Thursday, 2 October 2014

(Modern) Learning Environments

"She (was) a Mod" - but not today.

I'll be honest. It's taken me a while to explore this topic, for two reasons:

I took it literally. I was in an existing, older environment, with no power over changing "how we do things here."

The term grates on me. It's another bit of jargon. It's fashionable. It's a trendy term to throw around. Sorry Stephen Heppell, Mark Osborne and others who have been part of this conversation for ages. It wasn't in my "to do" pile.

I fell into the trap. 

Modern Learning Environments are not about the age of the school, the amount of glass, the trendy green, geometric, vinyl ottomans or the orange, corduroy bean bags. It's about how kids want to learn. Actually, about how each of us want to learn, including me.

A light goes on. I start to take notice. The twitter stream starts to ripple with how teachers in traditional schools are recreating their classrooms.

from "Teaching the Teacher"

Anne Keneally uses her efellow year to explore modern learning environments and I send out a challenge in our school for teachers to get their students to redesign the classrooms. Not much changes.

It is not that simple when you have a long tradition of classroom layout in your heads - even for the students. It's about deep and meaningful inquiry into how we like to learn. Without that, we fall into recreating traditional models or being mesmerised by the furniture catalogues and all that lime coloured vinyl - which our budget won't cover. Sigh. But it's not about the trappings. 

The word modern though, does conjure up a particular look. But how long will "modern" be modern?  I've seen a traditional classroom stuffed full of modern furniture that was showcased as a modern learning environment. I've seen an older block with walls punched out to make open spaces and one end furnished with old, donated, comfy sofas. Another modern learning environment.

We really need to delve into how we like to learn. We need that other modern gem, "student agency." We need learner voice and I'm a learner too, so why not start with me?

I liked school. I liked collaborating at school. I didn't think much of any of my classrooms; cold, rattly, grafittied, wooden chairs that ate your tights. 

For individual work, I preferred to wait till I got home. One of my favourite places was spread out on the floor with books all around me. I wanted space and I wanted it on my own. When I was reading I stayed in my small bedroom or tucked myself into a sunny corner of our sun porch, another private, enclosed space.


My own kids begged me to be allowed to come home to study, especially in their senior years, nearing exam time. The school was too rigid in its timetable, the teachers were boring, they were reviewing stuff they already knew, other kids were mucking all sounded very familiar. I have to say I was torn between meeting their needs and being a school leader who couldn't condone truancy! 

So let's look at that middle word: "learning". That's the key. Where do we learn best, as opposed to "do school"? Where you learn might not be where I learn. Whether extrovert or introvert we have different needs and at different times. And how do we learn?

I love to discuss things to clarify my own thinking; I read and I write to reflect. I like listening to other experts in their fields - but I want to choose to listen to them and I can't be under stress to take it in. I need to be well fed and watered, warm but not too warm and be able to at least, for a time, shut out any worries in my life. I like to be in an ordered environment; my room has to be tidy wherever I am. Sometimes I want background noise and sometimes I need silence. I want time to consider.

And does "environment" mean a building? I've talked about the spaces I like. But how else do I learn? 

I love my digital devices. I love that they allow me to connect, converse, collaborate anywhere I want to: on the sofa, in my car, in the doctor's waiting room...I love that I can talk with someone in Singapore or Orlando. I love that the only barrier about time is that I need to sleep sometimes when people are working elsewhere in the world. I love that I can replay or rewind that learning if I can't be there. I love that I can learn anywhere anytime. I love the word ubiquitous. It rolls off the tongue.

So now I'm watching how you want to learn. If you choose to play Minecraft, could that be a learning environment for you? Why am I spoiling it if I call it a learning environment? Is learning only a school activity that has been prescribed in a curriculum document or examination prerequisite? Of course not! 

Gone are the days when a school leader told me that it was unsuitable to call a game at school a game. It needed to be called a "learning activity". Oh dear. That sort of says that fun is not allowed.

We know better. We acknowledge that learning happens through play: life lessons like collaboration, creative thinking, problem solving, give and take, communication, disappointment, resilience, all take place in the sandpit. Hang on - these are pretty important tools that a citizen needs in their kete. 

