Inside an ‘Innovative Learning Environment’

Next year a fresh cadre of bright-eyed and refreshed students will enter schools around the country. For many, at both primary and secondary level, they will be walking into a sleek modern building complete with climate control, ergonomic furniture and state-of-the-art technology. Welcome to the Innovative Learning Environment, or ‘ILE’.  

The Ministry of Education is committed to giving every school access to ‘a learning environment that best supports educational success’. In their view, that means providing access to an ILE by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal for the Crown’s $30 billion network of school buildings. Public Private Partnerships are out the door with the National government so our tax dollars will now be paying for these schools up front.  

Many parents will have attended open days if their child is starting high school, or a new school. That offers a brief chance to look around, to take in the atmosphere and ooh and ahh at the shiny new buildings. They’re a little different when they’re full of energetic teenagers though.  

The language of the Innovative Learning Environment 

So what’s it like behind the glass? What goes on for students and teachers? Well, first of all there’s a terminology to master. No longer will students be timetabled to classrooms with a letter and number. Large open spaces will be named after something significant to the area and culture of the school - these are called Learning Commons. Each Learning Common will hold anywhere from 75-150 students along with three to six teachers. Somewhere nearby there will be glass-walled rooms called ‘break out’ spaces. These are generally used for viewing films, sitting tests, or anything that requires a more traditional environment. Big break out spaces can hold up to thirty students while smaller ones may hold only five or six.  

These spaces look fabulous. They are acoustically designed, well insulated, well lit and have durable carpet and furnishings. The furniture is ergonomic and designed to move. Chairs, and desks, have wheels. Low ottomans form circular groupings around round tables that fit together like the hungry caterpillar. There are no divisions though, and any way you work it, 75-150 students in one space is a lot of people, and classes will have varying levels of noise.  

Each school decides how they will arrange their departments within Learning Commons. Albany Senior High School mixes classes, each Common has a teacher from across different departments attached to it. So a Year 9 English class may be sitting next to a Year 13 calculus class. It means during study times students have access to a diverse range of teachers and encourages the breakdown of barriers. In contrast, Wakatipu High School is arranged by department, so each Learning Common has a focus and the workrooms are departmental in nature. Each approach has its pros and cons. With departmental arrangements, teachers can collaborate more easily without having to create cross-curricular classes.  

New build vs transitioning schools 

Until this year, any ILE high school has been a new build. That means that students start, knowing what they are planning on getting into. Parents send their students to the school knowing that it will operate in a way that maximises the spaces. Teachers apply for jobs eager to teach in a collaborative way that emphasises technology and shared learning. New build high schools start off with one year group at a time - so there’s time to grow into the building slowly and each successive year group learns from the one before.  

Wakatipu High School moved into a purpose-built 10,000 square metre campus at the start of this year. It is the first existing school to have moved. That brings with it different challenges - an extant school already has culture, customs, and staff. In a town like Queenstown there are no other options - for students or staff. So it is a big shift. The school had plenty of warning, and planned for the move over a period of three years. That meant up-skilling staff, building ‘test’ ILE spaces to practice in and investing in e-learning knowledge and professional development. The move has gone well. For new students starting or those that had only a couple of years in the old school it is a bump in the road. For those shifting in senior years it is more of a change.  

One Year 13 student commented on the shift. ‘The spaces are newer but feel smaller because there’s always so many people around. I find it harder to study and concentrate but some people like it.’  

For many years, Auckland was at the vanguard of the ILE movement. With over a quarter of our population in one city that makes sense. Albany Senior High School, Ormiston Senior College and Hobsonville Point have been leading the charge. Teachers from other schools moving into new environments often visit these schools to see how it’s done. They’re all variations on a theme, but all similar in terms of spaces and the implications it has upon teaching and learning.  

2019 sees the opening of one of the Christchurch Schools Rebuild’s biggest projects - the $80 million campus to house both Shirley Boys’ High School and Avonside Girls’ High School. It’s a radical reinvention for two schools with a very strong sense of self and long history of tradition. John Laurenson, Headmaster of Shirley Boys’ has come out swinging against the ILE design. He fought hard, very hard, to have walls put up in what was originally presented. The concept simply didn’t work for the ethos of his school, or from his knowledge of how boys learn best. With boys’ achievement lagging behind girls in all measures of NCEA success, perhaps he has a point.  

