Visiting the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry

lWhen we walked in the front door of the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry in Downtown Victoria, the first thing we saw was a physical version of their very unique school schedule.


Near the whiteboard schedule was a tablet with an attendance app open, so that students could come and go from the school without having to touch base with a teacher every time. The large collaboration space near the entrance was bustling with energy as students sat around tables working on various projects. All of the students had their own laptop, and their was a small art station set up in a back corner.

Jeff Hopkins, PSII’s founder, walked us through the school, which included the large collaboration space, several small seminar room (one featured a fume extractor for science sessions), a tech room with a few desktop computers, a quiet room (where we found a large loom that one student was learning to weave on), and a music room (with several instruments).

As he gave us a tour of the building, Jeff also walked through a few key differences between PSII and a typical high school, which you can see outlined in this document here. Throughout the tour, we were also able to ask questions about the particulars of the school, which I’ve outlined below. Please keep in mind that I’ve only included the key points that stood out to me from our discussion, and not a direct transcript.

What is the Inquiry Process?

1) What are you curious about/want to do/interested in ? What do you do when you are not at school? How often? what else?
2) Take their initial question and do some research. For some schools that’s where it ends. At PSII, that’s where it begins
3) Refine inquiry question.
4)  Develop learning methods (help from teachers) otherwise students tend to fall into old habits. Some kids really like essays, but you want them to make sure that’s not a default. Talk to them about about info graphics, discussions, leading workshops, etc. Teachers helps build learning activities that go beyond research.
This poster, and this page on their website, elaborates on aspects of inquiry-based learning I may have missed/left out.
Things to keep in mind about inquiry based learning at PSII:
– Emphasize the difference between knowing and knowing about. Go beyond knowing about and start knowing inside out
– As a teacher at PSII, you have to pick up the phone and find people who can help. (Some students are already working with a software company and are under a non-disclosure agreement).
– Other times you need to just learn with them (ex. Jeff is learning python right now).
– Sometimes students will completely surpass the teachers in their knowledge (ex. one kid is coding with Matrix algebra to help a machine learn something i.e. neural networking). While the student may need to explain to the teacher what they are doing with their level of skill with the content, the teacher can still guide them through the technicalities of learning.
– Don’t spend all your money on textbooks! You don’t know what’s going to happen when a student pursues their own inquiry question. Buy books based on student interests, instead of forcing kids to read certain material because it’s what you have already purchased.
– In most schools it is “what did you do today”. Why does it matter what they did if they didn’t actually learn anything? Focus on the learning, not the doing.
– Suggested reading: The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson

What does assessment look like?

– We’ve been trained to focus on what people do rather than what they learn. Doing isn’t helpful if they aren’t learning too. With their portfolio they can tell you exactly what they are learning. Report cards are no longer “they did this and that” instead it’s “they learned this through this…”
– PSII is still required to give grades, so they include summative grading assignments near the beginning and end of the year to get those required marks. Meanwhile, they try to do formative assessment all the time. Teachers meet with students 10 or 12 times a day and will type directly into their portfolio while they are talking. Some learning is iterative and requires multiple examples, some is not. It depends on the topic/subject/content.
– All students have electronic portfolio with formative assessment notes throughout. This allows the teachers to check that someone is keeping each student on track. All the teachers are involved with the every student, but usually one or two teachers hone in on each student. It naturally evolves depending on the student’s inquiry.

What do student portfolios look like?

– As they work on their learning activities it can be a reflection, example, or finished product.
– Portfolios are hosted on a WordPress network. WordPress is an easy interface and most websites tend to use it now. Teachers can open the master administration dashboard and see all individual websites. Students tag their posts for competencies. There are context and objectives that are preset, but they can add more but those are required. Tags help teachers bring up all related material.
– The only people who have access to the portfolios are the students, teachers, parents, and individuals who the students choose to share their portfolio with. The server is host hosted in Canada (schools aren’t allowed to store data in U.S.)
– When students grad they can still access their portfolio and export it as a file and upload it onto a public site. The school keeps portfolios active as long as a student wants. Some of them create their own employment and scholarship pages and then they pull those specific parts out.

