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Rich and immersive learning environments

June 15th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Earlier this week I was at an international project meeting in Pontypridd in Wales. As is common with such meetings, and indeed many training events, it was held in a hotel. The hotel meeting room was perfectly adequate with plenty of space and natural light. Indeed I would not have given it two minutes thought normally. I have been in many much worse venues.

However only three days earlier I had been lucky to visit a Welsh medium primary school in Pontypridd. And the contrast was stunning. The school is housed in an old building and perhaps lacks many of the design features we would wish for in a school today (it is notable that windows were positioned high up in the room to stop children looking out during lessons!). Yet as an environment for learning the classroom I went into wads stunning. Every wall was covered in different themed displays with much of the work being by the children themselves. The tables were covered, seemingly at random – although I am sure it was not, with different tactile learning materials. There were different spaces and corners for different activities. Games littered the floor.

I couldn’t help comparing this primary school with the learning environment we had developed for our meeting. And for that matter, with the sterility of many online learning environments. Why if primary school teachers (and teaching assistants) are able to produce such rich learning environments, do we have such learning-poor environments for grown ups? Why can’t we develop such creative spaces for learning in universities, in workplaces and in public spaces? Is it a question of teacher training? Is it a question of curriculum? Or is it a societal attitude towards learning?

I’d be interested in your comments

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4 Responses to “Rich and immersive learning environments”

  1. Lou McGill says:

    Hi Graham
    I can see what you mean but speaking from personal experience not everyone can learn effectively in such a stimulating environment. Some folk prefer space and order so that they can focus. This is true particularly for people on the Autistic Spectrum.

    Like most things though having the choice of both kinds of environment/learningspace would be best to suit different preferences… (although it should not be an add on cupboard for people with autism which I have witnessed). Being forced to learn in either environment without an alternative is a problem, as it is unlikely to facilitate learning. Overstimulation is a major problem for some children at school.

  2. I like what you are saying here, Graham. I have been thinking quite hard recently about how to encourage people in the various educational sectors to learn from each other. I don’t think schools are given enough credit for their innovative work, e.g. on blogging. I wonder whether simply using each others premises for meetings and workshops may be a good way of setting up a richer dialogue..

  3. jen hughes says:

    Thought I’d just mention that the school was Ysgol Evan James – a Welsh medium primary school in Pontypridd. And as you were so complimentary, I thought we ought to claim the credit!

    I’m interested (and pleased) that you mentioned the teaching assistants who are the backbone of any primary school. I believe that primary school teachers are at the cutting edge of all that’s best in learning but I am also interested in the vital role that teaching assistants play and their relationship with teaching staff.

    Teaching assistants are becoming increasingly professionalised, in terms of accreditation and training and are emerging as a distinct vocational sector, albeit one which is under publicised and under researched. It is true that some people use it as a stepping stone to acquiring qualified teacher status – particularly adult returners to learning. However, an increasing number are committed to a permanent career as a teaching assistant.

    In answer to your question – ‘Why can’t we develop such creative spaces for learning?’ I think part of the answer is that, in primary schools at least, the teachers are there to create the learning content and the teaching assistants are there to create the learning environment. It is an interesting division and one which works very effectively. Obviously they work in tandem but the TAs have a specialist role in terms of scaffolding learning, supporting learners, providing follow through and, as I said, being responsible for developing and mainaining a rich learning environment.

    I would be really interested in finding a mechanism whereby we can harness their expertise and to ask them how they think their ideas can be transferred to other learning environments – whether on-line or face-to-face.

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