Unlimited: High School for the 21st Century

Whilst in Christchurch last week I got a chance to visit Unlimited: High School for the 21st Century. Unlimited is a school situated in the middle of Christchurch and is basically a high-rise building situated above a shopping centre. Just across the street is Discovery1, a primary school that is based on the same premise. This premise is based around 10 special characteristics or guiding principals:

1. Students are central in directing their own learning

2. Students follow individual interests and enthusiasms

3. Curriculum and qualification needs are met through a student’s chosen path, not a prescribed route

4. Learning experiences extend beyond boundaries of time, place, age, methods of learning and areas of study

5. The entire community is the learning environment

6. Families are vital and active partners in the holistic learning of students

7. We encourage, nurture and celebrate creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship

8. The individuality of each student is valued

9. We are a high trust community, traeting each other with mutual respect and kindness

10. Everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher

Each student gets to select their home base mentor who becomes a very important person in the students experience and liases closely with parents throughout their time at Unlimited. Teachers are called Learning Advisors, and everyone is on a first name basis, including the Principal, who plays an active role in the day to day running of the school. Students can attend classes if they want to, but it is not compulsory. Instead, they can work on independent and collaborative learning, engaged in projects that are personally meaningful.

(When students first arrive at Unlimited, the Principal admitted that some students struggled to come to terms with the freedom and did not have the skills or discipline required to undertake independent learning. To combat this issue, when students first arrive, they are put through a 10 week personal development program that has a strong personal health and fitness/gym program where students are taught about self-discipline and goal setting.)

The buildings consist of enormous open spaces, comfortable furniture, collaborative and private spaces, but what I thought to be striking initially was the lack of technology. Only one high-end PC lab was visible with a few desktops placed strategically around the buildings. (A majority of students actually brought in their own devices and had them connected to the wireless network.) Instead of worrying about performance on standardized tests (which they were still way above their district average), Unlimited’s measure of success was the number of students entering university and the workforce (A figure which I think was about 85%)

In Australia, with increased emphasis on standardized tests like NAPLAN, the teaching profession by and large is dismayed that they have to ‘teach to the test.’ Unlimited proves to a certain extent I think, that if project-based learning is done well, students will still perform on these types of tests.

Earlier this year, I got a chance to listen to Yong Zhao speak, who said “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything thats counted, counts” and this is something that is still resonating with me. The facts are pretty simple. Students today don’t respond to chalk and talk. Granted, their is still a place for explicit teaching in some cases, but a shift towards project-based learning engages students deeply, lets them be active participants in their learning, and develops the essential skills of critical thinking, networking, innovation, problem solving, creativity and also gives them a sense of pride in what they do. “Standardized” skills in the future will be outsourced to a country where labour is cheaper (already we are seeing this) – what will be valued are the so called 21st century skills.

The evidence is mounting that project-based learning works (see http://www.edutopia.org/blog/project-based-learning-findings-study-bob-lenz)

How does your school encourage, nurture and celebrate creativity, innovation and entreprenuership?