Education in an evidence-free environment

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
23 September, 2022

In 2011 the Ministry of Education initiated a new school property strategy. Its aim was to replace New Zealand’s classrooms with ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs). For readers unfamiliar with the term, MLEs are large, open plan classrooms.

The MLE strategy was about more than new classrooms though. MLEs come with a whole new approach to education called ‘self-directed learning’. Instead of teachers imparting knowledge to children, it is expected that children will discover it for themselves.

This week, the New Zealand Initiative has released a report on the MLE strategy. Among other things, the report examines the assumption that self-directed learning is effective. (Spoiler: It isn’t.)

Obtaining accurate information about MLEs for the report was challenging. I asked the Ministry of Education how many schools have MLEs, how much it cost to build them and whether the Ministry has conducted any evaluation of how well children learn in them.

The Ministry responded that it does not hold information on how many MLEs there are or how much they cost to establish.  Neither has there been any systematic evaluation of their effects on students’ learning.

I also asked the Ministry what research informed the MLE strategy. They provided two web links. One was to an infographic by Australian architect Kenn Fisher. The other was to a TEDx talk by American architect Prakash Nair.

So, the decision to establish MLEs appears to have been taken on the advice of architects. Coincidentally, architects have done very well out of the project.

Poor evidence bases for major educational initiatives is, regrettably, nothing new. In fact, our education agencies have a history of flying in the face of evidence.

NCEA was introduced in 2002 against the advice of prominent professors of education. They warned that the standards-based assessment system would result in egregious variability in assessment results. In 2005, the Board Chair and Chief Executive of NZQA both resigned amidst a political storm caused by … egregious variability in assessment results.

I could go on: The literacy teaching methods promoted by the Ministry, their failed ‘numeracy project’ and the knowledge-poor New Zealand Curriculum are all examples of educational initiatives implemented against a preponderance of evidence. All have had disastrous results.

Perhaps the true inspiration for MLEs was the open plan offices in which public servants work. If so, the Ministry’s record of failure might be all the evidence we need that MLEs were a bad idea.


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