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As part of the process of establishing a child-centred inquiry-based learning environment that balances the requirements of a curriculum, with competencies like critical thinking / problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, and character qualities such as curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, social and cultural awareness, our co-founders Phil and Rachel Bowyer have taken steps to ensure children’s rights will be upheld in quality and inclusive education, including:
- Extensive reading, research and development of a context-appropriate ‘philosophy for education’ that reflects our image of the child, how children learn best, and – taking these factors into account – the unique role the educator adopts, considering the importance of relationships (2016)
- Visiting innovative models of education within South Africa, including Richards Bay Christian School, SPARK in Maboneng, and St Mary’s in Waverley, Streetlight School in Jeppestown and Udobo in Durban (2017)
- Meeting local stakeholders located within the eThekwini and KwaDukuza Municipality operating within the business, education and church sectors (2017 onwards) – to date Soul Action has met with over 200 people
Between April and June 2018, the scope of research widened to include education that is bringing freedom around the world. Co-founders Rachel and Phil Bowyer spent ten weeks with children, staff and leaders in i). Italy – Reggio Emilia; ii). the US – Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, Centerville and Washington; iii). the UK – London; iv). Israel – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; v). New Zealand – Blenheim and Auckland; vi). Australia – Sydney.
Notes and journaling
To document this research, field notes were taken outlining the key information and dialogue that took place during visits. Using these field notes, retrospective reflection on each individual visit led to the identification of specific learning points; these were shared on Game Changers Facebook page in the form of ‘Notes’ whilst on the road, and later redrafted to form the body of the report as a ‘Learning Journal’.
On return to South Africa, Phil and Rachel Bowyer spent time recapping each individual visit – referring both to the field notes and Facebook Notes – and, after considerable discussions, came to conclusions with regards to the main areas for learning. The information gathered from these discussions was coded to enable similar information to be identified. The information was worked through twice, coding and re-coding, to ensure consistency.
As a result of this process, clear themes emerged, which have been grouped in to four sections (below), namely: 1. The image of a child; 2. The Staff Team; 3. The Environment; and 4. The parent-carer and relationships with the wider community.
1. The image of a child
We believe that every child is a unique individual who is capable, creative, curious, intelligent, and – to fulfil their potential – children should be free to participate in their education, development and learning.
Over a ten-week period Phil and Rachel Bowyer visited schools around the world that valued the rights of the child to access quality and inclusive education. Many of the schools involved in the research had developed approaches that offer children the opportunity to discover for themselves in authentic situations and co-construct knowledge with others. The approaches observed enable children to develop knowledge, skills and understanding which are necessary to fulfil their aspirations and relevant for today’s society – foundational literacies, alongside competencies like complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, as well as character qualities such as curiosity, initiative, persistence / grit, adaptability, leadership and cultural / social awareness.[i]
1.1. What the world of education reveals
Reggio in Italy, represents one approach where educators – in partnership with children’s interests and ideas – design ‘projects’ with 0 to 6-year olds. Reggio sees learning as a dynamic process in which adults work with where children are at, provoking them to more forward by oscillating between what is known and unknown.
Working with children aged from 2 to 13 years, New York’s Blue School balances the development of foundation literacies – such as language, mathematics and science – with what they call ‘project’ work, or to be more accurate ‘a way of being’. This facilitates an integration between subjects and the development of competencies and character qualities like creativity, collaborative problem-solving and self / social intelligence. Educators took students’ interests and current knowledge in to account as they planned. Ad Fontes Academy in Virginia was utilizing a ‘classical curriculum’ for 4 to 18 years; an approach that enables children to develop foundational literacy skills in language, logic, math and writing, as well as become independent learners, with the ability to think for themselves. In New Zealand, the Department of Education is moving towards an inquiry approach – where children determine a path of inquiry related to their interest – for its project-based work. Inquiry based learning represents a way of enabling children to develop skills in collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. This approach is used alongside the teaching of key skills in reading, mathematics and writing.
What all these approaches to education have in common is that they assist children to do ‘own’ their learning.
