scil on the road – inspiration everywhere

Have you been inspired by your everyday surroundings? As we travel, even the ordinary makes us think about better ways to design the school environment. Shopping centres and airports become inspirational. What this trip has taught me is that it is time to look beyond what schools are supposed to do, be and look like and see what we can learn from the real world. Our students live in the real world, but often their day to day environment at school bears little resemblance to the world beyond. Here are a few of the inspiring ideas we’ve seen:

School feels like home – as the world beats a path to learn from the Finnish education system, one of their key features is the sense of ‘home’ in schools in Finland. We saw this firsthand in Denmark at Absolonskolon. Soft furnishings, communal tables with stools around them. The ‘classroom’ area, as we would call it was relatively small. The tall round/oval table is used for instruction, as students pull up a stool, but the whole day isn’t spent there. Other spaces are used for other types of work. Even if a teacher spends time in lecture mode, how much more engaging if it’s set up as a conversation around the kitchen table.

Toilet and bathrooms – This is definitely the least attractive and least desirable place in a school. I have bad memories of the toilets when I went to school. Dark, horrible, smelly and often scary places. Many students, as I once did, avoid going all day. If shopping centres can now create ‘nice’ toilet areas, why can’t schools. Isn’t it time to change the mindset, perhaps if we made the school toilets more pleasant students would get the message that we value and respect them and they in turn would value and respect the environment.

Shopping centers and airport concourses – we can learn from places where people gather and people move. Today’s shopping centers and airports are more than functional spaces for shopping and transit. The designers have created spaces that draw people and make then want to come. The designers are also skilled at people movement. There are definitely things we can learn here.

High and wide spaces – open areas and atriums create a sense of expansiveness. Then add in natural light through an atrium and it becomes a very inviting space. At each of the places we visited the sense of space through high and wide foyer was very impressive. Sadly for schools designers often look at spaces in terms of how many classrooms they can squeeze in. It is time to rethink the rectangular classroom as the only space to learn and be creative to allow the sense of openness that the high and wide spaces give.

Books and food and drink – I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things is to have a coffee in one hand and a book in the other, curled up on a sofa. This is the environment that encourages me to read. I wouldn’t choose to read, nor would I take it in if I was required to sit at a desk. Coffee and books and computers are natural bedfellows in today’s world. It’s time to stop being precious about books and to become real.

Learning along the way – I want to encourage you to be an observer. This trip has taught me to open my eyes and learn from whatever is around me. It is too easy to go about our normal life with the blinkers on. Let’s create schools that make students want to come and learn. I don’t think just replicating what schools do and have done in the past is good enough today. We need a new paradigm. It’s time to learn from airports, shopping centers, the best libraries and museums, theme parks…whatever!

* Well, we did see ‘We Will Rock You’ the Queen musical in London.

scil on the road – the staircase

The staircase – move than just a way to get from A to B

I’ve been struck by the use of the staircase as a focal point, a meeting place and performance and gathering space. On this trip the scil team have visited Absolonskolon and Orested Gymnasium in Copenhagen and DOK Library Concept Centre in Delft.

In itself the staircase can be a very visually striking in its design and placement in a space. Think of the grand houses of a couple of hundred years ago, where a sweeping staircase rose from the cavernous foyer. Walking into these buildings, we appreciate the sense of light and space and being carried up to the next level all the while observing what was happening below and having the space to stop and talk along the way.

These three places, the two schools and the library have captured the significance of the staircase.

In both Absolonskolon and DOK the staircase is very wide and invites you up to the next level. It is a place where the community could gather and watch a performance.

At Orested the staircase is at the centre of the school and creates a wide arc, where people meet and can walk and talk. So much more than a way to get from A to B.

I was also reminded of the city buildings I’ve visited recently. At Challenger Financial Services in the city the lift brings visitors to the middle of the four floors of the business. The stairs are then deliberately used as the means of getting around the office… Two up and two down, quicker and easier than taking the lift and conducive for those important corridor conversations.

I’ve taken some photos, so visit to have a look.

How do I not just eat everything in sight? Even the pickled herrings

One of the great joys of travel is the opportunity to eat, don’t you agree? We’ve stayed in three hotels so far. Two in Denmark and one in Sweden. At breakfast I want to sample just about everything on offer. The array of cheeses, cold meats and breads, there are little sausages, fried potatoes, the whitest shelled boiled eggs you have ever seen and, of course, pickled herrings.

I don’t.

But I do try to enjoy a range of things in small amounts, for scientific purposes, of course. And that includes pickled herrings.

On Sunday, we had a day ‘at leisure’. The group of seven went off in different directions across the city. There was lots to see. A couple of the guys hired bikes and saw the sights the Danish way, others walked to key points like the royal palace and the site of the Little Mermaid (I say sight, as she is on holiday to the world expo in Shanghai). But Jen and I*, the females in the group headed, to Magasin, the only department store in Copenhagen open on a Sunday.

