Innovative Learning Environments: A critique

By Richard McCance

Media attention in New Zealand has recently focused on the current Ministry of Education policy of redesigning schools along the lines of Innovative Learning Environments (also known as Modern Learning Environments or Open Plan Learning Spaces). This attention is important and more people need to be aware of the factors driving this change and the expectations and assumptions that underlie this policy.

What is an ILE/MLE?

The Ministry of Education website on Modern Learning Environments defines Learning Environments as “the complete physical, social and pedagogical context in which learning is intended to occur.”[1] Modern or Innovative Environments then are those that are capable of “evolving and adapting,” remaining “future focused” as educational practices change and evolve. This focus on innovation relates to physical spaces as well as to approaches to teaching and learning, curriculum and educational outcomes. While the website acknowledges that “extensive research has proven” that students learn best when they are “actively involved in decision making, initiating learning and collaborating” there is no link to research which would suggest that this new approach is uniquely effective towards this objective.

It is interesting to note that the Ministry originally referred to these environments as Modern Learning Environments but has since changed its terminology to Innovative Learning Environments, both to match international usage but also due to “growing discomfort” in New Zealand with the term Modern Learning Environments. However, no explanation as to what this discomfort specifically relates to is given.

While a focus on design of space is obvious, particularly in terms of open plan, adaptable spaces with increased transparency and more communal or collaborative capacities, shifts in pedagogy, content and resources are also prescribed.

Ministry of Education head of infrastructure Kim Shannon signals how current policy makers believe traditional approaches to teaching and learning no longer prepare students for the real world, citing the need for skills like “digital fluency, complex problem solving and the ability to work with others”[2]. Student choice and individual freedom are important concepts in this model as is the shift away from traditional academic approaches towards more student-directed or inquiry learning.

As with personal choice, more individualized programs are promoted while the use of digital technologies and platforms are encouraged. As part of the Ministry’s “Network for Learning” which provides fully funded, dedicated internet service, schools receive fast, reliable internet with uncapped data, web filtering and security services as well as helpdesk support.[3] This centrally managed, semi-private approach also provides access to a web portal where new providers of educational content and services can be more readily accessed.

In the global context, the OECD report entitled Schooling Redesigned: Innovative Learning Systems lists, among other factors, “the penetration of digital technologies and the extent of global connection, the entry of new learning providers, the interest of employers in the outcomes of schooling and the expertise in learning in other sectors… and the extent of networking” as aspects of our current situation which make our present model of schooling insufficient.[4]

The shift in the design of educational spaces, the perceived need to change the focus and delivery of educational programs and the ostensible value of web-based providers of content and learning are all factors driving the change to this new educational model. Fundamentally, what remains essential is that educational outcomes for all children should improve.

What are the results?

While peer-reviewed research on the benefits of this new model remain scarce more anecdotal evidence has been emerging around different experiences within this new environment.

Some media attention has focused on expressions of positive experience and enthusiasm with the new approach. Sylvia Park School was featured in a November 13th article on the Fairfax News online publication[5] This brief article features a video clip where two year 7/8 teachers discussed the benefits of the new environment. Student choice, trust, independence (particularly with respect to lack of restrictions and individualized learning) and student motivation are emphasized.

In a February 21st article from another Fairfax News outlet, the Waikato Times, various principals and educationalists extoll the benefits of moving to this new learning environment. Many aspects of the approach are addressed, from teacher to student ratios, which switch to a seemingly better relationship of up to 70 students being supported by three teachers, to physical upgrades of classes and the removal of desks which have been replaced with new “flexible” and “colourful” furniture.[6]

Another example which promotes the idea comes from a December 2nd article in the Minstry’s own publication, Education Gazette.[7] This article addresses the process of change from “traditional” classroom design and practice to the “shiny new learning environment” re-imagined along more “contemporary lines” for Tarawera High School. As is the core philosophy in this approach, student agency is paramount to the success of the model.

In support of this concept a focus at Tarawera is on developing the Key Competencies within the New Zealand Curriculum framework. This focus appears to shift attention from the acquisition of important knowledge to the development of relevant skills or capacities. The following quote from Deputy Principal Gavin Holland is emblematic of this idea: “A lot of the skills that are now embodied by the key competencies are not necessarily things like, let’s say, how acids and bases work for example. We’re looking for thinking skills, teamwork, self-motivation and that sort of thing.”

Not all occurrences of media coverage have been positive. Another Fairfax Media article on from October 18th is titled “Top schools give multi-million dollar classrooms a fail grade.”[8] This article also features a short video clip where Mt Albert Grammar School principal Dale Burden addresses some of the concerns related to the one-size-fits-all nature and the Ministry’s imposition of this approach in all new school designs. Additionally within this criticism, the importance of the role of the teacher is stressed but also the effectiveness of some of the key elements of this approach, such as the individualized nature of the philosophy, is questioned.

