Student teachers’ views of innovative learning environments

Associate Professor Jo Fletcher and Professor John Everatt, University of Canterbury

Can the architecture of a school influence learning? What do student teachers think?

Learning spaces which provide flexibility are established on the premise that learning is social and that teachers should encourage well-organised collaborative learning. Features central to the idea of innovative learning environments (ILEs) are the flexibility of the layout of school buildings and learning spaces, the types of seating arrangements, the incorporation of social media and information technologies, and the provision of a variety of sites for learning, beyond those found in conventional classrooms. 

In a range of studies, we have looked at the impact of such ILEs on teaching and learning in New Zealand, primarily focusing on teachers’ and school principals’ perceived benefits and barriers to using such classroom spaces in primary schools (see here, here, and here). In a recent study, published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies (Fletcher & Everatt, 2021), we considered initial teacher education students’ perceptions of ILEs. An emerging finding from this work was that the more experience a teacher, principal or student teacher had working in an ILE, the more likely they were to be supportive of the advantages of ILEs. However, there were differences in perceptions, with some individuals highlighting concerns, such as noise/disruption and students unable to concentrate within ILEs, versus others recognising the advantages of collaborative working with other teachers and the pooling of expertise that this can provide.

What learning is happening? Student teachers’ perspectives

A common concern reported by student teachers is around the progress students make in their learning when in an ILE. There was a range of perceptions. For example, the following student teacher felt that it was easy for children in ILEs to ‘get lost or forgotten about’. They were clearly concerned about the level of noise and the lack of management leading to pupils not focusing on their school work.

“I observed and found it hard to keep track of students learning so it was easy for students to get lost or forgotten about. It was always noisy and chaotic. Most lessons only some students were doing quality work and the others were mucking around because they knew they could get away with it.” (Graduate student teacher)

This was not a universal observation, though. For example, the following student teacher had more positive comments about learners’ progress in ILEs:

“I … saw the teachers working well together and no student was left behind. The students enjoyed working with different peers and teachers for different subjects.” (Third year student teacher)

Another student teacher made the following observation about low progress learners in ILEs:

“… if the day is structured in a way that students are independent in their learning, these times can easily be used to give more attention to these learners. The use of support teachers/teacher aides is also important to achieve success with these students.” (Third year student teacher)

Worries about the negative impact of ILEs on certain groups led to additional work looking at how students with English as an additional language responded to ILEs. Despite the potential that such students may be prone to negative effects due to noise/disruption, there was little evidence that these students were specifically impacted by studying in an ILE context. However, further research looking at other groups of learners is necessary.

Teacher collaboration in ILEs: Student teacher observations

The prospect of such collaborative teaching work may not be seen by all as a positive feature of the way the student teacher sees their teaching practice developing. For example, one student teacher commented:

“In traditional classroom settings, I feel that you are able to be your own teacher without having to adapt your teaching style to work with another’s. As a beginning teacher myself, I feel when I get out into schools and begin teaching, I would rather have a single cell classroom to really discover who I am as a teacher independently.” (Third year student teacher)

Such views were not universally expressed, however. For example, another student teacher stated:

“During my last placement, I had the opportunity to work alongside three teachers in an ILE. I had the opportunity to observe each of their teaching styles and try out their strategies myself to see what works for me. I witnessed the teachers challenge each-others’ thoughts and continuously learn from each other.” (Second year student teacher)

Again, positive experiences of collaborative teaching can outweigh some of the worries about large class sizes and the mode of teaching. This was also evident in our cross-country work during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Where to next?

The data argue that initial teacher education students perceive the need for more support in skills that would be useful within ILE contexts. Key parts of initial teacher education coursework related to working effectively in ILEs would be:

  • The logistics of the differing ways multiple teachers can teach collaboratively in an effective manner
  • The critical issues around developing professional relationships with teaching colleagues
  • Ways to work collaboratively with other teachers with varying levels of experience and expertise
  • Ways to effectively manage larger cohorts of students so all of the students’ progress is tracked and monitored effectively
  • Strategies on how to spot children ‘hiding’ in larger spaces or showing increasing levels of behaviour problems
  • Better use of digital tools to support learning and maybe monitor on-task progress

These key elements should be related to the necessity for new teachers to understand the primary school child’s needs and how to support the development of an independent learner in a new learning setting (which might include the child’s home just as much as an ILE).

In conclusion, the current research indicates that student teachers are cognizant of the benefits of ILEs, though they also recognise some of the challenges associated with these learning contexts. The task for those of us in teacher education and professional development contexts is to support these teachers in utilising the benefits of ILEs and maximising the positive outcomes for the students they are teaching.

The research reported in this article was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, NZARE’s official journal. The full journal article is available open-access:

Fletcher, J., & Everatt, J. (2021). Innovative learning environments in New Zealand: Student teachers’ perceptions. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 56, 81–101.

Associate Professor Jo Fletcher is from from Te Kaupeka Ako Faculty of Education at Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha University of Canterbury. Her research interests focus on a number of areas in education that will help improve learning outcomes and well-being for all learners. Over several years, a focus has been exploring innovative learning environments in schooling. She is a committee member of Learning Environments New Zealand and a member of the Association for Learning Environment: Enhancing the Educational Experience

Professor John Everatt from Te Kaupeka Ako Faculty of Education at Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha University of Canterbury is interested in cognitive and linguistic aspects of literacy learning and learning disabilities. Part of this research has led to exploring the differing learning environments within schooling and how they impact on learning and teaching.

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