And what of the teacher? How does that role fit in to a real learning environment?
I think of the teachers who have had the biggest influence on me:

  • My form 2 teacher who allowed a small group,of us to write our plays. We were fully immersed and presented them to real parent audiences.
  • The junior high teacher who let us explore the imaginary back worlds of novels like "The Sword in the Stone" about Merlin and Arthur.
  • My mother who always supported learning by attending every interview; who filled a chest of drawers with cuttings and project material.
  • My friend Sara who showed me that every four year old's "why" question was important and who could discuss why clouds were pink at sunset and why the sky was blue. Our kids were allowed to paint their faces and dig huge mud holes in her backyard.
The adults were there for the children: making sure they were safe, picking up the pieces, refereeing disagreements, scaffolding understanding, modelling good practice, making sure there were available resources, watching that the children ate and dressed warmly.

So if we learn through play, by being in comfortable, flexible spaces, or even uncomfortable outdoor risk-taking environments, face to face or virtually, in the real world or in worlds we have created online, let's get on with it. We are individuals and don't go out into the world known as boxed sets: "class of 2014."

It's time for real conversations about learning and the learning environments that have always worked. Forget the modern. Learning is not schooling. And modern becomes "how we do it around here" too quickly. And that's the point.


Other Links:


  1. Annemarie, I like the way you have written this in first person. The post is understandable and easy to read. I like too how you made links to some ideas that have been written about by our own educators. I look forward to seeing how this post is modified as you receive disruptive feedback from some of the thinkers and bloggers that we have in this area. I hope someone takes your post and responds to it with why they think we should keep modern in the equation.

  2. Love this post. Thanks Anne-Marie! Have been having similar thoughts lately. And you've just given me a few more ideas for "learning activities." ;)

  3. Annemarie. I to like your blog and will visit from time to time as I try to understand gamification of learning in this month. All of this post resonates with me. My own Learning Environment is 24/7 includes our physical rooms at school, my home and extends presently to Twitter, Blogger, Google everything, iPhone APPs and at least 3 Aotearoa cities as I continue to learn with and from my children. I like the idea of disruptive feedback Sonya. One thing that has stayed with me in the last 10 years is the challenge of school as a place vs school as a concept and combining that with transitioning from school and classroom to learning centre and learning environments leads me to feel excited. As you know one of the first to get up if dance is happening. Thank you for your questions. One of my Guru's in education in 2006 was "Peter Senge" and I found him in a book called "Schools that Learn" said Pedagogy is "All of the practices and processes that shape what people know and how they come to know it" In that sentence I learned that pedagogy belonged to the learner and not the teachers and learning which I know to be true through practice is 24/7 if I want it to be. As for dropping the "Modern" I offer another spiral to the conversation. There is a dynamism going on (though latent) in Secondary School Kapahaka about what constitutes Traditional and a breaking free into "different" performance on the stage. The most "modern" team this year according to traditional status quo thinkers (including me) won the competition. Their performance? Out of the cube let alone the box. But was it modern? Some say the performance was harking back to their particular tribal story and tradition but it looked innovative and totally revolutionary, 5 years ago would they have won, no. What I guess I'm saying is yes I agree drop the modern. Unless the inclusion of it continues to disrupt the status quo and ideas and thoughts are able to continue to be made and remade because the word itself is a disruptor. One more before I go back to Twitter I love the idea of co-learners designing the learning environment and that modern learning environments don't mean splashing out or building a new school. Will be trying that, it is Spring and time to rejuvenate.

  4. And modern becomes "how we do it around here" too quickly.
    Too true! Great read and thank you Annemarie ;)

  5. Good morning Annemarie

    Firstly, I was struck by that hairstyle. Priceless. And even the QB can't produce such historical artwork.

    I do love your style of writing - it certainly draws one into the reading & easy to read. I think that you write exactly what is going in the heads of a lot of others, ie what is this "MLE thing"? And what comes through strongly, is that it is a mindshift of looking what "learning is" and how we offer it in our schools/classrooms. I think that there are many teachers ready & wanting the change, but its leadership that needs to make these mindshifts.

