Thursday, October 20, 2022

Peter Jackson: Open-plan classrooms — who came up with that?

What we cannot afford is more experiments, like open-plan learning.

I have a theory about what’s been going wrong with our education system over the last couple of decades. And it is not something that will be fixed with the billions of dollars that Winston Peters promised when he launched New Zealand First’s latest bid to become electorally relevant.

My theory isn’t especially radical. It’s simply that we have abandoned the way kids used to be taught, which worked, in favour of ways that don’t.

I have to confess that while my cohort was truly blessed in terms of those who were teaching at Kaitaia primary, intermediate and college back in the day, school wasn’t for everyone. There were plenty of kids then, as now, who were simply not academic. Not dumb. There is a difference, but back then it didn’t matter too much, to the kids or society as a whole, if formal education wasn’t their thing.

Many of those kids would leave school at 15, or even earlier, and go into jobs that weren’t badly paid, which made a real, valuable contribution to their lives, their communities and their country, and which did not demand any particular degree of formal education. That has changed, and to leave school now without a modicum of education, especially in terms of literacy and numeracy, represents a permanent pass to welfare dependency, poverty and all that goes with it.

In terms of schooling, the big change has been in the way teachers teach, and in many cases the environment in which they teach.

We learned the fundamentals, starting with the times tables, by rote. It worked. We learned to read by way of phonics. That worked too. Not for everyone, perhaps, but I don’t remember many kids of my era who didn’t get the hang of it.

It helped, of course, if you grew up in a house full of books and parents who took an interest in, and were supportive of, what you were being taught in the few hours of each day that we were at school. The other hours were spent by them teaching us, not social studies and geography perhaps, but all sorts of other stuff that seems to have lost all value these days.

What started me thinking about this was hearing a bloke talking on the radio about a report he had been commissioned to write on openplan classrooms. I missed the start of it so I don’t know who had asked for the report, hopefully, it was the Ministry of Education, but I suspect it wasn’t, given that it was unable to tell him who had had the open plan brainwave in the first place.

Anyway, this bloke was saying that open-plan teaching doesn’t work. And he could prove it. What he didn’t know was why it became fashionable in the first place.

The ministry, funnily enough, had been unable to tell him, so he did some digging. Turns out that the idea had emanated from, guess who? A couple of architects (who, he said, had done very well out of it). The ministry thought it was such a good idea that schools needing more classrooms could only expect government funding if they went open plan. If they wanted to build traditional classrooms they were on their own.

I don’t know who this man was, but he had no doubt whatsoever that open-plan teaching doesn’t work. I know a lot of teachers who agree with him. So why have we persisted with it? Presumably, because some bureaucrats in Wellington think they know best. Perhaps, however, the worm is turning.

I am reliably informed that a small fortune has just been spent on one Far North school, rebuilt from the ground up just a few years ago, turning open-plan teaching spaces into traditional classrooms. It will be interesting to see what effect that has on achievement levels at that school over the next few years.

Now, all we have to do is persuade some politicians that the answer to consistently declining achievement levels does not necessarily involve money. I believe we could certainly pay teachers more, particularly the good ones, although it will be a cold day in hell before the teacher unions even agree to talk about that.

The one thing we surely all agree on though is that New Zealand once had a world-leading education system, and now we don’t. And the decline, gradual as it might be, continues.

In 2019 New Zealand was 11th in 15-year-old students’ reading, 12th in science and 27th in maths according to that year’s PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) rankings. All our results were above the 79-country averages, but well short of where they were a little more than a decade before.

Asian countries made up the top four in reading, the top 5 in science and the top 7 in maths. China led in all three.

A ministry spokesman noted at the time that there were a number of contributing factors, including that kids weren’t reading for pleasure like they once had, and that “a lot more” were saying they were in a challenging learning environment, with noise and disorder affecting their learning. They also noted a need for discipline. Out of the mouths of 15-year-olds, if not babes.

Given the conversion from open plan to traditional classrooms at one school, someone might actually be listening. But before politicians start promising to fix education with billions of more dollars, maybe they should look at what used to work here, on a comparative shoestring, no doubt, and what’s working so well in China now. What we cannot afford is more experiments, like open-plan learning. The clock is ticking so loudly that even Winston should be able to hear it.

Peter Jackson MNZM, former editor of the Northland Age newspaper, 38 years at the helm of this popular paper, now happily retired. This article was first published in the Northland Age 20/10/22.


Robert Arthur said...

