Dear Chris Hipkins:

I am writing to you in an attempt to bring your attention to the level of dissatisfaction parents are experiencing with ‘modern learning’ in our state education system. Since the Ministry of Education introduced Modern (or Innovative) Learning Environments eight years ago, open-plan areas have been implemented in primary, intermediate and secondary schools where two, three or more classes learn together in one space with multiple teachers. Consultation with school communities was initially rare and the few ‘disruptive thinkers’ that revolted against this model were told they were backwards facing.

The large class sizes and the self-managing nature in which students are meant to learn in these spaces come with many problems. Some younger children need significantly more guidance when learning and would benefit from once more being taught directly by their teacher. Most children will function better with less distraction and a calmer ‘learn environment’. Due to zoning, families are no longer able to choose a school that will best support their child and this had led to major frustration. You will be aware that many families have moved house, chosen to pay for private schooling or have started homeschooling in order to avoid Innovative Learning Environments, but there has been no commitment from the MoE to record such data. The dissatisfaction with our current ‘modern’ model is only made worse by the overuse of devices in schools. But how else are teachers supposed to manage 60 different learning journey’s or keep up with the strengths and weaknesses of 90 students? Have you considered that our teachers’ shortage could be due to the fact that teachers are not enjoying being ‘facilitators of learning’ from behind their laptop? That they miss building relationships with a manageable amount of students and that you might attract more to the profession if you gave them the option to teach what they know to 20 or 25 students per year?

In some instances, purpose built (or even award-winning!) learning environments were created where collaborating teachers are happily facilitating the learning of self-managing students. But even after all these years, the research to support the ’21st-century learning movement’ is absent. Was it worth being an obedient participant in letting the MoE experiment on our children? You must have some solid proof by now on which you are basing your education strategies. And how do you explain why so many children in NZ are now missing out on a seat and table to learn at when at school? Our children are wasting valuable time at school, multiple times a day, trying to find a comfortable spot to sit before they can finally start concentrating on learning.

I have spent the last 18 months trying to find answers as to why this ‘modern learning’ is being pushed for 100% of state schools and have not been able to come to any plausible explanation. However, what has been loud and clear is that the majority of Kiwi families are not favouring these spaces when choosing a school for their child. I strongly believe that parents’ common sense will prevent a good ‘buy in’ no matter how hard you try.

A lot of parents have filled out your many surveys this year, but are not feeling heard. I have taken it upon myself to create a survey in which parents could share their experiences and opinions on open-plan classrooms and device use in the school of their oldest primary-aged child. The survey was distributed on the ‘My Child Is Not a Guinea Pig’ page, various parent groups and also on the Education Central website and was answered by 257 parents.

71% of parents would prefer to avoid open-plan classrooms for their primary aged child and 17% of these have already removed their child from such ‘environments’ or plan to do so in the near future.

Over half (51.75%) of respondents said that they have concerns about their child’s screen use at school and 17.58% have children learning on a screen for more than two hours a day while in class.

Nearly 70% of parents would like to have more of say when it comes down to their school’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy and be given the option to opt out. 44.92% of parents indicated that not all children in their child’s class are given a place to sit that supports their physical wellbeing (e.g. posture) while using devices and pen and paper.

I hope these survey results will drive you to acknowledge that forcing 100% of state schools to adopt ‘modern learning’ or Innovative Learning Environments is not the best way forward for our education system and that you may find the courage to make positive changes that truly benefit each student.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your reply.

Kind Regards

Kia King

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9 COMMENTS

  1. To understand the need to shift from Traditional Learning and Teaching to MLEs it is essential to study questions of epistemology, pedagogy, 21st Century needs and educational dispositions. I wish you well on that! It is very challenging.
    I also offer you copies of my ebooks (Free!) if you write to educationfutures21c@gmail.com
    BUT here is an answer from a Principal in a school from a website address shown:

    Enough is enough! The ‘Traditional Education versus Modern Learning Environment’ Binary
    November 29, 2017
    From https://www.futureofeducation.nz/future-of-education-dr-lesley-murrihy-articles/2017/11/29/enough-is-enough-the-traditional-education-versus-modern-learning-environment-binary

