Enough is enough! The ‘Traditional Education versus Modern Learning Environment’ Binary

As the principal of a Modern Learning Environment, I have ignored the constant disparaging of Modern Learning Environments long enough. Why have those of us who lead these environments largely kept quiet and allowed it to continue as a mostly one-sided conversation? Well, partly because we have our heads down, and are getting on with the work of leading our schools to ensure they meet the needs of all our students. We want our “works” to speak for us, not our sound bites. We are simply more focused on ensuring our children learn and grow into intelligent, well-rounded citizens who are well prepared for the future they will face than with answering our critics in the media.

We also haven’t weighed in on the discussion because we know that what we do cannot be contained in a sound bite; and, I refuse to be drawn into a binary argument - Traditional Classroom vs Modern Learning Environment. There is always more than one side to an argument; always more than one good solution to a problem - often many. Learning is a complex matter and I take it very seriously. The issue isn’t Traditional Classrooms OR Modern Learning Environments. It is about what works for each individual child and having highly effective teachers trumps everything! John Hattie (2009) shows that the greatest variation in outcomes is not between schools but between classrooms within schools. That is, education quality largely comes down to the quality of its teachers. There are more effective and less effective teachers in traditional classrooms just as there are in modern learning environments. This is why our school’s professional development focus for the past few years has been on developing every teacher as a highly effective teacher.

However, when team teaching is the norm, students are not stuck with a less effective teacher for a whole year or two, but learn from a wider range of teachers – thus increasing their access to those highly effective teachers. By strategic organisation, strengths can also be better utilized (while the impact of weaknesses diminished) thus lifting the total effectiveness of the team. Hattie, in his meta-analysis, identifies Collective Teacher Efficacy as having the greatest impact on outcomes for students. Team teaching, which is the norm in MLE (but is also done in Traditional Classrooms, at times), when well utilized, has the potential to increase Collective Teacher Efficacy without necessarily increasing the capability of individual teachers. When we do both, the outcomes for students are hugely increased.  

The point I am trying to make is that it is not so much the architectural environment that matters in terms of outcomes for students; it is what we do for students within those physical environments that makes the real difference. That said, certainly one of the affordances of more open and flexible physical learning environments along with the greater flexibility to team teach is our increased capability to organise learning in different ways to meet the needs of every student. The problem with the binary nature of the Traditional vs Modern Learning Environment discussion is the assumption that all MLEs are the same. In fact, as a school, we are able to leverage the more open, flexible nature of our modern learning environment to implement a broader range of approaches and tools, at different times, to meet the needs of students. Given that students’ needs are always changing, how learning “looks” needs to be responsive and change to meet the needs of students. The architecture enables this. As an example, several years back we had a group of students who we identified needed a more “traditional” approach to learning. We set up what we called a nurture group, which had two teachers (for a smallish number of students) and largely stayed in one, more confined space. They worked in this way while the teachers assisted them to develop more independence and self-directedness. Over time, some students went back into our more “mainstream” modern learning environment. After a term or two, the whole nurture group moved into the flexible, shared spaces but continued to operate as a nurture group within that environment, and eventually it was disbanded because there was no more need for it.

Enabling students to be self-directed and “agentic” learners (students making decisions about their learning and having choice and a voice in the school), has been identified globally as an essential 21st century skill which will help students as learners now, but will also help them respond to the uncertain, rapidly changing world they will face as adults, where continuous learning will be essential and multiple changes in career likely. As a school, we want our students to be “insiders” in their learning. We have set up systems and processes to ensure our students know where they are at in their learning and what their next steps are. We give them (scaffolded, as necessary) opportunities to use this knowledge of themselves as learners and to exercise choice. Our commitment as teachers is not to waste students’ time, so we tell our students, “Don’t sit politely in a workshop that is either too easy or way too hard. Move to another workshop or do some other work that is useful until we can provide you with the workshop you need.” I can feel some people getting antsy at this point. Adults often begin with the assumption that students will get away with doing as little as they possibly can. However, that is neither our experience, nor is it what we would allow. We are not careless with students’ learning; rather we are deeply concerned about our students learning, progress and achievement. But let’s allow students to speak for themselves.

