Is the Ministry of Education fit for purpose?

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
28 September, 2022

Imagine that you are given a new project at work. It is similar to things you’ve done before, but more complex. Your boss describes what you’ll be expected to do and gives you a time frame, but little guidance on how to go about it. The list of expectations is long. You have no idea whether you can deliver on time.

Now imagine that you are ten years old, your place of work is a school, and your ‘boss’ is a teacher.

That is the scenario described by one mother, who wrote to me saying that her ten-year old is expected to sign ‘Student Learning Contracts’ at school. Up to three weeks of work is assigned at a time. Children are left to manage the workload for themselves. This mother’s child has developed severe anxiety about fulfilling these contracts.

Student Learning Contracts are an element of an educational philosophy called ‘child-centred learning’. Child-centred learning means children discovering things for themselves at school rather than being directly taught. It is the educational philosophy behind the large, open-plan classrooms called ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs). Some MLEs accommodate more than 100 children and their teachers.

The bold project to fundamentally redesign the classrooms our children learn in was initiated by the Ministry of Education in 2011. According to the Ministry, the old design was no longer fit for purpose. Traditional classrooms were out, MLEs were in and, with them, child-centred learning.

Last week, The New Zealand Initiative released a report on the MLE project. I was the author of the report. One of its main findings was that the Ministry implemented its multi-billion-dollar MLE strategy without any evidence that it would work. Another was that child-centred learning is an ineffective educational approach.

Within 24 hours of releasing the report, my inbox was flooded with emails, mainly from teachers and parents. They told me things I wished I’d been able to include in my report. Ironically though, it took the report being published to get them in touch with me.

One retired teacher described the MLEs she’d observed as “chaos”. She wrote about a lack of opportunity to bond with children and struggling children going unnoticed.  She noted that many children were having such a bad time that they ran away from school. Poor time management is another major problem with the approach.

The messages from parents were heart-breaking and infuriating in equal measure.

One was from the mother whose child had been given Student Learning Contracts. Another described the way in which her intelligent seven-year-old boy has been left to fend for himself. She said he “wastes time aimlessly wandering around the classroom”. When she approached the teacher with concerns, she was told that it was up to the children to choose to do their work or not.

I also heard from people who have completed research on MLEs for Masters degrees and PhDs.

One project investigated team teaching in six secondary schools. The main conclusion of that research was that successful team-teaching is all but impossible at secondary level. As the researcher wrote to me, “the inability to team-teach effectively in an open-plan environment negates the purpose of being in one”.

Another research thesis cited comments from the Auditor General, that the Ministry had failed to prove any link between MLEs and educational outcomes. That chimes with a response I received from the Ministry to a request under the Official Information Act. I asked what research they based the MLE strategy on. They sent two web links, one to a TEDx talk and the other to an infographic. Both were by architects. The cynic in me reflected that no one has done better out of the MLE project than architects.

A third research project found that open plan classrooms are detrimental to learning, especially for students with high levels of social and emotional sensitivity. That accords with the many submissions made to a parliamentary select committee from organisations representing the interests of children with learning disabilities. It also accords with intuition. Ordinary-sized classes can be intimidating for some children. Classes with one hundred or more children in them would obviously be much more so.

The money that was spent on MLEs needed to be spent. In 2011, when the MLE strategy was implemented, New Zealand’s classroom stock was run down. Many classrooms were 50-60 years old.

That money could have been spent on attractive, warm and well-lit classrooms in a traditional style, in which children can learn in the teacher-led way that served the children of New Zealand well in the mid- to late twentieth century. In that era, our schools were the envy of the world.

Instead, the Ministry of Education spent billions on large open plan designs with no justification from research. These environments are attractive, warm and well lit. However, the research evidence shows that the ‘child centred’ approach to teaching that these classrooms are designed to accommodate simply doesn’t work for many children.

Our report on MLEs might well leave New Zealanders wondering whether it’s the Ministry that’s not fit for purpose.

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