In class this week, we went on a field trip to The Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII). This is an independent school here in Victoria, with 85 students from grades 9-12. This school does not run like a typical high school with subjects and classes, but instead the students choose topics they are passionate about to do inquiries on, and they learn through that inquiry, exploring their interests and passions. There are six staff members at the school who help guide the students through their learning journeys, help them as they need it, and ensure that they are meeting the criteria they need to graduate at the end of grade twelve. I am very intrigued by this kind of a school system, and based on my short time there, I believe this is a great way for students to really learn and I hope more schools like this are created now that PSII is paving the way.
When you walk into PSII, it does not look like a typical school. It is right in the middle of downtown Victoria, and the front room looked like it may be more of an office work space than a high school. Once we started our tour, we learned that large room was the collaborative work space. There were several tables set up with students sitting around them working together, and some working on their own, on their school-provided laptops. As we moved through the building, there were many small conference rooms where lectures and group meetings take place. There is also a small library area in a large quiet study space, a music studio with instruments and recording equipment, a workshop with a kitchen for cooking, sewing machines, a weaving loom, woodworking tools, and other hands-on activities, and finally a science lab with many materials for experiments. Each student also has a pass to the YMCA which is only a couple of blocks away, and a card for the public library which is just down the street as well. The students are free to choose where they want to work and what they would like to work on throughout each day, depending on what they are doing for their inquiries. There is a schedule posted online that everyone in the school has access to, and they can choose if they would like to take part in any of the lectures or activities for the day. There may be lectures on certain topics based on student interest, or there could be a yoga class at the YMCA, or maybe an outing to the UVic library to gather resources, for example.
The general atmosphere of the school reminds me more of study spaces in a small university, where everyone is working on their own projects, sometimes alone and sometimes collaboratively, and there is a strong community feeling. I spoke to one student who said it is really easy to make friends there, and there is much less drama and bullying than there was in the middle school she went to. There is also a larger level of trust and responsibility placed on the learners, which I feel is valuable for students in high school as it prepares them for life after graduation. Each teacher has a number of students they are responsible for keeping track of and making sure they have everything they need to be successful, but other than that the learners are able to be independent, moving from place to place and learning at their own pace.
I know many people in my life who would have really benefited from going to a high school like PSII. Students aren’t forced to learn everything the exact same way and at the exact same time as everyone else, allowing them to place more importance on school and enjoy it more. It also reduces anxiety, and we learned during our tour that there are a relatively high number of students with anxiety at PSII, as this is a preferable learning environment for them. It is also great for students with other responsibilities or commitments outside of school, as they are able to work on their own schedule. For example, some students are in a pre-professional ballet program outside of school that requires them to be away for half of the day, but they are still able to finish their schooling without missing out on anything essential, as they would in a typical high school. Many of these students would probably have to be home schooled, but this way they are still able to be in a school with their peers. After the tour was finished, I found myself wishing I had an opportunity to go to a high school like this. If I was taught how to navigate life and learn independently the way those students have, I think the transition into “the real world” of adulthood, choosing a career, and understanding what to do after graduation would have been much less daunting. Some of the learners at PSII have even started businesses before they graduate, many steps ahead of so many people that age.
I left this trip feeling inspired and excited about education. Although I will likely not be teaching at a school anything like PSII (at least not for a while), I have seen what real inquiry and innovative learning looks like, and I will be able to bring some of these ideas into my own teaching. Inquiry is something being greatly encouraged by the new BC curriculum, and I think this is a challenging concept for many people to understand, including myself. I have had to do a number of inquiry projects throughout my degree already, all of which have been different and feel more like research projects than inquiries. This is mostly because it is a relatively new concept that we need to change and adapt as we understand what it really means. The learners at PSII seem to truly understand what it means, and I am grateful that I got to witness it.
I encourage you to check out the PSII website at https://learningstorm.org/ and to watch this TED Talk from the founder of PSII, Jeff Hopkins: