Head of School's
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
“Is it hard?”
“Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right
attitudes that’s hard.”
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
One of my favorite amusements recently has been watching people react to students at The Harbour School. There is that momentary startle, with the widening of the eyes and the slight lift of the eyebrows, then a bemused half-smile, followed by a furtive glance at me with the age-old wordless “Oh my gosh” expression, then a return of attention to the student. So when a seven-year-old explains, in casual conversation, that a Portuguese Man-of-War is not a jellyfish (“… but don’t worry, that’s a common misperception. It’s actually a colony of attached animals called zooids”) or a nine-year-old launches into an explanation of antibiotic resistance or a middle-school student explains the constraints of furniture design for subsidized housing units, I love to watch the adults. In Kenya, when a team that included a hospital’s founder and the Head Nurse listened to pitches for the interior design of a new Learning Center that our students had designed and fully funded (considering factors including flexible positioning, hygiene and local sustainability), the team’s looks went back and forth from the students to me as though they were not entirely sure that I wasn’t practicing ventriloquism. Tour guides on school trips are amused to find that our students know more than most adult tourists about the countries they are visiting. People are surprised to hear that we have won the Odyssey of the Mind competition for the past three years in Hong Kong or that both of our teams were among the five finalists in Hong Kong’s Technovation Challenge and one won the competition for Judges’ Choice, while still bouncing along happily both during their presentations and between them. (“They’re so perky!” one person observed.)
But I’ve also begun to realize that folks are not just astonished because our kids are confident, passionate, knowledgeable, happy and impressive. What they are astonished at is that these kids study at The Harbour School, which describes itself as a progressive school. Progressive? Somehow, over the years, some people have begun to think that “progressive” is a synonym for “easy” and that students can’t possibly be learning if they are not at the same time mean and miserable. “But wait… isn’t that supposed to be the happy school? Don’t they have a boat?”
But that’s not what “progressive” means at all. Although there are lots of definitions of “progressive,” there are four that almost all progressive schools would agree to. And creating a school that can fulfill these characteristics is much more difficult than running a conventional school.
First, we know that we're not the ones who make learning fun. Learning is a natural instinct, and like most natural instincts it already is fun. Primates will work hard doing something they don’t like, just for the opportunity to work with a puzzle or learn something new. Learning is a positive reinforcement, like food. Four-year-olds are constantly trying to learn all of the time, asking questions about everything from why the sky is blue to what a turtle has for breakfast, and two-year-olds struggle over and over again to perfect a new skill like climbing over the sofa. Computer games that challenge and teach are billion-dollar industries. In order to make learning un-fun, one would have to do things like forcing children to sit for long periods in seats (which is unhealthy at any age), or create an atmosphere of anxiety where the stakes are too high to try something new and fail, or prohibit social interaction and create a competitive atmosphere where one student’s success is another’s failure. One would have to limit learning to what one person (the teacher) thinks is important, without considering relevance to the life and interests of the learner. So progressive schools try not to do those things.
Second, we know that real learning occurs everywhere and all the time and in many ways. Sure, reading, listening and memorizing are some of those ways, but they are hardly the only ones and they may not be the optimal ones for some learners or for some topics and skills. Students are also learning when they work in teams to create an interactive robotic zoo, or when they go out on a boat to measure the water quality in a threatened marine area, or when they brainstorm the best solutions to a problem like overfishing or make a movie about Hong Kong. They are learning when they wrestle, when they play music, when they perform (or write) a play and when they produce a Renaissance Faire or present at a Global Issues Conference. Learning doesn’t start when kids enter a classroom or stop when they leave it. And real learning involves knowledge, skills, habits, and thoughts that persist over time, not just until the next test.
Third, we are extremely student-centered. We know that students learn most when they are learning about things that are relevant, interesting and important to them. We understand that students (and adults) are all different from each other, and we value those differences and encourage kids to explore them. Some kids are better at math, some love history, some struggle with reading, some are fascinated by science. Progressive schools are intentionally inclusive because we understand that some students, like Steven Spielberg or Whoopi Goldberg, may struggle with some aspects of the curriculum but be brilliant at others. We know that teams that are heterogeneous, composed of people who think or learn in different ways, tend to do better than those who are all the same – and our winning Technovation and Odyssey of the Mind teams certainly confirm that. Supporting a diversity of learning styles, personalities and abilities enrich everyone’s experience.
