Modern learning environments in Waikato schools

NEW LOOK: Teacher Juliet Dickinson, with Ella Chambers, 9, Mila Ollington, 9,  Emilee Jones, 9, and Jayda Boyd, at rear, 8.
KELLY HODEL/Fairfax NZ

NEW LOOK: Teacher Juliet Dickinson, with Ella Chambers, 9, Mila Ollington, 9, Emilee Jones, 9, and Jayda Boyd, at rear, 8.

Perched on beanbags outside the building, a small group of kids is reading in the sun.

Inside two small groups work with teachers, kids sketch skulls and others tap on computer keyboards.

Welcome to a learning community at Te Kowhai School. This one's a 1960s block with a wall opened out to make two classes into a single space.

Across the courtyard a purpose-built space houses the school's younger learners - a big, shared space with four breakout rooms. There's a teacher-led, learn-your-letters song in the main area, girls making playdough letters in another and a boy showing an animated geography video in another.

It's pretty different to most of our school memories, but it's how the Ministry of Education wants school to look in future.

Modern learning environment (MLE) is the often-heard phrase and the newly opened Endeavour School in Flagstaff is a purpose-built example.

But established schools are also starting to move in the same direction, and all schools are supposed to have finished upgrading their "teaching and learning spaces" before 2020.

So traditional, or single cell, classrooms are no longer seen as the best way for kids to learn.

They will slowly be replaced by large, flexible spaces with small breakout areas and colourful furniture.

Pupils won't have one teacher but several, who will work collaboratively with a large group of children.

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Head of the Ministry of Education infrastructure service Kim Shannon was not interviewed, but said in a statement about $38m was being spent maintaining, modernising and replacing school buildings in the Waikato, involving 78 state non-integrated schools.

Shannon said Endeavour School in Flagstaff was an excellent example of the new flexible learning environments.

She said Rototuna Junior High School, which is under construction, would also be built as a modern learning environment, and Hillcrest Normal School and Frankton School were two more examples where modern learning environments had already been introduced.

It's hard to find an MLE definition, but University of Waikato Educational Leadership Centre manager Jeremy Kedian said it was about far more than the building's architecture.

"It's moving away from the walled learning space to a more open learning space where multiple students can interact with multiple teachers in a more creative and innovative way of learning," said Kedian, who is also on the establishment board for Endeavour School.

So MLEs are also about how the learning is happening, how students work together, and how we see the students' futures - what skills will students need?

But some things won't change in the classroom - or learning community.

"There is stuff that has to be learned. You can't circumvent that."

Until recently, school design was a case of "There's a square box for you to go in. That's a class," Te Kowhai School principal Tony Grey said.

The new learning communities - "You just can't call them rooms any more" - are a move away.

For instance, a junior learning community has about 40, 5 and 6-year-olds with three teachers. "That's where the concept of a classroom is somewhat outdated for us now."

Ngatea Primary School felt the same and pushed ahead with board funds to update its school for 2014.

"It got to a point where we no longer felt comfortable working in single-cell classrooms," principal Neil Fraser said.

"We've got the linear buildings and we've opened up three of the four teams." Ratios were about three teachers to 70 students.

You'd imagine that, with several traditional classes worth of kids in one space, there'd be a lot of noise.

Grey said that had not been an issue, and teachers were finding behaviour management easier.

The Ministry also recommends new school buildings have acoustic linings to soak up the noise, something Te Kowhai has in its latest addition.

At Ngatea Primary School they were working with remodelled classes from the 60s, principal Neil Fraser said, so setting expectations at the start of the year was vital.

"You can walk in there now, it's almost quieter the way the children are talking with 70 children in one big space than you find in the single cell classroom."

Many of the familiar school symbols are also changing with the new spaces. "God forbid desks. Desks are becoming well and truly a thing of the past".

Instead, there is flexible (and colourful) furniture that provides places to gather and places to work alone, teacher-led areas and multimedia areas.

At Ngatea they have no school bell but lots of clocks. Even 5-year-olds who couldn't tell the time knew they needed to go back to class when the playground started emptying, Fraser said.

But it's the school's vision for learning that drives all of this, the principals say.

Grey said Te Kowhai looked hard at who its learners were, what skills they would need in future and how it could get them there.

Architecture came in at the end.

"If you just jump straight to that without spending a lot of time really thinking about why you're doing it and who are your kids, you're potentially missing the boat."

And both principals report a swag of benefits.

One of them is teachers learning from each other - a particular benefit for beginners.

"We've got some amazing teachers doing amazing things in class. [It's] hard for teachers to see it because they're in their own classes," Grey said.

In a group with three teachers, that means three personalities, three sets on interests and strengths and a wider variety of teaching styles - so more chance of kids finding the ones they click with.

At Ngatea, learners are getting more independent and senior pupils also have freedom when it comes to their timetable.

They have set sessions with teachers for core subjects, "must dos" for between times, and sort their own untimetabled hours.

"They then decide 'OK, I want to do my writing in the morning, I want to do my reading in the afternoon. I want to do my art first thing up'," Fraser said.

It didn't come easy - teachers worked hard in term one last year to get students used to it, and some students still need more support than others.

There are also roving teachers.

"It's not a case of they're left on their own," Fraser said.

Inevitably, there will be challenges and Kedian thinks keeping a balance on how information will be presented will be one.

He takes solving quadratic equations or timetables as an example.

"Do you spend weeks learning to do that by experimentation? Or do you have a teacher say 'look, here's a method that works well'?"

He also worries MLE could become a "slogan" that refers just to the physical environment, when it's the philosophy behind it that will lead to true collaborative learning.

But according to Grey, the proof of success of MLEs is when parents see their kids in the new environments.

He thinks now they'd be worried if their kids had to move back into the school's single-cell classes. libby.wilson@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

 - Waikato Times

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