Ecosystems for Innovation

Paul Magnuson, Director of Educational Research, Leysin American School.

I just stopped in our school garden, built on a hill as everything is when you live in a ski village, and climbed up to a newly installed bench to test it out.

 

It’s a simple pleasure sitting on a bench, in a garden, taking in the view. Disconnected for a while, just lots of green growth and a pond with fish, clay pots of seedlings everywhere, a few shovels and a pitchfork leaning against the fence, white and brown chickens a couple levels down, two picnic areas and a swing set further down still. Behind and above me is a new fenced-off section of grass left to grow as it might, for the next few years, and nestled among the wildflowers are three wooden beehives literally humming with literally busy bees. Higher still are tomatoes, fruit trees, rock paths, compost, and more flower beds.

 

It’s wonderful.

 

And a lot of work.

 

But there’s a human ecosystem supporting this biological ecosystem that is perhaps an interesting example of how we might like to work across the school, on many of our short and long term projects, not just this one.

 

The ecosystem I’m thinking about is composed of the faculty that have made and continue to maintain this garden. When I arrived here, a number of years ago now, this expanse was a hill of grass, weed-whacked a few times a year for some inexplicable reason. Old cracked stairs led nowhere in particular, and if you kicked the dirt around on the one flat strip (where the pond is now), you could tell that there used to be a bit of a walk and a terrace, or maybe a place to play boules, back in the days when the student dormitory at the garden’s edge was a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis.

 

One long term employee, Tony, took care of the grass and planted a few flowers at the bottom of the stairs. Alone he couldn’t do too much. (But now as one of many he has been a gardening force to be reckoned with.) Once during the summer program, we tried to sit on the hill for a presentation, but it was too steep. Sometimes the students used to cut through this space to cross the train tracks and disappear beyond the school limits.

 

Then along came Hugh. Hugh taught Spanish, comparative government, and economics. He was passionate about the environment. And he decided to turn a corner of the former terrace into a garden. Soon he had some student volunteers with pickaxes breaking out the cracked cement. Some other teachers helped convert scrap wood from old double beds into raised garden beds. First one, then two, then three.

 

Hugh learned about permaculture and gardens that sustained themselves through clever planting. He told anyone who would listen about building hugels, big bumps of logs and earth, on top of which you could plant whatever you liked. Over the years the logs break down and keep the dirt fresh.

 

Others joined Hugh. Gardening was offered as an after school activity, and then as an exploratory class with the middle school. A carpenter on staff and a science teacher turned a playhouse into a chicken coop the year before they left for other positions, and another science teacher, a biologist, bought our first five chickens.

 

Some teachers and faculty members, maybe less green-thumbed than they would like to be, constructed paths between the flower beds and the hugel, and then to the second hugel, and then to the first hobby flower beds started by families living on campus. Our first member from the local town, not an employee of the school, claimed a patch and planted lettuce, strawberries, and plants I never identified.

 

A scrap woodpile was used for a campfire, and soon there was a ring of stones. A new place for friends to meet. Some Italian staff members installed a pizza oven, and not long after, a bigger pizza oven. (Their pizza is very good and word got around.) Someone organized two hammocks, someone else some tents for shade, with picnic tables underneath. Another picnic area sprang up, with Tony’s help, complete with repurposed furniture from the school to store dishes and matches and cups and knives.

 

There has been no director of the garden. There have been some deeply committed faculty members who served, for a while, as the principal advocates and go-getters, no doubt. There were plenty of us who spent considerable time and energy in the garden. And there has been some money available through the research department’s citizen science efforts, which saw value early on in learning about sustainable agriculture and getting children who may never have been in a garden before to get their hands a little dirty – also literally.

 

So how did we go in five years from no garden to a massive community garden? And couldn’t we do the same for some other school projects which seem so infernally hard to change?

 

Here are some factors that I think contributed to the garden’s success, and that, in translation, might be usefully applied at school.

  1. Administration didn’t really care too much if there was a garden or not. Meaning, administration let it develop as it might. Translated for consideration in other areas of the school: Give your faculty space to develop new initiatives. See if there is enough commitment to build and sustain a new program. Allow the space for innovation to happen. It just might.
  2. There was enough money to buy some equipment from time to time. If there had been no money at all, the project may still have worked. But the project benefited from having enough tools to distribute to students, enough money to buy some fruit trees and chicken feed and pizza ovens and so on. Translated: Giving space for innovation is critical, but it might not be enough. Give a little cash, too, and trust the innovators to use it wisely. They know most about the project they are working on.
  3. There was space for innovation in more than one program. While the space for this specific project, the garden, was allowed, it would not have been as successful if there hadn’t been space in other programs, at the same time, too. Notably, the activities office, the middle school, and the research center took advantage of the development of a garden by offering activities and a class that brought students face to face with the plants, weeds, and bugs. I’m sure there’s a term for this phenomenon (tell me in the comment section below). It is some sort of co-creative factor where multiple initiatives can use each other to be more than the sum of their parts. “Bootstrapping” comes to mind as a term, but there must be something better. Translated: allow space not just for one pilot program, but for several, each with at least some funding. Don’t get overly involved, but see where the synergies take you. Perhaps that’s the term, as worn out as it seems – synergy.
  4. And aesthetics. The garden is a nice place to be. It’s beautiful. It draws people to it. Translated: the learning spaces you create matter. The entrance to the building, the teacher lounge, the cafeteria, it all matters. Make your school a place where people want to be and they’ll stick around and apply their creative energies on campus.

