Flexible Learning Spaces: Inclusive by Design? A new article

A feature of both Ministry of Education policy and those who criticise flexible (‘open plan’) learning environments is to call on physical property features as drivers—for the Ministry, of inclusion, and for the critics, of exclusion. An example of Ministry statements that property features can ensure students are catered for and included, can be found here, while examples of critique, that say property features exclude certain categories of students, can be found here, and here.

Can both be right? Is it as simple as suggesting that because a learning environment (ie ‘classroom’) is large, open, airy and colourful, with movable furniture, it is going to be overwhelming to some students? Or that, given the same features, this space will be naturally inviting and engaging and a great place to learn? In a recently published article, I consider this problem, using the language of inclusion and exclusion, but also of equality and equity.

That is because, as I see it (and others too), the question of inclusion is a question of equity (a matter of social justice), meaning that it is about making sure that not only is everyone catered for, but that those who need more assistance and support, are in fact, catered for. The trouble is, New Zealand has had a long educational history of equality, which is concerned with ensuring everyone gets in, or gets to the same fence—but is less concerned with whether they can all see over the fence. And even in more recent times, when policy talk has focussed more on equity, this has tended to be about equitable outcomes (everyone should end up with a qualification, for example—or, everyone should be a ‘digitally connected, responsible global citizen’).

It’s this kind of thinking that helps support the shift into ultra-modern, cutting-edge facilities, as they, in turn, are said to support attempts to prepare all New Zealand youngsters to be these kinds of successful, ’21st century learners’. In these new, radically-designed buildings, teachers will be able to exchange ‘front-of-the-room’ teaching for collaborative teaching, working as facilitators in teams, with multiple students in shared, common learning spaces. And it is aspects of these designs that, as stated above, potentially lead to contrary outcomes.

In my response, what I argue is that that just as much as inclusion and exclusion are affected by the design features of  a space, they are arguably more influenced by the social practices that teachers and students bring to a space. What that means is that working in a single-cell space is no more likely to ensure that all students will be included and catered for in equitable fashion, than if they are in a modern, shared environment—and what my research has demonstrated, is that flexibly designed spaces create more opportunities than single-cell ones do.

Budget 2018 – Vote Education and the fate of Innovative Learning Environments and Flexible Learning Spaces

The New Zealand Labour-led government that came to power in November/December 2017 signalled several areas of change, and education is one of its key priorities. One area within education that did not seem likely to change, however, was the policy of pushing ahead with the construction of purpose-built, flexible learning spaces, and the construction of schools as Innovative Learning Environments. The Budget, released today, saw education as one of the ‘winners’, with a total increase to $12.26b, up from $11.85b in 2017. This allocation to Vote Education includes well in excess of $300 mil to build new schools and classrooms.

It is of some interest to note that the performance of the education appropriation will be measured against three criteria, one of which is the “percentage of State school buildings with property-related elements of Innovative Learning Environment assessments showing functionality score of ‘3’ or better”. The ‘assessment’ referred to is a Ministry of Education ‘Innovative Learning Environments assessment tool that Boards are required to complete before a school’s ten year property upgrade.

This tool is one I have previously analysed as being an exercise in manufactured consent – that is, “here is a range of colour options, look at them, and remember you can have any colour, as long as it’s black”. It provides questions such as:

“Does the classroom design allow teachers to work co-operatively with teachers from other classrooms or specialist disciplines e.g. are there moveable walls between spaces or access to a shared space?”

The so-called FLS standard or criteria items are ranked as ‘Core’, ‘Moderate’ or ‘Advanced’, with the latter two representing the desirable situation, as evident in new builds in New Zealand and in examples internationally. The item quoted above ranks as ‘moderate’, thus indicates where the Ministry wants its schools to be. As this document is compulsorily completed by schools when having their buildings evaluated as part of the ten year property plan of each state school, the contention that consent is manufactured should now be clear.

Now returning to the explanation in the 2018 Vote Education document: it indicates a score of 3, 2 or 1 as desirable, where a ‘1’ is a school that meets the “requirements for Designing Quality Learning Space (DQLS), Health and Hygiene (H&H) and Flexible Learning Spaces (FLS)”. Precisely what the FLS standard is may be understood by reading the ‘assessment tool’, and includes flexibility, transparency and the potential for collaborative work (in addition to other physical building requirements). So, money will be considered well-spent when more schools conform to the FLS criteria than those that do not.