We observed well-motivated individuals in all the schools involved in the research, especially where children were free to voice and express their thoughts, and where their ideas about creating, forming and shaping the future were valued. The best approaches balanced and supported the development of foundational literacies such as language, numeracy, science, ICT, finances and cultural / civic literacy, alongside the competencies and character qualities the World Economic Forum believe children will need as working adults.[ii]
In those early childhood education centres around the world, where more than one culture was represented, languages were given a high priority, with each age group having teachers who spoke the main languages of the local community, which enabled children to develop skills in speaking these languages fluently. As the culture and history represented by the community in which any future school will be located are researched, the languages which are used in the early childhood education centre will need to be carefully thought through.
1.2. The aim for South Africa
As we establish a quality and inclusive school – starting with 3-year olds and adding a year at a time – due consideration needs to be given to teaching and learning approaches that align with a philosophy that values foundational literacies alongside critical thinking / problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration, whilst recognising learners right to be active participants in their education and development.
Every school involved
in the research demonstrated high levels of trust in the capability,
creativity, curiosity and intelligence of children. This was evident in those approaches that
encouraged children to actively participate in their own learning, in the way
adults / staff interacted with children, and the environments that were purpose
built or repurposed to accommodate this approach to learning – these will be
explored in the following sections.
2. The Staff Team
A school’s educators, alongside its leaders, are the vehicle through which children receive excellent education.
2.1. What the world of education reveals
All the educators involved in this research were of the highest calibre and held in the highest regard by the leadership of the schools; this was evident in the way educators were active within the learning spaces, in their commitment, motivation and preparedness. The most inspiring educators were visibly passionate; they clearly wanted to make a difference to the lives of the children in their care; teaching was a vocation not a job.
Educators were trusted by their leadership to provide high quality care and education; they were empowered to make decisions on activities that would support children to oscillate between what is known and unknown. Educators saw themselves as researchers and co-learners with the children, often working with small groups, both in early years’ settings and the primary school, serving as guides and facilitators. Small group work enabled higher levels of interaction, with adults gently provoking dialogue, incisive questioning, listening and observations in response to children’s ideas and views. This way of working also enabled differently abled children to be catered for, included and thrive. Educators documented the learning and progress of children; some schools encouraged documentation of the whole class, whilst others documented the learning of the individuals through portfolios, which they either referred to as ‘learning journeys’ or ‘learning stories’.
Inspiring leaders were evident in every school; people who believed in what they were doing, worked alongside their staff team to ensure the philosophy was practiced and the school provided quality teaching and learning. Leaders provided structures to support staff, including facilitating regular individual observations with feedback, planning and reflection meetings and professional development. Alongside these structures, leaders set clear expectations, modelled behaviour and were highly visible. As part of their role, leaders created the culture for teaching and learning, the environment for the work to happen. Schools in Washington, Virginia and London developed their ethos and habits from a theological foundation, whilst a preschool in Auckland (pictured), had contextualised the Reggio Approach established in Northern Italy, to accommodate their Christian ethos, alongside a philosophy that celebrated the local Maori context, culture, history and traditions.
All schools acknowledged that finding and appointing the right educators to collaborate with children and other educators was a priority; individuals who viewed teaching as a vocation, who were committed to the philosophy, believed all children were capable, curious, intelligent and active participants in their own learning.
Views on the level of qualifications needed to work within the early years setting differed between contexts, from an Auckland preschool that first welcomed community members with a love and desire to work with children – before encouraging them to pursue formal training and qualifications – to a Sydney preschool that appointed high numbers of staff with degrees, believing this supported in delivering quality care and education.
2.2. The aim for South Africa
The appointment of high-calibre staff, who are committed to the philosophy, and have a desire to work as part of a team alongside the educational leader in developing the culture for teaching and learning, will be critical to establishing a school in KZN. Structures that support staff will be developed to facilitate quality education.
2.2.1. Investment in teachers
|‘The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.’ii(a)|
After an initial focus on training, the NPO Soul Action South Africa noticed a significant shift in depth of personal development and sustained transformation in its schools-based programmes in 2014, as a result of a decision to begin to meet educators on a regular one on one basis – for mentoring and support – alongside delivering workshops.
