Ask the students- “What’s the best thing about Stonefields School?” and nine times out of ten the answer will be “Breakthrough”. It’s the day that children run that little bit faster to the front door.
The premise is simple. While we have a strong focus on developing areas of core literacy, of inquiry and of learner dispositions, how much time do children actually spend time doing what they are passionate about? All children have innate strengths and talents. As Ken Robinson puts it, it’s not about recognising if children are intelligent, it’s how they are intelligent, that matters. It’s about children finding fulfillment in learning and achieving mastery in something that they are good at - rather than hitting them over the head constantly with things they cannot do. Breakthrough is valued so highly that it forms one of the core vision principles.
“For me it was a dream come true - I could never have dreamt of doing what I love doing during school time”, explains Jackson, a year 6 student. For Jackson his Breakthrough project time is spent 3D modeling using Blender. He’s one of a group of students collaborating on a science fiction movie. It’s a passion that he has brought to school, enthusing others in the process. And it’s extraordinary to watch him learning; a YouTube tutorial open in one window, Blender in another, as he develops the latest element to the fantastical creature that he’s animating. No teacher has shown him how to do this; in fact the best way to cause learning here is for the teacher to stand back!
Some innovative businesses have had this approach for years; Google perhaps the best known, where employees are given 20% of their time - a day a week - to work on special projects. Companies like 3M have been doing it for decades too with huge success, and both consider that many of their innovations have flowed out of this time (Lehrer, 2012).
As a school our core purpose is quite different. It’s not about making money, about innovative product lines and engineering initiatives. But it is about student engagement; it is about developing a love of learning, about providing authentic context, about developing students who are intrinsically motivated, about utilising problem solving skills and the application of an inquiry process, about building collaborative skills, and about valuing a broader notion of what constitutes success. Breakthrough does all this, and additionally provides invaluable leverage into other learning areas.
Take a walk around school this term and you’ll see a whole school approach to Breakthrough, with Year 1 students right through to Year 8s learning together in areas of interest. So you’ll see a group working on designing a senior playground, a group learning to build a table with a parent (Breakthrough time attracts lots of parent and community support), another preparing a dance item for the end of year assembly, students painting a mural inspired by the local environment, a year 8 putting the finishing touches to his novel, and of course a group working on Blender.
So how does this relate to space? I think it’s in how children use it when they have a real sense of autonomy and purposefulness. The hubs, and in fact whole school, doe look somewhat different during Breakthrough time. There’s a naturalness in terms of how groups of students set themselves up for their learning; a deep level of engagement and ownership that reflects in how they reorganize the space and furniture to suit their needs. So you can see groups of children establishing the learning settings that are most appropriate to their requirements, finding the technology and resources they need, both indoors and outside.
Take this as an example; A teacher came in yesterday and told us this lovely story; she was in the hub just before eight in the morning, and noticed a couple of boys walk into the hub and starting to set a room up. Shortly afterwards another couple arrived, laptops in hand. Not long after four more turned, up one after another, and made a beeline for the same part of the room. The boys had set the space up, organized the technology and computers they needed, had a video camera at the ready and were absorbed in a task. At this stage the teacher decided to check out what was going on. ‘Oh’, they answered, ‘We organized a meeting for 8. We’ve got a project we’re working on and thought we’d get an hour in before the day got going.’
As Jackson so eloquently puts it: “Breakthrough is great time for me to work on my self responsibility and self awareness. It’s a time I can really pursue something that I’m good at.” Undoubtedly it is a time of the week at school that children eagerly look forward to. Just walk around school during Breakthrough time to observe the deep level of engagement, or stand by the front door first thing in the morning!
Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.