In my last blog I went to town on the current system of education and questioned what a better, more modern one would look like. Just a couple of weeks before leaving Australia my call was answered, as by good fortune a friend told me the Northern Beaches Christian School and its education innovation centre; the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. I jumped on their free tour today and checked it out.

It’s very, very impressive. The ‘learning spaces’ (not ‘classrooms’) are open and bright – one of the first things they did was knock the walls down between rooms to remove that closed feeling that I remember the rooms had when I was at school. Classes are allowed to mix with one another, and even with different age groups. They use the phrase ‘guide on the side rather than sage on the stage’ to describe their teaching paradigm. The learning is student-directed, with the teachers moving around and helping students along. For the most part, the students get on with it using their own initiative. A lot of the learning is focussed around real-world scenarios and collaboration. There is not such a feeling of competition as typically emanates from educational institutions. Students bring their own computers in to school and do a lot of the work from there, with an e-learning platform providing the template for their lessons.

As they bring in more innovation and non-traditional methods the student performance on standardised government assessment has improved. The numbers of negative behavioural incidents has dropped by 80% from the time they began adopting a different pedagogy. Their graduates adapt well to university, because they are more accustomed to self-direction and adopting their own learning structure. The skills they prioritise are ‘soft’ skills – those such as communication, self-management and problem-solving that will prove valuable no matter how much the world around us continues to change.

Those are the details. But it was the feel of the place that stays with you.

You could tell how engaged the students were. 9 and 10 year olds without a teacher supervising them and getting on with their exercises – and clearly enjoying it. You could tell that it was a place students were happy to be, rather than waiting until they could go home. No bells. No students being disciplined. The kids were quite confident chatting to the adults walking around and answering their questions. Trust was placed in the kids to learn as was best for them. It was student-centred; not teacher-centred.

I’d like to go again – 2 hours is barely a glimpse.

It’s obviously not as straightforward as picking up this system and replicating it elsewhere. A school is so complex, with dozens of staff and 100s of students you have enormous interaction and so many layers of processes taking place. Having not worked in a school myself (next step..?) it’s hard to understand all of that. They are also open that they do not currently have a ‘model’. It’s more of a series of continuous innovations. In fact, they suggest it works well because they are continuing to move forward. Not everything works, and you need good responsible staff in charge of such innovation because these are the children’s lives you’re experimenting with here.

What struck me when I was reflecting afterwards, is that of all the non-traditional schools I’ve looked at, there are some startling similarities in the themes that emerge. Student-centred. Teacher as a guide. Open spaces. Real-world skills and learning applications. Collaboration. Fostering many forms of intelligence, not just academic. It is surely no coincidence that educators have questioned the current system and looked to innovate have come to such similar conclusions as to what must change.

If schools such as this were to become the template, rather than the current traditional, industrial model of education, the paradigm shift would be astronomically complex. SCIL say that the transition from traditional to non-traditional is one of the toughest things and you inevitably see resistance when the status quo is changed. It’s not just a model for the school you need, but a model for the transition. Do you transition existing institutions? Or start new ones and let the old ones die out? And for public education (North Beaches Christian School is a private school), you need a massive change in policy around the way education is administered. That requires senior government figures with vision willing to put their necks on the line for something that will radically change the status quo and that people will resist. It requires long-term evidence-based models to compare with the outdated ones.

It’s not easy, but in my mind there’s no doubt it needs to happen. As Ken Robinson says, we are failing to make use of our most valuable resource – human potential. The role of public education in this is massive.

If you’re interested in other models of learning, Ken Robinson’s ‘Out of Our Minds’ is well worth a read. I also strongly recommend watching this:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByO41gE3dPQ

 

I’m slowly compiling a list of the great examples I come across…

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