Tuesday, June 17, 2014

. Modern Learning Environments ( MLEs ) are they so new? John Key seems to think so!

I recently watched on TV the Prime Minister John Key, the Mistress of Education Hekia Parata and their entourage  open the new Modern Learning Environment School ( a MLE) .

The New Zealand Herald headlined the visit as ‘Ultra-modern school way of the future’ and the Prime Minister was quoted as saying the school was a ‘window into the future’ and ‘what all New Zealand schools will eventually look like’.
‘It’s probably vastly different from what many people will have experienced in their own education but it is the modern face of the future, and it’s what will the hallmark of Christchurch as we build 21 of these schools as a result of the rebuild of Christchurch’, Key continued.  
Bubbling with enthusiasm Key continued ‘It’s a brilliant school. While not learning at desks, children work hard at work on cushions, small pods of chairs, or lying on the floor.’
Working in teams is ‘best evidence’ teaching Key was heard to say.
It would be fair to say both Key and Parata were falling over themselves to share such good news in Christchurch and about primary education.  And  the principal, was equally excited, as he should be because he has waited for a number of years for the government get behind the school. Earthquakes change environments in more way than the obvious.
Who wouldn't be excited?
Solar panels on roof - zero energy
The Herald article and the news video seem to be more impressed with children working on cushions, or lying on the floor and such wonderful things as solar panels on the roof, making it the first zero-energy school in New Zealand, ultra-fast broadband, its own radio station, and large open classrooms – without any desks, rather than the exciting pedagogy I know the school has developed.
I haven’t seen the new school but have had the opportunity to visit ultra-modern schools in the Auckland area. My impressions of the schools I have visited are that they remind me of  technological futuristic factories and, in some ways, not really relating to real flesh and blood
A UK open plan school
children. Even the landscaping has been planned by ‘experts’ who like mass planting of natives that are forced to conform to their futuristic roles - amenity planting. Not really gardens – or even natural native gardens.
When entering such schools the office/admin area is more like a command centre. When being shown around the principals (maybe we need a new name) talk endlessly about how the architect has provided areas with colours to match activities, how teams of teachers work with students (maybe we need a new name for them), all about the imbedded ICT and the lack of desks.  

I usually note how little space there is to display students’ work but am usually informed such work will be kept in student electronic portfolios.  It sound petty but I am not usually very impressed with the children’s work I usually see although I note displays of De Bono’s thinking hats, Gardner’s multipleintelligence,  a range of inquiry learning models and ‘best practice’  WALTS ( we are learning to) and success criteria. To be honest these later observations apply to most schools I visit – or I used to visit. Conformist, clone like, formulaic – the result of so called ‘best practice’ teaching.
When visiting these ‘new’ schools I always ask for information about school vision, values and most importantly the teaching beliefs that underpin the schools learning.  One newly appointed
Modern school UK
principal handed me out a document that had no alignment with the potential of the high tech environment she was to lead.
When I used to visit schools as an independent adviser I focused on the quality of the thinking behind the work on display (or selected downloads from the computers). I looked hard to recognise the individuality or ‘voice’ of the students and increasingly found it hard to find.

 Even the art, once the height of individual creativity, has suffered from an overdose of ‘success criteria’ and associated feedback. The same applies to students’ language. As for inquiry learning, which ought to be central in any 21stC learning, it is all too often more process than real in depth understanding. 

Two areas that do stand out during visits are literacy and numeracy. With their genesis in the 19thC this emphasis is further distorted by the reactionary imposition of National Standards. I obviously am not against literacy and numeracy but believe they need to be reframed as foundation skills in the service of inquiry learning. In some schools they seem to have captured the whole day; ‘ the evil twins’ (one UK commentator has said) ‘that have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum.’
Recent decades have seen an increasing emphasis on standardisation of student learning,  as seen through an unhealthy focus on National Standards, the use of ability grouping and an importance of comparative assessment– all left overs from a past age.

 I am left wondering real understanding of the enthusiastic politicians who talk about such open schools being the way of the future? 

 It seems they know nothing about the open education movement of the 70s when schools were designed as open plans with teams of teachers sharing large numbers of students? In such schools teachers were encouraged to throw out their desks and replace them with geometric
Open plan school 1960s UK
shaped tables and cushions. The big innovation of the time were listening posts and overhead projectors
So what is so new?
It is important to appreciate that it is not the technology, or even the buildings, but the pedagogy that counts.
With learner centred pedagogy (which is hardly new) the new digital tools have the potential to make learning more efficient and effective. Pedagogy used by pioneer creative teachers fit well with new technology but without pedagogy it is all ‘bells and whistles’ and shallow learning. 

