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Maharey: 21st Century learning Environments

21st Century learning Environments for all learners

The Education Minister, Steve Maharey, said schools are being dramatically reshaped to meet new styles of teaching and learning at the '21st Century Environments for all learners' Conference in Auckland today.



Thank you for your welcome and introduction and thank you to all of you for your invitation to be here today and to speak at this conference.

This conference, your second in a series of three has come at an important time for New Zealand education. We have to create learning environments for students that will ensure that our education system is world class and that it will meet the challenges of a knowledge society.


And we are committed to creating a society where people who are disabled are fully included and where their participation in all aspects of life is maximised. Valuing the diversity of our learners and actively meeting their needs is the challenge that confronts us.

And I am acutely conscious that if we don't accept that challenge, make changes and consolidate those changes we will be left behind in a rapidly changing world.


I'd like you to consider three questions as I talk that you will also be discussing in your groups after today's morning tea break

·In a 21st century world of unprecedented change and uncertainty, what is a successful learning environment?

·What do we value in our existing education system that is working well and we wouldn't want to lose?

·What do we need to change to make our learning environments successful for every student?

Challenge/Changing World

To think about the learning environments in the 21st century we have to first understand - as far as we are able - what learning for the future is about.

We are living on the edge of massive change, a transition from one kind of society to another.

From the old mass society that dominated the 20th century to the diverse, differentiated, fragmented society of the 21st century.

From limited knowledge hard to access, to the world of the internet.

From a society that often excluded people disabled people to one that values them and seeks to maximise their participation in all aspects of life.

From a somewhat insular society to globalisation.

A new society with new information technology, flexible specialisation, changing social roles and new senses of identity.

We need to understand what that means for New Zealand generally and education specifically.

Although we routinely talk about the challenges we face to prepare young people for this new world there is a problem. We know the world is changing yet we are unsure what it is changing to.

A really good example of technological development and change that I have been talking about quite a bit recently is nanotechnology. Heard of nanotech? How many of you know exactly what it is and can explain it?

Nanotechnology an emerging science

According to Time Magazine, nanotechnology is the science of creating molecular-size machines that manipulate matter one atom at a time. The term comes from nanometre - one one-billionth of a metre - which is roughly the size of these tiny devices.

Right now, the use nanotechnology can be put to is limited.

But picture this in the future: nanobots are the workhorses of the nano-manufacturing world. They are nano-metre scale robots that can pick up and move atoms and have tiny electronic brains to direct the process. Streaming through the body by the billions, nanobots could chip plaque from arteries, gang up on bacteria and viruses, scour toxins from the bloodstream, repair broken blood vessels, target tumours - the list is endless.

And in your home they could clean up spills on the carpet, clean the toilet - and do dozens of the jobs that occupy our lives on a day to day basis.


How do you prepare a child for the changes they'll face in a future world where nanotechnology is commonplace? It is not easy.

It takes a rethink about knowledge and the role that education plays in learning knowledge.

The traditional education system that we are familiar with, from our own time at school was about teaching knowledge as a series of facts, formulated within traditional disciplines, held inside schoolbooks and teachers' heads, and transmitted via those schoolbooks and teachers into students' brains.

Students whose brains were receptive to this method of learning did well at school. Those whose brains were less receptive - because the teaching style didn't suit them, because they had different talents, because their brains were dancing in six different directions at once - did less well.

There often weren't other options for these students. They were frequently labelled as less able, or disruptive, and they believed it. Often they dropped out - by not being present either bodily or emotionally. And mostly if they succeeded as adults they did so in spite of their school experience, not because of it.

We can't afford to let this situation continue.

Changing the education system is not just about demanding teaching excellence, more qualifications and a lifetime of learning. It's not about more resources, or bigger schools or getting better at what we've always done, we could make our current system a gold-plated system, a Rolls Royce system, but it would still not serve today's learners.

Changing the system is about viewing education through a different prism, it's about a different framework, a different way of working with learners and it is about helping learners to open doors and find new pathways.

Essentially it's about different attitudes, because we cannot change effectively if we try and get our old ways of thinking to adapt to this new world. Or as Charlie Brown in Shultz's cartoon Peanuts said so succinctly, "How can you do new maths with an old maths mind?"

Personalising Learning for Success

Many of you will know that I have been using the term personalising learning as the way of describing this new framework.

David Milliband the UK Minister for Education defined personalising learning as meaning:

"High expectations, of every child, given practical form by quality teaching based on a sound knowledge of each child's needs. It is not individualised learning where pupils sit alone. Nor is it pupils left to their own devices - which too often reinforces low aspirations. It means shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn; it means taking the care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil."