The take-home message is that the new government looks set to continue the schools’ building programme that was getting into gear under the previous National-led government, and teachers, parents and broader community stakeholders who may be less keen to support this approach to school design may find their position steadily narrowed.

Summing up nine years of education property policy

Property can sound like a dull topic, but New Zealand’s Fifth National Government (which has been in power with the support of coalition partners for nine years) has brought property to the fore. Around the country is growing evidence of its policy commitment to ensuring all New Zealand schools conform to a ‘modern learning environment’ standard by 2021. With an election looming on 23rd September, I am surprised that I have not heard any of the political parties mentioning rebuilds, retrofits or new builds, though yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a major investment for Whangarei Boys’ High School, while on the campaign trail.

An academic article I wrote to review the current government education propertyhaeata-interior2 policy was recently published in the Waikato Journal of Education, and is free, open access. To get the flavour of that article, here is a brief critical summing-up.

Critical summation

State-of-the-art, modern school buildings are the outward embodiment of current state education policies that seek to develop digitally-connected lifelong learners for the 21st century global knowledge economy, while relentlessly focussing on raising student achievement. Flexible learning environments have become ideal vehicle to encourage the required changes to teaching and learning that will support these ends. The developing imaginary of the teacher of the 21st century, and the creation of flexible learning spaces designed to develop and enhance changes to teaching and learning is not up for debate and discussion, and 2021 is the target year for every state school in New Zealand to have modern learning environments. The Ministry of Education presents as unproblematic the nature of these facilities, and the practices envisaged within, while the single cell classroom is an object of scorn.

The Private Public Partnership concept, increasingly deployed by the government to fund the building of new schools, is contested. PPPs raise questions around whether turning a profit from education is appropriate, and whether the education profession has its professional autonomy undermined by limitations on design input or occupancy use.

setwidth945-haeata-community-campus-1The Christchurch earthquakes enabled the rapid acceleration of the government’s property strategy, but the negative response of some communities to the Shaping Education strategy has included resistance at having flexible spaces, and the underlying changes to teaching styles, foisted upon them.

The current government, and its state apparatus, the Ministry of Education, link flexible buildings, pedagogy and learning for the 21st century in a deterministic, linear fashion. Nevertheless, it is now wishful thinking on the part of any teacher, school leader or parent to imagine that they may somehow avoid having to experience a flexible learning space as long as they are in, or associated with, a New Zealand state school. The school building programme that reinforces this situation may be one of the enduring legacies of the Fifth National Government.

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).

School funding – An issue of social justice

Last week, a somewhat surprising announcement suggested the current method whereby New Zealand state schools are funded is in for a major overhaul. This system has revolved around the concept of ‘decile funding’. Effectively, based on certain socio-economic measures (such as employment status of parents, number of people living in a household, and real estate values of the neighbourhood) schools are allocated a ‘decile’ grading or ranking. Decile One schools are located in disadvantaged areas or areas of low socio-economic status, while Decile Ten schools are typically located in areas where real estate values are high, parents are in employment and homes are not overcrowded.

The funding rationale is quite straight-forward and strives for equity, with low decile schools receiving proportionally higher rates of funding than higher decile schools, whose parents are better positioned to top up the school’s government funding. And while this idea is sound in concept, it has developed some significant flaws: for example, in the context of the promotion of a competitive ethos by various neoliberal education policies (such as school zoning and self-managed schools), the decile ranking has become a proxy for achievement. In other words, high decile schools are considered to be ‘better’ schools able to produce greater success in national examinations or attainment of National Standards; while low decile schools are assumed to be struggling schools characterised by dysfunctional behaviour and image.

In a bizarre twist, the decile system has become part of the marketing furniture in the hands of real estate agents. Nothing sells a house like being in a ‘grammar zone’ with nearby high decile schools (for example). The decile system is not related to the quality of teachers or the quality of educational provision at any given school, yet many families living in proximity to a lower decile school will avoid the school, and endeavour to enrol their children in more distant, but higher decile, schools.

