Amesbury School is what is currently (in ministry parlance) called an Innovative Learning Environment. When we first opened, we talked about being a 21st century learning school. Now there are many terms used to describe the general kind of schooling that we offer and they all mean different things to different people. We prefer to talk about our school as serving the needs of our 21st century learners. For us this means a focus on delivering a rigorous curriculum through highly effective teaching and learning programmes and personalising learning to meet the needs, interests and desires of each individual child. It represents our strong commitment that every child will experience educational success at our school. We recognise the value of the changing technology available to meet the needs of our learners. We have found cloud-based applications particularly useful in assisting the personalisation of learning and for providing anywhere, anytime learning to our students as well as assisting collaborative endeavours. The design of our school and its furnishings are quite different from traditional schools – more open, less cluttered, with a wider range of furniture such as ottomans which can be used flexibly to create the kinds of learning environments that meet students’ differing needs.
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According to Wylie, (2012) what is now needed from the New Zealand public education system (and worldwide) is much more demanding than it has been. The demands of the rapidly changing, fast paced, unpredictable nature of the world in which we live today as well as the changed expectations of people, means that what is required from schools is quite different. Whereas once upon a time the bell curve required 50% of students to fail and it was not expected that every student would find school worthwhile; in today’s world the expectation is that all students will be fully engaged in personalised learning programmes that take account of their needs, interests and desires, and that students will develop the wide range of skills that will enable them to be citizens of the future who will thrive in the increasingly complex and uncertain world.
Projections show that in the future there will be very few jobs available for people with low or no skills and many of the jobs our students will have in the future have not even been created yet. Therefore, all of today’s young people need to finish school as continuous learners who will be able to “train and re-train, think and work in teams and to be flexible, adaptable and creative” (Your child, your School, 2009, p.5). They will need to have the confidence, initiative and resilience to create their own opportunities.
Changes in technology and access to technology have been significant drivers of the change we are facing. Dryden and Vos (2008) suggested that the new networked age “makes it urgent to rethink entirely what we mean by education, learning, teaching and schooling” (The Learning Revolution, p. 22). They contend that education is currently changing more than it has since the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago and compulsory classroom schooling 300 years ago.
We also now know so much more about how the brain works. These new understandings, such as the Human Genome Programme, the discoveries about how the mind, body and brain work together; new understandings about hardwiring and how it drives perception; and, neuroplasticity and the growing understanding of the brain’s capacity to create new connections on a huge scale throughout a person’s life - are shattering many of the ideas on which education and learning has long been based. Download book by Mark Treadwell, Learning: How the brain learns, for example. The world is very clearly in a learning revolution and Amesbury School needs to be a part of it.
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From its outset, Amesbury School was to be a “21st century learning environment”. The Establishment Board of Trustees and the Ministry worked together to design the school with this in mind. We understand the rationale for reinventing education as explained above, but the really hard question that consumes us is: just what does this actually look like on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis?
21st century learning or future-focused learning as it is sometimes called, is not a fixed prescription or known formula, but rather it “can be considered as an emerging cluster of new ideas, beliefs, knowledge, theories and practices – some of which may be visible in some schools and classrooms, some which exist only in isolated pockets and others which are barely visible yet” (Supporting Future-Oriented Learning and Teaching, Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 1).
At Amesbury School, our educational approach is continually developing and emerging as we explore what this kind of learning “looks like” – as we hear about new educational approaches - but mostly as we gain a better understand of our own vision for education and reflect upon the efficacy of our practices in the light of our vision and then change what we do as a result. Because this type of learning is not yet fully known and understood, we work at the crossroads of theory and practice with our practice informing our developing theory and our theory informing our practice. As a result, our teaching and learning is continually evolving and, we believe, we are increasingly realising our vision for education.
The one thing that doesn’t change is our vision for education and our commitment to doing the best for our students. Amesbury School’s vision is for: EVERY student to experience what it means to be fully human and continually fulfil his/her potential
Experiencing what it means to be fully human
We want students to experience a "humanising education". The term "humanising" is a bit off putting for some people – it seems woolly and soft. However, our experience is that it is anything but! A humanising education is one in which each student experiences highly effective teaching and learning which acknowledges and values their uniqueness, their place as insiders in their own learning (insiderness), their empowerment to make plans and carry them out (agency), their need to belong, to feel part of a group (togetherness), but also to be acknowledged as being on their own personal journey. A humanising education acknowledges and meets the needs of the "whole" child and ensures that they are involved in the process of making sense of their experiences and the world. This kind of education is not focused only on students learning content or knowledge and skills, but rather on learning content AND using it to live better in and for the world. Content/skills are a means but they are not the end of education.
