CoLab Reflections: Year One

By Ilana Zadok, 8th Grade History Teacher

A year ago, I was offered  the exciting opportunity to take my educational philosophy of authentic student-centered 21st century learning to the next level by accepting (more like, jumping at the chance!) to teach in a CoLab (collaborative laboratory).  I could not wait to start the school year in this blank canvas of a space–a clean and sterile space begging my students to come and make it theirs– to fill it with their own thoughts, questions and ideas.

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Now, at the end of the school year, after much reflection and gathering of information and data, I can say that the learning space does impact the way students approach learning and our teachers approach teaching. Additionally it impacts our self-awareness as learners–both for students AND teacher.

 This is certainly a “we” space in every sense of the word.

Based on surveys and interviews conducted throughout the year, a strong majority of my students have found learning in the CoLab to be a positive experience.  Some of my favorite anecdotes are when teachers in non-flexible spaces share that my students are taking liberties with space in those non-flexible environments.  Students described the CoLab using adjectives such as fresh, open, creative, comfortable, bright and other words connoting an invitation for ideas and thoughts. It became a space they wanted to come to (I might even dare to say they looked forward to come to).

Taking to Responsive Classroom’s “First Six Weeks of School” approach, I knew from the get go that getting students to feel comfortable and adapt to this new learning environment would take time.  And it did.  Some students were immediately excited about the new space, some were skeptical, and others blatantly did not want their environment moving.

 Through time, most of the students found what worked for them as I worked them through, “Is that what you need?”

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I tested out new ways of teaching, all while pushing the students to think about their needs as learners.  In reading, Blueprint for TOMORROW: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning by Prakash Nair (one of the world’s leading school designers), he describes these spaces and student-centered agile school buildings as “learning buildings…[which] connotes both a building that supports student learning in a cutting-edge way (a building for learning) and a building that can be adapted to meet students’ and teachers’ needs as those needs evolve (the building itself ‘learns’).”  This rang very true of my experience.

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There is a certain sense of exposure and connectedness in the room that allows all to learn with and from each other–student–teacher–space.

One area that I am still interested in exploring further is brain based research on teenage development and choice.  I am aware that with adolescents the prefrontal cortex is still developing and as a result their judgement and decision making is impaired.  So, this leaves me with the following questions:

  • Can we ask students to make “right” choices daily to develop their self-awareness and is this developmentally fair with their judgement capacity not yet fully developed?
  • How much can I actually expect them to grow in the area of self-awareness? What are fair expectations?

In researching and reading, I learned that the area of question in regards to decision making is emotionally focussed which adds in the issues relating to peer pressure and self esteem.

  •  How does that play a role in their choices?
  •  Will there be students who make seating choices near where the “in-group” might be sitting vs. where they can actually learn best?

For me, this is a variable to keep observing and exploring.

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Then, there are those few students who pushed back all year.  These students struggled to get over the ever changing environment.  For them, it was very distracting.  Throughout my observations and reflections, my thinking of them became more prominent.

I have come to the conclusion that just as I push my students to find what works for them untraditionally, I have to help students such as these find a way to carve out a traditional space in an untraditional space because that is what they need.

I say with confidence that I am excited about year two.  With a year in the CoLab under my belt, I am more aware of the ins and out as well as the impact the Colab can have.  I can say with confidence that my informal research indicates that my students took active learning to a whole new level. They were actively engaged from the minute they crossed over the threshold, having to choose their space set up as it related to their learning, and to be in tune with their needs on a daily basis. I watched them collaborate regularly in the real world way of collaboration: recognizing their individual and group needs and reaching out to a variety of students, teacher and resources, including the space, to work towards their end goal. In regards to measurable data collection, that is something to work towards.  But:

Even those students who are not particularly fond of the space can tell me “why not” and that in its own right shows self-awareness and a certain level of success.

I am looking forward to continuing this process of reflection and research as my journey of teaching and learning in and with the CoLab continues.

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