On October 15, our entire Ed-tech class had the chance to visit the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII) in downtown Victoria. I had heard of the school before and its founder, Jeff Hopkins, as I had worked for a language co-op that had adopted the Project / Portfolio Based Learning (PBL) method. I have witnessed and can attest to how a PBL approach can rapidly speed up second language acquisition, and so I was particularly excited to visit the school firsthand and see what the learners were up to. It did not disappoint.
We began with Jeff giving us a talk about his past as a teacher, principal and area superintendent, and how he came to open his own private school. In explaining the school’s approach to curriculum, one thing he said struck me, “Subjects here are not covered…they are uncovered“. This means the school curriculum is based on learners’ own curiosity and they are encouraged to choose their own learning paths with the guidance of teachers. Subjects are integrated and learners can approach their inquiry projects from a number of angles within the traditional curriculum (science, socials, math, etc.).
In the end, learners are encouraged to create real projects that can be introduced to the public or even marketed. After Jeff’s talk, we were free to explore the school space and talk to the learners. One learner was particularly keen on telling us about her ambitious project. Having to rely on a wheelchair, this young woman’s inquiry arose from the lack of accessibility for the disabled in and around Victoria. As such, she designed a computer mapping system, and has been visiting businesses in the city, ranking them as Green (accessible), Yellow (somewhat), or Red (not accessible). She then drops a pin with corresponding colour into the virtual map. She said she hopes to take the project public and in fact has a meeting with mayor Lisa Helps scheduled this month. How cool is that?
In talking and listening to the learners, they all seemed to repeat the same point again and again. Having choice in their learning leads to happy and highly motivated learners. Many of them noted that they truly hated traditional school, and that PSII ‘saved’ them from the public education system. Both learners and Jeff noted, however, that an open inquiry and project based approach may not be suitable for all learners, with Jeff noting that it often takes learners time to become comfortable with their new sense of autonomy and choice in their paths. But once they do, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
In any case, it was wonderful to finally see the school, meet Jeff, and hear from the students themselves. I think there is a lot we as future high school educators can do to use inquiry and project based learning in the classroom, and I look forward to seeing students push their own limits of learning.