Better late than never

Joel Hernandez
Insights Newsletter
18 March, 2021

Since 2013, the Ministry of Education has spent $747.7 million on building, upgrading, and maintaining modern learning environments (MLEs). And yet, with nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars spent, the Ministry is only now starting to evaluate MLEs, eight years after their implementation.

Also known as 21st-century learning environments, flexible learning environments (FLEs), and innovative learning environments (ILEs), MLEs are the antithesis of traditional classrooms.

Instead of rows of desks facing the teacher, MLEs are typically large open spaces designed for ‘student-led learning. The pedagogy in MLEs is different too. Rather than a teacher leading the lesson from the front of the classroom, students are encouraged to discover knowledge and skills themselves in MLEs.

Frustratingly, the Ministry’s evaluation of MLEs will only measure air quality, warmth, and noise levels rather than students’ educational outcomes.

That is not to say air quality, warmth, and noise are not important, but they are only elements of a good classroom. A classroom can look and feel good, but it must facilitate and result in kids gaining a quality education.

In some schools, MLEs are large enough for 60 kids supported by three teachers instead of 25 kids led by one teacher. As a result, it is not hard to see why MLEs provoke mixed feelings from teachers, students, and parents.

On one side, news stories say some parents have actively avoided schools that have had MLEs thrust upon them by the Ministry. On the other hand, the Ministry of Education’s head of infrastructure told Radio NZ they had overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers, students, and families.

Anecdotes can be helpful, but it is imperative there is rigorous empirical research to prove whether MLEs and the student-led pedagogy that comes with it are more effective than traditional classrooms and teacher-led pedagogy.

There are a myriad of ways MLEs could impact a student’s education, for better or for worse. It is therefore imperative that the Ministry not only monitor how a classroom feels but what matters the most, student’s educational outcomes in each classroom.

Standardised testing in both traditional and MLE classrooms will be crucial for identifying how each classroom performs.

My colleague Briar Lipson has argued strongly in her book, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading education system, that it is the responsibility of the innovator to prove their product, MLEs in this example, is an improvement of the status quo.

Indeed, the Ministry must show why it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in MLEs and risked hundreds of thousands of children's education.

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