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26. October 2011
Since my education expedition early this year, nobody I know has been able to escape my enthusiastic reports about the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL) and the extraordinary degree of innovation I could experience there over two days back in March. Our playDUcation team now had the honor to host the visit of the principal and founder of SCIL, Stephen Harris, for the past two and a half days in Berlin. It's quite impossible to sum up all the exciting discussions we've had, but we finished our encounter by asking Stephen for his five most important principles of innovation in education. Here are his “big five”, enriched by thoughts and ideas we’ve talked about while visiting schools, tourist sites, vivid districts and places of art and design in Berlin.
Have a broad and radical vision, big enough to engage every person
Together with many educational visionaries around the world, both Stephen and I share the vision that in probably 20 years from now, schools are not going to exist anymore in the traditional style. We envisage co-learning spaces in the midst of communities, where people from different ages and interests come to take part in learning labs. Or we imagine how groups of active learners sharing a special interest, go straight out of those places to explore. Stephen is driven by the conviction that environments can change attitudes and behaviors, and he is an architect by heart and a furniture designer by passion. He is permanently scanning his surroundings for new ways to create learning spaces in which children could follow their natural ways to move, to sit, to put their bodies in a position that fosters learning. The success can be seen in NBCS – Kids with ADHD can focus better in the refurbished classrooms and open spaces created by Stephen and his SCIL team.
Create deep and true engagement
Don’t think this is just paying lip service. I’ve been to Stephen's school and I’ve seen how he inspires and fascinates his staff and students. He makes them laugh. Lets them play. Lets them lead. And then again, they do the same with each other. “Empower” is the motto. His staff gave me the impression to be the most supportive and happy bunch of teachers I’ve ever seen in a place – and I say this with admiration and whishing I could have created such an outstanding atmosphere at Phorms (and Phorms already has a great atmosphere).
Stephen told me about a student who kind of harassed a teacher with a picture on Facebook – something that may have led to being expelled in another school. Of course they had a serious word with him. But they have recognized that the kid had an interest in photography and PR, and they’ve trained and allowed him to become a school photographer. By seriously getting his mind wrapped around what real photography needs, the urge to get nonsense on Facebook decreased gradually…
We spoke about what the characteristics of good teachers are. Stephen’s great credo is authenticity, and he believes that good teachers should also do what they are in charge of – a physics teacher should research, an arts teacher should paint and an English teacher should write novels or poems.
Aim high and be a risk taker, have the guts to resist given rules, routines, and cannots
That’s the hardest. That’s where I started to envy Stephen for the Australian culture. We spoke a lot about being a changemaker in Germany, trying to push innovation in the culture of “Bedenken” - concerns. It’s hard, but not impossible – those who really want, do it, in the most unexpected places. Like at the Erika-Mann-Grundschule, about whom we’ve learned from an Australian Design Collection homepage, the CoolHunter. We did not even make an appointment, we just dropped in, expecting to be sent away but maybe get a glace at the colorful corridors before… We’ve entered the Sekretariat and in a whim we had in front of us the headmaster Karin Babbe, full of curiosity and good mood, who proudly gave us a tour (I’ll follow up with a new blog post, this school is a highly playDUcative place!). In this school, creativity created an exceptional learning atmosphere despite the challenges of a school population with more than 80% unemployed parents.
Remove the timetable – invent new creative structures
The processes of learning at SCIL and NBCS stroke me to be extraordinarily effective. During a dinner on Monday evening, Steve explained to our team and our guests how he changed the whole notion of delivering the curriculum into a true learning process. I’ve seen the SCIL matrix working – it’s a project-based learning approach related to the subjects of the curriculum on one hand, and on the other one to Gardner’s intelligences. Inside the matrix, there are multiple tasks that kids can accomplish, developing so a broader and deeper understanding of their own strengths and capacities. It’s a true highlight to hear from a fourth grader something like: “I know that I’m a visual and kinesthetic person and therefore good at maths and art. I’m now working on my literacy skills and want to become a better listener.” And it is purely amazing to observe more than 160 teenagers in one big space, having no discipline issues whatsoever and being deeply engaged in their learning.
Stephen's vision goes even beyond this. He believes that schools should also follow the Google 80:20 rule, and give each teacher the opportunity to do in at least 20% of the time with their students whatever their passion is.
Make teamwork, collaboration, and relationship building a habit
Last but not least, this is a favorite subject – not only for learning, but also for work and life. Everything comes easier if we do it together. That’s our nature as human beings. Why should anyone sit alone in exams and squeeze his memory? That’s not an authentic situation. Learners need to be able to research, to filter knowledge, to ask around and discuss.
Building relationships will be a key success skill for the future. Stephen’s recipe for this ties in with his whole visit in Berlin: Tear down walls! He means this physically. Who needs classrooms in boxes? Team teaching comes with transparency, open spaces, visibility and openness. We walked through spaces like the Stilwerk or concept stores and agreed that learning spaces of the future could be like this. We didn’t ever say schools anymore. And I felt extraordinarily happy when Stephen said: “playDUcative places”.