How are our children getting on in modern learning environments (MLEs)? Is the super-sleek architecture supporting or frustrating their learning?

There seem to be two camps amongst parents and teachers: those who love MLEs and those who loathe them. At first glance, MLEs – or ILEs (innovative learning environments) as they are also known – are very appealing: they’re big, light-filled spaces fitted with state-of-the-art equipment and designer furnishings. They look and feel great, especially when compared with the row of dingy classrooms they replaced.

And the way MLEs are run, with two or three teachers at the helm, also appeals to many.  Teachers who felt isolated in the traditional ‘single-cell’ classroom say they feel energised and supported through the collaborative model, and parents like the transparency of the classroom set-up, a sense of safety in numbers. They also like the fact that if their child does not ‘gel’ with one teacher, there is a second or third option.

But others remain staunch in their disapproval of the MLE. Noise levels are a big concern; also the difficulty of keeping students on task in a big, busy space.

“The noise and mess does my head in,” says Janine*, a primary teacher in West Auckland.

“I am utterly exhausted at the end of every day, and find I need a lot more solitude after work than I used to [since moving to an MLE]. By the end of the week I am absolutely shattered, just like my students.”

For parents, the oft-repeated concern is that their child is “lost” or “overlooked” in a big group setting. Some schools group as many as 90 students in one MLE, a situation that can be overwhelming even for very focused students, never mind those with learning disorders.

Maximise benefits, minimise downsides

Mark Osborne, international advisor on learning environments based at the University of Melbourne, says no child should ever “fly below the radar” in a classroom.

“Most schools with ILEs try to maximise the benefits of having multiple teachers while minimising the potential downsides, such as children getting ‘lost’.

“A common approach is to maintain a home/whānau group teacher, who is primarily responsible of one group of children, acting as point of contact for the family as a traditional homeroom teacher might. However, those students also work with other teachers in diverse groupings throughout the day.”

Osborne says that the ILE can in fact be a better option than the traditional classroom for learners who struggle to cope with high levels of stimulation.

“Most ILEs have breakout spaces where students are able to work quietly away from the hubbub of the classroom. In a well-designed environment, these breakout spaces are not separate from the main environment, rather they employ sliding glass doors to maintain connection with the group but also offer acoustic separation and a ‘low-stimulus zone’.

Despite this, staff at Autism New Zealand say that during the past two years there’s been a surge in calls from parents worried about their child managing in super-sized classrooms.

“The MLE can be great or it can be a huge challenge, it is dependent on the teacher,” says national educator Tanya Blakey.

“They need to understand that the child is not naughty but that they are struggling in an environment that is overwhelming. They need to build a relationship with the child, gain their trust and help them succeed.

“We find that schools are very responsive; in fact, teachers are crying out for support. It’s a lonely place to be when you don’t understand a child’s behaviour, but there are some really easy ways to engage students with additional needs.

“Often all they need is a desk with a barrier, access to earmuffs, or expectations written down so they don’t have to try to remember everything. The great thing is that these strategies work for all kids, not just those with autism.”

Teaching quality critical

Osborne agrees that the quality of teaching is the critical factor.

“Schools have to invest in people as well as buildings. Professional learning around the different approaches to co-teaching, developing an effective team culture and building the team’s ability to use the different learning zones are all crucial.”

He says a common misconception is that an open-concept (or closed) is better, while it is actually the flexibility of the space that matters most.

“The key thing is to create zones where a whole group might gather together, then to reconfigure into a range of smaller spaces where smaller group or individual activities might take place.”

Osborne’s advice for parents worried about their child’s transition to an ILE is to talk to the teacher.

“Parents can help schools communicate effectively with them by letting them know the questions they have. Schools need the support of their parents to be effective, and the best way for parents to show that support is to engage in a positive dialogue seeking the best outcomes for the most important people in the whole process: the children.”

*Name has been changed


  1. Just like Modern Office Environments, there needs to be space accommodation for quiet/concentration/focus. I am a diagnosed ADHD adult which I’m really open about. I struggle when there is lots of collaboration going on around me and often duck off to our non interruption spaces to complete my work. Different strokes for different folks, any environment should reflect different learning needs. I have one child that thrives in MLE, and another who will fail miserably.

    • I would be interested to know if you feel that your children would be better overall in a ‘closed’ environment rather than an ‘open’ environment.

  2. Having worked in both traditional classrooms and also in the open learning environments, I agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to both options. In the end though, students are at school to learn and that learning could happen in large groups, small groups, or with one-on-one time with a teacher or teacher aide. Students learn in many different ways. With more students now presenting themselves with anxiety-type issues or other learning behaviours, the open learning environment isn’t the great enigma it once was made out to be. If you get a chance, go sit in one for a week and just observe. Just like open plan offices that were all the rage 10-15 years ago, what research is now finding is that the open work environments are great for socializing and feeling part of the larger group, but productivity isn’t as high as might be expected. It is the same in the school open learning environment – students are made to feel part of something bigger as they sit in tutorial-style groups beside each other, taught by different teachers, however if you listen closely to their individual conversations there is actually very little work being done. Teenagers, especially, are good at looking busy. This is especially true when the open learning environment is put together with technology like laptops and Ipads (ref Albany Senior High model) and 90-100 minute time slots. Students slack off, students wander. It is easy to hide in an open plan environment with lots of breakout spaces. Open plan environments, while great for building social skills and encouraging everyone to be part of something bigger, are, from my experience, detrimental to learning.

    I do, however, agree with the article that more discussion is needed on this and that small flexible zones that can be opened up to larger spaces WHEN REQUIRED may be the best overall solution. Doing it just because it is the trendy thing to do isn’t necessarily the answer.

  3. It is concerning to see the bias on teaching, rather than learning and the personalisation of learning to prepare for Future Ready Education (TM), development of Learning Dispositions, Capabilities and Competencies.
    I continue to advocate for the removal of subject based curriculum and the replacement with Multiple Literacies. This will provide the development of Curriculum Integration and use of Concept Based Inquiry. Those are essential to provide hard and soft skills needed in 2020 as reported in LinkedIn.

  4. Does anyone check with the students what they want. Both of my children hated modern learning environments as they were disruptive, noisy and hindered individual achievement. They have now moved to schools with a subject based curriculum and rows of desks, they are much happier. Expectations are clear, they can track their achievements, and knowledge gaps, and are confident that they are on track to realise their ambitions. My wife is an HR consultant and spends a lot of time dealing with issues involving young people new to the work force, often they don’t realise that they have to follow an employers instruction, they were told at school that they had agency to decide what they wanted to do each day. The way NZ is heading it is setting our kids up to fail and will widen the gap between state and private education.


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