Bernadine Oliver-Kerby: Readers are casualties of her flawed op-ed

A couple weeks back I happened to hear an op-ed about flexible learning environments delivered on the early show on Newstalk ZB by the stand-in host for the day, Bernadine Oliver-Kirby. I was immediately struck by her ignorance and lack of knowledge. Ignorance of the work of teachers; and lack of knowledge of a subject on which she felt qualified to freely opine. My second thought was the realisation that these foolish comments would appear in the New Zealand Herald as the two media outlets have become ‘NZME’. Indeed, they did appear in press on the 17th Feb 2017.

It’s likely wasted effort to respond to this diatribe—in part why my comments are being made 10 days later. Her implicit teacher bashing aside, the point still needs to be made that those who have the benefit of the media spotlight ought to exercise greater care over their choice of words in relation to anything to do with our children (‘kids’, by the way, Ms. Oliver-Kirby, are baby goats, as I always remind my students). This is so because the parents of those children can be very easily wound up over such topics as education.

For the record, Ms. Oliver-Kirby’s emotive language included: ‘sprawled’; ‘newfangled’; ‘roam free-range’; ‘feral’; ‘erupting numbers’; ‘stepping over bodies’; ‘resembles an airport terminal when the French are on strike’; and ‘these zoos’. This is the kind of language that plays into the hands of other, equally ignorant people, or serves only to confuse and concern those parents who are unfamiliar with changes in school building design. Her use of animal metaphor is troubling, but is one among many ‘cheap shots’ (see Claire Amos on this point).

The argument that ‘open plan learning was tried in the 70s and failed – this will fail too’, is the last refuge of many Jurassic’s one happens to meet along the way. What they, and Ms. Oliver-Kirby, fail to recognise are the significant differences between then and now. These differences include superior building and acoustics standards, the role played by digital technology, the changing nature of teachers and teaching, and especially the radical changes evident in young people.

The chaos of the strike-ridden airport is juxtaposed with the picture of a closed environment that offers “privacy…noise control…[and] optimum learning”. I would suggest that the closed environment of the traditional single-cell also offers a limitation in human resources (one teacher, not several), generally requires the teacher to be stuck to the front in delivery mode (as opposed to allowing multiple forms of teaching and learning), and significantly reduces flexibility (making anything apart from individual and paired work much more challenging to organise).

It would pay Ms. Oliver-Kirby to undertake at least a modicum of research, so that she can address these issues in a more balanced manner. And by ‘balanced’ I do not mean biased in favour of flexible learning environments—critique is to be welcomed. My blog readers need only look at the contents of this site to realise I have engaged critically with some of these ‘newfangled’ ideas. For a recent academic piece, see this article (or this free version).