Claire Victoria Amos: NZ Educators casualties of flawed opinion piece

At the end of last week, Bernadine Oliver-Kerby published an "opinion piece". It has prompted me to pen a letter (sorry it ain't handwritten...).

Dear Bernadine,

Your article started, innocently enough, by voicing a very valid concern, that I am sure would be shared by many parents - "I was simply asking why the children at school were practising handwriting while lying sprawled on the floor." Hey, I believe parents and educators absolutely should be encouraged to question what is going on in the classroom. I applaud your positioning of yourself as nothing more than inquisitive caring parent. If you had genuinely asked this question and then explored and investigated what is actually going on in Modern Learning Environments, I would be here cheering you on. But unfortunately you did not do that. Instead you followed up a seemingly caring and rational question with a whole raft of assumptions and generalisations that quite frankly do more damage than good.

I too share your concerns and have challenged the whole concept of Modern Learning Environments:

Modern Learning Environments is a term that seems to be bandied around a lot lately. But interestingly it is rarely defined. The (NZ) Ministry of Education has a whole section on their website dedicated to them, lots of info and tools but no actual definition. More online research and still little in the way of a definition can be found. So what is a Modern Learning Environment or MLE? It would seem (from what I have gleaned from a number of school visits and indeed our own school plans), that this is a generic term that describes a space which may include many things: open and/or flexible learning spaces, breakout spaces, small spaces often referred to as "caves", multi-purpose spaces, technology rich spaces and spaces that house "modern learning furniture" such as bean bags, camp fire seats and a variety of high, mid-height and low groovy shaped tables...on wheels. Interestingly MLEs don't actually seem that modern at all. In fact there is something rather retro and even commune-like about them and if I am honest they sort of remind me of a daycare...on steroids.

So what exactly makes these learning environments "modern"? I guess what makes them modern is the fact that they are different from the old ones (i.e. single cell rooms) and for many, rather unsettling. Historically speaking, different and unsettling seems to mean "modern" doesn't it? I guess "unsettling learning environment" was a bit of a hard sell, so "modern" it is then.

But hang on a minute, who said that modern equals good?

I, like you, questioned the whole concept. But what I know, and what you fail to acknowledge is that the success of any space, modern or otherwise, rests on the ability of a teacher to connect with the learner, know the learner and engage in thoughtfully designed acts of teaching and learning.

As I stated in an earlier blogpost about this very topic:

The reality is, good (and bad) teaching can take place anywhere. I am guessing (and I am hoping) that the MLE will not simply make the teaching and learning better because it is a MLE, but that it will encourage a more open and flexible approach to teaching and learning because as a space it is exactly that, open and flexible. I hope it will encourage all those things we refer to as "effective pedagogy" in the NZC. I also hope it might discourage too much teacher led instruction and encourage a more facilitation style of teaching and learning.

Then you threw in the highly emotive and (to use your word) ludicrous statement - "Kids, once in caged confines now roam free-range and feral."

Firstly let's look at your use of imagery. I take it that "caged" equals good, since "free-range" seems to equate to "feral"? So by this do we assume you think children should be caged? Controlled? Disciplined? Forced to sit up straight, behind singular desks and maybe focus on some good old rote learning and regurgitation? I have no doubt that this worked for you and hey, if ain't broke, why fix it!! Newsflash - that system is broken. Young people are heading into a very different society and workforce. No longer can we presume an Industrial model of reading, (hand) writing and arithmetic will equip them for their multiple careers and the increasing likelihood that they will most likely experience contract work and/or be self-employed. These kiddos are going to have to be able to self-manage and self-motivate. They will have to be able to learn, unlearn and re-learn for themselves. You might not think 'self-management' and 'self-motivation' is something that needs to be taught, and that students working independently on computers is something that we shouldn't need to prioritise at school, then I say that you might need to check your 'middle-class privilege' at the door. Schools have a responsibility to work responsively to meet the need of ALL of our young people and to most importantly close an increasingly wide economic and digital divide. 

This brings me to your next cheap shot - "It's a concept tried and failed in the 70s." 

Oh yeah baby, that is just hitting it where it hurts. You are so right, a concept and strategy that is trialled in one context or period will never work in another context or period in the future. Those early planes that didn't successfully fly, you are so right, completely proves the whole concept of flight is doomed. And those cars that stalled, in early trials, completely summed up what a failure our future vehicles would be. This makes one thing clear - Elon Musk you are not. 

Luckily I have been teaching long enough to see developments in classroom design and learning technologies, that have proven they have the power to amplify best practice, time and time again. 

Firstly let's consider the actual design of Modern Learning Environments. I am lucky enough to be Deputy Principal of a particularly kick-ass one. It has been architecturally designed to ensure the acoustics work with the open/flexible spaces. Surprisingly little noise flows from one space to the next. Secondly, the pedagogy and teaching practice that supports effective learning in these spaces is less about direct instruction and teachers shouting over students and more about facilitation of learning activities that require students to work collaboratively or independently on a range of tasks and inquiries.

To put it bluntly, if "their challenge is to not only gain, but retain attention", they're doing it wrong. 

Then you go on to incite a bit of good old fashioned parental panic about students on devices - "Oh, they'll look busy, but I know the difference between Mathletics and Mindcraft. And that is NOT HOMEWORK Missy.. put it away!"

You know I wouldn't be so upset, if this kind of comment didn't absolutely undermine the capacity of our fine educators we have in this country. Educators are working bloody hard to refine and develop their practices to ensure devices are used meaningfully. Many schools are still struggling to convince their communities just what an important investment a personal device is for our students. Throw away comments like this do so much damage.