Learning from this experience, the facilitation of ‘thinking environments’ – characterised by making room for greater attention, equality, appreciation, encouragement, feelings, information, diversity and incisive questions – became a core feature of Soul Action South Africa’s work with leaders of business, churches and Non-profits from 2016.
|‘What really makes education effective is well-leveraged leadership that ensures great teaching to guarantee great learning.’iii(a)|
Quality education is not something that can be left to chance. Children fulfilling their holistic potential requires quality teachers, and quality teachers require leaders who are prepared to observe lessons, give feedback and facilitate appropriate professional development – some of the instructional and cultural levers that drive ‘consistent, transformational and replicable growth.’[iii]
2.2.2. The Role of the Principal
Uncommon School’s Patrick Bambrick-Santoyo, questions why US Principals spend over 90% of their time focused on tasks that do little to increase student achievement. He believes a Principal’s first priority is to, ‘create the highest-leverage, most game changing 30 minute conversations possible.’ Leaders of quality schools develop quality educators via, ‘weekly observations and feedback’ – a schedule that allows educators to develop more in one year than most do in 20.[iv] Whether there is any truth in the statements that anyone can master anything in 10,000 hours or 10 years, Soul Action believes South Africa’s children – and South African society as a whole – cannot afford to wait a moment longer for quality leadership within the education sector.
3. The Environment
A learning environment reflects what a school believes is important for learning and discovery. A variety of educational facilities, for children aged 0 to 18 years, were involved in this research – from single storey schools, to vertical schools established in inner cities across many floors of high rise buildings.
3.1. What the world of education reveals
The physical environment of the infant toddler centres and preschools in Italy’s Reggio Emilia, and the Reggio Inspired schools around the world, invited active participation, creativity, different perspectives, reflection, research and relationship building. Reggio’s primary school incorporated an ‘atelier’ – with an art and design studio feel to it – which encouraged the expressive and poetic ‘languages’ to be integrated across all learning.
In New Zealand ‘Modern Learning Environments’– simple flexible
spaces, which are shared by two or three classes in schools – encourage
children to collaborate and solve problems in groups or pairs. Children are free to work in whatever spaces
where they feel most comfortable, in a way that is most appropriate for their
learning style. The environment enables
children to work completely individually, yet completely together.
The isolation of teaching staff that can sometimes be an issue in more ‘traditionally’ designed schools was broken down by creating physical environments where teachers could work together in pairs or small team.
Outside spaces were given high priority, especially for younger children, where they provided a rich learning environment alongside the inside area. This was especially evident at a preschool in Sydney where there was a teacher dedicated to facilitating discovery, and document learning in the outside space. At the same preschool in Sydney, a homely environment was achieved inside through the use of soft / warm colours, natural materials, and framed family photographs. Furniture was either adult, but cut down to size, or scaled down and bespoke. Rather than imitation, kitchens were fully equipped, functioning, with running taps – some had expresso machines. In the main kitchen, children prepared food alongside a chef, whilst others laid tables with cloths, china and glasses. Children and staff ate together, as they would at home or out at a local restaurant.
The communal co-constructing aspect of learning – typified by the importance of food knowledge, preparation and presentation – in children’s development and learning was evident in many of the early years’ settings.
At the heart of being collaborative is the belief that we are better together than we are on our own – which resonates with the notion of Ubuntu in South Africa. Collaborative schools welcome dialogue and are participatory; each member of staff is encouraged to bring ideas, thoughts and knowledge, with the understanding that in sharing, a better, richer, fuller education can be provided for every child. Collaboration works well when teachers value and respect the other, when people are not competing for power or status. Teachers within a collaborative context need to want to listen to each other, to be flexible and embrace change.
Creating an environment that encourages collaboration relies heavily on the intentionality, empowering nature and facilitation skills of the school’s leader. Structures are necessary to support teachers as they seek to work together; giving staff the opportunity to share what is working, as well as think / work through any challenges.
3.2. The aim for South Africa
There is a need to consider how to create a learning environment aligned to its philosophy. A philosophy that, when practiced, demonstrates Soul Action’s commitment to support children as they co-construct the type of foundational literacies, competencies and character qualities that are required to voice, shape, form and create the kind of South African society that we long for today and imagine for the future.
Born out of a marriage between philosophy and architecture, the built environment needs to be conducive to the cognitive, physical, spiritual and socio-emotional development of 21st Century skills like critical thinking / problem-solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, curiosity, initiative, persistence / grit, adaptability, leadership, and social / cultural awareness – not just for children, but for educators, leaders, parent carers and the wider community. Our school will be a microcosm of the society we imagine for South Africa as a whole.
