Some of today’s school settings, typified by open-concept classrooms and heavy use of digital devices, are “downright dangerous and causing harm”, according to a leading New Zealand educationalist.

Kevin Knight, a director of the New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE), has grave concerns about the extreme interpretation in some schools of new teaching trends, known collectively as the 21st century learning movement.

“My issue is with the extreme interpretation of the 21st century learning movement, the wholesale promotion of it, the denigration of traditional practice, and the negative impact that all of this has on students in vulnerable communities.

“We’re talking about modern learning environments, extremely high use of digital devices and the notion that the only authentic learning is that which happens in a collaborative way with kids. We’re talking about collaboration between teachers and the high use of inquiry. All of those things come together in a package and characterised as the 21st century learning movement. I say characterised because it’s not actually new, it’s actually a whole lot of old stuff that has been repackaged and marketed, and the only thing that’s new in there is the digital devices.”

Knight works with schools in New Zealand and Australia to upskill teachers and to help schools interpret data to transform results. One of his client schools is Otumoetai Intermediate School in Tauranga which won the Supreme Award at the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards in 2014.

Since then, Knight has assisted the school to identify the difference between its “great” teachers and its “OK” teachers, arriving at the conclusion that the secret was in the quality of teachers’ learning conversations. He then developed a tool, the Learning Affirmation Spectrum, to be used for teachers to upskill to “great”.

At the other end of the scale are schools where teachers are discouraged from initiating learning conversations and it’s this trend that most worries Knight and his colleagues. He describes school settings in which the concept of student agency is taken to such extremes that teacher-led learning is frowned upon and where, on the orders of principals, teachers wait months for children to engage, until they are “ready”.

“This is a monstrous threat to social justice. It is a misuse of the concept of student agency, taking it to such an extreme is in my view criminal and utterly immoral.”

Knight says social justice is about making sure that people who need schools get a good deal.

“I’m talking about fairness and equity and about making sure that the people who are likely to be disadvantaged in our school system get a fair go. And I believe that you measure the quality of the worth of educational experiences based on the hardest to teach in the class.”

He is particularly concerned about the new schools of east Christchurch, 70 per cent of which are decile one to five.

“What’s happening now, post-quake, is that the schools of eastern Christchurch are not making a profound difference. Schools have closed, schools have merged, lots have been rebuilt. And they have largely been rebuilt on 21st century learning concepts which means we have lots of open plan classrooms, we have teachers being pushed together to collaborate, and the result is not pretty.

“We are seeing some classes that operate in a purposeful and deliberate way where students are engaged in their learning, but not many would fit that description. What we see more is disorder, low engagement of any kind, extreme behaviour, and shallow directionless teaching.”

Knight says there is no evidence that gives serious weight to the various aspects of the 21st century learning movement.

“It is a travesty that we have adopted this policy in an uncritical way without evidence. It’s not that we haven’t been evidence informed, we’ve been evidence ignorant and that’s what’s really worrying.”

He describes the movement as no more than a marketing strategy, and “an exercise in branding”. “One of the ways it is being marketed is through beautiful imagery to suggest that this is new, it’s bright, it’s engaging and it’s different. And so, parents out there, your kids are coming into a wonderful brand new exciting world.

“Another way is to play on the same strategy that (USA president) Donald Trump uses which is to play on the “them and us” mentality, the “us” being the proponents of the 21st century learning movement: we know what’s best for your kid, we’ve got this wonderful new way of teaching, and “them” meaning the ancient old teachers from the 20th century: they know diddly squat and we do.”

Here, Knight debunks the myths behind many 21st century learning trends.

  1. The Modern Learning Environment (MLE)

“One of the rationales presented for having kids in large spaces is because that’s how modern offices are laid out so school should be the same. In truth, modern offices are the exact reverse of the MLE. In the main space in an office, everyone is quiet, and they go to break out rooms for meetings. In a classroom, the main space is bloody noisy and if you want to get some work done, you go to the breakout room. To say the MLE is like a modern office is completely and utterly wrong.

2. “It’s not about the space, it’s about the pedagogy”

“We’ve all heard this one. The thing about the 21st century learning movement is that it’s so convoluted that if you question the space, it’s about the pedagogy, if you question the pedagogy then no it’s about student agency, if you question student agency it’s about something else. It’s very, very tangled.”

3. Everything should be digital

We are being told as educators that the world is screaming out for IT professionals and we that’s what we have to prepare our kids for but that is actually a lie. Totally untrue. The index used by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Development shows quite clearly that there is little demand for IT professionals. (graph below)

4.Teacher collaboration

Knight says that teachers are denied independence in a collaborative setting. In the words of one primary teacher in east Christchurch: “I really wanted to make this work because we want to do the right thing by the kids. The people I work with are good people and I thought that working in the same space together would be great. But I’ve lost my independence, I can’t make the teacher decisions that I want to make. If I’m running a reading group and we haven’t quite got it, we still have to stop at the agreed time (rather than continuing until the learning is done). I’ve taught this age group in this community for 15 years and these kids are nowhere near where they should be, they are not learning what they should be learning.”

