The notion of school as a place of learning that is time-bound and situated in a geographically defined space is challenged by virtual learning spaces that can be accessed anywhere, at any time, on a device that can be carried anywhere.

If schools are to prepare our young people for the realities of the hyper-digital context of 21st Century society, the logic goes then that they must be fit for purpose in a way that enables and empowers students to enter into and engage in this digital/societal context.  Not to be fit for this purpose is to put into question the nature and purpose of contemporary education.

It is in this context that the conversation around ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) is placed.  With increasingly aging school buildings that have arguably been subject to a sustained programme of permissive degradation from the moment the Government devolved its responsibilities to individual schools post 1987, the issue of what kind of learning spaces best serve our students has become increasing important.  While the need to replace or renovate aging school buildings can be seen as a dominant driver of change in the area of school design, there is also a growing consensus that schools, as they have conventionally been conceived, are no longer fit for purpose in the 21st Century learning context.

The talk of environments pertinent to learning has been extended to digital and virtual environments within which, it is surmised, our young people live as regularly as they do in the physical spatial environs of the classroom.

Talk of ‘life long learning’, accompanied by the continuous impetus to us all to up-skill throughout life within the technological society, extends the learning context away from the school even further.  While not wishing to dampen any policy directive the Ministry of Education might have in improving, enhancing and building new school buildings now and into the future, we need to discuss the purpose of education.

The Ministry of Education website dedicated to Modern Learning Environments  directs us to a historical flashback enticingly labelled ‘Schools then …’. Here you see the quote “the sage on the stage” prefaced by a black and white photo of a mid-20th Century classroom where a teacher stands over her individually seated students.

Following this photo is a heading that asserts “Teaching and Learning has changed significantly since then”. Navigate back to the home page and you will be directed to a video, seemingly in technicolour when contrasted with the blandness of the old photo, of a new secondary school that has been built as an exemplary example of MLE’s in New Zealand.  Scroll further down the page and you will be given options to see schools that have refitted their existing classrooms to be MLE’s. There is spaciousness, colourful beanbags and padded seating, mobile furniture, and partitioned areas for different learning and teaching approaches.

According to the descriptor, these “new technologies and building materials allow for new, vibrant and well connected learning spaces”. In fact, at every turn of the mouse, the emphasis on learning is everywhere.  I argue that what seems to be missing from any conversation about these MLE’s, including the Ministry’s website, is a notion of education and the school as involving more than the ubiquitous and undeniable focus on learning.

In the current context the how, why, who and what of learning leaves little room to expand thinking about education beyond a focus on learning.  Could there be more to education than learning? Is this ‘more’ simply so tacitly implied that nothing explicit needs mentioning? Is the school simply a conduit of this focus on learning?  I would put it to you that the current conversation on MLE’s needs to be constantly widened to incorporate other notions that speak to the purpose and nature of education that incorporate an awareness of the conceptual and physical perimeters of the notion of the ‘school’.

This perspective has gained currency from various philosophers of education who have specialised in the area of school architecture and design, such as Maarten Simons and Jan Masschelein , and the way pedagogical spaces serve much more than simply physical conduits to learning. Simons and Masschelein remind us of the Ancient Greek notion of scholé, which was defined as ‘free time’ to think, discuss, and engage in leisurely activities such art and literature, away from the wider structures of society and adult obligations of work.

Scholé was the defined conceptual and physical space where the young came together as a community that was separate from the busyness of the outside world in order to better understand that world and together potentially alter it for the better.  The idea of school as emerging from the notion of scholé gives it a purpose much wider than ‘only’ learning, and brings it closer to a democratically sanctioned space premised on providing a public commons of study and thought.

Expanding a discussion of MLE’s to incorporate these ideas on the importance of the ‘school’ shifts the discussion away from visual platitudes of colourful cushions and spacious environs to one that acknowledges the importance of the democratic ethos of public education in a highly digitised and complex world.  Our education system deserves to be part of a discussion that can cope with this kind of complexity in times that demand a defence of the school that goes beyond a focus on learning as the only reason for its existence.

Dr Kirsten Locke is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland in philosophy of education. Her research interests involve philosophical explorations of educational issues, with an overall focus on the transformative power of education and its societal impact on dimensions of equality, democracy and social justice.

Dr Kirsten Locke, School of Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland