School redesign causes education debate

Designers from the new high school challenge the administration’s change in tactics.

Although the new high schools’ designs have been modified from the original concepts, the debate continues as to whether the changes will help or hurt the future of education in the Cayman Islands.

Prakash Nair of Fielding Nair Interntional – an architectural and change agents firm – was originally hired as the planning, design and education consultant for the Clifton Hunter campus.

“We weren’t just hired to design these schools. We were actually hired to tell the Cayman Islands how their schools are doing,” Mr. Nair said. “We used this instrument called Education Facilities Effectiveness Instrument, which has been used across the world.”

What the report did was look at all Cayman schools, not just the high schools, but every Cayman school.

“And if you look at the percentages, it shows you the physical conditions of the schools relative to international best practice,” he said.

The scores range from 21 per cent to 14 per cent, which shows the poor shape of the current Cayman schools regarding 21st Century practices compared to other schools across the world.

“The Education Department had discovered that the education in the Cayman Islands is a disaster,” Mr. Nair said. “You really need to reinvent it from the ground up.”

So FNI designed the new school campus and building that used a concept new to Cayman, but a proven success around the world, including award-winning school designs in the United States, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Indonesia.

“The whole point is that architecture is a means to and end. You don’t build schools for the sake of building schools. You build schools so you improve your education. That’s the whole point,” Mr. Nair said.

“The school buildings are symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the way in which students in the Cayman Islands are educated. And that way of educating is very 20th Century, in fact maybe even 19th Century,” he added.

The school’s construction and oversight started under the approval of the previous administration’s education minister, Alden McLaughlin. Mr. McLaughlin also brought in Stephen Heppell, an educator and technologist.

“FNI was then hired as a planning and design consultant to help the architectural process be driven by educational imperatives and not just by architectural imperatives,” Mr. Nair said.

When the new administration was elected in May of 2009, the new education minister Rolton Anglin decided to move away from the original plans of interior space use.

“One of the key considerations in all of this has got to be the advice I received. If I listen carefully to all the advice I’m getting as the minister that says to me, look, art and science cannot be taught at the same time in a huge, open space, you need to do something about it,” Mr. Anglin said. “I need to listen carefully to the professionals employed in this ministry and to our teachers and to our students and make critical decisions around that.”

Mr. McLaughlin disagreed with the new changes, partially because of the time and investment in the original plans, plans he thought were to the benefit of Cayman students.

“Departing from this plan is condemning the student population for the future to achieving well below what is possible,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The outcomes for the majority of students in the government school system are well below what one would consider acceptable. And while we have a number of young people who come through our system who are absolute high flyers who have done as good as any student in the world could do and have gone on to attend some of the best universities in the world, the reality for the majority is very different.”

What we are really talking about is two philosophies, according to Mr. Nair.

“One philosophy is basically saying let’s take the easy way out. Let’s just do what we have been doing in the past, something that has clearly failed. And let’s just spend millions and millions of dollars to reinforce a failed model,” he said. “The other side says since we already know we have failed, let’s do what the research says we need to do to make sure our students have the same competitive advantage that student in other parts of the world have. Let’s do the hard work that is needed to train the teachers, to change the curriculum, to design the buildings in a way that our students can do what other students in other parts of the world are doing.”

Mr. McLaughlin said the system has never been capable of catering to a wide range of capabilities and aptitudes, and so it must be changed.

“Over the years, basic things like literacy and numeracy fell well below par. At the other end of the spectrum, the system isn’t capable of challenging the gifted and talented students efficiently,” he said.

Mr. Nair added: “The new administration has taken the easy way out and said, ‘No, no, let’s just keep on doing what we have been doing in the past and let’s do what is familiar because all this other new stuff… is futuristic and it’s not something we trust and it’s crazy so let’s go back and do what’s failed.”

But Mr. Anglin explained that the FNI designs wouldn’t cater to what students need now.

“What I saw, and what the buildings were designed to accommodate, simply wasn’t in my view delivering in home economics what the country needs and what students need in their lives,” he said. “Science and art – how it was designed and what was supposed to be delivered caused huge concerns amongst professionals.”

The school’s design was based on the 20 modes of learning: independent study, peer tutoring, team collaboration, one-on-one learning with a teacher, lectures with a teacher at centre stage, project-based learning, learning with mobile technologies, distant learning, internet-based research, presentations by students, performance-based students, roundtable discussion, interdisciplinary learning, naturalist learning, social and emotional learning, art-based learning, storytelling, design-based learning, team teaching and learning, and play-based learning.

Shirley Wahler, the Cayman Island chief education officer, said the national curriculum is being implemented in our schools now and will be continue to be implemented in the new schools. And that the ministry values flexible learning spaces.

“What that means is you have spaces that we recognise over time will change,” she said.

“We’ve been involving the teachers of the school intensively with the design of their spaces in terms of furniture. They’ve been the ones choosing and looking at what they think are the best options for their students and their teaching and learning because they’re our experts,” said Clive Baker, head of Ministry operation. “But if you have a great teacher, they’ll deliver great lessons whereever. And we’ve got some great teachers.”

Mary Rodrigues, the chief officer of the Ministry, said the function is providing quality teaching and education for our children so that their standards can be raised and sustained.

“How were we to achieve it within that environment? That’s the question we had to look at.”

And, yet, one of the major concerns was cost.

“The teaching and learning philosophy underlying the new school buildings are revenue neutral,” said Mr. Nair. “That means, this design requires no more staff than a traditional design. If anything, by encouraging peer tutoring and collaborative learning, there will be less need for direct instruction with the teacher standing in front of the room. This reduces the stress on teachers and allows them to help students develop their social and emotional intelligence.”

The current minister said the new ministry’s changes will also be revenue neutral.

“Bottom line, education and student achievement is about great teachers who can motivate students, and quality and caring individuals in the classroom,” Mr. Anglin said. “That’s what’s going to build a world-class education system.”


Work at Clifton Hunter High School off Frank Sound Road. – Photo: File