Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What are Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) or Modern Learning Environments (MLEs) really about?

An article in the NZPPF magazine (March 2016) asks, in reference to Modern Learning Environments, ‘are we facing a learning revolution or recycling the “open barns” of the 1970s?
John Key and Hekia Parata at Pegasus Bay MLE opening.

The authors of the article  ‘remember’ open plan classrooms of the 70s and write  that their success ‘depended on the willingness and capabilities of teachers to work flexibility with like-minded others’. 

1970s open plan school

Don’t get me wrong. I believed the open plan schools of the 70s had, and that their recent iteration MLEs, have great potential to develop ‘new minds for a new millennium’ 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; to quote Edmund Burke ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’.

With this in mind I read, with interest, the article to see what advances have been made in thinking about how to use such flexible spaces. It seems most of the information referred to in the OECD publication, ‘School Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems 2015’.
article comes from an

After reading the article several times I am none the wiser.

ILEs , the authors say, are ‘the complete physical pedagogical context that are capable of evolving and adapting as educational practices evolve and change’ and that they have ‘great potential for reconceptualising what we understand about content, resources, learners and teachers’.

Education is now to be seen as an ‘ecosystem’ rather than an’ isolated event’ and that ‘the current epoch is definitely not old wine in new bottles’.

Most of the article is based on perspectives based on interviews of over 200 Primary and
Secondary principals and, beyond concerns about the remodelling of the physical environment, there was a clear emphasis on pedagogical concerns.

Principals thinking provided such insights as ‘ I think it is about doing things different way and having the flexibility to really put the focus back on the learners …and Innovative learning environments have to start with the pedagogy and what you are doing with children.’

And evidently ILE schools are not about localised learning but are to be seen as ‘networks or ecosystems’….. ‘interactions between a local community of organisms and its environment.’ Other than access to the World Wide Web there is nothing new in these ideas – except the jargon. This language is by courtesy of the OECD publications which provide such phrases as ‘Learning ecosystems are independent combinations of different species of providers and organisations playing different roles with learners in differing relationships over time in varying mixes.I am sure that must be enlightening for schools opening MLE buildings? 

An ecological consciousness
Education is about an ‘ecosystem where learning is personalised across a range of institutions across a range of institutions and spaces …. And it is a move away from the mind-set of school as a “be-all “and “end all”’.  This obviously refers to the idea that with modern technology learning can occur anywhere, anytime from anyone. This, it seems, is the ‘learning ecosystem’. Accessing this ‘ecosystem’ is, according to the OECD, ‘critical in the building and sustaining of innovative learning.’ The authors refer to the potential of the current Investing In School Success (IES) initiative where communities of schools work together as part of this ‘ecosystem’.  As an aside, as an ex a primary school science adviser, I am fully are of the idea of everything being connected often in ways beyond comprehension. We introduced ecological studies in schools from the mid-sixties.

George Lucas
It seems the ‘new wine’ is all about access to modern technology but I read in vain to see how this powerful technology is to be used in such schools – beyond their current use in innovative  open  self-contained rooms. So far, from what I understand, computer use in education has been ‘oversold and underused’ and its success depends on a change in pedagogy – the same pedagogy that KelvinSmythe calls this pedagogy a ‘holistic’approach – an approach that relates back to the ‘old wine’ learning throughexperience  writings of John Dewey, or today, the ideas of Sir Ken Robinson, or the excellent examples of project based learning (PBL) to be seen on George Lucas’s  ( of StarWars fame) Edutopia site.

The authors quote a principal whose ‘ecosystem’, after the introduction of computers, had a ‘flow on effect’ altering how the ‘students can learn and how the teacher has to teach’ which makes one wonder what was the style of teaching before their introduction? Evidently this ‘ecosystem’ allows ‘personalised learning across a range of institutions’. After viewing several videos on Modern School Environments (MLEs) I am left with impressions of spacious buildings and students using information media but little to show for it. As scepticeducationalist has Kelvin Smythe has quipped they are all too often ‘cathedralsof vacuity’.

As the article expresses ‘the underlying philosophy for learning is of paramount’ for success in
ILEs/MLEs but fails to clarify what this philosophy is. One principal, as part of the research, asks ‘how does this space influence learning?’ The authors add that ‘the critical part is the learning. It’s not the space’. Another principal adds, ‘space does influence what you can do but the pedagogy can be utilised in any space’. I presume this means that the pedagogy can be equally applies to self-contained innovative classrooms?

 The ILEs, the article states ‘signal a profound shift in the nature of schooling’ and that ‘moves to reshape schools into ILEs’ mean we are ‘facing some of the most persuasive shifts in the education system since Tomorrows Schools in 1989’.

These changes, the authors say, will challenge principals to ‘critically navigate the topography of proposed change.’ Another principal, who was part of the research, says that schools need to ‘broker a relational dynamic and philosophy for 21st century learning’ and adds ‘right, I get the challenge…that it’s all very well to put in furniture and create an ILE but it’s the practice that counts… (and he wants) teachers working in there who have the right philosophy and mind, who like working together and who like learning together. I think the philosophy is the most important thing’. Sounds like thoughts expressed in the 1970 when open schools were established.

