A whole-school approach to changing the learning environment

How a new school uses the archetypal images of campfire, watering hole, cave and life to change the learning environment

— By Dr Áine Moran

Dr Áine Moran, Principal at Le Chéile Secondary School, Dublin, Ireland and part time lecturer and research supervisor at the School of Education of Hibernia College. Dr Moran has presented her research both nationally and internationally, most recently as a visiting fellow at Notre Dame University, Indiana.

Dr Áine Moran is Principal at Le Chéile Secondary School, Dublin, Ireland and part time lecturer and research supervisor at the School of Education of Hibernia College. Dr Moran has presented her research both nationally and internationally, most recently as a visiting fellow at Notre Dame University, Indiana.

This study seeks to measure changes in student engagement when a whole school approach is taken to effecting change in the learning environment.


The research was carried out by means of a ‘case study’, defined in research as an in-depth, detailed review of an individual or a small group of individuals. In this instance, the case study focused on the development of an Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) in one Irish school by drawing on the philosophies and work of David Thornburg.

The main characteristics of case study research are that it is narrowly focused, provides a high level of detail, and is able to combine both objective and subjective data to achieve an in-depth understanding.

This study is qualitative in nature, resulting in a narrative description of experience in the school.

This researcher has taken a variety of approaches and methods to collect data. These methods include questionnaires, direct participant observations, and a review of documents.

The data is interpreted holistically. A holistic approach reviews all of the data as a whole and attempts to draw conclusions based on the data in its entirety.

Le Chéile Secondary School

Le Chéile is a new Catholic school in Tyrrelstown, Dublin 15. Established in September 2014, the school is inclusive of students from all cultures and backgrounds. It celebrates diversity and aims to ensure that it is a place where students feel at ease and cared for and where they are enabled to relate to one another and to staff in an open, respectful and trusting manner.

The school values the role of parents in the education of their children and seeks to work in partnership with them.

It is a one-to-one device school with the use of technology to support teaching and learning well embedded in practice.

Le Chéile is the ‘school with no books’ – teachers, and indeed students, create their own content, striving to ensure that the needs and learning styles of all our students are catered for.

Here is the story of how we have used the ideas of David Thornburg of building pedagogy on the concept of campfire, watering hole, cave and life, resulting in the following outcomes:

  • Technology is used extensively in teaching and learning;
  • Classrooms have become more porous, students have taken greater ownership of their learning;
  • Initial findings have encouraged us to begin a ‘tinkering’ module to reflect real life. First, Second and Transition Year students take part in a morning of ‘tinkering’ on their own project work every Monday;
  • Timetabling has become more fluid and students are being given choices as to which classes they attend. Students can attend some classes with students in different year groups;
  • Teachers have to step back from traditional planning of classes;
  • Differentiation is encouraged;
  • Assessment is different.


As a greenfield school opening at a time of significant change in the Irish Education System, we recognised the importance of creating a 21st century school both in terms of the culture, curriculum and curriculum delivery.

Our school culture is derived from the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding education but it is interpreted for a secular age. It is based on seven root beliefs that all members of our school community live out of every day. These beliefs are fundamental to the development of an innovative learning environment.

Le Cheile Secondary School, Dublin, Ireland

Le Cheile Secondary School, Dublin, Ireland

We believe that:

  • Small things matter
  • We are all teachers, we are all learners, always.
  • We can transform the world with our creativity.
  • The Spirit fills us with joy.
  • Seasímid Le Chéile (we stand together)
  • We are called to be our best self.
  • Differences are to be celebrated.

Our vision is also shaped by Department of Education and Skills policy and documents that were published during our initial growth phase.

The Framework for Junior Cycle
The Framework for Junior Cycle was introduced in 2015. The Framework contains 24 statements of learning, underpinned by eight principles, providing the basis for schools to plan for, design and evaluate their junior cycle programmes. That process of planning focuses on the combination of curriculum components and other learning experiences.  Eight principles underpin the Framework for Junior Cycle. These principles are Learning to learn, Choice and flexibility, Quality, creativity and innovation, Engagement and participation, Continuity and development, Inclusive education and Wellbeing

Looking at our School 2016: A Quality Framework for Schools
In 2016 the Irish inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills developed and published a new Quality Framework for Schools called ‘Looking at Our School’. This framework provides a unified and coherent set of standards for both teaching and learning and leadership and management in schools. The leading teaching and learning standards call on schools to promote a culture of improvement, collaboration, innovation and creativity.  It also calls on school leadership to ‘foster a commitment to inclusion, equality of opportunity and holistic development of each student.[1]

Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020
A new “Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020, Enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment” was published in October 2015. This Strategy is the adaptation of the UNESCO ICT Competency Framework for the Irish context, drawing also from other relevant European and international Digital Competency Frameworks.[2]  The Digital strategy promotes students being exposed to new forms of learning and collaboration that support their different styles of learning. The digital strategy also promotes teachers taking a more facilitative role, providing student-centred guidance and feedback, and engaging more frequently in exploratory and team-building activities with students.  Schools are asked to fully engaged in using ICT to “support an enquiry process and enable their students to work on solving complex real-world problems” by engaging in “collaborative project-based learning activities that go beyond the classroom” (Butler et al., 2013; p.8).[3]

