To trial or not to trial? What a silly question

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
16 August, 2019

Few parents would give their child a cough medicine that had not been trialled. The potential risks of doing so are endless. Plus, established, effective alternatives exist. Of course, few of us have read the clinical papers or understood the trials, but Medsafe and the Consumer Guarantees Act do that on our behalf.

If only schools could access similar trialling and protection.

Because as with medicines, the risks of getting schooling wrong are endless. After family effects, schools have the most significant impact on students’ achievement. Attainment in school is highly correlated with later success.

And yet, in New Zealand, not only do we embrace innovations with open arms, but we rarely bother to trial them.

A prime example of this is our long-standing fascination with open plan learning spaces. Since they were first introduced here in some primary schools in the 1970s, they have cycled through multiple rebrands, from modern to innovative and flexible learning environments.

The underlying premise is always the same. The layout of learning spaces can be used to change how and what students learn; teachers no longer teach knowledge from the front, and students are all supposed to lead their own development of skills.

Whether children learn better in single-celled or open plan classrooms is a testable proposition. And yet, no worthwhile study has ever been done.  

Regardless of this, open-plan learning spaces continue to proliferate in New Zealand like agapanthus in the Auckland sun. In an act of cowardly capitulation, in 2016 our Ministry of Education co-funded a four-year study into ILEs by the University of Melbourne, with a foregone conclusion. This flagship team of twenty researchers, which includes the great Kiwi education researcher John Hattie, was not charged with testing how open plan spaces compare with their single-celled cousins. Rather, they were to “investigate how teachers can use the untapped potential of Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) to improve learning outcomes for students.”

The researchers will thus not ponder why these new spaces have still not revolutionised learning. They will instead ask how they could.

If a drug manufacturer tried a similar study design for a useless medicine, Medsafe would not be impressed. Parents should not be impressed with the Ministry’s approach to Innovative Learning Environments either.

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