“Crisis times are often an impetus for change – and with increasing unemployment across many countries, the time is right for innovation to provide opportunities to connect students to authentic problem-based learning.” – Stephen Harris, Australia

Founded in 2005, the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), was developed to directly support grassroots innovative practice by teachers at Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS), where Stephen Harris is principal. Seven years later, according to Harris, “SCIL has grown to be the guiding force of innovation and transformative practice throughout the school and well beyond. It has created a means by which to grow vision, share vision and let fresh ideas take their place in the everyday programs of the school.”

A multitude of  programs have been developed at the center, including the provision of fully accredited online distance courses for senior-year students; accredited professional development for teachers; the creation of virtual learning environments in Second Life and Open Sim; virtual space supporting real life; and the design and construction of an educational precinct that supports mobile and collaborative learning – using “campfire,” “watering hole” and “cave” spaces for multimedia-enhanced, multimodal learning.

Harris credits the success of SCIL in part to their innovative thinking on the concept of space, not just physical, but also emotional, social, pedagogic and virtual space. “In this journey, I have found that space is immensely important to learning,” Harris says. “Space has a key role in influencing our motivation to learn. We have sought to put that into practice.”

Not only is Harris innovating at his home school in Australia, he’s also committed to fostering innovation in the developing world. Harris is a team leader of Team Rwanda, a group of students and staff from NBCS involved in an education project in northern Rwanda.Team Rwanda is seeking to bring innovative practice to schools in areas of high poverty cycles in the northern province of Rwanda, in a region between the Volcanoes National Park and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Harris also organized an Innovative Education Summit in Rwanda earlier this year.

Whatever he’s doing, Harris’s commitment to innovation in learning comes through. Famed author and innovator Charles Leadbeater made this comment after spending a day at his school: “Northern Beaches Christian School – one of the most innovative in the world (@wethink June 2011).”

Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure, where Harris talks about innovation, and how the model he and his team have built can be replicated.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I have always held a “do then think” philosophy. I have always held a strong belief in the power of vision to harness energy, unite a community and steer direction. When applied to the privilege of leading a learning community, it has enabled a very visible and tangible creative renaissance within education. The NBCS learning community has become a flagship for the possibility of educational transformation – and has been visited now by over two thousand people. It is a living example that you can steer a whole community into new paradigm thinking and practice – and school no longer looks or feels like it used to. I’ll be happy when every student has the opportunity to experience learning in a context that prepares them for the opportunities and challenges of their life.

People come from all over the world to the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. Typically they come to see buildings, spaces and furniture. They leave seeing the possibility for reconstructing their own learning spaces, pedagogy, teams and thinking. That is, I suspect, at the core of my professional achievement.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

A broad learning community is growing NBCS/SCIL every hour, every day. Their combined efforts are creating a playground for learning and creativity. Students and staff view themselves as unique contributors to a community that celebrates their learning, potential and achievements. Learning is being taken into the curriculum. School has changed from being a daily chore to space for thinking, expression and community. I am witnessing teachers experiencing a new role – no longer the managers of behavior, but now the creative directors of curriculum delivery.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

People are telling us that we are creating a model that they can understand and see — one that will empower them to take bolder steps into innovative practice. They are challenged to review their practices, assumptions, boundaries, fears and leave energized to re-construct, review, and reinvent learning at their own places. They know that they have to build their own teams and network.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology becomes the backdrop that allows anywhere, anytime learning. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) with pervasive indoor/outdoor wi-fi provides a tool that pushes technology to be the fringes of thinking, because you just draw it in as and when you need it. Classrooms are no more because learning spaces are shaped to enable learners to reconfigure that space in as many ways as possible to support their learning at that point in time – whether as an independent worker, collaborative partner or wider group participant.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Government-mandatory curricula and state or national assessments that drag teachers back to a timetable of enforced content and fear of failure. Learning can only really start once we as teachers and administrators can negotiate a pathway through outdated paradigms and apply learning to relevant contexts. Regrettably, an absence of government vision for education (for decades), unworkable educational bureaucracies and a union that depresses grassroots innovation can create the perfect storm of disillusionment for teachers.

My belief is that you can still journey past these frustrations and constraints and achieve genuine strength in new paradigms, while not losing sight of the outcomes mandated in current curriculum requirements. It just requires vision, resolve and ingenuity. I work with a great team prepared to do this every day – and as a result students at NBCS and beyond are enjoying participation in education within a learning community context that is very different from that of their peers in other schools.  It is providing them with a springboard for success as independent learners in further tertiary studies, as well as equipping them to be leaders in life.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

There is a growing tribe of like-minded educators who are driving grassroots innovation into their classrooms and communities. You can meet this tribe on Twitter, at TeachMeets, and at the non-scheduled interactions of conferences. There are no longer regional or global boundaries to this tribe defining new patterns for learning. This is creating a groundswell for change and innovation that will not be able to be reversed.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Someone needs to articulate educational vision at a national level to unite everyone behind a common goal of educational transformation (not just so-called “school improvement”). Budgets need to support that vision, investing in the future of the country – the children.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

The best opportunity for innovation in education occurs when school leaders are willing to take measured risk and make structural changes to the way their learning community works. This requires a team approach and necessitates swinging all group times away from meetings and to recurrent personal professional development. Everyone in the community needs to view themselves as a lifelong learner with a potential to improve. Crisis times are
often an impetus for change – and with increasing unemployment across many countries, the time is right for innovation to provide opportunities to connect students to authentic problem-based learning.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Gather a team around you and together start to make changes – changes to physical spaces, changes to pedagogy, changes to curriculum. Aim to bring learning into the curriculum, whatever it is, not the other way around, where curriculum and content build barriers to potential. The challenge is that educational training institutions might have talked about new paradigms and pedagogy, but are still predominantly teaching that from a paradigm of separation – separate teachers, working in separate spaces with separate programs, assessed and appraised separately. Teachers need to approach working with colleagues as if moving into partnership with others. Once the transactions of communal living have been negotiated there is a fantastic opportunity to create shared spaces, shared programs, shared learning, shared success, and shared problem solving.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

I think the combination of problem-based learning and flipped classroom thinking, placed into authentic challenges, is a trend that is starting to develop new skills in students. Once embedded as an experience and practice, students will not want to go backwards into paradigms where content is pushed on to them, rather than pulled in to areas relevant to their contexts.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Someone who can sit down with a child and guide them in the applied use of a mobile device for learning and employment, provisioned with wireless Internet access, and at the right time of confidence and relational development, gift them with that device, remaining as their mentor and coach.

For more on Stephen Harris:


About Stephen Harris
Twitter: @stephen_h

  • Birthplace: Auckland, New Zealand
  • Current residence: Sydney, Australia
  • Education: Diverse: spread across three countries; spread across disciplines; still a learner. Currently making very slow progress as a PhD student with UTS.
  • Website I check every day: Twitter
  • Person who inspires me most: Banner Mwesigye Anderson – my friend (and driver when in Rwanda). Banner was born a Rwandan refugee in Uganda but he has never let that stop him. Banner came to Kigali, Rwanda weeks after the genocide finished to help rebuild his nation. Banner is about hope, love, acceptance, growth, loyalty, learning, resilience, humility, and faith. I would trust him with my life.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Viewing atoll islands while on ship from New Zealand to United Kingdom.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Northern Europe, SCIL vision tour – www.scil.com.au/visiontour
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Anytime I look at a photo of my great nephew Henry. Because he reminds me of me when I was his age and he reminds me of childhood happiness.
  • Favorite book: That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton
    Favorite music: Still has to be Les Miserables
  • Your favorite quote or motto: Do then think
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