Countering educational obsolescence

Since 2011, I have engaged with a term that had become very fashionable in New Zealand education by that time—‘21st-century learning’—and wrote a philosophical paper on the subject for the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA) in 2011. The paper, teasingly entitled,  ‘Bits, bytes and dinosaurs’    has since been published in the society journal, Educational Philosophy and Theory. While I looked critically at this term that had taken on a ‘buzz phrase’ aura in educational discourse in New Zealand (and beyond), the thrust of my argument, with reference to two ‘dinosaurs’, Levinas and Freire, was that, despite rapid changes to and in our common world, such thinkers continued to offer a discourse of possibility and hope. Furthermore, these thinkers remind us that certain attributes and dispositions transcend time and place, and schools have both a right and an obligation to develop these.

This research interest has evolved over the intervening period, first by developing a deepening sense of the ways participant practitioners (teachers and school leaders) understand 21st-century learning, and how the concept, acting as a policy imperative of a neoliberal government, influences their work and their thinking about their work (see, for example). Secondly, the research examined more closely a number of schools that have new purpose-built facilities initially referred to in New Zealand as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) and more recently as ‘innovative learning environments’ (ILE). Additional, related, research I conducted focussed on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, or 1:1 computing) school.

The thrust of this research in the past year or so, is to ask the question, ‘what is it to be a teacher in the 21st century?’ I seek the answer in the ways that my participants interact with a range of environments that enable or reflect a way of teaching that has either been unimagined in the past, or very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the past. I continue to be interested too in how they reflect on these dynamics that impact on their daily working lives.

The idea, in particular, that learning spaces (not ‘classrooms’, note) be designed to accommodate say, around 90 students and three teachers working in a team, is a significant departure from standard practice. Before responding to what I have just said by claiming, “oh, that’s not new— open plan learning was tried in the 60’s and failed”, let me say that I tend to hear this response from those who wish to hear no more of what I am saying to them. Dealing with resistant attitudes is one (important) part of the narrative. A quick response, however, is to say there are differences—we did not have the digital and mobile technology then; educators had very fixed ideas about teaching and learning then (mainly transmission models); and school environmental design (buildings and furniture) were rigid and inflexible (and unhealthy) then. Furthermore, in the old open plan model of the past, the teachers often taught independently (essentially, multiple classes being taught separately in one big space).

Little wonder the experiment did not last long, and schools quickly reverted to the single cell model (what Stephen Heppell calls ‘cell, bell, hell’). People like Heppell have, however, long questioned this conventional approach to schooling and higher education (and, indeed, we teach what we know). Surprisingly, however, apart from the likes of Heppell, who at least has a background in education, it has been left to non-educators to force the pace of change. For example, Prakash Nair, an architect, claimed that the ‘classroom is obsolete’,   and the firm he represents, Fielding Nair International, has a robust international profile in the area of educational design.

Since around 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has increasingly committed to building schools that reflect advances in school environmental design, beginning with such schools as Albany Senior High SchoolOrmiston Senior College and Stonefields Primary. Several more have followed, and the pace of building (both new and refurbished) flexible learning areas has increased dramatically across the country.

Despite its capital investment in this building programme, the Ministry of Education provides little support or direction with regard to pedagogy and classroom practice, apart from providing several case studies on its website. The Ministry prefers to leave decisions about the use of these learning spaces to individual schools to decide. Given this lack of direction, and the increasing pace of change in New Zealand schools, the School of Education at the university where I work, which has an explicit ‘futures focus’, agreed to pilot a number of new papers this year in its undergraduate Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) primary and early childhood programmes. These papers attempt to emulate the pedagogy (both classroom practice and teacher thinking about practice) encouraged and enabled by the new learning environments. The pilots are premised on the view that the altered space alone does not bring about these changes; that individual teachers must grapple practically and theoretically with the possibilities (and challenges) afforded by these spaces; that those teaching these papers (ie the lecturers) must attempt to model the evolving and emerging pedagogy, reflecting openly with each other and the students along the way.

While both physical refurbishment and new building investment was out of the question for the School of Education or the university, it was within budgetary possibilities to refurnish an existing large, rectangular space (measuring about 135 sq. m). The underlying thinking was that this change alone would begin to alter the mind-sets and attitudes of those taking and teaching the papers. Further underpinning this notion is the advance in the development of educational furniture that emphasises flexibility (creating pedagogical variety) and that contributes to student health and well-being. For instance, furniture design expert, Paul Cornell advocated on behalf of ‘user-centered’ furniture design that addresses comfort, health and safety, that is usable, has psychological appeal and is functional. He claimed (somewhat controversially):

In the knowledge economy, where learning is not only continuous but also more informal and serendipitous, anything that makes the experience more positive will also increase learning…furniture is more than a place to sit; it can be a strategic asset. (p. 42)

As anyone familiar with educational bureaucracy will attest, the wheels grind slowly, thus the capital expenditure grant won by the School was allocated too late to purchase and install the furniture prior to the start of the new semester. Three weeks into the semester, the students went away on teaching experience, but on their return, the new furniture was in place.

In my personal experience, I noted the following reactions:

  • A more relaxed learning atmosphere, and by the second class since the new furniture was in place, an atmosphere of productive discussion;
  • From a teaching perspective, an emphatic denial of the ‘teacher-at-the-front’, stand and deliver, or unitary focal point;
  • A dramatic increase in spatial volume, once the large, cumbersome tables and chairs that previously stood in the space had been removed;
  • Unsurprisingly, some complaints from colleagues not teaching the pilot papers, yet still having to use the room (which is used widely). I would expect this reaction from people of my generation, accustomed as we are to decades of convention;
  • Surprisingly, complaints from some students (in and beyond the pilot papers) who insist that their university fees purchase for them the right to a monologic, transmission-style learning experience, in which they are seated at fixed desks and chairs, while listening to one teacher, in the front. I did not expect this reaction from people in their twenties and thirties.

Meantime, I and my two hard-working and deeply-supportive colleagues with whom I share one of the pilot papers (the other is the responsibility of three of our Early Childhood Education colleagues), are experiencing a pedagogical life different than the one we have grown accustomed to over many decades of teaching. We share long collaborative meetings in which we attempt to map out an uncertain journey with few clear markers on the way. I realise some of our students may read this piece, and perhaps be troubled by this confession. They too, have grown accustomed to teachers who are meant to know their subject intimately, and to have the scope and sequence of teaching off-pat. We do not—at least not yet. We three openly point out to our students (ours, not mine or yours) when we have floundered, when we have become excited, or when we are uncertain. Time will yet be the judge of the inherent value of what we are attempting, or it may judge that we have merely been pushed under the wheel of the neoliberal steamroller, with its discourse of knowledge economy and lifelong learning. To repeat a cliché, however—rather have tried and failed, than not tried at all.