Every three weeks, the young children at Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur climb into the bus and head to the forest for “Jungle School”.
Two hours later, their soggy wellington boots are squelching and their clothes covered in mud, but their faces are happy and eager to tell their teachers and parents all about the morning’s discoveries.
“We are trying to put back the play and exploration,” explains Jo Rice, the Head of the GIS’ Early Years Centre, on the philosophy behind the initiative. “There’s a realisation that growing numbers of our children are having an increasingly sterile experience outside of school, with limited opportunities for sensory, unstructured play, that involves taking risks and making real life choices.”
In a world seemingly obsessed with testing and targets, the decision to allow young children to play in a puddle of mud and jump into a jungle stream is recognition that effective learning can take place as much outside the classroom as it does inside. It also reveals that while innovative learning often involves technology, it is not always the case. At GIS, innovations are often as simple as changing the way a classroom is used or the way a teacher seeks to motivate students.
“When we hear the word innovation it stokes expectations of something rather magnificent,” said James Wellings, Deputy Head Teacher at GIS and Director of Innovative Learning. “But the best innovations are often the small ones. We have known what the pedagogy looks like for 2,000 years – the Ancient Greeks had it nailed down and it doesn’t move away from these key principles.”
Wellings – and many of his colleagues – cite Professor John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, as one of their major influences. Hattie has written extensively on the factors that improve student learning, and has expressed concern about the risks of an over-reliance on technology, warning that used the wrong way – as a shiny new toy rather than with a specific educational goal in mind – it can actually become a distraction to learning.
At GIS, any technological innovations must support learning, enhance teaching and contribute to the development of the five skills the school believes will set its students on a path to success in the wider world – to think differently, learn together, be resilient, ask questions and get involved.
“Education today is about allowing children to direct their own learning, to discover their learning styles, preferred methods of research and presentation styles,” concludes Jo Savage, at EYC and a former tech coach at GIS. “The teacher’s role is to facilitate this learning. This is done through questioning the children, encouraging them to reflect, to be team players and develop their problem solving skills. This method of enquiry based learning is so important because the teachers, are developing lifelong learners.”
An early focus on using Apps – each child at GIS has an iPad as part of the 1:1 programme – has, over the years, evolved into a more dynamic and forward-thinking approach. Y5 teacher Helen McConkey observes the successful use of technology must both fit into the teaching and enhance it. It can be particularly useful for helping children with special learning needs, such as dyslexia, or building the confidence of the quieter members of the class, she adds.
“The technology must be purposeful and have a reason for being,” McConkey says. “You can find something for everything, but whether it’s beneficial is another thing.”
The school was named an Apple Distinguished School in April this year, in recognition of its “innovation, leadership and educational excellence”; a reflection not only of the school’s embrace of technology, but also its learning culture, the reach of its professional and community learning and its annual large-scale enquiry project that involves 1,000 students and 200 teachers in a week-long learning challenge.
Drama teacher Andrew Rankin is one of three Apple Distinguished Educators at the school. Technology has given him a new way to engage with students and create emotional connections with the play or text that they’re studying through what he calls the Immersive Learning Environment.
“Drama is great for taking risks, creative collaboration and seeing things differently,” Rankin explains.
At first glance, the space gives little away. It seems to be a school room like any other; the walls are white, the floor burnished wood and windows stretch along one side. But there is a hint of the room’s dramatic potential – a single wall is covered in vertical flat columns, designed to add depth to the videos that are projected onto it.
As well as video, Rankin uses LED lighting and sound to create a setting that can transport students into the world they’re studying, helping them understand and connect with the work.
“You can bring the outside world into the room and inspire the students to ask questions,” Rankin says. The sense of wonder and expectation is clear on the children’s faces as they walk into the room – intrigued and keen to find out more about the world into which they’ve just stepped.
While the space would be next to impossible to create without Apple technology such as AirPlay, its success as a learning environment also depends on the teacher – the props they choose, the tasks they set and the questions they ask to engage with the class and trigger their curiosity.
