A recent article in Education Review outlining Kevin Knight’s presentation at the recent ResearchEd Conference in Auckland highlighted Mr Knight’s polemic on a number of big ticket items in modern education.

I believe there is some validity to what Mr Knight says, but bundling open plan learning environments, pedagogy, use of digital devices, and collaboration together under the banner of the 21st century learning movement and labelling it “monstrous” with little to no data to support this claim is using a very blunt chisel to carve out a complex argument, especially when his chosen target is low decile schools in east Christchurch.

The 21st century learning movement

We are nearly a fifth of the way through our learning in this century; labelling this as a movement implies it is a concept to be accepted or discarded. All I have ever known is teaching in the 21st century, and whilst there are many different opinions as to what teaching and learning looks like in this century (and this korero is vital and important) we should all be in agreement that however it looks, it has to be significantly different to what it looked like in the previous century. Mainly because things didn’t actually change that much in education for all of the last century even though the world did.

 The only constant is change

I have encountered many older teachers who feel changes in the education system are cyclical, and any new idea is just a re-hashed old initiative with an interesting new acronym. I believe this is true only to a point, but more importantly it isn’t justification for setting fire to the whole process. These concepts come around again because teachers fail to act on the research at the time and do what they have always done, and so the cycle continues.

Not to put too finer point on it, those who are nearing the end of their teaching or academia career (and they represent a sizable percentage of the sector) do not get to monopolise how teaching and learning works for the rest of us. We could debate the wisdom of old against new wisdom till the cows come home but the bottom line is the education system has to and should evolve continuously, and whilst this evolution needs to be data driven and purposeful, it is immutable.

Open, Innovative, Modern Learning Environments

I recently toured three new build schools in Otago and Christchurch as part of our own school’s rebuild process. One of those schools is situated in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch and was the result of integrating the surrounding schools. All the schools I visited had in some form or other open plan learning environments, and as you would expect all the schools highlighted both positive and negative points to these environments. The overall feeling I got from the staff at these schools is effective utilisation of space is a work in progress, but it is work worth doing.

I have heard anecdotal accounts of other new build schools having to erect tarpaulins to block out spaces, and teachers encountering significant issues around noise, separation, and functionality.

There is no question the Ministry and the architects they employ are on a steep learning curve when it comes to these spaces, and I would hope that schools that were the guinea pigs for this process have the ability to revisit and remedy the aspects that simply don’t work.

Given however that a lot of the nation’s existing school buildings are forty plus years old and have significant problems with leakiness, mould, and even asbestos it seems odd to me that the narrative is mostly directed at problems with new builds simply because they are different to what we have come to expect in a traditional school.

Lack of research

One of the issues around these initial new builds was the whole process lacked significant data to inform decision making and nestled within that were teachers and principals own frustrations of not being heard, a lack of professional development to assist teachers with the transition also compounded the issue.

Work is being done to address this; the University of Melbourne is at the back end of a four year research project funded by the Australian Research Council of which the New Zealand Ministry of Education is a partner in. The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) is charged with looking at the issues and opportunities created by the changes in how we build schools and the shift in mindset for teachers that it can bring. The study is due to run into 2019 but findings to date can be accessed from their website.

Ground Zero

The assertion that few schools in eastern Christchurch are making a profound difference was certainly not my experience of the school I visited. There was a significant amount of time spent explicitly focussing on key and cultural competencies, which in a community that has had the stuffing kicked out of it more than once in the last eight years is courageous and places great significance on student health and wellbeing, something many schools that are seen as high performing simply don’t do.

Whilst the school I visited is not without its problems, I found the difference these teachers were making at ground zero to be quite profound for even the most disengaged of learners. And I am still at a loss to understand how this constitutes a “threat to social justice”.

If we are going to find solutions to the aspects of new pedagogies that don’t work, then we need more than anecdotes from teachers saying “I’ve taught this age group in this community for 15 years and these kids are nowhere near where they should be” and blaming modern pedagogy for the trend.

Unless there is some data being referenced that I am not aware of, correlation doesn’t equal causation in this instance.

The idea that we need more oversight at the top level in the form of an education advisor is an absurd offering.

The pool of academics and bureaucrats telling government and subsequently teachers what we should be doing is already at capacity. It does not take a PhD to realise we need to place more value on the teachers we already have, and pay more than lip service in supporting them to make the changes that need to be undertaken. Teachers must be allowed to learn from their failures and move on without it being turned into hyperbolic news stories.

Maybe everything should not be digital, but everything will be digital

Whether you fundamentally agree with the relentless adoption of digital technology or not, it is happening.

Automation is changing everything, and there are few industries that will not experience significant disruption as a result of this, if they haven’t already.

But contrary to the rhetoric we are not preparing our learners to all be IT professionals; we are preparing them to do the many and varied jobs of the future, some of which don’t exist yet and nearly all of which will have some digital component.

The governments urgency with digital technologies stems from the fact that many teachers and academics still consider it a fad or gimmick, and as such a large group of students are entering the workforce without the basic level of digital fluency needed. I am not talking about being a programmer at Google, I am talking about the future CNC machinists, networked transport operators, robotic share milkers, and telecommunications engineers of this country. This generation of young adults we are seeing move through the school system are not all digital natives like they are made out to be, they can operate their phones but mainly lack the higher level digital fluency to contribute effectively to a knowledge based economy.

All too often the argument revolves just around student device use and is one dimensional.

Is there currently a problem with students spending too much time on devices? No doubt, however like anything we as teachers manage this and it is a constantly evolving process. The PISA study in 2015 indicated that we need to be much more measured with how students spend their time on devices in and out of school, and as teachers be more deliberate in how we plan that time to maximise the benefit whilst minimising the harm.


I encourage anyone to produce the evidence that these modern learning environments and pedagogies are adversely affecting outcomes over and above anecdote and speculation. Otherwise it is hard to see it for anything other than another opinion of an educational professional who is struggling to cope with significant change.


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