We have borrowed this model of humanising care from nursing (see diagram below). Its proponents argue that when people experience each of these aspects of what it means to be human, they will experience what it means to be fully human. This is what we want for our students. Hence, as we develop our educational practices, we continually think about how we can acknowledge and honour each of these humanising aspects in every aspect of teaching and learnin
Model from Humanising Care in Nursing
|Humanising Aspect||Dehumanising Aspect|
|Sense-making||Loss of Meaning|
|Personal Journey||Loss of Personal Journey|
|Sense of Place||Dislocation|
This is a significant shift from the model of education that has been the dominant paradigm for decades. In the industrial model of education the learner was required to fit the system rather than the education system being built around the learner. This new paradigm is often known as “personalisation of learning” and signals a move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of the Industrial Age education system. It rests on the idea that if we now require all students to be successful in our school system, with increased skills and capacities, as Wylie (2012) suggested in her book Vital Connections; and, if all students are unique and have diverse capabilities, interests and needs; then we MUST provide something other than a one-size-fits-all schooling which will inevitably marginalise some students and ensure their failure in the system.
Students continually fulfilling their potential
Assisting students to continually fulfil their potential is not simply about providing students with opportunities that they might or might not take up. We believe it needs to involve a much more purposeful and continual challenging of our students in order to really see what they are capable of as well as providing opportunities for students to see what they are interested in and passionate about. Interestingly, this is exactly what students want. Recently one student was asked what advice he would give his teachers, he said, “Challenge me a bit more – I never want anything to be easy. I don’t want to waste my time in learning. I want to keep progressing and progressing. Every time give me something new.”
Vygotsky (a seminal thinker in education) introduced the idea of the “zone of proximal development”. In his theory, the zone of proximal development describes the area between a child’s level of independent performance (what he/she can do alone) and the child’s level of assisted performance (what he/she can do with support). Assisting a child to continually fulfil his or her potential, requires teachers to know exactly what a child can already do independently, what the child needs to know next and then to target instruction within that “zone of proximal development” - including providing supported learning and practice until the child can do it independently. Teachers need to think about what approaches will work for each individual child and to keep trying out different approaches until the child is able to perform the skill independently.
However, ensuring that students continually fulfil their potential is not just about continually progressing through curriculum skills and knowledge. It is also about continually learning how to be successful citizens of the cultures and communities that students belong to, both in and outside of school – such as the community of learners or ethnic groups – and, it is about developing as unique individuals. Our theory of education encompasses these three aspects.
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The beliefs and theories that govern what we do as a school are always growing and developing. We believe that education should be a careful, artful and personalised blending of three functions of education.
Qualification is a major function of education - of schools and other educational institutions. It involves providing students with the knowledge, skills and understandings and often also with the dispositions that allow them to “do something” – such as those skills and knowledge areas identified in the curriculum. The qualification function is without doubt one of the major functions of organized education. This aspect of education was considered to be of the greatest importance in the industrial model of education. What has changed with the rapidly changing world context are some of the skills and dispositions that are now considered important for students to acquire to prepare them for the future they will face. What has also changed is that this is no longer considered the most important function.
Socialisation: The socialization function has to do with the many ways in which, through education, students become part of particular social, cultural and political “orders.” Through its socializing function, education assists individuals to understand the particular ways of doing and being of various cultures and communities. In this way education plays an important role in the continuation of, but also development of, culture and tradition. As a school, we are particularly interested in assisting children to be effective members of the community of learners, for example.
Individuation/subjectification: Education does not only contribute to qualification and socialisation but also impacts on what we might refer to as individuation (the student as a unique, individual human being), or, which Biesta refers to as subjectification. This function might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialisation function. It is precisely not about the insertion of “newcomers” into existing orders, but about students, while being socialised, also growing some independence from such socialised ways of being. The point is that as unique individuals we are not fully defined by the cultures and communities we identify with. There is “individuality” which exists independently of the cultures and communities we belong to. This function of education was of little concern in the industrial model of education but has become of considerable concern as we think about the needs of our 21st century learners. It is our belief that any education worthy of its name should always contribute to the development of learners as unique and individual human beings; and it should assist those being educated to become more autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting.
It has been said that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. We believe we have a good theory of education; we then needed to turn this theory into methods for teaching in our school (pedagogical approaches) and to develop a series of practices or actions that we take to assist students’ learning.
As a result of our view of the purposes of education, our vision for education and our emerging theory of education, we have a range of pedagogical approaches that will assist students to experience what it means to be fully human and continually fulfil their potential. These approaches will also ensure that students not only gain the skills, knowledge and dispositions outlined in the New Zealand curriculum (qualification,) but will become effectively socialised into the various cultures and communities that they belong to whilst also developing as unique individuals who are able to act autonomously and independently. The following pedagogical approaches are central to the way we do things at Amesbury School.
