Wednesday, April 06, 2016

21stC Modern Learning Environments ( MLEs) and 1970s Open Plan Schools – similar challenges and problems – or new opportunities?

Edmund Burke


We build our building and then they shape us’ Winston Churchill.

 ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’ Edmund Burke


A few months ago I found myself in conflict with a friend of mine who recently been appointed to a  Modern Learning Environments. It was over a blog I wrote about MLEs and he thought I was being over critical. I have since removed references to his school although I believed that his school was doing a great job in their particular MLE. 


Don’t get me wrong. I believed the open plan schools of the 70s had, and their recent iteration MLEs, have great potential to develop ‘new minds for a new millennium’ (see Churchill’s quote above) enabling students, as the New Zealand Curriculum says, able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. But , I also believe, that lessons learnt about the success and failure of the 70s open plan buildings are worth considering (refer to Edmund Burke’s quote above).

Modern Learning Environments are the government ‘flagship for change’ and, to quote the Prime Minister, ‘a window to the future’ and will be ‘what all NZ schools will eventually look like’. Similar rhetoric was heard in the 1970s along with such ‘buzz’ words as:  ‘flexible buildings’, ‘collaboration', 'future thinking skills’, and ‘learner centred schools’, often along with derogatory phrases such as ‘single cell classrooms’ being a thing of the past.

A future oriented document
It is also ironic that while the Ministry is building open plan MLEs to prepare students for the 21stC they impose on school reactionary National Standards which look back to a standardised past.  Teachers now have to weld together the innovative spirit of the New Zealand Curriculum with the conformity and compliance targets required by the standards.

MLEs, if implemented properly, might well be ‘windows to the future’ but education is always more than buildings and technology and it is important that they don’t become the ‘silver bullet’ that when provided will solve problems that ‘single cell’ classrooms are unable cope with. Those teaching in such glamorous photogenic environments are naturally all too often over enthusiastic about their experience but what is needed is a critical appraisal of their success.

An evaluation of open schools
Thinking about past history of open plan schools I came across two books (one was more a booklet) that are worth consideration if there are lessons to be learnt. 

 The first is a NZEI book, ‘Aspects of School Organisation’ published in 1976, evaluating open education schools. The smaller booklet ,‘Learning with the Children’, was published by myself outlining open education teaching in traditional classrooms and the transferring of such ideas into an open plan school environment in the 1970s. The later booklet was republished and presented at the 1975 Auckland world Education Conference held at the Elleslie Racecourse.

Re-reading such books brings to the forefront the challenges, problems and some solutions that may apply to teaching in the new Modern Leaning Environments.

By mid 1970s there were over 200 open plan units operating in NZ schools. In most schools, over time, walls were replaced and teachers reverted to ‘single cell’ classrooms.  The Education Department and architects may have thought they were ‘a window to the future’ but the educational advantages of such flexible building, for all the rhetoric was never realised..

The NZEI book had chapters by both practitioners and educationalists. A chapter By Peter Ramsay (then at the School of Education Waikato University) called ‘Egg Crate or Barn: the Open Teaching Controversy in School Organization’ is well worth the read.  In this chapter he outlines the strengths and weaknesses of open plan teaching; strengths and weaknesses that still apply in todays MLE schools.
Published for  Auck NZEI World Conf  1973

The smaller ‘Learning with the Children’ booklet covered the progress of a  group of Taranaki teachers  introducing open education ideas in traditional rooms beginning  in 1970 and later the development of such ideas in an open plan unit in 1974.

The success of such classrooms (self-contained or open plan) was based on a shared set of beliefs about how students learn and the successful transference of such beliefs to an open plan environment was the result of the strong educational leadership of the Deputy Principal.

 The open plan buildings only provided the opportunity.

 This particular successful open plan unit was cobbled together from a number of prefabs and, in contrast to the ‘open prairies’ designed by the architects (Ramsay’s ‘barns’ and many modern MLEs), was defined as a ‘nook and cranny’  style and more designed by the teachers involved.

