“Modernlearning”

Today's schools are barely recognisable to parents and grandparents who went to school in a different era. Grandmother Denise Mills and education reporter Simon Collins spent two days in a Year 4 "modern learning space" to see just how different things really are.

Schools are gambling with our children's future - taking a punt on new ways of teaching, for which there is not yet much hard evidence of success.

The move to digital devices, new subjects and modern learning environments where children have several teachers comes as students' performance rates have declined.

The radical changes are generating a vigorous debate about whether we are taking the right approach when it comes to educating our children.

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Today the Herald begins a five-day series looking at the modern classroom and teaching styles, and how children are responding to the approach to learning.

Most New Zealand schools now encourage or require their students to do at least some of their work on digital devices , and a majority have moved away from pure one-teacher-per-classroom learning to adopt some degree of "flexible learning spaces" .

"Rote learning" has been replaced in most primary schools with an emphasis on trying to help children to understand language and numbers more deeply.

And traditional subjects such as science, technology, social studies and arts are being merged into student-led "inquiries".

IN-DEPTH READ: INSIDE THE MODERN CLASSROOM

Yet while these changes have been introduced over the past 20 years, Kiwi students' performance in international surveys has declined.

Modern schooling is almost unrecognisable to many parents and grandparents. Photo / Peter Meecham
Modern schooling is almost unrecognisable to many parents and grandparents. Photo / Peter Meecham

New Zealand students have been consistently bottom of six comparable "Anglo" nations in reading , maths and science at Year 5, and bottom in maths and bottom-equal with Australians in science at Year 9.

Our position is more respectable around the middle of the Anglo pack in a different survey at Year 11 , but even there NZ students' achievement levels have been declining in all three subjects.

Critics such as former British teacher Briar Lipson of the business-backed NZ Initiative think-tank blame the new style of teaching.

"The progressives and romantics that have a stranglehold on education, particularly teacher training, in the Anglophone world have changed the purpose of schooling, particularly in primary school," she said.

"They have moved it away from the acquisition of knowledge to something much less measurable - to '21st century skills' such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving."

Denise Mills:
Denise Mills: "There's no sign of the teacher at the front of the room with the big stick and the chalk." Photo / Peter Meecham

The changes make modern schools almost unrecognisable to many parents and grandparents.

Denise Mills, a 67-year-old grandmother who spent two days with the New Zealand Herald at her granddaughters' school in Manurewa, said there was no sign of "the teacher at the front of the room with the big stick and the chalk".

"The biggest difference is there are no desks," she said.

Mills hated school: "I would spend most of my time in detention after school. It was dreadful."

But her granddaughters "love being at school", especially the opportunities to do programs such as Mathletics on their devices and pursue their own projects.

"I don't ever remember having this type of fun at school," Mills said.

"I really do notice both my girls push themselves and they are so keen to learn, they are so keen to better themselves."

However, a recent research summary by the Education Hub, run by University of Auckland educationalist Dr Nina Hood, warned that boosting students' motivation did not necessarily mean they actually learned more.

Craig Holt says devices can be motivational but they can also be distracting. Photo / Simon Collins
Craig Holt says devices can be motivational but they can also be distracting. Photo / Simon Collins

"Research regularly determines a positive relationship between technology use and student engagement and motivation to learn," the summary said.

"However it is important for educators to remember that engagement does not automatically lead to learning, nor can it be used as a proxy for learning occurring."

It said: "Currently, there is a lack of rigorous, robust research evidence on educational technology... Overall, the evidence suggests that technology should be used to supplement rather than replace more traditional teaching approaches."

Similarly, a 2018 review of research on learning environments by a Melbourne-based research team part-funded by the NZ Ministry of Education concluded: "This robust systematic review confirms the frequently stated claim that little empirical evidence exists to link student learning outcomes to spatial designs."

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Craig Holt, who wrote a master's thesis on "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies, said the motivational advantages of learning on devices had to be weighed against their distractions. His school, Willow Park School in Northcote, has decided against BYOD.

"There are schools that are looking at paperless classrooms, and I wonder about that," he said.

Perry Rush has a BYOD policy at Hastings Intermediate, but also provides devices for children to use at school if their parents can't afford them. Photo / File
Perry Rush has a BYOD policy at Hastings Intermediate, but also provides devices for children to use at school if their parents can't afford them. Photo / File

But NZ Principals' Federation vice-president Perry Rush has a BYOD policy at his school, Hastings Intermediate - on the proviso that the school will provide a device for students to use at school if their parents can't afford to buy one.

Rush said it was "inappropriate" for the Ministry of Education to have been pushing schools to build more flexible spaces as part of their five-year property plans. He said building plans should be driven by pedagogy, or teaching methods, not the other way around.

"However, on the question of what pedagogy is appropriate, you'd have to agree that if you are talking about kids facing the teacher in single-cell boxes and working with the teacher as the font of all knowledge, that is not appropriate," he said.

"We want to be able to engage kids in collaborative work and we want to enable kids to work in spaces that enable their learning purposes."