The Swannanoa School Design

by Chris Sturgis

Illustration of Manawa (Heart) LineThis is the third article in a four-part series on Swannanoa School in New Zealand. Start here.

Each year, the team at Swannanoa School creates a new Manawa Line (heart line) that helps to recommit to the vision and goals. With the five values at the bottom, the Manawa lists the strengths and priorities of the school. It’s a multi-purpose tool that can be used to create shared understanding as well as reflection. Brian Price, principal of Swannanoa, explained, “To keep the vision alive, people need to be able to see themselves in it. Leadership is about helping people see themselves in the purpose of our school and how they are making or can make a contribution.”

Although Swannanoa describes itself as a project-based learning school in its charter document, I feel that at its heart, the team is doing its very best to draw on the science of learning to develop effective pedagogical approaches. Is everything perfectly in place? I wouldn’t expect it to be so. Once a school dedicates itself to pedagogy based on the science on learning, it begins an infinite and wondrous journey of learning. There is always more to learn, more to finesse in terms of execution, and more teacher-led inquiry in response to individual students in their classrooms.

Flipping the School

“We flipped the school when we changed the philosophy of learning. We moved from a prescribed curriculum to rich and responsive teaching aimed at ‘the point of challenge,’” reflected Price. “We started asking a lot of questions. What do students need to learn given that they can access just about anything on YouTube? What engages and motivates students the most? We basically laid out all the curriculum, picked out the pieces we wanted to keep, and moved on from there. It was hard and it was also exciting.”

One of the challenges is that at the time, the teachers weren’t fully familiar with the science on learning, the core concepts of the new pedagogy, or key competencies outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum. It’s a lot to absorb at one time. The Swannanoa team found that Fullan’s four principles were helpful as guideposts for their redesign and their own professional learning:

  1. Irresistibly engaging for both students and teachers
  2. Elegantly efficient and easy to access and use
  3. Technologically ubiquitous 24/7
  4. Steeped in real-life problem solving  

One teacher remarked, “Personalization and differentiation are entirely different beliefs about teaching compared to the textbook approach. Now we take children to the learning rather than bringing the content to them.” I often hear this dynamic described in the United States in the question “Who is doing the work in the classroom? It should be the students working hard to learn.”

Learning Takes Place Within Each Hapū

Swannanoa is organized around age and stage. Instead of students organized into one-year classrooms, they are in one of the four multi-age bands referred to as hapū, a Māori word for kinship or a clan. Price explained that this was done in response to parents who were unhappy with the annual transition. They wanted teachers to know their students better and for their children to have a stronger attachment to their classes. There are somewhere between seventy and ninety students with three teachers for each of the 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 hapū and five teachers dedicated to 0-2. In each hapū “classroom,” there are six to eight smaller breakout rooms for workshops or for small groups of students to be working. The breakout rooms enable teachers to easily form groups to provide direct instruction on the core subjects through workshops based on where students are in terms of their challenge points. One of the side rooms is dedicated to teachers to touch base, meet, and store resources.

Although I don’t know if this is standard practice, every primary school I visited had open enrollment for students at the point they turn five years of age. The new entrants are in separate room working closely with a teacher who is providing support in early childhood development and familiarizing the children with the protocols that will help them be successful in the personalized classroom. Some students may stay three weeks, while others may stay three months in the new entrants classroom. It’s an importance difference between the US and NZ orientation: The US tends to focus on readiness of students for school and operates in full year cycles, while NZ schools organize themselves to respond to children based on their cognitive and developmental progress with a just-in-time orientation of moving students into the full classroom when they are ready.

High Engagement Learning

In the earlier years, students are involved in active learning, high engagement activities, and group projects. In the upper years, students begin to co-design individual projects with teachers.

There is a strong emphasis on STEM at Swannanoa. As they get older, they will have STEM performance tasks to complete and then move on to designing their own projects.

A student explained to me, “I like it when we can drive our own learning. Before, we had tasks and they were okay. But it’s more fun when we have the opportunity to do things we are really interested in.” She explained how they co-design projects, “First you start by brainstorming what you want to do. Sometimes you can do it with your friend or they have good ideas. Then we look at all the learning areas and we select one from each area. Sometimes teachers will help you and make suggestions about ways you can make connections.” She described the ecologically-friendly wild horse reserve that she was planning. She explained to me how she was tying in the science and technology learning objectives by designing a water tank that was going to be run with wind power. Another student was designing uniforms with consideration for the degree of friction that is caused by different types of materials.

Form Follows Function: Flexibility, Agency, and Collaboration

The buildings have been remodeled so that students have more control and choice within their environment, teachers have greater flexibility in grouping students in small or large groups, and collaboration is now part of daily practice, not an activity that happens once a week. (NZ’s Tomorrow’s School gives autonomy to schools to manage their facilities as they see fit within a minimum set of safety regulations.)

Calm, Alert and Focused Learning in Progress!As Price guided me through each of hapū, I could hear that magical hum of learning flowing throughout the classrooms. Children were moving, not being told to sit still at their desks. Students were scattered everywhere: they were circled around a teacher on stackable plastic chairs deep in discussion, leaning against walls, flat on their stomach, piled on pillows, grouped around a small table working together on an activity, head under a table reading, or gathered in a side room in a small group working with a teacher. The walls, furniture, and pillows were all bright colors and designed for flexibility. Around the main rooms in the hapū, each with a glass slider that can close them into more traditionally sized classrooms, are smaller side rooms. Walls were covered with posters reminding students about the growth mindset and schedules for the day with prompts for students about which teachers they will be working with in small groups. There were electronic devices and computers being used, but these were not the dominant way students were receiving instruction or practicing.

Once one becomes oriented to so much movement, it’s clear that learning is taking place. Students were engaged. They had some degree of ownership of their learning, although there were plenty of times teachers redirected and encouraged students to stay on task. How does Swannanoa have so much personalization without slipping into chaos? First, students want to learn. Second, they know what they need to work on and have access to the resources they need. Third, the team of teachers know their students well and know who needs more guidance, encouragement, and coaching. Finally, there are ritualized behaviors with signs in the classrooms to remind students: Be calm, alert and focused.   

Personalization Depends on the Trust and Relationship Among Teachers

Teachers are moving as well. Most seemed to be in “the flow.” With glass doors and windows separating the rooms from each other, teaching is a public act. Teachers touch base quickly in the classrooms or in their work rooms. A new teacher, brimming with a huge smile, said that working in this transparent environment was the best professional learning she could ever dream of. She could observe other teachers, she could ask questions as they came up, and when she found herself unsure of how to handle something, she could ask for guidance on the spot.

We stopped in a room designed as a “teacher think tank space.” A large table, covered with materials, allowed for teachers to meet. Shelves and shelves held resources and “all the supplies you could ever use.” On the walls, charts listed multiple points of data about priority students so teachers could provide special attention and pursue inquiry into ways to better support them. You could tell that this was the “room where it happens” — that is, the creativity, strategizing, and planning. Price noted, “We wanted to make sure teacher collaboration is fully supported. When they share a space, they can have real-time discussion about what is and isn’t working.”  

One of the four teacher-leaders at Swannanoa, Bridie Gray, explained, “Our collaborative teaching approach depends on trust and relationships. It will all fall flat otherwise.” It also depends on understanding each other as learners. Gray continued, “Collaboration has required us to expand our spectrum of acceptance. Each of us are in our own stage of development and learning. We trust and support each other to keep moving and to keep learning, but in our way and at our own pace.”

Read the Entire Series

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