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Learning-spaces not technology-spaces

Written on October 20th, 2011

vanDonkelaar_hthWhy are we still talking about technology and education? Is it because of the demands placed on schools to produce future employees? The hope that the light of more computer screens will attract new parents? Are we simply succumbing to the millions of advertising dollars that companies like Apple have poured into the exceptionally lucrative educational market? Any way you look at it, I think we’re getting side-tracked from the timely challenge of what education is, at a time of great cultural opportunities.

Think of it this way: If I was planning a trip to Vancouver, talking about the car or how to drive the vehicle, instead of the destination would be like focusing on technology in an educational setting without focusing on education. Some people are automotive experts (and we need to be grateful for their skills) but asking the mechanic where you should go on vacation is missing the point of their vocation. The destination drives the use of the vehicle (technology) not the other way around.

Of course with new cars (and new technologies) also comes the possibility of unanticipated journeys and destinations, and these really do change the nature of travel (and of learning). Just as the introduction of cars radically changed life in our culture, so too the effects of technology are changing education. The introduction of 2.0 technologies change authorship in just such an extreme way, and if we understand our faith as based within an authored-narrative, we need to explore this new paradigm. I would suggest that we can do so with excitement – without fear – and trust that this translation work will be evidence of the Holy Spirit working in our lives and schools. If you’re doubtful, I suggest that you think about the very nature of the Scriptures themselves, and what new elements become revealed if you think of them as a collaborative document (like a wiki).

My point is that instead of asking parents and tech-committee members what new, gee-wiz-cool, technological devices they suggest placing in a teacher’s classroom, we need to listen to those with a deep understanding of what learning means today. I think new technologies are too often overshadowing better discussions about learning: Think about the hours spent discussing the strategy of replacing blackboards with smartboards. While such interactive-boards have definite technological advantages, either type of board propagates a learning environment where the teacher is in charge of the classroom information. So, whether I write or project today’s Biblical memory verse, every student is expected to face-the-front, sit-quietly and pay attention to the teacher. Is installing an interactive board really the most significant form of change available to the classroom today?

Stephen Harris, Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School in Sidney, Australia provides an alternative which is far more innovative and timely. He’s shaping his school environment to encourage different forms of learning for his teachers and students. His idea called, “Learning Spaces” breaks space into four different types; each one intended to create an environment supportive of a different learning strategy. He has identified them as:

Campfire spaces: A formal learning and collaboration space in which to listen and absorb knowledge.

Waterhole spaces: An informal learning space to discuss and create meaning.

Cave spaces: An individual learning space in which to reflect and create meaning.

Mountain-top spaces: A space to present and publish toward demonstrating understanding.

Does implementing such learning spaces require gee-wiz-cool technologies? Smart Technologies recently introduced their new line of Smart-tables, which are a multi-touch table surface (think of a really large iPad surface). If I were a teacher interested in setting up a waterhole-space in my classroom (or a principal looking to support such an initiative), this would be a fitting technology. Students would be able to collaborate together around the table and informally share their concepts and ideas.

Is there a way to create such spaces without investing in such a expensive and bleeding-edge technology? What about ideaPaint? A can of this product turns any surface into a high quality white-board surface. If I painted every student’s desk in a school (thus turning them into a write-able surface) I’d create the possibility of arranging a classroom’s desks to form of watering-hole space!

Learning spaces can be created with or without expensive technologies.Low-tech does not mean second-rate; it can have many advantages over the high-tech! ideaPaint will last 20 years, and gives students a chance to collaborate with the physical environment (arranging their desks to facilitate the breadth of conversation).

Ontario’s education system allows us a lot of freedom; a freedom comes at a cost. Whether you’re a board member, a principal, a parent, or a teacher, you need to discuss educational changes beyond the use of the technology including methods of learning that will establish the foundation in a student’s life for enriching, engaging, and Godly thinking. Let’s not get side-tracked by technology. Let’s be inspired by vision!