Class divi­sion

The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion wants to push schools to­wards open plan class­rooms and team teach­ing. Which way are they jump­ing? John McCrone re­ports.

The Southland Times - - Weekend -

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.

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