Beginning teacher’s toolbox one – The use of learning theories and styles

As part of my host school experience, I have been able to be part of a modern learning environment (MLE). My school is transitioning in to this type of learning, and although it still requires further development to fit and function effectively, it has been beneficial for my teacher training in having first-hand observations in to new learning theories and styles.

Modern learning environments today are said to “promote and support a range of pedagogies including delivering, applying, creating, communicating and decision-making… and support strengths-based teaching… offering students and teachers flexibility, openness and access to resources” (Osborne, 2013).

What we understand about education, teaching and learning have changed dramatically over the last century, and while elements of older theories still contribute to new theories, the evidence is suggesting we have a much better idea about how learning occurs and how we can gage whether quality learning is occurring.

Teachers pedagogies are increasingly embracing the modernised nature of learning, which are “personalised, socially constructed, differentiated, responsive (and often initiated by the students themselves), and connected to authentic contexts and the world outside” (Osborne, 2013)

Core education suggests quality learning is a combination of:

  • Personalised learning: no two individuals learn in the same way, nor do they bring the same prior knowledge to a learning experience. The way we learn is as unique as our fingerprint.
  • Socially constructed learning (Johnson, 1981): the collaboration, peer-tutoring and reciprocal teaching that occurs when students work together results in a deeper understanding of the material being covered.
  • Differentiated learning (Bloom, 1974): the prior knowledge we all bring to a task means individuals require different levels of challenge, pace, content and context.
  • Learning that is initiated by students themselves (Ramey & Ramey, 2004): typically when a student initiates a learning experience or exploration, they learn more.
  • Learning that is connected to the physical world and authentic contexts: children learn through interaction with others and the physical world (Malone & Tranter, 2003). Learning about pond ecosystems is more powerful if students visit a pond in addition to learning about them in a classroom or textbook (Osborne, 2013).

Modern learning environments is a new trend and way of learning being adopted by schools in New Zealand, replacing the factory style, single classroom type of learning. These environments still offer teachers practice elements of traditional pedagogy, but offer students far greater flexibility (differing learning area within one space, multiple teachers, richer group work), openness (fewer walls, more physical space, more social learning and social interaction, differing places to physically work depending on their preference) and access to resources (range of activities available per teacher, range of wireless and wired technology, greater differentiated learning).

In these classes, students are said to have the luxury of drawing knowledge from typically two or three teachers, and work in ways and specific spaces within a class that enables them to exercise their strengths, utilise their teachers strengths, and ultimately, have their learning needs met far more effectively than the traditional learning environment.

These environments create a collaborative community and Vygotsky’s social learning theory, for example, contributes largely to the foundations of modern learning environments and suggests its efficiency.

Despite the countless beneficial arguments to learning that modern learning environments create, there are still gaps, shortfalls and cons to this sort of learning, and many teachers struggle to transition in to this way of teaching and environment.

Mark Wilson (2015) undertook extensive research in to modern learning environments from Christchurch as schools began to rebuild their physical building and make use of “Ministry of Education’s Educational Renewal Programme providing around $20 million for the rebuild and redevelopment of their schools after the 2010-11 earthquakes” (p. 2).

He argued that although extensive research suggests the quality of physical spaces improves educational outcomes, that there was no consistent evidence MLE made any positive difference to student achievement since integrating it in to schools (Osborne, 2013).

Technology and devices are becoming an integral part of MLE, and although research shows positive outcomes to academic achievement, this technology needs to be used “appropriately (e.g. how and when), with supportive teaching practices, and mindful of managing negative issues (e.g. shallow learning and dependence)” (Osborne, 2013).

What I am noticing in my host school, is that teachers are forced in to this new type of learning environment, and are still trying to teach the way they have in traditional classroom settings. Pedagogies, approaches and teaching styles must be adapted as learning environments change. But are teachers being given time to develop their skills, make adjustments to the way they teach and really being taught how to teach in this sort of environment? Teachers need to evolve and adapt their pedagogy and methods as learning environments and our understanding of learning develops, and a couple of hours of personal development is not adequate for this to be achieved.

Even if modern learning environments become prominent in the way New Zealand does education, it is critical to not simply abandon traditional teaching practices in favour of whats new because of the circulating ideological arguments of what a ‘21st Century Learner’ potentially benefit from. We do need to be critical of ourselves as teachers and establish what practices work best for our classrooms, combining multiple theories and approaches, but I personally think there is real danger in becoming a purist for one type of education and real merit in having an eclectic approach, being flexible and adaptable, and always remaining teachable.

There are also increased concerns around whether student teacher ratios and class sizes will increase, and even within MLE, students numbers will still be high despite multiple teachers. It may also be another means of putting more students in a classroom and covering the high student to teacher ratio.

Another concern is that although the New Zealand curriculum has a competency of self-management, we still need to consider just how much autonomy is effective for independent learning and what frameworks, monitoring, and boundaries we should still put in place as teachers to ensure learning is taking place (Osborne, 2009). I have observed this in the MLE within my host school to be an issue. Students might have 3-5 periods for any given subject in a week and at year nine and ten level, given a lot of freedom to decide how they want to spend those periods doing the work they know they are to have completed by the end of the week for example. For a lot of these students, they see this as a time they can get away with not doing work, teachers don’t engage in continuous formative assessment or keep students accountable, and a whole week could go by before the teacher realises they have done little or no work. It then becomes a continuous cycle of this sort of behaviour, chasing up students to finish work to a low standard, and it becomes harder and harder to change and the normality of this intensifies as the year goes on. Trust needs to be built in these environments and freedom not handed out so easily to these students who, if they had the choice, would not do their work, and close monitoring (plus many more aspects) needs to take place for the MLE at my host school specifically to be of any real benefit.

From a personal perspective, I wouldn’t thrive in an MLE, knowing how I work and learn best. First of all, I need a quiet space, which it seems only well-funded MLE offer, I need teacher accountability and verbal expectations, minimal distractions, clean spaces etc. Is it just another alternate pathway or trend that we are going to end up going back on in the future, adopting a new teaching trend or going back to single classrooms that might just have more resources and spaces within the room, but still one teacher to a group of 20-30 students? Many other students could not handle these hostile auditory environments, and despite the advantages, these are argued to be poor listening and working environments (Osborne, 2009). It is difficult to distinguish what type of learning environment will suit the majority, and whether or not MLE due suit today’s learners, is of continuous debate between educators. I am very interested to see and be part of other MLE throughout New Zealand that are drastically different to my host school experience and gain a better understanding of the modern learner and the best environment for where education and the curriculum are headed.



Osborne, M. (2013). Modern learning environements. Retrieved from

Osborne, M. (2013). Modern Learning Environments: Not ‘any colour as long as it’s black.’ Retrieved from

Wilson, M. (2015). Investigating the effectiveness of modern learning environments on improving student learning and achievement. Retrieved from

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