The ideas underpinning the open education classrooms, and later the open plan, were:

(1) The development of integrated programmes with themes based on curriculum areas, the local environment and students interests.
(2) The valuing of the personal ideas, questions and theories of the students in all areas of learning.
(3) Helping students develop confidence and take responsibility for their own learning choices
(4) Teaching of skills at point of need, individually or in groups, for students to complete quality work (this in contrast to the use of ability grouping in reading and maths)
(5) Develop mathematics and literacy programmes based around motivational challenges and, where possible, to teach skills to be used in the inquiry programme.
(6) To really value the creative and language arts – for many students areas of personal strength often neglected and an excellent way for teachers to develop the idea of doing things well.
(7) One vital idea was to ‘slow the pace of work’ so as to provide time to come alongside learners to assist so they are able to achieve their ‘personal best’ and  to develop a sense of craftsmanship. 'Stickability' or perseverance is a vital attitude. (Too many students think first finished is best. This growth in quality thinking and presentation is best seen in individual student’s bookwork.)
Introducing challenges through displays

(8) A need to provide structure to provide security for students but that this structure is best negotiated with the students themselves.Students need to know ‘what, why, when and how’ to do tasks undertaken. Day to day organisation is continually evolving according to need and the growing skill of both teachers and students. Rotation group work (not ability groups) is a means to keep students and teachers on task. As the year progresses students are able to undertake personal studies of their own choice (individually or in groups)
From 'Learning with the Children'

(9) The best assessment is evidence of students’ growth in the various areas of learning and in particular by what they can demonstrate, exhibit or display. Comparison of the work completed in term one and four ought to be obvious to students, teachers and parents.
(10) Room environments need to celebrate the thoughts and achievements of students across all areas of learning. Units of work to be displayed with provocative headings, study questions and where necessary, framed students work.
(11) All the above demands teachers to be guides, coaches and facilitators.
Encouraging 'slow' loking

To translate this to an open plan environment required leadership, positive relationships between teachers, all in an atmosphere of mutual respect between teachers and learners.

The translation of ideas into an open unit was a real challenge – particularly sharing of students with other teachers.

After two years the ideas developed were:

(1)    The provision of a diversified ‘workshop’ day allowing students to work individually or in groups providing greater choice (and responsivity) and teacher and students skill developed. The more skills in place the less structure required.
(2)    The importance of introducing skills required, in realistic contexts, for students to become confident independent learners.  Most important was to encourage the students to work carefully by ‘slowing the pace’ of their work allowing teachers to assist as necessary.
(3)    The importance of the total learning environment; student work to be displayed to celebrate achievement and for new topics to be introduced by well-arranged teacher displays.

The Deputy Principal involving in establishing the open unit (the students’ called it the ‘open planet’) had read widely about open education and about open plans and had come to the realisation that many open plans were basically introducing traditional ideas rather than new approaches. As a result of this many such schools reverted to self-contained teaching as documented in the NZEI book above.

Cant see the buildings for the student work
He decided it was important to keep home groups to start the day, and often to finish, to provide  security. Students need to know ‘what, why, when and how’ to do tasks undertaken. 

Day to day organisation is continually evolving according to need and the growing skill of both teachers and students. Rotation group work (not ability groups) is a means to keep students and teachers on task. As the year progresses students are able to undertake personal studies of their own choice (individually or in groups) security. 

The programmes the teachers developed were formal and informal; evolutionary in nature. Teachers, he felt, needed to keep a balance of curriculum areas and, where choices were provided that students didn’t revert to shallow ‘busy work’.

Teachers needed to keep the highest of standards for their students with basic skills work covered by targeted  withdrawal groups so all students could produce work of their highest standard.

Cooperative planning is strength of planning in an open unit to develop in depth content areas to be covered and choices for students to select from; from this ‘master plan’ individual teachers plan further activities for their assigned groups.  Students have a checklist to ensure tasks selected are completed. Sometimes individual teachers become in house ‘experts’ and introduce a major theme to the whole group. Often there are multiple studies in progress and as students gain expertise individually chosen studies.

Maths and reading/language arts are covered in the morning in withdrawal groups. Maths follows a topic approach and although one teacher has overall responsibility each teacher plans their own activities; where possible activities are planned to contribute to theme/inquiry studies.

Literature usually starts the afternoon programme and two afternoons are spent on cultural activities – Maori culture and music taken by two teachers while remaining teachers handle the PE programme. All other afternoons students are involved in completing theme/inquiry tasks.

It is not possible to completely define the timetable in an evolving unit but there is always enough structure to ensure all students are on task. The open unit provides for flexibility and change and the variety that evolves are appreciated by all. With experience there are activity works through days – ‘true open education’.
From 'Learning with Children' booklet

Organisations are simply a devise to ensure students are involved so as each to produce work of the highest quality. The success of the unit is reflected by the displays of student work and by their attitudes towards learning; a community of scientists and artists who have done their best to express what they have achieved; a community where all are continually learning.

