Kids Owning the Learning

It’s been a great 10 days in Australia, one that’s been too packed for much blogging, obviously, and one that was highlighted yesterday by a visit to one of those “I really wish my kids went to school there” type of schools in a Melbourne suburb. It’s hard to capture everything that’s cool about the Wooranna Park Primary School in a blog post, but let me boil it down to this: the kids are driving the learning, from the design of the school and the curriculum to the decision making around school policy and more. It’s one of those inquiry-based learning environments where the moment you step into it you just feel something different. Different spaces. Different colors. Different conversations. Different stuff up on the walls.

I’m hoping to write more about what the principal Ray Trotter is trying to do at Wooranna, but for now, here are some of the highlights:

  • When the school got funding to renovate the year 5/6 part of the school, the teachers and students got together and decided that the theme for their studies that year would be “design”. So the students set out to create the timeline, select the furniture, create the space plans, and manage the budgets. It was an involved process, driven by important questions and fueled by the students’ desire (and passion) for creating a learning space they could flourish in. In the process, they interviewed architects, over-ruled the principal in the choice of classroom furniture (after doing detailed research on neck injuries caused by having to sit at round tables,) designed work stations (using Google Sketch-up), and oversaw the entire process. The result? A really stunning mixed open-space, flexible, comfortable learning environment that the students take pride in.
  • Everywhere you look in the hallways of Wooranna you see questions. One poster asks “How can we invent colors?” Another says “How have our tomatoes been coping with the 40+ (C) temperatures?” And my favorite, “What is learning?” The walls aren’t filled with products; they are filled with process. And the teachers and leaders model it. Hung prominently on the wall and often discussed with the students is the school’s “Raison D’Etre”. It quotes Plutarch, Vygotsky, Betts and others, and it’s based on questions; “What are the key principles for transformative learning?” “What do I want to change?”
  • School government takes the form of the fifth and sixth grade students meeting each Friday in a discussion session that replicates the Australian Parliament. For the first half of the year, half of the kids run the government, and the other half takes over at the midway point. The leaders are elected by the student body, and they go about making real decisions about real projects and policies.
  • When they graduate from Wooranna, students perform original music and dance that they have written and choreographed. In fact, they compose a lot of their own music throughout the year. And art. And media.
  • Ray Trotter, the principal, talks easily about social constructivism, connectivism, George Seimens, Stephen Heppel and many of the other ideas and people in this space. But at present, due to some restraints with the technology, there is not a great deal of connecting out to the world, though his is looking for schools to video conference with and is beginning to move down that road.

There’s more, as usual. But I’ll leave it with this one thought from Ray, one of many, that jumped out at me during our conversations: learning is not a linear exercise, it’s random, it’s self-directed, it looks like spaghetti. And at Wooranna, it’s very, very obvious.