We shopped then stopped for a coffee and hot chocolate in the lower ground food area. While we didn’t eat anything, we did observe the smoked salmon salad of the girls sitting opposite. Then wandered (observing only) the array of cakes, pastries and meats that were available. After a little more shopping we headed to the fifth floor for lunch. In Denmark there are sorrebrod (sorry about the spelling) open sandwiches topped in such an inviting way with different meats as a base – roast beef, prawns, schnitzel, then topped with several other layers*. We just chose one, accompanied by a plate if the best frites (chips) I’ve had in a long time. Then a glass of rose’ and a view over the streets of Copenhagen to enjoy*.

I enjoy the feast to the eyes that food provides. It isn’t possible to eat it all, so I enjoy the opportunity to look at food when I travel. Visiting supermarkets in Europe is as much fun for me as the other sights. I have a strong smell memory of French supermarkets, probably coming from the largest range of cheeses I have ever seen.

Today we head to Paris, not a lot of time there, so I will soak up what I can.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned coffee. I think the sophistication of the Australian coffee palate is second only to Italy. So I am mostly drinking coffee for medicinal purposes at breakfast. The coffees here and in the UK are fairly milky. I have the Beanhunter App that rates cafes around the world, so hopefully I can soon find a good coffee.

Now, if I can only create an app that combines Beanhunter with the free wi fi app, I can write to you while drinking good coffee. The quest begins.

To see photos go to

scil on the road – Danfoss Universe, Nordborg, Denmark

Danfoss Universe in Nordborg, Denmark is a so-called theme park. I don’t think that there is another translation that suits, it is definitely not a theme park in the way many of us consider the term. If you come here to be entertained you will be disappointed, but if you want to explore, experiment and investigate you will definitely lose yourself here.

We were fortunate to have a session with Maria who gave us some background and philosophy. Maria is a passionate science teacher and consultant who spends the winter period when the park is closed, developing new ideas to engage the visitors and writing materials for teachers. In the summer she runs camps and activities for students. Maria outlined the key ‘ambitions’ of Danfoss Universe:

To share enthusiasm for science

To provide an inspiring learning environment built on new knowledge about how humans learn

To support and be an inspiration to innovative thinking and innovative learning.

These principles underpin the planning and decisions made at Danfoss Universe. As we walked around, it was evident how the priorities affected decisions. Even the spaces between the main activities gave opportunities to learn and experience science. The park’s gardener is very well know and the plan and layout of the gardens showed quirky science ideas like the up-side-down tree*, the tele-tubbie hills, sculptures to play with* and sounds that emit as you walk past.

Excitement and enthusiasm for science is critical for all employees at Danfoss Universe. It doesn’t matter where or how they work, they must have a love of science.

As we walk through the gate we are greeted by the character – a mad scientist*. Maria isn’t fond of this depiction of scientists and would rather see scientist depicted as a young and attractive girl, to break the stereotype.

We are immediately captivated by the big blue box, purchased by Danfoss from the Icelandic exhibition at a world expo. The big blue box* contained a geyser, Tesla Coil in a Faraday cage, replicating lightning and a glacier* to walk through. The glacier is forming around a fiberglass shell and we squeezed through the narrow walls.

The Explorama exhibition had two floors of activities based around Garners multiple intelligences. This sections had activities that stimulated the minds of every intelligence type. Gardner was consulted on the project and when he saw the finished product he recognized that they had captured what was in his mind.

Not being a scientist, I was skeptical that this park would engage me, but time slipped away as I became involved in the different activities, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ is a key value of the park. I was definitely in the flow. As it was a school vacation week in Denmark it was also fun to see children and their families having a ball, while investigating science.

But most fun of all? We rode Segways* around a track.

You can see photos* of our adventures at Danfoss Universe, visit

scil on the road

The scil team have just started an adventure, looking at spaces and places where people go to learn, choose to learn and make choices about their learning. The big question is ‘how do we create spaces where everyone, students, staff and visitors want to come and want to learn?’ because quality design directly affects the way we work, play and learn.

We recently hosted Jens Guldbaek, from the Danish firm LOOP. Jens described his signature spaces for learning, that have soft and hard furnishings, kitchen areas and rugs. The photos showed children engaged in a variety of different activities. A few days later, I was talking with my Korean hairdresser and asked her about her school experience “it was like a prison”, she replied.

So where would you rather learn? Quality design directly impacts the quality of how we live, work and learn.

