Bigger classrooms, bigger problems

At one point it looked like education might become a key battleground in the election campaign.

Bill English announced that schools will no longer be given decile ratings and an extra $40 million would be spent on teaching languages in primary schools.

Labour said it would scrap national standards and make the first year of tertiary education free.

These became no more than skirmishes in a war that focused on fiscal holes and water taxes but as Shoshana Maasland writes, New Zealand schools are, in the meantime, undergoing a quiet revolution.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) is banishing traditional single-cell classrooms in favour of more open-plan, flexible spaces that can accommodate larger numbers of students.  

To facilitate this, the Ministry requires schools to convert their classrooms to Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs), previously known as Modern Learning Environments.

ILE designs are flexible, allowing for multiple learning areas and activities within the one large space. Generally they are open-plan and can encompass several year groups within the one space.

The Ministry’s intention is that by 2021 all classrooms will be modernised according to its prescribed ILE standards.

Support for this policy is far from universal among education academics and teachers, with many highly critical of ILEs and how they are being implemented.

Some parents, meanwhile, are reported to be voting with their feet, leaving ILE schools for ones that still have traditional class structures.

Those who support the move to ILEs cite advantages such as students taking greater responsibility for their own learning, more collaborative learning between students and also more collaboration and professional development for teachers.

The MOE also argues that ILEs have better environmental qualities, including heating, lighting, ventilation, acoustics and they allow for greater access to resources such as technology.

Critics of the new classroom layouts say that ILEs can be noisy and chaotic, and that students can become lost and disengaged.  

Parents’ concerns

Karen*, whose 5-year-old child attends a central Auckland ILE school, observed, “I think it’s harder for an individual teacher to understand all the aspects of a child’s learning because they’re fostering the child out into different groups. So a teacher, instead of forming a detailed relationship with 20 children, is now forming a superficial relationship with 75.

“I don’t really understand why, though – what’s the value of it? The environment’s so noisy - you’ve now got the noise of 70 kids.”

Sarah*, whose 9-year-old son was at a fully ILE school until he moved schools this year, described her son’s experience as “horrendous”. 

“Academically it was poor; his work was not corrected; they didn’t pick up gaps in his learning. He had no task orientation, so he had no concept that he had a task to complete within a certain period of time, to an accepted standard.”

Sarah said that in one year, all four of the teachers assigned to her son’s “learning hub” resigned.

For her son, every day spent in his ILE classroom brought challenges.

“The classrooms had beanbags; they had some small tables; they had some little bench things. There were not enough tables for the kids to sit at to do their writing exercises, so they would go and write on their knees or on the floor. As there’s a competition for the sitting resource, if your child is perhaps not the most popular kid in the classroom, gangs of kids control who sit where, so that kid isn’t even given the comfort of having their own desk. They then need to compete socially for a space to do their work.”

The absence of clear teacher-student lines of responsibility can lead to confusion and even risks. Recently, Karen’s son suffered a concussion following a fall at school on to a concrete floor. The teacher who witnessed the event did not pass the information on to his ‘classroom’ teacher during handover, and Karen was not informed of the accident until she observed him behaving strangely the following day. By the time she took him to a doctor, 24 hours had elapsed since the incident, during which time she should have been monitoring him and waking him regularly every three hours.

“Because there is this moving teacher environment, no one had actually told me [about the head injury]. The fact that there were so many teachers involved on the day of the incident meant that no one knew that I hadn’t been told. The teachers that were on duty didn’t tell me because they didn’t know whose mother was whose.”

Educationalists’ concerns

Some critics worry that the system will simply further entrench inequality in educational outcomes.

Massey University Associate Professor of Education, Bobbie Hunter, calls the the ILE policy a ‘fad’, which has been tried and failed before, and which is not backed up by clear evidence.

“I think there just hasn’t been enough research whatsoever. It’s actually really terrible.”

While she accepts ILE may have benefits for some schools, she worries that these are usually high decile schools.

“Where they have control over money and resources and the buildings, they have had a lot of say in how those buildings work and consequently they have been able to construct buildings that actually work better for the teachers and the children.”

In contrast, Hunter points to a primary school in South Auckland that was recently rebuilt as an ILE, which she describes as “just a long barn with two withdrawal spaces”. She says the high level of noise is problematic for the children, a number of whom have glue ear and many of whom have little structure in their lives and other disadvantages prevalent in low income areas.

Compounding the problems associated with large, open-plan learning spaces, Hunter says, is the lack of support or training for teachers who are new to the associated modern learning techniques.

“There’s never been any professional development given from the Ministry about what these schools should be doing. The schools have to find out how they’re going to manage that environment. There’s no training, there’s never been anything. So all these schools have just been built. 

“Teachers have been running single cell classrooms where they have been telling students what to do, but when you’ve got 120 you’re going to miss them. And then a lot of the talk is, ‘Oh well, it means that these children can build relationships with four teachers’. Well, they don’t.”

Imposition by MOE

What particularly troubles Hunter is how ILE classrooms have been imposed on schools by the Ministry. She says that some secondary schools have pushed back to some extent, “but the primary schools have just been railroaded”.

This concern appears to be shared with some who are more positive about the ILE model.

Lynda Stuart, Principal of May Road Primary School, is introducing an ILE space in part of the school, and argues that these environments, “will rise or fall depending on the professional development that goes alongside them and the work that’s been done around meeting the needs of students.

“I think it would be a mistake to enforce a type of building when you’re not actually supporting the professional development that needs to go with it.”

According to some parents, those who can afford to, will end up taking their children out of the state system and put them into private schools.

As Sarah argues, “Ultimately, what this means for NZ children is that unless you can afford $24,000 a year, you are getting the guinea-pig, experimental model, which is generally unproven – a previously discarded model that’s being offered to people who can’t afford to make a different choice.”

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