When Kia King’s second son started school last year, she was shocked at the difference between his modern, open-plan classroom – in which one space was shared by two teachers and 36 children – and his older brother’s traditional new entrants’ classroom two and a half years earlier.

“Straightaway I could see how much more nurturing, caring and kind [the traditional classroom] had been. This modern learning environment wasn’t a very warm welcome, and you couldn’t make it a warm welcome because there were too many little people.”

A massive transformation has taken place in education this decade, as increasingly schools ditch traditional single classrooms – with rows of desks and a teacher doing most of the talking – for innovative learning environments (ILEs).

What are innovative learning environments?

The term ‘ILE’ refers to “the complete physical, social and educational context in which learning occurs”, rather than just a type of classroom, says Ministry head of education infrastructure service Kim Shannon.

The idea is that flexible, open-plan spaces are conducive to ‘21st century learning’ – much of it student-led, inquiry-based and collaborative.

Ideally, teachers work in teams, and children work with the teacher who best suits their learning needs in ‘hubs’ that range from 50 to 300 (in the case of Christchurch’s Haeata Community Centre) students. There’s a lot more technology in class, and a variety of furniture, including beanbags and lily pads (vinyl soft seats), and far fewer tables and chairs.

According to a 2017 study by the University of Melbourne, ILE learning takes place in about one-third of New Zealand primary settings. The Ministry estimates it spent $747.7 million on 19 new ILE schools between 2013 and 2017.

But there are deep divisions over how successful these classrooms are, and whether enough evidence exists to support such a big change.

ILE supporters argue that ‘21st century learners’ need to be resilient, lifelong students who can, as a 2009 UK study puts it, “think and work in teams and be flexible, adaptable and creative”.

All schools must follow the national curriculum, but it is up to each school to determine the best teaching and learning approaches for its students, says Shannon.

Concerns with modern learning approaches

Not all parents are happy when their local school embraces ILE-style education. Some are concerned about the psychological and physical impact of electronic devices, including sleep and vision issues, loss of handwriting skills and musculoskeletal effects.

There’s also a simple lack of chairs, which parents say can lead to problems.

Lucy’s* son, in Year 4, has suffered severe headaches since moving to an ILE last year. These occur when he sits on the floor or in a beanbag, regardless of whether he is using a device or pen and paper. The school dismissed her concerns, she says.

Others worry that huge numbers of children and open-plan acoustics can be overwhelming, particularly for introverts and students with learning difficulties.

Matthew* is trying to find a non-ILE intermediate for his son who has mild ADHD and dyslexia. “He works best when given direct, plain instructions and allowed a quiet place to work without distraction.”

A teacher at one of New Zealand’s largest secondary schools, Matthew says that open-plan classrooms are “too noisy, too chaotic” for all children and that there is “little to no evidence” for them.

He says they also require at least two teachers who work well together and who “can engage and monitor every student, in a group of 60-plus, at all times, to keep them on task. I don’t see any positives”.

By this year, Kia King’s eldest son had gone from being a carefree child who loved school to “a stressed eight-year-old who would end up in tears each week due to having to self-manage his workload via a massive to-do list”.

Some 80 per cent of his learning was online, King estimates, using Google or interactive learning apps like Mathletics, Skoolbo and Banqer.

“He’s committed practically nothing to long-term memory and he’s nearly nine. He was doing 1,000 points of Mathletics a week, but he had no idea what three per cent of 100 was.”

Parents who are concerned their children’s learning needs are not being met in an ILE have little choice but to find another school – often not an easy option.

King took her sons out of school in May. They are now on a two-year waiting list for a Christian school with traditional-style classrooms of 25 children. For now, she feels she has no option but to homeschool.

King is 35. But, she says, anyone who raises concerns about the emphasis on digital learning is called “a luddite, old-fashioned and told you need to get with the times”.

Yet plenty agree with her concerns, it seems: her Facebook page My Child is Not a Guinea Pig has more than 600 followers.

“Why are we trying to get rid of the human touch? What kids want and need is more attention. Instead of building all these classrooms and [money spent on] digital immersion, they could have spent it on teachers.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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