Personalisation of learning
Personalised learning is about knowing each student and where he/she is at in their learning so well that the teacher is able to provide just the right learning programme to ensure the child has to reach for the learning (sufficient challenge), but not have to reach too far (as per Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development). We have a commitment to students to NOT waste their time by teaching them knowledge that they already know or knowledge that is too hard and beyond their reach. This is personalisation of learning FOR the student. However, personalisation of learning also includes personalisation with the student. This is where the student and teacher combine their knowledge and co-construct learning pathways together. Finally there is personalisation by the learner. This is where students have the agency, capacity and tools to determine their own learning pathways. A personalised programme will include these three aspects of personalisation “for, with and by” in fluidly changing proportions depending on the needs.
A recent report from an independent think-tank focused on Australian public policy suggested that targeting learning to meet each student’s needs has long been talked about but is not being done effectively except in very small pockets. The report says, “Teachers and schools can lift all students’ performances if they are equipped to collect and use evidence of individual student achievement and progress. Working together, teachers should assess what each student knows now, target their teaching to what they are ready to learn next, and track each student’s progress over time. Teachers should then analyse their own impact, keep what works and change what does not.”
The challenge they say is to embed targeted teaching and learning in every classroom (we call it personalisation of learning by the teacher); however, if all we do is personalisation of learning by the teacher then students will gain qualifications but they will not necessarily learn to act with independence and autonomy within the community of learners.
Team-teaching and collaboration
Personalising learning to meet the individual need of students is a big ask of teachers and school systems. However, team-teaching does make it more possible. Team-teaching looks different at different times depending on what is needed. However, the intention of it is to enable a more flexible approach to meeting the learning and other needs of all students and in that process to better utilise teacher strengths. As humans we all see things slightly differently. One of the advantages of team-teaching is the ability to pull together the multiple perspectives of a team of teachers about a student, so that we make better decisions about and for the child, but also so that we more fully acknowledge and appreciate their uniqueness. One example of this is the moderation process teams go through when writing comments on reports. All teachers input into it which means a broader view of the child is presented. Although we believe there are efficiencies that can be leveraged in team-teaching and collaboration, our experience to date is that it does take more time and effort. But effort that is worth it. See Team Teaching Video below by Urs Cunningham.
Agency is a term that is difficult to fully comprehend immediately. Understanding of it comes as we engage with it over time. However, in simple terms it is the idea that students can make plans that are meaningful to them AND carry them out. This means that students have the sense of being empowered to act in positive and meaningful ways upon the world and make a difference. Student agency includes ensuring that students have the skills, knowledge and attributes to carry out their plans – that they are capable people. But it also means that students are accorded the freedom to have a go, to take the risk and, perhaps, fail at times. It means that students, though children, are seen as having something valuable and meaningful to contribute to the world, but also to their learning. We co-construct learning with them and enable them to develop their own learning pathways because it is their learning (they are “insiders in their learning”) and, as such, they have something valuable to contribute. They know things about themselves that we don’t know. Student agency contributes to the development of each student as unique, individual human beings.
Integral, holistic curriculum
At Amesbury School we believe the purpose of education is for students to gain a more accurate picture or understanding of how the world works (physical environment as well as the people dimension) and, therefore, be able to live better in and for the world. The world is holistic, intertwined and integral (one of our essential understandings of the world) as well as complex and diverse. Therefore, we do students a disservice if we only teach them siloed bodies of knowledge and never show them how it all works together in contexts. Not only will doing this give students a false view of the world, but learning will be dry and boring. An integral curriculum is one in which learning always begins with the world intact and whole and contextualised. We may then deconstruct or dissect it to show students the individual parts and help them to understand each part, but then we put it back together again and show them how it all works together again. We finish by exploring what this means for us, as human beings, and how we might live differently as a result. At Amesbury School this means that the skills and knowledge of reading, writing and as much of maths as possible are taught though inquiry into the world. Of course this looks different for five and six year olds who are largely having to focus on gaining the skills that enable them to access the information about the world.
Learning to be learners: being an “insider” in the community of learners
An important aspect of being fully human is developing the sense of being “inside your learning” or of becoming “insiders in your learning”. This involves students gaining the knowledge of what it means to be a learner, but more specifically, of gaining understanding of who they are as learners – their uniqueness as learners. In this “insider” approach, teachers open up the world of learning to students so that they are increasingly able to take responsibility for their own learning by taking the actions and developing the attributes and attitudes of experienced, knowing learners. In an environment where the aim is for students to experience what it means to be fully human, “insiderness” goes a step further. Students are assisted to understand their own particular, unique learner characteristics including their strengths and weaknesses.
