Groovy. Really?

Three tradespeople I spoke to recently all had one thing in mind. Their kids’ education. The painter, the tiler and the security technician worried about which schools their children would go to, who would teach them, and whether their learning would prepare them for a decent job. Two of the three parents were looking at private schools even if it meant a second mortgage.

They also chatted about phones and tablets and the amount of time their kids spent on social media and playing games. They wondered about the value of EdTech. A fourth tradie I spoke to was desperately concerned that his son got into the best Christian school in the district, even though it meant an hour long commute in heavy traffic. The school’s ethos was his focus.

Each one of the men felt they had the measure of the teachers at the range of local schools on offer. Word-of-mouth and feedback from kids had given them a pretty accurate picture of which teacher cared about their students and how effectively they taught. The best schools they judged to be those with the best culture—one that enabled their kids to learn happily, without disruption.

Looking at my shelves of books the tradies discovered my interest in education. They soon asked me about the ‘odd’ design of some of the new schools they had seen or worked on.

The ‘odd’ design as they called it, is part of a new educational initiative and it is one of two things I want to focus on in this blog. The second is the aforementioned EdTech which it supposedly enhances. I am sceptical about the first and hopeful about the second.

When the tradies raised the subject of the ‘odd’ design they were referring to ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs) or ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILEs).

For anyone schooled in a traditional classroom environment, MLEs are a drastic departure from the known. Hence their questions. Quite a number of departments of education are embracing MLEs internationally—stipulating that any expansion of an existing school incorporates them, and that new schools begin with them.

While I would be the first to agree traditional classrooms, school buildings and school corridors can be incredibly depressing, uninviting and unsafe in terms of bullying, harassment and hidden aggression, I have yet to be persuaded that MLEs are the way to go.

In contrast, I am confident that EdTech offers substantial advantages to human development. It is already enhancing children’s learning, and constitutes a true revolution in education (not just a whitewash). I think it will prove to have a far more decisive impact on kids lives than the possibly (?) small advantages gained for some children from trendy ‘learning spaces’ and buildings.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate opens bays, natural lighting and decent furniture; rather it’s that the jury is still out as to whether MLEs make a real difference when it comes to learning. They could be an expensive red herring.

What exactly are MLEs? Well, looking at the government website for New Zealand schools is only semi helpful:

An innovative learning environment (ILE) is the complete physical, social and pedagogical context in which learning is intended to occur. Having the right property, and flexible learning spaces (FLS) in particular, is one part of creating an ILE. The ILE Assessment Tool will help you assess your learning spaces against ILE criteria.

Most schools were built between the 1950s and 1970s. The way that teachers teach and students learn has been developing since then. We want all schools to have vibrant, well connected, innovative learning environments (ILE) that encourage and support many different types of learning.

An ILE is the complete physical, social and pedagogical context in which learning can occur. We used to refer to these as modern learning environments (MLE). An ILE is capable of evolving and adapting as educational practices evolve and change. One part of creating an ILE is to modernise the spaces that teachers and students spend their time in.

Perhaps, less than helpful (and repetitive).

The best thing is to see them. To look for yourself.

MLEs are basically single areas that can be reorganised to create bigger or smaller learning spaces internally. They are often referred to as flexible learning spaces. They have corners and small areas (caves) for students to withdraw to so that they can quietly focus on a project or enjoy downtime; there are ‘breakout’ spaces for group work, discussion and games; there are tech laden areas for research and writing; and ‘camp-fire’ zones, like tiny amphitheatres, for storytelling and soft forms of public speaking. There is a lot of minimalist furniture, tables of varying heights, glass and movable partitions.

The MLEs I have seen are sort of retro-hipster. A bit like an Apple store.

What do I like about them? They are well lit, and I like the move away from box classrooms. No doubt, too, MLEs have advantages when it comes to team teaching: the amount of transparency in open plan areas probably means teachers can bring colleagues into their activities quite easily if they have the time and imagination to do so.

What are my reservations? Well, cool furniture (perhaps less cool when it is on wheels), interactive whiteboards, beanbags and being able to see what another teacher is doing don’t necessarily correlate with learning. My first reservation? Doubt as to whether the investment in MLEs yields educational returns.

I vividly recall as a confident and an already assessed ‘excellent’ teacher ten years into teaching, one of the biggest shocks I had was being told by an HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspector, UK) that my lesson sucked. Why? Because the children had learnt nothing. I was kidding myself; so were my students. Was the class beautifully managed? Yes. Were the students cooperative and attentive? Yes. Was everything neat and tidy? Yes. Was group work and feedback compelling? Yes. Were they entertained by my plans? Yes. But an engaging environment doesn’t signal intellectual tension, struggle, creativity and learning. Mine didn’t even though I assumed otherwise. Truly excellent teachers know this, which is why they constantly question their students.

In a nutshell, my concern with MLEs is they look good—a lot can be going on in them—but looks are secondary to teaching and learning.

Another concern I have with MLEs is that some children either get lost in them or are disturbed by disruptive kids and the whir of activities around them.

MLEs tend to see teachers moving away from whole class teaching to working with student in pockets. Done with care this can be very effective, but the risk in an open plan environment with nooks and crannies is some kids will simply miss out. They will be lost in more ways than one. The really serious worry is that the weakest students will suffer most. They are more likely to be forgotten than others as lacking in confidence they find places to shelter their already battered poise. I can see that tail-end achievers, who have had more policy attention and dollars spent on them than any other group in compulsory education, might for all our efforts be worse off with MLEs than previously.

