Four years after the first bell rang at Papamoa College the school's controversial open classroom learning environment is proving a success.

Principal Steve Lindsey, who moved to Papamoa from his role as associate head of St Kentigern College in Auckland, said the open learning commons approach - in which about 100 students are taught in one large room - was working well.

"Absolutely, we haven't changed our approach since we started," he said.

While the school's less-traditional environment continued to raise eyebrows in the community, Mr Lindsey said those attitudes were held by those with incomplete information.

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Most questioned how a room of 100 students could be quiet enough for students to concentrate and learn, without erupting into a riot.

"They run the physical environment past their experiences," he said.

The answer was simple.

"When would the teachers let it get to that point, as professionals?"

While rare in the Western Bay, opening learning spaces were a feature of all modern high schools being built by the Ministry of Education, he said. "They won't even give you a box in a corridor."

School parent Kalena-lee Tane said her 14-year-old son Christian had thrived at the school but the open learning environment hadn't suited all his peers, with some leaving for the more traditional methods of Mount Maunganui College.

"If they're easily distracted then that probably doesn't help."

The school's modern theme continues into its learning style with middle-school students, of which Christian is one, currently trialling a new method of studying traditional subjects.

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Instead of working to a timetable allocating equal hours to each subject, students are given a set of learning objectives for the week and they decide how best to achieve them.

There are scheduled workshops throughout the day with students deciding which ones to attend based on their own learning needs.

A teacher for each subject is also available to offer help and assistance.

Instead of spending a 1.5-hour block on one subject, they can choose to split their time to achieve the tasks required.

"Where is it that learning means that we're dividing it into learning areas and time?" Mr Lindsey asked.

Christian said he learned more in the environment and enjoyed the flexibility.

Mr Lindsey said the method aimed to get students more involved in their learning and have more of a voice. "Teachers are still the professionals and the experts. They know where the students have to go."

The method flows on from the college's problem-based learning approach which allows students to learn basic school subjects while solving a problem they set out to answer at the beginning of each school term.

The problems were relevant to the students' lives and communities and drew on elements of each subject, Mr Lindsey said.

"If people are interested in what they're doing it's more likely that they're going to learn," he said. "We try to develop students to become better learners, rather than just students to learn."

The school aimed to prepare its students for a modern workforce - different from the one even the previous generation entered.

"Skills are different, collaboration and communication is huge," he said. "Communication is instant now." The next generation would not necessarily turn up each day to work in an office.

"You don't have to be physically there," he said.

"Communication, problem solving, working together is going to be crucial."

Today's students were also predicted to have up to five different careers in their lifetime.