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).

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.

Technology – Like the air we breathe

I notice that an Australian educator was quoted by the Times Educational Supplement as suggesting “technology is invisible now. Just like electricity, it’s there, it’s an enabler, it makes the connections work.” Indeed. I spent some time observing the implementation of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in a secondary school last year, and one of my observations was that, in some classes, the teachers may well have been saying: “Right, take out your textbooks, and turn to p. 32”. What they were saying (some of them, at any rate) was, “Right, we’re going to take out our devices now, and open up Google Classroom”. Those words, used that way, sound very odd indeed – a little like saying, “Right class, we’re going to breathe now”.

By contrast, in three other school settings, where I was observing teaching practice and gethering qualitative evidence to support my research into flexible learning environments, the use of (digital) technology was integrated more seamlesslessly. Ironically, none of those schools have a BYOD policy, though one was making moves in that direction, while the other two merely supported the notion that each student was entitled to bring an appropriate digital device to complement their learning. (Reflecting on the difference between these schools and the BYOD school, I note that those with flexible learning environments also happen to work in a self-consciously ‘futures’ frame).

Two critical thoughts spring to mind when thinking about my BYOD participants: one relates to the digital natives/digital immigrants bifurcation; the other to the vision of increased cognitive load underpinning some taxonomies.

Elsewhere, I have joined others in challenging the notion of the existence of a ‘natives/immigrant’ bifurcation, for at least these reasons: it yields too easily to an ‘us vs them’ sceneario (ie the geeky teens who know all about that digital stuff vs the old dinosaurs who think faxes are modern and that there is an ‘interweb’). Second, the perpetuation of this myth allows some teachers (and parents) to really act like dinosaurs, and never challenge themselves to learn something new. Third, it presupposes all those born, say since 2000, are just ‘naturals’ with digital technology, and will ‘automatically’ know what to do with technology. Finally, and here is the space teachers should explore more, is the notion that all the members of the ‘Net Generation’ are using their digital technology in cognitively challenging ways. This is plainly not so. Like their elders, many (most?) young people have core functional uses for their devices.

Ruben Puentedura developed the SAMR model, a taxonomy that suggests teachers ought to aim to move from activities that are mere substitutes of pen and paper activities, to higher-order tasks demanding redefinition, in which previously inconceivable tasks are introduced. My own classroom obseravtions in the schools I mention above, suggest that this movement is not quite as simple as may be suggested by the SAMR model. If anything, the movement makes enormous demands on teachers’ time and energy, and that is before you get to thinking about their sense of personal confidence and skill in digital device use. In addition, schools find themselves under various forms of the neoliberal accountability regime, which includes National Standards and NCEA in New Zealand, for example.

There is an important sense in which the the two issues I am critical of, come together in the situation I described at the outset. Teachers who buy into the ‘natives/immigrants’ bifurcation may be reluctant to develop the skill set and confidence required to be effective in their seamless integration of digital technology into their pedagogy (doing and thinking), while simultaneously know just enough to get by, thus merely play the substitution game. Hence the odd comments about taking out devices now. Yet, if they recognised they have the ability to learn, they will find that they still do have something new to impart to their classes (who still do not ‘know everything’ about digital technology) thus allowing their students (and themselves) to engage with digital technologies in exciting, critical, and seamless ways.



The accidental meeting

University of Copenhagen

During 2015, I have enjoyed the privilege of taking a 6-month sabbatical from my university job. The focus of my sabbatical work has been my current project, which is to provide a thorough, critical, analysis of the development of flexible learning environments, which are all the rage in New Zealand schools. Sometimes referred to as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) (the term first used by the New Zealand Ministry of Education) and as ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILE) (the term the Ministry now prefers), these new building designs provide flexible, transparent and permeable spaces to encourage innovative teaching and learning. In turn, these innovative practices are geared to the provision of educational experiences more in keeping with the 21st century, than the ‘industrial age’ model of schooling is able to provide.

Although most of my sabbatical time was spent working from my desk at home, I did spend a fruitful three weeks in Europe. The first of these three weeks was in Copenhagen, where I met two associates,  Eva Bertelsen (University of Copenhagen) and Lisa Rosén Rasmussen (Aarhus University). My friends kindly introduced me to several individuals and accompanied me to visit several schools and university campuses in Copenhagen.

One of these visits was to a newly modelled building at the University of Copenhagen, where we met the architect (‘Thomas’, for anonymity) who managed and executed the design and implementation of the new build. Amongst the innovations related to the new design was the location of the lecturers’ offices (partly glass-walled) within the library, located on the visible second level. Part of the thinking here, Thomas explained to Eva and I, was to

create the possibility of what we call the accidental meeting between lecturers and students…[If a student was]…sitting there reading and a lecturer is returning from their office and [the lecturer]…see[s] [the student] reading whatever book and say, ‘oh this book is actually quite nice, but in comparison with that one it would be brilliant’. So it’s like six seconds of instruction that would make a connection and confirmation of being there…

The photograph attached to this blog fails to capture the dramatic visual effect of the building and the area described by Thomas, but its ironies are what interest me here. The glass, and its implied transparency, are reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of surveillance. In a neoliberal educational climate that favours accountability regimes (checking-up; checking-on; evaluating performance), marketisation (competing for students) and public choice (‘the student experience’, as my university calls it), the following from Thomas has a chilling ring:

As I said [earlier] when you came to work here you didn’t know where the people were teaching or they were preparing or concentrating or they were out travelling but you can’t share anything because you had no idea what’s happening. Present, not present, no idea. We [the planning team] discussed [creating] a culture being present. It was quite important to have that, we want to be there, we want to participate and share both culture and knowledge. (Emphasis added).

So the physical vision of lecturers at work, in their offices, or of walking between the shelves towards their offices, may be more about ensuring that they can be seen to be doing their work, than about providing opportunities for them to be conducting quality research, for example, or developing exciting programmes of learning. It may only incidentally be  motivated, as Thomas suggested, by the desire to create the chance of ‘an accidental meeting’ of students and lecturers.

Taking even this motivation at face value however, what does it mean in a lecturer’s life to accidentally meet a student for ‘six seconds’? Imagine any chance encounter – there is little likelihood it will ever only be for six seconds. Call it a minute – imagine this multiplied say half a dozen times each day. That is half an hour each week (seeing as we’re counting). Back to the neoliberal demand for accountability and the intensification of work flowing from these demands – academics and teachers are required to do more and more with less and less. Yet here is an opportunity (in the name of transparent learning, and making knowledge public) to add further stress to the work of the lecturers in this building, by the further erosion of their time resulting from ‘the accidental meeting’.

The visually pleasing, more comfortable and more environmentally-friendly buildings increasingly appearing on the educational landscape offer many teaching and learning opportunities, but may also come at a cost, namely that associated with an underlying intent to promote an agenda less concerned with aesthetics, environment, personal comfort or education, and more concerned with promoting an economic vision.