Sydney Centre for Innovative Learning @ Northern Beaches Christian School

In addition to my research goals, I came to Australia to visit as many schools as possible and I picked a great one for my first deep-dive visit. This week, I spent the day with Anne Knock, Director of Development at the Sydney Centre for Innovative Learning (SCIL) based at Northern Beaches Christian School about an hour north of Sydney. Anne toured me through the school, shared her passions for making schools better for kids, and took me through some of the tools used in workshops with SCIL. Anne also happens to be a PhD student on the ILETC. I have admired her blog from afar for years and am so amazed that we have not only now met but will be working together throughout the year on all this great research!

Anne first gave me a broad overview of the school and its history. Its current principal Stephen Harris, who can be credited with its evolution, began in 1999 and thus, has had a long tenure in which to make consistent, positive change possible. The design of the space is simply beautiful. The design architect, WMK, had never once designed a school before, exactly what NBCS wanted in their team. In fact, the competing firms were asked to not even show schools in their briefs (not all listened). Through intense collaboration with Mr. Harris a facility that blends the indoors with the outdoors, supports continual agility in teaching and learning, and has the bustling vibe of a tech company was created, built, and is being successfully utilized.

The campus hosts 1300 students in kindergarten through year 12 and they roughly progress in and are grouped in pairs: year 1 and 2, year 3 and 4, etc. This allows educators the flexibility to group by skill/interest and more opportunities for co-teaching. There are no teacher offices or owned spaces. This is in-line with one of the school’s key values: relationships. Teachers and students all co-exist and support one another.

When you first enter the “heart” of the school, you are greeted by three different screens. The first, at the start of the day, has a running list of which buses have arrived and a GPS map of buses still on the road. During the day, this shows any location changes for classes and a map of the campus with any location changes for that particular session. This latter element is key as NBCS uses every inch of their facility as a learning space meaning educators shuffle at times depending on what they are working on and the lesson's associated needs, regardless of subject. This in turn creates a well-utilized school with a constant hum of activity. However, to ensure the shifts are not chaotic, communication of where students are meant to be is key.

Screen two is an ever-evolving display of student work - music videos, documentaries, visualizations, the full gamut!

Screen three is their “window to the world” and has a running playlist of videos from locations around the globe. The space around the large screen is designed to accommodate large events and presentations and participants can gather on the staircase, in the plaza, or in the courtyards adjacent and treehouse above – multi-functional and beautiful.

After the tour, I grabbed my laptop and spent time working in the various spaces (a testament to the culture here is that my sitting to the side while students worked bothered absolutely no one).

Office #1: “Rhythm and Blues” My first “office” for the day was in the Rhythm and Blues learning space. Formally two classrooms, the studio is transformed into something that is designed to mimic the life of a musician, not that of a student. Working in groups of approximately 7, students open their laptops to see where they start their rotation for the day. They run off a true blended model with a map of learning for the term so students can pace themselves as needed. However, this is not a space in which all work independently from a laptop; educators are present and students are in constant communication.

Three adages were used to describe the space and course philosophy to me:

“It’s all about the gig” – it doesn’t matter what you do in class or how you got there, all that matters is the performance. Thus, students are held accountable for their finished product and perform regularly for one another.

“Music for the people, with the people” – Biweekly concerts are a regular part of the school and this program. The philosophy of music is also a personalized one.

“Music at the speed of thought” – all the instruments and technology are at the ready. There is no need to break thought and set something up. Instead, walk over and get creating!

Office #2: “The Zone” It is amazing how comfortable having 180 students in one ope

n building can be when it’s designed and used as intended! As I write this, I am sitting with 180 students navigating their curriculum in groups. Educators are roving the space working some, other students congregate in booths or on mobile soft seating, while others sit on the tiered staircases using google classroom to create presentations on the basic elements of coding. Rows of desks are simply nonexistent yet learning abounds – imagine that!

Office #3: “The Treehouse” This space overlooks the main courtyard space and the large “window to the world”. There’s power access under the benches so I am able to get work done alongside senior year students eating their own lunches and collaborating in groups on school work. They must be teaching self-confidence as a young girl just walked upstairs and confronted a group of senior boys next to me, accusing them of dropping rubbish on her and her peers in the courtyard below. You go girl! Turns out it was likely the bird sitting in the landscaping next to them, ce la vie.

At the end of the afternoon, we sat in the "Skybridge" and Anne shared some of the work she does in her role with SCIL and walked me through the use of their Engage/Design tool. You can check out some sweet tutorials on the web but here’s the low down on how the activity works:

A Story of People on a Journey in a Space

  1. Develop empathy while identifying your team. Why are you here? Where did you come from? Each team member shares a bit about themselves.

  2. Discuss/identify the overarching Vision. Depending on the end goal of the workshop and the participants, this could be the vision of the school as a whole or more individualized

  3. Discuss/identify the values that support the vision

  4. Decide on student "empathy archetypes". We know that not every lesson or activity will garner the same reaction from each student. Thus, it’s important to identify the students you are designing for in this particular session.

  5. Your storyboard consists of the following parts:

  6. Mountaintop – what is your end goal?

  7. Start with an entry event – what will set the tone?

  8. Immersion – this is the meat of it all.

  9. Matrix - how are lessons/options presented? what is the interface in which students interact?

  10. Passion – how can students integrate their own interests into your design?

  11. Check Points – does the plan as it sits meet the Vision? How would each of the student archetypes respond?

  12. Move on to the Habitat, both Physical and Virtual

  13. Utilizing an edited version of David Thornbury’s archetypes, participants discuss space in terms of Caves, Watering Holes, Campfires, Outdoor Space, and often forgotten but important, Empty Space.

I look forward to incorporating the tool into the design work I do back home as I think it will add a more defined element to the conversations around the types of learning activities that will occur in the space.

Overall, the day was incredible. It is a hard to describe feeling when you're in a school that just jives from the design to the pedagogy. Thank you Anne for taking the time to show me around!

#schooldesign