It's what I think W.B Yeats meant when he that "Education is not the filling of a pail, but a lighting of a fire."

Many of our schools have responded to this challenge. They are changing the way they approach learning by making students an active part in the learning process. You will have already had examples of that yesterday and this morning with more to come later today.

Jane Gilbert who spoke to you yesterday, captures just how deep this debate goes when she talks about 'knowledge' in her book, Catching the Knowledge Wave? In contrast to Plato's knowledge centred system, personalising learning means being learner centred. Jane discusses the need to build people's ability to work with others to produce new knowledge that solves real world problems.

And Sir Ken Robinson who led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government writes "Conventional education looks only for certain sorts of ability. Those who have it often have other abilities that are ignored: those who don't are likely to be seen as not intelligent at all." and "Human talent is not in short supply. The limitations are in how we recognize and develop it."

Human Talent is in Short Supply

I'd like you to keep that bit Human talent is not in short supply in mind, I think its an important statement as we look at 21st century learning environments.

Let's just look back at the Tomorrow's Schools reforms. Those reforms transferred school leadership from the bureaucracy into the hands of educational professionals and local communities. The reforms were premised on the concept that local educators and communities knew what was best for their schools and students.

These were structural changes that got educators and the community more involved in education. Good. But we need to keep building on those changes.

And we have started. One of the single most important changes within our education system has been that evidence is now driving change. This is a major and historic shift. It is providing a knowledge base that is changing expectations, practice and policy.

Evidence Based Change

Let's look at the direction we have been moving in:

·Teaching now directly involves the learner in helping to construct what will be learned and how learning will take place.

·Assessment for learning ensures that a student's work is used to provide feedback to the student so that student and teacher can identify gaps and decide where learning needs to go next.

·Principals are now being recognised as education leaders and not just administrators of their schools.

·We are finalising a curriculum that sets out the competencies, values and knowledge that a student needs to know but leaves it to the professional judgement of the teacher to guide the learning process.

·New technologies are allowing a shift in the way learners' access knowledge and the relationship between the learner and teacher.

·And it is now understood that learning takes place everywhere and the more we can involve parents and the community the better.

·We are learning to value difference and embrace diversity and to create learning environments that enable all people to contribute

·ICT is allowing schools without walls. School days are being changed to maximise learning.

·And schools are being redesigned to better meet the needs of students and teachers.

Reversing the logic of education systems

I've been talking a lot about learners. After all that's what we all here for. And I'd like to reinforce here that when I talk about learners I am taking about all learners. If we are to serve all young people not just the bright and motivated but all students, we need the framework of personalising learning to be attached to the whole education system from early childhood to adult learners.

I do realise that to a certain extent I am talking to the converted here. Educators who work with children with special needs have always had to focus their efforts on helping the student to understand their own learning needs, to involve families and to use evidence to drive their teaching approach.

And at this conference you will have the opportunity to think about the many different learners we have in our schools. Some will need to access education in a different language, some will need to have adaptations to the curriculum and perhaps need other students and adults to mediate the learning for them. Still others depend on schools being able to ensure technological advances can be accessible for them to learn and contribute.

What we want all these learners to be able to say however, is that they live in a society that values them and where the primary goal is one of full participation so that they can achieve to their full potential.

Let's look at an example:

One special needs class now uses digital diaries to replace traditional paper-based end of year reports, and the response of parents to the new medium of report delivery has been totally positive.

The class teacher recognised that parents of special needs children often feel isolated, and stressed, and worry a lot about their child's long-term future.

Changes in their child's learning and achievement are often small and sometimes difficult to identify.

Any extra tool designed to help their child, such as the digital diaries, is welcomed.

"It's the subtleties that the digital diaries pick up that cannot always necessarily be communicated," their teacher says.

Parents and children are delighted they can see the changes and identify what needs to be worked on next. Parents get much more involved in their children's education. They get to see what happens in the classroom and can better work with the teacher to ensure their child's learning needs are met in the classroom and can be reinforced at home.

Not something I guess that would have been possible ten years ago!

Classroom environments

But its not only technology and teaching that have had to change.

Just compare a classroom today with a classroom of a generation or so ago. Even if the basic shape hasn't changed, we now see students seated together rather than in rows, we see their learning reflected back to them in graphics, stories and digital records, and we see creative use of available space. We see children sitting round tables, sharing, discussing and critiquing their work and the work of others.

And we see some fantastic new schools, accessible for all students. Schools with moveable walls, schools with marae at the heart of the property, schools that use light, space and shape to stimulate learning and creativity. Schools that can meet the learning needs of all students.

I was interested to note that for a recent report AC Neilsen asked boards, principals, students and teachers what they thought was important about the design of learning spaces.

