Education Department challenged to prove open learning classrooms are good for kids

A large classroom at Rāwhiti School in Christchurch with team teaching. Photo/RNZ

By RNZ

A think tank challenges the Department of Education to prove that modern classrooms are good for children’s learning.

The ministry has encouraged large, open-plan rooms that can accommodate multiple classes and teachers in one environment – ​​known as flexible or modern learning environments.

Free market think tank the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) said the classrooms were designed to encourage more independent learning.

Advocates also claimed they allow teachers to teach better as a team, more peer-assisted learning opportunities for children, and more flexibility for groups of students or individuals to split into separate learning spaces where they can work in their own style but are still in full view of the teachers.

But NZI said in a report on the learning style that it found the Department for Education could not provide strong evidence that children learn best this way.

Educators are divided on the value of classroom style, and some have already asked for data on its effect on students and their learning.

NZI concluded that classroom design was an “experiment” based solely on ideology.

Dr Michael Johnston, a member of the think tank, requested data from the ministry on the number of learning environments, their cost and their effectiveness as learning environments, but the ministry “could not produce data to support its massive New Zealand classroom conversion policy,” NZI said.

“The ministry did not study the effects of these environments on student learning before forcing schools to adopt them. Nor did they evaluate their effects after they were created,” Johnston said.

“The strategy under which Modern Learning Environments were approved has now expired. However, open classrooms are still being built and many classrooms across the country have already been converted. Schools find themselves therefore with a permanent legacy of a policy based on ideology rather than evidence.”

NZI wants the department to analyze the schools’ results to see what differences the buildings have made to children’s achievement.

He said future innovations should be supported by better research and evaluated results.

And, he wanted the department to do more to help disadvantaged children in upper grades because they have hearing or learning problems.

The Ministry of Education has been approached by RNZ for comment.

Norma A. Roth