Schools of the future

Albany Senior High School is one of the latest examples of a new style of education for New Zealand. This could be the type of school to be brought to Christchurch.

Some secondary schools have thrown out the traditional classroom and instead operate hall-like "learning commons" where groups of up to 100 students work in fluid project teams while four or five teachers wander among them as facilitators.

John Sofo, of Auckland's ASC Architects, the "go to" designer for this new school thinking, says nationally the education debate seems to be about other things - the familiar controversies over charter schools, teacher/pupil ratios and national standards testing.

Barely registering is the fact that there is this reinvention of the schooling system taking place, a shift away from an education tailored to the needs of the industrial era to one better suited to a modern knowledge economy.

"As society became organised and industrialised in the 1870s and 1880s, education became organised and industrialised in the same way.

"Learning was modelled on the kinds of abilities you needed in the workplace and knowledge was compartmentalised.

"The idea of teaching separate subjects really was an invention of that era. We've accepted that now as the natural way to learn, but in fact it is not. Knowledge needs to be integrated."

Sofo says New Zealand, already a top-10 performing nation in the OECD rankings, has been gearing up for radical change for a decade. A milestone was the 2010 introduction of the new curriculum which emphasises an inquiry-based approach to learning. Sofo ticks off its four principles.

"If you asked what skills do kids need in the next 20 years to be successful, well, they need to be global in their thinking. They need to know how to find information, but not necessarily recollect it because it is available everywhere. They need to know how to take information and synthesise it. And the really key thing is that they need to know how to work together - how to be collaborative and form relationships."

It is a far broader notion of education, he says. Children still require literacy and numeracy. But the new curriculum is designed to foster the more general strengths of reasoning skills, self- management skills and even a social conscience.

It is ambitious. And to make it happen, Sofo says the old educational model of a teacher standing in front of 25 to 30 students, everyone studying the same section of a textbook for 50 minutes, has to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sofo describes the new schools he has been involved in building, such as Papamoa College, which opened two years ago.

He says the "classroom unit" is now a mixed-age group of 80 to 100 children - the number of people which anthropologists say makes a natural "tribe", a proper community with an identity.

And instead of a collection of small classrooms, Papamoa employs a flexible collection of study spaces.

"For instance, you will see a general 'syndicate' space that nobody owns.

"It's a place where you can go and plug in your laptop, which you can occupy for an hour, or a week if you're doing some project."

Another kind of space is an internet cafe.

"That's a place where you can work, but also socialise - the boundaries between the two become more and more blurred."

The policy on technology is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Students are not only allowed but encouraged to hook into the school's super-fast wireless internet with their own computers and phones.

It is just all the things you would expect of a modern adult work environment, Sofo says. Like toilets that are part of the rooms.

"Students aren't forced to go outside to the toilet - I can't think of any other public building type where you have to go outside to relieve yourself. It's uncivilised.

"These studios are places where students are welcome to make themselves a cup of tea, microwave their lunch and sit together on bean bags. Why should you have to go outside to cower under the veranda in the rain?"

Sofo says as a result, the school atmosphere is utterly different. Students feel they own their spaces because they are not in them for single periods but entire days. "They just don't want to go home. Students stay around school because it's such an exciting and interesting place to be."

The way students study in these new spaces is equally different - project rather than subject-based.

"There will still be instruction. But you won't have teachers sitting down with a group of 30 and saying I'm going to teach you trigonometry for the next 45 minutes. Instead it might be students doing a science project like 'let's build a telescope'.

"So then you need to learn about optics, you need to learn about astronomy, you need to learn about tracking objects in the sky - there's an element of trigonometry there. The necessary knowledge will be woven into the project."

It seems a recipe for classroom mayhem. But Sofo says self- regulation and collaboration are precisely what schools are aiming to teach. Give students a civilised, stimulating environment and they will respond.

"This actually works better for low-decile schools because it creates a great sense of community."

Sofo says the new school design applies just as much to trade academies as it does to schools focused on producing university fodder or white collar workers.

"It is all about learning by doing. And that is traditionally project-based. Why would you have 30 kids all doing woodwork and making the same letterbox when one kid might have a passionate interest to build a bike frame and another one a model aeroplane?"

Others are equally enthusiastic about the possibilities. Derek Wenmoth, director of e-Learning at Christchurch's CORE Education, says it is obvious the internet will continue to transform the world of work and the world of education.

"The idea of a school as the sacred haven where knowledge was stored is nearly two centuries old now. In the age of the internet, we have to think about schools in terms of their virtual presence as much as their physical one."

So where Sofo is focused on the redesign of buildings to suit the new education philosophies, Wenmoth has been working on networking technology that could change the way schools interact with each other and the wider world.

Just think about Christchurch, Wenmoth says. It has a proud tradition of schools with an individual identity and reputation. Yet that has also encouraged a "not invented here" mentality.

"Schools have existed as stand- alone, self-managing units. The assumption is that they can act autonomously because they are filled with the resources to meet all their students' needs, provide the full range of possible courses. But hand on heart, that has never really been the case."

With video-conferencing, distance learning, and other web- based possibilities to share the city's best teachers, its specialised resources, Wenmoth says suddenly there is a chance to rebuild Christchurch with quite a different learning environment.

Other Christchurch educational experts, like Cheryl Doig, of Alpine Leadership, and Denis Pyatt, a consultant and former principal of Papanui High School, say the more you think about it, the more outdated the existing school system seems, and the greater the opportunity now to introduce change across a whole city.

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