Teacher plus ICT

Such things as integrated projects based on authentic problems/projects, the need to dig deeply into learning by doing fewer things well, interest based learning, powerful celebratory displays, integrating learning with the local community and environment, valuing the creative arts, learning from/through failure and performance assessments are not new ( nor all that common).
Such pedagogy can equally be applied in self-contained classrooms with minimum technology – but by adding purpose built schools and digital technology so much more can be achieved.
One area missed in the above list is the importance of positive relationships between the learners and their teacher and, in an open plan environment, learners and their teachers and, vitally, between the teachers themselves.
This last point was downfall of the open plan movement of the 70s – along with schools that didn’t have a clear set of teaching beliefs to align practice. Successful units usually were led by a strong educational team leader.
Interestingly in the 70s there were two schools of thought about open plan education. The Department of Education (now the Ministry of Education) and their architects’ favoured large
Modern school 
purpose built spaces influenced by North American design
s. Critics often called this model ‘open prairies’. A  more successful teacher leddesign, with links to developments in the UK, featured a more human scale a ‘nookand cranny’ model. I favoured the later model. One brilliant example I was aware of was created from five relocatable classrooms. Todays modern schools  buildings continue to reflect a techno-factory metaphor while teachers try to implement a more intimate family /whanau teaching/learning one.
So while the Prime Minister might see  such schools as the future, the essence of their design is not new and the seeds of their success still lie with the pedagogical skills of the teachers, the strength of teacher relationships, and strong educational leadership.
 It is necessary for politicians to understand how important it is that teachers work well together sharing their individual strengths. In an open environment it is the human capital provided by a strong professional community that is the most important element. This should not be side-tracked by an unhealthy competitive emphasis on national standards in the process sacrificing other important learning dispositions.
Open education 1926 USA
The unsuccessful open plan schools of the 70s replaced the walls, closed the dividers, returned the desks and retreated to the type of education they were planned to replace..
Ms Parata and Mr Key – if they are   really enthusiastic about 21stC education, ought to ensure teachers get the professional development to implement the 2007 New Zealand
sidelined curriculum
. This curriculum is premised on the belief all students leave school as ‘lifelong learners’ able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. We need a personalised talent based education system in contrast to the government’s standardisation policy which assesses and sorts the worth of students on limiting criteria.
And, in this excitement about new schools, the real cause of student lack of achievement lays outside the doors of the school – in the growing inequality and poverty - sadly one of the real growth areas in New Zealand.


Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Roger. I was split between being critical of politicians gaining credit with superficial thinking and acknowledging the depth of thinking you and your team have put into the pedagogical thinking that , as you say, 'underpins your school'.

I also wanted to make the point that open plan teaching is nothing new - just up to date design and technology. It is too easy for such things to be seen as the latest 'silver bullets'.

And I dislike the inference that teachers in self contained classrooms ( sometimes called 'single cells' )aren't up it. I see wonderful creative teachers in such environments.

Roger said...

I agree about MANY teachers being really creative but the co-teaching environment is such a different mindset and environment. To deprivatise your craft of teaching and be truly collaborative 24/7 is quite an ask and is a huge change from what many teachers signed up for when they were appointed to their current job. MLE is pushing boundaries and comfort zones for children, parents and especially teachers.

melulater said...

Great post Bruce, and thanks Roger for your input in the comments as it gives more context to your school.
I didn't watch the tv news clip because I could just hear Hekia's diatribe and the dribble that comes from Key's mouth.
The most important thing that you and your staff will be doing for the students at your school is establishing the pedagogy that the learning and teaching and culture will be based on. This is what creates a successful school, successful teachers and learners.
Sadly, looking at an article in the NZ Herald this morning about one of the charter schools established this year in Northland, pedagogy is clearly lacking and letting down the students and staff.
Just this week I went to Eduignite The Tron held at Hautapu School just out of Cambridge. They recently opened up their refurbished junior block with its modern learning spaces and furniture, also officially opened by Hekia. It felt fresh and clean, and I loved the kitchen area, chairs and manipulative tables and the doodle tables.... but like Bruce, as I looked around the rooms, I wondered about the display space. The buildings had large window areas and big white boards and minimal space to display student work.
As a teacher who wants to celebrate the learning journey of my students I would struggle in these classrooms. I wish principals, BOTs and architects considered such things when planning new/redesigned teaching and learning spaces.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog which certainly highlighted the strengths and deficiencies in a very balanced way. Your comment that the Pegasus Bay School open plan layout and teaching philosophy was reminiscent of the 70’s.

In fact while teaching at Apanui School during that period a new open plan teaching block was built with flexible teaching spaces including a quiet room and wet space for art related activities. The walls of the building were made of hessian covered pin board which created large areas to display art work. There were no desks, just work tables that could be set up in a variety of ways and the students had individual tote trays to store their books etc. Unlike now, myself and two other teachers certainly enjoyed creating learning experiences for the students in such an innovative learning environment involving the community with little restriction placed upon us to conform to outside bureaucratic pressure.

We involved the local tribal elders to teach the students Maoritanga. They taught the students action songs and hakas and helped them to make costumes in the traditional way. We camped on Maraes and interacted with the local community, we learnt to speak Maori, carve, weave, gained an understanding of marae protocol - in essence we immersed the students in their culture. Half the class were Europeans which made the process even more uplifting. I understand that Apanui today is a centre of excellence in Maoritanga. I would like to think what we started in the 70’s influenced its development.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Melulater. Agree with the Key and Hekia dribble. Along with anon's comment it goes to show that there was , contrary to Ministry 'speak', excellent teaching going on well before Tomorrow's Schools. It is easy to be impressed with the glitz of these new architect designed schools ( more shopping centres) and miss the focus , or lack of, on real pedagogy.

I remember well the open education approach that you (anon) mentioned at Apanui. Your description certainly points out that the ideas seen at Pegasus are anything but new. And the involvement of the community and tribal elders is still ahead of the play in most of todays schools