Silicon Valley-style Aussie primary school

Ms Susan Wu (above) co-founded Lumineer Academy, a new primary school in Australia that uses a learning model that promises to prepare pupils to become the architects of - rather than mere participants in - a future world.
At Lumineer Academy, classrooms have been rebranded “studios”. There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs, whiteboards and tables to stand at while working. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Ms Susan Wu (above) co-founded Lumineer Academy, a new primary school in Australia that uses a learning model that promises to prepare pupils to become the architects of - rather than mere participants in - a future world.
At Lumineer Academy, classrooms have been rebranded “studios”. There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs, whiteboards and tables to stand at while working. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
At Lumineer Academy, classrooms have been rebranded "studios". There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs, whiteboards and tables to stand at while working.
Ms Susan Wu (above) co-founded Lumineer Academy, a new primary school in Australia that uses a learning model that promises to prepare pupils to become the architects of – rather than mere participants in – a future world.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Tech-world thinking evident in learning model touted as education revolution

MELBOURNE • At Lumineer Academy, a new primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or grades.

Instead, there are "creator spaces", "blue-sky thinking" sessions and "pitch decks". If the school - furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs - sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that's because it is.

That entrepreneur is Ms Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the "most influential women in technology" and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.

Ms Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of - rather than mere participants in - a future world.

"Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution," said Ms Wu. "What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed."

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.

In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard STEM subjects, like computer programming, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms Susan Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

In recent years, schools and education programmes have been founded by Tesla founder Elon Musk, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.

Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising US$175 million (S$231 million) from investors and charging tuition of around US$28,000.

Ms Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she said her school's model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.

Private education is much more common in Australia than in the US. About a third of Australian children attend private schools - nearly three times the rate of US children - meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a non-profit.

Ms Wu said she and her co-founders, Ms Sophie Fenton and Ms Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education. Ms Fenton was Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education - the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.

Although similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms Wu's Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.

"She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time," said Mr Mike Curtis, vice-president of engineering at Airbnb. "Almost any problem space - no matter how different it is from the last - she seems to be able to tackle."

Lumineer Academy opened in January in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 pupils, and tuition costs around A$10,000 (S$10,245).

Unlike most Australian private schools, pupils at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, pupils are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalogue.) Classrooms have been rebranded "studios". There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, like computer programming, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers.

Ms Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 per cent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curricula.

"When I saw the job advertised, I thought, 'This can't be true,'" said 31-year-old teacher Kim Staples. "I was so frustrated in other systems, because they're quite prescriptive."

She said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn't joined Ms Wu's school. "I felt like I was too restricted. I couldn't give children the type of learning experience that I knew was best for them."

There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, eight-and nine-year-olds worked on a project about socialising. The pupils outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted from a start-up's business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.

Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.

"I was kind of impressed with the number of cliches and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy," said Ms Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyses the intersection of education and tech. "In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mindsets, grit, STEM, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those."

Australian education policy expert Glenn Savage said it was difficult to see how the school's lofty goals could fit within Australia's "very structured" education system. "It's important that parents don't work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won't be doing anything like students in other schools - because that's just not the case," he said.

One wall at the school displayed pupils' work with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a nonprofit organisation that assists refugees hoping to resettle in Australia. The pupils had created a "pitch deck" - tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation - aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked).

In a nearby "creator space", pupils were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers' market by the end of the school year.

One pupil, eight-year-old Ines Morgan said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.

"Our hypothesis was, 'What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?'" she explained. "They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again."

The school's website promises to remove the "stress and anxiety" students encounter at other schools.

But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school - where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.

Ines, the ant colony disrupter, said she had seen "a little bit of bullying" but that it was dealt with as a collective.

When asked how the situation was resolved, another pupil, Noah Helu, eight, said: "Well, it's like what Ines learnt about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'Silicon Valley-style Aussie primary school'. Print Edition | Subscribe