Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Travel Notes

This last June I traveled to Australia to speak at the CEFPI Australasia Conference.  As part of this trip, we toured Australia and also stopped in Fiji on our way back to the USA.  The conference was a terrific conference with over 500 people from all over the world attending.  My presentation was on Online Learning and the Implications for School Design, a presentation I have given several times in the last year.

For me, the highlight of the conference were the tours of schools in the Sydney area.  The new schools we visited exhibited very progressive pedagogy with a very individualized approach to learning.  Students were collaborating and communicating and presumably being creative while they thought critically about their learning.  Yes, this very much seemed to be an effort to teach 21st century skills. 

The spaces in which this learning took place was fundamentally different from the typical classroom environment that seems to be the world standard.  If anything, the spaces were most like a library in character.  One space, at Northern Beaches Christian School was in fact designed as a library but was in use as a teaching studio. 
Northern Beaches Christian School
Several classes use the space simultaneously and then move to another similar space later in the day. These were middle school aged students and the space was lively but not so loud that you needed to speak in more than a normal voice.  A key reason for this in my view was that the teachers were using the space as intended, rather than trying to force it to do something for which it was not intended - direct instruction.  Teachers were very much acting as "guides on the side" rather than lecturing to their classes.

Northern Beaches is also the home of SCIL - the Sydney Center for Innovation in Learning.  This entity is part and parcel of Northern beaches and uses the school to test new pedagogy and the physical spaces that support it.  You can learn more about them here: scil

Another interesting school I saw was the MLC School in Burwood.  This is a girls' junior and middle school designed to "transform learning."  It too was very open thus encouraging collaboration and self direction.
MLC School Burwood

This school was purpose built to support the progressive pedagogy while Northern Beaches had remodeled and adapted spaces to meet their needs.  MLC organized students into small learning communities each housed in the learning studios pictured.  There were separate activity areas but students good easily move from one to another as their learning required.  Smart boards were on mobile carts so the space could be used flexibly.  Adjacent to the learning studios glass enclosed conferences rooms allowed small groups to  retreat and collaborate while the teacher could still observe them.
Collaboration Space at MLC School
As I visited these schools I asked teachers how they liked teaching in these collaborative spaces and they were all very supportive of the concept.  The schools planning and architecture supports the way they are teaching.  They said that the freedom the layout and approach gives students actually makes them more engaged learners.

Are Australian students different than Americans in their willingness to become engaged in their learning?  Its a complicated question.  these schools are private schools, but 40% of the schools in Australia are private schools.  They use a sort of voucher system so that private schools get state funding which is supplemented by tuition.  So these students may be better off, have better parent involvement, and so may be more self directed than the typical American student.  On the other hand, they are still learning 21st Century Skills that Americans at even the best public schools are not.

For me the lesson of these schools is that this approach works well if you change the teaching paradigm to give students more control over their learning.  To support them once they have this control, a space quite different from the standard classroom is needed.

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