Colourful, comfortable seating, flexible learning spaces, tables for groups rather than single desks, quirky stools.
Vastly different from what today’s teachers and parents grew up with, these elements characterise the new Modern Learning Environment, or MLE, which the Ministry of Education is introducing into New Zealand schools.
The purpose of MLE is both to accommodate the rapidly changing technological aspects of 21st-century education and to meet the diverse learning needs of students, with flexibility and adaptability being key features of the new learning spaces.
The school library is an integral part of the new educational environment, and that too has changed in the way it is laid out and functions.
As managing director of class* – Future-Proof Furniture Solutions Craig Vigis says, “Five years ago we thought of ‘libraries’ as books on shelves and places to read; however, with today’s technology and modern learning devices, plus the internet, encyclopedias online, Google maps, e-books etc., it is more appropriate to view the so-called ‘library’ facility as the ‘information and learning centre’ of the school.
“So, besides the ottomans, shaped tables and bean bags that we supply for MLE learning spaces and libraries, we also have mobile cabinets for charging and locking away iPads, tablets and laptops, as well as computer chairs, swivel stools and individual mobile laptop workstations.
“We have also adapted a lot of existing products to make them more MLE compliant, most of them being assembled in our New Zealand workshops, and a lot of the product fully recyclable, because that’s important too.”
“Some principals and teachers are unsure where to start when introducing MLE to their school,” Mr Vigis says, “so class* has put together an MLE information pack, which includes an information booklet, photos and CAD drawings of concepts, showing how the various furniture items work in with each other.
“Also, teachers often like to be able to see how items will benefit their environment rather than just in theory, so class* also offers some items of trial furniture for periods from two weeks up to a term. This also helps teachers get feedback from students on how the furniture performs, because requirements normally come down to a combination of student requirements, preferred choice and teaching style, and these do vary from school to school.
“Then when class* puts a proposal together, we know it’s a solution that will work,” Mr Vigis says.
class* has fitted out numerous MLE suites, and one of its most recent projects was supplying MLE furniture for the new Pegasus Bay School in Canterbury.
Julie Carter, director of school furniture supplier Distinction, says her company was the first to start supplying MLE furniture, even before it became a Ministry requirement for all new and renovated schools.
“It’s a philosophy we’re passionate about,” she says. “There are diverse kids in our schools, so they need different furniture to match their different learning styles. Some want to sit at a high table, others want to curl up on a bean bag. We set up study corrals for when children need some isolation.”
Ms Carter says libraries are still “special places” within the school, and places of learning, but where they have changed with MLE is with the various types of furniture being used.
“For example, there are the ottomans, which we supply in curved and round shapes and big and small sizes, the different-shaped tables, the bean bags and the ergonomic Hokki stools. These are exclusive to us in New Zealand and are designed to help children’s musculo-skeletal development.
“The static shelving hasn’t changed much, but we focus on making our shelving easy to move so teachers can change the learning areas around.”
And while colourful furniture features strongly, the powder-coated steel shelving colours are more neutral.
“You don’t want bright colours that would distract from the books,” Ms Carter says.
“But with the furnishing fabrics, the colours can be fun and vibrant. We go through a consultation process, with the choices depending on how many kids there are in the school, how much space is available, and we can even match the colours to the philosophy of the school.
“We are also conscious of school budgets, and with refurbishment we can supply new tops for tables, for example, rather than full replacement.”
Ninety per cent of Distinction products are New Zealand made, though one exception is the German-made Pantoflex chair, which comes with a 25-year warranty.
“We are very proud of our New Zealand-made products, with the bulk of them being recyclable. The bulk of our products also carry the Environmental Choice NZ tick and we are the only suppliers to schools that have this,” Ms Carter says.
Library Furniture Specialists Int.workspaces has been supplying school and library furniture for over 20 years, but more recently has expanded into offering a full library fit-out service.
“In the last three years we have set up our new division under the Int.workspaces brand, as a separate part of the business. This is entirely focused on libraries, both public and school,” director Martin Cornes says.
“We have already completed several full school library fit-outs and we are currently working on many other projects.
“When we work with a school we start with a blank floor plan, than work through the desired outcomes and ideas the school has for their library,” Mr Cornes says. “We then take that away and turn it into a concept plan. It is very much a consultation process in which we turn the client ideas with our input into an attractive MLE library.
“We have a range of standard configuration mobile shelving units and many other products that schools can purchase according to the space and budget they have at the time. This simplifies the process of finding exactly they need. Along with the standard ranges we also offer help with any bespoke designs or ideas the school has, as we both welcome and encourage creativity.”
Int.workspaces is in the process of building a comprehensive, all new and user-friendly website and will be launching it later this year, Mr Cornes says.