 

There was space for innovation in more than one program. While the space for this specific project, the garden, was allowed, it would not have been as successful if there hadn’t been space in other programs, at the same time, too. Notably, the activities office, the middle school, and the research center took advantage of the development of a garden by offering activities and a class that brought students face to face with the plants, weeds, and bugs. I’m sure there’s a term for this phenomenon (tell me in the comment section below). It is some sort of co-creative factor where multiple initiatives can use each other to be more than the sum of their parts. “Bootstrapping” comes to mind as a term, but there must be something better. Translated: allow space not just for one pilot program, but for several, each with at least some funding. Don’t get overly involved, but see where the synergies take you. Perhaps that’s the term, as worn out as it seems – synergy.

 

And aesthetics. The garden is a nice place to be. It’s beautiful. It draws people to it. Translated: the learning spaces you create matter. The entrance to the building, the teacher lounge, the cafeteria, it all matters. Make your school a place where people want to be and they’ll stick around and apply their creative energies on campus.

 

I’m sure there were other factors. And I’m sure you might interpret differently how to leverage those factors for innovative curriculum development, new approaches to teaching and learning, personalized assessment that deemphasizes tests and quizzes, expansion of what we think of as after school activities into the daily curriculum, freedom to emphasize skills over content, and much more. But starting with a good-looking space for multiple innovations to develop in parallel, with just enough funding to keep the projects going with minimal administrative intervention, seems like a very good start.

 

The bees will buzz and the harvest will be impressive, to say nothing of that Sicilian pizza.

 

Thoughts to share about this article? Let us know below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Magnuson is the director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and adjunct faculty for the International Education Program of Endicott College. His interests include student agency and self-regulated learning for students and teachers.
pmagnuson@las.ch

Collaboration and outdoor learning in Düsseldorf.

Kate Hookham, International Educational Consultant, Do Learn.

A long-term collaborative project with the International School of Düsseldorf to develop an Outdoor Learning Environment programme (2010-2020).

 

The key to any successful project for a consultant is a committed, collaborative staff team to work with who are willing to take a chance on new approaches, with backing and financial support of management and the wider community (parents and carers). I have been fortunate that ISD has been all of this and more.

The reason I promote outdoor learning is, for me, it can provide the best ‘classroom’. For visual learners, artificial lighting versus natural, ever-evolving light conditions wins outright. Auditory learners thrive as noise does not bounce back off surfaces given there are no walls, and natural materials disperse or absorb noise created. Finally, for our kinaesthetic learners, there is more space to move and learn in context.

Equally, children of today will see so much change and evolution in our technologies, cultural integration and indoor/urban design that the outdoor environment may be the only constant in their lives. There will always be a sky above their heads, vegetation, and animals around us (we hope). If we instill respect for nature and a connectedness, these children will be the guardians of the future. Learning outdoors promotes skills we will use our whole lives: emotional resilience, self-regulation, social skills, and higher-order thinking.

About the International School of Dusseldorf.

Founded in 1968, it is an International Baccalaureate World School with a current role of 1100 students. The campus sits on 19 acres in Kaiserswerth, Düsseldorf, in which the children and staff have built 6 outdoor learning centres/classrooms over the course of the ten-year project. The photo is an aerial view of 3 of these classrooms.

I first visited the International School of Düsseldorf in January 2010. During this initial visit we discussed how we could use the outdoors to support the Primary Years Programme and IB World School. I suggested we should start in Kindergarten (where outdoor learning already occurred) and build up from there. This would mean the children would carry their outdoor learning skills with them up through the school (self-awareness, regulation and care through Benefit-Risk Assessment, dressing correctly and identifying learning opportunities and developing higher-order thinking skills). From the start, children were involved in building the learning environment.

I returned every year, by September 2012 to move my focus to PYP unit delivery in the outdoors. Year 3 had a focus on matter. In the six month gap Year 1 had started to create and build their outdoor classroom in the central quadrant with the children. We used props and photographs to initiate a discussion about the unit. Children were fascinated by how matter changed form and they realised heat can affect matter. The children tested this by designing experiments heating with fire. This was the first time many staff had worked with children outdoors.. I modelled a Benefit-Risk Assessment and the children created a plan, which included health and safety considerations

The OLE programme progressed into year 1, I delivered a parents’ evening, which was written up as a blog by the director to explain the value of using an outdoor context and how parents can build on this at home, strengthening the home/school link. At the close of the session, a parent approached me and said, “You were lighting fires with my son yesterday”. “Yes”, I replied, a little concerned she may be about to raise a Health and Safety issue. She continued“I have never seen my child so excited about learning … he started telling me things about matter, what heat does, what we need to make a fire, how we have to be safe around a fire and how we cook on a fire. I asked him after each fact he shared with me, ‘and when did you learn that and he just kept saying ‘today’. Thank you, he has learnt so much.” I was moved by how emotional this parent clearly was about the power of outdoor learning.

