VERSO: Designing a School for the Future?

VERSO International School'’s founding head of school, Cameron Fox, talks to WhichSchoolAdvisor about how he has taken on the task of building a school from scratch. Is this what a school of the future could and should be?
VERSO: Designing a School for the Future?
By Carli Allan
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There is no one-size-fits-all school model. Schools worldwide are being designed as the ‘school of the future’, and prospectuses are filled with buzzwords such as ‘personalised learning’. In the private school sector, which has more flexibility and more money, there are plenty of new schools with new ideas. And, after the unprecedented changes caused by Covid-19, we can expect to see an even greater push for changes in education and a shift from traditional methods of learning.

In Thailand, there’s a new school that promises to rethink the learning experience. VERSO International School, which opens in Bangkok in August 2020, hopes to stand out from the crowd of international schools in the capital by being more progressive.

Here’s a school where teachers are known as learning designers, students are taught in mixed-age cohorts and 70% of the school day is dedicated to project-based learning. Walking onto its futuristic, Apple-style campus in Bang Na may not look or feel like a typical school – but is this really the future of education?

This all-through school will offer an American standards-based curriculum. Located on a 30-acre, purpose-built campus located next to Thana City Golf and Country Club, VERSO will open for students in early years (two-year-olds) up to Grade 8 in 2020, with Grades 9-12 opening in August 2021; its full capacity will be 1,800 students.

As VERSO prepares to open its school gates for the first time in a few days, WhichSchoolAdvisor speaks to founding head of school Cameron Fox about what makes this school different. In a city with a reputation for high-performing international schools, we ask why Fox believes that VERSO “delivers a refreshing alternative to the narrow curriculum funnel we traditionally push students through”.

The amphitheatre at the heart of VERSO

Designed to lead the way

During the past two decades, we’ve seen schools invest more significantly in building and classroom design. VERSO is positioning itself to be one of the world’s leading schools in terms of design and boasts that it is “driven by a design process”.

The school is divided into three ‘doughnut’ shaped buildings – the Lower Loop (Early Years 2 – Grade 4), Middle Loop (Grades 5-8) and Upper Loop (Grades 9 -12). Here’s one of the most novel versions of the schools within a school model, which can be seen at many larger all-through campuses. Each ‘loop’ is a standalone learning space with its own sports facilities, which helps to create a focused, age-appropriate learning environment for different age groups. There is a risk that such a school could lack the sense of community we see at smaller campuses; however, students are brought together in The Hub, which is home to dance studios, music practice rooms, science labs, art and multimedia studios, and exhibition spaces. There’s also a co-working space for VERSO’s teachers to share their ideas, which could help to keep the school well-connected.

But can the school hope to link its architectural achievements to high standards of academic achievement? Cameron Fox believes that the school’s innovative design and looped buildings will offer students the active, stimulating learning environment needed to do just that.

“We believe that the physical environment plays a critical role in the way we behave and learn. Our unique looped buildings, or ‘loops’, are intentionally designed to promote a sense of flow and movement, enabling learning to transcend the confined nature of traditional classrooms,” explains Fox.

“As VERSO is human-centred in its design, we were intentional about our spaces being places where students would naturally feel inspired. We wanted buildings that made us feel connected and gave students a sense of creativity. We wanted students to feel optimistic and positive about their school experiences and to develop a deep understanding that learning has no limits.”

The starting point for VERSO began in 2014 with a simple question: How to design a new international school that will prepare its students for a fast-changing world? This was a challenging question, says Fox, as educators are so “conditioned by years of being in a traditional school environment”.

However, working in partnership with IDEO, a design and innovation firm in San Francisco, the VERSO team “went outside of education to get a different perspective about what a future school could be like”. Designers and international educators also visited more than 25 innovative schools across Bangkok, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore. The result is the largest campus in Metropolitan Bangkok with its iconic looped buildings and state-of-the-art athletic facilities, including Thailand’s first indoor 50m swimming pool, an NBA-inspired indoor basketball arena, two full-size soccer pitches and an athletics track and stadium. It’s certainly got the wow factor – and with annual tuition fees ranging from THB 600,000 to 960,000, it really should have.

The learning gardens at VERSO

Redefining education?

The school’s innovative design goes beyond the physical architecture. This is a school that refers to its teachers as Learning Designers, has restructured the school day, and groups its students into cohorts rather than single grade levels. As Fox explains, VERSO is encouraging everyone within the school to adopt a designer’s mindset.

“Our research encouraged us to redefine the traditional roles, rituals and behaviours of school to create a powerful student-centred learning environment. At VERSO, we purposefully call our teachers Learning Designers because they have a shared responsibility to design unique and engaging learning experiences for our students.

