Opening Week at Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry | IDEA

Opening Week at Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry

Posted by Shawn Strader on Sep 12, 2013 - 06:59 AM

This is a guest post by Rachel Mason. Rachel lives in Victoria, British Columbia. She is interested in progressive education, youth voice and social justice. She has worked as a teacher, youth worker, facilitator, fundraiser, project manager, and curriculum developer in a variety of settings. She currently works as a teacher a Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII), and is a parent of three young children. You can contact her at


On the Tuesday after Labour Day young people all over Canada were going back to school. At the opening day of Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII), a new school in Victoria, British Columbia, the staff arrived early and were buzzing with excitement. Myself and the five other teachers at the school (including Principal/Founder Jeff Hopkins) had put a lot of thought into how we wanted the first day to unfold and the tone we wanted to set. Until opening day though, it had all been in the abstract. As the students started to arrive and the room began to hum with energy, it began to feel very real.

PSII has been intentionally designed to do things differently than the mainstream education system. Students do not have classes with set age-groupings or pre-determined outcomes and assignments. Instead, each student will work with the teachers to develop a personal learning plan that is influenced by their own interests and goals. Rather than being based on “covering content,” our school is focused on fostering personal development, innovation, collaboration, and a love of learning. To find out more about our structure and philosophy, read my previous blog post here, or check out our school blog and website.

As teachers, we know that following personal inquiry paths based on interests is a natural way to learn. We are well aware that people learn better when they are intrinsically motivated and engaged in what they are studying. We also know that there is no logic to a system in which all students must learn the same things at the same time, regardless of interest or ability. Finally, we recognize that the student-teacher relationship is a key factor in learning. Our staff shares a common understanding of what we want to do and why it is important. But as we plunge headfirst into a different way of doing things, we are working out the “how” of this new process as we go. This isn’t because we’re underprepared—rather, it’s because our whole philosophy rests on responding to the needs of our learners, so we can’t plan everything out in advance.

Our priorities in the first week were introducing students to a new way of “schooling,” and getting to know each other. We also worked on developing projects and promoting innovation and collaborative problem-solving over traditional content-based curricula. These are the skills needed for success in today’s world. A top executive from the telecommunications company Nokia, quoted in “Finnish Lessons,” explains that “If we hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, we have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if we get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently, or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here.” To read more about what we did in the first week, check out our school blog and website.  

As the first week of school unfolded, we were all learning as we go. Students were learning a new way of being in school. Many students will need to become accustomed to managing their own time, participating in designing the learning community rather than obeying rules, developing their own products to demonstrate their learning, and being responsible for their own progress. As a teacher, I am learning to focus more on relationships and getting to know students, and less on prescribed learning outcomes. While part of me feels like I should be planning some “lessons,” I also know that I need to get to know the students first so that any group learning I propose can be responsive to their needs. For a person like myself, who is comfortable with structure and planning, this can feel a bit daunting. I can see that some of our students are feeling this as well. But it is also exhilarating because it is an entirely creative and collaborative process.

In some ways I feel like I am leaping into a black hole. I can imagine, but I cannot say for sure what will happen next at the school. I am looking forward to seeing where we are a few weeks from now, once all of us are starting to find our groove. I am curious to watch our philosophy unfold into practice. I am confident that with a fabulous staff and with a dynamic and diverse student body, things will go very well. But I am also confident that it won’t be easy and there will be challenges along the way. I look forward to sharing those successes and challenges with our school community, and with all those readers who are following our blog. Let the adventure begin!


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