May 23, 2007

Rebuilding a school without touching a brick

Img_6055 Stovner Upper Secondary is a school in Norway which has come from the brink of kids running away, not appearing or being disruptive, and is now the school local parents fight to have their children attend. Technology has had a role to play, as Hans Leganger explains.

First of all, half of the students in the school take their second year in London - outsourced education, if you like - at the partner school of Hammersmith and West London College. From the word go these kids have an appreciation of high expectations, flattened world living.

Free choice for the bright, or free choice for everyone?
So how do kids choose to go to this amazing school? Free choice, much the same as in Scotland and England. However, as free choice has come to mean in England, at least, this would normally mean free choice for the brightest kids. The 'sink' schools, the most unpopular schools, would suffer.

Five years ago Stovner was the unpopular school, with 50% of students coming from a minority language background, most of the pupils coming from a working class background. Moreover, the money from the government for running schools doesn't go to the school - it follows the students. So if a student decides to leave the school, the school could in effect become bankrupt. Schools might be unhappy, but politicians are happy at getting rid of a 'problem school'.

The aim of the school?

  • To become the most popular school in that part of Oslo, regardless of social prejudice regarding the student groups who attended;
  • To offer teaching that students will not find boring (they asked the kids, and they did find it boring, even though the teachers thought they were doing alright);
  • To improve academic results;
  • To make teachers' work more rewarding.

How did they do it?
Teaching had to now focus on the individual, on the pupil, using computer technology as a prominent element of teaching and learning. Up until now this had been near impossible in the typical 45 minute period of work, especially when things went wrong (which they always did). The result was that teachers would go back to what they knew, without computers, and as a result their skills eroded since they were not used regularly. Active problem solving should be the preferred method of teaching and learning (much in the way that an element of extreme learning tackles learning).

Img_6053 Changing shapes of rooms
The shape of the classroom was to change, too. Students were given their own space, their own desk, their own computer. They could decorate their space, the mini booth that they now spend half their school day, if they want to, researching, working, preparing, collaborating. It is theirs. No-one else uses it.

Teachers work in teams across all subjects, honing their collaborations and skills for the needs of the students. Each subject is now actually only taught once per week, with 'smaller' subjects like History organised into half year courses, to provide more variety.

(Don't) Give me a break

Breaks between lessons were abandoned, because one kid needs breaks of different lengths and frequency compared to the next one. Also, there are no large pupil movements between lessons because of the way the timetable is designed (see below), so corridor indiscipline is eradicated. Even the end of lessons is flexible, because pupils are never running off to another lesson at the end of class, they're always running into a break. Therefore breaks can be negotiated back at another period when the work of the class is not in mid-flow.

A learning management system (LMS), Classfrontier, was used for the whole school, from students to teachers to administrators. The LMS was to offer individual teaching and learning structure for each student and teacher.

Img_6066 Reshaping the notional school day
Classes of kids were reorganised. There were now smaller groups of 12 students with one tutor. Timetables changed, too. Pupils only have French/German, Social Science, Norwegian, Maths, English, Physical Education and Science timetabled in, with lots of white space to go and learn other things or prepare. All students follow the same timetable, which you can see here.

The teachers put themselves through this for a while to see what difficulties they might encounter. What was quickly discovered was that you see your students much less. Every lesson counts. Teachers have to know exactly what they're going to do. They have to put in a lot more effort to make the lesson motivating, understandable, constructive.

I don't think, from what Hans is saying, that the teachers were doing any less 'fun' stuff because of these constraints, quite the contrary. But I think the creative process was very well planned out, skills learned by the teacher beforehand to some extent but, most importantly, team work became the only way to learn how to do all this, and team work came around in a logical, natural way.

Teachers helping teachers. Students helping teachers. Students helping each other in these larger, more open spaces, with no closed doors to hide the possibility of cooperation.

In fact, with a timetable organised around batches of subjects, colleagues had a greater opportunity to get together (Friday, for example, is English day, so all the colleagues get around to see how they can input to English because they don't have any competing classes - they're all doing English). Teachers and students alike learn far easier from each other in this environment - there's far more "looking over each other's shoulders" learning for both groups.

Results from the 'rebuild'

  • Students love this because they can finish a whole task (i.e. they are guaranteed success each time). The long projects are more stimulating than the short sharp stuff we often find ourselves rushing through in the name of 'pace'.
  • Students love the freedom to use computers extensively for their school work. The LMS provides a means of monitoring, correcting and storing work.
  • There seems to be a real sense of school community, from the schedule that is laid out at the beginning of each day.
  • Teachers love it because their scheduled time is relatively free (only three or four blocks of learning each week, but present the rest of the time to cooperate and collaborate with colleagues and students).
  • Discipline is better and attendance is up, which is good for both teachers, students and management.
  • Attainment is up, particularly for the minority languages group whose scores have risen from 3.1 to 3.8 in their final tests (I don't know what the whole scale is here, I'm thinking 5, but it is clearly marked improvement).
  • The number of dropouts form school has dropped from 35 to 4 per year. If each student represents $1500 to the school that's extra investment in learning to the tune of $46,000.


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Great post. I'd like to talk to you about this when your back in the office.



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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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