Response to article – “Top schools give multi-million dollar classrooms a fail grade”

By: Lesley Murrihy | Posted Monday October 19, 2015

The headline of the article is, “Top schools give multi-million dollar classrooms a fail grade.” From my perspective, this headline is mischievous. The first question it raises for me is, what is a “top school”? Top in academics? Top in developing student agency? Top in students learning to learn? Top in developing students who are well prepared for the uncertain future and the many changes of jobs being predicted for them? Top in preparing students to work with others to solve the wicked problems that our world faces? In fact, the article describes these schools as highly achieving in academic terms. So for the purposes of this article “top” clearly refers to high academic achievement. I well remember the time, admittedly many years ago, when the top performing school in the country also had the highest number of dropouts at university the following year. This raises the question of whether high academic achievement makes a “top” school or whether there are other indicators which are just as, or, perhaps, more important? While I do question describing schools as “top” based solely on academic results, my biggest problem with this headline is the fact that the term “top” is being used to give greater credence or weight to the article’s argument. It implies that “top” schools know what they are talking about because they are “top”; and that principals of top schools must know what they are talking about because they lead top schools. The implication is that if these principals give open plan classrooms a fail grade, then failing they must be.

However, no such evidence is provided to back up this contention. No data is presented to show that achievement is generally lower in open plan classrooms than in more traditionally organised classrooms. The one argument that is provided to back the “fail” grade given to the innovative learning environments (other than the possibility of the distraction of glass walls) is that teachers are vitally important to schooling. Of course they are! I would be surprised if any principal of an innovative learning environment argued otherwise.

As the principal of such an environment myself, with open plan classrooms which include “glass, natural light…breakout spaces for groups and moveable furniture that includes couches and beanbags”, I KNOW that teachers are vitally important and that every child needs and is entitled to highly effective teachers. Our view, just like those of the “top” principals, is that teachers are not just providers of learning experiences, nor are they simply there to pull the learning out of students by skilled facilitation, but rather that teachers actually bring something new to the learning situation. As Biesta (The Beautiful Risk of Education, 2014) says, teachers are involved in the teaching of “particular things” – things that are beyond the capacity of the learner to learn by him/herself. This is certainly what we believe, yet throughout this article there are many statements that imply that in open spaces students will be left to their own devices (“where students could be left to learn on their own”, “they will learn in groups, or on their own”, “there was still a need for teachers to direct the lesson”, “large sterile open spaces with absent teachers and loud noise”, “At the same time we don’t like teaching ourselves”, “there was a fear students would not learn what they need to learn if they are left to their own devices”). Having read this article, I am sure many parents are left wondering where all these “absent” teachers are while students teach themselves – I certainly am.

The repeated implication that innovative learning environments or open plan classrooms are places where teachers are absent is mischievous and is scaremongering. It shows a complete lack of knowledge about the rigorous and robust pedagogical approaches that are being implemented in many open plan spaces (as they are in many traditional classrooms). The Deputy Head Boy of Mt Albert Grammar is right in his observation that in environments with lots of glass, students are more focused on their behaviour and teachers stay on topic more. The openness of the learning spaces de-privatises schooling and demands more accountability from students and teachers. Our teachers will tell you that they work hard with students every moment of every day not just because they can be seen by others, but also because teachers are relying on each other to plan and deliver what they have agreed they would.

Working in a more open learning environment is no easy ride – it is characterised by high levels of accountability. Neither is personalisation of learning a soft option. It is a commitment by teachers to ensure that EVERY child is fully engaged in the teaching and learning programmes they need to develop the skills, capacities and knowledge to thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Our commitment is to never waste our students’ time, but to continually ensure each child is receiving just the right teaching and learning programmes that will stretch him/her; and then to scaffold that learning as needed to ensure success. We see three aspects of personalisation of learning – personalisation of learning for learners (teaching and learning targeted by the teacher to each child’s needs while also ensuring the systematic delivery of the whole curriculum); personalisation of learning with learners (where teachers work with students to help them understand the nature of learning and their own learning needs, and then to co-construct with them appropriate learning pathways); and finally, personalisation of learning by the learner (having gained understanding of themselves as learners and of how learning “works” and of the curriculum, students then have opportunities to determine their own learning pathways). However, at any one time, students will be involved in all three aspects of personalisation of learning. These are not stages in which one is left behind in favour of the next. There will always be the need for teachers to provide targeted learning programmes for all students and to bring something new to the teaching and learning relationship.

In my experience, personalisation of learning is NOT about leaving students to find their own way through learning. It is a rigorous and robust approach in which the capacity to continually meet all students’ learning needs requires teachers to have high levels of knowledge of their students as learners and to have high levels of curriculum knowledge. Being concerned with every child requires every teacher to be highly effective and a deeply reflective learner. It requires increased intellectual capacity – the cognitive load of personalisation of learning is much greater. Thus, personalisation of learning demands much more from whole school systems. If our goal is “EVERY child ALL the time”, then there is no room for any underperformance by teachers. Every teacher must be continually responsive to the needs of students. This is a huge challenge in an education system in which it is widely acknowledged that the greatest variation in achievement is not between schools but between classrooms within schools. This challenge of highly effective teaching and learning for every student is not only for innovative learning environments, but is for every school whether traditional or innovative because ALL students are entitled to have their learning needs met.

I understand that the principals quoted in this article are arguing for the right to make decisions about the kinds of learning environments they want for their students. However, I find it disheartening (if they have been accurately quoted in the article) that they have felt the need to use innuendo and scaremongering that is not based on reality to argue their point. Their issue is actually about choice and the ability of schools to be self-managing in the best interests of their students and school community. It is not about which type of educational approach or physical environment is better than another per se.

I am disheartened because this article and the comments reportedly made by these principals undermine the hard work many of us have done and are continuing to do to develop the systems, structures, approaches and practices that truly personalise learning as described above across a whole school system. Open, more modern spaces can assist the fluidity of organisation of learning that characterises personalisation of learning; however, they are not essential to it. Personalisation of learning can and should take place in every classroom in every school in New Zealand if we believe EVERY child….

Sadly, the thoughtless implications contained within this article may set back the work that schools like ours have done to counter the myths, misconceptions and the binary thinking that have characterised views of “modern learning”. This article will certainly have whipped up, once again, the very scepticism that one principal said existed among parents. My question is - for what purpose? Because in the end it seems that we are all saying the same thing – teachers are vital to effective learning.

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