Here are a couple of emails from students

“I left your workshop because it wasn’t meeting my needs. I checked out [teacher’s name] workshop online and it looked more challenging for me, so I went along to that instead. It was much better for what I needed, so I stayed in that.”  (Boy, aged 9)

Hi [teacher’s name] Today at goal math I noticed in my previous goal math sessions I have been kinda wasting my time looking for a good website to help me but I couldn't find one,and I felt the goal wasn't working for me so I thought I could change my goal so I asked Fiona and she said ok and I’m just telling you so you know too :)

(I changed my goal from adding and subtracting decimals to ordering fractions with different numerators and denominators.) I felt it was a good idea because 1.We are working on fractions at math and you could maybe help me and 2. Because when I was doing my mathletics test you set me I got all the ordering fractions ones wrong. Thanks (11 year old girl)

Isn’t this what we want for our children? A question we should ask ourselves is whether we are serving our students better by at least trying to develop their learner agency and self-directedness; or whether we are serving them best by maintaining a traditional education in which students are seen as empty, unthinking vessels to be filled by the knowledgeable teacher? One of the dangers of the binary nature of Traditional Environments versus MLE, is that we may push away the most valuable aspects of teaching and learning for many years to come, and education will be bereft as a result. Is this the outcome we want?

From my perspective, Modern Learning Environments are not about doing teaching and learning in a particular way, but about doing it in whatever way is needed to meet the ever-changing needs of students. It is about having a broad range of approaches (including the most effective from traditional education – explicit teacher instruction, for example), programmes, processes, tools, teachers and spaces that can be utilized as needed in response to students’ needs. Like all schools, we have students with quite a range of special needs including students with high sensory sensitivity, high anxiety, ASD, processing disorders, sight and hearing impairment etc. A flexible approach to space, learning and people, enables us to meet the needs of these students. We can create calm spaces, for example, for students with ASD, high anxiety and high sensory sensitivity - without them feeling isolated from the rest of the students. We have pop up tents within the learning spaces, so that students who need to can work without being visually distracted but still feel part of the hub. Whether traditional classroom spaces, or MLE, no environment perfectly meets the needs of every student. We all have to problem solve to overcome limitations and create the teaching and learning environment required at the time. However, greater flexibility in architecture and in the ways we think about space and flexible pedagogical approaches do assist schools’ ability to do this.

If there are some obvious advantages to MLE, why is it creating such controversy? Well, firstly, because disparaging MLE has become a political strategy used by some schools that do not want to abide by the current Ministry policy of only building MLEs. Some of our colleagues have been prepared to throw MLE “to the wolves” by making outrageous and indefensible statements - as though these statements are true of all MLE. But also, in a sector that is characterised by binary thinking – either/or, us and them – it is normal to turn on those who “threaten” us by doing things differently. But why are some parents jumping on this bandwagon? Because of the Mere Exposure Effect. The Mere Exposure Effect is a recognised psychological phenomenon in which people develop a preference for something merely because they are familiar with it. The preference has nothing to do with how effective the “thing” is. Thus, changing the very familiar notion of one teacher-one classroom; the one-hour daily maths, reading and writing lessons; or year groups, is unfamiliar territory for parents and is likely to create anxiety and concern when experienced, even though the reasons for the change might make complete cognitive sense. This effect is heightened at a time when many parents feel guilty about the busyness of their lifestyles and overly anxious about, and responsible for, the success of their lives and the happiness of their children. I have no doubt that all parents want the best for their children, but, at times, there are factors that limit our ability to think about what this is with clarity.

I won’t deny that the shift to leverage the affordances of Modern Learning Environments is a big one. It does require significantly different ways of thinking about education, and, no doubt, some MLEs are managing this transformation better than others. Certainly some teachers struggle to make the transition from more privatised to deprivatised practice, hence, MLE are involved in a continual process of finding out which teachers “fit”. However, traditional classrooms and traditional schools have been with us for a long time, and unevenness in quality still characterises our education system. We still have a tail of underachievement – inequity and inequality is alive and well. Why should MLE be held to higher account than traditional education, which has had decades, even centuries, to perfect its delivery, simply because they are unfamiliar environments?

Currently PPTA is calling for research on MLE. I don’t have an argument with that. We do need to prove ourselves. However, we should ALL be accountable for the education we provide. I would like to call on PPTA to provide research that “proves” the efficacy of the single-cell classroom and privatised teaching. But, even more, I would like to suggest that we all step away from the binary of Traditional Environments versus Modern Learning Environments. Let us, as an education sector, commit to seeking a bigger picture by finding out what is best for our children and our world and then build our education system around that –whatever that “looks” like. It is timely to do so. However, in the meantime, as a matter of priority, let’s work towards increasing Collective Teacher Efficacy - having every teacher as a highly effective teacher whatever environment they are working in. That will make a difference for all students.

Let’s put the Traditional Environment versus Modern Learning Environment binary to bed. Enough is enough!