Modern classrooms won’t fix education

Opinion: Was it really the furniture that created NZ’s long tail of educational under-achievement in the first place? Dr Mohamed Alansari casts a critical eye over 'modern' classrooms.

As new waves of practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers assume command, school corridor chats often turn into betting rounds. Bets are often raised on which policy is going to be introduced next, which budget is going to get the chop next, and how teachers are going to be ‘summoned’ and ‘told’ how to teach better, where to teach, and what to teach more/less of.

Therefore, it is not surprising when new initiatives and policies are viewed as fads by those impacted directly.

One recent fad was the $517 million spent over the last five years to make classrooms ‘flexible’, ‘stylish’, ‘innovative’, and hence modern. Common definitions of such environments include:

  • Modern learning environment (MLE):
    a classroom that is different to the traditional style of rows of desks facing a teacher.
  • Innovative learning environment (ILE):
    a collaborative, flexible classroom that can evolve to meet the needs of a rapidly-changing society. It covers teaching style and technology, as well as lighting and colour.
  • Flexible learning environment (FLE):
    physical classroom design, encompassing light and colour, furniture, and how pupils and teachers are able to move between spaces.

But, teachers in a traditional classroom setting can still use collaborative and flexible processes, utilise the physical space to maximise learning time, and employ technology to enrich the learning experience of students. And, we have great case studies of schools who have always excelled irrespective of whether students were placed in small or large environments, using technology or not. So, why the need for a makeover? Was it really the furniture that created New Zealand’s long tail of educational under-achievement in the first place? Or are we just equating ‘modern’ with new and effective, and ‘traditional’ with old and ineffective, in the hope that the new will overcome the old?

Indeed, classroom makeovers seem to be undertaken with the view that IKEA-inspired spaces are likely to address (if not reverse) 30 years’ worth of current research that describes the educational inequities and challenges that continue to exist within our education system. While I do not disregard the potential benefits of enhancing learning environments, I do worry that this change is largely driven by financial constraints, and seldom accompanied by evidence-based practice.

There has been extensive media coverage of the mixed reaction to the modern classroom trend, and what is common among these articles is intriguing yet worrying. They show a lack of consensus on the pedagogical rationale, inconsistent (if not inaccurate) reporting of the effectiveness of such innovations on student learning gains, and the concerning view that some children would rather stay home than attend an overcrowded environment as judged by their parents.

Because the research on modern versus traditional learning environments is yet to grow, I am only able to offer insights and questions for those interested in debates on learning environments for maximising student gains (note: the emphasis is on the learning environment, not its modernity):

Moving to a modern learning space does not necessarily mean students’ disciplinary or behavioural issues will vanish, nor does it mean that students’ academic achievement will peak. It also does not necessarily mean that workload is halved when two teachers are put into a larger space. So, what do modern learning environments really solve?

I do not disregard the potential benefits of enhancing learning environments, I do worry that this change is largely driven by financial constraints, and seldom accompanied by evidence-based practice.

Dr Mohamed Alansari

Teachers need to know what problems modern learning environments are going to solve, since they also know that other factors such as effective feedback, formative assessment practices, goal setting, micro teaching, enhanced classroom relationships, and high teacher expectations can explain twice as much the variance in student outcomes when compared with modernising learning environments.

I am often puzzled by authors who discuss modern learning environments and completely omit the seminal body of literature on learning environments, and instead use competing theories that support their arguments. Practitioners need to start looking for learning environments theories, and not just learning theories that help describe how learning can be facilitated in modern landscapes.

What we do know from previous research is that supportive learning environments can be characterised by strong classroom relationships, opportunities for personal growth, and classroom management practices that reduce disruptive time to increase learning time. So, as teachers transform their learning spaces, they will need to work out how to still retain the unique contribution of all these features. And the fact is, not all teachers can teach in modern learning spaces as of yet.

What is really required is evidence that modernising learning environments is the most effective solution to address the roots (not just the consequences) of existing educational problems/challenges. We need evidence that student academic gains in modern learning spaces are significantly larger than those in traditional spaces; and that these environments are beneficial to all students irrespective of their learning needs, individual differences, and demographics.

Now, by saying evidence I do not mean citing studies concluding that modern learning environments are ‘effective’ and ‘have a strong impact on student outcomes’ based on four interviews with teachers highly rated by their community. Nor do I mean a one-off survey of 100 native-speaking students who are already achieving at or above their expected levels of academic progress. A survey conducted on the other side of the world and published in a low-quality journal would not suffice either. Our students deserve better than that.

And then finally, the question must be asked about learning time for teachers to introduce, sustain, and monitor these modern learning environments. New initiatives often require strong buy-in and commitment from all those involved, including time for learning or upskilling. For some teachers, this can mean getting to work with other teachers they enjoy working with and admire; for others, in-class teacher cooperation is a new learning experience that requires trust, rigour, and capacity-building.

And so, unless educational leaders recognise that significant changes in practice require time, ongoing support, and effective use of evidence and data for future improvements, modern learning environments may well be a multi-million dollar missed opportunity.


Dr Mohamed Alansari is a research fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work's Department of Learning, Development and Professional Practice.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland. 

Republished with permission from Newsroom, Modern classrooms won’t fix education published on Thursday 17 May 2018.