Sunday, 9 October 2016

Opening Learning Environment: the school of the future

"We invite you to explore the new premises of Valteri Centre for Learning and Consulting, Onerva which manifests how teachers, students and architects created the school of the future which makes education accessible for all" – this was the invitation to a program I co-organized at the science popularization event Researchers' Night on 30 September. 

The logo of Researchers' Night (in Finnish: Tutkijoiden yö; in Swedish: Forskarnatten)

"European Researchers’ Night is a science event that makes science and the work of scientists familiar to audiences all over Europe. It aims to answer people’s questions about science and research and to lead to new questions and answers. Over the course of the day and throughout the night, children, adolescents, adults, and older people can get to know more about science through workshops, meetings with researchers, lectures and laboratory visits. European Researchers’ Night opens doors to the places where scientists work, and also brings research to unusual places." ( Researchers’ Night was visited by more than 12,000 people in Finland on 13 locations. Jyväskylä was one of the most visited locations with more than 4,000 visitors (source: Keskisuomalainen).

The new building of Valteri Centre for Learning and Consulting Onerva was inaugurated in 2015. This state funded school provides services in special education at a national level, promoting the inclusive and accessible education of the visually impaired, the hearing impaired and students with learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia). They have a rich expertise in combining visual, audial and haptic elements in the design of educational spaces in order to enhance the students’ navigation and interaction in the building. The school building was planned in tight cooperation among the architects and the whole school community. They shared their experiences on a blog that tells the story of the planning and construction process (Rakennusblogi, in Finnish) and they published a 3D virtual tour to demonstrate the main characteristics of the new building. You can watch this video below (it is in Finnish but it is worth following the images even if you don't understand the narration).

Since I am very interested in the design of physical learning environments, I thought it would be excellent to work together with Onerva School to show what choices they made to create education accessible to their pupils with quite different individual special needs. I am glad that the school was open towards this initiative, and its teachers contributed to the program enthusiastically.

Attendants following the presentation of Tuulia Kuntsi
First Tuulia Kuntsi (head of learning) talked about the planning and construction process. The building was planned with the help of workshops and discussions, and the learning spaces were also tested via 3D modelling and virtual reality devices beforehand so the future users could have an idea about what it would be like to use the premises, and they could also suggest modifications. Tuulia Kuntsi mentioned several cooperation projects with various departments of the University of Jyväskylä; that is, they could make use of recent research results when improving the design of their premises.

Raija Kattilakoski and her audience
Raija Kattilakoski (consulting teacher at Onerva and Ph.D. student at the University of Jyväskylä) first provided an overview of the evolution of school buildings in the last centuries. She highlighted the impact of pedagogical principles and standards on architectural design. For example, she mentioned that several school buildings from the 1960–80s look almost the same in Finland because of state-dictated standards of public educational buildings of the time. Further, she emphasized that new learning spaces do not shape pedagogical activities automatically. As the example of this school shows, it is discussion and collaboration that leads to pedagogical innovation so the use of technology  and artifacts should be carefully embedded in human action and interaction.

Walking tour in the building guided by Outi Lappalainen
After the second presentation the participants formed two groups and discovered the building. I was in the group of orientation and mobility specialist Outi Lappalainen who guided us through the building. While showing the various spaces, she shared interesting details of the everyday life of pupils and teachers. As one of my colleagues told during the tour, the building is not only intelligent as it serves pedagogical purposes but it is also very cheerful and friendly. The colors, the shapes, the textures and materials are consciously selected and enhance the navigation and work of the pupils in the building.

Starting my presentation
Finally, I presented some insights into my work. I argued that accessibility is the result of the combination of (1) appreciating the value of having different learners and teachers in the class, and (2) act, affect matters, make decisions and take stances to promote diversity. That is, accessibility is the result of exercising agency to maintain diversity. This is a very condensed summary of the topic I work on, and I think Onerva school is a great site to see what agency and diversity mean in practice.

The event was well attended, and there were several university students and researchers from abroad as well. The discussions were all accessible: an interpreter helped non-Finnish speakers to follow the program. According to a feedback survey, the participants enjoyed the event greatly, they would be interested in participating in similar programs and felt that they learnt a lot during these two and a half hours. Co-organizing this event was a great professional and human experience and I really hope I will have the chance to work together with Onerva School in the future as well.

Szabó Tamás Péter: Diversity and accessible learning environment: visual and material approaches to education research. Researchers’ Night. Jyväskylä, 30 September 2016.

Photographs: courtesy of Ildikó Szabóné Makra 
A Kone Foundation individual postdoctoral grant makes my current research possible (grant number: 44-9730)
In my talk I presented the results of my two-year Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship project funded by the European Commission within the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research (2014–2016; grant number: 626376)
This European Researchers’ Night project is funded by the European Commission under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (2016–2017; contract number: 722854)

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