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Beyond subjects - teaching the things that matter

The students (ranging from 8 to 12 year olds) are selling jam at their market stall this week. The trestle table is laden with glass bottles, each carefully covered in a neat fabric circle tied with string.

Earlier in the week, their multi-age classroom may have looked chaotic to the casual observer, with small, animated clusters of students spread around the room. One group calculates the volume of fruit needed to fill their bottles, while others figure out what they will need to charge to be profitable, and several older students research suitable sterilisation techniques online. By the end of the day, some of the kids are carefully handwriting labels and painting signs while nearby classmates work with their teacher to understand the relationship between diameter and circumference in order to cut fabric circles the right size to cover their lids.

It has been over a year since the class started running their business – each week students agree on what they would like to make and sell, supported by their teacher. The idea came from a conversation where they decided to do something about the lack of school playground equipment for the younger kids. Since then they’ve been raising money, visiting nearby schools to research equipment, and collaborating with professional designers.

Back at the stall, another market-goer buys a bottle of jam. The students accept the payment and make change. They notice the their customer is carrying a loaf of sourdough – perhaps they could sell bread next week. Of course, they’ll need to figure out how to bake it first…

How many of us can explain the benefit of more than fifteen thousand hours spent at school?

When asked, we generally talk about two things. The first is knowledge about different subjects (or domains), like knowing the capital of Ecuador (go on, Google it, I’ll wait). The second is domain-specific skills, like using longitude and latitude to it on a map. If we think in these terms, there is surprisingly little other than literacy and numeracy that we actually use today.

The reality is that school teaches us much more, but the important things are less obvious. Sitting above individual domains are two sets of more general, transferable skills – ‘higher order learning skills’ (like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, often referred to as the 4Cs) and ‘social and emotional skills’ (like initiative, resilience, empathy and awareness).

Many teachers and parents today recognise the importance of these skills, yet our education system is built on a curriculum of domain-specific subjects. Our children will come of age in a world fundamentally different from our own. We need to nurture in them the skills to embrace these changes and flourish as happy and successful adults.

Currently, our schools often fail to do this. This is not a radical view. At a recent conference, Dr. Michelle Bruniges, secretary of the NSW Department of Education & Communities acknowledged that the system is not serving students well, suggesting “what we are doing with students hasn't moved out of the 19th century.”

Another voice of concern is veteran educator Barbara Stone, who spent over twenty years as principal of the innovative MLC School in Burwood, one of the first Australian schools to explore the use laptops in the classroom, completely reimagining their junior school in 2005 as “a futurist high-tech village which will nurture the hearts and minds of children”. Stone believes that increasing regulation of what is taught is resulting in a decrease in the professionalism of teachers. “Over-prescription in syllabus content and over-assessment in a variety of ways reduces the capacity of good teachers to develop appropriate and individualised programs for students.”

We have to change the way our schools work. To do this we need to understand how we can best teach more transferable skills. As Anne Knock, director of the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning suggests, these skills need to be “part of a school’s culture, not just learning outcomes.”

Sir Ken Robinson is an international adviser on education and the arts, whose provocative ‘How Schools Kill Creativity’ remains the most popular TED talk ever. The significance of the change required in schools globally has convinced him that "education doesn't need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed.”

To understand how such a transformation might take place, lets consider several Australian schools at the vanguard of this change.

Bold Park Community School in Perth is an independent school heavily influenced by the Italian ‘Reggio Emilia’ philosophy, which values time spent with nature and appreciates the diversity of ways children learn.

“The crux of developing higher order skills is providing time and opportunity,” says principal Paul Whitehead. "This is embedded in our environments, our policies, our approach to the disciplines, our questioning techniques and the provocations we create for and with children.”

The school’s approach to social and emotional skills can be seen in their current ‘whole school focus’ on gratitude. “Teaching staff are looking for opportunities to make students more conscious of this trait, and there have been some beautiful expressions of this central idea, from students maintaining ‘gratitude journals’, to writing letters to community members, to making dog biscuits for homeless dogs.”

“Rather than a ‘discipline policy’, the school has a policy of ‘mutual respect’, which all parents and staff agree to. We approach each ‘conflict’ as an opportunity to empower children with the language and skills to work toward resolution.”

Opened in 1998, Bold Park has continued to evolve in response to the needs of its own student body. While there are a numerous progressive schools like it around Australia, increasingly more traditional schools are also embarking on transformations in the way they approach learning.

One such school is Wooranna Park Primary in Eastern Melbourne. Over ten years ago, this small school began dramatically reshaping its classrooms, funded by the Victorian Schools Innovation Commission as an experiment and demonstration of the power of environment in facilitating learning. The result is large, open-plan spaces, with a range of different areas for students to use as they move through their learning much more autonomously – from tables for working alone to settings for larger group work; from spaces for digital media creation to spaces for painting and sculpting.

Within the classroom, the learning experience is just as unusual. Teaching is done in ‘teams’ – years five and six are combined in one space with four teachers and two aides. Students also often play the role of teacher for others, and much of the learning takes place through self-directed cross-curricular research projects.

The transformation of Woorana Park has been driven by principal Ray Trotter. He believes that “schools, despite their core purpose, have been places built to service the needs of teachers, rather than learners”. While political rhetoric talks about revolutionising education, most government action is motivated by populist thinking and actually reinforces traditional beliefs and practices. Trotter hopes this is changing but recognises that there is still a way to go. “Many teachers believe that the traditional ‘one teacher classroom’ is still the best way to educate students and, sadly, many teachers simply don’t understand why or how to teach in the more contemporary learning environments.”