So our observations began as we entered Goteborg Airport. Amidst the minimalist design of the airport arrivals and baggage conveyor belt there was a park bench on a patch green. Just an oasis amongst the business. The ‘park’ was a project of a design student from Goteborg University and the sign reads:

Sit in the Park
Have a seat here in the park, feel the grass under your feet and relax. Nature has entered the airport, bringing west Sweden greenery into the terminal. The grass let’s you use more of your senses while you are at Goteborg Landvetter Airport.

A nice touch!

From factory to…

Since the beginning of the modern era/birth of Christ it has been 2010 years…

The internet has been 1.24%

My life has been 2.48%

My dad has been around for 4.37%

The Federation of Australia is 5.47%

Formal school is 5.97%

If we look at it this way…






My father left school aged 12, he had learnt to read and write, but then needed to get to work. It was the great depression and the older children in the family of six went to work to bring an income to support the family. My grandfather was an optometrist and during the depression people kept their old glasses, so there wasn’t sufficient income to support the family. I was the first in my family to graduate with tertiary qualifications. Such a huge step in a relatively short period.

Formal schooling represents such a small part of the history of learning. It was developed as a response to the needs of the Industrial Revolution, to prepare a workforce with the skills and the routines for factory work.

Our school calendar continues to reflect a period in history when the children were required for harvest and the timing of the school day for mother who had “home duties”.

School seemed to mirror the workplace. There was little autonomy for the worker. The foreman or the supervisor organised the day and the workers. In the same way all children were taught the same lessons and were required to “keep up” – with everyone else, presumably.

The photo of  the children (above) is around 1900 and the women at work (left) are in the 1950s. Both of these reflect the ‘industrial age’.

2010 is very different.

It’s time for school to look and feel like the creativity age. We are in the next step beyond the knowledge age. We can access so much knowledge and information, now it’s time to apply it, to create and innovate.

Maybe it’s time that school’s began to look like, and even become places of creativity and innovation.

From factory – same work, specific skills and a “job for life” to individualised, personalised, excitement, engaged and empowered, with many career options from which to choose.

Which one is the school and which one the workplace? Does it matter?

“Minister for Learning”… now how would that change the focus of education in our nation?

In Australia we are in an interesting political environment. When the government was finally decided and the portfolios handed out many of us in education were bemused by the decision to appoint the “Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth” – prior to the swearing in of the minister this was hastily changed to  include “education” – the Minister for School Education. I think the community recognised something the government hadn’t – in the minds of many the term  “schools” relate to buildings and with the BER grants, that seemed to be the communty focus, we needed to include “education” – or even better, isn’t it time we focussed on “learning”.

So what’s the difference? What would it look like if we focused on learning and every decision made in school would be made on the basis of how we prioritised the learning for our students? This would affect:

  • our language – learning facilitators, learning spaces, learning technologies, learning chunks
  • design of classrooms (or learning spaces)
  • timetables construction (or learning chunks)
  • recruitment of teachers (or learning facilitators)
  • purchases of computers (or learning technologies)

The Innovation Unit – has proposed a radical approach to school – schools as we understand them today represent an out-of-date model, one which constrains student learning for most students as much as it promotes it. Are you prepared to maintain an out-of-date model for this generation? Some of the key change-themes that emerged:

1. A desire to move away from a model of pedagogy (learning) dominated by the subject-based curriculum

2. A view that the ‘timetable’ and the ‘school day’ are constraining architectural features

3. A perception that the age-structured cohort is unhelpful

4. An acknowledgement that simulations, gaming theory, social networking (and e-communication generally) are beginning to transform the learning landscape

5. Unlearning, and relearning for teachers

8. A shift towards a more democratic and participative model of schooling

Now if you are of the mindset: School will always be school or it didn’t do me any harm – stop reading now and stop reading my blogs because it will just make you angry.

This generation and the generation to come need school and system reforms. Memorising content to succeed in a statewide exam is not learning and doesn’t position our young people as self-motivated and engaed life long learners. All it does is foster the lucrative and misguided coaching industry.

So if we had a Minister for Learning we would begin to see the necessary change. The  future of our communities, cities and nations requires a primary focus that isn’t on buildings, timetables, curriculums and teachers – but engaging our young people and one that ensures an environment that promotes learning as it’s central principle.

Lesson in Vision #2: “Oh, the vision-thing”

“Oh the vision-thing” This response was from George Bush Snr when it was suggested he needed a less short-term political approach to his tenure as President. A great vision stirs my emotion, compels me to act and keeps me going. A great vision inspires innovation and creativity, it makes me try new things, take risks and dream big.

