There’s a scene in the recently released biopic, The Theory of Everything, where Professor Sciama, Stephen Hawking’s mentor, beckons him into the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University and gives him a key saying he can use this space for his research. Wide-eyed, the young physics graduate is reminded by Sciama of the eminent scientists, including New Zealander Sir Ernest Rutherford, who had previously worked in this laboratory. Opened back in 1874, not unexpectedly the laboratory is gloomy and cluttered with dark panelled walls and utilitarian fittings but to the young physicist, it is an inspirational learning environment. The equipment might have changed over the years, but following in the footsteps of giants of scientific research in that special space was what made Hawking believe his dreams were achievable.
Here in New Zealand, the majority of our school students learn in buildings constructed between 1950-70 to accommodate the ‘baby boomer’ generation. However, in the last ten years, additional schools, described as ‘MLE’s or ‘modern learning environments’, have also been established in Auckland and those parts of the country where the population has expanded. These days the acronym MLE crops up a lot in educational discourse. Whether boards and teachers are working with architects on a green-fields project designing a school from scratch or repurposing old spaces, the challenge is to provide MLE’s to fit the educational needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners. What were deemed innovative educational spaces in the past (photographic dark rooms and library reading pits come to mind) might no longer be useful so the essential feature of these new buildings must be flexibility. Characteristically, these MLE’s have large open learning spaces within which is arranged brightly coloured furniture including bean bags and sofas, all designed to suit different learning approaches and in particular collaboration. Such spaces can encourage us to teach, and work in positive ways, but by themselves, architecture and fittings won’t transform learning:
Last month I had the privilege to hear a presentation by another illustrious New Zealand physicist, Michael Kelly, the Prince Phillip Professor of Technology at Cambridge University, speaking about future methods of communication, energy sources and manufacturing. Professor Kelly resides and works in Cambridge, England but for about five months of the year, he lives in an apartment in Wellington. From there, using of a range of technologies and social media, he is able to supervise his doctoral students nearly 19,000 kilometres away.
A senior secondary student present asked Professor Kelly how he thought education would look in twenty years’ time. His surprising response was that the buildings would be much the same as today although the use of various technologies will be more advanced by drawing in global knowledge and understanding into local learning.
By adopting the most effective teaching and learning practices available for the time and circumstances good teachers have always taught in a ‘modern learning environment’. An effective and inspirational MLE goes well beyond the walls of the classroom, beyond the confines of the school library, beyond the Wi-Fi that’s accessible on the front lawn or out on the tennis court, all the way to the local community and then beyond that to encompass the global community.