Before I delve into what has been my quest to get answers about the introduction of open plan classrooms in NZ, I need to tell you a little about my own education growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Born and bred in Amsterdam, I attended a public Christian primary school with small class numbers and kind, caring teachers. It was homely and cosy and I did well. Parents with a travel bug also meant various stints of homeschooling in a hut in the Himalayas. At 12 years old, I moved to the Barleaus Gymnasium which is the highest level of secondary school. The classes were average sizes and the teachers were good, but I struggled to keep up with the level of achievement that was necessary to succeed. After the first year, I failed Latin and my parents decided the Montessori Lyceum would be a better fit for me.
Montessori in The Netherlands is all about choosing your own pace, developing strong organisational skills and a celebration of your individuality. We got our tasks in six-week blocks and it was our responsibility to complete these on time. There were mandatory classes in all the different subjects and for two classes a day you could choose a class in a subject you were either needing help with or particularly interested in.
As a 13 and 14 years old I shared my class with 26 other teenagers and it did get quite rowdy, but we had cubicles all down the hallway with desks and chairs which we could use when we needed to concentrate on complex tasks or tests. Choosing to use these cubicles were hard for teenagers like me who had an extraordinary ‘talent for talking’ so I frequently found myself spending entire Sunday’s catching up on work. I did possess the discipline to complete my work eventually which resulted in this learning style working well for me between the ages of 13 and 17.
Many children, however, moved away from Montessori after a year or two to what was called a classical school where students enjoyed more structure. Many parents never opted for Montessori in the first place as they knew their children would do better with firmer guidelines. There is still plenty of choice in the Netherlands, but no open plan classes that I am aware of.
Needless to say, I have experienced a few different types of education. I attended a Christian school as an atheist. I am very outgoing and was homeschooled. I learnt in a very structured way and then a very independent way. I shared my classrooms with many different nationalities and was never segregated according to my gender. I never used a computer; some essays were completed on a typewriter. I was never particularly shocked by any of it and some would even call me flexible.
Fast forward 15 years and it is 2014 and I am taking my oldest son for his school visits in beautiful NZ. Exciting! The school has a great atmosphere, the grounds are large with green, leafy trees and the teachers appear to be kind and caring. The most obvious differences from my primary education are that they do jump jam on the school square two mornings a week to loud music. There is some use of tablets. The rewards are more spectacular (I got a sticker, they get a dip in the treasure chest or principal award) and overall it seems very vibrant, yet homely. My son and I are happy.
Two and a half years later it’s my middle child’s turn for school visits. This boy is just as confident and outgoing as his big brother and didn’t look back from the moment he started Kindergarten at three years old. On his first visit, we are introduced to what they are calling Modern Learning Environments. He has two teachers and 36 five-year-olds to get to know. He is soon sitting on my lap and asking why we can’t go outside. I am shocked. I feel a mourning for the introduction that my oldest son enjoyed. The nurturing education we experienced just recently was gone? Really? I talked through my concerns with the teachers, grilled the principal. The answers were heartbreaking. It was Ministry of Education guidelines, the whole of New Zealand was going ahead with open plan classrooms, it was essential we prepare our children for the future, for open plan offices.
Hang on a minute. In my family, we have chefs, mussel farmers, a tractor driver, a surgeon, I am a tour guide and work part-time from home. None of us works in an environment that resembles the classes we were taught in. I have met very talented IT professionals that never laid eyes on a computer at primary school or even secondary school. The thing is, humans are naturally flexible and adaptable. The IT skills we learn now may become just as outdated as the jobs we are expecting to disappear. What we need is self-confident, emotionally resilient, creative thinking children with social skills and the capacity for focused thought. This is what will prepare them for whatever the future brings.
For decades parents and teachers have asked for smaller class numbers. We have gotten our head around 30 students per class because there is not enough money to go round. When our child has the luck to share the teachers time with just 20 others we are pretty chuffed and so is the teacher.