When we use the term “care” to describe our relationship with learners, we are thinking of care not as a fluffy feeling, but as a pragmatic commitment to do what it takes to ensure students experience what it means to be fully human and to continually fulfil their potential. According to Nel Noddings, care is only care when the student feels cared for and responds in a detectable manner. Without an affirmative response, we cannot call an encounter or relationship caring. Caring-as-competence describes a teacher’s commitment to continually gain competence to enable them to do their job better to meet the needs of students. Caring teachers make sure they know their subject matter well, are very well prepared, precise and planned and teach with clarity. Caring teachers take the time and make the effort to know their students well and ensure that their programmes of learning meet their academic needs but also take account of their dreams, interests and desires. According to Noddings, caring relationships are the best foundation for moral education because caring teachers show students how to care for others, engage them in dialogue about moral life, supervise their practice in caring and assist each child to develop his/her best self. See Caring Relationships video below by Urs Cunningham.
There is a great deal of research which shows that when teachers have high expectations for all students and provide tasks that are academically challenging, engaging and of high interest, students’ self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence grows and they achieve better. High expectations is premised on the idea that ALL children are “knowing and knowledgeable” and able to engage in challenging curricula and it is found in a personal relationship between the teacher and the student in which the teacher communicates to students that “this work is important; I know you can do it; I won’t give up on you.” However, high expectations is more than just talk or wishful thinking. It is a commitment to each child to scaffold and pace learning differentially so that all students can achieve success. High expectations will see teachers providing programmes for all students that focus on higher order thinking skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, solving cognitive conflict and difficult questions because they believe that all students can access such curricula and engage successfully in such high level learning programmes.
Teaching AND learning and the language of education
According to Biesta, over the past 20 years, there has been the rise of the concept of learning and a subsequent decline in the concept of “education”. Teaching has become redefined as supporting or facilitating learning and learning has largely been about the acquisition of predefined skills, knowledge and attributes. At Amesbury School, we are definitely concerned about the ongoing acquisition of skills and knowledge, but we are also concerned about learning as responding – which is about students showing who they are and where they stand by responding in/to difficult questions about the world. Neither of these two types of learning happens on its own and we are focused on giving teaching “back” to education. The teacher is not just a provider of learning opportunities or learning experiences and is not there simply to pull the learning out of students (by skilled facilitation), but actually brings something new to the learning situation and, as Biesta (2014) says, is involved in the teaching of “particular things” – things that are beyond the capacity of the learner to learn by him/herself and that cannot be “pulled” out of the learner. A teacher is also involved in assisting students to engage in the educational question (like the dialogue about moral life that Noddings speaks of) of the difference between what is desired and what is desirable and what it is that we, as individuals, want to give authority to in our lives. In the words of Biesta:
“There is after all a different story to tell about teaching, and it is important that this story is told and enacted….This is a story where teachers are not disposable and dispensable resources for learning, but where they have something to give, where they do not shy away from difficult questions and inconvenient truths, and where they work actively and consistently on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable, so as to explore what it is that should have authority in our lives.” Biesta 2014, p. 57
Given that learning spaces are physical symbols that send out messages about the values, philosophy and, therefore, pedagogy, of those who created them, we have developed our physical learning spaces to align with the philosophies and pedagogies that we espouse.
We want fluid and organic environments to allow real and not contrived learning to take place. Characteristics of our indoor learning environments include:
Learning happens in many ways at Amesbury School. These won't necessarily involve designated spaces, but spaces that can be created and recreated using our flexible furniture and furnishings.
Some ways that learning happens:
Standard classroom furniture is not evident in each of the hubs (learning areas). Rather, each hub (which has several spaces - called suites - and a range of possible configurations) is furnished to accommodate learners in a variety of contexts across the space and utilise a range of furniture to facilitate this. Teachers do not “own” a particular area of the hub; they work with a range of students in a range of spaces across the hub over the course of the day. Furniture choices not only reflect this way of working, but encourage it.
The intent is that critical decisions are made by teachers and students about what furniture and what space is appropriate for particular learning activities. The result is a mix of more traditional table and chair furnishings as well as soft furnished stools, ottomans and bean chairs (etc.) to facilitate the different configurations of learning and different requirements of learning activities. Also, with the water-conducted underfloor heating that runs throughout the school, the floor is significantly used for some activities, most particularly by students.
We see the purposeful design of learning spaces as one of a set of key enablers for student learning that will help activate learning and engage students.
Some characteristics of the furniture we have:
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