Yesterday I thought I understood what flexible learning is but today, I have a different and broader understanding. I met Lisa Knight, Director of Online School Development of the Sydney Centre for Innovative Learning (SCIL) at a few months ago at a Blended Learning conference and was convinced that a visit to at the North Beaches Christian School (NBCS) incorporating SCIL was a must on this year’s learning space tour. We were met with what I can only describe as joyous chaos at NBCS and as we walked around the learning spaces with the students, it was evident that flexibility was being used in ways that I have not seen before in a formal setting. Not just here and there as a ‘special’ element to the school or being paid lip service but absolutely everywhere. Blended space, time and delivery was visible throughout the whole facility. Even the toilets are considered fair game:-
|2 Girls showed us round the toilets which have been used to display a recent art competition.|
Students were at the core of the curriculum and were driving their own learning. I sat on the floor with a group of students who were immersed in their learning activity during a learning session and they enthusiastically described what they were doing. “I’m visual smart” said one particularly energetic girl, “we did some tests at the beginning of the year to find out what kind of smart you are and I’m visual smart so I picked a visual smart activity for this session”. She and her group were working together on the floor to develop posters that showed how the maths objective they were working on could be presented visually. I asked why they chose to sit on the floor – “the floor is yummy” said another and, like all young girls they immediately fell about giggling. “It’s just comfier sometimes" they explained after recovering "We do sometimes sit on the loungers but not all the time”. Elsewhere children were at desks and chairs, others on loungers. I scanned the room and located a teacher (not sure they are called that here) who I was expecting to be looking over sternly at the group of giggling girls and shushing them but she was engaged in a discussion with another child seated next to her on a sofa and didn’t seem to mind talking in class at all. In fact, at NBCS, discussion and collaboration is a normal part of the learning session.
|Children learn where they feel most comfortable in this scheduled learning session.|
I asked the School’s award winning Principal, Stephen Harris whether such an approach really works. He pointed to the student’s results which remain consistently good. He explained that the school is not aiming for all the kids to get 97 or 98 in their HSCs but they do aim for most to achieve high 80s and many do achieve really high results too. The school is able to track children’s progress after they have left school and report that they go on to do really well at university because they are used to taking responsibility for their own learning. Stephen measures success as: How successful are they at; getting a job; showing compassion; continuing to learn.
But surely such an environment is suited to a narrow group of students? Children with special needs such as Autism and ADHD could not cope in such a free culture? In actual fact, children with such special needs thrive at NBCS, in a couple of cases, parents of ADHD kids have been able to take their children off medication as a result. In traditional schools, they will be asked to sit still and be quiet. Some older students are employed to complete tasks like keeping the rooms tidy after school depending on their strengths. During recess, our tour group gathered in one room where a young girl was preparing the tables for the next session which was spelling. As she set out baskets of pens on the tables and wrote on the tables (all of which are writable surfaces), I asked her who had asked her to help out. “I asked to do it” she said with a broad smile, “I like to organise things”.
The spaces themselves were large and open with lots of natural light and a variety of comfortable places to sit including the floor. There were no really extraordinarily expensive furniture or architecture – in fact in some cases staff and students had designed and or made some of the furniture themselves.
|These 'racers' were designed by a student. It's a seat, somewhere to write/use a laptop and includes space to store a bag.|
|As part of a professional development exercise, staff developed this suite of recycled furniture in a day and it is used in the design lab.|
Here is a virtual tour but it doesn’t really do the space justice, which you can only really understand when it is full of students.
As we all wandered round interrupting sessions and talking to students and staff, no-one seemed to mind, no tutting or shushing – there was a constant hum of chatter and activity. Clearly the school is used to such interruptions and everyone was very happy to chat about their school. One group of boys told me that they enjoyed learning here – “Its fun and so you, like, want to do more of it”. “Its not all interesting” said another “but mostly it is and you have to get the theory done before you can do the prack [practical] –you know, the fun stuff – so you get it done”. Student's strengths are nutured in this environment such as this student, Ellis who was delighted to show us the fruits of his labours:-
Every 7 weeks the children are assessed and set their own targets against which they are measured. Everyone from year 5 has a laptop – they are all different – the BYOD approach that we all keep talking about but it seems to work well. They have IT Support on site and the students help each other. Stephen Harris told us that, in terms of cost, the parents break even really as they don’t have to buy expensive text books as all learning materials are provided to the children online. There is a wireless network they make use of – Facebook is blocked but they have a VLE/online portal they all use for learning. If they forget their laptop they just borrow one of the schools and there are places to charge them up everywhere.
All the spaces have nooks and crannies, desks chairs, sofas and the children sit where they are most comfortable. Individual creativity is encouraged and each child’s strengths are nurtured in the most extraordinary way. Collaboration and inquiry doesn’t need to be encouraged – it is just natural here.
The whole tour group were excited by the school – the spaces, the attitude of the staff and the responses of the students. I asked the Principal how such a shift in learning paradigm could be achieved. “By aggressively shaping a learning culture”, he said. Lisa Knight explained that the results have been achieved over many years, with strong leadership, the commitment and passion of the staff and support of the education authority. The results speak for themselves.