    As the principal of a Modern Learning Environment, I have ignored the constant disparaging of Modern Learning Environments long enough. Why have those of us who lead these environments largely kept quiet and allowed it to continue as a mostly one-sided conversation? Well, partly because we have our heads down, and are getting on with the work of leading our schools to ensure they meet the needs of all our students. We want our “works” to speak for us, not our sound bites. We are simply more focused on ensuring our children learn and grow into intelligent, well-rounded citizens who are well prepared for the future they will face than with answering our critics in the media.
    We also haven’t weighed in on the discussion because we know that what we do cannot be contained in a sound bite; and, I refuse to be drawn into a binary argument – Traditional Classroom vs Modern Learning Environment. There is always more than one side to an argument; always more than one good solution to a problem – often many. Learning is a complex matter and I take it very seriously. The issue isn’t Traditional Classrooms OR Modern Learning Environments. It is about what works for each individual child and having highly effective teachers trumps everything! John Hattie (2009) shows that the greatest variation in outcomes is not between schools but between classrooms within schools. That is, education quality largely comes down to the quality of its teachers. There are more effective and less effective teachers in traditional classrooms just as there are in modern learning environments. This is why our school’s professional development focus for the past few years has been on developing every teacher as a highly effective teacher.
    However, when team teaching is the norm, students are not stuck with a less effective teacher for a whole year or two, but learn from a wider range of teachers – thus increasing their access to those highly effective teachers. By strategic organisation, strengths can also be better utilized (while the impact of weaknesses diminished) thus lifting the total effectiveness of the team. Hattie, in his meta-analysis, identifies Collective Teacher Efficacy as having the greatest impact on outcomes for students. Team teaching, which is the norm in MLE (but is also done in Traditional Classrooms, at times), when well utilized, has the potential to increase Collective Teacher Efficacy without necessarily increasing the capability of individual teachers. When we do both, the outcomes for students are hugely increased.
    The point I am trying to make is that it is not so much the architectural environment that matters in terms of outcomes for students; it is what we do for students within those physical environments that makes the real difference. That said, certainly one of the affordances of more open and flexible physical learning environments along with the greater flexibility to team teach is our increased capability to organise learning in different ways to meet the needs of every student. The problem with the binary nature of the Traditional vs Modern Learning Environment discussion is the assumption that all MLEs are the same. In fact, as a school, we are able to leverage the more open, flexible nature of our modern learning environment to implement a broader range of approaches and tools, at different times, to meet the needs of students. Given that students’ needs are always changing, how learning “looks” needs to be responsive and change to meet the needs of students. The architecture enables this. As an example, several years back we had a group of students who we identified needed a more “traditional” approach to learning. We set up what we called a nurture group, which had two teachers (for a smallish number of students) and largely stayed in one, more confined space. They worked in this way while the teachers assisted them to develop more independence and self-directedness. Over time, some students went back into our more “mainstream” modern learning environment. After a term or two, the whole nurture group moved into the flexible, shared spaces but continued to operate as a nurture group within that environment, and eventually it was disbanded because there was no more need for it.
    Enabling students to be self-directed and “agentic” learners (students making decisions about their learning and having choice and a voice in the school), has been identified globally as an essential 21st century skill which will help students as learners now, but will also help them respond to the uncertain, rapidly changing world they will face as adults, where continuous learning will be essential and multiple changes in career likely. As a school, we want our students to be “insiders” in their learning. We have set up systems and processes to ensure our students know where they are at in their learning and what their next steps are. We give them (scaffolded, as necessary) opportunities to use this knowledge of themselves as learners and to exercise choice. Our commitment as teachers is not to waste students’ time, so we tell our students, “Don’t sit politely in a workshop that is either too easy or way too hard. Move to another workshop or do some other work that is useful until we can provide you with the workshop you need.” I can feel some people getting antsy at this point. Adults often begin with the assumption that students will get away with doing as little as they possibly can. However, that is neither our experience, nor is it what we would allow. We are not careless with students’ learning; rather we are deeply concerned about our students learning, progress and achievement. But let’s allow students to speak for themselves.
    Here are a couple of emails from students
    “I left your workshop because it wasn’t meeting my needs. I checked out [teacher’s name] workshop online and it looked more challenging for me, so I went along to that instead. It was much better for what I needed, so I stayed in that.” (Boy, aged 9)
    Hi [teacher’s name] Today at goal math I noticed in my previous goal math sessions I have been kinda wasting my time looking for a good website to help me but I couldn’t find one,and I felt the goal wasn’t working for me so I thought I could change my goal so I asked Fiona and she said ok and I’m just telling you so you know too 🙂
    (I changed my goal from adding and subtracting decimals to ordering fractions with different numerators and denominators.) I felt it was a good idea because 1.We are working on fractions at math and you could maybe help me and 2. Because when I was doing my mathletics test you set me I got all the ordering fractions ones wrong. Thanks (11 year old girl)
    Isn’t this what we want for our children? A question we should ask ourselves is whether we are serving our students better by at least trying to develop their learner agency and self-directedness; or whether we are serving them best by maintaining a traditional education in which students are seen as empty, unthinking vessels to be filled by the knowledgeable teacher? One of the dangers of the binary nature of Traditional Environments versus MLE, is that we may push away the most valuable aspects of teaching and learning for many years to come, and education will be bereft as a result. Is this the outcome we want?
    From my perspective, Modern Learning Environments are not about doing teaching and learning in a particular way, but about doing it in whatever way is needed to meet the ever-changing needs of students. It is about having a broad range of approaches (including the most effective from traditional education – explicit teacher instruction, for example), programmes, processes, tools, teachers and spaces that can be utilized as needed in response to students’ needs. Like all schools, we have students with quite a range of special needs including students with high sensory sensitivity, high anxiety, ASD, processing disorders, sight and hearing impairment etc. A flexible approach to space, learning and people, enables us to meet the needs of these students. We can create calm spaces, for example, for students with ASD, high anxiety and high sensory sensitivity – without them feeling isolated from the rest of the students. We have pop up tents within the learning spaces, so that students who need to can work without being visually distracted but still feel part of the hub. Whether traditional classroom spaces, or MLE, no environment perfectly meets the needs of every student. We all have to problem solve to overcome limitations and create the teaching and learning environment required at the time. However, greater flexibility in architecture and in the ways we think about space and flexible pedagogical approaches do assist schools’ ability to do this.