A Sir Peter for education

Knight calls for the appointment of an independent education advisor on a par with Sir Peter Gluckman*, the Prime Minister’s science advisor.

“We need a Sir Peter for education, a person who is who is independent, who can go to the top levels of government and say, ‘There is some stupid stuff going on in education and you really have to rethink it’. We desperately need someone who can challenge this trend.

“When you talk about a setting that’s not going well, people will say, ‘Well, it’s new and the teachers just need professional learning and once they’ve got it, it will work’. That is absolute bullshit. It’s not that the teachers don’t know what to do, it’s that what they’re trying to do is wrong. We need some honesty and ethical behaviour, and we need to gather some facts about what works at school. If we’re going to be evidence-informed, we should be gathering evidence of best practice as often as we can.”

*Professor Juliet Gerrard has succeeded Sir Peter to the role of chief science advisor since this interview.



  1. This seems like a very one sided argument being aggressively pushed, I would like to see someone from the other side of this rebut some of these points just to give a bit of perspective. When only one side is being shown I find it difficult to trust/believe the author especially when a lot of opinionated language is being used.

  2. Kevin…I applaud you. You are one of the few people who has their head way above the sand level of the majority of principals.
    I left NZGSE in 2000 and have worked fulltime for merely 2 terms since then. The changes to the 7 schools I relieve at is heartbreaking and condescending to the children…VERY few children can learn in the noise and disruption which is called Modern Learning….in fact it is primeval learning from way back before our time!
    I felt so proud reading your article and I shall be sharing it on this media, as I am aware of nany eccellent teachers leaving the profession due to this abortion that NZ calls education.
    My favourite saying to children when they are using their devices with the screen facing the wall n their backs TO the wall (during maths time!) is… what so good that it is making you smile…noone smiles during maths time…they are either grimacing or working it out!
    Well written Kevin and thank you for the great grounding I received from bith you and Lois in 98/99.

  3. I think he makes some good points to counter the commercialization of education (no coincidence that he mentions Trump when Betsy Devos is in charge of education). Self-regulated learning isn’t very effective if students aren’t well-directed or don’t have a conducive environment. Teachers need to be approachable and flexible to nurture self-learning, but they also need to maintain the air of authority and expertise so they can manage the class without push-back. Also, the jury is still completely out on devices in the classroom. I have tried many ways to incorporate them, but it is extremely difficult to get the balance right between learning and distraction.

    One critical thing I would say about Gerrard’s comments is that calling modern practices “criminal and utterly immoral” is a fairly obvious marketing play. He knows that that language will make headlines and get his point across which is somewhat hypocritical since he makes the same assertions about modern teaching movements. Casting those aspersions across the whole industry (including teachers who are mostly just trying to improve) is a little raw.

  4. I find it surprising that this report is so bias, emotive and lacking an objective lens. This type of article really drags the “Education Review” into disrepute. A more objective review would be to look at the various elements in Mr Knights opinion. Technology in a traditional classroom or a flexible learning space has the potential to do harm or good depending on the quality of the teaching. Inquiry taught well in both traditional and flexible learning spaces will enhance learning. Students given the scaffold to self regulate will potentially have more opportunity in a flexible space with multiple teachers than in a traditional classroom.
    Children in a traditional class only have one option when it comes to learning, that of the classroom teacher, his/her perspectives, style, mannerisms, skills, expertise, bias etc. Children in a flexible space have multiple teachers to work with increasing their chance of connection (relationship) and hence success.
    Children in a traditional class have four walls to work in, these classes can be loud and if so the child has no options about learning space. In most flexible learning spaces there are various zones where children can move to depending on their learning.
    Collaborative expertise is leveraged in flexible spaces where teachers understand how to work together (this may require PLD).
    The research to support the effectiveness or what are now called ILE’s is emerging, as is the case with innovation, research lags. The research to support the effectiveness of traditional classrooms is extensive and damming. At best 80% of children succeed through traditional classrooms (only if we exclude the ‘drop outs’) and of those 80% so many report they are bored to tears. Are we still really keen to support Education remaining in the 20th Century while the world moves on?
    Finally, Mr Knight must be delighted his ‘tool’ gets promoted here!

  5. Kevin is the ‘Knight in shining armour’ that I have been waiting for! Let’s get open and honest about the nonsense that is called Modern, Innovative or 21st-century learning and get our children to learn in a way that actually gives them better learning outcomes AND looks after their wellbeing at the same time!

  6. An interesting read. The ideas underpinning the modern learning environments are not, as the article says, not new. The new ‘silver bullet ‘ is the introduction of information technology.

    Many of the problems teachers express about teaching in the modern environments are the same expressed by teachers teaching in the open plan schools of the 70s.

    I would agree the key to student success relates to the ability for teachers to have ‘learning conversations ‘ with their students to challenge and deepen understanding. And this applies to learning through technology.

    I agree with Kevin Knight that student agency can be taken too far resulting in low level engagement and shallow learning. This is where teacher /student conversation are so important. This applies to both modern and self contained classrooms.

    No matter what type of classroom is involved the only way to evaluate the success of any approach is to be seen in the quality of the learning reflected in the finished work of the students.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here