Interview: Mark Renie, Head of School, OWIS Suntec, on Reimagining Learning Environments

On Thursday, August 12, 2021, Anju Cawthra of the Seasoned Singapore Expat Women group sat down for a Facebook Live chat with OWIS Suntec’s Head of School, Mark Renie. It was a fruitful discussion on reimagining classroom environments and the future of learning in a post-Covid era. If you missed the live session, here’s the video and the text of the interview.

Anju: Hello Tribe and welcome to today’s edition of Anju Asks. I’m here at One World International School with Mark Renie, who is the Head of School of OWIS’s newest campus coming up at Suntec.

A little introduction to One World International School. There are two established campuses already – one which is a full-fledged school with 1200+ students going from Kindergarten to Grade 12 at Nanyang, where we are today. We’re eagerly anticipating the opening of the newest campus, which will be opening on August 23rd, at Suntec.

Thank you for joining me today, Mark, to tell us a little bit about the new campus, which is right in the heart of the city. When I think of Suntec, I don’t necessarily think of a school, to be honest. I think of office towers, the shopping mall, and F&B outlets. So what was the thinking to bring the new campus to Suntec?

Mark: First of all, thank you very much for having me, Anju. I appreciate your being here and giving us the opportunity to talk about the new Suntec campus. I think the rationale behind the new Suntec campus has a lot to do with how education has changed since Covid and how we can meet the changing expectations of parents. The Suntec campus allows us to be right in the heart of Singapore and have access to all that the area has to offer – be it the museums, the art, the history, the culture, and also the sports environments.

This allows us to have a scaled-down campus and we can focus on innovation and opportunities for our students to really develop these new key skills they need for the future, especially now that we know that learning has to change.

Anju: I’ve got two kids at school and education and the way they are learning has really changed in the last year. What are the ways in which the classrooms and the learning environments are changing to support this?

Mark: One thing Covid has shown us is that we have to provide our students and children with the skills they need to be technologically sound. We also have to provide them with opportunities to be independent learners and thinkers. A lot of online learning has required students to learn from home, be self-sufficient and driven. We need to create classrooms and learning environments that will support that. These will provide opportunities to have that growth mindset, collaborate in small groups, and capitalise on technology to do their own self-directed learning. I think meeting that need is something classrooms need to evolve to.

Anju: So there’s going to be a lot of technology there.

Mark: Yes, but we have to look at technology as a tool. Far too often, technology becomes the focus of education and it shouldn’t be. It should be used like a tool, much like a book or a pencil, to get a deeper understanding of a particular topic or to express ourselves. We can use technology to present or create an app or learn music or create art.

There is a concern from parents about screen time and rightfully so. Children have been exposed to so much screen time over the past year and a half. So the intelligent and smart use of embedding technology where it’s needed has to be considered.

Anju: And so, what about the flip side of that? We’ve talked about the classrooms that are going to be set up. There are going to be so many different learning areas – interactive play areas, dedicated spaces for art and music, and so on?

Mark: Absolutely. The benefit of Suntec is that we have very large spaces for classrooms, the biggest I’ve ever seen, and they’re wonderful environments. We’re going to use those spaces to create breakout centres and discovery zones, where children can collaborate and communicate and really develop the key skills they need. We’re going to create spaces where children can do independent, self-directed research and create projects based on that. These spaces are going to be the hubs of learning at Suntec. So although these may appear to be a different model of a classroom, it’s still the same in its purpose – of enabling our students to develop the skills they need to be successful.

Anju: Fantastic. What about outdoor space?

Mark: Yes, we have access to the sky garden and we are scheduling opportunities for students to go outside and read, reflect, play games, and engage in mindfulness activities, which we believe is very important for the socio-emotional development of our children, especially in this Covid time.

We also have access to the environment around us that we will try to capitalise on, once the Covid regulations ease.

Anju: So you are going to work with other providers in the local area as well as the arts facilities that are at your doorstep?

Mark: Yes, absolutely. I’m really excited by the fact that we have the museums and the art galleries there. All of these museums have wonderful education programmes that most schools don’t get the opportunity to capitalise on, because they are too far in terms of location. They go once or twice a year at most.

We are able to go there on a regular basis to capitalise on the education programmes. Say for example, our students are learning about where they are in space and time, which is an IB unit of inquiry. They want to learn about Singapore from 50 years ago. Instead of only getting access to information from the Internet or books, we can actually go to the museum and learn and listen to the specialist teachers there as well.

Anju: That’s really fantastic because I think it is difficult to get children interested in using these resources, which are educational and interesting. Sometimes, children don’t like to be dragged around for “fun”. So it’s great that you will get them interested in using these resources and develop a lifelong love for this kind of environment-based education.

Mark: It’s true children aren’t always eager, but this is another element of what we want to bring into Suntec, which is blended learning. We want to look at how we can use the best practices of in-person education and online education to support our students.

Children are naturally curious; we want to curate that curiosity and encourage them to go and find answers on their own. Blended learning will provide that opportunity for them. One example of blended learning at Suntec will be flipped classrooms, where we’ll have children do initial research on a topic, such as sustainability,  through videos and online materials. Then they will come to school and break into groups and dig deeper into the topic with the facilitation of a teacher, who will move around the classroom to support them. Then, they may go online again and watch a presentation by an expert from National Geographic. At the end, they can write a report or do a presentation to the class about what they’ve learned. Most of this learning would have been self-directed, and independence, resilience and growth mindset are being reinforced in this approach. That’s one way in which Suntec will reimagine how we teach children in this post-Covid era.

Anju: That’s really interesting how you will reiterate and enhance ideas that students are learning and build so many different skills along the way.

And after spending so much time learning at home, I think it’s fantastic that children are going to have the opportunity to feel the freedom of the space at Suntec.

Mark: One of the best things about Suntec is the discovery zones, which I mentioned earlier on. The centre of the school is built around these discovery zones. So when children are being dropped off, they will immediately be able to engage in play-based learning and have a chat with their classmates. They can hop on a cycle and ride around the campus. There is a large amount of space there for them and how we use that space is really the strength of Suntec. We want to provide play-based, child-initiated and collaborative learning opportunities, geared towards the different age groups of our students.

Anju: So just to recap, you’re starting with Kindergarten (age 3) to Grade 5 with a view of going up to Grade 8 in a few years. And what are the class sizes in the space that you’ve got?

Mark: Early Childhood 1 and 2 will be a maximum of 18 students, Early Childhood 3 will be a maximum of 20, and Grades 1 to 5 will be a maximum of 24 students. We will have small teacher-student ratios and that allows us to work on the personalised learning that we talked about. Our classroom sizes are huge and external CCA providers who come in are excited by the scope of Taekwon-Do or drama or fundamentals of sports lessons in these spaces. It’s a good opportunity to do great things at the Suntec site.

Thank you to Anju and SSEW for the interesting discussion on education in this post-Covid world.

If you would like to know more about OWIS Suntec, please join the upcoming Virtual Open House.

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