The Never-Ending Noise in New Zealand’s Open-Plan Classrooms

New Zealand, with its vistas of mountains, lakes, fjords, and geysers, is known around the world as a green and peaceful place. It was perfect for filming the Lord of the Rings movies, and it’s a paradise for those craving the joy of quiet solitude. But for those of us who live here, New Zealand is simply home. We drive to work in polluting cars, have mortgages, complain about the weather, and only occasionally glance at the spectacular view over our shoulder.

Nicknamed the “shaky isles,” New Zealand sits astride the Australian and the Pacific tectonic plates and experiences many earthquakes, a series of which profoundly impacted my hometown Christchurch starting in 2010.

The earthquakes have been costly, leading to New Zealand’s government being very conscious about expenditures. Our small population of 4.7 million means that government decisions are centralized and can be quickly implemented. This allowed for the speedy creation and execution of flexible learning spaces, as advocated by the 21st century learning movement. Before students knew it, they were working in large rooms shared by several teachers and many, many students. There were only external walls and a massive central space—no internal walls. Originally founded in the open schools movement of the 1960s and 70s, the 21st century version of this discredited strategy comes with extensive use of digital devices and a heavy focus on teacher collaboration. Which was just enough of a difference for it be sold as a brand new idea to New Zealand government.

Modern New Zealand started as a British colony in the 1800s following a treaty with the indigenous Māori people. Decades of immigration from around the world have created a culturally diverse society. But the two founding cultures are still dominant, with English spoken by almost everyone and about 15% of the population identifying as Māori.

The Māori people were severely and negatively impacted in colonial times, and studies show that impact has led to low educational achievement for many Māori, even all these years later. New Zealand’s Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, is Māori. She has a mission to improve Māori educational success, and she advocates shared learning spaces as a strategy to achieve this on the grounds that Māori have a collaborative culture. (Similar rhetoric appeared in the 1960s and 70s to promote open classrooms to improve learning outcomes for Native Americans in America.) Minister Parata created a policy by joining a money-saving strategy with an educational philosophy and then tying them together with a cultural twist. So strong has been the government’s advocacy of this model that undamaged schools receive incentives to knock out perfectly good existing walls to create similar open spaces.

What are these new learning environments like? If the teachers in an open shared space are highly competent and if their students are by nature self-disciplined, we see creative teaching and strong learning outcomes. But if the teachers are not from the top echelons of the profession or if the students need more deliberate management, these new learning environments are unsuccessful.  

Although no studies yet exist proving lowered learning outcomes, I can anecdotally present the following I’ve seen in classes:

  • student collaborative learning becoming off-task chat
  • learning conversations between teachers and students weakened by the distraction of surrounding noise
  • teachers taking turns to interact with students: one does the work while the others take a break
  • an increase in teacher-centered whole-class teaching
  • parents withdrawing their children to enroll them in schools with traditional classrooms
  • little opportunity to work alone

And then there is the noise. The never-ending noise! There is little chance for quiet reflection in these classrooms, and in my experience, that is where the learning occurs.

When will this policy of open shared classrooms end? Perhaps only when there are enough statistics available to show New Zealand’s government that there has been a drop in Māori learning outcomes. But by the time those studies are completed, we can only estimate how many students’ learning paths will have been profoundly destabilized.