Shifting the Paradigm at Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry | IDEA

Shifting the Paradigm at Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry

Posted by Shawn Strader on Feb 24, 2015 - 09:35 AM

This is a guest post by Rachel Mason. Rachel lives in Victoria, British Columbia. She is interested in progressive education, youth voice, systems change, and social justice. She has worked as a teacher, youth worker, facilitator, project manager, and curriculum developer in a variety of settings. She currently works as a teacher at Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII) and as owner of Arrive Consulting, and is a parent of three young children. For more on PSII from Rachel, read about PSII's philosophy and opening days here.You can contact Rachel at

“The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.”
― John Dewey, Experience and Education  (1938)
A year and a half ago I joined a team of people starting a new school in Victoria, British Columbia. Our school, Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII), is modeled on a philosophy that places the learner at the centre of their own education. What this means is that our learners work with teachers to co-create a curriculum based on their own questions and interests. It also means that we see education as being about the development of the whole person, both within and outside the school, and not just about academic learning that happens at school.
In the early days of opening our school, every day felt like an adrenaline high, a ride on a gut-wrenching roller-coaster. We had to invent a new process for teaching and learning, how we organize our school, how we relate and interact with learners, how we do assessment and reporting. Every decision brought up questions about our philosophy of education and our personal values.
A year and a half later we are still inventing and creating every day. There are many details we have not yet worked out, and we are constantly thinking about how we can put into practice the approach to learning that we envision. However, we do have some processes established and some experience under our belts, which allows us to focus more on our still evolving roles as facilitators of learning.
Recently, our school hosted a live-stream of the BC Education Forum, which brought together world experts in education and community stakeholders to discuss how we can improve our province’s education system through innovative practice. One of the speakers who really impressed me was Yong Zhao, a world-renowned education scholar, author and speaker who currently serves as a Presidential Chair and Director at University of Oregon’s College of Education. He brought up many points which I found relevant to our experience at PSII, including:
  • The current mainstream education system, which was originally based on a factory model to train workers during the industrial revolution, now needs to prepare learners for a world that has changed beyond recognition from the time it was established. Instead of this outdated system, we need education that prepares learners for a future that we cannot even anticipate yet.
  • By basing our assessment of learning on measuring a pre-determined set of content and skills, we are in effect deciding what society considers useful. Skills and abilities outside this pre-determined set do not count in schools, and are therefore considered useless by our education system. However, in an age when the sum total of human knowledge is doubling every 12 months, we need an education system that focuses not of the acquisition of pre-determined outcomes, but on nurturing the creativity, individuality, and desire to go on learning of each unique learner. Such a system would recognize that we cannot predict what knowledge and skills will be useful our children’s future, and would therefore have an assessment system that is based more on individual growth than on common outcomes. As Zhao says, we should not “define our children by external standards, [but] define them by how much we have helped them to grow into better people.”
  • Children and youth do not have to be “motivated” to learn. They are natural “learning machines.”  As Zhao said, “children can not not learn.” Our education system too often ignores children’s existing motivations and devalues them, rather than building on their natural curiosity. If children have choice over their learning and are motivated by their own interests, then acquiring foundational skills will follow.
  • It has been shown that the longer a child spends in formal schooling, the more their creativity declines (As measured by Torrance divergent thinking tests in US schools). According to the chart Zhao shared in his talk, almost all five-year-olds are creative at the “genius” level, whereas after 5 years of schooling this goes down to only 32%, and after 10 years of schooling only 10% are highly creative.
  • To create an education system that enhances the potential of every individual child, we need a paradigm shift rather than a fix of the existing system. As Zhao explained, “You can’t fix your horse wagon to get to the moon. If you want to get to the moon, you’ve got to change the paradigm.”
Zhao’s talk drew my attention to how different Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry is from the mainstream education system, and how we are working to put into practice a system more like the one that Zhao argues is needed. Let me give some examples of the ways I feel we have succeeded in moving towards a paradigm shift in education:
Creativity is the Norm
When I asked our learners if they agreed that schooling has a negative effect on creativity, they commented that you can be creative in a typical school, but you have to be so in spite of the system, not because of it. In contrast, at PSII creativity is the norm rather than the exception. On a typical day you might see learners engaged in a number of projects that they have created through their own initiative, with teacher support and encouragement. Some examples of recent projects include developing video games, working with a local tech/engineering company to develop and build solutions to real clients’ problems, making short films or websites for local organizations, creating a film collaboratively with other learners, designing and building an art project for the local art gallery, creating a detailed setting and history for a story or game, researching topics from jellyfish to witches to sound engineering, volunteering at a homeless shelter, meeting with local experts and professors on a variety of topics, using the electron microscope at the university to photograph microscopic objects, taking classes at the nearby college or university, discussing philosophy and social and historical themes, designing their own science experiments, and much more.
Learners have autonomy
At PSII learners decide how to spend their time and what they want to learn about. Our role as teachers is to guide them to make effective choices and teach them tools and techniques to manage their time, such as how to prioritize tasks, make short-term and long-term schedules, and keep track of their commitments. But we don’t tell them what they have to do when. This can be really hard for learners at first, especially those coming from the mainstream system.