    • Graham Foster,
      I can only offer you an anecdotal story that I hope you’ll take on board.
      When I took my daughter, Jeneva, on her first school visit she walked up to the teacher, uninvited and introduced herself. The teacher asked her if she’d like to share something about herself with the class who were all sitting on the mat. Jeneva stepped into the middle of the circle of children and proceeded to tell them about all the dinosaurs, their names and why they got them. She was smart, could read and write, and was outgoing and dynamic. That was 6 years ago.
      After the earthquakes my daughter’s school had to move to a temporary location as her old school was torn down for rebuilding. She coped with the transition really well. She had always been a ‘school lover’ to the extent that one time, when she had the flu and had to stay home, she cried for hours. After school every day she’d tell me all that happened, tell me about her teachers cat, what her teacher was doing in the weekend and all the other exciting stuff going on. Every morning I’d watch her rush into school as though into the arms of a loved one. She was radiant, excited to learn, and had a deep connection with her teacher and peers.
      When the new school opened my daughter was so excited! She couldn’t wait to see her new class and see her old teacher, the same one she had the year before. The first week was fine. She told me about all the new things, about the importance of a growth mindset and how her school was special because it was going to help kids learn better. In the following weeks I watched her fade. Day after day she’d come home and quietly do her thing. I’d asked how her day was and she’d say “okay” and that was it. I thought it was just adjustment issues and thought time would settle things down. It didn’t. I asked my daughter if she still spoke to her teacher and she said “sometimes, but she’s really busy”. Nine months into the school year I met with her teachers and they told me that Jeneva wasn’t interacting with anyone. She’d arrive at school and read a book or colour in, alone. This happened at break times too. I took her to counselling and was told my daughter was grieving the loss of her relationship with her teacher.
      We’re in our third year there now and things have picked up in that Jeneva is more social with her peers but that spark, the vibrancy and passion for learning, is gone. She never speaks of her teachers, never talks about what she learned, what fun things she’s done and often tries to fake being unwell just to stay home.
      I’ve asked her why she doesn’t love school anymore and she just shrugs. I’ve asked her if she likes her classroom and the way the classes are and she says they’re fun but nobody listens to her. She says the teachers are too busy with the naughty kids.
      I know you are doing the best you can, I know my daughter’s school is doing the best they can and the teachers are absolute champions but it isn’t working for a lot of our children. My daughter, like so many children rely on that close bond with a primary educator to be nurtured through their learning. They need to feel as though they are cared for, that someone is invested in them as students and as little people and this system, with its pop-up tents and funky colours, isn’t doing that. There are no other schools she can go to so we’re stuck and trying to do the best we can.
      I’m completely open as to how I’m supposed to ‘problem solve’ the fact that my daughter has lost her fire for learning but I doubt you’ll have any advice for me. She’s just one kid so it’s not like it really matters, right?