I will never forget a conversation with a friend who, along with her brother, took over the family business after their father retired. They had both been in the business all their working life, and even after all these years I still don’t actually know what they do/produce/sell. What I do know is that they were always tired, always busy and lacking a certain joie de vivre. For many within this circle of friends the word ‘retirement’ seems to have recently appeared in conversations (not for me, incidentally). So I asked about what will happen to the business once they retire, and I will never forget the answer: “Close the door, turn the key, walk away.” No legacy, no purpose, no greater cause to pursue. It then occurred to me that I must be wired differently. I’m not  just working to earn money, feed and educate my kids, pay off my house, retire, put my feet up. It all seems a very linear approach to life.

The day-to-day, work-in-work-out approach might be extremely attractive. It is (apparently) gratifying to tick off all the points on your to-do list or clear your inbox at the end of the day/week. But I’m sorry to break the news, if you are  just looking to tie all your lose ends in a bow at the end of the day/week (or whatever time frame), then perhaps you need to reconsider your calling. If you are relentlessly pursuing a great vision you will never be happy with just finite end points.

This relentless pursuit of vision is exciting, but it is also messy in the journey. When I read Covey’s book,  “First things First”  a number of years ago it resonated with me. Our motivation, why we get up in the morning: to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. The only way I can live with such purpose it to embrace “the vision-thing” for my life and to pursue a compelling vision in my work.

But maybe I’m just wired that way?

Lesson in Vision #1… the relentless pursuit

The school is a very unique context. Just about all of us have an experience of school, good and bad, and many of us are happy to replicate it, supported by the dubious argument ‘it didn’t do me any harm’… did it? Could it have been any better for you? Don’t our young people deserve better than what we had? Casting an exciting vision for a preferred future is a courageous act. The if-it-aint-broke-brigade is more than happy to challenge and stall change. But change is an essential component of the preferred future to make learning relevant and engaging to this generation.

About 300 educational visitors have made their way to Northern Beaches Christian School, this year. They’ve come from Sydney, NSW and  interstate schools as well as NZ, Macau, UK, Sweden and Canada. Their comments and feedback are very encouraging, they see engaged students who can articulate how they learn, they see motivated and committed teachers, they see supportive leadership and they see welcoming and comfortable spaces for learning. But what they didn’t see was the relentless pursuit of a vision for school education that has been a five year journey. Embedding change within a school won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning commenced life in 2005 as a research and development centre located within Northern Beaches Christian School as a vehicle to foster creativity and innovation and embed this into the life of the school. What our visitors see today is an example of the relentless pursuit of vision.

The journey has (unknowingly) incorporated each of Kotter’s Eight Steps for Leading Change (1996). 30 years of research by leadership guru Dr. John Kotter have proven that 70% of all major change efforts in organizations fail because organizations often do not take the holistic approach required to see the change through (

  1. Acting With Urgency
  2. Developing the Guiding Coalition
  3. Developing a Change Vision
  4. Communicating the Vision Buy-in
  5. Empowering Broad-based Action
  6. Generating Short-term Wins
  7. Don’t Let Up
  8. Make Change Stick

For the relentless pursuit of vision each of these steps is essential to see change through.

How intelligent are you? I know how to tell…

‘Intelligent’ – an adjective. What picture or skill-sets come to mind when you hear the word?

It describes a person who has a  good mental capacity, one who is quick to understand and is characterised by sound thought and good judgement – all of us have this capacity (It is different from ‘intellectual’ – which describes the person who has a particular capacity, rather than the application of the ability). Way back in the ancient era, between 6 000 and 10 000 BC, King Solomon wrote many proverbs or short sayings that still provide guidance, often about wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

Intelligent people are always ready to learn, their ears are open to knowledge.

So the intelligent person is identified by the desire to keep on learning. If Solomon was around today he would probably call this person a ‘life-long learner’.

It doesn’t matter what sort of intelligence a person possesses.  Ken Robinson in his book The Element: How finding your passion changes everything talks about the ‘hierarchy of subjects’ that our society regards as important, over those that are less important. He writes: “At the top of the hierarchy are mathematics, science and language skills. In the middle are humanities. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts there is another hierarchy: music and visual arts usually have a higher status than theatre and dance.” Our system of learning, at the most important foundational period in the learner’s life (from birth to 18 years) values more highly certain kinds of critical analysis and reasoning, usually with words and numbers, yet our creative intelligence is so much more than that.

An intelligent person – does the same picture or skill set come to mind?

So, on what basis might we determine how intelligent a person may be?… The proverb doesn’t say:

Intelligent people are always ready to teach, their mouth is open to share what they know to everyone within earshot.

No, the intelligent person:

  • possesses an ability or abilities in a wide range of arenas
  • is constantly ready and always seeking to learn more
  • adds value to whatever sphere of influence they have
  • are receptive, listening for fresh insight

And most importantly of all, to the intelligent person…there is still so much to learn.

It’s easy – to be intelligent, be ready to learn (and try and keep your mouth shut).