In the spring of 2016, Lower School instructor Jenny Bennett was awarded the prestigious Jean Wigley Award, an award given annually to faculty members to pursue professional development experiences. The award was established in 2001-2002 by Breck parents Michael and Barbara Wigley in memory of Mr. Wigley’s mother, Jean. Jean Wigley was known for her faith in God, her giving spirit and her strong belief in the goodness of people. She was a warm and caring woman who made the world a better place. When Bennett was honored with the award, she said she knew immediately that she wanted to use the funds to travel.
But where did she want to go? “I wanted to think about what the future of education looks like—and what the most innovative people in education are doing,” says Bennett. “My research lead me to New Zealand for two main reasons: the modern learning environments, also called innovative learning hubs, and the emphasis on collaborative teaching and learning.”
For the past few decades, much of New Zealand has gone through large scale construction efforts because of earthquakes, and its position as a leader in educational innovation is deeply tied to its status as an epicenter for seismic activity. After destructive earthquakes in 2011 and 2013, many schools were severely damaged or completely destroyed. Bennett explained that the country’s Ministry of Education believes deeply in the futuristic philosophy of innovation in education. This has manifested itself in the reconstruction and redesign of many schools as they have rethought how best to deliver education to their students.
The main focus of her trip was a visit to a Stonefields School in Auckland, a school that the world is looking to for their successful implementation of innovative teaching and learning approaches. Bennett toured the campus and saw their “learning hubs,” which are mixed grade-level, mixed age, learning environments with a team of 3-5 teachers. These hubs are a carefully designed environment—not like self-contained traditional classrooms that are a mainstay of the educational process but wide open spaces with areas for break-out sessions with teachers and students.
Bennett also spent time at two other schools: Waitākiri and Avonhead, both spaces that were constructed and designed with modern learning environments and collaboration in mind. She notes, “one thing that kept coming up was how much it seemed like a more efficient environment for teachers and students. Teachers were able to leverage their strengths so students were getting the best from each teacher. Even though there’s up to 100 students in each hub, they’re known so well because they’re known from multiple perspectives.” Even more telling, perhaps, is that every teacher in the school had come from a more traditional classroom and, when asked, told Bennett that they would never go back.
Bennett also attended the EduTECH conference in Sydney, Australia. The conference discussed “future-focused” learning and how technology can be used most effectively in education. For her, the big takeaway of the conference was the beginning of a conversation on “22nd century learners,” because this year’s kindergarteners will live into—and perhaps work into—the 22nd century.
In sum, she says, the value of the trip was to see what other educators across the world are doing and what ways the educational model can be fundamentally changed. Meeting other educators was, for Bennett, a critical component of the trip. She writes on her blog, “It’s amazing how universal it is to be an educator; we think about many of the same things, face similar struggles, and believe that the heart of everything is excellent teaching for the sake of children.”
So while Minnesota is unlikely to be hit with an earthquake anytime soon, the takeaways from Bennett’s trip are sure to manifest themselves at Breck and beyond for years to come.
To read daily accounts of Bennett’s trip to Australia and New Zealand, check out her blog here: http://beyondtheclassroom17.blogspot.com/