How modern are ‘modern’ or ‘innovative’ learning environments in NZ?

Dr Noeline Wright, University of Waikato

Have you read Leon Benade’s NZARE blog post More than bricks and mortar: A critical examination of school property under the National-led Government? His post explored some of the current government policy ideas about school property and the design of school learning spaces, drawing on international as well as New Zealand sources. Benade notes the influential role that the OECD plays in educational policy formation. The New Zealand Ministry of Education regulates school classroom refurbishments and defines new school builds, and full compliance with ‘modern learning environments’ policy is expected by 2021. These detailed regulations contrast starkly with the openness of the New Zealand Curriculum, which encourages schools to adapt the shape and provision of the curriculum to meet local needs.

Benade’s post inspired me to add another angle to the discussion. Some historical backgrounding is called for, and I want to argue that in New Zealand, ‘modern’ or ‘innovative’ learning environments have been around for a long time. We just haven’t called them that.

Is a modern, flexible classroom new?

Below I’ve included images of two different New Zealand secondary schools, separated by time and place. The first is from 1921, while the second is a 2014 image of Hobsonville Point Secondary School from the school principal’s blog post. Please look closely at them. Perhaps you can make some decisions about lighting and light sources, insulation / heating, and the quality of the furniture. You might also notice where the students are teachers are in the classroom space, and how much room there is. Is it possible to discern the front for the room? If so, what are the signifiers of that? To what extent do these images indicate anything of a multi purpose nature or fitness for the educational intentions of the time? You might also ask yourself whether a new learning space in a school such as the Hobsonville Point Secondary School of 2014 provides more opportunities for flexible arrangements of people and furniture than might have existed in the 1920s.

Fig 1.jpg
Figure 1. St Stephen’s Māori Boys School, Parnell, 7 Sept 1921. 


Fig 2.jpg

Figure 2. Classroom at work in Hobsonville Point Secondary School, Sept 2014.


Teaching and learning now

A key difference between schooling in this century (we are two decades into the 21st century) and the last one, is the role that broadband and mobile devices play in the educational landscape. The rise of social networking, and the ability to access information anywhere and anytime, have been precipitating a lot of thought about what it means to teach and learn in contexts where these two factors are almost ubiquitous. Teachers are no longer able to gate-keep access to information. The earlier models of educational practice were often predicated on the teacher being the only expert in the room, but this can no longer be the case. This implies that the role of teacher has to alter. Perhaps Figure 2 indicates something of this shift, where the teacher in 2014 is one among many, but does not hold a prime ‘position’ in the teaching-learning continuum. Instead, it possibly suggests a greater learning guide role – providing the opportunities for knowledge creation rather than the answers.

Given that change, is this pedagogical or dispositional? A common assumption that the current Ministry of Education appears to make – and noted in Benade’s post – is that teachers’ pedagogical practices will change to match the ‘innovation’ of the physical spaces. An underlying implication is that that all pedagogical practices need improving in the first place. While there are always examples of under performance in any occupation, innovative practices (i.e. those that are a bit different from the norm in a school) have a long history in New Zealand schools. I suggest that these ‘innovations’ are seldom – as Benade argues – predicated on the size and aesthetic ambience of the spaces, but are more to do with the will and creativity of the teacher or school leader. Let me explain, by delving into some 20th century literature.

Echoes of the past

NZ educators Somerset (1938; 1941; 1948) and Strachan (1938) both wrote about innovative schools and schooling in the period spanning the era immediately before and soon after the end of the second world war. They described schools where innovation was taking place: innovation involving school buildings and how the curriculum was being taught to meet local conditions. There were also occasions where the learning taking place had a directly positive impact on the local community. This impact related to local health, diet, horticulture, science and future career opportunities. Somerset argued that ideas only have value when they positively affect our life in some way. He then showed how the school community pitched in to help the school provide a ‘living setting’ (1938, p. 82) for some of the learning that went on in the school. This suggests that local context and social or economic change (such as between or after wartime) can be drivers for educational experimentation. As schools can do now, Somerset chronicles how a school and its community adapted learning to local needs and the learning spaces available to it. These curriculum adaptations resonate with what is now encouraged in the New Zealand Curriculum.

