Blue Sky School: This Learning Centre is on a Learning Journey - by Helen Daniels (Pioneer parent), featured in Knowledge Forum, fall 2018.


We are excited to share this article written by Helen Daniels, published in Queen's University's Faculty of Education magazine, Knowledge Forum. The theme of "Education and the Public Good" means so much to us. We are on a mission to improve education for all. Our experimental prototype is a space to test progressive ideas in learning, as a model for a new system.

Article is on page 6 of Knowledge Forum, fall 2018.


Blue Sky School: This Learning centre is on a Learning Journey
by Helen Daniels

It is a typical morning this spring day at Blue Sky School: students trickle in, greet each other amicably, and quietly gather around a large table in the middle of the open classroom. Each grabs a Chromebook to complete the daily “how do you feel” survey and then they begin planning their day and digging into independent projects.

A coach is available to support them as they work. One student is practicing her keyboarding, one dancing in the Health Lab, a couple are completing math activities, yet another heads to the Prototype Lab to attend to the circuit board he has been building – but only after making himself a snack in the kitchen. Apparently, he prefers to eat breakfast at school.

Meanwhile, Shauna Pollock, Blue Sky School co-founder and pedagogical advisor, calls Grace over to ask her about the spring clean-up she is hosting today. Grace shares the schedule of activities and surprises Shauna with the mention of the guests she’s invited from their nearby buddy school – especially since those guests will be arriving within the hour. Without missing a beat, Shauna efficiently assists Grace to streamline the order of activities. The day is rolling and the plans are shifting but that isn’t a problem, because responding to change and learning by doing is the whole point of Blue Sky School.

Blue Sky School calls itself the experimental prototype school of the future: an inclusive and empowering learning centre. The doors opened in September 2017 in Ottawa, Canada, with a group of fourteen pioneer students aged eleven to fourteen years. Co-founders Karen Hill and Shauna Pollock are both very experienced teachers who have worked for years in public schools. When envisioning Blue Sky School, they tore up the playbook of conventional school to re-imagine an inclusive community where students could complete their junior to high school years empowered and equipped to pursue their “wildest and most ambitious dreams” (Blue Sky School).

At Blue Sky School, students become a part of a multi-aged community of fourteen learners to one pedagogical coach. The students are inspired and supported by local volunteer subject matter expert coaches and mentors. Each student defines and refines their own learning goals to solve problems that are important and relevant to them. The students have ownership over every aspect of their learning – from the physical space, the schedule, and curriculum, to the ways they demonstrate their progress, achievements, and the manner in which they are assessed (Blue Sky School).

Of all the innovation and experimentation that takes place every day at Blue Sky School, one of the most compelling features may be how the entire approach and implementation is founded on a learning model. The co-founders are clear that the entire model is an experiment and that they will continue to adapt and change the model according to the failures and successes at every stage. So far, the data and stories collected from the first seven months of this experiment show that the model has produced a warm and welcoming community of young people who are motivated, who have increased their confidence and willingness to try, and who love learning. One example of this can be seen in results from the students’ self-assessed levels of motivation and success from their previous schooling experiences, as represented by the yellow dots in Figure 1. After spending six months at Blue Sky School, the students completed the same self-assessment. Those results are represented by the red dots. In every case, the students reported experiencing more success and an increase in motivation since joining Blue Sky School.

Some of the lessons learned during this schooling experiment have been surprising. For instance, students requested longer school days and fewer field trips so that they could have more time to focus on their projects. They even requested that a March Break camp be created so they would not have to miss two weeks of school. In addition, together students discovered ways to manage digital devices as tools for learning and to avoid them as objects of distraction. They also created guidelines to enable food preparation and consumption in response to visceral hunger cues while respecting the community requirements for uninterrupted activities.

It is now afternoon in the classroom; they call this flow time. The pioneer students are wrapping up various group workshops and preparing to video chat with an educator in another city. For this model to influence system change the Blue Sky School stories must be told, so every month the community hosts a Think Tank for local educators, and the students share their experiences on their own VoicEd podcast. Everyone at Blue Sky School willingly imparts the successes and failures of this experiment so that others can benefit and test the results for themselves. The future of schooling is here and everyone is learning.

Helen Daniels (B.Ed.’98-OEE) has worked for over twenty years as an experiential learning practitioner in the private, not-for-profit, and public sectors. Currently she is designing a learning and development program for the #FutureOfWork #GCAgents in the Federal Public Service. Helen remains fascinated by experiential education and the deschooling of learning, which is why her daughter is one of the pioneer students at
Blue Sky School. She recommends that you follow this amazing learning experiment at @blueskyschoolca and blueskyschool.ca/.

References

Ambrose S. et al. (2010). How students learn. Retrieved May 8, 2018 from
queensu.ca/teachingandlearning/modules/students/04_what_is_learning.html 

Hill, K., & Pollock, S. (2017). What is Blue Sky School? (School website) Retrieved May 8, 2018, from blueskyschool.ca.

Pollock, S. (2018). Student self-evaluations.
Unpublished

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