4. The ‘parent-carer’ and relationships with the wider community
We believe that quality and inclusive education is a shared responsibility between the school, families and the wider community. The highest quality schools involved in this research valued and respected the contributions and participation of parent carers, and the wider community; an approach that is supported by research that demonstrates that when parent carers are involved in education, children tend to perform better (Okeke, 2014).[v] Schools were being intentional about developing genuine inter-cultural relationships among families, by utilising occasions, rhythms and structures that celebrated, respected and sought to understand the range of cultures, history and traditions that were unique to their contexts.
4.1. What the world of education reveals
Malachim Preschool, a Reggio Inspired centre in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel had developed interesting approaches to include parent-carers in the life of the school. For example, parents were encouraged to inhabit the learning spaces at the start and end of each day, since the preschool believed this helped the children to understand that what they do there is important. Profiles – that documented the learning and progress of each child throughout their time at the preschool – are completed in partnership with the parent and / or primary carers.
Mia Mia, a long-day education and care program in Sydney, have carefully considered the role of the family. Each prospective family is shown around the centre, on an individual basis, so that the philosophy and approach can be explained and observed before parents make an informed decision. The transition process from home to school is also planned with the parents; this can take up to a few weeks depending on the needs of each child and family. Documentation is developed on a daily basis and used as a way of communicating learning with families, and parents participate in the maintenance and development of the built environment.
The infant toddler centres and preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy are places where parents are encouraged to be part of the life of the school. At various points during the life of what the schools call a ‘projectista’ – an extended period of focused research and design – educators will gather parent-carers to share what the children have been exploring, expressing and learning. Parent-carers will be invited to reflect, participate and contribute their ideas, knowledge and points of view, to make new proposals and extend the scope of research.
At the Peace Preschool in Jerusalem – a school that welcomes Jews, Christians and Muslims – every opportunity is taken to celebrate festivals through the sharing of stories, food and art. They have found that this enables strong relationships to be built with parent-carers, which supports the deepening friendships among families.
At a preschool in Auckland, the historical context of where the school is located has been thoroughly researched; from this, practices have emerged that respect and value each family’s culture. This has enabled genuine relationships to be built with the families and community, so nurture and education are a joint effort.
Schools located in the UK and the US intentionally focus on families within a defined community, in order to bring about sustained change and transformation. The Oasis Hub Waterloo focuses on one square mile – they believe that quality education and healthy communities are necessary for children and young people to thrive.
|‘Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. Intercultural communication focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural norms and the development of deep relationships. In an intercultural society, no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.’iv(a)|
4.2. The aim for South Africa
Participation from parent-carers and community stakeholders is absolutely vital as we establish a school in KwaZulu Natal. Wherever the school is located, relational research will be required to discern the mix of cultures, history and languages that are represented, with the intention of developing practices, rhythms and ways of being that accommodate, celebrate and empower families as they develop diverse, genuine and meaningful relationships. The hope would be that any learning gained from the relational research would inform the initial ‘what’ ‘how’ and ‘why’ we are as a school; particularly how to work alongside families, their children and the wider community in ways that appreciate, respect and value all the cultures represented.
[i] World Economic Forum (2015). A New Vision for Education [online]. Available from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEFUSA_NewVisionforEducation_Report2015.pdf, p. 3
ii(a) Kline, N. Time to Think: the ten components [online]. Available from http://www.timetothink.com/thinking-environment/the-ten-components [Accessed September 2018]
[iii] Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2012) Leverage Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Other levers include data-driven instruction – you cannot know if students are learning at the highest levels unless you assess that learning – planning lessons, and developing positive, joyful, strong staff and student community / culture.
[iv] Ibid., 23, 61.
[v] Okeke C. I., (2014) Effective home-school partnership: Some strategies to help strengthen parental involvement, South African Journal of Education, Volume 34, Number 3, August 2014.
iv(a) Spring Institute (2018). What’s the difference between multicultural, intercultural, and cross-cultural communication? [online] Available from https://springinstitute.org/whats-difference-multicultural-intercultural-cross-cultural-communication/ [Accessed October 2018]