Innovative schools: A principal’s vision of making the ‘maker’

Located in the serene bushland setting of Mount Macedon in Woodend, Victoria is Braemar College, an independent coeducational day school. Its palatial campus, enrolling 800 students from Years 5-12, is shaded by the green canopies of the giant old trees that flank its sprawling grounds.
However, a look at what’s going on inside this school’s classrooms is even more impressive. Braemar College recently made The Educator’s Innovative Schools 2015 list for its hands-on approach to the exploration of science, technology and mathematics.
Being one of the first schools in Australia to issue iPads to students, one could say Braemar College was ahead of the curve. However, there is more to this school’s journey to become an educational leader in innovation than just the early adoption of technology.
Braemar College principal, Russell Deer, told The Educator that imagining classrooms of creators rather than consumers chiefly inspired the college to make inroads into such hi-tech resources as “Sphero Robot Balls” and 3D Printing.
“A driving statement for me is that I want to see young people being makers, not just users of, technology. In my opinion, a starting point to being a maker is to understand what the possibilities might be for different technologies,” Deer said.
Sphero Robot Balls are steered by students using their iPads, which Deer said is the ‘user’ phase. The culminating activity of writing a program for the Sphero to follow a course and undertake some tasks moves towards the ‘maker’ phase.
“To see that progression is just amazing,” Deer said, adding that to observe students in the senior school create a hack for their USB camera, capture an image from all angles, render it and send it to the 3-D printer was “equally amazing”.
“Young people have the capacity to gather the information for themselves, so providing some resources, such as time within the curriculum and some leadership from the college, are all enablers to allow young people to meet that goal of being a maker of – and not just a user of – technology.”
While many Australian schools have been quick to adopt new technologies for innovative use in their classrooms, Deer said that there were multiple facets to smoothly incorporating this technology into the curriculum.
“It's not easy. It requires leadership, space for staff to explore and be comfortable with the technology and provision of some resources, in essence change,” Deer explained.
“You don't need to be a wealthy school to achieve this, there are some great innovation programs which allow young people to explore technologies which don't cost a great deal of money.”
Deer said a number of years ago, ICT programs in schools were about making PowerPoint presentations or using touch typing. However, one of the key items for Deer as principal of the college was to carefully model the use of technology.
“My responses to you are being gathered using dictation software – although I am sure that some students think I am playing games at desk,” Deer said.
“We have created a dedicated space in our resource centre as a STEM hub where young people can create and make. Our college recognises that making is a relevant and topical subject for young people and creating space within our curriculum time to do this.”
Deer said that while the process his school undertook started with iPads, there were questions about its technology-driven approach to education. However, Deer said the clear intention has always been to link students with learning and teaching.
“I'm interested in ways that technology can support teachers to gather feedback about their teaching methods. In a lot of ways, it's not about the technology it's about how the technology can support us to get on with our job of creating a relationship with our students.
“Thus we continually scan the technologies that will enable those relationships to be strengthened.”
Looking ahead, Deer is confident that today’s students are being properly prepared for the world they’ll enter when they leave school.
“The more we can focus on the transferable skills of innovation, creativity, teamwork and collaboration in the younger years – in our case our middle school – creates the possibility for that outcome,” Deer said.
“I think we are doing a better job of preparing our young people for the world after school,” Deer said.