In the decades since we started school, the world as we know it has changed. Back in that ancient era, there was no Facebook, no DVDs or smart phone apps – and the hole in the ozone layer was yet to be discovered. At school, we were guided towards one career (in one country) and not concerned with the need for career reinvention during our adult lives – an issue our children are likely to face.
Yet despite the seismic shift in the ways we engage socially, the extent to which we travel globally, and the knowledge we have of our planet’s increasingly pressured environment, our children’s education has remained relatively static. Sure, there are some alternative approaches for breaking from the mold – Montessori, ‘Free’ schools, home schooling. But do they offer the radical shift in thinking that will deliver the tools our children need?
Knighted in 2003 for his services to education, Sir Kenneth Robinson proclaimed in a public talk about the future of education that there are three principles upon which the human mind flourishes – diversity, curiosity and creativity. Yet today’s schools, by structural necessity, tend towards conformity and compliance. It’s a quandary: while a teacher’s inherent role is to facilitate learning, the ever-declining investment in education along with the ever-increasing importance placed on standardised testing often limits them to instructing. The result, for teachers and students alike, is a stifling of creativity and curiosity – “the engine of human achievement”, as Robinson so poignantly puts it. Thankfully some incredible visionaries are channelling their energy into reinventing the classroom – not just in the way it looks, but in the process of learning itself.
One of these visionaries is Chris Whittle, a former owner of Esquire magazine and a serial education entrepreneur. His latest venture is The Avenues World School – a private international school in New York where leaders from Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities have come together to create a fresh, global curriculum.
For preschoolers, almost half of classes are held in Mandarin or Spanish, immersing students into a second language from the get-go. Students do not sit in rows, but around conference tables; they are not asked to learn and memorise facts, but to talk about ideas and collaborate to solve problems. “At this age, if you feel yourself as a competent, effective member of a group and a competent, effective individual, the sky’s your limit,” explains Elizabeth Hixson, the Head of Avenues World Lower School.
Tom Bonnell, the Head of Middle School explains that the students at Avenues “are being asked questions of real importance and significance, and given the feeling that they can help answer some of those questions.” Who those students are may also make a difference to just how effectively their answers will be heard. After all, one of the school’s pupils is none other than Suri Cruise, and there were over 3,250 students registered on the school’s website for the initial 740 student spaces.
Avenues currently comprises merely one New York-based school campus, which opened in 2012, but the plan is to have 20 campuses around the world in the next decade. Beijing and Sao Paulo are next in line; London a little further down the track.
On the other side of the world, John and Cynthia Hardy are the founders of the radical Green School in the jungles of Bali, which opened in 2008. Named 2012’s Greenest School on Earth, advocates include Daryl Hannah; lead singer of Spearhead Michael Franti, who writes that this “is different than other schools. Here, if you have an idea to do something outside the box, that idea will be fostered and nurtured rather than pushed down”; and Richard Branson, who claims “I’ve never been more jealous of any kids in my life!”
The awe-inspiring school structure has been built entirely from bamboo, and all aspects of the school have been designed to inspire students to be a part of the creative process – suggesting the objects they need, talking with designers and engineers, and seeing it come to life.
“We have been producing generations of young people who flick switches, use credit cards and throw away,” says Ronald Stones, Director at Green School from 2008 to 2011, OBE and creator of the Green School’s curriculum. “We’ve got to produce a generation of young people who are looking at problems in different ways and who come up with more creative solutions than in the past.”
“My goal was to create an international curriculum with three drivers,” says Stones. Those three drivers are an english, maths and science curriculum; a second, unique, hands-on, toes-in-the-mud green studies curriculum; and a creative arts curriculum bringing local culture onto campus.
“It’s challenging teaching and learning in an environment where your classroom has no walls and you are with nature all day,” explains Stones. But this also shapes the process of learning. “When a dragonfly flies into the classroom, it is not that learning stops, it is that learning changes.”
Each summer at Green School, students from around the world can get a taste with Green Camps that range from three-day camps for ages five to eight, five-day programmes for ages eight to 12, and a seven-day Green Supercamp for ages 10 to 17.
Stones assures that while The Green School is one extreme in its jungle setting, all schools can buy into that way of thinking and solving problems in the classroom. “This is an adventure – and that is what coming to school is all about!” And that’s something even we pre-digital media generation can understand.
Words Suzanne Milne