The future is now at trailblazing Wollongong primary school

Mount Ousley Public School has embraced technology, student choice and good old-fashioned stick play as a way to foster a love of learning and prepare kids for the future unknown. 

In a leafy schoolyard in the northern Illawarra, kids in green uniforms are darting about collecting pole-length sticks to fashion into giant cubbies. 

Just as swiftly as the structures come together, they're torn down again as the little architects set about rebuilding them stronger and better than before. 

In this old-fashioned stick playground, there's little hint of the revolution taking place inside and around the 50-year-old building. Yet to step into any of the learning spaces at Mount Ousley Public School (MOPS) is to see the future of public education in action.  

An area of the playground has been designated the Stick Construction Zone and piles of branches are always at the ready.

An area of the playground has been designated the Stick Construction Zone and piles of branches are always at the ready.

As the morning bell rings, the kindy kids grab the iPads from their bags and stream into the classroom. After roll-call and a quick group activity, it's time for these pint-sized students to decide how they're going to spend the lesson.

Some take their portable computers to a comfy spot in the room to work on their latest iBook using an e-book editing app; others are still in the research stage (“I wonder how vets help animals” one six-year-old girl writes on a mini-whiteboard). Another pair huddles around an old, hollow TV set to present and film a news report.

This is what learning looks like at MOPS, one of only a handful of Apple Distinguished Schools in the country, where every child has their own digital device, lessons are largely customised and learning how to think is considered more important than what to think. 

With principal Peter Holmes at the helm, the school has spent the past nine years updating what they saw as last-century teaching ideas, which may not best serve tech-savvy staff and students.

They see their mission as delivering the Department of Education’s curriculum in a way that prepares kids for jobs that don’t yet exist, while turning out active and productive citizens who think for themselves.

A strong focus on the basics remains within the "progressive approach to education" embraced by the school. "That will never change," principal Peter Holmes says. "Everything we do is informed and evidence-based."

A strong focus on the basics remains within the "progressive approach to education" embraced by the school. "That will never change," principal Peter Holmes says. "Everything we do is informed and evidence-based."

“The world has changed significantly in a very short period of time,” Mr Holmes says. “If our children are to be prepared for tomorrow’s workforce, today’s education must reflect the demands and expectations of the workforce.

“Creativity, collaboration, innovation, communication and problem solving, along with literacy, numeracy and technology skills are cornerstones of the 21st century workplace. The same skills, therefore, have particular relevance for 21st century learning.”

The MOPS transformation kicked off in 2009 when staff and the community began a new conversation about how they could best meet the learning needs of kids – how to make sure every child found learning relevant and exciting. 

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

The following year, the school rolled out a parent-funded program in which every student was given access to their own digital device. With the tech shake-up came an opportunity to reinvent the classroom – and old habits from lesson delivery to seating arrangements were on notice.

An early victim of this new digital age at MOPS was the computer lab, made all but redundant after the introduction of portable devices. The lab was cleared out to make way for a Tinkering Space, where the children make and mould with their hands, experiment with coding on iPads to fly drones or write instructions for Sphero, the robotic ball to follow.

Dozens of trusty old classroom tables and chairs were given the flick in favour of comfy, mobile lounges as the new modern classroom spilled out into hallways, spare rooms and even the playground.

“Every student has any-time, any-where access to a connected device and knows how to use it creatively to redefine the learning experience,” Mr Holmes says.

“Children work in every nook and cranny we have and for much of the time, it’s their choice.

“Corridors, bag rooms and spare corners are now considered all part of the classroom, as is the playground.”

Teaching practices also underwent a major overhaul. Staff filmed each other teaching, before watching the footage closely for ways in which they could improve their delivery. The result was shorter introductions, more explicit directions, and more time devoted to reflection and positive feedback.

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

“We’ve created a cohesive pedagogical mindset that is innovative and responsive to kids’ needs,” Mr Holmes says.

“It's so vastly different to how we thought about teaching in the 20th century, without losing any of our focus on improving literacy and numeracy skills.

“The way in which we deliver education provides excellent results because it's such an authentic approach to teaching and learning, and one in which children's passions are central to everything we do.”

Mount Ousley Public students reading on comfy, mobile furniture in the library.

Mount Ousley Public students reading on comfy, mobile furniture in the library.

This commitment to student choice and joyful learning is most evident at what the school calls Genius Time – sessions where students pick their own topics to study and use technology to publish and share their work.

“You can learn anything you want, not just what the teacher says – that’d be too boring,” seven-year-old Eilidh of Year 1 says.

Eilidh’s dad, Alasdair Marshall, a post-grad primary teaching student, has watched his daughter flourish in this child-led learning environment.

“We love the degree of control that Eilidh can take in her learning,” Mr Marshall said. “The ability to choose subjects to explore that she is passionate about means she is engaged in class and allows the development of the skills that help her in literacy, numeracy and reflection.

“Whilst the use of technology makes this easier, it’s obvious to me that it’s not used as a gimmick or a crutch. The power of these tools is used to make learning individualised and encourage kids to extend themselves by really thinking about their learning and reflecting on it.

Young students build bridges in the Maker Space.

Young students build bridges in the Maker Space.

“What this means for us is that we have a happy girl who is motivated to get up in the morning and go to school because she’s excited about learning.”

Jen Piazza Vello, whose children Cheyenne and Isaac attend the school, attributes their eagerness to learn to the school’s reimagined classroom – as well as what she describes as a caring, nurturing ethos.

“MOPS is a school where relationships and wellbeing count more than anything else,” she says. “They know that their friends and teachers all care for and value them and that learning is always fun.

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

Mount Ousley Public students at work in the school's new Outdoor Learning Area.

“They’re excited about learning. Indoors or outdoors; standing or lounging; pencil and paper or a device … all these things allow them to be completely engaged and connected with learning and embracing their primary school years.”