The Evolution of a School

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change. “
I am just a teacher who leads a school, and am humbled and honoured to be able to share the roller coaster ride of growing a school and our philosophy that underpins what we do.
The world economic forum has stated, “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”
Therefore, schools must evolve to remain relevant and prepare young people for an ever-changing world.
So when we started at Protea Heights Academy (PHA), we looked at what the learners would need to be able to actively participate and contribute to this new world.  
We knew that these learners of ours would be living and working in a world that our current education system (both the pedagogy and the content) does not really support. We cannot change the content as this is set by the CAPS syllabus, but we can slowly start changing the way in which we teach and the way in which our learners learn.
The skills widely identified as required in order to compete are identified as the 5 C’s
Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and computational learning are the skills that are widely identified as the requirements to “survive” in the 21st century.
For better understanding of the above mentioned concepts, I have broken down each of these skills:

  • Communication: Communicating effectively and appropriately is vital to sharing ideas and collaborating with others. The ability to share information with enthusiasm and conviction is key to any modern-day interaction
  • Collaboration: Collaboration is about working in teams and learning from and contributing to the learning of others. It’s also about developing empathy working with diverse groups of individuals.
  • Critical thinking: to gather and evaluate information. Critical thinking is required for questions that do not have simple answers; in asking such questions educators can promote critical thinking in learners.
  • Creativity: Creativity is our ability to pursue new ideas and solutions, think outside the box and develop innovative ways of doing things. In class different ways of thinking are encouraged as means to solve problems in different ways.
  • Computational thinking: This allows us to take a complex problem, understand what the problem is and develop possible solutions. We can then present these solutions in a way that a computer, a human, or even both, can understand.

Further we looked at what content or subjects, in the context of South Africa,  could mostly meet the needs of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the skill set identified.
For those who are unsure of what exactly the 4th Industrial Revolution is, well, in layman’s terms it is the new era that builds and extends the impact of digitization in new and unanticipated ways (World Economic Forum).
South Africa ranks very low in terms of our Mathematics and Science competencies compared to other developing and developed countries. This has been identified as a probable stumbling block to our citizens competitiveness in this new world.   
The SGB and Staff of our school, thus started to formulate a vision of being a school that focuses on Maths and Science specifically, with a strong emphasis on the use of e-learning and technology. We asked ourselves how can we take the 5Cs identified as the skills required by this new world on our horizon and provide children with a clearer path to becoming contributors to this global society. We knew we had to push to integrate technology and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) into our everyday routines and  that we needed to make it a norm for children and not a novelty.
So the journey began:
To give some context – we are a Western Cape Education Department (WCED) public school with a quintile 5 rating. Therefore, we rely on school fees to develop and grow the school. In January of 2014, we were a pile of building sand and rubble.  
By December 2014, we were an empty building, one wireless phone, a borrowed ink cartridge printer, two old Celeron laptops from home and a LTE Internet connection richer. What came next was a horror of horrors moment as our new blackboards with enough chalk to last about 10 years were delivered to us. I looked at this and could not fathom, that we are talking about 21st century learning and we build schools with blackboards and deliver chalk.
Anyway, January 2015, the school opened with ten educators and 3 support staff and very little in terms of ICT. A neighbouring school had upgraded their IT lab and gave us 10 of their old Celeron PC’s to use.
But never to be daunted, as a new school, we were unfortunately not on any of the lists to receive assistance with the e-game changer rollout. And thus the email writing and engaging with WCED started.
Perseverance and just sheer stubbornness, and maybe not following protocol ( for which I was, gently, wrapped over the knuckles) concluded in the gift of 12 laptops, data projectors, Mimio devices and a couple of document cameras delivered to us by WCED. Best of all, was seeing the joy on  all the educators faces as the blackboards were replaced in every classroom with white boards. This was the spark we needed to start the journey to becoming a 21st century learning and teaching institution that we had envisioned for our learners and the wider community.
Now it was up to us to reward the confidence that the WCED had shown us with the delivery of the equipment.
At this point in our evolution, everything was done on paper or electronic information was shared with flash drives delivered by teachers and learners in the corridors.  It felt a bit like the dark ages. We had one PC where we put all our documents – we called this the shared drive (the not so technically inclined teachers called it – “The Network”). When I look back, I am impressed by the inventiveness and sheer tenacity of my staff. We made everything work with a very limited amount of resources whilst still delivering technology rich and innovative lessons using very basic equipment.
And thus we evolved, developed and innovated.
Fast forward to 2018,
With the support of the SGB, parents and of course school fees, we spent just under R 2 million on ICT infrastructure and equipment. We have two fully equipped IT labs, the whole school has WiFi and the learners and teachers have access to the internet!
We run everything digitally, through Google Drive, Google Classroom (where every learner has a school email address), email, WhatsApp, and of course the program Staffroom –  a highly developed IT network with a staff that is hungry for more.
The LMS Stsaffroom provides the backbone of our recording, reporting and communication. To this we add our other ICT.
By the time a learner has passed grade 9 they have been exposed to 3D printing (we fundraised and bought one of these) and even programming through Scratch and Python. They have had to use their PHA email address details to log in to Solo Learn and complete Python version 3 courses to receive their Python certification, The grade 9’s will be doing a practical next term for Technology where they will have to program a Arduino board to make a traffic light. .
All learners  do a course in using Google Docs and Google Drive and they are shown how to use these tools to collaborate with each other. We are starting to  engage in projects with schools across the world by using Skype and posting videos on YouTube. Teachers have started using flipped classroom methodology in their teaching which makes extensive use of different forms of technology.
Teaching and learning for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in our sights.
We are on the brink of meeting the requirements of creating Global Citizens, who can think creatively, computationally and critically while collaborating and communicating effectively. These young people will be able to be active participants of the economy of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In no way can technology replace the educator or even make a weak and unprepared educator all of a sudden into a super teacher. It does not work in the same way that the power of the Hulk has. But the use of technology has enhanced the teaching and learning abilities in our school. Slowly we are fulfilling our vision.
This all sounds quite easy in print, but please know: We had and still have our challenges.
I have however identified the following aspects that may help your institution to successfully evolve into one that embraces technology and a teaching pedagogy geared for a world different to the one we were brought up in. You will need the following:

  • A leader who is driven and committed to the cause.
  • A supportive management – the WCED may not have given us much funds or equipment but they have been supportive of what we are doing and we have supported all initiatives they have rolled out around e-learning and the integration of technology in the classroom.
  • A majority young thinking staff compliment, that are open to change and don’t hang onto what worked in the past
  • A mind-set of taking risks and not afraid to fail. To try new things and if they don’t work, adapt, change and innovate.
  • Parent and learner buy in– Effective communication is essential here. The learners drive this whole project they keep pushing us, forcing us to new frontiers all the time.

Remember: Evolution is defined as a process of gradual development in a particular situation or thing over a period of time. To quote Malcolm X – “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today
We have only begun our evolution, and I am very excited to see where we, as well as others in our field will be in the next couple of years.

Wendy Horn is the principal of Protea Heights Academy in Cape Town. In 2017 she was recognized as of the top 50 educators in the world. 

This article first appeared in Teacha! Magazine. Read or download it here.

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