Some of today’s school settings, typified by open-concept classrooms and heavy use of digital devices, are “downright dangerous and causing harm”, according to a leading New Zealand educationalist.

Kevin Knight, a director of the New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE), has grave concerns about the extreme interpretation in some schools of new teaching trends, known collectively as the 21st century learning movement.

“My issue is with the extreme interpretation of the 21st century learning movement, the wholesale promotion of it, the denigration of traditional practice, and the negative impact that all of this has on students in vulnerable communities.

“We’re talking about modern learning environments, extremely high use of digital devices and the notion that the only authentic learning is that which happens in a collaborative way with kids. We’re talking about collaboration between teachers and the high use of inquiry. All of those things come together in a package and characterised as the 21st century learning movement. I say characterised because it’s not actually new, it’s actually a whole lot of old stuff that has been repackaged and marketed, and the only thing that’s new in there is the digital devices.”

Knight works with schools in New Zealand and Australia to upskill teachers and to help schools interpret data to transform results. One of his client schools is Otumoetai Intermediate School in Tauranga which won the Supreme Award at the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards in 2014.

Since then, Knight has assisted the school to identify the difference between its “great” teachers and its “OK” teachers, arriving at the conclusion that the secret was in the quality of teachers’ learning conversations. He then developed a tool, the Learning Affirmation Spectrum, to be used for teachers to upskill to “great”.

At the other end of the scale are schools where teachers are discouraged from initiating learning conversations and it’s this trend that most worries Knight and his colleagues. He describes school settings in which the concept of student agency is taken to such extremes that teacher-led learning is frowned upon and where, on the orders of principals, teachers wait months for children to engage, until they are “ready”.

“This is a monstrous threat to social justice. It is a misuse of the concept of student agency, taking it to such an extreme is in my view criminal and utterly immoral.”

Knight says social justice is about making sure that people who need schools get a good deal.

“I’m talking about fairness and equity and about making sure that the people who are likely to be disadvantaged in our school system get a fair go. And I believe that you measure the quality of the worth of educational experiences based on the hardest to teach in the class.”

He is particularly concerned about the new schools of east Christchurch, 70 per cent of which are decile one to five.

“What’s happening now, post-quake, is that the schools of eastern Christchurch are not making a profound difference. Schools have closed, schools have merged, lots have been rebuilt. And they have largely been rebuilt on 21st century learning concepts which means we have lots of open plan classrooms, we have teachers being pushed together to collaborate, and the result is not pretty.

“We are seeing some classes that operate in a purposeful and deliberate way where students are engaged in their learning, but not many would fit that description. What we see more is disorder, low engagement of any kind, extreme behaviour, and shallow directionless teaching.”

Knight says there is no evidence that gives serious weight to the various aspects of the 21stcentury learning movement.

“IT IS A TRAVESTY THAT WE HAVE ADOPTED THIS POLICY IN AN UNCRITICAL WAY WITHOUT EVIDENCE. IT’S NOT THAT WE HAVEN’T BEEN EVIDENCE INFORMED, WE’VE BEEN EVIDENCE IGNORANT AND THAT’S WHAT’S REALLY WORRYING.”

He describes the movement as no more than a marketing strategy, and “an exercise in branding”. “One of the ways it is being marketed is through beautiful imagery to suggest that this is new, it’s bright, it’s engaging and it’s different. And so, parents out there, your kids are coming into a wonderful brand new exciting world.

“Another way is to play on the same strategy that (USA president) Donald Trump uses which is to play on the “them and us” mentality, the “us” being the proponents of the 21stcentury learning movement: we know what’s best for your kid, we’ve got this wonderful new way of teaching, and “them” meaning the ancient old teachers from the 20th century: they know diddly squat and we do.”

Here, Knight debunks the myths behind many 21st century learning trends.

  1. The Modern Learning Environment (MLE)

“One of the rationales presented for having kids in large spaces is because that’s how modern offices are laid out so school should be the same. In truth, modern offices are the exact reverse of the MLE. In the main space in an office, everyone is quiet, and they go to break out rooms for meetings. In a classroom, the main space is bloody noisy and if you want to get some work done, you go to the breakout room. To say the MLE is like a modern office is completely and utterly wrong.

2. “It’s not about the space, it’s about the pedagogy”

“We’ve all heard this one. The thing about the 21st century learning movement is that it’s so convoluted that if you question the space, it’s about the pedagogy, if you question the pedagogy then no it’s about student agency, if you question student agency it’s about something else. It’s very, very tangled.”

3. Everything should be digital

We are being told as educators that the world is screaming out for IT professionals and we that’s what we have to prepare our kids for but that is actually a lie. Totally untrue. The index used by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Development shows quite clearly that there is little demand for IT professionals. (graph below)

4.Teacher collaboration

Knight says that teachers are denied independence in a collaborative setting. In the words of one primary teacher in east Christchurch: “I really wanted to make this work because we want to do the right thing by the kids. The people I work with are good people and I thought that working in the same space together would be great. But I’ve lost my independence, I can’t make the teacher decisions that I want to make. If I’m running a reading group and we haven’t quite got it, we still have to stop at the agreed time (rather than continuing until the learning is done). I’ve taught this age group in this community for 15 years and these kids are nowhere near where they should be, they are not learning what they should be learning.”

A Sir Peter for education

Knight calls for the appointment of an independent education advisor on a par with Sir Peter Gluckman*, the Prime Minister’s science advisor.

“We need a Sir Peter for education, a person who is who is independent, who can go to the top levels of government and say, ‘There is some stupid stuff going on in education and you really have to rethink it’. We desperately need someone who can challenge this trend.

“When you talk about a setting that’s not going well, people will say, ‘Well, it’s new and the teachers just need professional learning and once they’ve got it, it will work’. That is absolute bullshit. It’s not that the teachers don’t know what to do, it’s that what they’re trying to do is wrong. We need some honesty and ethical behaviour, and we need to gather some facts about what works at school. If we’re going to be evidence-informed, we should be gathering evidence of best practice as often as we can.”

*Professor Juliet Gerrard has succeeded Sir Peter to the role of chief science advisor since this interview.

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