teacher having to police the teams.

“Within a month and a half of learning in the flexible classroom, students discovered the world of responsibility,” says Carole, who explains that reintroducing an element of play is central to students accepting responsibility for their learning. In Carole’s classroom, the playing component comes in two forms. On the one hand, she has introduced a play option in both Maths and English through weekly sessions of chess and Scrabble. On the other hand, Carole has come up with the Genius Bar – a shelf containing a range of games (chess, empathy games, Rubix cubes to name a few) which students can choose from to play quietly once they have finished their work so as not to wait around idly. “This was a game changer because it teaches them how to focus, how to persevere, how to go beyond their limits, how to value effort and resilience,” adds Carole, who goes on to say that all these skills are then passed on to their work. 

Shaping the Citizens of the Future

Moving forwards, Carole also hopes to give students more flexibility and ownership for how they plan their day, setting clear objectives, but allowing more room for individual students to choose their own order and pace to complete work. For Carole, the role of a teacher must be that of a facilitator or coach. “It makes it easier for the teacher because then you can really focus on the children’s needs, but it mainly makes it easier for the children because they feel empowered in their work and work doubly hard.” 

Primary School Principal, Jennifer Armstrong strongly supported Carole’s interest in this initiative.  “Research strongly indicates a relationship between learning and the learning environment and Carole was keen to put the research into practice.  In fact we say that the environment is the third teacher (as in student, teacher and environment).  A thoughtfully constructed environment intentionally contributes to learning, in this case in particular by supporting student agency, making learning visible and fostering the development of core skills essential for democracy; that of agency and responsibility for both individuals and groups.”    

At Ecolint, education is about empowering students to become great human beings, and knowing who you are and making the right choices is central to that. With teachers such as Carole Ly who nurture self-esteem, motivation for learning and responsibility by valuing the diverse learning needs and methods of each student, Ecolint is helping shape students who are stronger, better equipped and more mindful to deal with the challenges of the future.

The Genius Bar from which students can pick a game whilst waiting for their classmates to finish a task.

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