This funding system, though apparently equitable, fails for several reasons, including the points above, but also because it fails to recognise nuances. A good case in point was the secondary school at which I worked for many years. As a Catholic, state-integrated school, it was able to draw students from outside the neighbourhood. In the particular historical trajectory of this school, once based in a neighbourhood increasingly populated by migrant Pacific island families, it evolved from being a mainly European boys’ school to one that was a mainly Pacific Island boys’ school. In the 1990s, the area became gradually gentrified, the working poor moved out of the area, and an increasing number of the students bussed in. The school demographic did not change, but the material ‘value’ of the area was greatly enhanced. Thus, while the school continued to draw on the working poor, the local real estate values skewed the decile ranking, so that what ought to have been a Decile One school (because its students were from poor homes) was in fact a Decile Three school, consequently attracting a lower level of funding.

So, this system does require overhaul, and perhaps the government should be applauded for reviewing this funding formula. Some of the changes it considers, however, are not unproblematic. For instance, it is suggested that funding be tied to individual students within a school who come from homes dependent on benefit; or from homes with a history of incarceration; or from homes with a child abuse history; or from homes where the mother has no formal qualification. Inevitably, questions are raised concerning the possible stigmatisation of students, and the question of data gathering.

Are teachers and schools going to be burdened with gathering this information? The government is claiming its Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links data from a long list of government agencies including corrections, health, education and the tax department, will be doing the work. That may be so, but it seems a long stretch of a generous imagination to believe that schools (ie teachers and administrators) won’t be responsible for increased accountability and measurement tasks.

Being a critically reflective teacher: A Freirean perspective

For those who work in Southern Hemisphere universities, Semester 1 is just beginning now, so I will soon meet some keen (hopefully!) students who are a third of the way into their 3-year Bachelor of Education programme. This may be a good time to briefly reflect then, some of what the great critical educator, Paulo Freire had to say about what it is to be a teacher.

Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) drew particular attention to the teacher, and some of the qualities and attributes Freire believed teachers, educators and thinkers of education ought to aspire to.

Freire was committed to the idea of teaching as a political activity and the idea that teaching is an ethical activity. Freire’s claim is important to uphold when teachers are increasingly seen as mere functionaries of the reformist, neoliberal state.

Freire held a controversial position on the development of critical consciousness. There are, however, two ways the idea of critical consciousness applies to teachers and teaching: first, teachers should be initiating their students into the process of developing criticality, and second, teachers have a responsibility to both themselves and their profession to develop as critically reflective practitioners.

Freire regarded teachers to have chosen to make a difference to the world, and believed the work of teaching professionals to be intrinsically valuable, calling on teachers to dignify teaching. These commitments require actions, however, some of which may be discomforting to some teachers.

Not all teachers (especially beginning ones) will realise that policy directly influences their professional lives. Being aware of, and challenging, the role of policy reveals teaching to be a political activity. Policies too often are a knee-jerk response to perceived failures of the education system to deliver a return on taxpayer investment. Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) revealed his concern with the impact of the “scourge of neoliberalism” (p. 22) on teachers’ thought and practice. This fatalistic ideology places enormous emphasis on the accumulation of grades through continuous assessment, and encourages teachers to see the world as a given, discouraging theorising of its underlying causes and tensions, giving preference instead to data manipulation as an explanatory tool. The promise of a hopeful education that develops a love of society and consequently, egalitarian tendencies, is no more than a vain hope under these policy agendas.

Freire argued that educators ought to recognise that their role is more influential than merely teaching content—their role includes the moral formation of learners, which cannot be separated from teaching content. Teaching is people-centred, and the relationships that develop in an educative context are complex. Therefore, teaching, Freire would argue, is an ethical activity, and at its heart is consistency between the actions and words of teachers. Thus, Freire accentuated teachers’ actions over their words (actions speak louder than words).

The ethical teacher listens, rather than speaks. This focus on listening over speaking does not silence the teacher’s voice, but allows the student voice that is struggling to make meaning and sense of knowledge. To create the climate in which this student voice can be heard requires a spirit of humility on the part of the teacher, although this does not imply the submission of the teacher. By being an active listener, however, the teacher models appropriate behaviour for students to follow in their relations with teachers.