  2. Graham Foster, thank you for this information, but it doesn’t alleviate my concerns about the overuse of devices, lack of furniture or crowded conditions that many children are facing in ILEs. Did you read this other charming piece of writing by the same Principal? Who might I add (like me) homeschools her own children? Although I am very interested in learning more about what is necessary to become a successful 21st-century learner, an open letter like the one below does not give me confidence in the rationale of proponents of the ILE model.

    https://www.futureofeducation.nz/future-of-education-dr-lesley-murrihy-articles/2018/5/10/to-mle-or-not-to-mle-that-is-the-question-an-open-letter-to-my-colleagues

    So, another MLE story has been put out by Stuff – students in MLEs as guinea pigs this time; and another deluge of negative comments about MLEs, not just by parents or the media, but by our very own, in forums such as The New Zealand Teachers (Primary) Facebook page of which I am a member – comments that are often dismissive of MLEs as failing and worthless. It doesn’t seem that long ago that teachers were complaining of the “teacher bashing” they were experiencing at the hands of the media, politicians and parents. We clearly have short memories, because alliances have quickly changed and now we see some teachers aligning themselves with some parents and the media against teachers-in-MLEs. The focus of “teacher bashing” just seems to have shifted.

    I imagine that those teachers commenting negatively about MLEs would argue that they are not being negative about the teachers within MLEs, but rather they are commenting on a governmental policy that sees MLEs being built without sufficient evidence to justify the policy. The only problem is that comments about students falling between the cracks IS a comment about teachers. Comments that suggest students in MLEs are not receiving the programmes of teaching and learning they need IS about teachers. Comments that MLEs cannot meet the needs of students IS about the teachers in those environments. You see, a school is not its buildings (although, there is no doubt that architecture does impact), a school is the people within it and the relationships between those people and the work they do together within that physical environment.

    When people comment negatively on MLEs, they ARE questioning the efficacy of the teachers who work together in those buildings. So often the teaching profession makes public statements to the effect that teachers are resourceful and capable and should be trusted…. except, it seems, in the case of teachers in MLEs. If the negative comments are to be taken at face value, this group of teachers is clearly not to be trusted to overcome any perceived limitations of the physical environments to deliver programmes of learning that meet the needs of students, as it is assumed any other teacher would do. Let me ask you a question – is putting a group of 30 students into a single cell classroom for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week for 40 weeks of the year with a beginning teacher less of an experiment than putting experienced, creative, resourceful, trustworthy teachers into an environment that is different from the norm? Do these teachers care less about their students? Are they less able to make it work?

    All around the world children are being educated in a variety of environments – holes in walls, open air classrooms with no walls or roofs, leaky buildings, classrooms that are dank and dingy and poorly maintained. No one questions the ability of teachers to overcome the possible limitations of these environments nor do they question their ability to take “limitations” and turn them into positives; because we know that in the end, it is the quality of the teacher that makes the difference for the student – except, it seems, in MLEs. Inexplicably, in the MLE environment, teachers are constrained by perceived limitations in the physical environment and are not able to overcome these to meet the needs of their students. They are powerless in the face of the architecture.

    Speaking directly to those educators who are contributing to the negativity about MLEs, I understand that it is not your intention to “naysay” teachers, your colleagues. However, I am writing this open letter to let you know that you are, and to ask you to please stop. We do feel put down, we feel belittled and your comments do objectify and diminish us. You are not thinking of us as human beings, who just like you, care deeply about students and work incredibly hard to meet the needs of every student. I want to tell you, on behalf of my MLE colleagues, and, most particularly, the teachers at my school, that we are just as trustworthy and resourceful as non-MLE teachers and, not only are we able to overcome any perceived limitations of the architecture of our schools, just as you are at your schools, but we are also able to accentuate the positive and leverage the affordances that the architecture provides, just as you are.