    You are right - it starts and ends with "learning". And this applies to all aspects of teaching. Take ICT for example. I recall coming to NZ in 1996 (still running in nappies, Karla?). At my first school we had 3 Apples (you may still recall those blue & green shells). It's nearly 20 years later, and many schools have not made that mindshift. I spoke to a principal of a local school last week who is going to purchase 48 desktop computers as stand-alone devices (The school was gifted the money). It is so important to have a strong vision when bringing change to any learning environment. And to see & develop that vision, one must have an open mind to change.

    I like your submission. It's certainly well written without being filled with deep research terminologies/jargon. It took me down a journey of reflections. Well done!

    (emailed by - pt 1 of 2

  6. And now for some ramblings of my own...

    Upon reflection, I think our very own MOE is to blame for the confusions of "environment". I often refer to our "school environment" which covers our teaching & learning programmes, our school culture, staff-student relationships, engaging our parents, etc, etc, - oh yes, and our physical spaces. About 5-6 years ago, the MOE property division visited schools and clusters to explain the revised 10 Year Property Plan guidelines. I recall the meeting held in our area, with the big focus on MLEs. Yep - physical spaces. As for the rest of the MOE (curriculum development, etc), there was never even a hint of MLEs. And as a result, many schools associated the coin phrase MLE was just the modernisation of learning spaces. I am yet to attend any MOE meeting (admitting that we are stuck out in the mud flats) where the MOE has delivered any message of linking the physical environments to the learning and vice versa. This is the very reason why our BOT is about 18 months behind in getting its 10YPP approved. The MOE property officer who visited our school could not see our vision for learning - and was unwilling to even engage with us after the initial meeting. In fact, the property officer had the audacity to even suggest we revise our physical environment as there are "many other models" to choose from. She could not see the link between our learning vision and our physical spaces. In fact, it was asked if we put vertiface on the walls of our single cell spaces, with a few adaptions, would it get approved? I know, a naughty trap question - but she fell for it. The property officer was really buzzing with suggestions and after about 5 minutes I stopped her, thanked her, and then told her that it was not going to happen at NPS as it was not our vision for learning. You know the rest - The MOE threw the guidelines in our face and at the same time the BOT decided to take matters in their own hands and opened the classrooms. The good news is that after 18 months of head butting, we are about to submit our 10YPP. It will be interesting to see if the MOE will sign it off.

    This disparity still exists in so many schools today. We visited a school last term which is about to be "snupped". The MOE is insisting on putting 8 data points in each learning space in spite of the school requesting for an effective/modern wifi system throughout the school. Irrespective of experiencing the term "ubiquity" daily in our lives, the MOE is yet to see the connection.

    Sorry for the long waffle, but in short, the confusion of MLEs was rightly initiated by the MOE Property Division. But sadly, the Property Division never mentioned it to the other MOE departments... the left hand of the MOE does not speak to the right hand, and as a result, MLEs was never connected to the "learning" by the MOE - and still not today.

    Enjoy your break from routines...more time to be online?

    (emailed by - pt 2 of 2)

    1. Just in case you think the photo was me it's NOT! Even I'm a bit young for that, by a decade I think. I remember my cousin Di rocking that hairstyle and she is definitely ten years older!

      I love your critique and added ideas. Could you add these to the blog as a comment? It really adds to the discussion. Or I could.

      So sad that the MOE is so on a different page. If they advise Hekia, all is explained. Unfortunately, I do know some "12 year olds" in the MOE who seem to have skipped being experienced teachers. Though methinks some real 12 year olds might do a better job.

      Thanks. I'm still grinning about my visit to "yours" and have promoted the school everywhere I go. Rachel Roberts said she had visited recently.

      I still have some drilling down to do into the deep and meaningfuls but that can wait till after Ulearn or if I get Karla cornered with a wine!

    2. Neil Fraser
      3 Oct

      to me, Karla
      Hi Annemarie

      I have added a comment - I suppose you have to approve it first before its publish.

      It's also rather disappointing that it's not you on the photo!! I really thought I had sussed you out to be the one on the left!!!! But you are right, it was even before our era.

      Maybe it's about time both Mrs H's start growing their hair - bring back them good ole days. You both will actually like to sit under those old fashioned "hair dryer space thingies" to get the multi-storey hairstyle. The only difference is that you will not be reading a 1960s magazine, but have your i-Pad and mobile phone to read.

      Have a good weekend.