 

 

During my February 2013 visit, Year 5 was undertaking an inquiry into traditional crafts. I supported staff  (who were anxious about participating in this new learning experience) and 80 children, to either use fixed blade knives to carve or use fire to create ember bowls.

This experience was extended by staff back in class. They finished completed the creation (sanding/varnishing and decorating). The children involved wrote up their experiences, reflecting on the time it takes and perseverance required. .

 

By September 2014, OLE was operating well from Kindergarten through to year 5. I had a growing concern that repeated activity was taking place and we needed to spiral and progress learning. I, therefore, initiated the development of the OLE programme of overall expectations, scope, and sequence which are integrated with trans-disciplinary skills, learner profile, and the curriculum scopes and sequences. Following a discussion with the OLE team, we identified 3 key inquiry areas: participants, tools, and learning. In recent times, a skills Rubik has also been created.

 

By September 2015, OLE had become embedded and staff were skilled at linking indoor and outdoor learning.

 

Over the years ISD had been travelling to a range of conferences to celebrate how they use the outdoors as a learning tool. This culminated in the staff organising their own international conference at ISD in 2017. I was privileged to be invited as the keynote speaker, talking about the value of outdoors as a medium for learning. We had a wide range of visiting staff from the length and breadth of Europe.

 

In 2017 I commenced a focused project with the Senior school (middle programme). We used an interdisciplinary approach with volunteer staff from the geography, arts, English, and biology departments. During the year grade 6 identified species in their outdoor classroom, mapped the space, and started to explore how it could be used. This continued in 2018 with children creating path networks, a ‘green gym’ and mindfulness space, diversifying habitats and growing crops.

 

In 2019 we used the outdoors to ease transition from elementary to senior school, as year 5 used the senior schools outdoor learning classroom for some of their sessions. This allowed the children to become familiar with the new campus and some of the staff.  I hope this project and the use of the outdoors will continue with my input for many years to come.

 

In summary, key aspects that have run throughout the project are:

  • The children are involved in designing, creating, and building their outdoor classrooms, ensuring the key aspects of boundaries (that we can be on either side of), some gradients, different surfaces, organised signposted storage, and shelter are evident. These spaces are non-permanent so that each year the new influx of children can adapt and change the space. Children ensure use is sustainable, managing the erosion and habitats within the site.
  • An ever adjusting and evolving programme of delivery, in which over the years, we have tried varied timetabling, staffing arrangements, integration with various aspects of the PYP, and duration/time blocks.

The project has succeeded because:

  • Children have appropriate clothing, that is stored and dried (boots and waterproofs)
  • There is good peer support and co-operative working
  • Management, staff, and parents are supportive and motivated by OLE
  • We start with the youngest children and progress spiraling up through the years to senior school
  • And finally, Outdoors in is not treated as separate but integrated into units of inquiry, phonics, mathematics, and trans-disciplinary skills

 

The last word I will leave with Fernanda, an English as an Additional Language teacher:

“When I first started teaching in the outdoors, I was not sure what my expectations were. I did not see myself as an outdoor person.  Astonishingly my students taught me what I did not know. I learned from my students that their learning was not only a classroom lesson. I learned from them to love the outdoors.  They showed me that they could retrieve new concepts every time we went to the outdoor environment. My students learned routines quickly. They learned first-hand to describe the weather, their feelings, what to wear to stay warm and/or dry. I was surprised that my role was more of a guide than of a teacher. My students were eager to go outside every day. The outdoors turned out to be a friendly, non-threatening environment where children were not afraid to make mistakes, felt free to explore and make new discoveries. Their imagination and creativity was truly stimulated. Photo: Reflection a previous Outdoor Learning Environment experience and the order in which it occurred.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

For the past 15 years as an Education Consultant, Kate has taught in nature kindergartens, schools, and early years settings, through her coaching and project work. In tandem, she delivers and designs Continuous Professional Development training courses (face to face, online and webinars) and keynotes speeches. Her work takes her throughout the UK, into Europe and beyond (namely, USA, Canada, India, and Australia). Her passion is to cascade this learning and empower others to deliver fantastic outdoor learning programmes.

Kate mainly does this through coaching in context, continuous professional development training, and creating written materials. She delivers, assesses and internally verifies qualifications in Forest School and Learning Beyond the Classroom. Contact may be face to face or remote (online). These sessions last a half a day, evening, full-day, or an extended time block for a project. Common delivery themes include: Adult role & interaction, Benefit-Risk Assessment, curriculum coverage outside, and child interpersonal skills development. To read more about Kate, please click here.

www.linkedin.com/in/kate-hookham-dolearn

www.facebook.com/dolearn.co.uk

k8dolearn@gmail.com