'Flexible learning': an education fad, or a positive move for kids?
A rush by schools to embrace open-plan classrooms could harm children's learning, and turn out to be a waste of money, a report to the Ministry of Education is warning.
The Post-Primary Teachers' Association report, released last week, questioned whether enough had been done to understand how flexible learning environments (FLEs) affected students, particularly those with learning disabilities.
FLEs are open-plan classrooms that accommodate more than one class and several teachers, and can extend outdoors.
The ministry has agreed more research is needed, and is awaiting the results of a four-year investigation, in conjunction with Melbourne University, on students' achievements in open-plan classrooms, due later this year.
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Kate Whale, a teacher and president of the New Zealand Federation for Deaf Children, said she would never send her hearing-impaired son James to an open-plan classroom.
"You're setting them up to fail. The mainstream system can be tricky enough for kids with additional needs without adding in chaos."
Children on the autism scale, or with attention issues, would also struggle, she said.
"When you have multiple groups within one space, and a whole load of kids moving within that space, those who are trying to focus just can't. It's not that they're being naughty, they just can't."
Nine-year-old James, who has two cochlear implants, said he would struggle.
"It's like being at the mall, there are so many voices going on and I just can't hear Mum, so I sometimes just like to turn my ears off. But I can't [at school], because my teacher doesn't know much sign language."
PPTA vice-president Melanie Webber said Whale's concerns were shared by many parents, particularly of those with hearing impairment or noise sensitivity issues.
Many FLEs have separate "breakout spaces", but Webber said there was little evidence the classrooms gave special-needs children the flexibility to work quietly, which could disadvantage up to 10 per cent of students.
"These spaces worry me ... We don't want to be in a situation where the ministry builds all these schools and then says it's a mistake ... We feel like we're being experimented on."
Webber said other parents were concerned over a lack of independent research.
Ministry of Education acting head of infrastructure Rob Giller agreed more research into the spaces was required.
"This is under way, both funded by the Ministry of Education and available to us through our OECD connections.
"We are also measuring satisfaction levels for new school builds and major developments via post-occupancy evaluation studies. [We] take what we learn from these evaluations and feed them back into our design guidelines."
Giller said the Melbourne University study would delve into "the connection between physical spaces and teacher practice and mindset".
"The ministry is monitoring how this study progresses, and assessing the need for further independent research on this topic."
PPTA delegate Paul Stevens, who teaches in a purpose-built, open-plan school in Auckland, said his classroom experience was positive, but further research was needed so schools with traditional classrooms could better grasp how, or whether, to modernise before changes were implemented.
Investigations into their use in secondary schools was particularly lacking, he said. While there was research from the primary school sector and from overseas, there was little to draw from within New Zealand.
Research and consultation with parents, incoming students and staff would help schools identify whether open-plan classrooms suited the school's needs.
"Parents don't need to be afraid of changes in schools, but they need to be prepared for these changes."