Rankin himself has used the space to create the enchanted forest of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The video projection shows a leafy glade, but the floor is strewn with leaves and slips of paper printed with verses and the names of the characters from one of Shakespeare’s most famous texts. As the students walk into the room – unaware of the actual play they’re being asked to consider – dry ice gives the impression of mist and the sound of cicadas and whooping animals creates the atmosphere of a mysterious wood. It is only after the students have thought about what they’re experiencing, what they think they know about it and what they’d like to know, that they will discover the subject of study is a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s not only the drama department that has benefited from the opportunities provided by the Immersive Space. The room is central to the school’s yearly large-scale learning project and has lent itself well to subjects such as history – where teachers used it to recreate the mass transports of the holocaust and enhance Key Stage 3 and Y10 iGCSE students understanding of the genocide – and for younger children where Year 3 kids found themselves transported into the magical world of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“Innovative learning is actually about thinking skills; there’s less technology than you might think,” says James Abela, who is also an Apple Distinguished Educator, as well as a Google Innovator and teaches Computer Science to secondary students at GIS. “It’s about getting the kids to think through the tasks that you set. Technology is a tool. I can teach nearly every lesson with a computer but sometimes I take it away.”
As a computer scientist, Abela is acutely aware of the benefits of technology, and the way it has shortened the lesson cycle by allowing teachers to share almost instant feedback during the class. Abela says technology has allowed him to teach better, dedicating more classroom time to more academically demanding components of the course such as coding, and assigning simpler tasks through Flipped Learning assignments that children submit from home.
“The way we question is changing,” he observes over a cup of tea in the staffroom. “In the old days, we would have had to test and ask. But now it’s possible to ask during class, after class and outside the education cycle from class to class. My planning now includes what happened last night at home.”
The use of technology in music has a long history. Each new innovation or invention in improving things for human endeavour eventually makes an impact on how the individual creates their work in their own field. One of the most important technological advancements to expand musical creativity was the introduction of the pianoforte. This instrument gave the musician and composer the scope to add dynamics to their music. Fast forward to the present day and we see the iPad giving the same opportunity for students at Garden International School, allowing them to create, record and share their performances and compositions with each other and their teachers far more quickly.
Combining live recording with sound shapes created in music programmes such as GarageBand allow GIS students to work collaboratively. Helen Long, Head of Whole School Music states, “Using the apps on the ipad to record ideas is faster and allows my students to work on fresh ideas whilst not forgetting previous ones. Now the idea of combining musical elements to produce a sound track for a short movie is accessible to all students, which is very exciting”.
Primary art teacher Phil Delmotte has found children energised by the opportunity to design and publish their own comic books through the iPad. He has taught himself Photoshop and Illustrator to help students. The technology is “another tool for my toolkit,” he says.
In PE, the opportunity for students to film and record their experiences of sport have helped David Collins teach more effectively, without reducing the time the kids spend on their feet doing sport. Further up the school, as students compete locally and regionally, technology provides the means to assess training techniques and improve coaching for both individuals and teams.
But while GIS has embraced the learning opportunities offered by technology, the school remains mindful of the downsides. A policy framework sets parameters for everyone who is part of the school community – adults and children – to ensure that technology is used responsibly with the goal of enhancing learning.
“We have to teach children to make good choices,” explains Abela. “The risk isn’t the technology. The risk is not knowing the technology and not knowing the downsides.”
The school acknowledges that the needs will vary as children grow. At the Early Years Centre, for instance, which caters to under-fives, iPads are kept in an “IT station” within the classroom space where teachers can carefully monitor their use. They’ve proved hugely successful in photography – allowing the youngsters to document their day – but have proved invaluable in certain ways such as allowing the children to take photos or make video and audio recordings of their day. Other successful technologies include the programmable floor robots known as Bee-Bots, which introduce the idea of coding to young children in a fun way.
As the students progress through the school their exposure to technology increases, but always under the guidance of teachers who ensure it is always being used as a way to advance learning. In a world where online bullying is all too common, for the school, there is also a duty of care to its pupils, especially as the children get older and become more active on social media.
“Children need to be responsible digital citizens,” explains Hannah Stockley who’s been teaching for seven years and is currently teaching Year 3. “It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive so we want to teach them from the age of seven how to use social media. It’s about equipping them with the skills they need for the future. But it’s also about balance. How not to use it; to enhance learning and not to go home and play a game for six hours.”
GIS’ Digital Policy focuses on the responsible use of technology, explains what is appropriate and what isn’t, and must be signed and adhered to by all children in the school.
From Years 3 – 13, there’s the Common Sense Media Clinic, which is linked to the school’s core values and is designed to provide guidance to the students on the effective use of technology, and acceptable online behaviour.
In Year 6, the final year of primary, all students must take a unit on “Digital Citizenship” to help them better understand and evaluate the online world. The students are advised on how to use the Internet, how to work out whether a website or piece of information is reliable; how best to do research online and how to keep themselves safe. In one lesson, the children were sent a scam email to see how they would respond. In another, they discussed the reliability of different websites.
“We control and restrict a lot of what the students access,” says Stockley.
