‘There is no research’: Bringing balance to the Modern Learning Environment debate

The reporting on Seven Sharp on Monday 7th August of developments in New Zealand schools around so-called ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) sensationalised these changes. The item, intended to be positive and balanced, was in fact presented in the skewed terms of ‘backlash’ and ‘dislike’, and the actual learning environments referred to as ‘open-plan mega classrooms’. While the item carried comments from two principals and two parents, each representing opposite sides of the ‘debate’, the weight of ‘evidence’ clearly favoured the anti-camp. In particular, Dr Anne Malcolm, principal of Ponsonby Primary, made the surprisingly ill-informed claim that ‘there is no empirical research’. This requires the record to be set straight.

Is there really no research? Suggesting so makes it seem the Ministry of Education has embarked on a policy that has no rational basis in evidence (treating children as ‘guinea pigs’ it was suggested). Here I will provide a quick snapshot:

  • 2004, the Ministry of Education commissioned a study by AC Nielsen to ascertain the views of a range of key stakeholders in regard to the role of school design in securing and improving learning outcomes.
  • 2008, the Ministry of Education undertook a learning studio pilot project. Five schools were selected from around New Zealand where future-oriented building projects were built and trialed to point the way to appropriate design for 21st century school buildings.
  • In 2005 in Australia, Kenn Fisher, Assoc Prof in Learning Environments at the University of Melbourne and consultant to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was matching the learning activities and skills outlined in the curriculum of the state of Victoria to likely building solutions.
  • In 2011, Prof. Jill Blackmore and colleagues produced a literature review on behalf of the state of Victoria. They surveyed extensive literature into the connection between the built environment and student outcomes.
  • European research in this area has been ongoing for many years, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), such as its 2013 research on innovative learning environments. American research by architects such as Lackney goes back to the 1990s.
  • More recent empirical research is being undertaken at the University of Melbourne, under Assoc. Prof Wes Imms, and his LERN team.
  • In New Zealand, those actively working on producing research results include Leon Benade, Chris Bradbeer, Jenny Charteris, Graham McPhail, Mark Osborne and Alastair Wells.

Anne Malcolm’s statement is intended to be authoritative and effectively shuts down any further debate. Furthermore, linking the idea of ‘no research’ to a parent claiming or suggesting that MLEs are some kind of mad-cap experiment that are doing damage to children, simply sends alarm signals to parents, and teachers not currently working in these kinds of spaces.

2 thoughts on “‘There is no research’: Bringing balance to the Modern Learning Environment debate

  1. Agree. And at least one thesis about this – see Joanne Bisset’s (2014) The Move to Modern Learning Environments in New Zealand Secondary Schools: Step Forward or Smokescreen?
    See also Alistair Wells’ (2015) comment Confusing messages: Is the modern learning environment an example of idealized curricula or disruptive innovation? http://e21le.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Terrains2015WebSmall.pdf#page=72

    I think the comment from Anne Malcolm means she didn’t look hard, or didn’t know how/where to look


  2. Thanks for engaging, Noeline. Yes, on theses, Alastair Wells is almost ready with his; and I examined a Waikato M.Ed last year. I have an M.EdL thesis by Melanie Patrix ready for submission, where she has done a case study in her school. If Anne Malcom is looking for empirical data (as in numbers), she will get it in the work of Terry Byers, who has been working with Wes Imms at Melbourne.


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