Finally, progressive education is… well, progressive. We are future-conscious. We enthusiastically research and utilize the latest technologies and pedagogies, and we attempt to prepare students for the challenges and capabilities of the future – many of which we cannot yet imagine. We are serious about developing the attributes that will be most valued in jobs of the twenty-first century, which most people agree are skills such as creativity, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, flexibility, collaboration, kindness, and self-direction. Luckily for us, these skills are only possible in an atmosphere that is encouraging and joyful. And that is why we all seem to be having so much fun.
Dr. Jadis Blurton
Founder and Head of School
The Difference of a Decade
In 2007, Jill Samelson founded The Harbour School as an inclusive mainstream primary school in a small flat above the McDonalds in Kennedy Town. When it opened, it had seven students. Meanwhile, I was working as a child and family psychologist in my private practice in Central. Within a month, a mutual friend asked me to have lunch with Jill to give her advice about next steps for the school. When we met, it soon became clear that she was planning to close the school (and also The Children’s Institute) if I did not take it over. The idea was laughable – I was really busy with a thriving psychology practice, and the school had literally no resources and almost no students.
And yet. At the time, there were just a handful of international schools in Hong Kong, all oversubscribed and all highly selective. Despite the demand, the educational system was, and largely remains, a post-industrial revolution model where students are products of a factory assembly line. At my practice, I frequently saw cases of depression and anxiety in young children. In fact, at the time of our lunch I had one seven-year old client with flat teeth because he was grinding them all night, and another ten-year old who had pulled out all of her hair! There were so many kids who could learn and achieve, but school had become a place that was terrifying, depressing, boring or unrelated to their own motivations and skills.
Could we make a difference? Could we develop a school that focuses on empowering the whole child, that respects every student as an individual with his/her learning style, likes and dislikes, interests, background, culture and motivations? A school that uses a personal approach to learning so we really get to know each child, that allows and encourages children to be creative and imaginative and be their amazing selves and have teachers who are able to adapt their methods to deliver curriculum to different types of learners? Most importantly, could we create a school in which children thrived and still learned just as much as - or more than - those who sat glumly and dutifully in desks all day, a school where children were encouraged to enjoy their childhood while also becoming kind, resilient and knowledgeable problem-solvers? The challenge had been thrown, and I would have little right to complain if I let the opportunity pass.
And so that is how I came to “inherit” THS in October, 2007. We had 3 teachers and 9 students that December. Our students were happy and making progress, our parents were happy, word of mouth grew and more students kept coming. In the following school year, we increased to 30 students and by 2012 we had 103 students. We received WASC Accreditation in 2013, and were awarded our new campus at The Grove in 2016. There have been awards for contests such as 21st Century School of the Year, Roots and Shoots, and Odyssey of the Mind, and we have expanded from Pre-K through High School. We’ve produced Renaissance Faires and Global Issues Conferences and social action rock videos. But the most important milestones, for me, have been much less public. There was the first time a child cried at having to go home from school because she was sick, and the time a child slept in his clothes after a vacation because he didn’t want to be late to school. There was the first time a very shy child spoke on stage, and the time a very gifted mathematician finished a class that was five years advanced. There was the time that three girls supported a fourth to do something really scary by producing an incredibly beautiful and skilled song. There were the many times when parents asked me what was in the magic sauce that had created a happy and talkative child at the dinner table.
It had been clear from the outset the “good enough” was not good enough. Our school had to outperform in many areas because cynics were convinced that a school that is both inclusive and happy could not yield good results. And so there were the many incredible achievements of our students, culminating in the outstanding three high school seniors who this year have done so well in their college applications. If my challenge had been a “proof of concept,” the first ten years have shown that a community of learning can be exciting, fun, rigorous, compelling and creative.
Dr. Jadis Blurton
Founder and Head of School
Caution: Hold onto your hats!
Okay. Whew. Well. Let's pause for a moment and take a breath.
A couple of months ago, at a conference, someone asked me how I create a growth mindset at our school. I had to stop for a moment and consider the question, as though the concept were completely new. And then I started laughing.
We began less than eight years ago, with seven students. This year, we won second place (in the world) in Pearson's "21st Century School Of The Year" competition. That was right after we had won the Hong Kong Roots and Shoots Award for our Optical Plastic Ocean Sensor invention, and a few months before we won third place (among all the schools in Hong Kong) in the Odyssey of the Mind competition and first place for Spontaneous Problem Solving (with over twice the points of the next-highest scorer). We once again created an incredible environmental video (Earth Hour) which was featured internationally on environmental websites (including the official Earth Hour website). The PE teachers have created their own hilarious and popular "THS Sports Center", and one of our Middle School teachers was selected as the American Humane Society's Teacher of the Year. Some of our Arts Interim students provided an explosion of beautiful installation art in the entryway, to complement the huge and student-created THS sign already there. Our "innovation interns" have made everything from toys to fluorospectrometers. We held our first Annual Wrestling Tournament. We staged our first magnificent school-wide musical production (The Wizard Of Oz), the Fourth Grade held their Renaissance Faire, the Talent Show rocked, the Second Grade presented a really fun and informative International Fair and the Fifth Grade students were spectacular at their Global Issues Conference. We have launched (literally) a new marine science program, with the beautiful Black Dolphin at its pivotal center. Not to be left behind, The Black Dolphin just won "Best Vintage Yacht" in the Aberdeen Boat Club's Classic Yacht Competition. We've had school trips to China (Third Grade) and to Myanmar and Japan (Middle School). We have participated in beach clean-ups, Ocean Day, Earth Day and held two Earth Hour dances.