To succeed, the authors conclude, ILEs will need ‘structural support’ including ‘targeted support for principals who as learning leaders empower teachers to also lead and innovate. Pedagogically, what may need to alter is the philosophy and beliefs held by teachers and learners, learning and how learning happens’.

Who is to provide this support and what is the philosophy/ pedagogy that needs to be defined for ILEs? In the 1970s teachers, whose ideas developed in ‘open ‘classrooms transferred ideas developed to open plans and were successful but for schools which were simply provided with open plan buildings failed.
The article left me with more questions than answers - strong on rhetoric but light on reality but at least I learnt some new vocabulary.

 I am left with number of questions:

1.      What is the profile of a successful graduate of an ILE?
2.      What would it be like to follow one student through a day?
3.      Ideally what would a day look like to a visitor after a year’s ‘organic’ change?
4.      What are the stages in growth (‘topography of change’) that might occur as a school develops this new pedagogy/philosophy?
5.      What is the best way to utilise the spaces provided?
6.      How will individual student growth be assessed?
7.      How ILEs are so different from the best of the 1970s open plan units (the ones that didn’t simply put ‘old wine in new bottles’)?
8.      What evidence of in depth student research/thinking would a visitor observe?
9.      What qualities would teachers need to have to be able to work closely with each other?
10.   What would ensure that ILEs do not suffer the same fate as open plan schools?
11.   If personalised learning is a feature of such ‘learning ecosystems’ is there any place for traditional ability grouping and streaming and, in primary schools, the current over emphasis on literacy and numeracy programmes that have their genesis in an earlier industrial era?
12.   What structures need to be in place to assist students to make appropriate choices and for teachers to provided assistance if needed?

My simple view of  successful 1970s open plan schools and Modern Learning Environments is to imagine them as
Students as scientists
communities of scientists and artists
working in an environment with a range motivational displays and a  mix of workshops,   science laboratories,   artists’ studios and art galleries. With the powerful information media now available the ideas introduced during the open education years now have the potential to be realised

 I see MLEs as environments as a kind of educational Te Papa showcasing the students’’ ability to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’ (New Zealand Curriculum) integrating areas of the curriculum as appropriate. I imagine an environment that
Displays to show student thinking
personalises learning by celebrating students’ voice, choice and identity; an environment that taps  students’ questions and concerns and explores the real, man-made, natural and historical environs of the school; an environment that provides all students with lifelong learning skills; an environment able to develops the imagination, passions and talents of all students.

I imagine an environment  displaying  learning similar to what is to be seen at science, technology and maths fairs, art
Displays of student creativity
exhibitions and performances of the creative art
s; a place where the ICT is ubiquitous - all but invisible. All this might mean is developing visual displays by printing selected work from student electronic portfolios.

The above thoughtsreflect educationalist John Holt writing about his ideal school in 1964 asa plac‘where each child in his own way can satisfy his curiosity,
Still a great read
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'.

Holt’s ideal school was a challenge for the teachers in 1970s open plan schools and are still applicable to today’s MLEs.


This paper addresses the issue of the new pedagogy, which is central to the future agenda. The authors show that the new pedagogy is based on a learning partnership between and among students and teachers that taps into the intrinsic motivation of students and teachers alikeCrucially, this new learning is heavily based in the “real world” of action and problem solving, and it is enabled and greatly accelerated by innovations in digital technology. These forces converge to produce deep learning tasks and outcomes.

Of course much of what the authors describe is not new at all. It builds on a tradition going back through to Piaget, Vygotsky and other key theorists.
‘The new pedagogies model promises to drive out of our schools the boredom and alienation of students and teachers—an incredible waste when there is so much to learn. The next decade could be the most transformative of any since the creation of factory-model schools 150 years ago. 

Imagine a future were students and teachers can’t wait to get to the learning – where indeed school never really leaves them because they are always learning. We see the directional vision. We detect elements of it in reality. We can taste the possibilities. It is a future that is distinctly possible to realise. It will take the learning ingenuity of the many. It is a rich seam worth opening.’


Anonymous said...

From my 'research' the big advantage of modern ICT is that students can access any experience through virtual reality. My biggest concern is real life hands on experience is bipassed. My preference is for ICT to be used to explore real life problems and also to express their findings and creativity using such technology as appropriate.

Bruce Hammonds said...

The bipassing of real life experiences is a real worry to me.This applies as much in traditional self contained classrooms as much as MLES. Computers are powerful tools that,as you say, contribute to authentic learning.

Anonymous said...

I can see how MLEs would work well in secondary environments if teachers appointed had a shared philosophy and thus were able to share their subject knowledge with students undertaking project based learning. I am not so sure it would work in primary schools unless teachers were able to place student inquiry ahead of the traditional blocks of time given to literacy and numeracy - made more difficult because of the requirement to focus on National Standards.

You ask some very good questions.