Students had very clear views about what was important to help their learning. They did not want distractions; they want to be able to see and hear the teacher and to see the white/smart board. They want good natural ventilation, furniture that is comfortable and rooms that are not too hot or too cold. They want spaces to socialise and toilets that are safe and do not smell.

Let's see if we can exceed these young peoples' expectations.

I'd like to see much more done to involve teachers, learners and families in the design of schools and facilities. Retro fitting is an expensive, time consuming option that is rarely wholly satisfactory - let's try and get it right the first time.

Flexible timetabling can enable students to spend more time on the subjects they excel at or need more help with. It enables students of different ages and learning stages to work together.

And flexi-timetabling can better accommodate students' work patterns, as in the case of a Wellington school that has moved its free period for senior students to the start of each day recognising the reality of adolescent sleep patterns!

Sometimes a relatively minor environment change can make a tremendous difference. For example: a small, co-educational school in a community with a high Maori population was experiencing difficulties connecting with the local Maori community and Maori parents. It was also facing challenges with some staff who believed that Maori students could not achieve well at school.

A new Principal was appointed who worked with the Board and teachers to develop strategies to improve learning outcomes for Maori students.. These included:
·inviting the Maori community to nominate 2 people for co-option onto the Board
·inviting the Maori community to select a Kaumatua for the school
·conducting surveys of staff, students, parents and the Maori community to identify perceived strengths of the school and areas for improvement and providing feedback on the survey findings to everyone
·developing and implementing initiatives and reporting back to the same groups.

One of the areas identified for improvement was of the school environment. Respondents felt that the physical environment needed to change to make it safe and more relevant for Maori students and parents. A number of projects were undertaken as a result, including:

·formation of a Maori parent support group: Komiti Awhina
·completion of the Wharewananga at the entrance to the school
·landscaping of the area around the Wharewananga
·construction of a permanent seat [made out of stone by a craftsperson] adjacent to the Wharewananga area, visible from the entrance and accessible to all

The Kaumatua actively involved himself in all of these projects. He realised the potential of the seat and it became a place for him to sit where he could interact with people.

Sometimes he would invite the Principal and staff to join him on the seat. Sometimes he would invite parents passing by to join him. Sometimes he would initiate discussions or he would simply enjoy the company of those who joined him. The Maori students within the school welcomed the Kaumatua's presence and the seat assumed its own significance because of his association with it.

Staff accepted and supported his presence in the school. In effect, he became a respected advocate for Maori students and things in the school.

The seat contributed significantly to the changes in attitude and practice that gradually occurred within the school in relation to Maori students and Maori student achievement.

This same Kaumatua also often occupied a particular seat in the centre of town from which he would greet and meet members of the public and in particular members of the local Maori community.

Occasionally he would invite the Principal to join him and then take the opportunity to introduce the Principal to different individuals, many Maori, many of whom would be reluctant for a variety of reasons to enter the school.


What this comes down to for us is that it does not matter how many computers there are in the classroom if the relationship between the learner and the teacher doesn't change. It doesn't matter how small the class sizes are if the learner is not made the centre of what goes on. It doesn't matter if we build whole new schools if they are just flash versions of last century's schools.

We need to think differently and use our resources differently.

The government's investment in school property since 1999 has increased by nearly 40% to ensure modernisation of building infrastructure and to create learning environments suitable for the 21st century.

Budget 2007 increased spending by $581 million to fund new schools, early childhood centres and kura and provide additional funding for upgrading and modernisation.

A lot of potential to do some great things.

This conference is focussing on future learning environments for the diverse range of learners we have in our education system - many of these students have not been the "winners" in the old system. And it is looking as though communities and education facilities here and overseas have accepted the challenge to meet the learning needs of all learners.

It's looking at the ways "learning systems" have welcomed difference, have been developed to give students more control over their learning, have included community, provided flexibility and have developed incredible young people.

I look forward to watching the developments from this conference in the advice I receive from the ministry and in the developments in early childhood education and schools throughout the country.


Early on in this address I quoted Sir Ken Robinson Human talent is not in short supply.

I have confidence that all of you in this room today hold the knowledge, the ideas and creativity to make sure we have a learning environment that will meet the needs of all of us, policy makers, educationalists, students, families and communities in the 21st century.

And to remind you of the three questions I put to you at the beginning of today's talk:

·In a 21st century world of unprecedented change and uncertainty, what is a successful learning environment?

·What do we value in our existing education system that is working well and we wouldn't want to lose?

·What do we need to change to make our learning environments successful for every student?

I am very interested in knowing the outcome of your discussions.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.


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