The building is only the beginningAugust 2016
JUDE BARBACK visits newly opened Rototuna Junior High School in Hamilton and finds that the school is defined not only by its sleek surfaces and modern layout, but by its innovative approach to teaching and learning within the new environment.
I pull over to ask two road workers how to get to Rototuna Junior High School.
“It’s just there, mate,” one says incredulously, pointing at the magnificent futuristic building in the valley below. I had spotted it already – it was hard to miss the gleaming lines of glass and steel rising beside a construction zone – but I couldn’t find the entrance.
Despite some fairly unhelpful navigation and my poor sense of direction, I eventually found myself parked and walking along a perfectly manicured footpath bordering fields of nothing toward this great symbol of modern education.
Like the other delegates attending the #edchatnz 2016 conference there, I am intrigued to see a new school in operation.
Rototuna Junior High has been in the works for over 20 years, says deputy principal Mel Moore. She says the community has fought incredibly hard for the school. It serves years 7 to 10. The adjacent Senior High School – currently still under construction – will open from year 11 next year.
There appears to be mixed messages about the separation of the schools. The Ministry wants two distinct schools, but the community wants one. Consequently “on paper” it is two schools, but in practice it will operate as one, says Moore,
utilising the many shared areas, including the staff room, reception area, gymnasium and performing arts centre.
One of the challenges of establishing a new school is trying to create a learning framework to fit the school’s design and layout, which is largely predetermined by the Ministry and their architects. Those actually using the space have little input into its design.
“It was very odd to come on board but to have no say in the design of the space,” says Moore.
I recall similar conversations with Steve Lindsey, principal of new school Papamoa College in the Bay of Plenty. Like Moore, Lindsey would have liked to have been involved at an earlier stage of the design process.
He described the process as “the wrong way round”, with the emphasis on achieving things
like Green Star ratings rather than effective learning spaces.
Moore acknowledges that the Ministry has to think longer term when it comes to school design. Certainly, the buildings will outlast the current senior leadership team’s time at the helm. To tailor the design and layout of a school too closely to current needs and wants would probably be
But that doesn’t relieve the challenges for today’s senior leadership at Rototuna Junior High School. The school has a projected roll of 800, and they have to work out how to slice it so that learning modules, learning advisories and flight times all work with the space.
The larger learning spaces do seem to lend themselves for the type of connected learning to which they aspire. Moore says she is frustrated by the silos that emerge within the learning areas of the curriculum. She gives the example of students who learn graphing in maths, yet leave this skill
at the door of their biology class, where it needs
to be taught again – “a waste of time” according to Moore.
The learning modules are typically led by three teachers, with an emphasis on integrating teaching to make connections between learning areas. For example, a learning module on Cultural Conflict spans English and social sciences, while Design Craft takes in maths and design technology and Hauora in Action teaches across physical education and Te Reo Māori.
‘Flight times’ occur three times a week and range from things like martial arts, yoga and languages to extension programmes or a chance for students to play ‘catch up’ – which as Moore says, is learning in itself. Students get a say in flight time activities each term; “sleeping” is apparently a popular request, and one that is unsurprisingly vetoed.
The school has, it seems, a vision that could probably work for any space. The edu-speak version is whittled down to an acronym that the students can understand: CLOAK (Challenge our mindset, Learning is connected, Ourselves as learning, Ako always and Kindness and respect).
On my group tour of the school – conducted by two able student ambassadors – I see references to the CLOAK everywhere.
Our group stops to observe a learning module in session. Our ambassador asks the teacher, Steve – they call all the teachers by their first names – what they are learning. “Dragon’s Den” is the answer, a study of enterprise spanning various learning areas.
I can see why ‘innovative’ has trumped ‘modern’ when it comes to talking about learning spaces like this. ‘Modern’, while a fitting descriptor, doesn’t quite encapsulate the vast spaces, in which the furniture can be configured in a multitude of ways, and where digital technology can be integrated seamlessly into learning.
Devices are ever-present, yet do not appear to dominate. They are, as intended, a mere tool for learning. It strikes me that the novelty of devices has already worn off for these young people. They will never know learning without them.
“It’s like Google Headquarters for young people,” muttered one teacher on our tour. I know what she means.
“Do you feel lucky to be at a school like this?” another teacher asks the student ambassadors, to which they nod enthusiastically.
Lucky indeed. The sharp new buildings and facilities are only part of it – the innovation that infiltrates the timetable, vision and approach to learning is what truly gives this school a sense of promise. If this is schooling of the future, then we’d like more please.