In the beginning…

Initially our school vision was simply to offer as broad a curriculum as possible.  This we believed would enable students to work to their strengths, provide for student choice and encourage engagement and fuller participation in line with the principles underlying Junior Cycle reform. We realised that students needed a variety of teaching methodologies that moved away from the traditional bias for the verbal learner. To this end, we decided to go the route of one-to-one tablet devices for all students. We also opted for the Virtual Learning Platform, Schoology.

Two other innovations in our curriculum over the past two years have also encouraged us to move further into the innovative learning environment space. During Transition Year we developed an ‘its your call’ model for the teaching of Irish, English and Maths.  Students choose the night before class which subject they will attend the next day. Teachers have to develop units of learning that students can work on independently.

We offer a Blue Sky module to 1st, 2nd and Transition students. Our Blue Sky module is influenced by Brightworks pedagogy that has arcs of exploration, expression and exposition. Blue Sky offers twenty different workshop style classes in topics as varied as bicycle maintenance, skincare, geo-maths and economics. Students self-select which courses they want to be part of and develop their own project during the one hour Monday morning class. Students now take ownership of their learning – involving the ability to be self-directed, a decision-maker, and a manager of priorities in and out of school. Blue Sky groups are made up of students of different ages and experience.

The Learning Space: Thornburg’s Campfire, Watering Hole, Cave, Life[4]

We were inspired by David Thornburg’s work and philosopy which identifies four archetypal learning spaces – the campfire, cave, watering hole and life – that schools can use as physical spaces and virtual spaces for learning.

The campfire is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. In today’s schools, the experts are not only teachers and guest speakers (both in person and online), but also students who are empowered to share their learning with peers and other teachers.

Root Beliefs: We are all teachers, we are all learners, always
Key Skills: Managing Information and Thinking, Communicating

The implementation of  flipped learning as a methodology has been hugely beneficial for the students as it has enabled a truly personalised and differentiated approach to their learning.

Flipped learning is used to relocate direct instruction of new concepts to homework time and allocate lesson time to active learning activities.

Teachers use Explain Everything to create instructional video resources to implement a flipped learning approach.

Resources are created that align with the curriculum and that are appropriate for the students’ abilities and learning styles.

Through the flipped approach there is opportunity to stretch and challenge students as well as create resources that are more heavily scaffolded and guide student learning. There is no doubt that this approach has led to students “experiencing joy, satisfaction, passion and success in their education and lifelong learning” (See Digital Strategy).

Thornburg suggests that the ‘expert’ at the campfire often gives too much information. In order to promote students’ ability to ‘learn how to learn’, a group of four teachers are leading a project in the school to develop higher order questioning skills among the teaching staff and students. As we learn to use the campfire space more appropriately within the classroom, teachers are encouraged not to give away too much information and to set students free to find the material they need themselves.

The data projector and whiteboards afford ‘the expert’ the tools for sharing campfire information.

Other spaces in the school that are used for this type of instruction are stairways, tiered seating in the learning plaza, and the theatre style room in the school.

The cave is a private space where an individual can think, reflect, and transform learning from external knowledge to internal belief.  Thornburg suggests schools  should develop practices and places that encourage and facilitate this private individual time.

Root beliefs: Called to be my best self; small things matter
Key Skills:  Managing myself, staying well, managing information and thinking

Thornburg reminds us that all learning does not require activity that can be observed by others.  In a world where ‘active’ learning is encouraged, the cognitive constructivism of Piaget can often lose out to the Social constructivism of Vygotsky.[5]  Students internalise what he or she knows through experimenting and reflecting on observations.  Self-directed meaning making is a critical skill for life and the cave learning space archetype has reminded us to build this space into our curriculum, our pedagogy and our building.

This is reflected in the personalised learning of the TY module but also now built into many lessons that allow students time to think and reflect at their own pace.  This contributes to the wellbeing of students and also is more inclusive, taking into account the introverted and extroverted nature of different students.

At Le Chéile Secondary School we are focused on an education that enables students to make sense of their experience. The cave space facilitates students to learn in this way by providing space within the busy school day to assimilated beliefs, values, feelings and judgments of others and thereby come to make new meanings out of life situations.[6]

Teachers are encouraged to create ‘caves’ in their classrooms even if it is only a table and chair facing a blank wall where students can go to to reflect on learning alone.  One teacher has gone so far as to create an actual cave from old books where students can quietly read or just be.  Other cave spaces around the school are provided in the library with individual study booths and in the prayer room.

We also provide some ‘cave’ spaces within the staffroom in the form of enclosed stand alone booths. It is a work in progress to let go of the anxiety that if a student is not following the rest of the class that he is not engaging.  We are still learning to trust each others caves!

