I’ve been enjoying a relaxing weekend following the ULearn conference here in Christchurch last week – a truly inspirational gathering and a time of celebration and sharing of so many innovative and creative things happening in classrooms and schools around the country (and internationally).
A highlight for me was the pre-conference workshop I helped facilitate with Cheryl Doig from Think Beyond, which we called “Building Future Focused Schools”. Altogether we had nearly 40 people involved over two days, including Stephen Heppell, Damian Allen and Elaine Ayre from Knowsley and Julia Atkin.Within the group we had principals and DPs of new schools that have been or about to be built in NZ, architects, BOT members, National Library and Ministry of Education staff – so the mix was quite diverse, adding a richness to the conversations and ensuring that there was sufficient breadth to what we considered.
We chose the term ‘future focused’ in the title to avoid the now cliched 21st Century label and all the rhetoric about now being one decade in etc. etc., and also to enable us to be thinking in a strongly continuous sense about the process of creating new learning environments. When building schools for the 21st century (or even the 3rd millennium for that matter) there’s a sense in which one can end up thinking of this in a static way, as if there is one solution. The term future-focused is dynamic, meaning that you’re continually looking forward from whatever point in time you consider – and so there’s always a future to consider.
The focus of our time together was to explore what needs to be considered, focusing on the NZ context, when reconceptualising schools and schooling when preparing to either build new schools or re-develop existing ones. We worked towards identifying a set of key principles that might help inform future policy directions, specifically in the following areas:
- Vision, planning and governance
- Pedagogy and space
- Buildings and architecture
- ICT infrastructure
We didn’t have formal presentations or lectures, instead, we worked together in affinity groups around these headings, sharing the considerable expertise and insights of the people in the group, and surfacing the big ideas and recommendations which we’ll now work together to bring into a form that can be shared more widely.
Predictably, there were some macro-level ideas and issues that kept surfacing, including:
- We need to find a way to engage more people in the bigger picture discussions and create more channels of communication to address the ever-present problem of “not knowing what we don’t know”, before we begin trying to solve problems. We heard repeated stories of situations of communities re-inventing the wheel in approaching new school builds. It seems that, in NZ at least, the quality of what is developed depends to a large degree on the individual(s) the community happens to engage with as advisers.
- There’s no point starting anything without a well-established and community-owned vision, supported by an underpinning set of values and beliefs. Establishing this can take time, and needs this time to be spent – but once done, this provides the reference point for all future decisions, a ‘litmus test’ for the development. We heard repeatedly of processes where architects were engaged to begin the design process before the education team had been formed, and of situations where change was being (mis)managed in the absence of a well articulated education philosophy.
- We need to resolve the tension between self-management and centralised systems. We mustn’t simply oscillate between the two – there is a need for both. A good example came up when discussing the pros and cons of various approaches to ICT infrastructure, and the growth of interest in cloud-based infrastructures and central procurement options. Both of these are beyond the scope of what an individual school can establish or achieve, so a more centralised (regional or national) approach has benefits. BUT, it must also be appreciated that innovation will generally happen ‘at the edges’, so we must also create space for local schools or clusters of schools to be able to pursue their own ideas and solutions.
- The concept of ‘building’ future focused schools itself came under scrutiny, with several suggesting the word ‘building’ should be replaced, as it may not be helpful to be thinking about buildings as a primary focus when considering what future focused learning might look like. The concept of networked schools and networked schooling surfaced as a part of this – a topic dear to my heart and one that I share a personal belief will define the shape of what successful schooling will be in the next 10-50 years.
These are but a few of the themes – there’s plenty to be done to refine all of the material we generated, and that will happen. Meantime, you might like to browse through the slides I used for my spotlight presentation on the final day of ULearn where I shared some of the ideas and insights (mixed with my own perspectives) that emerged from these two days.