Not all schools are able to transition as dramatically and physically as Wooranna Park, but increasingly schools are building change into their strategies. Hurstville Public School, in Sydney’s South West, has a three-year school plan that explicitly seeks to implement 21st century learning practices. Amy Mortimer, who is teaching there while completing her doctorate on creativity in education, has been tasked with facilitating professional learning to engage staff and build their skills – as well as working alongside them in the classroom.

Amy is quick to point out that the 4Cs do not replace academic content and outcomes. “We have employed project-based learning as one method of implementing the 4Cs across the school to promote the understanding of content at much higher levels. Our focus needs to be on how students use knowledge; how they appropriately and effectively apply knowledge to develop themselves as learners; how they use their collaborative and creative skills to work together to construct new knowledge.”

“We’re trying to make our students more reflective. They’re competitive academically, so we’re working hard on creating a safe learning environment where risk taking and mistake making is valued rather than frowned upon.”

“Shifting pedagogy isn’t new – teachers in general been doing it for years – but it can be met with resistance. Real challenges include changing the mind-set of those teachers who are isolated in their classrooms and not used to working collaboratively; and bringing parents on board in communities where academia is highly valued over elusive outcomes like creativity.”

While Hurstville is just beginning its journey, one nearby school is further along. Camdenville Public School in Sydney’s Inner West is a primary school of just over 240 students. For the past three years, assistant principal Michelle Hostrup has been working with the staff to implement various learning practices including project-based learning and play-based learning.

“We are empowering student voice and leadership,” says Hostrup. “We want students to have a say, to make change, to have an impact. We want them to be engaged participants in their environment – working together and problem solving.”

Recently students spent a term in self-determined groups exploring ways to make the school more sustainable. They regularly discussed their personal learnings and the experience of working in groups, building skills in providing feedback to each other. At the conclusion of the project, each group pitched their idea to a sustainability expert from Marrickville Council. “We try and get outsiders in as much as possible,” says Hostrup. “Students understand that learning doesn’t just happen at school. We have children making birdhouses at home after doing a project on improving spaces at the school. They are connected to their learning, and can see how their learning is connected to their community and their environment.”

In parallel to the project-based approach, teachers still deliver explicit lessons on syllabus topics – often the students themselves then make links between this learning and their projects. “Students can see that knowledge is not compartmentalized,” says Hostrup. “They appreciate the connectedness and we can see them applying learning from one area to another.”

The change has also been reflected in the physical learning spaces. Existing classrooms have been reconfigured to make them more open and flexible. This means less furniture, less conformity, and spaces that students can adapt to the needs of the moment.

The belief in giving students agency can be seen in a recent project where Years 1 and 2 reimagined their learning spaces. They visited other classrooms in the school, and asked students from other classes to act as an expert advisers. Once they had decided what they wanted, they made a shopping list, worked to a budget, and purchased furniture to suit their needs. Today, a typical lesson might see students spread around the room, working autonomously or in small groups – some choosing the more traditional cluster of tables and chairs to one side, some working together at a child-sized standing desk, others sitting on a handful of beanbags.

The transformation has been just as significant for staff as for students. “This approach gives teachers the freedom to be responsive, making their own decisions,” says Hostrup. “It’s very empowering. Increasingly we have staff coming to us and saying ‘I’d like to try this, or that’, and they’re given the space and support to trial new ideas and refine their practice in order to improve student learning opportunities.”

Camdenville, Hurstville and Wooranna Park are part of a growing movement of government schools making transformational changes. It isn’t always easy. “This approach is more unpreictable,” says Hostrup. “For teachers it requires stepping back and letting go – you can’t always know what the learning will look like in a few weeks.”

There is a sense that public schools are becoming more autonomous than they once were. “Principals have more control over their budget and who they employ,” says Amy Mortimer. “School plans have to be constructed in consultation with the community and there is encouragement to establish academic partnerships.”

Similarly, Barbara Stone suggests that the inherent autonomy of independent schools means they have “the capacity to be ground-breaking when there needs to be change in schooling, given their more flexible systems of governance.”

An interesting trend is this sector is the emergence of several new approaches to schooling in Victoria. Situated on over a thousand acres just north of Melbourne, Candlebark School opened in 2006 to offer students greater freedom to take risks in their learning, and more personal, open relationships with teachers. The school is the brainchild of best-selling author John Marsden who is planning to open a nearby high school next year, with a focus on the arts.

In the much more urban setting of Port Melbourne, a group of educators are seeking to open the Sandridge School in the next two years. Their vision is for a school intimately connected to the community, striving to instil a sense of citizenship and entrepreneurial drive. The school also proposes employing positive psychology to support the emotional wellbeing of students.

In sketching the physical and pedagogical environments of such a diverse set of schools scattered across the country it’s clear that there is no consensus yet on how this much needed transformation will take place – and perhaps consensus is not what’s needed. Michelle Bruniges strikes a balance of cautious optimism when she suggests that the challenge facing the education system is to turn “fragments and pockets” into “a widespread culture of innovation”. It is perhaps ironic that creating this culture involves educators and parents taking the initiative, collaborating with one another, being resilient in the face of resistance, and thinking creatively.


An abridged version of this article appeared in BOSS Magazine.

Brett Rolfe

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