Moreover, while I’ve indicated a well-managed classroom does not necessarily mean kids are learning, I do see it is as a prerequisite. My hunch is that all of us need periods of managed silence for thinking and writing, and quietish places for concentrating on tasks. The thing about MLEs is that despite their caves, they don’t facilitate creative silence. Ironically, they don’t give kids ‘space’. They hum with activity and movement, but schools are in danger of confusing these with academic growth and learning.

In short, if school districts and departments of education plunge down the MLE/ILE route, I think issues of kids falling through the gaps and disruption/distraction will materialise as very serious concerns.

One thing I really like about MLEs, however, is their apparent appropriation of EdTech—although of course, EdTech isn’t dependent on MLEs, and EdTech is not a silver bullet that will slay the beast of ignorance. Some games and apps might wound it, but we need a means for determining which these are. MLEs won’t tell us!

What games or apps make a difference? Firstly, those that are designed around clear educational or learning goals, e.g. to teach numbers 1-10. Secondly, those that delight us—that have a strong story line, charming or great characters, intrigue us and use beautiful graphics. In other words, a form of entertainment not just for entertainment’s sake (not a bad thing), but as a means to a learning ends.

Additionally, to be of any use, we will need to know which games, videos or apps relate to specific curricula or standards—whether these are International Baccalaureate examinations, trade and vocational examinations, Cambridge Examinations, national curricula, Common Core, or core standards, etc.—

It would also help to know how kids themselves rate the media they use. Experts might tell us that such and such an app has a great story line, beautiful graphics, superb formative assessment for feed back, and that the app meets all the criteria of a specific curriculum item, but if kids aren’t using it, then evaluation is in a sense meaningless.

In line with these observations, Kitty Knowles has pointed to the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha this weekend. In ‘Gamifying the Future of A-Level Education’ she argues we will see an upsurge of games and apps in K10-12. While she acknowledges Angry Birds and Candy Crush are fun, she points out they are mind-numbing and educationally insignificant. In contrast, she names Fireproof Games’ The Room, and State of Play’s Lumino City as puzzle games with real educational value. I don’t know Lumino City, but I think the latter’s earlier game Lume is stunning.

As well as commenting on the educational value of several games, Knowles reiterates that the best games use tailored formative assessment to pull through learning. They identify weakness in our skill set and concentrate on providing material which addresses them. So, for example, Headspin’s Storybook promises ‘no two games will ever be the same, you get a different version of the book each time it’s opened.’ This is less about the effects of novelty and more about focusing on the development of specific skills through varied means.

Knowles also postulates that the adoption of ‘game-style learning could chop between 30 and 40 per cent off school spending.’

I am not sure about this figure, but it seems reasonable to suggest that depending on the cost of a game or a subscription to a game/educational app ecosystem, money could be shaved off resource expense. Better still, time could be freed up for teachers to draw out and evaluate learning among their students through focused conversation. Rather than expecting teachers to teach content all the time, apps, games and videos could do some of the heavy educational lifting. This would enable teachers to concentrate on reinforcing learning—on cementing concepts, facts and data among their pupils.

In all this, my point is that while I am a big fan of EdTech when it is well finessed, more work needs to be done on correlating the relation between MLEs and student learning. And further, that parents should be cautious about placing their children in schools where MLEs are the only option. In Australia, the State of Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s paper on learning spaces notes:

This review identified very little empirical evidence associating any of the above phases with specific regard to student learning outcomes. Much of the literature focuses on the quality of conditions, perceptions or tangibles rather than educational practices or intangibles in terms of how space is perceived, used, and with what effect. The research literature is concentrated in the design phase. While informed by both contemporary architectural and educational research as to what is best design and best practice, there is little empirical research that considers what happens once in the space.


And as to the four tradies who plied me with questions about ICT, tablets, phones and games vis learning? This is something I feel better about. Is there time-consuming digital rubbish out there? Yes, and the tradies know it. But there are also superb educational resources, which given the amount of interest from parents as concerned parties and kids as users will only get better. Do MLEs mark a sea change in education? Probably more a fad. Games, videos and apps a sea change? I think so.

Take away points: Just about every parent you meet wants the best for their children. Those who have seen them wonder about MLEs. MLEs carry some advantages and probably foster discursive and interactive learning. They seem to run the risk, however, of losing the poorest academic achievers which would be a huge reversal rather than a gain educationally. A second trend—the uptake of EdTech—while actually not new at all, carries much greater promise. The gamification of education that incorporates real time feedback, multiple pathways to learning, quality video and graphics, a strong, engaging story line with great characters, and above all specific learning goals that directly relate to gold standard curricula, will be, so to speak, a ‘game changer.’ It will light up compulsory education because it is interesting and plays on the oldest instinct of them all: our love of knowledge and our needing to know.

Research: State Government, Victoria, Australia: Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes.

State of Play: Lumino.

Headspin: Storybook.

Kitty Knowles: Games and A levels.

Mark Wilson. 2015. Investigating the effectiveness of modern learning environments on improving student learning and achievement. MLEs

New Zealand Educational Review.


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