Teaching in an ILE 

One of the great advantages touted is that ILEs create collaborative teaching. Staff, from the same or different departments, must work together. They share the space. There are no walls, every move is under examination not only by their students but also by their peers. It’s the complete deprivateisation of practice. Proponents say that it allows weaker practitioners to learn from their stronger counterparts - to observe teaching techniques and behaviour management in action.  

However, some teachers see it as a loss. Dr Kevin Knight, experienced educator, educational psychologist and co-founder of the highly regarded New Zealand Graduate School of Education is dubious. 

What are these new learning environments like? If the teachers in an open shared space are highly competent and if their students are by nature self-disciplined, we see creative teaching and strong learning outcomes. But if the teachers are not from the top echelons of the profession or if the students need more deliberate management, these new learning environments are unsuccessful.   

Ten-year veteran secondary teacher Jill (name changed) understands the concept but believes the losses outweigh any perceived gains.  

‘I can teach anywhere, that’s not a problem. Within a classroom though, I can teach with personality, I can engage students by being a little zany, a little offbeat, a little loud. They respond well to that approach. Teaching in an ILE I’m always conscious that I may distract the class sitting nearby, or annoy another teacher. I think I’m more boring now, and I know I enjoy teaching less. I imagine the students who have experienced more lively classes before feel the same.’ 

With up to five classes sharing a space, even the basics have to change. Taking attendance at the start of a lesson for so many different groups is chaos. So students will often start their classes with an activity that has been pre-prepared on Google classroom. It’s a wonderful tool, allowing differentiation and technology to be shared easily. It can result in a decline in personal engagement - which makes it easy for quiet students to fall through the cracks. .  

Dr Knight’s graduate teacher training programme relies heavily on putting teacher interns in front of a classroom. Rather than one or two six week blocks in a year with a couple formal observations, his teacher interns are in front of a class for six or seven weeks, four times a year, with up to three observations per week. It’s a tremendously rigorous programme and the graduates are highly sought after, with over 97% finding jobs on graduation. The model means that he and his tutors are in the classroom regularly. Anecdotally, Knight has observed the following: 

-student collaborative learning becoming off-task chat 

-learning conversations between teachers and students weakened by the distraction of surrounding noise 

-teachers taking turns to interact with students: one does the work while the others take a break 

-an increase in teacher-centred whole-class teaching 

-parents withdrawing their children to enroll them in schools with traditional classrooms 

-little opportunity to work alone 

There seems to be little actual research to support the efficacy of ILEs in raising student achievement. A Ministry of Education funded study, released in November 2017, concluded that "the evidence has been absent to support the assumption that such spaces are better suited to accommodate the learning needs of 21st Century learners”. This is why anecdotal observations are so important. The homogenisation of our classroom design is creating a school environment that may work for some - but not all, possibly not the most vulnerable. Private schools, with their more traditional environments, are capitalising on the pushback and are seeing full enrolments and a strong mandate to keep things as they are.  

We’ve been here before 

One man’s barn is another’s innovative learning environment. In the 1970s the then Department of Education researched the shift and produced a report on Open Plan Education in 1977. The movement grew from keen groups of teachers who wanted to work in more collaborative teams. Classroom blocks were modified, by 1983 more than 500 open plan units were being used.  

They died a natural and quiet death. The environments didn’t raise achievement and were distracting for students. Yes, the modern builds have better acoustics and design - but the principle remains the same.  

With such a substantial rebuild programme, the Ministry of Education has been pushing ILEs as the solution. There is, as yet, no definitive research to support the contention that they support student achievement. Education Minister Chris Hipkins has indicated that things will change on his watch. 

“In future, the Ministry will continue to work with schools on a case by case basis to come up with the most suitable learning environments.” 

We can only wait and see with interest. ILEs do have their benefits, for some students they are a highly effective lead in to the workplace and into learning in a collaborative manner. They bear little resemblance to the unchanged university model though. If schools are allowed to determine their own path, with the knowledge of what suits their students best then we will hopefully end up with buildings that support quality, individualised teaching and learning that caters to the needs of the community and students.  

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