Watering Holes
The watering hole is an informal space where peers can share information and discoveries, acting as both learner and teacher simultaneously. This shared space can serve as an incubator for ideas and can promote a sense of shared culture.  Finally life is about taking knowledge into the world for use and application’

Root Beliefs: Differences are to be celebrated.  Seasaimid le cheile (we stand together)
Key Skills: Communicating; working with others

Watering Holes are based on the Social Constructivism theory of knowledge. They emphasise the collaborative nature of much learning. When we are with others and have the opportunity for discussion we produce knowledge that is different that when we work alone. Our classroom furniture is organised to facilitate group work easily.  Our chairs have five different colours to easily allow the formulation of larger groups.  The classroom windows are used as dry wipe surfaces for brainstorming.  Our corridors have seating areas and occasional groupings of comfortable chairs to encourage students to stop and chat.  Our online platform ‘schoology’ facilitates ongoing conversation and the sharing of work even when students are not in school or if they are in different classes or year groups.

We particularly focus on active and collaborative learning, enabling students to use and analyse information in new and creative ways, to investigate issues, to explore, to think for themselves, to be creative in solving problems and to apply their learning to new challenges and situations. We try to incorporate the learning space into our lessons so that the ideas, attitudes and values being taught are reflected in our physical environment e.g a class teaching an element of a court case might be organised as a courtroom, chairs may be laid out in the formation of the Orchestra when this is being taught etc.

When students are working together they have the freedom to leave their classroom and use all the space inside and outside the school.  We focus on trusting the students that when they are working in this context they remain focused on the topic.

In 2018 we introduced a ‘Blue Sky’ module for students in 1st, 2nd and Transition Year.  This module is inspired by the ‘life’ element of Thornburg’s work.

Root beliefs: We can transform the world with our creativity.  The Spirit fills us with joy
Key skills: managing information and thinking, being creative

We are anxious that students are able to transfer the skills used in other areas of the curriculum to real life situations. Teachers take a more facilitative role, providing student-centred guidance and feedback, and engage more frequently in exploratory and team-building activities with students. ICT has been invaluable in supporting this “enquiry process and enable their students to work on solving complex real-world problems” by engaging in “collaborative project-based learning activities that go beyond the classroom”[7].

Learner outcomes in Looking at our Schools suggest that students should enjoy their learning, are motivated to learn and expect to achieve as learners. Students in Blue Sky demonstrate knowledge, skills and understanding required by the post-primary curriculum but also push their knowledge outside of the curriculum into the real world. Teachers contribute to building whole-staff capacity by sharing their expertise. In many cases the modules that teachers offer to lead are different from their recognised area of expertise.  This has created a very positive working environment in the school.  In these modules teachers also work together to devise learning opportunities for students across and beyond the curriculum.


There is a strong correlation between CAT score and student outcomes at Junior Certificate.  Analysis of the state exam results against the CAT scores on intake indicate that our students are achieving above their expected level of performance. Feedback from students suggest that the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) has been a contributory factor. Feedback from parent and student surveys indicate a strong affirmation and recognition of the benefits of the ILE in progressing the school vision and in creating a positive learning experience.

The feedback from both students and parents indicate that the ILE is being used to diversify the teaching and learning methodologies, enable students to be creators of their own learning, support skills development and allowing greater interaction between teachers and students.

Almost 60% of students  surveyed indicate that they are learning in an innovative way and 65% of students indicate that they ask more questions and engage more readily with their teacher.

Over 80% of students strongly agree or agree that the ILE has resulted in a greater interest in school and their learning.

80% of parents surveyed strongly agree or agree that since coming to the school their child’s performance in school has improved.

59% of the parents felt that their child was learning in an innovative way and recognised that many of the learning experiences would not be possible without the use of the technology.

Parents of children with Special Educational Needs were particularly affirming of the impact that the ILE has on their child’s progress and ability to access the curriculum.




[3] https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/Digital-Strategy-for-Schools-2015-2020.pdf

[4]Thornburg, D., From the Campfire to the Holodeck : Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, John Wiley & Sons Inc:  New York, 2013

[5]Lourenço, O, Piaget and Vygotsky: Many resemblances, and a crucial difference

in New Ideas in Psychology 30(3):281–295,  December 2012

[6] Mezirow, J., Taylor, E. & Associates, Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2009

[7] https://www.education.ie/en/Schools-Colleges/Information/Information-Communications-Technology-ICT-in-Schools/Digital-Strategy-for-Schools/Building-Towards-a-Learning-Society-A-National-Digital-Strategy-for-Schools-Consultative-Paper.pdf


Dr Áine Moran completed her undergraduate honours degree in Commerce at NUI Galway and holds Master’s and PhD degrees from the Education Department at Dublin City University. She also holds post-graduate diplomas from University of Limerick, St. Angela’s College Sligo and NUI Maynooth.




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