Not just what but where students learn is emerging as a new force in education
For close to 100 years, students at Vancouver Island’s Brentwood College School have woken up to spectacular views of the Gulf Islands and snow-capped Mount Baker. Set on 77 acres, the ocean-facing campus creates a sense of openness and enlightenment that permeates everything from the curriculum to the varied sports and artistic opportunities available to students. The Brentwood experience is proof positive that where you learn is just as important as what you learn.
Nestled on Canada’s West Coast, the ocean is at the core of the Brentwood experience. Ian McPherson, director of advancement and alumni relations, Brentwood College, says: “The ocean defines us. Our students learn about the ocean on the ocean. Through our partnerships with the University of Victoria, Canada’s Ocean Network, and others, we’re continuously offering opportunities for our students to participate in research just off our dock.”
McPherson hears from alumni who remember their experiences vividly. “They still recall early morning rows on the water or standing on the Millennium Trail with paintbrush in hand looking out over the inlet. Our students learn by doing – it’s experiential learning at its best,” McPherson says.
At a time when online classes and isolation have interrupted the learning experience for many Canadian students, private schools from coast to coast continue to offer holistic learning experiences for their students in picturesque settings that encourage them to open their minds and help enrich their lives.
Situated on 125 acres in the town of Rothesay, N.B., on Canada’s East Coast, Rothesay Netherwood School (RNS) is surrounded by forested nature trails, incredible river views and foliage that changes with the seasons. For faculty and staff at the co-ed boarding and day school, the connection between in-person learning and location is multifaceted.
According to Craig Jollymore, RNS assistant head of school and director of academics, “Research tells us that location has at least three dimensions that directly affect student outcomes: geography, school climate or culture, and facilities. Our ideas about location have expanded during the global pandemic, as students in so many parts of Canada have had to learn online to support important public health measures.”
While the RNS campus footprint is expansive, the school community is driven by the ‘power of small.’ With 300 students from Grades 6 to 12 and a committed faculty, many of whom live on campus, the school’s community is built on close relationships that place value and attention on each student.
“We challenge our students, but we also provide them the support they need to take risks, push themselves and grow,” Jollymore says. “Our school climate is one of engaged care and is a direct reflection of the Atlantic Canadian setting of our school. We emphasize community; we champion the idea that school climate, safety and the well-being of our students are all important to academic achievement.”
Lakefield College School describes its location as one of its greatest assets. Located a little more than an hour north of Toronto, Lakefield College School stretches across two campuses on 315 acres of waterfront property, wetlands, forests, and fields, and provides an enriching co-educational day and boarding experience for students in Grade 9 through Grade 12.
In 2021, the school created its own learning farm on its Northcote Campus. With its From Seed to Table: Adventures in Eco-Farming program, students learn about food systems, regenerative farming, and the culinary arts through an immersive, authentic experience. Since 2017, Lakefield has also been home to an apiary for honeybees where student volunteers learn how to care for the bees and make honey. In yet another innovative program, students have been involved in the harvest of maple syrup on campus, these days tapping more than 275 maple trees and producing hundreds of bottles of maple syrup at the school’s very own sugar shack on campus. The syrup is served in the dining hall, sold at the school store, and at events throughout the year.
Anne-Marie Kee, head of school and foundation, says Lakefield students gain greater confidence in their ability to contribute to their community by working with the land around them. “They derive a broader connection to the course material and begin identifying ways that their learning experiences have a true impact on those around them. These connections are facilitated through hands-on experiences in nature where they discover a sense of unity amongst each other, with the natural world, and with their community,” Lee says.
In the OECD Learning Framework 2030, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development offers a vision and underpinning principles for the future of education. The framework says that “if students are to play an active part in all dimensions of life, they will need to navigate through uncertainty, across a wide variety of context in time, in social and digital space.” The framework goes on to propose three transformative competencies that address a growing need for young people to be innovative, responsible, and aware: “Creating new value. Reconciling tensions and dilemmas. Taking responsibility.”
These transformative competencies are well understood by Shawnigan Lake School, a large boarding school on Vancouver Island. Its 270-acre campus looks over seven-kilometre Shawnigan Lake and is next to one of the largest Indigenous communities in Canada – the Cowichan Tribes.
As Canadian educators focus more on Truth and Reconciliation, Nigel Mayes, assistant head, co-curricular programs, says Shawnigan’s unique location offers a rare opportunity for its students to expand their knowledge and learn from history. “We live and learn in a landscape that has been cared for and nurtured by the Coast Salish people for eons. The evidence for how they cared for the land, and how they lived on the land, is everywhere around us,” Mayes says.
In a new development, Shawnigan is piloting a new Beyond the Gates program for this next academic year – an experiential year-long education program for Grade 9 students that takes them out of the classroom and into the diverse wilderness of Vancouver Island and beyond. Students will participate in a series of excursions and community projects that incorporate rich First Nations culture, sustainability concepts and a love of the outdoors, allowing the connection between the classroom curriculum and real-world applications to be explored.
“The idea that place is just as important as content, that place defines the lens in which you view the content and that it’s really important to understand your place – that is critical for us as we gather students from all over North America and all over the world to this place,” Mayes says.
Understanding place resonates with Neuchâtel Junior College. Headquartered in Toronto, the school campus is in Neuchâtel, a 1,000-year-old, French-speaking town in Switzerland. While studying Ontario curriculum, students at Neuchâtel are immersed in Swiss culture.
Dorit Tepperman, director of admissions, says the school is special for many reasons. “It’s breathtakingly beautiful, the town is very welcoming, and it is an extremely safe and progressive culture.”
Students at Neuchâtel are exposed to world history, unfolding current events, international guest speakers, European school competitions, different languages and myriad cultural activities. They also can visit neighbouring countries where they learn about important world events and issues firsthand. And, living in a French-speaking town, students are able to build on their French-language skills, as well as engage in the college’s various language classes.
“Our students are surrounded by other students, and teachers, who are adventure-oriented and want to step outside and stretch themselves. ... Our students become the leaders of tomorrow because of what and how they learned here at Neuchâtel,” Tepperman says.
Taking a world view is what Bayview Glen Independent School has been doing since its inception in 1962. It is a day school for preschool (age two) to Grade 12 in Toronto.
Bayview Glen has a dedicated director of global education, Michelle Yarndley, who helps cultivate partnerships around the world and close to home.
“It’s part of our focus on developing the global competency of our students. They work with peers in different countries. They learn by doing, whether it is a student-led writing campaign or the climate change food drive led by our students in partnership with Stanford University,” Yarndley says.
Bayview Glen is a member of Round Square, an association of schools on five continents that links students’ local community to the world at large. The school is also a member of The World Urban Pavilion in Toronto’s Regent Park, a global platform to inspire action and advocate for sustainable urban development.
Bayview Glen’s network of global partners and its internationalized curriculum helps students expand and grow their international and intercultural knowledge and abilities. “Having these global competencies is essential in today’s economy,” Yarndley says.
Canada’s premier private schools are forging strong connections between the place where students learn and what they learn so that students are more engaged, aware and well-prepared to be leaders of tomorrow.
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