“Learning Designers are qualified teachers who are equipped with a designer’s mindset. They are hired for their talents and their passion for students, and collectively work in highly collaborative teams.”

Recruited from the US, Australia, New Zealand and across South East Asia, VERSO’s ‘learning design team’ have the academic credentials and an ambition to challenge the status quo in teaching. As one teacher, says, “Joining VERSO means stepping out of your comfort zone to make real change happen.”

These teams of teachers (learning designers) lead a cohort, which combines students from two grade levels. There can be drawbacks to this model of mixed-age classes; younger learners may be intimidated by older students in their class, and older students could feel held back. However, there are benefits such as giving students a longer time with the same teacher who can then understand their individual needs. Fox explains further…

“Multi-age learning breaks the traditional age-based model of schooling and naturally allows us to create a different learning-dynamic. We are not grouped by ages in the organisations we work in, and we didn’t want to do the same with our students at our school.

“At VERSO, we believe that kids thrive in cohorts. We often see kids who have special talents suddenly rise because they are in a group project that requires their talent in order to complete it. Cohorts allow them to discover their strengths and passions and work collaboratively. Cohorts also help in building relationships between younger and older kids. In this kind of setting, we see older kids become leaders because young kids look up to them. Older kids learn to support, guide and become mentors.”

The Middle Loop courtyard

An American education

VERSO will compete against 11 schools in Bangkok by following the US curriculum, ranging from the progressive and new BASIS to the much smaller and traditional Wells International School (On Nut). It’s all familiar territory for Fox who, originally from Scotland, was previously principal at the American International School in Hong Kong. He believes that the US curriculum offers greater flexibility to design learning experiences that are interdisciplinary, project-based and skills-focused.

“Since we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to the curriculum, learning at VERSO will be increasingly personalised. We chose the New York State Education Standards because they’re comprehensive, research-based and internationally recognized. They also provide clear learning progressions for all students, outlining what learners should know and be able to do.”

In common with the many International Baccalaureate schools in Bangkok, VERSO will focus on project-based learning. As we’re seeing in many schools, teaching moves away from the front of the classroom; instead students will spend around 70% of the school day working on project-based learning. And rather than breaking up the day into subject blocks, VERSO’s timetable is structured around learning elements including self-directed learning, practical workshops, cross-curricular lessons, community time and one-on-one sessions.

Fox says: “We see VERSO as offering students and our learning designers (teachers) a highly creative and collaborative environment where kids are active participants because learning has relevance and purpose. We intentionally spend a lot of time listening to our students and understanding who they are as learners. This enables us to make learning highly personalised.

“VERSO students learn from an early age how to connect with the world around them through learning that is both local and global in its focus. We see great value in kids learning to make their own decisions, becoming self-aware and self-directed, and ultimately building the inner confidence to lead their own journey.”

Founding head of school Cameron Fox

Opening and operating in the age of Covid-19

VERSO will be opening in a very unusual time. It’s not an easy year to open a new school and, a sign of the challenging market conditions, VERSO has already decided to waive its tuition fees for the upcoming academic year (2020/21) for eligible students; it’s also offering a 50% reduction in tuition fees for the 2021/22 academic year.

Thailand’s schools reopened from June 15 after being closed for three months. VERSO is following the Covid-19 guidelines by Thailand’s Ministry of Education and is fully prepared to open in August. Fox believes that the school is well-equipped for the current times.

“The current pandemic has caused massive disruption and as schools struggle to adapt, we are seeing how fragile our educational systems have become. When we were designing VERSO, we looked to the future and saw a highly volatile and unpredictable world. In fact, we quickly identified a need for schools to become much more adaptive, responsive, and agile if they were going to navigate this level of disruption.”

As we’ve seen in Hong Kong, where schools have closed for the second time this year, Covid-19 outbreaks can emerge in even the most well-prepared cities – and Thailand’s principals need to be prepared for this. If schools do close again, VERSO is ready to switch to a remote learning model.

“Our learning designers (teachers) have been connecting with leading educators both in Bangkok and around the world to understand and learn about their challenges and successes during this time of school disruption.

"We will intentionally design opportunities for collaboration using technology, but with minimum screen time. Learning will continue. In addition to reading and math practice, there will be an emphasis on creative, hands-on projects. We see an enormous benefit for children when they understand what it means to be self-directed and can take ownership of their own learning. These are essential mindsets at VERSO.”

So, as VERSO begins its journey in what could be another tumultuous year for education, this is Fox’s opportunity to address his increasingly disillusionment “with the damaging narrow funnel international schools were forcing students to go through, and our inability as educators and school leaders to change this”. And it’s an opportunity for VERSO to live up to its name (which is Latin word for the left-sided page in an open book), by not only 'turning the page' in school design but by offering a fresh alternative to mainstream education.

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