Doubts and fears have risen surrounding the prospects of the current form of education in Western countries, the preparation of students for a rapidly changing technological world, and inequalities within the system.
The need for change is clear, but there is an underlying concern that it seems unachievable and unrealistic to adopt the progressive practices that often seem limited to the north of Europe.
I recently visited a school which amazed me in with its innovative and inclusive practices, particularly in light of this recent dialogue surrounding education. Located in Gateshed in the southern Hunter region, Hunter Sports High School was rebuilt from the ground up only 18 months ago and is leading the change in response to these societal concerns. Over the last 5 years, this school has radically transformed its focus and has experienced great success in doing so.
One of its most significant factors is its location, situated in an extremely disadvantaged area which ranks 2nd lowest in New South Wales in its socioeconomic status. On top of this, 20% of its students are of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander background. Simply in its choice of location and its diverse student body, it includes two of the most excluded demographic groups in Australia – Indigenous students and those of low socioeconomic status. In doing so, it addresses a major point of concern around education: inequality.
The dated system broadly used in Western education has been a core target of the conversation surrounding the need for education reform. Its foundation on the training programs for factory workers in the Industrial Revolution has raised concerns about its ability to effectively equip students in creativity, soft skills and critical thinking. Particularly in an age where ground-breaking technology like AI is taking over many of the jobs we are familiar with and studies are telling us that most of the jobs that younger generations will occupy in the future are yet to be created, these concerns are very relevant.
Hunter Sports High School, however, is consistently addressing these concerns in the learning programs it has in place. In 2012 they were one of the first schools in NSW to adopt an approach to personalised and inquiry-based learning called ‘Big Picture Learning’ based on the work of an American educator named Viv White. This has been the foundation for one of their key streams which they have called ‘Big Picture Academy’, where students engage in project-based learning, suiting their specific needs and interests. On top of their utilisation of online learning, the students’ thorough engagement with this program has generated amazing results.
As well as this, they make great use of an approach called ‘Learning by Internship’ which sees students, especially in older years, engage in a job placement designed for them to apply and enhance their learning in a real-world environment. One day a week they leave school and experience the workplace in practical and relevant ways, learning real work and skills rather than doing the stereotypical work experience week where they are often left doing the coffee run.
Further enhancing their innovative practices is the physical and aesthetic set up of the school. Outside of their Big Picture Academy, they have designed their mainstream classrooms to emphasise creativity and connection. They use sliding glass doors instead of standard walls to allow for natural light and to remove the barrier between classrooms and the outside world. They also run classes where multiple groups meet in an open studio space to engage in multi-disciplinary learning, with various teachers working as a team. Despite the initial hurdles of this format of teaching, it is quickly gaining traction and is a sign of what could be in the coming years.
Mobile phone use is often debated among educators, but Hunter Sports High School have adopted what is in my view a sensible approach to the issue. In classrooms, mobile phones are permitted as long as the activity is directed by teachers. The school has acknowledged that phones play a large part in the lives of the generation they are educating and so, rather than attempting to hold back the tide in banning them completely, they have tried to embrace them with boundaries and utilise them for positive purposes. In fact, they have even installed USB phone charging points in the playground for students to charge their devices during breaks.
Perhaps a direct result of these renewed formats of learning, there is a striking sense of pride within the school community. All of the new facilities are well presented, clean and cared for, and have not been defaced like some of their older counterparts. Suspension rates have dropped by 75% over the 5 years of this transformation. School pride is encouraged in students who are being given the opportunity to learn in spaces which meet their needs and empower their distinctive forms of learning. Who wouldn’t appreciate and respect facilities which do that?
The key concerns of the broader society surrounding education and its inaccessibility, dated practices and lack of real-world preparation have been thoroughly responded to by Hunter Sports High School. They have gone beyond this encouraging pride and empowering creativity in their students. By operating with integrity, foresight and innovation, they have moved with the tide of the education sphere, remaining relevant and respectable for the generation they are catering to.
In the case of education, change is possible and change works. This school has undoubtedly proved that moving with the times and the demands of a rapidly changing and technologically centred society is a realistic and achievable goal. Other school communities would be wise to follow.