The Ministry of Education wants to push schools towards open plan classrooms and team teaching. Which way are they jumping? John McCrone reports.
The first draft of the new classroom plan from the Ministry of Education’s architect was a tad extreme, says John Laurenson, principal of Christchurch’s Shirley Boys’ High.
Laurenson uncaps a marker and sketches a single large rectangle on his office whiteboard. ‘‘What he had suggested was a large barn with 225 kids and nine staff.’’
His eyebrows shoot up. So when the ministry was talking about an open-plan revolution for the school’s post-quake rebuild, it wasn’t joking.
The architect seemed to be imagining the teachers roaming the room as an educational tagteam, not even necessarily teaching the same subjects.
Gone were the little ‘‘single cell’’ classrooms with one teacher and 25 or so boys. In would be the new thing of 21st century learning, or innovative learning environments (ILEs).
A whole floor would be opened up to create an adventurous freerange space. Traditional subject lines would become blurred as students learnt in self-discovery fashion, focusing on themes and moving between group work, breakouts and individual projects.
Technology would be a liberator. With ‘‘flipped learning’’, for example, teachers could deliver their basic instruction as an online video that pupils studied as homework. Next day in class would be devoted to the active exploration of the ideas, the teacher acting as guide.
Laurenson shakes his head. You can imagine several hundred teenage boys milling about in a noisy enclosure with a roaming squad of teachers trying to keep them all sufficiently on task.
Everyone was going to be doing it eventually, the ministry. In 2011, it rewrote its school property strategy, vowing to revamp every school – primary and secondary – to a new ILE standard by 2021.
It said 70 per cent of New Zealand’s 38,000 classrooms were at least 30 years old. Some 5500 prefabs cluttered up school playgrounds and car parks.
And all of these spaces were designed with last-century teaching in mind. Kids growing up today need schools that reflect a modern flexible, collaborative and self-managed approach to learning.
So build schools with the right kind of architecture and the right kind of teaching would flower within them.
A few brave pioneers in Auckland had already been funded.
To cut a long story short, Shirley Boys’ did road-test the ILE style of learning, he says. Because Shirley is destined for demolition, they could cut out a few walls and trial pairs of teachers co-managing a larger classroom. They could experiment with blending subjects.
The best Laurenson can say is that any educational theory can be made to work if the teachers are making the extra effort. And it didn’t end up actively harming NCEA results.
Laurenson says there were plenty of visits to other schools, like Auckland’s Albany Senior College, which have gone the whole hog. They have their themed learning and ‘‘project day Wednesdays’’. However, it wasn’t for his school community.
‘‘The ones I saw, they don’t go outside at all. They don’t kick balls around. They sit about in the cafeteria. It’s like a glorified polytech. I’m not interested in that,’’ Laurenson says firmly.
JUMPING IN FEET FIRST
In the end, there was no great drama. The ministry was pushing for revolution and yet gave in to compromise.
A strength of the New Zealand education system is that it is still largely state run with a standardised national curriculum.
But also every school is run by a board of community trustees who have a considerable say in a school’s character.
So the politics are that the ministry can propose, headmasters and their boards can resist.
Even so, there is a pressure for sweeping change. In classic fashion, New Zealand has latched onto a brave new social theory and wants to implement it wholesale. It all feels a bit wide-eyed and naive.
‘‘We do tend to grab things from overseas, jump in feet first, and then wonder when things don’t quite go according to plan,’’ Laurenson agrees.
Cashmere High School principal Mark Wilson says it is reminiscent of Rogernomics and other sagas. ‘‘We are the little island at the bottom of the South Pacific desperate to be at the cutting edge.’’
Melanie Webber, vice-president of the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA), says a building programme is being used to promote a radical change in teaching philosophy. And no-one really knows that it will work.
It is one thing for Albany, or other brand new secondaries, where a school is being founded on ILE principles from the beginning, she says.
But now there are many other schools being expected to convert in big-bang style, coming back after a holiday to completely new environments.
Maybe New Zealand is doing the right thing, headed in the right direction, Webber says. But the teaching changes feel rushed and under-resourced.
‘‘The ones I saw, they don’t go outside at all . . . They sit about in the cafeteria. It’s like a glorified polytech. I’m not interested in that.’’ Shirley Boys’ principal John Laurenson
BACKSTORY OF A POLICY
We have been here before. In the 1970s, there was a similar push for open-plan classrooms and discovery learning, a rebellion against a regime based on regurgitating facts.
Walls were knocked down. An artistic teacher might be paired with a more formal teacher to exploit their complementary strengths.
And New Zealand has been modernising its educational practices even while working in traditional classrooms.
The new national curriculum introduced in 2009 was about a shift to inquiry-based learning.
Technology was reshaping the nature of work. What schools had to produce were youngsters with good critical thinking skills, self-awareness and social engagement.
Webber says it is not as if kids still sit silently in rows of desks copying lessons from a blackboard. Even in single cell classes, there is group work, online research, an effort to foster at ‘‘deep learning’’.
‘‘I’m not that old. But I don’t teach the way I was taught. It is unimaginable that I’d still teach the way I was taught.’’
However the issue is the distance the pendulum seems to be swinging with the adoption of a new school building standard.
One of the puzzles is that ILEs are a policy enacted under the last National government. This has prompted some to look at it as a straightforward costcutting move. Open floor plans, glass partitions and three-storey buildings save on walls and corridors, reduce a school’s land footprint.
But the ILE guidelines lay great stress on natural light, good ventilation and temperature control. The intention seems to be to deliver a 21st century level of comfort, if nothing else.
Others, like Kevin Knight of Christchurch’s New Zealand Graduate School of Education, have noted that Hekia Parata was education minister at the time and was saying shared learning spaces were a better fit for Ma¯ ori learners because of their collaborative emphasis.
‘‘Minister Parata created a policy by joining a money-saving strategy with an educational philosophy and then tying them together with a cultural twist,’’ Knight blogs.
Then the finger is pointed at the influence of architects and educational consultants.
Overseas, US school architect Prakesh Nair has become known as a crusader for open plan learning, winning converts in Canada and Australia.
Other consultants, like Christchurch’s Core Education, a specialist in online learning and digital teaching, also became important promoters.
Because of this, in 2015, Wilson undertook his own sabbatical research trip in Australia and New Zealand. Wilson writes he found the ILE designs looked ‘‘North American’’ – institutional and constructed with a cheap industrial minimalism that would wear fast.
Research shows that modern buildings can be important to student success, he says.
Wilson was persuaded by New Zealand’s Professor John Hattie, now director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, who says open-plan learning makes little or no real difference to student outcomes.
The biggest predictor remains the ability of individual teachers to engage and inspire.
MORE FAVOURABLE IMPRESSIONS
Some are saying no, but others are saying yes. With neat symmetry, Avonside Girls’ High School turns out to have been much more receptive to the ministry’s ILE desires.
Avonside Girls’ and Shirley Boys’, each with about 1000 students, will form two wings of a campus bridged by a common entrance – a spacious foyer holding the shared school library, cafeteria and auditorium.
The ministry has ticked off a few of its goals just in that arrangement.
Avonside Girls’ has been through the same discussion process and landed in a different place with regards to open-plan classrooms and team teaching methods.
Breaking the mould: Formal rows of desks facing a teacher are out with innovative learning environments.