On April 26th and 27th, I was invited to visit two Scottish primary schools. For the past three years, Torphichen and Westfield Primary were on a quest to find a more relevant way to do ‘school’, believing that schools cannot get it right for learners unless there are significant changes. To support this quest, they changed their collegiate and personal professional learning and actions in their School Improvement Plans.
Central in their vision is the belief that the curriculum should have pupil’s voice, pupil interests, passions, and play at its heart, and above all, focus on each child’s individual learning journey rather than on an illusive ‘average’.
For April 2022, they had two objectives:
- To transform their school spaces to facilitate creativity, curiosity, exploration, innovation, and enjoyment!
- To offer spaces that children across stages can use while working together, working with all the staff in the school and working on projects about which they are passionate.
Two big goals that break through the mental ideas of how a school should be organized (a group of children of the same age in a classroom with one teacher). A big and important step towards realizing their vision. Maybe even without knowing it, they also proved that they live by their vision because it wasn’t the teachers who came up with the new school layout. They simply asked the children to make an inventory of all their needs, then the children made new floor plans, and started re-using existing furniture. That resulted in a school layout that fulfilled the needs of all the children in the school with a discover & exploration zone, a creative zone, a calm zone, a nurture zone and a performance zone.
This all happened in the weeks before my visit. Now it was up to the teachers. In the week before my visit, they had the first week together with the children in the new setting. But we all know changing the setting is one thing, adapting to it and working in it is something else.
I am honoured to be the first ‘outsider’ to come in and observe how all this is working out, and I must tell you I was astounded by what I saw. When you walk through the hallway, you immediately get total transparency on what they are doing and why they are doing it. Big posters about their vision and agile approach are on the walls (and also outside next to the main gate). Next to that is a big poster with their ‘Expert Network’ (staff, parents, and children of both schools) with a wide range of topics, interests, and skills. In all areas, you find posters on the Meta-skills Progression Framework. At the end of the day, all children use these to explain personal today’s learnings. Older kids write these down in their personal diaries.
All kids start their day in a group of mixed ages, they look ahead: When will I be working on my personal project (using an agile approach, with learning sprints)? When will I visit a lecture or experiment? What can I do on my own, and when do I need to work together? Older children plan in their diaries, and younger children use their Independent Timetable to plan ahead.
Then kids spread out throughout the school. During the day you can see workshops (also by parents or partners, they call these ‘offerings’), and coaching sessions taking place. You see staff supporting pupils to plan, reflect on and problem-solve their way through independent and group projects. On one of the days I was visiting, it was ‘How to tell time? – day ’. There were workshops variating from ‘How to tell quarter hours on an analogue clock?’, to workshops that learn you to solve questions like ‘If the recipe tells you that you need to bake the cake for 4 hours and 45 minutes, and your visitors want to eat it at 4pm, when do you need to put it in the oven?’
After the lunch break, it got quiet in the school. All teachers were reading a story to their pupils. I loved it. Then they all spread out again. And at the end of the day, they came back and reflected on the day.
I loved the way the children got great and varied days and how the staff interacted with them. Kids (and staff) were smiling, learning, and interacting during the whole day. It all felt very natural. I didn’t hear anyone raising his or her voice in the full two days of my visit. It looked like they all were used to this for years. But they weren’t: this was week two! I was blown away.
And best of all, during these two days, I spoke to about forty-five children, ages six to eleven. I asked them all the same questions:
- What are you doing?
- Why are you doing this? / What are you learning?
- Why are you doing this in this specific area of the school?
There wasn’t a single child that couldn’t answer these questions!
A big influence on the future of Scottish (and global) education, or not?
I witnessed a great foundation for education reform at Torphichen and Westfield Primary. They have obviously prepared themselves intensively and with great care. Of course, there are a lot of obstacles still ahead. But they have the right mindset, staff and children, to address them. Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s not enough.
They need a lot of help and support, not only with the changes and adjustments they still need to discover and develop in working with the children. Also, with all their stakeholders because changing the system isn’t something between the children and their teachers. It affects everyone involved, and it can be (negatively) affected by everyone involved. For these two small schools, it will be very hard to keep all stakeholders up to speed. Especially stakeholders who can have a lot of (negative) influence but aren’t aware that they have to be part of the process (in this early phase). This takes a lot of time and effort, and, in my experience, most of the time there is no school budget for that. The teachers and headmaster, who already have their hands full, have to do this on the side.
Because we all know that this is insufficient, we need to turn the tables:
What if stakeholders make it their responsibility, instead of expecting it from the school?
What if parents, staff members, the district, upper and lower management, education inspectors and the government have the guts to go over there frequently and ask:
- What are you doing?
- Why are you doing this (now)?
- What are you (as a team or school) learning?
And, most important:
- How can I help?
- What do I, people in my role or position, need to do (differently) to facilitate you even better?
And if you don’t like the answer to your question, you have to postpone judgement and ask yourself Did I ask the right question? because these changes (the zeitgeist) also deserve a new language. For example, don’t ask: Are you testing children? Ask: How do you know children progress? and learn to adapt to the answer. Keep in mind, there are no schools or teachers who want to become bad schools or bad teachers! But there are schools like Torphichen and Westfield that want to adapt to the zeitgeist. Who want to raise the bar, find and set new standards. If you really want to understand every step they (need to) take, you have to trust in the fact that they want to learn. You have to be there frequently and learn to ask them the right facilitating questions. You have to become their biggest supporters.
We can only change a system if we support and facilitate the ones who dare to do it!