International Opinion

Building the Future: Lessons From Tasmania

By Prakash Nair — February 04, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: When first published, this article incorrectly identified the school’s name. The school’s correct name is Reece High School. We also misspelled its location. It is located in the community of Devonport. Finally, we misspelled the Tasmanian education minister’s name, which is Paula Wriedt. We apologize for the errors.

That the award-winning school was developed for a fraction of the cost spent by many of its American competitors vying for the MacConnell prize, that it took less time to create than most schools of its size and complexity, and that it was born under tragic circumstances make this a story worth telling. The real story, however, is contained in the lessons that Reece can teach us here in America. These are important lessons not only because we stand on the threshold of an unprecedented wave of school construction spending that will exceed annual expenditures of $30 billion for many years to come, but also because the school buildings we create and renovate today will have a direct impact on learning for millions of students over the next 50 years.

The Reece story began in December 2000, when an arsonist’s blaze completely destroyed the old school, housed in nondescript, traditional buildings. Unremarkable as the buildings themselves were, there was much community and personal history tied up in them that would be irreplaceable. One student talked about losing an apron from her sewing class whose pocket she had redone nine times. Another, a prefect, lamented the loss of the honor boards recognizing students from across the years. So it was no surprise that when Tasmanian Education Minister Paula Wriedt promised to rebuild Reece, the first reaction was to simply restore the buildings that were lost.

But Tasmania had not built a high school for many years, and the education department saw this as an opportunity to create something different: a state-of-the-art facility. It was not an enthusiasm uniformly shared. There was concern that doing something radically different at Reece would create an inequitable situation for the other schools. And the local community, including parents, teachers, and students, was itself in favor of simply rebuilding the destroyed buildings. The crowding of 500-plus students from Reece into Devonport High, the town’s only other high school, added to the sense of urgency and militated against an innovative approach that might delay reconstruction efforts.

It was in the context of this impasse that Tasmanian education officials approached me. My role, I would learn, was not only to introduce Tasmania to the latest trends in school facilities planning, but also to help create what management guru Peter Senge has described as a “shared vision” for the community’s future. But how to get people to the table with a common agenda? The answer was not as difficult as one might imagine.

In our initial meetings, we had representation from teachers, students, parents, local community residents, business owners, and education department officials. We started the first meeting with a simple question: “Why do we send our children to school?” I suggested to the audience that millions of parents across the globe never ask or get asked this question, and I told them to see this as a special opportunity to think deeply about the school they wanted. For almost two minutes, no one volunteered an answer. Then one student spoke up. She said, “I don’t know why my parents send me to school, but I go so that I can meet my friends.” And so we wrote down that answer, Meet friends=to create socialization skills. A floodgate of answers had been opened, and we could not write fast enough after that.

Reece High School produced the best planned, designed, and technologically advanced school in the world.

This was a community devastated by many economic downturns and suffering an extremely high unemployment rate. So recommendations that schooling be relevant and rigorous, and that it should be based on delivering real, usable skills that students could take directly into the workplace or refine at college were not surprising. We heard suggestions that the rebuilt Reece should be reconfigured as a true “community school.” Instead of the fortress that most high schools have become, the desire for Reece was that it be a permeable organization that encouraged student activities in the community while at the same time serving as an open, welcoming place for parents and community residents.

A consensus began to emerge that this kind of learning could not be properly accomplished under the old Reece model, with students occupying classrooms for significant periods of the day attending a series of lectures. We talked about project-based learning as a way out of this dilemma. But to have project-based learning, a lot of things needed to change. Multidisciplinary projects would have to be created, which meant the dismantling of the 45-minute period in favor of block scheduling. Teachers would have to collaborate, creating meaningful projects that complied with state standards, but also were engaging and exciting for students. But how could teachers do all this without training? So training was added to our list. Project-based learning also meant “hands on” activities. Where would students build a model bridge, or sew an Australian flag, or create a large poster? A place got added to the list.

It’s important to note that all our discussions were being informed by best practice and research. As a group, we studied schools around the world that had already been doing some of the things we wanted to do. We talked about brain-based research and multiple-intelligences theory, about cooperative learning and performance-based learning, about multiage classrooms and learning with technology.

