Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Developing a pedagogy for a Modern Learning Environment; Supporting future-orientated learning and teaching- a New Zealand perspective (NZCER)

The Ministry of Education flagship for a twenty-first education system are the development of schools as Modern Learning Environments – MLEs for short. They are appearing wherever there is the population growth to require new schools and in the Christchurch area following the destruction created by the earthquakes.
A new Modern Learning Environment ( MLE)

Video clips on TV provide a glamorous picture of such building.  Flexible spaces allowing for team work and teacher collaboration with dramatic entrances and amenity plantings. Students are to be seen sitting on aesthetically designed furniture  and spaces featuring access to computers.
A Modern Learning Environment - Student centred?

What could go wrong and are they really so new? And did the architects confer with creative teachers about how they are to be used?

Such environments were created in the 1970 and were then called open plan schools. The only thing missing at the time were the computers.  Those that were successful were led by innovative teachers who were able to develop teaching approaches to take advantage of the flexible spaces. In most cases the walls were returned and teachers returned to self-contained classrooms. Many parents, after initial excitement, asked for their children to be placed in ‘normal’ classrooms as many students were not seen to be gaining any real advantage. Ironically the best open plan environment I observed (and assisted) was led by a very creative teacher was a collection of prefabs joined together
An Open Plan school 1960s

The lesson learnt (or more to the point forgotten) was that pedagogy is more important than buildings designed by distant experts.

Late last year I was given a NZ Council for Educational Research (NZCER) paper called ‘Supporting future-orientated learning and teaching- a New Zealand perspective’ which provides teachers working in MLEs   valuable ideas (ideas equally valuable for teachers in self-contained classrooms).

The authors argue that current educational structures and practices are not able to cater for the learning needs of all students in the 21stC. The paper provides findings to contribute to the development of a future oriented system.

Not covered are practices of streaming, cross classroom setting and ability grouping although current research is against such practices that dominate/distort educational opportunities. Nor is the importance of affective/ attitudinal aspects of education ; areas lost in our National Standards, achievement based measurable achievement.

The future of educational change can be seen in many current innovative programmes. My feeling it is such schools/teachers we need to help share their ideas and not in Ministry determined clusters led by the wrong people!

The authors are also well aware that the phrases ‘21stC learning’ or ‘future learning’ can be seen as problematic and open to various interpretations but their paper provides ideas to assist schools – MLEs or not.

Changing times, social and technological, demand new approaches; educational assumptions need to be challenged. We face an uncertain world faced with a range of ‘wicked’ problems. Teachers and students need support ‘to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21stC wicked problem solving.’

Schools need to be built around what we know about learning and in an information age how students can create their own content through action – ‘knowledge workers’.  Education in a Knowledge Age ‘must foreground the development of learner’s dispositions, capabilities or competencies’.

Research clearly shows people do not learn well as spectators receiving pre-packaged information delivered by experts. Good learning requires ‘active engagement’ in the ‘whole game’ and the more people learn the more they are capable of. Creative teachers have always known this but ‘our schools are often set up in ways that do not support theses principles’.  A paradigm shift is required. Schools, the authors write, need to be ‘unbundled’ and ‘reassembled in smarter ways’ to reflect the needs and demands of a 21stC world.

The paper outlines seven ‘emerging principles for a 21stC education system.

Theme one: Personalising learning.

‘Education needs to be built around the learner rather than the learner being required to fit with the system’. 

Education should keep the innate desire to learn alive; to tap into, amplify or provide opportunity, to develop every learners’ unique talents. This is well beyond current educational provision and although the authors recognise teachers at the margins, ‘we are not yet seeing deeppersonalisation’.

Theme Two: New vies of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

It is obvious that the needs of many groups of learners have not been met. National Standards have narrowed opportunity for many students who see themselves as failures. Education needs to value diversity rather than the current press towards standardisation. Diversity needs to be actively recognised as a future strength and requires valuing individual ‘needs, strengths, interests and aspirations’. We have in our schools an ‘opportunity’ rather than an ‘achievement gap.’
In a future diverse world people will need to work ‘with people from cultural/religious and/or
linguistic backgrounds or world views.’ Students need the ‘ability to think between, outside and beyond them – that is, the ability to work with a diversity of ideas.’

Theme Three: A curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity.

This, the authors believe is our biggest problem. Our current or traditional idea of knowledge is about ‘content and skills to be selected from the disciplines to form the “subjects” or “learning areas” of the school curriculum; the learner’s job is to absorb and assimilate knowledge in their minds’ and to demonstrate this through assessment.

The conception of knowledge as seen by the authors is ‘ as something that that does things’; ‘more like a verb than a noun’. The knowledge Age requires students ‘creating and using new knowledge to solve problems and find solutions to challenges as they arise on a “just in time” basis.

Reproducing stored up knowledge can no longer be the educators core goal instead ‘the focus needs to on equipping people to do things with knowledge in inventive ways in new contexts and combinations.’ An individual stock of knowledge is important as a foundation for their personal cognitive development and to be useful ‘individuals must be able to connect and collaborate’ with others ideas.

From this point of view disciplinary knowledge should be seen, not as end in itself, but as a context within which students learning capacity can be developed’. ‘While the New Zealand Curriculum signals this it is clear that this has not changed underlying thinking for many schools’.

Theme four: “Changing the script”; Rethinking learners and teachers role.