The lead teacher’s final comments stress the importance of relationships between all involved and that it is difficult to verbalise all that has been achieved – to fully appreciate it all a visit is required. A climate of controlled order and behaviour has been achieved and that this, combined with the emphasis on disciplined work leads little unnecessary noise.

He saw the achievements of the teachers and students in the unit as workshop for future education and was well aware that there is always more to learn and to do.

Colonial display ( Bill Guild)
In our own evaluation of our experiment implementing open education/open plan schooling we wrote ‘It has not been as easy to develop room environments and programmes as might have been expected.

 Teachers felt real and imagined pressures to conform to less venturesome methods and also found that their theory of such teaching was often in advance of their ability to put ideas into practice’ and that ‘and even well over a year our teaching ideas were still being formulated and changed…..Early in the year the major fault was to move forward too quickly forgetting the background of the children and our own ability to cope with the diversity that eventuated.’ ‘We wanted them to independent learners before they had developed the necessary skills to work independently….children worked too fast with little sense of craftsmanship.’

Visitors who came to observe we always impressed with the quality and creativity of the students work on display. The teachers involved wrote ‘ The realisation of the importance of the room environment came slowly to the children. As they saw their work mounted and displayed they began to accept the room as their own and were able to recognise their own contributions to the environment.’

Teachers concluded that ‘it should be appreciated that as a method it is not an easy way to teach and requires considerable thought and time to develop.’

John Holt  (1964)  wrote  about his ideal school as a place in which 'each child in his own way can satisfy his curiosity, develop his
abilities and talents, pursue his interests, and from the adults and older children around him get a glimpse of the great variety and richness of life'.

This brings me back to thinking about current Modern Learning Environment and Edmund Burke’s quote, ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’.


We need to look past the buildings
MLEs are more than glamorous new buildings and computer access – they are, as in the era of open plans, all about relationships, leadership, and the quality of the teaching and to be judged by the quality of achievements of their students.


'Happiness has to  got to derive from achievement and success not by having a good time.'  Charles Silberman ( another 70s educator.)

Our buildings may indeed shape us, as Churchill wrote, but it is over to teachers to see that students are ‘shaped’ in the most positive way.


Did he get his fingers right?




7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with the theme of your blog but I fear MLEs will probably go ahead and make their own mistakes which hopefully they will learn from. And I agree that once parents get over the excitement of such dramatic buildings ( so different from their own schooling) they will start to judge success by the quality of their child's achievement. This is what happened withe earlier open plan buildings when parents became dissatisfied.

Time will tell.

Bruce said...

I think you are right. It seems a long time since the days of the open plan movement and as it is said 'the past is another country'.

But you would think that the open units - successful or otherwise- would provide valuable lessons.

I was communicating with a principal of an MLE who had time off to research such schools ( he referred to open plan schools of the 70s) and he expressed concern about some of teaching going on in MLEs. They were the same concerns expressed in the evaluation of 1970s open plan schools.

I always look closely at the work on display in classrooms ( MLEs or self contained) to see if it reflects the creativity of the students or teacher directed material.

The jury is out on MLEs

Anonymous said...

Great Bruce to read some thoughtful ideas about MLEs or iLEs. Most of the information one sees on TV, or in print, is all about the buildings and facilities and , other than 'buzz words' like: 'flexible', 'collaborative, 'twenty first teachings skills', 'future proofing' and access to modern information technology etc so far there is little evidence to show about the quality of students thinking and examples of what MLEs buildings have enabled students to produce.

I would like to know about the lessons learnt from the MLEs earlier iteration the 1970s open plan schools. Any thoughts?

Bruce said...

Hi anon,

My blog has sparked the enthusiasm of the leader ( John Cunningham) of the open plan I referred to. As a result of his enthusiasm he has found, in his woodshed, all the material he wrote when running what I believed to have been the most successful open plan of the era.

I am going to go through this and share in forthcoming blogs.

Should keep me busy.

He also brought the latest NZPPF Magazine with an article about such schools. We spent time trying to interpret it!!

Tina Donnell said...

