It is now one month to the day since I visited Northern Beaches Christian School, in Terrey Hills, about 30 km north of Sydney. The fact that now, a month later, I still find myself thinking regularly about what I saw there makes me believe that NBCS could well be the best school I’ve ever visited. In this post I want to simply share some of the things I saw which made an impression on me.
I visited the school primarily because my friend, Steven Collis teaches there. I’d had dinner with Steve and his wife Rachel the night before, and he had invited me to see his school while I was there.
Much has been written about NBCS’s use of open learning spaces, and they really are terrific. I have seen many other schools with open learning spaces but have generally been underwhelmed by what I saw. Typically, two or three classes are running in different spaces in the open-plan centre. But the classes are more or less the same as they would have been if there were walls between them – except with more noise. Indeed a number of schools which built an open space, have later put up walls because it wasn’t working. In dramatic contrast to that scenario, the open spaces I saw at NBCS not only worked but worked beautifully. I don’t intend to dwell on the actual design of the spaces. I simply want to describe some of what I saw that really made an impression on me – and made me think.
1. All the students were on-task, all the time. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought that the students were actors – and I was in some kind of Truman Show experience. I spent several hours there, and in all that time I saw just one or two student who appeared to be off-task.
It seemed to me that there is very little attempt for teachers to keep their class all working at the same pace. Instead students come into the space and start to work on wherever they are up to. When they need help there are teachers circulating around ready to help. In many cases the students were working on long-term, real-world, collaborative projects that were inherently interesting.
All students (across multiple year levels) were doing geography/science at the same time. So it was quite difficult to tell which students “belonged” to which class or teacher. They were allowed to take any position in the room and work there. For many students that position was on the floor, despite there being lots of available chairs, couches, bean-bags and other places that to me – a 45 year old man – seemed more practical and comfortable.
2. Despite a large number of students working in the space, it was surprising just how quiet and peaceful the rooms were. It’s not that there was no conversation – there was lots of conversation – the room was a hive of activity, but somehow there was not even a hint of clattering. The ceilings had been designed by a sound engineer – I’m not sure if that was the reason. All I know is that unlike many open learning spaces I’ve seen – these spaces were not only spatially functional but were acoustically functional.
3. The school had an established BYOD program. It worked very well. Many (most?) students had Mac laptops, many had PC laptops, some had iPads. What I saw was a lot of sharing of devices and groups of students working using three different devices between them. It convinced me that BYOD is the right approach as we head into this second decade.
4. The school’s innovative approach to space-use had not just stopped with classrooms. They had looked at a number of other spaces innovatively:
- The girls toilet block was something to behold! Not just a bland room of cubicles – it doubled as an art gallery! On the walls and even the ceiling hung works of art works produced by students. It was really rather beautiful, and something I’d not seen before. It made the space something to be proud of and to enjoy. Needless to say, they had no issue of graffiti in there. You don’t vandalise what you love.
- The staff room was also the senior students’ study centre. I had never seen this before! It makes sense though! In most schools, the staff room’s peak usage time is recess, and off-peak is during class time. Reverse that for the use of the Senior students’ study centre! By combining these two spaces into one, they had freed up one large space to be used as another open-space learning area. Supervision is built-in to the plan. I think it also conveys a level of respect and trust to senior students that is quite remarkable.
- Another confronting thing about NBCS: there was no library. There were no librarians. There were books housed in all the spaces – but no large central repository that would be recognisable as a library. This made available yet another large space for an open learning area. I’d never seen a school before which had purposefully chosen to decommission the library for space that can be used differently. I’ve seen some small schools which can’t afford a library in the first place – but to repurpose the library space is courageous, or at least bold! It makes you think though, doesn’t it?
- The large spaces did not typically have a whiteboard at the front of the room. In fact, in many spaces, you could not really say where the front might be! The whiteboards that had been taken off the walls had been repurposed as bench tops. How fantastic. Benches that invited collaborative discussions in groups – rather than teacher-centred delivery from the front!
One of the things I’d heard about and really wanted to see at NBCS was books that have been written by students in Steve Collis’ class and published on lulu.com. I love this! What better way to promote excellence in student writing than to give students an authentic audience for their writing. What better way to do that than to have them write books that are then sold in online bookshops like Amazon and Barns & Noble, printed and shipped only when purchased. The quality of the student work that I saw did not let me down.
NBCS is by no means perfect. Every school has strengths and weaknesses – and NBCS was no exception to that. But taken as a whole, Northern Beaches is really something remarkable. The pride that staff and students have for their school is clearly perceptible. It is deservedly so.
I have visited literally hundreds of schools. Were I to rank them from highest to lowest in terms of how they match up to my vision of “an Ideal school”, Northern Beaches Christian School would be atop that list.
Lastly, I want to say thank you to Principal Stephen Harris, for allowing me to tour freely through the school and a big, big thank you to Steven Collis (and colleagues) for so generously sharing both time and insight with me.