After not having the freedom to make choices about their learning and their time for so many years, many learners want to experiment with their newfound freedom. As a result, there are many times when I’ve worried that our learners aren’t “being productive enough” or are “wasting their time” on things like chatting with friends or browsing the internet. But what I’ve seen is that with enough time and encouragement from teachers, as well as being surrounded by peers who are engaged in their learning, most of them rediscover their motivation to learn and create. They might not learn and create what adults tell them to, but they will learn and create in their own unique ways.
Learning starts with the individual
One of the things I think our learners appreciate most about PSII is that each individual is valued for who they are in a whole-person approach. Like any school we have learners with a wide array of needs and abilities. Some learners have physical or mental health factors that have made it difficult or even impossible to attend school regularly in the past, so for these learners just showing up feels like a big achievement. We recognize that and work gently with them to help them feel ready to engage in learning as much as they are able. Some learners are highly skilled in certain academic areas, and they can really let these skills shine at PSII, where they have the time to go deep. As a result of this accepting environment, some learners who have dreaded school in the past now enjoy school and actually want to attend. Another individualized aspect of our school is that we are not trying to teach everyone the same thing at the same time. I facilitate a lot of discussion groups and I almost always have learners between the ages of 13 and 17 discussing topics such as the nature of reality or the causes of racism. No matter the age or experience, they can all learn from each other. And because everyone is working on different things, people can bring their own areas of expertise to the discussion, creating a very rich dialogue.
Learning is inter-disciplinary and connected to the real world
At PSII we don’t have “subject areas” and “classes” (with the exception of some math and foreign languages). So all the learning that takes place crosses a range of disciplines. For example, a learner who is interested in the relationship between popular media and gender is analyzing song lyrics through literary and mathematical analysis. Learners sometimes use art to show what they have learned about science, through intricate drawings or even knitted and 3D-printed representations of things like parts of a cell or DNA. A student learning about Chernobyl researched how radiation occurs at the atomic level, how it affects ecosystems, how the explosion impacted society and history, and then designed a 3D model of the power plant to use in his oral presentation. Because learners aren't spending all their time in classes with prescribed curriculum, they have the opportunity to "go deep" in their understanding of certain topics. For example, one student has been exploring how human societies change and adapt over time by comparing hunter/gather societies to agricultural societies, assessing the impact of colonialism across historical periods and cultures, looking into the roots of inequality and racism, and weighing the pros and cons of various economic systems. His learning far surpasses what would typically be included in the curriculum of a single high-school course.
In addition, our approach allows many of our learners to work on projects that have connections to the world outside the school. For example, one group of students is learning about poverty through designing and creating a website for an anti-poverty organization. Another group is designing and building sensors for an aquaculture farm. Our learners are partnering with local companies, non-profit organizations, artists, festival organizers, university students and professors to create projects that have real-world implications.
I am very proud of all of these aspects of our school and believe these are important successes. Even so, I still feel like there are many things we are still working out. For example, I don’t think we’ve found quite the right balance yet between emergent curriculum (that comes from the individual learners) and common curriculum (decided by adults, and applied to all learners). Part of the challenge is that we’re still operating in two systems because our reporting is based on provincial requirements. We would like to experiment with basing our curriculum on high-level learning outcomes (like “Learner explores significant ideas, events and figures in historical and current contexts”), but at the moment we are still having to “package” all of our learners’ activities into courses with grades, in order to show they have met graduation requirements that include detailed lists of prescribed skills and facts. Another part of the challenge in finding the right balance is due to all of us, teachers and learners, figuring out how to pursue inquiry-based learning in a way that prepares learners for a range of future opportunities as well as meeting their present need for learning that is fun and engaging.  
Over my time at PSII I have struggled with exactly where I stand on the spectrum between total learner freedom to having every learning outcome and activity decided by the teacher. This conflict goes back through the ages. As John Dewey said in 1938: “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without.”
I believe the truth falls somewhere in between, but with a much greater emphasis on development from within than we see in the mainstream education system today. I can’t say I haven’t struggled at times with thinking, “this learner isn’t doing enough ________” (reading, writing, physical activity, historical analysis, scientific thinking, etc.), and I think some of our learners could use a clearer structure and expectations to ensure that they gain a wide array of skills. But while I do consider it an important part of my job to support learners to develop the breadth of skills and knowledge that are expected of an educated citizen in our society, I’ve come to understand that you can’t force people to learn. You can force them to memorize information with the threat of external punishment (failing, not getting into university, getting into trouble at home). Or you can expose them to a range of interesting and varied learning opportunities for their choosing. But you can’t force them to be engaged, creative learners. That has to come from them, with support from teachers who are in tune with each individual student, and a learning environment that makes it safe to take risks, explore, and be oneself.
So I’m not saying we’re perfect, or that we have it all figured out. But I think we’re headed in a good direction. After a year and half of immersion in the day-to-day experiences of opening a new kind of school, I can see that a lot of beautiful and inspiring things happen when young people are allowed to make their own choices, engage with the community, have teachers who act as mentors and facilitators rather than directors of learning, and have a learning environment that respects them as individuals. I’ve been privileged to be a part of this learning journey as we try to put into practice the type of education I hope John Dewey and Yong Zhao would approve of, and the type of education that I believe young people need to become confident, curious, caring and happy adults in today’s world. And after all, isn’t this what education is for?