Further concerns are raised in the National Radio piece from December 2nd, “Backlash against open-plan classrooms.”[9] While many principals and some teachers are vocal proponents of the new model, this article shares some concerns from parents who worry that their children’s educational needs might not be met within this approach. Some families have gone so far as to remove their children from schools as a result. Rangi Ruru Girls’ School principal Julie Moor is quoted in the article as saying that some parents have a range of concerns with this model and a steady increase in the number of inquiries from families moving away from this approach has been noticed.

Additionally, a November 23rd article in the Australian publication The Age (also owned and published by Fairfax Media) discusses the difficulties experienced in a number of Australian primary schools where this approach has been implemented[10]. This article also references the research carried out by Kiri Mealings, a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Macquarie University who has been investigating the acoustics of open plan classrooms and the effects these environments have on teachers and learners.[11] While the article from The Age focuses on the distracting nature this environment creates and discusses the measures teachers have gone through to overcome the issue, a more detailed analysis of students struggles is discussed in Ms Mealings article on Macquarie University’s website.[12] This article discusses the effects on language perception and hearing in open plan classrooms and calls for greater understanding of how students with special educational needs including non-native English speakers, students with ADHD, hearing impairments and language delays all struggle to cope within these environments.

It should also be noted that Open Plan classrooms based within a similar philosophy were trialed in many western countries including NZ in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to a review of research published in the journal Noise and Health entitled “Applied Aspects of Auditory Distraction: Noise in open plan classrooms in primary schools,” one of the most likely reasons these were abandoned was due to their impractical nature and difficult environment of teaching and learning with the associated visual and auditory distractions.[13]

What does it all mean?

It can be argued that it is safe to view the Ministry’s thinking regarding this approach as well intended and genuinely designed to create better learning opportunities for all students. However, it remains unclear as to how capable this approach will be in addressing the most significant problem within New Zealand education today, that of the long tail of under achievement. Most of the evidence cited above is based on anecdotal evidence and individualized experiences. Very little comprehensive peer reviewed research exists (and none has been provided by the Ministry) to suggest that this approach will have positive effects for all students or that it is the best way to achieve the goals set out.

It is also common to agree on a problem but to disagree on the best solution to that problem. All good teachers want students to be engaged with their learning, to be motivated to acquire deep and powerful knowledge and to develop transferable skills that afford agency and independence. However, this model appears to rely on a type of ‘straw-man’ argument of current education strategies as lacking innovation, stifling students’ motivation and as being too ‘one-size-fits-all’ in approach. Further to that, the removal of desks, the addition of colourful furniture and the knocking down of walls to impose a particular type of collaboration and ‘transparency’ seems both specious and heavy-handed.

Setting aside some of the more obvious physical design aspects like open plan layouts and flexible furnishings, the associated pedagogies also need to be understood and placed within a larger context of the purpose of education.

The ILE/MLE approach to learning is highly individualized. While on the surface this may seem to be designed to benefit everyone, there is also a concern that this will shift the focus and overall purpose of education towards developing general skills and capacities for doing tasks with a view of education in line with simple utility as opposed to education as a process of acquiring knowledge and critical understanding. Real dangers of social engineering along an ideological framework aligning with many neo-liberal reforms of most state-sector agencies and the broader Global Education Reform Movement (Sahlberg)[14] are also possible with this approach. This model seems set on deconstructing a robust, academic curriculum and moving towards a more skills oriented one designed to create flexible and employable workers in a model of social efficiency. This is particularly evident in the use of fashionable buzzwords within the movement like “innovation,” “entrepreneurialism” and “agility” which are often incorporated into an outcomes based approach to learning.

Along with the shift in pedagogies is a shift in content and resourcing of the curriculum. A push to move students to digital providers could signal a de-skilling of teachers and (along with open plan class rooms) an emphasis on cost-efficiencies over quality and effectiveness. The ubiquitous nature of technology in society has helped to drive the notion that 21st century learning needs are substantially unique and distinctive from the past. This simplistic view of learning overlooks the fact that digital technologies are merely another tool teachers have available to them and should not be seen as a replacement for or in competition with good quality teaching. Within this approach there seems to be an idea that there is now no need for direct instruction or, in fact, that direct instruction is overly dogmatic or authoritarian and that any failures within this new approach are the fault of the teacher ‘not adapting.’

Rather than dismiss this approach as one of many new fads in education or as simply a genuine part of the ongoing quest for an excellent educational system, we should try to understand each of the component parts of this new model and recognize the value that they bring or perils that they present. Ultimately, any major reform should be well supported in terms of authentic research, a truly collaborative consultation and an open and forthright discussion on the purposes and best design of each initiative. All of society has a stake in this. Decisions made by policy makers need to be understood and generally supported so that all interests are at least acknowledged. This current policy has not yet achieved that level of rigor and continued discussion and understanding of the significance of this reform is necessary.
















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