What are we being offered? Classes with 50, 70, 90, 100 or more students per space. Two, three, four, five or more teachers per space. It doesn’t make sense. And to add insult to injury, any person I speak to can’t believe their ears. ‘Surely not? That’s crazy! Why? What other countries are adopting these so-called Modern, Innovative, Flexible Learning Environments?’
So I go hunting for studies, research, any proof that will ease my worry. I attend an Innovative Learning Environment info evening. I write to the MoE. I end up asking my burning question on the Breakfast Show on One. I receive link after link, hundreds of pages worth, which repeat the words I am not interested in; innovative, flexible, architecture, acoustics, ventilation and collaboration. These documents include inviting pictures of award-winning, architecturally designed open plan classrooms. They picture a few dozen students in these new classrooms instead of the room at full capacity. As if parents are really that gullible. If we as adults don’t like the thought of sharing our space with so many others, why oh why are we subjecting our children to this? I am silenced with: ‘Change is hard’. Over and over again.
What I do find is a report in the NZ Medical Journal which has studies on the effects of open plan offices on its staff in 15 different countries. The results are not surprising. These open plan spaces negatively impact staff’s health, well-being and productivity. I’ve worked in open plan offices; they are not included in my hopes and dreams for my children. If they chose to work in one, they will learn to adapt then. No need for that now when they are five and bringing flowers into class for their teacher.
I find articles with teachers saying they want more proof. Principals that have fought (and won) to keep their schools with smaller classes, with a homeroom environment where their teachers can build relationships with smaller groups of children. I find surveys where children are saying loud and clear: ‘these open-plan classrooms are making us feel more and more isolated’. There are no completed studies in favour of this model. I repeat, no studies concerning OUR children who are being taught in a model that was introduced in 2010. Eight years ago.
More than 500 million has been spent on building open-plan classrooms without the adequate research to support their success. Yes, the collaboration between teachers in these spaces can be beneficial to both teachers and children. Some teachers are being lured in by finally receiving classrooms with the adequate heating and furniture they have been asking for. But in my opinion, the negatives far outway the positives. Great architecture, ventilation, acoustics, flexibility, innovation, adequate heating and bean bags can be achieved in a single classroom. And single classrooms are still to this day being successfully used for some outstanding education.
I conclude that the emotional and physical health of our children hasn’t been considered enough. They have been taken out of classes that had the potential to be nurturing and now are expected to be self-managing, independent, online learners from a very young age. Efficient little people. And there seems to have been very little consideration gone into how children with Autism or ADHD might cope in these large classrooms. Very little choice for the parents that want a more nurturing education for their children.
My older children might be flexible, they might be fine, but as a parent, you want more than fine. What they need is a teacher that knows them well, that is aware of all aspects of their learning, not only the ‘workshop’ they have given them. No parents want to seek out two or three teachers to get the full story. They need a manageable amount of children in their class so they can get to know their classmates well. They need a good table and a good chair to complete the large amount of online learning that is now a part of their everyday school life. Slouching on a beanbag or a couch with a laptop is not good enough. Lying down while learning on a carpeted floor where dozens of children walk with their shoes could be considered unhygienic. Being curious and looking up when there is a sound is natural. The beauty of children is their curiosity. They will learn to block out sounds and other people’s movements later on when they are stuck on the London Tube or in one of these open-plan offices they are supposedly destined for.
I am proud to be old school until ‘new school’ has been proven to be better. I need to know that our brand new (and only!) college in Blenheim will not be built in this open plan model until the research supporting it is completed and then still common sense says that it isn’t necessary. I do not accept New Zealand is being innovative and preparing our children for the future yet building two new single-sex colleges side by side. By 2021, I need to be reassured that my now three-year-old son will not have to spend his 13 years of primary and secondary education blocking out 50 or more other children, day in day out. I need to know that homeschooling or private schooling are not our only other options.
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