While sat in front of my laptop at the beginning of May, slogging through a literature review, I was bemused to discover the Ministry’s MLE website renamed to ‘Innovative Learning Environments'. Most interesting was the justification that indicated the change was ‘consistent with both international usage and growing discomfort in New Zealand with the term MLE’ (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2015).
As part of my Master’s thesis research, ‘Making the Shift — Perceptions and Challenges of Modern Learning Practice', I have been tracking the terminology associated with modern learning environments (MLE) and modern learning practice (MLP). Specifically, I’ve been exploring community-wide perceptions of the definition and purpose of MLP at a school knee-deep in the paradigm shift that is transforming many schools in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand.
Although I have yet to discover any sweeping empirical evidence, I am keenly aware of the perception of ‘growing discomfort’ with the term MLE. Multiple participants have indicated that ‘modern’ seems to them a misnomer and, in fact, the school in my study ditched ‘modern’ well before the Ministry — they now call their learning spaces Flexible and Responsive Environments for Deep Learning (FREDL). Admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but it certainly provides an element of precision that both ‘modern’ and ‘innovative’ are missing.
Learning research strongly suggests that an effective learning environment is one that:
- makes learning and engagement central
- ensures learning is social and often collaborative
- is attuned to learners’ motivations and emotions
- is acutely sensitive to individual differences
- is appropriately demanding for each learner
- uses assessments that are consistent with the aims, with a strong focus on formative feedback
- promotes connectedness across activities and subjects, in and out of school.
(Dumont & Istance, 2010)
No mention there of ‘modern’ or ‘innovative!’
Don’t get me wrong: I am firmly entrenched, philosophically, in the studentverse — the realm where learners are the driving force for all decisions that are made in education. I’m patently aware of the need for change in public schooling across the developed world, with research indicating that there is a ‘critical gap’ between the world students experience outside the classroom and the world within (Shear, Gallagher & Patel, 2011), and where 65% of primary aged students could end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet (check out Cathy N. Davidson’s blog). Hattie’s most recent published duplex — The Politics of Distraction and The Politics of Collaborative Expertise — outline the need to shift away from ‘the confused jargon and narratives that distract us’ (Hattie, 2015a, p.1) to coherent and focused attention on student learning (Hattie, 2015b). This backs up Michael Fullan’s New Pedagogies for Deep Learning project, where the emphasis on deep learning eclipses all other languages of reform. Whatever we call it, there is certainly an enormous shift that needs to occur in education, making the focus more about the learners and their life-long learning.
Considering that the definition of innovative is ‘featuring new methods; advanced and original’ (Innovative, 2015), I guess I’m a little worried about teachers on the ground — what sort of message is the jargon sending them about their reflective, highly-skilled practice? Do we want teachers to feel that they constantly have to be ‘new', ‘original', ‘cutting edge', or, as the OECD (2013) puts it, fundamentally different in approach to the main body of practice? Thankfully, they also admit ‘what is seen in some contexts as innovative might appear to some readers as unexceptional’ (OECD, 2013, p.26). That’s comforting, as I have never considered my own practice to be ‘cutting edge'; I have always depended on prior experience and, most importantly, connections with respected colleagues, literature and resources to assist me in providing the most appropriate learning for each individual.
According to Fullan & Langworthy (2014), innovative developments in education are already being driven and sustained primarily by teachers and students. If you want evidence of that in New Zealand, just log onto the VLN to follow the conversation of and between dedicated, thoughtful, reflexive practitioners.
So, how much of the amazing learning that is already happening in our schools is innovation and how much of it is learner-centred, flexible practice?
The insistence of the school in my study that the environment — physical, virtual, social — needs to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the learners remains in line with that of the Ministry’s expectations. Like the international literature, this speaks to us less about jargon and semantics and more about how students learn within the nexus of space, people, and technology.
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.
Hattie, J. (2015a) What doesn’t work in education: the politics of distraction. Retrieved from
Hattie, J. (2015b) What works best in education: the politics of collaborative expertise.
Retrieved from Pearson: https://www.pearson.com/hattie/solutions.html
Innovative. (2015). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 25 June 2015, from
Fullan, M., & Langworthy, M. (2014). A rich seam: How new pedagogies find deep learning.
(New Pedagogies for Deep Learning White Paper).
New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2015). Innovative Learning Environments.
OECD (2013), Innovative Learning Environments, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD
Shear, L., Gallagher, L., & Patel, D. (2011). ITL research: Innovative Teaching and Learning Research, 2011 Findings and Implications. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.