As I have stated in another blogpost, of course introducing devices means a different approach:

Note - If your behaviour management is poor, if your lessons are poorly planned and your contexts less than engaging (and if you don't get of your bottom throughout each and every lesson) your BYOD will stand for Bring Your Own Distraction.

As the quote states below, technology can help education where it's already doing well!

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

- Dr. Kentaro Toyama in Time Magazine

You know I agree, we need to (celebrate and) support these educators to continue to grow their practice, particularly when using technology. 

And remember, Learning Technologies and one-to-one devices are the absolute key difference between the 70s and now. Learning Technologies have the power to amplify best practice, they also have the power to enable educators to personalise and differentiate learning to meet the needs of the individual learner.

This is not something that you or any observer would be able to appreciate when you see a sea of students "lying sprawled on the floor". 

Our educators are working harder than ever to evolve their practice, I believe each and every one of them deserves a cheerleader. They certainly do not deserve a throw away opinion piece that undermines the change that they are courageous enough to be engaged in. You might scoff at the term "courageous", but believe me, those leading the way are exactly that. They move forward, working hard to evolve what is already hard work. They do so in the face of nervous communities, relentless criticism and assumptions that change is somehow bad. I suspect if your dentist, doctor or even the media industry in which you are employed had evolved as little as schools have in the last 50 years, you would be horrified. 

If anything you should be asking why so little has changed. 

You yourself said "I don't deflect change. I'll happily embrace it - when it's for the better. But when it comes to our new "modern learning" open-plan schools, the Emperor is wearing new clothes."

Finally. You are on to something here! I too am concerned about this very issue. I am concerned that the development of MLEs and the introduction of Learning Technologies can become a bit of a smoke screen and can actually create an illusion of modernity when little has actually changed. I worry that the introduction of these physically, palpable and measurable objects will be seen as making a change for the better, when the one thing that that really needs to be "introduced" is still lacking - the teacher's and the communities (aka your) belief that the student is capable of leading their own learning. How do we ensure that MLEs and Learning Technologies don't actually create the educational equivalent of "mutton dressed as lamb" or as you say "the Emperor wearing new clothes"?

MLEs are pointless if the teacher still leads from the front of classrooms (albeit classrooms with invisible walls). Learning Technologies are pointless when the students have the use of their technology controlled and limited to little more than word processing and the odd google search. The challenge is to be supported to explore how the MLEs and Learning Technologies can be used to genuinely change how and what we have been doing.

As you infer. Changing the environment and introducing tools is easy. Genuinely changing our thinking and letting our "caged" students go "free-range" - now that's going to be a challenge.

Wouldn't it have been awesome if your opinion piece was actually framed differently. Taking that simple question and very valid question you started with and using it to challenge and support what educators are trying to do. 

In the meantime, let me just go ahead and do that on your behalf.

To the teachers of New Zealand, going above and beyond to evolve education and improve outcomes for our learners - I salute you! Whether it be through leading the way in a Modern Learning Environments or by rattling the cages of your single cell classroom, I recognise and celebrate how hard you are working to do things differently. Don't let daft opinion pieces detract from your efforts, instead take a moment to print them off, screw them up and use it to stoke the flames of awesomeness.

In closing, I would love to extend an invite to you, Bernadine, to come and see our MLE in action, I would love to take the time to explain to you exactly how we are working to use these flexible spaces to design powerful and engaging learning.

I genuinely look forward to hearing from you. 

Your sincerely,

Claire Amos


  1. Thanks Claire, I also wrote a blogpost on MLEs and some to the same conclusions without strong pedagogy around teaching in these new environments it will be doomed as it was in the 70s (though hey it was the decade that brought disco)

  2. Let's hope she takes up the invitation!

  3. Amazing Claire. You have eloquently summed up all that was discouraging about that opinion piece. I hope that she takes you up on the offer!

  4. Thank you Claire for the time you have taken to reply to the opinion piece by the sports writer. Everyone seems to have an opinion because they once went to school- decades ago!

    We live in challenging times on the cusp of something hopefully much more open and purposeful in the way of learning and there are likely to be detractors along the way.

    Keep up the great work.



  5. Wow Claire, this is a very good read and a top response to flimsy journalism. If only that prompt had been as well researched and argued.

  6. Thank you for writing such a great response. Part of me wondered if she had genuine concerns since so much of the article was so poorly based on sound information, or if she'd drawn the shortest straw to write the latest 'pick on teachers' article.' (Haven't seen one for a while).

    Oh, well, back tomorrow to having an awesome time with engaged agentic learners in our ILE, where the 'breakout' space is a quiet hub of collaboration not despair, and with two teachers who are having the best time ever collaborating to make learning meaningful with quality praxis.

  7. Awesome response to a shallow and unresearched opinion piece.

  8. Bravo Claire! A fabulous response that summed up how we as educators of 21st century learners feel.Sadly pieces like this fuel misconceptions of what we at the front line are actually achieving. Luckily we see the shifts in our kids and the benefits they gain due to our hard work (be it single cell or MLE). I hope you hear back from her and I look forward to hearing about it.

  9. Wow - everything I was thinking and put in a most eloquent way I could never even have attempted!

  10. Thank you for writing this - I shared it with the principal of my school and we are using the two articles for a teacher conversation and debate about modern learning environments - really strong stuff

  11. Keep up the great work Claire Amos!

  12. Nicely argued, Claire. Good to know that you are still hammering away. Ka pai.


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