Maybe it was not the case in Kaitaia but in Jackson's day I doubt if many left the system without a modicum of education, as seems to occur now. Further back the incidence of total ignorance would have been even less. Non attendance a huge factor. The union and others favour mixed classes as it shields inept teachers appointed primarily for pro maoriness and places them to learn off the less diverted other teachers doomed by their objectivity to non controlling positions.

DeeM said...

Entirely agree with your comment that politicians think problems can be miraculously fixed by chucking huge amounts of money at them.

Best example is our current government and the one before that which included the come-back king, Winston. And what did we get for all our billions? Largely, a worse service than before.

Well thought-out plans, backed up by quality research and hopefully actual working examples, are needed before money. Without them you may as well give us our cash back so we can spend it how we like.

*** said...

Back in the day, not only did we learn the times tables and to read by way of phonics, we also learned how to hold a pen or pencil properly.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. When I was about 7 years old I decided that school was absolute nonsense for some strange reason and decided to no longer participate. We all sat at our own desks and the teacher could see I wasn't answering any questions. So he didn't let me get away with it, he made me walk to the blackboard, and really pushed me . After that I never had another block and was in the top classes and enjoyed school. I wonder if that fabulous teacher would ever have noticed a kid like me if I had been in the shared learning space, left to decide what I wanted to learn, which was nothing? I doubt it.

Robert Arthur said...

Hi ***
When I was at primary an enormous amount of time was devoted to holding the pencil and cursive writing. Despite that teachers managed to instil reasonable arithmetic, reading, compilation skills. The mystery is what they do with the time today. It cannot all be spent on haka and Alfred Hill singing.

Gaynor Chapman said...

Tragically our education system since the 1950s has had a drastic change in philosophy. Although NZ was a British Colony it originally had traditional Scottish education. The beliefs of this system were universal literacy and numeracy and acceptance of everyone into its tertiary institutions.This philosophy was called traditional liberal.
But a new philosophy progressive education (PE )sprung up, largely based on the writings of an American genius,Dewey,who wrote prolifically.Although a failure as a school teacher he somehow brought about gradual educational change throughout almost all western countries.
He was a widely read academic,absorbing European philosophies,especially those with a romantic and sentimental notion of human nature and children.Consequently it is a child centered view , which means in summary the child knows best and can decide what he does and learns with minimum interference from an adult.
PE rejects the transmission of culture as the goal of education,hence the subject matter, methods and purposes of traditional education.PE discourages
mere facts focusing more on processes and astonishingly, the whole process is carefully anti-intellectual and anti educational.
To begin with in the 1950s,phonics was eased out of reading instruction (the Progressive Readers replaced with Janet and John),for no good reason,and immediately there were more reading failures.But for PE that didn't matter since having everyone read was not important for schools anymore. Dewey ,himself actually admitted in his writings in condemning phonics was that what he was advocating was in general less effective for learning.
For reading scientists now the evidence that the sound pathway is used in reading is as close to a conclusion as research on complex human behaviour can get.
Similarly with a complete lack of evidence ,extraordinary in this scientific age other learning areas have been removed from schools.These include handwriting,how to hold a pencil,spelling,punctuation,times tables,comprehension exercises,grammar,vocabulary,geography,history,and time honoured ways of doing arithmetic,as well as completing school work,neatness,drilling,memorizing or hard work along with testing ,ranking,or competition. Homework ,discipline and and marking work are also no-nos.
So what do children do ? They are constantly engaged in trivial 'activities'.They talk about their favourite food or day of the week,they do drawings and doodles. There is lots of interruptions and chatter. Children are divided into small groups and do group thinking or vacuous discussions much like a talk back programme but involving ignorant children. They solve maths problems this way as well and may not even be given the correct answer.They play minecraft on the computer because that is supposed to be creative ,but has never been proved to be. They visit a museum , but the experience of seeing ,touching and hearing things with their senses is more important than actually learning any facts.
Since nothing ever works in public education you see fad after fad eg project learning,the self-esteem movement , open plan classrooms, co-operative learning,multiple intelligences,numeracy project and so on. All Ponzi -like schemes . Hype and no results in the long term.
Perhaps worst of all for Dewey , the school is essentially a mechanism for social change.Fr him the end result is some sort of socialist utopia .

Florence Bruce said...

I was so fortunate to be educated in 40’s and 50’s and we had a teacher who made us recite our tables before we got in the swimming pool. I credit him with all the basic foundations in education that allowed me to advance so far in my career.