We have renewed our WASC accreditation and completed an incredibly extensive (and successful) bid process for a new school site. This year, parents have formed a Parent Ambassador program, started an active and productive PTA, and held several parent or family community events. We have been selected by the Hong Kong government for allocation of a school site that is the perfect size in the perfect place for us, and we are developing that and another annex to create physical spaces that reflect our values, interests and sense of fun. Growth, change, flexibility and excitement are part of our DNA, as we continue to explode into being. Every day brings a new good idea. The kids, parents and teachers are continually devising new programs, creating new products, thinking new thoughts, writing new stories or poems, and sailing new seas.
How do I promote a growth mindset at this school? I just grin and hold onto my hat.
Dr. Jadis Blurton
Founder and Head of School
After eight years in rented commercial spaces in Kennedy Town, The Harbour School scored quite a coup by being awarded the last school site on Hong Kong island by the EDB in 2015. In the last 18 months, I’ve spent many hours thinking, researching, planning the tangibles that make up a school - how can we optimise these new spaces for learning, what can we design into the space to make learning more engaging?
The happy result is we will soon have three campus environments designed to empower teaching and learning at THS. Technology is one of the key enablers of the unique learning experience we have crafted for THS students. Very soon, our youngest students will hone their senses and reflexes on a multi-sensory augmented reality wall at the Harbour Village. THS secondary school campus, the Garden, features a state of the art science lab kitted with digital microscopes. The Grove already has the latest gee-whiz tech classroom tools and a makerspace with sensors and Arduino kits for building robotics, 3D printers and laser cutters. A giant, interactive and programmable globe hangs as the piece de resistance in the new, double-height library and a world-class marine science centre, the first of its kind in a school.
But handing every student and teacher a laptop or tablet will not magically usher our classrooms into the future, just as equipping every classroom with a 3D printer cannot transform every student or teacher into a maker. It’s also next to impossible to keep up with the arms race that is today’s pace of technological innovation. As soon as you’ve installed the latest smart TV and digital whiteboard in the classroom, you can be sure that a more advanced iteration has already rolled out of the factory.
Which brings us to our Ingredient X - our very diverse body of students.
When students walk into the classroom, they do not become different people. Their likes and preferences follow them and in this new dawning era, today’s digitally connected learner is increasingly challenging the traditional notions of school, of teaching and learning.
This is where THS is different from so many other schools in Hong Kong. Even more important than learning to solve problems is learning to notice problems and feeling empowered to make a difference. We don’t have to make up problems for our students – the world (and life) has plenty for them. We give our students the autonomy, time, resources and respect to pursue projects that interest them. We hire very specifically for teachers who understand our "learn and adapt" approach and culture of trust, support and collaboration with students. THS teachers are not lecturers but facilitators, and they understand that integrating student-led learning and dialogue is critical.
As a result, our students take on a much more involved and active learning role. They deep dive, daily, into hands-on projects - some assigned by school but most developed themselves - which require critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and teamwork - gaining what is popularly referred to as 21st century skills but are in essence, important interpersonal and thinking skills which we will need in any century.
For example, our Middle School students - after meeting with some dwellers of subsidized housing and experts in architecture - designed and built a working prototype housing solution which addresses many of the difficulties faced. Another team of seventh graders created an app to address Hong Kong’s problem with trash, winning Hong Kong’s Technovation Challenge Best Presenter Award. A team of 5th graders embarked on a longitudinal study of Hong Kong’s waters by using the school’s outdoor classroom – THS’s 50-foot sailboat called the Black Dolphin – to monitor the waters around the site for Hong Kong’s new incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau on the south side of Lantau island.
Hence, creating compelling and flexible learning spaces equipped with state of the art technologies does immediately make a school an innovative one. The most important ingredient is to create the opportunities and culture to allow our students - all our students, without cherry-picking and judgement - the freedom for creative expression and to chase the questions they have.