They’re all the rage “you know”: modern learning environments (MLEs), that is. But are the benefits proven or unproven? Is the MLE a modern-day version of the Emperor’s New Clothes? The jury would appear to be out.

The idea is that as technology has advanced and BYOD (bring your own device) has become the reality for many students and teachers, the design of classrooms needs to keep pace. Or so says the government, which is championing the MLE as a concept at the centre of the rebuild of schools in Christchurch.

Proponents cite the flexibility of teaching spaces as one of the real benefits. Spaces can be expanded or reduced depending on what is being taught. This, they say, enables personalised learning, socially constructed learning with collaboration, and peer learning.

The pro-camp says MLEs support strengths-based teaching and enhance a range of pedagogies including delivering, applying, creating, communicating and decision-making.

In a white paper, education consultant Mark Osborne points out that most of New Zealand’s school buildings were built in a time when “factory-style” learning was considered the only pedagogy that worked. We know better than that in the 21st century.

Osborne says a successful example of the MLE would be two classes collaborating on a science project that requires them to publish what they’ve learnt in the form of an educational poster. The students will achieve much better results if both classes have access to one teacher who has considerable skill in graphic design and one teacher who has excellent knowledge of science and scientific inquiry, he says.
Osborne cites the example of Stonefields School in Auckland. The school has a series of “learning hubs”, which are large shared classroom areas surrounded by breakout spaces.

Not sold

Professors of education, Gregory Lee of the University of Waikato and his brother Howard Lee of Massey University are not, however, totally sold on the idea of MLEs.

They agree that moving away from desks and chairs in rows in classrooms may encourage pupils to move around a classroom and this could enhance learning, although more evidence is needed.
But the brothers also say that computer companies and businesses associated with MLE have a considerable vested interest in terms of the profit motive for promoting the merits of digital technology.

“Over the last two decades various National governments have been highly critical of situations where ‘vested interests’ are seen to be involved,” says Gregory Lee, “such as their assertions about NZEI and the PPTA. Yet they ignore what I’ve mentioned above because it appears not to suit them to make mention of it.”

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Over the last two decades various National governments have been highly critical of situations where˜vested interests’ are seen to be involved, such as their assertions about the NZEI and the PPTA. Yet they ignore what I’ve mentioned above because it appears not to suit them to make mention of it.

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It is tempting, says Lee for MLEs to be seen as settings in which digital skills are acquired, but where the educational implications of whatever students are experiencing may not be emphasised sufficiently or appropriately.

The inference is, he says, that without new schools or new classrooms, somehow the value of the education that is provided or gained will be lessened. “We suggest that such thinking needs scrutiny. It may be true that certain activities are performed best in a new setting, by having easier access to equipment through greater freedom of movement by teachers and pupils. But the fact remains that not every classroom in New Zealand will be demolished so as to set up new classrooms. We are yet to be convinced that their practice, ipso facto, is inferior.”

Fad or fabulous?

The open plan classrooms of the 1970s proved to be something of a short-lived fad. They were, says the Lee brothers, something that former Director of Education, the world-renowned Dr C E Beeby referred to as “cargo-cult thinking”.

Beeby talked about the propensity for groups of people such as parents, politicians, and educators to assume that a new era in educational wisdom will arrive simply because of a specific change. Anyone contemplating introducing MLEs would be wise, say the Lee brothers to read Beeby’s book: The Biography of an Idea. “It’s one of the more thought-provoking books we’ve encountered; it challenges several sacred cows in schooling.”

At the same time, plenty of schools have gone down the MLE route and are happy with the results. At the new Pegasus Bay School in North Canterbury Senior Syndicate Leader Ali Hornblow is sold on the idea. “I love teaching here,” Hornblow says. “The openness of it. The small spaces for those that need it when they need it. The MLE enables us to spark children’s interest so they’re better engagement and achievement.”

Lisa Cuss, deputy principal at Whakarongo School, Palmerston North has been teaching in an MLE classroom for the past two years.

Cuss has found that her struggling students have all raised their achievement levels by a number of stanines or stages (for maths). Peer teaching has also raised motivation and academic scores.
Whakarongo School’s students themselves comment that social skills and self-management has improved. Engagement is good and relationships with peers and teachers is stronger, says Cuss. Teachers get constant professional development support from each other.

On the other hand, education commentator and blogger Kelvin Smythe sees elements of the Emperor’s New Clothes in the MLE strategy. “On results so far, the so-called 21st century environments are too often uninspiring cathedrals of vacuity.”

At the very least, NZEI members report that they need more and better PD to make the changes work