A Modern Approach to Teaching and Learning
Innovative Learning Environment (ILE), also known as Modern Learning Environment or Flexible Learning Environment, is a term we are hearing more often as it is becoming the standard for New Zealand’s Schools. Put simply, an ILE is a collaborative future-focused environment that is flexible, and can evolve and adapt to changes in educational practices. This supports a modern approach to teaching and learning. However, ILEs are highly complex, requiring intricate and meticulous planning and consideration.
Schools of New Zealand
The majority of schools in New Zealand were built during the 1950s to the 1970s, many of which are still in use to this day. Historically, students would be taught the same subjects by the same teacher using the same traditional teaching method - focusing on the mass rather than the individual. Now in the 21st century, student learning requirements and teaching methods have both significantly developed and evolved. Research conducted on effective learning environments strongly indicates that students learn best when they are actively involved in decision making, initiate their own learning, collaborate, and make connections across learning areas.
In order to provide better learning environments for our students, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has been moving towards implementing ILEs throughout the country. Back in 2008, five schools were selected to participate in the ‘Learning Studio Pilot’ project which was intended to develop a ‘Learning Hub of the Future’. Each learning studio was carefully designed with pedagogy*, social, and physical elements in mind. Though slightly different in design, they all consisted of a central shared learning area with operable walls to connect the surrounding smaller rooms. The openness and flexibility these spaces provided was intended to allow students to work in large or small groups, as a class, or individually.
The pilot had a lot of positive feedback from students, parents, teachers, and principals; one school even claimed that their year seven student retention rate had increased from 48% to a significant 98%. There was also great feedback on the acoustic performance of these spaces, with teachers commenting that outside noise from adjacent activities was not a distraction and there was no need for their students, or themselves, to raise their voices to be effectively heard. (If you are interested in reading more about the Learning Studio Pilot, the review can be found online at www.education.govt.nz)
Upon the success of the Learning Studio Pilot project, ILEs are being implemented throughout New Zealand. Many established schools are making the transition from traditional to modern as part of their 10 Year Property Plan, while new schools are incorporating ILEs into their campus design and construction.
When designing an ILE, it is important to consider how the physical, social, and pedagogical attributes will function together. Though the physical aspect is only one component of an ILE, it is an important contributing factor that can make all the difference. The eight physical design elements that need thorough consideration when constructing an ILE are acoustics, insulation, air quality, heating, lighting, accessibility, sustainability, and health and safety. The Ministry of Education advise that, “An acoustically good classroom will have approx 75% of its walls covered with an appropriate pinboard material, the ceiling will have a sound absorbent surface, and the roof structure will prevent rain noise being a nuisance.” (http://mle.education.govt.nz/faq/).
As more schools around the country are transitioning to ILEs, there has been a lot of positive feedback. Auckland Normal Intermediate, who converted their specialist area into a ILE, have commented that since the transition; attendance rates are high, behavioural issues are almost non-existent, students are motivated and engaged, and achievement levels have improved. The Education Review Office further commented saying that, “Achievement information shows that most students are achieving above national norms in many areas of the curriculum. This high achievement has been sustained over several years and students show good progress in their time at the school, especially in writing.” (http://mle.education.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/MLE/Case-Studies/AucklandNormalIntermediateCasestudy-July2014.pdf).
Gisborne Central School is another example; a recent retrofit of existing buildings into ILE has been welcomed by staff, teachers, and students alike. Noise had been recognised as an issue prior the transition as students were easily distracted, so teachers would have to raise their voices to compete with the external noise sources. Post retrofit teachers have noticed that students are more focused, with disruptive noises no longer a distraction.
Though ILEs have been widely accepted, there has been some negative responses and resistance to the change. One element that is important to bear in mind, whether you’re for or against ILEs, is acoustics. Competing background noise can be very disruptive, causing students to miss key words, phrases, and concepts. Research conducted in US classrooms revealed that speech intelligibility rating is at 75%, indicating that on average, every fourth word is misheard (Seep, Benjamin., Glosemeyer, Robin., Hulce, Emily., Linn, Matt. Aytar, Pamela). This is detrimental to a student’s ability to learn and communicate. Acoustics are highly important in any learning environment, whether it be traditional or modern. It is important that schools consult an Acoustician or the Ministry of Educations guidelines before implementing an ILE approach.
* pedagogy: method and practice of teaching
Dumont, H. & Istance, D. (2010). Future directions for learning environments in the 21st century.
In Dumont, H., D. Istance and F. Benavides (eds.), The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, Educational Research and Innovation (pp. 317-338), OECD Publishing, Paris.