10 August 2017
There has been chatter in the media about “Modern Learning Environments” (a.k.a. Flexible Learning Environments in MOE-speak) and even a Principal wondering whether what was being provided under this guise was suiting all children. Of course, this was countered by an enthusiast who had a catalogue of the key words –collaboration for innovation, teamwork, challenge, projects, and so on while making the link that such environments in the early years prepared students for the world of employment. All good!
But I do wonder whether the thinking recognises sufficiently that education is an inside-out process rather than outside in. A good teacher provides materials, opportunities, support, guidance and the tools for students to work with the material they have and, when the judgment of the teacher is sound in the provision of all this the student increases their knowledge, skills, interest and development by building on what they already have and we describe this as progress, growth and, in the end, learning.
New Zealand’s great teacher, Sylvia Ashton Warner, described the process as “taking the native imagery of the child and using it for working material.” Vygotsky wrote about “the zone of proximal development” where learning took place at the edge of what the learner already knew.
So, does the environment matter? Yes, it does. Some environments might actually impede learning and I note quite a large emphasis placed in the discussions of the modern/flexible learning environment on creature comforts – warmth, space, light, friendly acoustics, soft furnishings, lively colour schemes, these all add to the schoolroom being a place that is welcoming and nice to be in.
But it is not in itself, sufficient. To invite students into a setting that has the colours, activity, noise and stimulation of a theme park will not on its own achieve good educational outcomes. All these discussions end up back at a fundamental truth – teachers make great classrooms, not architects, interior decorators and elegant technological gadgets (now known as “devices”).
I have seen brilliant teaching under a tree in the outskirts of a village in the Solomon Islands. It was a young teacher. I sked here where the village school was and she replied that this was it. Under a tree, minimal tools, an easel with a small blackboard, students at multiple levels. I would guess that this was not the only school like this. And in developing countries I have seen facilities more reflective of the 19th rather than the 21st Century. But where the teachers were excellent, the students made great progress. To deny that teaching and learning cannot take place without a modern learning environment is to deny most of the world an education.
So, the truth is in the middle. It is great to have excellent facilities, no doubt about it. But it is better to see that every child is working with excellent teachers in ways that reflect their needs in terms of progressing their skills, knowledge and development. This requires teachers prepared to change and to work in new and different ways if the old and one-for-all approach has failed.
Students failing in school is still the biggest challenge and failure in one environment looks much the same as failure in another.