Learning Labs: Incubators of next practice

Innovators inspire....learning labs Ryan 2In our school district, secondary schools have been invited to participate in the Learning Lab Project. The Learning Lab is designed as a learning laboratory where teachers are able to creatively innovate and explore new forms and structures for learning. Learning Labs are an opportunity to commit to being innovative in practice and to share that learning with others across the district. These are not “lead” schools but places of experimentation and incubators where good ideas can come alive.

The Learning Labs concept is more than creating or developing a space–it is about the people connected and committed to the concept. Upon googling the term, many are directed to ideas for makerspaces, breakout rooms with equipment, design spaces, etc… that have been created by many different organizations as part of their buildings. However, the Learning Lab concept can include these types of spaces but the intention and focus is on a larger picture school-wide, where what we would call “learning studios” (individual classrooms where innovative practices may be happening already) can be philosophically connected to a larger “learning lab,” where a group of teachers is committed to incubating innovative practices with collective visions.

At the end of the day the motivating factor is the needs of our learners for the future (and as many are seeing the redesigned curriculum as fuel to propose structural changes)  – the learning lab invites (and in some way gives permission) for us to manipulate the structures (for some this may be timetabling, courses in subject areas, class schedules, etc…) and tools that exist in schools. We are interested in “next practice” – connected to our district priority practices and district vision – so the learning lab concept is a model to scrutinize some of the boundaries or roadblocks that may sometimes get in the way of innovation.

What does this vision of the Learning Lab look like?

The Learning Labs provides an opportunity for educators to co-create redesigns of learning environments over a two-year period, intentionally manipulating the variables of tools, structures, and learning to design new opportunities for learning for both students and teachers. The term ‘lab’ implies practice and experimentation, not perfection. “The lab classroom is an in-house professional development model that takes place in a host teacher’s room during the normal school day” (Houk, 2010). It provides a context for all teachers to experience in-depth, sustained professional growth within a collaborative learning community.

Dream Big 2Innovative edge practices (like learning labs, learning studios, on-site coaching, demonstration schools and departments) become the seeds which with participation and acceptance flourish, moving these practices from the edges of the organization into the centre. The skillful role of teacher-leaders as builders of these inclusive learning structures is paramount to transformation. Teachers are architects of the learning environment, creating innovative structures and making use of tools that invigorate the learning process and deepen student engagement.

Guiding questions as those in our district consider a Learning Lab application for their school (secondary focus):

  • Do we have a core team (at least five teachers from multiple disciplines and one administrator) who will work closely to create a Learning Lab proposal for our school and make a formal commitment to this project?
  • Will our core team work together to connect our practices in accordance with our co-created Learning Lab proposal?
  • Is our school community ready to accommodate the flexibility required for potential structural changes?
  • Are we dedicated to being edgeplayers by demonstrating, sharing, and innovating openly outside the perceived norms of our school?
  • Are we committed to documenting our learning process, reflecting on our practice, and sharing our learning, both successes and failures?
  • Are we committed to promoting a collaborative culture – one that opens the doors of our classrooms to visitors, encourages others to apply “next practices,” and provides ongoing professional learning opportunities.

What is the school team committing to?iStock_000019906938XSmall

Phase 1: Creation of Anchor Design 

Schools commit to adopting a learning lab structure, an ideal incubator for testing new instructional methods and structures that more closely examine personalized learning and enhance deep student learning and engagement:

  • Schools pursue “better” and “next” practices that align with district priority practices of curriculum design, quality assessment, instructional strategies, and social and emotional learning.
  • Schools scrutinize past and current structures of instruction and engage in shared learning where the expectation is peer-to-peer coaching as a normative practice in the school.

Phase 2: Showcasing and Embedding Learning

  • Schools commit to an open door environment, hosting outsiders and colleagues to enable others to participate vicariously in the learning journey. The open door can provide alternative pathways to new understandings through unstructured visits for others to “see practice in action.”
  • Schools commit to offer structured visits, allowing opportunities for educators to question practice, observe learning, debrief learning, apply new strategies, and connect through ongoing networked touchbacks.

Structural Supports: Time, Resources, Expertise, Research

  • Time: The most valuable support that teachers can have is time to focus directly on their own learning as professionals and together with their colleagues. The school is encouraged to find ways to institutionalize and formalize learning time into the school’s structure. In addition, the school and the district may jointly provide funding to release teachers to focus directly on the learning lab concept.
  • Resources: The district may provide start-up materials and resources to support the use of alternate “tools” for learning. The district will also supply supplemental funding for the team to deploy in support of their model.
  • Expertise: The district may provide some expertise to support the Learning Lab but the Learning Lab is designed to build capacity at the school level so that the expertise resides among the learning lab team who will support each other in their learning journey. A helping teacher (instructional coach) may support the school team with conversations and planning.
  • Action Research: The school is expected to participate in the district’s Action Research program in order to provide an opportunity for school groups to engage in self-reflection, examine their impact on student achievement, and share their school’s learning across the system. Schools will explore and investigate measures of impact in consultation with a Helping Teacher.

The Learning Lab concept has been in development in the district
for over a year.  We are just now launching it at the Secondary level. In district focus groups held over the last two years, we heard over and over from educators that they want to see how the Redesigned Curriculum looks implemented in schools. We now have four Elementary Schools experimenting with this Learning Lab idea, with Cambridge Elementary actively up and running as a host school.  These Learning Labs provide educators with the opportunity to see some of these new ideas in education in action.

What would be really unique is if there were one or two other secondary schools in other districts that would consider adopting this model as well so we could network across our districts. Our learning would be amplified as we expanded our network with other innovative educator teams in other districts. Just a wild dream–but what a great opportunity for learning and pushing us all forward in transforming the learning agenda. Anyone in?

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Blog Post Notes: The Learning Lab concept was developed by Elisa Carlson with the consulting support of Donna VanSant (Healthy Ventures). Thanks to Helping Teacher Joe Tong for his editorial assistance in refining the concept and whose words are also part of this post. As well, we want to acknowledge the contributions and feedback of Helping Teachers Alicia Logie and Iain Fischer for pushing our thinking on this topic. Appreciation goes to Helping Teacher Karen Fadum for helping supporting the embryonic development of the concept at the Elementary level. Thank you to Antonio Vendramin (Principal) and Kelli Vogstad (Vice-Principal) at Cambridge Elementary School for being the test case of early adopters.

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