    I am all for debate about educational issues. I frequently put myself on the line by wading into issues and offering my perspectives (see our website Future of Education for a range of articles including Enough is Enough about Modern Learning Environments). But when a debate takes a whole group of people or schools, lumps them all together as though they are the same, and marginalises them by telling them who they are, and what they are or are not capable of doing, without any reference to reality, then we have stepped over a line and it is a short walk to bullying or much worse. By all means, discuss the political question of MLE or not MLE, but please…please…ensure that when you do so, your colleagues who are caring, resourceful, trustworthy teachers just like you; are not your victims.

    Nga mihi nui ki a koutou

    Lesley Murrihy

  3. Having worked in both public education and also in the private education sector I saw very little difference between the two in terms of technology being used to assist or grow learning.

    In the private sector, the students using iPads were often distracted or unable to concentrate, their heads were always down, they wanted to use the devices to play games, and trying to get their attention to go over something on the board was difficult. In some instances, they would even argue with you. If you took their devices off them they were like obsessed addicts in rehab – uncontrollable!!

    In the public sector I saw students using iPads and computer software to draw mathematical equations/graphs etc but they couldn’t explain to me why they were doing it or what it meant. They really only knew how to use the software, how to follow the commands. The meaning or context of what they were doing just wasn’t there. Same thing with the graphics calculators often used from Year 11 onward – they know how to use them but not what is going on the background. Sadly the curriculum often doesn’t permit time to teach that stuff.

    Since I left classroom teaching I have been tutoring primary, intermediate, and secondary school students in Mathematics and English. I am regularly astounded at what many of these students don’t know by the time they start secondary school. Most of them do know how to use a computer, and that if they don’t know the answer to something to go straight to Mr GOOGLE and search for it. So while technology use in the classroom is helping students devise strategies to help them find or search for what they need, their general knowledge of various topics just isn’t there. Their attitude is “I will find it on Google”.

    Therefore, my perception would be that technology is actually making kids dumber. Without knowledge, and the ability to process and question what you read/hear/see well, you can’t make the right decisions in life.

  4. As a tutor I have also noticed the increasing need of students needing one-on-one help with their learning (and these are just your average kids). It seems that primary school environments, especially, do not allow students to process ideas or topics well. There is a lot going on in those classrooms every day. I really feel for parents who are having to fork out $30-$60 a week for additional tutoring because their kids aren’t learning what they need to at school.

  5. I am certainly concerned about the overuse of devices in classes. Several articles feature comments about devices becoming more entertainment and a less educational support device. I was concerned when I saw them used as a mathematics rote learning device – where is the evidence to see the completion of problems?
    That may be a situation that illustrates that we do not use them appropriately for PK and authentic assessment. If there are situations where there is insufficient furniture than that is another concern that needs to be brought to the attention of the BoT. There are regulations/guidelines for the number of students in an area if you can find those regulations! BUT that is again a BoT issue. Thanks for your comments and exchanges.

  6. I’m curious to know if the MOE ever surveyed children as to what they like before implementing ILEs. I have two children aged 9 and 11 and I remember how ecstatic they were when they moved into a classroom where they each got their own desk (the old fashioned style where the lid lifts up and they can put their stuff inside). It was a big thing for them to have their own space and sense of belonging in the classroom. The teacher was also hands on with very little device time but this did not disadvantage the children in terms of technology as they still got ample time on desktop computers. My daughter has since moved schools and within the first week she commented that she was worried that her learning would go backwards. It hasn’t gone backwards but it certainly hasn’t gone forwards over the past 12 months. Her new school is all about devices and she really misses having her own desk. Most of all she says she misses the teacher interaction. Now she has to compete for a desk or otherwise sit on the floor with her tablet. My observation is that we should all be very concerned about the current education system. I know many parents who are topping up their children’s education by paying for private tutors because their children are not progressing in basic academics. Regular comments I hear are that there is so much wasted time and fluffy stuff going on that the basic academics are being neglected.

  7. The running theme is that teacher relationships with students are the key. The argument that MLE’s dilute poor teachers across the school is poor and disappointing. I am still waiting for someone to provide evidence that children are getting a better education in an MLE.

    Anecdotally, pupils coming to our school from MLE’s, cannot concentrate for longer periods of time and if they don’t like the work they are doing, they just do something else, but they need that skill and need to face the challenge of learning the skill.

    However, the biggest travesty, is that I see our priority learners probably not coping with MLE’s.

    If anyone has proof of the environment working, please let me know.

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