‘Twenty first century ideas about knowledge and learning demands shifts in the traditional roles or scripts followed by learners or teachers’; ‘teachers’ roles must be re-conceived’; the ‘learners roles and responsibilities must also need to be re-conceived’. ‘This calls for a greater focus on recognising and working with learners’ strengths and thinking about what role teachers play in supporting the development of every learner’s potential.’

Such ideas are often ‘shorthanded’ by such phrases as ‘student centred pedagogies’ or ‘student voice’
however starting sharing power with the learners can be met with resistance, particularly if this is interpreted as “anything goes”’.

‘The challenge is to see past seeing learning in terms of being “subject centred” or ‘learner driven” and instead think about how learners and teachers would work together in “a knowledge building” learning environments’. ‘This is not about students and teachers being”equals” as learners. Rather it is about structuring roles and relationships in ways which draws on the strengths and knowledge of each other in order to best support learning’.

Theme Five: A culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders.

All the principles above are premised on the need for those supporting students to work effectively towards 21stC learning as some of the approaches differ from what today’s teachers experienced in their own learning. ‘Teachers and school leaders may resist adapting current approaches.’

Need to change assumptions
The authors state that many of the ‘21stC ideas…are not actually new. They have been around a very long time’. ‘The challenge is to achieve a system shift that creates a more coherent educational ecology that can support what is known about good learning and that can accommodate new knowledge about learning and, importantly new purposes for learning in a changing world.’
‘This means that education systems must be designed to incorporate what is known’. ‘This has implications for thinking about professional development’.

The Government’s plan to develop cluster with lead principals and teachers will only work if those selected have experience with such ideas – to my knowledge such creative innovative thinkers are simply not available in sufficient numbers.

Theme Six: New kinds of partnerships and relationships. Schools no longer siloed from the community.

‘Learning for the 21stC, it is argued, should support students to engage in knowledge-generating activities in authentic contexts. Students must learn to recognise and navigate authentic problems and challenges in ways that they are likely to encounter in future learning situations.’  This will involve ‘messy’ problems where answers or outcomes not known to teachers.

This implies involving people from the wider community and for developing schools more connected to the community and this in turn requires students and teachers collaborating with other people who can provide specific kinds of expertise, knowledge or access to learning opportunities in community contexts.

Real change will require ‘buy in’ from the wider community. ‘‘Buy in’ could be achieved by engaging community members in authentic educational activities that draw on their expertise’.

Theme Six: New technologies.

Notwithstanding considerable investment in ‘digital resources have not revolutionised learning environments’. ‘The potential of new technologies to transform teaching and learning is heavily dependent on educators’ ability to see the affordance and capacities of ICT in relation to the underpinning themes for learning in the 21stC’. ‘It is further dependent on schools having the infrastructure, inspiration, capability and opportunities for innovation to achieve these kinds of teaching and learning.’

It is obvious that simply providing Modern Learning Environments, ICT and clusters and lead teachers is not answer unless underpinned by appropriate learning/teaching beliefs.

Theme Seven: The role of collaborative practices.

The idea of clustering has become increasingly popular but ‘networking and collaboration in itself do not necessarily support the emergent of future focussed learning practices’ but, done properly, they would provide opportunities.

Policy Implications.

The authors conclude their paper require three key ideas to ensure an education system based on the above themes is: diversity, connectedness and coherence.

Such ideas allow us to see a way forward that goes beyond ‘ticking the boxes:  that is are schools personalising learning; are they educating for diversity (as well as working to achieve success for all learners); are they reconceptualising the roles and responsibilities of teachers and students; are they engaged in continuous professional learning; and are they developing a range on new “real” partnerships with their communities?’

It is time to move away from focussing on the parts but to focus on strategies to put these ideas together; to join all this up in a way that is ‘driven by a coherent set of shared ideas about the future of schooling and its purpose and role in building New Zealand’s future’.

A good start would for teachers to evaluate how much their school is facing the future by assessing their school against the themes above.

Another would be to read Sir Ken Robinson's book ' Creative Schools: Revolutionising education from the ground up'.

The key phase is ‘from the ground up’.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing the paper to our attention. The points you make about MLEs are spot on. They have great potential only if teachers have the appropriate teaching.learning beliefs. The comparison you make with earlier open plan schools of the 70s is pertinent.

Bruce Hammonds said...

The thing is open plans were developed in the 70s with little appreciation of how to actually use them and as a result many such schools closed their flexible spaces and returned to one teacher one class. Those that were successful had the right leadership and teaching beliefs.

MLEs face the same challenge no matter how glamorous they look.

The NZCER article, referred to in my blog, provides the necessary teaching and learning beliefs and are very similar to ideas behind successful schools of the 70s; flexibility, team teaching, collaboration and, most importantly, personalisation of learning based on authentic learning experiences.

Teacher beliefs not buildings ( nor computers) are the key.

Anonymous said...

MLEs and ICT provide a great opportunity for personalised learning but the magic ingredient required for success are creative teachers. Unfortunately the current government is more interested in control, conformity and compliance.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the sterile design/aesthetics of visuals of MLEs I wonder if any of the designers have been in student's bedroom for inspiration?

Bruce Hammonds said...

You make an interesting point anon. MLEs seem a celebration of architecture and technology rather than the small scale intimate creativity of learners - students and teachers. Kelvin Smythe has called them 'cathedrals of vacuity.' All a little too sterile for the messy explorations of real creativity.