All MLEs are not the same: Towards a "high level" definition

So many people have opinions to proffer and comments to make about MLEs (modern learning environments) or ILEs (innovative learning environments). To be honest I am not a fan of either term. At Amesbury School, we have often been put into a box, gift wrapped with a bow and presented with a gift card that tell us (tells US!) that we are this or that. But we are not – the gift card never encapsulates the essence of who we are. The assumption that all MLEs (I will use that term for the purposes of simplicity in this article) are the same is not true and neither is it helpful because it leads to a binary view of us and them – a false dichotomy that may not really exist. I have often felt invisible, sitting across from people who say MLEs are this and that. Well, I am here and we are not! 

Just as humans can be recognised from afar, in general, by their body type and shape and certain features, yet there is a world of variety and no one who knows humans, who has been up close and intimate with humans, would say all human beings are the same. In general, it might be that there are some features that look similar in Modern Learning Environments that differentiate them in some ways from traditional single cell classrooms. However, we would then have to know each modern learning environment to know whether it actually is. The truth may be that a school that looks traditional with single cell classrooms might be more “MLE” than some schools with more open and flexible spaces. If this is the case, it begs the question, what is “MLE”? Can we actually define it? 

According to Bolstad and Gilbert (2012), “Twenty first century learning” is a response to the changing economic, technological, scientific and social landscape of the 21st century and the challenges and opportunities it presents in/to education. 21st century learning is not a fixed prescription or known formula but rather it “can be considered as an emerging cluster of new ideas, beliefs, knowledge, theories and practices – some of which may be visible in some schools and classrooms, some which exist only in isolated pockets and others which are barely visible yet” (p. 1). The point here is that “MLE” is not a known prescription or formula, therefore, all MLEs cannot be known because of more intimate knowledge of one or two MLEs. All we can know is the one or two MLEs we have intimate knowledge of. I feel a strong connection with Stonefields School in Auckland and Haeata in Christchurch, both identified widely as “MLEs”, yet, we each acknowledge that in quite significant ways, we have different approaches to education. This is partly because our schools exist in very different contexts and schools are responsive to/influenced by the communities in which they live. However, another is that we simply have some different beliefs about education. Even among MLEs that feel strongly connected, there is variety; and I think this is exactly how it should be.  

However, I am going to proffer a high level definition of MLE, but do so with the disclaimer that I am not speaking for other schools. This is Amesbury School’s, or even more accurately, Lesley Murrihy’s, definition of MLE. A further disclaimer, “lest I am hoisted my own petard”, is that we are not there yet. There is still so much to be learned. In proposing this definition, I need to go back in time, and tell the story of setting up an “MLE” before it was really even a thing. I was principal of a small decile one school in a community which was in very challenging circumstances. For some years we had been exploring how education could look different. In particular we had looked deeply into culturally responsive teaching and other approaches such as the Montessori approach. We were, at the time, particularly taken with the idea of the language of potentiality and of unconditional relationships with students.  

The challenges came to a head at the end of one year, and almost overnight, but after five years of exploration (which our school community had also been involved in), we made the decision that it was time to finally do something radical. Hence, over the Christmas holidays, we set up a “modern learning environment” for year 3 – 8 students in a leftover relic from the failed open plan era which usefully had break out spaces attached, though initially not glassed as they usually are today. When children came back to school, their world looked a little different. We told parents that we would report back to them on outcomes at the end of that first term.  

What did we do in that first term that was different? Other than the changed physical environment, in brief, we shared the very difficult “behavioural” load by team teaching and more effectively utilizing the curriculum strengths of teachers and the strengths of the relationships different teachers had developed with individual students. We were able to team-tag at times when dealing with difficult behaviours or make it possible for the teacher best positioned to deal with the behaviours of a particular student to do so. We taught the skills and content of the curriculum through an inquiry approach, while also being aware of maintaining the integrity of the different learning areas. We developed systems to encourage and enable increasing student agency. We moved to a more discussion-based and problem-solving approach to the teaching of mathematics.  

At the end of term one, we collected data in reading, writing and mathematics and the results were astonishing – significant accelerated improvement across the board. In particular in reading, the shift from the learning to read of instructional reading sessions to the reading to learn approach of inquiry-based reading had resulted in dramatic improvements in reading ages of up to 18 months in one term for quite a number of students. All students showed accelerated improvement except for a handful of students. It was to that handful of students that we then turned our attention and asked what wasn’t working for them and what they needed that was different. The next term we put in some additional, more instructionally-focussed reading sessions for them. They began to show accelerated improvement. From that experience began a way of working in which we continually gathered information about the learning of students and the effects of our programmes on students and took an increasingly nuanced and differentiated approach to the provision of curriculum. We had developed personalisation of learning before we even knew the term really existed.  

For me, the point of more open, flexible environments is to ensure that we can continually meet the needs of each and every student. Thus, MLEs don’t have to have open and flexible physical environments, though it can be very helpful, but the teachers within them do have to be open and flexible and evidence-based in their approach to teaching and learning to ensure they are continually meeting the needs of every student. A further illustration of how I see the “MLE” way of working is this: there is research that suggests that the best student outcomes result from students sitting in desks in rows in classrooms for their learning. This research is currently being touted to support traditional classroom structures. Faced with this data, the “MLE” question would be: Who is it not working particularly well for? Who benefits? And who is disadvantaged? Who, perhaps, is marginalised by it?

A closer look into research around sitting in rows, shows that students who are sitting at the front are likely to gain the most benefit and those sitting at the back the least. The question then is, if we know this, is this an acceptable situation even if overall the outcomes might be greater? When we know a group of students is being disadvantaged compared to other students, simply because of where they are sitting, is it ok to maintain the status quo? Shouldn’t we be looking for ways to “do” education that ensure that no-one is disadvantaged and that maximises outcomes for each and every individual student? We need to move beyond this research.

Further, research shows that for the purposes of discussing issues, and developing critical thinking, sitting in a circular shape is more effective than sitting in desks in rows. So we also need to ask ourselves the question: how do our environments, both physical, pedagogical, social etc., serve the various purposes of learning so that we maximise the effectiveness of our learning programmes rather than privileging particular pedagogical approaches and knowledge?  

Admittedly, we don’t have all the answers yet, nowhere near it, but from my definition of MLE, we are asking absolutely the right questions for these postmodern times. We live in a world that acknowledges and values diversity and the “otherness” of the “other”. We cannot go on running schools as though the “other” does not exist or does not matter. To say students should learn in a particular way because this way we might get the best overall outcomes, ignores the “other” for whom this does not work as well.  

By my definition, modern learning environments are an educational response to acknowledging and valuing the “otherness” of the “other” and for ensuring that the potentiality of all students is recognised and served. In this way, we will develop humanising institutions where the needs of each and every student can be met. And they will/must "look" different.

In her next article (or two), Lesley Murrihy will continue this theme with an exploration of the implications of this definition for MLEs and of the challenges of implementing an MLE approach. 

Bolstad, R., & Gilbert, J., with McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand perspective. Wellington: Ministry of Education. Available at: