Learning without lessons

At Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow, instead of becoming a member of the vast ranks who are quick to label the traditional UK education system as ‘antiquated’, ‘unfit of purpose’ or ‘broken’ – but do nothing about it – we united behind a common goal; to re-imagine and transform education for the better.

We started off by looking beyond Scotland and the UK for alternate educational models. Two years ago, we discovered the NuVu Innovation School in Boston, Massachusetts. NuVu is the brainchild of three pioneering MIT graduates, and their educational approach answers some of the big questions faced by the UK education system around content, teacher shortages, assessment and, crucially, relevance.

The NuVu curriculum is not based around arbitrary facts set by an education minister, but instead real-world challenges – the solutions to which of ten involve advanced digital skills. For example, pupils might design, 3D print and code a swarm of robots to conduct search and rescue work, or they might design and fabricate wearable pieces of technology.

Furthermore, pupils work collaboratively in two-week immersive inter-disciplinary studios to solve challenges; there is no jumping between forty-minute Maths, Science and French lessons. The notion of a traditional ‘teacher’ is also challenged, as studios are led by coaches, who may be academics from Harvard or MIT, or designers or entrepreneurs from downtown Boston or further afield.

And crucially, there are no exams. Pupil solutions are critiqued by experts at the end of the two-week studio periods, whilst along the way pupils record their work in an online portfolio and develop many design and subject competencies.

A few Zoom video conferences calls later, and Kelvinside Academy and NuVu committed to running a summer school together in 2017 to see if their alternate education model would gain traction in the UK.

The school, which saw young people from throughout Glasgow solve problems in the fields of swarm robotics, bio-fashion and augmented reality, was hailed a success by not only the participants and coaches, but also by industry giants such as Balfour Beatty and academics from Glasgow University.

One other outcome was that Kelvinside and NuVu formed an exclusive European partnership to launch Scotland’s School of Innovation in Glasgow. Building work is well underway, and the Innovation School will open in August 2019.

However, we were anxious to move our plans for curriculum development forward whilst the building is under construction. From August, our pupils have left the traditional timetable for two-week blocks to complete design studios under the guidance of NuVu Fellows.

We’ve seen ‘super enabling devices’ been made to help local elderly residents re-gain limb function, and earlier this month our pupils explored the theme of hiding in plain sight, which deals with the growing population of urban animals and how we might create solutions to ensure these populations can successfully co-habitate our built spaces with humans.

It is important to note at this point that I don’t think anyone at Kelvinside subscribes to the belief that the UK education system is fundamentally broken. Fantastic life defining things happen in our schools every day and our pupils go on to do great things across all spheres of life. However, given that the UK education system does not look too different to how it did 100 years ago, evolution is required.

We think our hybrid model in which traditional subjects sit alongside a design studio approach works well. And others seem to think so too. We have recently been asked to brief representatives of the Houses of Commons and Lords at the Westminster Education Forum, and last month we spoke at Ellen Macarthur’s Disruptive Innovation Festival.

The firm shared intention of the KA-NuVu partnership is to establish a beacon project in the UK, which can demonstrate to others what education can look and feel like with an ambitious goal and a little creativity and imagination.

Ian Munro is the Rector of Kelvinside Academy.