Do they all have laptops?

Yes. Part of the tuition is a laptop because there are no standard textbooks. They own it and they will have to buy a new one if they break it.

What happens when they aren’t in a session?

– If they aren’t in a session they can do whatever they want. Math all day if they want. However, there is self regulation involved. Usually they will naturally start to get tired of the same task so they want to change it up. Sometimes they don’t though, and that’s okay. Look how quickly some homeschool students move through subjects.
– Every student has to meet the grad standards (math, english, etc), but they are allowed to finish a subject early or continue on with another subject in the next year instead.

How do you get them to do stuff they may not want to? (ex. I hate math, so if I were here I would leave it until June).

– Teach math as a competency. Normally it’s not taught that way. It’s taught as a discrete thing that doesn’t affect anything else. In reality, you are doing math all the time in life, probably in ways you don’t even realize.
– They have hour and a half sessions of math each week. Everyone is working on something similar regardless of levels, then they work to incorporate the math they are learning (to whatever degree is possible) into their inquiry. ex. “I see you are building something, use some geometry”.
– Math isn’t about doing something it and leaving it. It’s about incorporating it into life.

How do you support easily distracted learners?

– Regular meetings and “nudging”.
– Move beyond by teaching them self regulation: “I noticed when you are in the collaborative space you aren’t getting stuff done, why might that be?”
– What worked, what didn’t, why? It’s like a coaching process: reflecting, nudging, teaching self regulation. ex. The quiet space. They know they need that because they are here to learn. The quiet space is not for all day, but needed sometimes when work is getting done. It’s a major problem in your usual classroom. The introverts are stuck with the noise.

What if a student need learning support?

– “We help them”.  The teacher to student ratio makes this much easier, since PSII doesn’t need to hire on any support staff or pull the student out to work with them separately.
– Extra student funding they get goes towards improving that student-teacher ratio and buying tools/special equipment, adapting rooms (sound and light), and paying for O.T. and P.T. for that student.
– There are no modified programs, even Special Ed. students graduate with a dogwood, as long as they can find some way for the student to communicate their learning.
– All students have an IEP on Trello, but some also have traditional IEP

Do you still run into typical problems with bullying?

– PSII does’t have the typical high school environment (no halls and rows of lockers). Classes are paired up based on interest, not age group, so there is that dimension too. Since everyone is so focused on their interests, they rarely seem to get caught up in that kind of drama. Occasionally with new students you will see an an older student correct them by explaining “we don’t so that here”
– When incidents do occur PSII uses restorative justice methods to deal with it rather than punitive. Kids aren’t as afraid to talk to the teachers because they won’t be seen as a “snitch”.

Social environment continued.

– The small group environment builds amazing bonds between students. Some PSII grads are currently traveling together.
– Some students go out and teach elementary and middle school students technical tools like blender (coding, physics), photoshop, etc.
– Kids call teachers by first names. It happened naturally, not intentional.

How does physical education work?

– They all have passes to YMCA (included in tuition). Some students are willing to fit exercise into their schedule, others need to have it slotted into their schedule for them. Different groups go to YMCA every day (strength and conditioning, but also squash, basketball,swimming, etc). Alternatively, some kids go to climbing gyms, join other sports memberships, etc.
– This level of choice allows for a much better buy in for kids. A lot of schools are going another way because of major P.E. drop out.

How do you teach music?

– Several teachers have a background in music. PSII also incorporates youtube lessons and music community members.
– Lots of kids come from schools saying “In my school I have to be good to touch an instrument”. At PSII they get to learn at whatever level they are at. They don’t HAVE to be in band to play an instrument.

How do you teach languages?

– Employ part-time teachers in various languages, build language groups with international students, also use online programs.

Is there a screening process for students?

No. As long as parents understand what PSII is about the student is welcome. They need to fully understand how different the system is; there’s no report cards, no marks, etc.

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