By Alison Smith
As Generation X we knew them as classrooms.
But today they have metamorphosed into pods and modern - or innovative - learning environments, ILEs for short.
With glass walls, funky furniture and 60 children in a big open plan room where two teachers share the space, education consultants’ will explain the trend in classroom
design as an open, flexible learning environment in which inquiries are shared and interventions are devised collaboratively.
Ask some of the men and women at the coal face of the modern learning environment about their experience teaching in buildings like this, and the answer is often less complicated.
“What it is, is chaos.
“For me as a teacher, I can’t think in a noisy environment with lots of children. You cannot expect silence, but in my view a classroom should be calm and respectful of other people.”
Fiona* has taught in the Modern Learning Environment of a British-based International School, co-teaching a total of 20 students alongside another teacher.
Like several currently practicing teachers interviewed, there was criticism of the way that modern learning environments are being created in New Zealand, where numbers of students can be three times that amount and for some schools, the only thing that changes is the look of the furniture and the requirement to spend your budget only on that.
“My experience of modern learning environments in New Zealand is that there are up to 60 students, a lack of professional development for teachers within them, and you lose the opportunity for relationships to develop between the teacher and the children in your class,” Fiona says. “It may be given a positive spin, and you will have consultants talk it up, but the teachers I know all say that what they’re working in now is a place that’s loud and awful.”
In recent years, billions of dollars have been spent on developing new learning spaces that cater to growing school rolls.
The New Zealand Government is sponsoring a four-year research project out of Melbourne Australia, with independent researchers surveying principals and teachers and reporting on their views of flexible classroom layouts and teaching with others.
The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project is two years in, but initial findings of the study – according to the Ministry – say students in innovative learning environments (ILEs) where teachers have changed their teaching practice are doing better when compared with students in traditional classrooms. As the project progresses, findings such as this will be further tested.
“We know that good acoustics are essential for health, wellbeing and good learning,” says Kim Shannon, head of the Education Infrastructure Service of the Ministry of Education. “To achieve this, we have set the standards for acoustics based on international and local research, and we expect the use of all learning spaces to comply with these.”
She says schools can tailor classroom spaces to their specific teaching and learning practices.
“These spaces contain a range of features such as breakout spaces, screens and mobile partitions, that give schools the flexibility to set up teaching spaces that meet the needs of every student. We work with schools throughout the design and build process. If design issues arise following the build or upgrade of a school, we will order reviews by acoustic engineers to remedy any acoustic issues.”
For those who grew up being taught at rows of wooden desks facing the front of the class, the first impression of ILEs is colourful plastic seats and linked together tables, swiss balls and floor cushions.
Often these environments are made possible only through the loss of multi-purpose rooms, school libraries and larger shared spaces for drama, indoor sport and assemblies.
It might also mean merging rooms with walls being removed and a combo-up of ages in one space. Although there is room for everyone, there is also not necessarily enough of each funky furniture type for each child in the class.
“For kids it’s about what’s fair,” says Rachel. “If there are some swiss balls, they all want the swiss ball, and there are aren’t enough swiss balls for everyone, as a teacher you are spending a certain amount of time working out a system to make sure that everyone gets a turn on the swiss ball.”
With the costs of rising numbers of students in classrooms, some teachers think the new classroom design and purpose built furniture is being forced upon schools and could be better spent on upskilling teachers and providing more teachers and teacher aides.
Aside from the new furniture, teachers report another, more concerning feature of bigger classrooms.
For new entrants, and children in their early primary years or with special needs, the modern learning environment can reach a level of noise and distraction that can inhibit learning.
“They suit some students who are self-directed in their learning. But you give me a five, six, seven-year-old who is self-directed,” says Grant. “Having 55 of them in there is absolutely chaos.”
Grant has extensive experience teaching children with special needs, and says the design of modern learning environments where he has taught has led some parents of children with learning disabilities to move their child elsewhere.
“Everyone is individual, but generalising for an autistic child, it is absolute sensory overload. A modern learning environment for an autistic child might be a curved wall lit from underneath not on top, and research into the individualised needs of that child.
“But a design that has lots of glass, large spaces, lots of lighting, children and noise – the sort of thing that you see in the majority of MLE’s? To a kid with special needs, it will trigger many more behaviours than you are trying to prevent.”
This is a view that’s echoed by the New Zealand Post Primary Teacher’s Association, which says while it’s good that the Ministry is doing the research, the paper seems to be missing a lot, and won’t allay fears of the sceptics.
“There are lots of different teaching and learning approaches that work for young people, but there seems to be an assumption in this research that some methods are preferred over others, without really presenting the reasons why,” says PPTA President Jack Boyle.
“What is also absent from this early research is the voice and experience of our Māori and Pasifika young people as well as those with learning differences, especially those with attention and auditory processing issues.
“The current policy to make all newly built “innovative learning environments” with “’flexible learning spaces” (open plan) feels like change for its own sake. We have to ask; why is the shape and look of a classroom being used to drive the way we teach? Putting the cart before the horse will not help New Zealand’s children and young people reach their potential.”
Not all teachers are critical of the changes, however. Katikati Primary is growing – it added a purpose-built block of three classrooms last year and this year the Ministry supplied another three modular classrooms.
Says Principal Andrea Nicholson: “Collaborative teaching has worked well for us and we have seen the positive outcomes for children, not only with levels of achievement but also in the development of skills such as collaboration; self-motivation and persistence.
“Collaborative planning encourages teachers to bounce ideas off each other in order to deliver the strongest, most creative lessons. Working collaboratively enables us to
individualise the programme for children.”
The school will be the recipient of community-wide fundraising to pay for a $36,000 sound system - $3000 per classroom – which Andrea says will ensure children can hear clearly throughout the working environment.
Andrea says the school is “delighted” that proceeds from the Katikati Avocado Food and Wine Festival this year will be donated to the school, a system which she sees now as essential for students with any from of hearing loss.
Say the PPTA: “Schools in Aotearoa are really important to their communities, and governments over the last 30 years have given them more and more responsibility for running, and even funding them. It’s natural that changes like this are going to be questioned. It’s good that the Ministry is doing this research, but this paper seems to be missing a lot, and as a result it’s not going to allay the fears of sceptics.”
These sceptics might say that rather than overhead projectors and rows of desks, it will be teachers wearing microphones that our current generation of students looks back upon from their days in the innovative learning environment.
*This article was published in the Katikati Advertiser, a community newspaper with NZME. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of teachers who contributed to this article.
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