Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Redefining School Part 1

I'm lucky enough to be in Sydney this week touring a range of schools with a group of teachers from Christchurch and Southland. The purpose of the week is to learn about and from some of the schools and the remarkable teachers in them about technology initiatives that are working.

This post is the first of a few. Initially I thought I'd do each school as a separate post, but after today's session at Northern Beaches Christian School that idea went out the window. So much to talk about. So - humour me while I try and make a few points about some of the stuff I saw today.

Northern Beaches Christian College was the venue for today. We were hosted by an interesting character. Steve Collis has the neat title of Director of Innovation at the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL). Now, the SCIL was basically invented by the school, so that was the first learning byte - if you want something, invent it. (Sound like Alan Kay anyone? "Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn't violate too many of Newton's Laws!"-  I love that quote from 1971).

Well, Steve is a bit of showman. But - what I found by following him around the school was that this was one of the few schools I have been to where the talk was matched by the walk. Certainly in the Year 7 - 9 classes I saw anyway.

So ... what were the takeaways worth remembering ...
  • they've merged the physical space with the virtual space
    • so - they have large teaching spaces - they've knocked down walls over about 10 years and now have large teaching spaces where learning happens. Up to 180 students and 6 teachers in the same space at the same time doing ... kind of the same thing, but with as many options as they have been able to agree to do as a team.
    • they have learned the need to minimise noise by using special roofing tiles and walls that really do reduce noise - we were in a technology space where 75 students were working with various bits of equipment and talking - and we could see them from the other end of the room, but we couldn't hear them!
    • What follows are a couple of images of some of the spaces. Comments as appropriate.

    • what was interesting in this space was that the students (Year 7) were just at the end of a whole class intro session on whatever the content was ... so typical team teaching lecture style - nothing different, right? It was what happened when the leader/teacher said "get to work" that something was different. There were around 120 students in this group. They all got to work immediately - there was not a sound - so I presume it was an individual task - but not a sound. So - not sure that this was anything more than team teaching, but the students were clearly used to it and knew what was expected of them.
    • Next space was a year 9 "Matrix" exercise - (more on the matrix in another post - its worth its own post). In this class I spoke with a couple of Year 9 students and one of the teachers. 
    • poor photography aside - you can see that the space is huge (this shows about half the space). Teachers simply worked with individuals or groups as required. Students knew what they had to do for the entire term and they were all working on their various tasks. Obviously the make-up of the task is important to this, that's the "Matrix" I'll refer to next post. The three students I spoke to could tell me exactly what they were doing and why and could easily navigate their online portal where all resources were. The portal is just Moodle (and 1.9 at that!) - but they have configured a landing page with the appropriate links to the pages/resources that students needed.
    • the furniture is not standard either - there are a range of table types and sizes, and chair sizes and styles - and students are free to arrange the room how they want.
    • they talk of 3 types of space 
      • the cave - a student wants to work alone
      • the campfire - a small group want to learn from a master story teller
      • the watering hole - everyone goes there at some stage and informal learning about anything can happen there
    • each room or learning space can be configured to any or all of these at the same time
    • the teacher I spoke with showed me how the Year 7 teachers had decided on the activities for the Matrix and how they monitored student progress and achievement. Despite all the work on Moodle, they used an Excel spreadsheet that linked the scores students gained from completing matrix work through to a map of the curriculum outcomes they were working with - so there is no doubt that there is a lot of teacher effort going in here.
    • This next image is one from a newish building - taken using Photosynth on my iPhone (one of the more useful Microsoft tools). What this doesn't show is that there were 150 students in this Year 7 group - all working on a social studies project.
    • The large screens here were simultaneously playing a series of video and still images designed to evoke some feelings amongst the students. The teacher I spoke to didn't know if the theory behind this playing of "subliminal images" worked or not - but felt there was some theory there.
And I guess that's the first takeaway. The school has clearly decided that they needed to back their changes with some theoretical base as well as a degree of "Alan Kay" - and invent their own future. So, the learning spaces are big and for a fair chunk of the school week students work in very large groups doing any number of tasks that are moderated by a team of teachers - who, while they have some nominal "class" teacher role, spend their time working with any of the students.

The kids I spoke with loved the freedom to "do what they want to" even though they were basically just picking from a set of given projects - but the range was pretty impressive.

Steve talked to us about a "love of learning" - in fact, the school holds this more important than outstanding academic results (though they will be related of course). They have taken time (10 years so far) to build the physical and virtual environments that overlap to provide the overall learning environment. The student numbers have increased from 200 in 2002 to 1200 in 2012. All students from Year 5 - Year 12 bring their own device - so students have Mac Books, iPads, Acer, HP, Dell, .... They use whatever applications they want. Staff cope. 

The environment supports students ("free range chickens" Steve called them) and their ability to self navigate the curriculum. They trial it in small bits (bunny hops they call them) and modify - but always seeking to make the students central and use the environment and technology to facilitate.

It seems to work. In the next post I'll talk about the "matrix" and how they bring teachers along via their professional learning program. 

No comments:

Post a Comment