A quartet of young Shetlanders has recently completed a tour of schools around the world as part of the Learning School project.
Leading a group of six students aged between 17 and 20 have been graduates Caleb Marwick and Christopher Silver. They spent six-week blocks in New Zealand, Australia, Shetland, Sweden and the United States before convening in New Jersey for the Global Classroom conference – which attracted speakers including South African anti-apartheid campaigner Denis Goldberg when it was held in Lerwick last year.
Caleb, 25, who was born and raised in Lerwick, said the 11th year of Learning School – launched by Stewart Hay in 1998 – had been a hugely valuable experience. Among the six students were Lorcan Henry from Lerwick and Miriam Brett from Bressay, as well as pupils from South Africa, New Zealand and the US.
The project – described by Cambridge professor John MacBeath as “the most innovative and radical” experiment in education that he is aware of – tasked Caleb and Christopher with researching and compiling a report on personal and social development with the help of the students’ research.
They discovered a wide variety of approaches to education, taking in an all-boys high school in New Zealand, before finding their time in Shetland in January and February disrupted by unusually heavy snowfall and then learning of the huge pressure to succeed which pupils
at Ridgewood, New Jersey, find themselves under.
The New Jersey school is in an extremely wealthy town and almost nine in every 10 pupils ends up going to college or university once they graduate. Pupils informed them that one teacher would tell them if they did not work hard they would end up at a “no-name” further education institution, while another said his father gave him a Harvard University sweater when he was young and he only realised a few years later that it had been a not terribly subtle hint that he ought to be striving for a place at the prestigious Massachusetts establishment.
Caleb said: “The way we chose to work, we’d go in and perform some initial research, sometimes a survey, sometimes a focus group, in order to ask the students of the school what are the biggest things that affect their growing up [and] affect their lives in school. In New Zealand we looked at the school’s attempt to promote a strong school identity; in Australia we looked at the amount of freedom that the students were given, and so on.”
So how did the Anderson High School measure up in comparison to the other schools the group visited? “I’d say while the Anderson wasn’t necessarily the best at many things, it was always quite good in terms of base level of performance in different areas. Informally as a group we discussed which school we would choose to learn at and the answer
I gave was the Anderson High School.
“It does pretty well in nearly all areas; we particularly were very impressed by the pupil support department – it counteracts a lot of the problems that the other schools had. I know we’re in a position here where we can afford it while others might not be able to, but if I was to design a perfect school I would have a pupil support department tasked with much the same as it is here.”
For Caleb, who along with Christopher is putting the finishing touches to the final report this month before heading to Aberdeen to start a course in secondary teaching, it has been a very worthwhile year.
“Personally, it’s been hugely valuable. I’m going into a career in teaching and the chance to look at different styles of education and teaching, and analyse the effects that these have, is a massive advantage in a professional capacity. It has given me insights that, I would imagine, most people would take years to accumulate from a career in teaching.”