Teaching is not a technical matter, but a task richly ethical, yet radically uncertain. This state of uncertainty was captured by one of Freire’s well-known notions, that humans are never complete, thus teachers are in a state of ever–becoming.

In his acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1996),  Freire rejected ‘banking education’ in favour of ‘problem-posing education’, a rejection he reiterated in Pedagogy of Freedom. Transmission style teaching was thus rejected in favour of dialogical education that would develop a critical disposition. The life experience and prior knowledge of students are a text in the development of critical understanding. Problem-posing teachers will seek ways to bridge existing knowledge with students’ knowledge, to ensure their students cross over to critical curiosity and consciousness.

Students require teachers who assume responsibility for promoting and developing critical thinking. If students are to think critically, they must think about something. Specifically this will be the knowledge of the curriculum and the knowledge of the students. It is important then that teachers must see themselves, and be seen, as authorities in their field of expertise, but not seek to be elitists or authoritarians.

Critical teachers commit themselves to transformative change. Therefore, Freire clearly intended that teachers be open to change and new ideas, through critical reflection. This reflective activity will support teachers to be consistent and coherent. Critical reflection on practice is thus central to Freire’s theory. When teachers think critically about their present practice, their future practice will benefit, and they develop their theoretical understanding of their own purpose as educators. Through a process of reflection, self-reflective teachers theorise their practice, then try out their emerging theories as they gear their classrooms so that students can bridge the gap to critical curiosity.

As self-critical learners, and problem-posing educators, teachers research their students as if they were themselves ‘texts’. Teachers seek to understand their students much as a reader seeks to understand a text. Critical reflection on practice is morally informed and committed to transformative action. A focus on the relationship between theory and practice by teachers as part of their daily routine helps to challenge the technical and instrumental rationality pervading education in the 21st century.

Freire’s simple humility and respect for the dignity of others, and his driving passion for the attainment of a just world in the face of a global orientation that emphasises greed, self-aggrandisement and individual attainment over social cohesion, serve as an object lesson to all educators, and a model for all teachers to emulate.

University in 2016?


This is the title of a recent newspaper article that is more of a promo or advertorial on behalf of the university system in New Zealand. The article was well-timed to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2015 National Certificate in Educational Achievement – better known in these parts as NCEA. The article has something of a Polyanna feel to it, telling the eager young hopefuls that a university education is ‘a smart choice’, providing ‘better job prospects’, arguing that the unemployment rates of graduates are lower, and earnings higher. Readers (likely prospects) are reminded, that “if being employed is important to you, keep an eye on the employment prospects for graduates in fields that interest you.” The impact of the news of the likely cost of a degree is mitigated by the reminder that this is an “investment that will pay off over the rest of your life.” So, what is the cost? Apparently, $14 000 (NZD), which the average person takes 7 years to pay off.

Some critical thoughts come immediately to mind on reading this. One is self-critical. Just last week, I was appealing to university educators to remember to rekindle the ideal of a critical education, in anticipation of a new academic year (in the Southern Hemisphere, January is the start of a new academic year). I can’t help feeling a touch cynical, though. For one, two of my three adult children have student loans of around $60 000 each (and they have not been using their student loans to take ski trips). This size loan will take far longer than seven years to repay. Their cases are far from simply personal, and represent a major social issue for young New Zealanders – an issue with some direct links to neoliberal state policy. To gain a sense of what I mean, have a look at Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand, an entry on the Savage Minds blog site.

My second critical thought is prompted by the advice offered to potential undergraduates in the New Zealand Herald article to “follow your passions – study what interests you and what you love doing.” The New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, may beg to differ, however. In his economic view of the world, prospective students should be thinking strategically about their likely job and earning prospects in the future, much aided by the helpful Occupation Outlook app, which enables users to gain an accurate sense of job and earning prospects. There is a further twist to this tale, however, as coming to all New Zealand tertiary providers in 2017, is the intended policy requirement

to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas…[thus] students will also be able to see what and where to study to improve their employment prospects.

One final point of critique: the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton on ‘the global auction’ has helped to refute the linear idea that ‘learning equals earning’. Their research suggests that in the global knowledge economy, high skills are often made available at bargain basement cost, while for the elite, earnings are propelled ever-upward. Clearly, some sobering thoughts for academics and students alike, about to embark on the 2016 academic year.