Apps must go through a committee and a piloting period before they can be approved for download and use, and the list is reviewed every term. Parents are also a crucial part of the equation because the children take the iPads home. Guidance is given in the school’s regular Parent Workshops and teachers remove any inappropriate Apps from the equipment, explaining to children and parents their reasoning.
Within these parameters, technology has had a positive effect on school life at GIS. Indeed, there is increasing recognition that the principles that underpin computer games design can be applied to lessons, supporting the shift towards enquiry-based learning that is seen as vital to the development of thinking skills.
But while teachers recognise the enormous potential of tech, whether for children with special needs, teaching mixed ability groups or providing fast and targeted feedback, there is also an understanding that more low-key innovations can make a significant difference to children’s learning and equip them better for the world beyond the classroom.
The school has re-considered the way classrooms are laid out to create “dynamic learning spaces” that are designed to nurture creativity and stimulate enquiry.
At EYC, walls have been removed to create airy spaces populated by a variety of workstations that encourage children to experiment and play. At primary, children are involved in creating a classroom that best meets their needs and are no longer confined to traditional desks or even chairs. One class chose to try out fitness balls to sit on.
In fact, modern classrooms are more like art studios – colourful, changing and with a sense of possibility. On the wall of the GIS art studio, amid the puppets and masks that dangle from the ceiling, the creative process is spelled out – record, ideas, evaluate, refine, present – the very skills that are seen as central to the needs of the 21st century economy.
“I always that art itself is an innovation,” says Delmotte, who’s been a teacher for 16 years. “Everything students do is new. They put part of themselves into the work. Art is always about enquiry.”
Fuelling that sense of enquiry by making learning fun is central to the teaching ethos of science teacher Elle Morrison. While she makes use of games-based online quizzes as a way to test what her students have learned and the concepts they haven’t quite grasped, she is constantly searching for new ways she can deliver knowledge to the class.
“There’s an idea that if you’re not using tech it’s not innovative,” she admits. “But I don’t think that’s true at all. It isn’t just digital. You have to mix it up. Students enjoy variety and iPads are only part of their experience and learning process.”
Morrison is a supporter of “teachback,” which divides the class into groups of three – expert, teacher and learner – and gives students the opportunity to explain what they think they know and fill in the gaps in their knowledge. The concept is one of ten initiatives identified by the Open University in its fifth “Innovating Pedagogy,” which was published in 2016.
She has also devised her own games, which allow her to teach what some might consider dry material in memorable ways that ensure the students remain engaged. She still recalls her own experience at school when teachers managed to make what should have been fascinating classes incredibly dull.
“The teacher is still the most important person when it comes to helping students’ learning,” she says. “It’s partly the way you set up the lesson, but you have got to be in there driving the class forward.”
The “Jungle School” at EYC is based on Europe’s Forest Schools and designed not only to help children develop crucial motor skills but also nurture creativity by giving them the space to explore outside the classroom. It’s also the first step in Garden’s attempts to encourage a love of nature and the outdoors, As the children progress through the school, their jungle experiences will become more challenging including camping trips and climbing expeditions.
In a clearing by a sandy-bedded stream, the children are seated on a mat beneath a tree, listening to their teacher explain the rules. The field trip may be fun, but safety is paramount.
“Go explore!” the teacher cries as the children hare off across the grass. Many head straight to the stream, grabbing the pots and pans that their teachers have laid out on the bank. Others start to climb the tree, while two boys jump into a nearby puddle, laughing as the water fills their boots to the brim. A few children are a little more anxious, but as the minutes pass and they see their friends laughing, they join in.
A girl in a frilly, flowery skirt who has been looking around the field wondering what to do, notices the boys at the puddle and jumps in.
The water’s a little deeper than she expected and she tips forward so she’s standing on all fours; her hands in the mud and the front of her dress dripping with water. Suddenly she goes quiet. Then she stands up tall. “Ugh!” she giggles and throws her arms up in the air. “It’s disgusting!”
Covered in dirt and water, she’s at the start of what could be a lifetime of learning and creativity.
By Garden International School Collaborators:
- James Abela (Computer Science Lead Teacher)
- David Collins (Primary Physical Education Teacher)
- Philippe Delmotte (Primary Art Teacher)
- Helen Long (Head of Music)
- Helen McConkey (Year 5 Class Teacher)
- Elle Morrison (Secondary Science Teacher)
- Andrew Rankin (Drama teacher and Apple Educator)
- Joanne Rice (Head of Early Years Centre)
- Joanne Savage (Early Years Teacher)
- Hannah Stockley (Year 3 Leader)
- James Wellings (Director of Innovative Learning)