Nestled in North Hobart, Tasmania, you’ll find the Friends’ School, a self-described ‘independent, coeducational, Quaker, day and boarding school,’ happily situated amidst the thrum of the city.
Perched atop white columns you’ll see the school’s moniker inscribed in gothic style font, overlooking intricate window facades.
But despite the palatial green and somewhat formal exterior, the school’s heart, which ticks beneath the surface, is very much one made of wires, creativity and innovation.
Judging on outside appearances, Friends’ School may at first glance appear traditional, but it has always been one step ahead when it comes to technology.
Friends’ is an ‘Apple school’, and when it introduced its one-to-one laptop program back in 1995, it was one of the first schools in Australia to do so.
Principal Nelson File’s words emblazoned across the school website declare “We want our students to begin their lifetime of learning with a sense of wonder and a spirit of inquiry,” and this ethos, hand in hand with increasingly accessible technology, has seen a fusing of computers and creative methodology.
File, who has worked in schools across Europe, the United States, the Middle East and India, says engaging students is the challenge every teacher faces, particularly when attempting to engage those reluctant learners.
“That’s what teaching is all about,” he says in his unique accent, marked by his time spent abroad.
“People want to learn, as humans we’re programmed from the very beginning to learn, it’s just schools aren’t necessarily teaching or engaging with what [students] want to learn.
“The role of both the curriculum and teachers, and the whole task of teaching is; ‘how do we get kids engaged?’
Even kids who appear to be disengaged, they’re just disengaged with what we’re putting in front of them, they’re not disengaged with learning about the world around them … they want to learn something else.”
Motivated by the desire to engage students and bring new ideas into the classroom, at File’s encouragement, and thanks to the school’s Innovation in Teaching program, a few of the teachers attended a recent tech-centric conference at the breathtaking American School of Bombay in Mumbai.
“They’ve had a conference for a number of years and I became familiar with it when I worked both in India and the Middle East through the American schools I worked for,” File says.
“[The conference is] a place to exchange ideas on how to best utilise one-to-one learning devices in classrooms and out of classrooms, so it’s been going on at least 12 or 15 years now … When I arrived here I told Duncan (Gillespie, Director of ICT at the school) ‘oh you really need to go to this conference’ and it was finally this year that he and two other staff members went.”
Gillespie says the conference heightened both the benefits of a ‘maker’ approach and the different ways ‘making’ could be integrated across the curriculum.
“They’ve got the materials and resources available to students, so they can use them where it suits, so rather than going to a design technology room for a design technology subject, in mathematics if they want to build a model they show an understanding of what they’re doing of the materials they’re using available nearby where they do their maths learning,” Gillespie says.
Another workshop the teachers attended involved technology, and it was both this practical application of tech alongside the maker approach that reignited the school’s relationship with the renowned (and rather elusive) Dr Gary Stager.
Stager, who flutters between education, public speaking, writing and consulting, first visited the school 20 years ago.
Gillespie says that with the arrival of the school’s own wearable tech evening, it was “due time to get him back again”.
Collaborating with Stager for a maker night saw parents, students and teachers experimenting with wires, thread, fabric and circuitry.
Unlike other technology-focused initiatives, which may require bulky additional equipment and products to stabilise use, Stager encourages a ‘maker’ approach, which has increasingly become a trend within other schools across Australia.
Gillespie says that part of the appeal of the maker approach is that it encourages adaptability, not only of materials, but also of space.
“In terms of a maker space, for this to happen, what we’re looking at is a few containers. If you look at materials it’s not anything high tech in terms of a new room or anything like that.”
Stager arrived, Gillespie explains, suitcase in hand filled with various materials; batteries, light emitting diodes, conducting thread, fabric and example projects, before talking attendees through how to create a circuit.
“Parents were working with their child, so the parent and the child working together, and they came up with a plan of what it was that they wanted to do, and working with the circuit and the material, and spent an hour-and-a-half working together on creating that,” he says.
File also echoes that the maker approach is a natural fit for the school, and while the wearable tech project may have only lasted one night, the school’s ethos and innovative approach to technology shows no sign of abating.
“It’s something the school has being doing for a long time and it’s kind of just evolved naturally because it enables kids to become more engaged in their learning when they’re able to work together, solve problems together and see things produced that are tangible, it makes learning more interesting,” File says.
WHAT IS THE ‘MAKER MOVEMENT’?
The maker approach has a focus on creativity, adaptability and critical thinking and it’s a term that’s increasingly been taking over classrooms across Australia.
The curriculum approach is more creative centric than anything – focused on what works both for students and teachers, and embracing the growing accessibility of technology.
From programming, computing and design, the maker movement is about encouraging students to embrace and explore new technologies and learning together, complimenting existing STEM assessment areas.