After filling out various surveys over the past year in which I shared what I would do ‘if I were boss’ and attempting to get Education Minister Chris Hipkins to answer my questions about digital learning, desks and open-plan classrooms without success I decided to do some investigating of my own and give parents the option to share how they feel about open-plan classrooms and their children’s screen use at school.

Despite the Ministry of Education repeating that they want to hear from us and want to change education for the better, they do not appear to be interested in hearing from families that have left their local schools due to the implementation of Innovative Learning Environments. When we took our children out of their school precisely for this reason our school’s admin was encouraged to lie and input ‘transferring to another school’ as they were not intending to add any options to the ENROL drop down list any time soon. Meanwhile, parents keep telling me how they have moved house, paid for private schooling or started home-schooling to get away from an open-plan classroom.

The quality of screen learning at school is thankfully finally being seriously debated, but here too the Ministry ignores the research coming from far and wide and continues to support the ‘Chromebook on beanbag’ combo. BYOD policies are now common at primary school and somehow Manaiakalani schools are allowed to make false claims like ‘Digital Learning proved to be the ‘hook’ to guide our whole community to better educational outcomes’ and their students are submerged in full digital immersion without anyone standing up for them.

Here are the results so far of the survey which was answered by 144 parents. They have shared their experiences and opinions of their oldest primary-aged child in open plan classrooms and this child’s school-related screen use.

Looking at these results, I have noted that 58% of parents responded that the primary school their child attends have open-plan classrooms and 15% said their school was in the process of implementing them.

Only 9% of respondents could confirm that their school had consulted their community before going ahead with open-plan classrooms. One parent comments: “They did (have a consultation process), but not to the degree many parents would have liked (eg – more information required on how things were going to run and not the message that it is a learning curve for teachers and children alike. I would like to know the teachers had adequate training and preparation before teaching in an ILE).”

The school my sons attended until we started home-schooling six months ago did not consult their community before starting to implement Modern Learning Environments, but assured parents and teachers it was the only way forward. Once parents started getting increasingly confused, a MLE info evening was organised where the importance of innovation was demonstrated in a powerpoint presentation with happy emoji’s alongside open-plan classrooms and the audience was told that a strong knowledge base was no longer valued in a society where answers were only a quick Google and Wikipedia search away. Parents who still questioned the need for five-year-olds to be in larger classrooms or wondered about the effects of digital learning on their children’s academic outcomes were told to get with the programme by an aggressive representative from the Ministry. The teachers I spoke to that didn’t believe MLEs were the best way forward didn’t feel like they could voice this and ‘career suicide’ was feared if they spoke out.

The low level of consultation within school communities across New Zealand could explain the dissatisfaction with school options. School zoning makes it impossible for many families to choose a more calm and structured education for their child if desired and this is represented in the survey results with 51% of parents saying they don’t like open-plan classrooms and would prefer to avoid them and a further 20% indicating they have removed their child from an open-plan classroom or plan to do so in the near future. Just 15% are willing to give open-plan a go and 8% prefer them over single classrooms. A proponent of open-plan classrooms explained recently that they are a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of thing. One parent commented in the results: “I don’t really like it (open-plan) but with my two kids at their school they are doing really well so I now see the positive things they offer. Extra teacher support and extra opportunity to learn.”

Over the last 18 months, I have spoken to hundreds of people about MLE/FLE/ILEs and I would say that 8%-20% satisfaction with these spaces is quite accurate. Yet 100% of state schools are encouraged to adopt open-plan and ‘modern learning’.

As mentioned on the ‘My Child Is Not a Guinea Pig’ facebook page, my vision is that children, parents and teachers will enjoy the choices they once had in the New Zealand education system. If there is a market for ILEs, then build these fantastic purpose-built buildings with large classrooms in which collaborative teaching encourages independent learning and self-management in their students. ILEs could offer a point of difference that appeals to a proportion of the population, just like Montessori, Steiner, Christian and Private Schools do.

When my Year 4 son was spending what seemed like an unnecessary amount of time learning core subjects on a Chromebook at school I started asking questions about digital learning only to discover that digital guidelines are extremely loose and vary greatly from school to school. An article by Julie Cullen published on Education Central recently has led me to believe that there are significant concerns with the way technology is being used by many schools at primary level and that further investigation and consideration is needed.

Moderate technology use, defined as 1 to 2 times per week (or 25 min per day), seems to have some positive impact on student outcomes, including obtaining digital skills (OECD, 2015). But improvements only occurred in certain areas of learning and students who frequently use computers have significantly lower educational outcomes.

So how many children in primary school are using screens for more than 25 minutes a day? According to these survey results 46% of parents say their child is learning on screens for more than 25 minutes a day. Just over 16% of these parents indicated that their child is spending more than two hours a day learning on a screen at school. Of course some of these students will be using a device to aid them with learning difficulties and this screen use is purposeful and well managed, but still, nearly half of parents (47.92%) that responded to the survey said they had concerns with their child’s screen use in school.

Concerns were fairly evenly split over:

  • The total amount of time spent on screens;
  • The physical impact devices may have on their child e.g. posture, vision;
  • Loss of other skills such as hand writing;
  • Reduced social interaction;
  • Accessing inappropriate content online.

Two thirds of parents (66.67) would like to have more of a say when it comes down to their school’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Policy and be given the option to opt out. From experience I can tell you this is not because we are ‘backwards facing’; it’s because in many instances we are noticing that our seven and eight-year-olds are losing the ability to write legibly with a pen. It is because our energetic boys and girls who were just recently destroying their lunchbox while doing cartwheels with their backpacks on are now carefully carrying around laptops. It is because we are noticing deterioration in our children’s love for learning. The screens that for a short while were so engaging have lost their appeal and the edu-games with bells and whistles are not as effective as learning core subjects directly from their teacher. Our children are saying they miss the contact they once had with their teacher and access to the internet in busy environments can lead to distractions in the form of entertainment online that can simply be too hard to resist for children young and old.

No matter how much parents debate screen use in schools, there is one thing we can all agree on: sitting on the floor with a laptop on their knees is not a comfortable or responsible way for our children to learn.

A common sight in classrooms across New Zealand since ‘modern learning’ was introduced about eight years ago is the lack of desks and chairs. Around 44% of survey respondents say that there are not enough options for each child in their child’s class to sit that supports their physical wellbeing. One parent writes:

‘This is the thing that really bothers me. I do not share your group’s concern about tech use (this is my area of research and the evidence is not enough for me to be concerned). BUT we have had situations where kids have to fight for a seat; seats being used as rewards etc. Kids DO need to move but I don’t have any way of knowing how long my kid is using his iPad on his lap rather than at a desk etc. Ipads are not designed to be used for long periods. I would really prefer laptops, used in decent postures, to iPads on the floor. It’s not just iPads of course, but trying to handwrite on the floor or on a ledge type seat etc just doesn’t seem conducive to giving kids the best chance of producing good work and learning.’

This survey was distributed over various parent groups on facebook. I would like to encourage as many parents of primary aged children to fill out this survey so I can present the results to the Ministry of Education knowing that they are a fair representation of how Kiwi parents feel.

This survey closes on the 28th of November. The survey results so far can be found here.


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