Once we had accepted the idea that technology was an important tool to help us realize our objectives, for example, we homed in on how exactly it would be configured at the new Reece. We discussed many options, with the participants finally settling on the idea of ubiquitous computing with wireless laptops. But wireless meant that students could take learning anywhere, and so we said the design of the school should contain many interesting areas to sit and learn alone, in teams and in small groups, within and outside the school building. Because Tasmania is an isolated island community, we also discussed the idea of incorporating distance learning as an integral part of the model. It would, we decided, be like building “a thousand bridges to mainland Australia and the rest of the world.”

But the image of the school we wanted was not all about careers and skills and tangible things. We talked about developing the whole human being, about what it means to be happy, about spiritual fulfillment, about the value of music and art and community service. We summarized our findings in our shared vision statement, our “signature,” which read: Reece will becommitted to its community and realize individual potential through creativity, enterprise, communication, and teamwork. This was fleshed out in a detailed mission statement crafted during a series of hands-on workshops conducted over three days.

Two years later, Reece opened its doors to students once again. But the school that reopened was not the one that had burned down. A visitor today would see that a miraculous transformation has taken place. Gone are the classrooms. Instead, there are “principal learning areas,” with movable walls that teachers can easily open or close to create larger or smaller areas. Students in the upper grades each have their own workstations.

Technology is everywhere, but still able to be put away when not needed. Indoor-outdoor connections are strong, and students mingle in group discussions on couches and chairs in areas that would previously have been sterile corridors or circulation areas. Teachers have areas to work and collaborate with one another, and almost every room can be configured to serve multiple purposes.

If we can change the dialogue from one about the buildings to one about the future of learning, then the Reece miracle will become commonplace.

Student entrepreneurship is also everywhere. For example, students run the canteen and also prepare full meals for visitors, using a student-run commercial kitchen. Community connections are strong, and the school’s commitment to art, music, and dance programs is evident in the quality of the spaces for them and the work being done by students in these areas.

Last May, when the school was formally opened by the premier of Tasmania, Jim Bacon, he was able to have a live discussion with me at my New York City office several time zones away. Projected on a giant screen in an auditorium seating 500 people, the conversation was also a distance-learning program broadcast into each of the school’s learning areas. And when the festivities were over, the “auditorium” disappeared to become multiple, active learning areas for dance and music and catering and sewing and various other programs.

Today, Reece High School has become a “hot” address, and schools from around the state, even those that don’t have significant construction budgets, are visiting and taking notes about what true 21st- century learning is all about. Tasmania may never build a “traditional” school again, and the rest of Australia has perhaps been put on notice that an eminently workable model is now available for new and renovated schools.

What is it about this school so far away that we in the United States can learn from? Here are some ideas that are fully transferable:

  • Collaborative planning. Start every project with a collaborative planning process that focuses less on the building and more on the desires and aspirations of the school and community.
  • Benchmarking. Make sure that as many decisions as possible are made in the context of what has already worked well elsewhere. If there is a readiness for openness, don’t stop there. Extend these ideas and forge new ground if they seem reasonable within the context of the school being created.
  • Planning well and early. Bring in your planner and architect as early in the process as possible. Don’t wait to have a fully worked-out “program” or “educational specifications” before hiring these professionals. At Reece, the architects threw out everything they knew about schools and focused, instead, on the things that would give the community what it needed.
  • Creating flexible buildings. Reece came in within budget because a decision was made early that many areas of the building would serve multiple uses. This precluded the need for some of the dedicated spaces we see in U.S. schools. Flexibility is good because curricula change. Today and into the future, Reece’s use is limited only by the imagination of the teachers and students.
  • Leveraging technology to improve learning. Ubiquitous computing is not only about giving students access to technology anytime and anywhere, but also about creating places where that technology can be used. A school designed with this concept in mind will have few wasted spaces because all places within the school are potential “learning areas.”
  • Recognizing the physical, social, and emotional dimensions of learning. Good school design is not only about translating a “program,” but about imbuing spaces with a quality called “usability.” That means creating areas on the school campus that are welcoming, cheerful, daylit, and comfortable. There is significant research linking human physiology, emotional well-being, and productivity with the spaces in which we live and learn. These dimensions of a school design cannot be addressed in the traditional and familiar “cells and bells” model that aligns classrooms along double-loaded corridors.

Perhaps the most important lesson Reece can teach us, however, is that good school buildings are really about good schools. If we can change the dialogue from one about the buildings to one about the future of learning, then the Reece miracle will become commonplace.

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