How do we scale learning?

OECD/CERI and the Innovative Learning Environments project

Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) was a three-part, seven year project that has been carried out by the Centre for Innovation and Research in Education (CERI) at the OECD. The project has been led by CERI’s Senior Analyst on school-age education, David Istance. David previously led the OECD project Schooling for Tomorrow, one of the first international activities to really think about how schools and education might change in the 21st century. One of the key questions this project raised was: if ‘schooling’ in the future were not constrained by traditional models of teaching, classrooms, timetables, what should determine how, where and when children learn? Innovative Learning Environments was the natural follow-up to this earlier project, designed to fill into some of these black boxes.


The three phases of ILE

ILE developed in a very intentional way, starting by drawing together the research base on learning and how environments can support learning, and then going out to seek where examples of these kind of environments can be found in education systems around the world.


These first two stages resulted in two major publications. The first, The Nature of Learning (2010), provided a summary of the state of the ‘learning sciences’, and condensed this science into seven principles of engaging learning environments. The second, central report, Innovative Learning Environments (2013), provided a set of case studies of places and projects both in and out of schools that lived up to the seven principles; places where the physical, social and emotional environment effectively supported children and young people’s learning. From this report, the team derived three ‘conditions’ through which organisations support engaging learning. Together, therefore, these reports resulted in the ‘7+3 framework’.


Next, CERI embarked on the third phase of the project: to see where and how these kind of environments were being grown and scaled. They knew that being able to show one-off cases was just a start. The real challenge of system change is how to move from a small number of effective examples to having these example spread and become the norm. Consequently, the third phase of the ILE project focussed on examples from different countries where bottom up networks or top down strategies have led to effective scale of practice.


The project’s final report was launched in October 2015 at a major event in Paris, convened by Andreas Schleicher, and featuring a keynote from the New Zealand Minister for Education, Hekia Parata. With this report, titled Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systemsthe ILE project comes full circle to begin to address the questions left by Schooling for Tomorrow: how do we move whole systems towards new forms of learning?


Learning at the centre

David hopes that this three-stage organisation may be one of the most influential things to come out of the project: too many education projects either jump straight to looking for cases without a sufficient grounding in learning science research, or stay only at the level of basic research or cases, and do not look for evidence on strategies of scale. Transformers need support to master all three bodies of knowledge – learning sciences, examples, and strategies for scale.


 “Learning-centredness is the starting point of our study as well as a main conclusion. Learning needs to be put at the centre of the centre of the reform and design process, whether at the micro level or when addressing larger developments and system change.”


Placing learning at the centre of conversations is a relevant lesson for practitioners as well as researchers. One of the strategies that came to the fore in the third phase of ILE was New Zealand’s Learning and Change networks. Brian Annan, one of the network’s founders, recalls that it took a number of months after they started bringing together parents, teachers and students to actually get the groups to really focus on learning. They had no vocabulary and many said it was the first time they had sat down and actually talked about learning. 


This kind of example highlights how important the Innovative Learning Environments project might be. As The Nature of Learning continues to circulate, influencing more and more teachers, parents and onlookers around the world, hopefully this experience of grounding strategies firmly in discussion of learning will become more common.


From frameworks to action: an ongoing collaboration

As with the seven principles of learning, Schooling Redesigned aims to provide generative frameworks that help system leaders and practitioners to develop strategies for developing and scaling innovative learning environments. The key contribution is to illustrate how the ‘7+3 framework’ looks at a system-wide level.


To do this, the report provides a set of terms to describe the layers of activity which need to come together in order to spread innovative learning environments: the micro, meso, and meta layer. These layers correspond roughly to the classroom level, the school network level, and the government level. The goal of introducing these terms is to avoid being pulled back by language into old ways of thinking about where learning takes place, and who is responsible for spreading new practices throughout a system.


The report suggests several indicators which could be used in conjunction with the 7+3 framework to test the health of a system with regards to learning environments. This has been well received within the OECD, and for some might inform thinking on a new generation of educational indicators. To support work at the ‘meso’ layer, David also provides a handy summary of the key features of successful scaling strategies, as derived form the cases.


David feels very privileged to have worked with such expert practitioners on this project, and believes that the frameworks are an example of what can be discovered by working from the ground up. His concern now is to ensure those frameworks can be strengthened through use: he wants to render them in the most useable form possible for practising teachers and school leaders. To do this, the ILE team is looking to collaborate with educators to turn the insights from the project into a more useable resource. David has referred to the potential resource as a ‘handbook’, which might be similar to the practitioner’s guide created to accompany The Nature of Learning, but he is keen to explore other possibilities, such as an online resource or a set of facilitation tools.


After that, next up for David and CERI is a new focus, to dig into the detail of questions raised by ILE: Innovative Pedagogies for Powerful Learning. The life-term of this new project will be decided when the OECD fixes new priorities in 2016.