Top schools give multi-million dollar classrooms a fail grade
Top schools are in open revolt against the Ministry of Education's new multi-million dollar classroom makeovers, where they say students could get less attention from teachers.
In the past five years, the Ministry of Education has spent $517 million on the open plan classrooms which include glass, natural light, moveable walls, breakout spaces for groups, and moveable furniture that includes couches and beanbags.
Gone is the image of a teacher in front of a chalkboard, instead several classes will be taught in one space at any time and children will be placed in groups alongside technology hubs where they will learn in groups, or on their own.
Every class in the country will have to meet the specifications – dubbed Innovative Learning Environments – by 2021.
But Rangitoto College principal David Hodge said the Ministry of Education had gone "overboard in their attempts to be modern".
Hodge recently spent a 10-week sabbatical at Harvard University's Future of Learning institute where he said the only comparison to the Ministry's vision was in exercises critiquing extreme approaches to learning.
"The personalised learning philosophy does not encourage students' development of thinking skills and creativity as is claimed. Yes, it is good to have students think outside the box – but they have to have the box to start with ... One is left to wonder if one powerful motivation is that it is simply a lot cheaper to build an open plan barn than a more traditional school," he said.
He added that parents were also sceptical about the Ministry's idea of how students should learn.
"After all their child only has one shot at education and what if that experiment fails," he said.
Hodge said Rangitoto College – where 77.5 per cent of its students gained university entrance last year – still had traditional classrooms. While the school did use modern teaching methods, and some students used their laptops instead of pen and paper, there was still a need for teachers to direct the lesson.
Students said they wanted to learn in classrooms that were bright and stimulating; they didn't want large sterile open spaces with absent teachers and loud noises.
Rangitoto College headgirl Carmen Camilleri's English class is still a traditional classroom, where the walls are plastered with posters of superheroes and placards with definitions.
But more important than that was the teacher who was at the core of the class' academic success, she said.
"Everyone does have different styles and interpretations, it's important [for teachers] to be open to different ideas and stuff," she added. "At the same time we don't like teaching ourselves everything ... there are some things you need to be told."
The Ministry is currently spending $4m on 10 teaching spaces at Mt Albert Grammar School so that they meet the new standards.
Jerome Sheppard, acting head of the ministry's education infrastructure service, said new classrooms were being built because they were expected to last more than 50 years and must be able to accommodate a range of teaching and learning approaches as education practices evolve and change.
Innovative Learning Environments allowed students to work on their own, and to work with their peers in groups, encouraging them to be independent learners and to develop skills that help them collaborate with others. It also allowed teachers to work together and to support each other with planning and delivering the curriculum and assessing each child's progress.
"It's completely up to schools to choose how and when to adopt new teaching practices. New Zealand has a world-leading curriculum that provides a strong framework allowing school leaders, teachers and their communities to design a curriculum that suits their context. The Ministry does not prescribe how the curriculum is taught. We leave this to the expert judgment of our education professionals at each school."
Mt Albert's newly fitted-out classrooms have glass doors and moveable walls, but the students and teachers prefer a traditional learning environment.
Deputy head boy Fraser Polkinghorne said beyond the glass, the classes were not much different to the old spaces. "People feel like they're being watched so they're more focussed on their behaviour, teachers stay on topic more," he said. "Beyond the glass I don't think there's too much difference with other classrooms."
Extreme examples of the modern classrooms, where three or more classes were taught in the same space with see-through walls, could take the focus away from their lessons. "There could be distractions with people walking past or with [other classes] working opposite ... I don't think I'd like it, it would be too distracting."
Each of the new classrooms in the maths block have sliding walls to create wide open spaces, but they have remained shut because teachers still opt for a traditional classroom set-up.
Principal Dale Burden said the key to the classrooms' success lay with how the teachers decided to teach and not the building. "A great teacher could teach out in the field with a chalk board," he said.
Wellington College principal Roger Moses said there was a fear students would not learn what they need to learn if they are left to their own devices.
His school has consistently been at or near the top of the ladder when it comes to NCEA scholarships for the past four years. "I happen to believe that a teacher still has something to offer that a student mightn't have, and plays a central role in the classroom."
Moses said it was easy to latch on to a new idea that may not be thoroughly tested.
"My plea would be that for goodness sake the Ministry of Education, have a look and see which schools are doing well, allow them to have some flexibility in determining how their classroom setup should be structured."
Macleans College has been working with the ministry to replace and refurbish leaky buildings since 2009 – a $17m project.
Principal Byron Bentley said the school had been at loggerheads with the ministry over a new science and technology block, expected to cost about $13m.
Architects, with input from staff, drew up designs for the building about a year ago but earlier this year the ministry refused to approve the plans because they didn't meet Ministry specifications - the breakout spaces were not big enough.
Bentley said growing the breakout spaces would mean a whole class would not be able to function in one laboratory at a time.
"We're talking about utopia, or the ministry are, the reality of teaching on a day-to-day basis is that you've got to have control of upwards of 30 to 35 adolescents in most classes – all sorts of distractions are going to occur – you've got to have control before you can teach them."
The school and ministry were "debating the issue vigorously" and last week the ministry said the issue was resolved and Macleans would get to keep its current design.
A spokesman for the Ministry said the building would be refurbished rather than rebuilt to keep costs down.
But Bentley said it was still not clear whether the buildings would be refurbished or rebuilt.
* The article has been amended to make it clear that schools will retain flexibility about how they work in the new spaces. Students may be left to work independently, but there will still be teachers present.
- Sunday Star Times