How We are Rethinking Education at Treverton College
The drive at Treverton is to make the experience at school a better reflection of reality, yet still within the protection of a school environment.
The idea that the traditional school classroom, curriculum content, and examination style are not perfectly suited to real-life learning and the acquisition of skills is not a new one. However, despite significant changes to society and an increased understanding of how best we learn, the way that teaching and learning takes place in most schools remains the same year after year. Many schools recognise this, but may not have the flexibility, time, energy or resources to do something about it.
The pressure to ‘teach to the examination’ places a significant burden on schools to stick to more conventional ways of teaching.
At Treverton College in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal, we are trying to mitigate this situation as much as possible. The key ways we are doing this are through the practical application of the theory we teach in class, by introducing real-life skills that are relevant to daily life, and by imparting an understanding of the need for sustainable living and learning.
We have introduced ‘Wacky Wednesdays’, ‘Unplugged Days’ and ‘Stewardship’ lessons to address these three areas.
Despite the fact that we are living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where knowledge is freely and easily accessible, our current schooling system requires students to have the knowledge embedded in their memories and then to regurgitate it in a formal setting within a certain time constraint. The only benefit to this approach is in learning how to work under pressure.
At Treverton, we are trying to find ways to stimulate thought and encourage problem-solving, rather than merely encouraging the amassing of vast stores of content knowledge.
‘Wacky Wednesday’ is one of our initiatives designed to move students into a realm where they take the tools learnt in the classroom and use them to problem-solve real-life challenges. Our aim is to create regular opportunities for our students to apply, in a practical way, the theory that they have learnt in a particular section of work. In the course of demonstrating how various subject areas integrate in real life, we want to encourage creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
What does a ‘Wacky Wednesday’ experience look like in real life?
Students arrive on the day without any prior preparation other than the content knowledge of what they have been doing in their various subjects in recent weeks. They know that they will be faced with a series of problems and challenges that will require the practical application of that knowledge.
For example, our Grade 9s are working with Arduino, which is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. They have created a water-level sensor in class and this sensor was used in an activity at our School Dam during Wacky Wednesday. We invented our own currency for the day, called Trevi Bucks, and students could spend their Trevi Bucks on either a spoon, a cup with holes in it, or a sponge. The sponge was the most expensive item and cost the most Trevi Bucks, whilst the spoon was the least expensive.
Each item would assess the student’s ability to determine value, as they compared the cost of the item to its effectiveness for the task. Students had to set up the water-level sensor in an opaque container so that they could not see the water level rising. Students would first collect water from the dam using the item that they bought and fill up the container until it reached the particular level that set off the indicator on the digital circuit. Once the water reached a particular level, the water-level sensor indicated this on a digital circuit.
Another project used the life sciences station, where students built a net and went into the Treverton Wildlife Area to capture various insects. They then went through the proper process of preserving the insect. Back in the classroom after Wacky Wednesday, they labelled it, talked about it, and had to make a presentation about the insect to the class.
The accountancy aspect of Wacky Wednesday required students to be accountable for the effective use of their Trevi Bucks. Preparing a budget, controlling the actual spending on the day, and then doing an audit after the day were all part of the task.
Exceptional individual projects from Wacky Wednesdays
Treverton teacher, Dean Balie, who oversees Grade 8 and 9 academics, has been the inspiration behind many of the Wacky Wednesday initiatives. Part of his role is to revise the approach to the Grade 8 and 9 curriculum to make it more relevant and practical.
In Balie’s own words:
Two particular projects by students have been of particular inspiration to me. One was undertaken by a local girl who started one of the biggest aquaponics farms in the southern hemisphere when she was in Grade 6.
The other involves a young boy from Kenya who grew up in a community where schooling isn’t offered. As a fifteen-year-old, his responsibility was to look after the livestock. The village where he lives is within a national park and there is a real problem there because lions eat the livestock. The villagers weren’t allowed to do anything because park authorities protected the lions. This lad, who had little formal schooling, developed a system to defend his livestock, without harming lions.
These examples illustrate the fundamental idea behind what we are trying to achieve. The schooling systems we currently have focus on preparing our children for an exam. They do not prepare our children for the world that awaits them. We need to be teaching our children to think and how to be effective analytical people.
An ‘unplugged’ day is one during which all the students from Grade 8 to Grade 12 are introduced to skills that they will require at some stage in life. Tax filing, basic survival skills, sewing techniques, basic cooking, carpentry, electrics and basic plumbing are examples of the types of skills we teach the students. The purpose is to expose the students to practical life skills that are not covered in a typical school curriculum.
Sustainability and stewardship
The signs are all around us that the resources we consume are not in indefinite supply. Loadshedding and water restrictions are some obvious examples, but all of the resources we consume need careful management to ensure that they last. In many cases, we already know that they will not last and that we need to find viable alternatives to ensure that our demands are met in a sustainable way.
At Treverton, we have chosen to start our sustainability journey with a focus on permaculture and the practices related to sustainable food supply. Our extensive grounds and our strong ethos of environmental education and the outdoors has made this a natural starting point. As part of our broader Outdoor Pursuits Programme, we have introduced a period in the academic day called ‘Stewardship’, which is dedicated to this purpose.
Students in Grades 8, 9 and 10 are taught the theory of permaculture first, followed later in the year by the practical implementation, for example, the building of raised-bed vegetable gardens. We have chosen the word ‘stewardship’ to encapsulate both the environmental and spiritual significance of what we want to achieve. In a biblical sense, ‘stewardship’ is the responsible use and care of the resources that God has given us. As we develop this programme, we will gradually broaden the scope to include recycling, solar energy, gray water recycling projects and more.
Thinking skills for the world ahead
As a school Treverton is committed to presenting students with the reality of what lies ahead of them when they leave school. Approximately 65% of students currently in Grades 8 and 9 will work in jobs that are not even in existence yet.
As educators we cannot prepare a student for a career that does not exist yet if our focus is on content only. However, what we can do is to teach students to think and adapt.
The World Economic Forum regularly puts out a predictive list of the top 10 skills workers will need to survive in the workplace in a decade’s time. As educators keeping up to date with what those skills are, we can adapt what we are doing in the classroom so that our students are ready for the world into which they graduate.
Throughout the history of education there seems to have been an assumption that people naturally know how to think. This is not the case – certainly when it comes to thinking critically. Students need to be taught how to think critically. We can do this by giving them problems to think through and the strategies required to do this effectively.
We have moved out of the era where the student is seen as an empty vessel that the teacher fills with knowledge. We recognise now that the student must be an active participant in their own learning process. For example: instead of an educator simply showing an algorithm and explaining the process of solving it, we would rather approach it by presenting the problem to the students, going through what we currently know together, and then guiding them to apply that knowledge as they ‘explore’ their way through it.
We would stand back and acknowledge new inventive and creative ways to solve the problem rather than intervene to try to enforce obvious or traditional solutions.
Treverton’s rich history of being a leader in innovative education began in the 1970s when we pioneered outdoor education in South Africa. Although much in its infancy, our redeveloped curriculum is built on ‘pioneership’. Our move into readdressing the manner in which our curriculum is taught has been received with great positivity and engagement by our students and parents. We look forward to the journey ahead.