I look around my classroom, a spacious, high ceiling, sash window building, built sometime around 1900, and I love it.
When parents come into the room with their child at the beginning of the year, they will often ask, “Where do you sit?” and the child will look a bit confused because there is no ‘seating plan’.
In fact, part of the learning of the first weeks at school is about trying out different places to work in, depending on what you are working on. Children can choose from cushions on the floor, in an open space, or tucked away in a corner. They can move small soft chairs around the room and sit with a board on their lap, or lie on the floor. There are also tables and chairs and kneelers.
This flexibility in use of the space of my traditional style classroom space sits alongside children’s choice and responsibility for their learning.
The tools and materials that the children need are on hand. I love that after a couple of weeks in the classroom, I can say, “So and so and so and so, go and get tambourines, shakers, bells and claves.” And I know that can happen quickly with a minimum of fuss. Or children can get a stapler, pen, scissors, whiteboard, any tool they require, independently. I am not the keeper of these resources. They are freely available and the children know how and when to use them.
Over the past 4 or 5 years I have been working to teach my students how to be independent, so that I know that while I am teaching one child or group of children, everyone will be engaged in meaningful work.
I have not been a part of the discussion about MLE’s and there are no plans to develop MLE’s in my small rural school established in 1878.

Tina Donnell said...

As a young teacher in the early 80’s, I taught in one ‘open plan’ school, in two different classrooms.
The first was purpose built and was very pleasant to teach in. It was light and airy, had several different levels and was very spacious, partly because it was designed for four classes and only had three at the time. The classes were run totally separately, except for assemblies and singing times. I don’t remember it being noisy but I do remember that I had to be considerate about noise and it was very difficult to find an acceptable time for teaching music. This was a source of frustration for me.
The second class was rather like the room I teach in now. The corridors had been opened up and there was a lean to added on the other side of the room with the intention of providing for 3 classes to work in a space originally intended for 2. Apart from the lean to addition, the space was quite barn like.
I was paired with a teacher near the end of his career. In fact, while I taught in the school, this teacher turned 65 and had to retire, as that was compulsory at that time. Up until this teacher started to work with me, he had taught in the only ‘single cell’ classroom in the school. He was moved into the open plan space to ensure that he couldn’t continue to smoke in the classroom. In this class, even more markedly than in the previous class I taught in, we retreated to the furthest corners of the room and did our best to manage our 35 children (70 altogether) without disturbing each other too much. It was most definitely not my favourite teaching time. I just made the best of a difficult situation.
I remember being given the opportunity to observe in several open plan classrooms that were working well. The classes I saw were intermediate level. I was teaching Standard 2 (Year 4). I was impressed with what I saw, but on returning to my class, I could see no way of implementing any of the ideas without a teaching partner who was also inspired and willing to try some new approaches.
Therein lies the problem.
I love teaching alongside others, where there is open communication and a shared philosophy. I enjoy having a student teacher in the room and a teacher aide to work with students. In those situations, I accept responsibility for taking the lead. I benefit from the opportunity to talk about the choices I make as a teacher and why I am making them.
I am still evolving my teaching style and constantly seeking to improve and find solutions to problems as they arise. My solutions are different to other’s solutions, but they work for me.
There are so many variables in a classroom, with one teacher and their students. Making a situation where there are multiple teachers and groups of students increases those variables.
Whatever situation I am placed in, I will make the best of it as I did back in 1985-86, and I would love to be part of a like minded team forging ahead with the goal of getting better outcomes and a better educational experience for every student.
However, I am grateful to be able to develop my current thinking and teaching practice in a space I love, without the added challenge of working it out with other teachers who may or may not be committed to similar values and educational understandings. (Not to mention that I can teach music at any time of the day without worrying about disturbing others, which is still a priority for me.)
It seems to me that it’s teaching and teachers that would benefit from the investment of time and money, rather than investing in bricks and mortar. Perhaps that would create the demand for different spaces to accommodate the changes put in practice.
I guess it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question, but history seems to suggest that before too long the walls will be put back in place and the teaching will carry on in a similar way to before.
Some teachers will change but most will revert to familiar practice, if they managed to make any shifts at all.

Bruce said...

Hi Tina

Thanks so much for your two comments. I am planning to keep up posts about MLEs or ILEs and will make use of your thoughtful comments. Two points come to mind. One is that great teaching can take place in self contained classroom and the second that working in concert with other teachers is a complex business . Perhaps a third might be that MLEs might not suit very creative teachers and students as they have the potential to 'morph' into conformist environments.

I have in mind one very successful 1970s open unit that was very successful - in most cases though, with time, schools closed off the walls and retreated to self contained classrooms. Most of the open plan schools simply transferred a traditional emphasis on literacy and numeracy ( along with cross class ability grouping) into such rooms. Old wine in new bottles.

It will be interesting to see how MLEs structure their time and space in a more creative and personalized way.