As Somerset (1941) wrote (in the gendered language of the time),

“The new education aims at making man aware of the communities of which he is a member; the new education is a sociology of learning … [and teachers who] adopt this method [are] continually on the watch for local problems that can be solved in conjunction with the school … [making] the school a centre of creative sociology.” (p. 218)

In addition to these accounts, the Department of Education’s Thomas Report on “the progress and condition of public education in New Zealand” in 1943 argued that schools should have a student-centred design and purpose. It is thus fitting to argue that the Thomas Report and Somerset’s views from 75 years ago align with the current educational thinking informing 21st-century schools such as Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

The New Zealand curriculum integration innovations from the 1930s and 1940s predate similar models in the 21st century where schools involve the local community and apply learning to real world contexts. Strachan’s (1938) descriptions of the innovations at Rangiora High School were matched by Somerset’s (1938; 1941; 1948) descriptions of innovations at Oxford Area School (‘Littledene’).  Their thinking drew on Dewey’s enduring model of student-centred curriculum. Dewey’s ideas are thoughtfully summarised in Steve Wheeler’s blog post, as a useful introduction to his ideas.

Somerset’s (1938) book Littledene foreshadowed ideas that permeated later educational thinking in New Zealand. These ideas appear to have come to fruition in new schools which interpret the curriculum for themselves and which take advantage of their flexible learning spaces and the robust ubiquitous broadband provision. Whether the thinking from people such as Somerset and Strachan has been consciously and deliberately used as models for current educational policies and regulations, we may never know for certain.

As Benade argues, a school is not a school until/unless it is about the quality of the learning that goes on inside it. Examples like Strachan’s and Somerset’s show us that these conceptions of modern learning had their roots firmly planted a long time ago in the educational soil of New Zealand. When educators dare to innovate, then conceptions of modern and innovative learning can flourish and thrive.


Somerset, H.C.D. (1938). Littledene: A New Zealand Rural Community. Wellington: NZCER. See

Somerset, H.C.D. (1941). The walls are down: the teaching of citizenship. New Zealand Education Gazette, 20(11), 218-19.

Somerset, H.C.D. (1948). What makes a good school?, Education, 1(4), 170-6.

Strachan, J.E. (1938). The School looks at Life: An Experiment in Social Education. Wellington: NZCER. See

Photo credits:

Figure 1: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-4030. Photographer: James D Richardson (no known copyright). Classification number: 995.1102 P25 S14s (1920-29). Original format: Glass plate negative

Figure 2: Courtesy of Maurie Abraham.

Noeline square.pngNoeline Wright is a teacher educator at the University of Waikato. She spent 20 years teaching in secondary schools and has since been involved in research centred on digital technologies and pedagogy in secondary schools, initial teacher education and the role of digitally enabled pedagogy. Noeline is currently involved in two funded research projects: A Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) investigating how teachers and students learn to find their identity in a brand new school; and a Netsafe-funded small project focused on helping a secondary school develop its Digital Citizenship programme in relation to the Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015). She is also general editor of  the Waikato Journal of Education.


  1. Enjoyed reading your article Noeline and best wishes.
    Innovative teaching is rooted in teachers who are prepared to go the extra mile for their students. If they have leaders and colleagues who are open to change, and supportive, amazing things can happen.
    To my mind , a MLE (Modern Learning Environment) , is a construct of the teacher, not the MOE.
    You can take a horse to water……..
    Any funding should be directed through teachers, and schools who demonstrate innovative teaching ideas that result in better outcomes for students.


  2. Thanks Annette, Agreed- the dispositional thinking involved requires creative and brave thought and action. And a willingness to make mistakes.



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