How VERSO uses human-centred design to place students at the centre of their own learning
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How VERSO uses human-centred design to place students at the centre of their own learning

How VERSO uses human-centred design to place students at the centre of their own learning

Nearly 30 years ago, a young teacher with a zeal for his vocation arrived in Hong Kong, from Perth in Scotland, to embark on a career that saw him move from adult learning centres to working at local primary schools before landing a role at the American International School (AIS) in Hong Kong. Here, Cameron Fox swiftly climbed the ladder to become a very young Head of School.

 Fast forward 19 years and Cameron Fox is a fixture on Hong Kong’s international school landscape. Respected and admired for his abundance of energy and passion for the potential of his students, Fox was a natural choice for Founding Head of School when the owners of AIS floated the idea of opening a game-changing school in one of the most competitive education markets in the world, Bangkok.

You might think it would be plain sailing for an established international school like AIS, with their extensive expertise, to raise funds and set up the best school possible and be successful. And, to some extent, this was the case. However following a triumphant presentation to investors, Cameron felt something was wrong.

Cameron Fox, Founding Head of School

“Everyone said, ‘Yeah, well done. Great. This sounds good. We’re going to go forward.’ But when I flew home to Hong Kong that night, I was crushed. I felt really unhappy because when I thought about what we had done, everything that we had presented was just cherry-picking from the schools that we were already involved in and we hadn’t been able to think differently. It was a lost opportunity.” 

Fast forward again and Cameron is holding court in the Singapore offices of innovative design firm IDEO, a company that uses the concept of human-centred design to drive ingenious, practical solutions involving the human perspective at all steps of the problem-solving process. In less than five minutes after his arrival, the whole IDEO team had gathered around Fox, intrigued by his request: “We’ve got this idea for a new international school. Would you like to help us imagine it?”

“Everyone was very excited and could see the huge potential and impact of our school and what it could lead to.”

“With IDEO on board, we went through their design process, which first meant 16 weeks on the road touring the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, and of course, Bangkok, to visit innovative schools and meet leading educators and intellectuals challenging some of the traditional thinking around schools.” 

“After completing this deep dive into education, we defined what we thought the problems with traditional modes of learning were. We then built some prototypes of what schools could look like and tested them with families here, in Bangkok. Using their feedback we were able to narrow it down until we had our deliverable, our vision for VERSO.” 

What is VERSO offering that is unique?

 “We spoke to the students, teachers and parents, about what they consider the great things about international schools in Bangkok and, crucially, what were the things they could do better? This question allowed us to see the possibilities of the school and learning. That’s human-centred design, which is the DNA of the school.”

“VERSO was built from the ground up, using information we gleaned from listening to what people in Bangkok, specifically, wanted and needed. That’s what makes us completely unique from any other international school here.”

 “Another unique piece of our school is that the role of the teacher has been changed, and we now call ourselves ‘learning designers’. When we worked with IDEO, we saw upfront how incredible the design teams were. They may be a very diverse group of people but, by using a common methodology, they were able to use all of their disparate talents to solve a problem.”

“If you create an environment where you have learning design teams in play, that’s very powerful for children. Imagine sitting at a table with three other people, one is a jazz musician, one is a former restaurateur and one is a physicist – can you imagine what kind of projects you can come up with, with those people helping you? That’s what we want.”

This academic year sees VERSO launch a new high school programme. What can parents and students expect to see?

“The high school is being launched this year and we are very excited about it.”

“We want students who come to the school to have an authentic experience. Now, what does that mean? It means that the learning that they do is purposeful, there’s meaning to it, it’s engaging and allows them to go deeper, rather than just doing very surface level, narrow-focus, traditional content. We won’t be teaching single subjects in silos. For example, a student’s schedule will not have a maths class followed by a geography class followed by an economics class. What we have is something that we call ‘Learning Lab’. These are interdisciplinary courses, where the students will work on projects using multiple disciplines. This is a way to trigger a student’s interest and curiosity to stimulate learning. Ultimately, it’s about the students leading their own journey.”

How is VERSO preparing its students for the future and entering the 21st century workforce?

“We discovered in our research that international schools tend to create an isolated bubble where the pupils exist. We saw that there is a need to pop that bubble and connect and grow with the community that you’re located in. This means many things, it means our student body will connect with local organisations, entrepreneurs, start-ups and established companies in the community.”

 “Moreover, VERSO will equip them with the skills to be able to go out and meet local people to build and develop meaningful connections – whether that’s through language, strategy or behaviour, they’re going to be empowered to connect. The third piece is that all of that leads to a kind of confidence and the confidence that we want in this school is that our young learners know the journey that they want to take.”

“VERSO creates a school experience that not only provides the qualifications needed for success but also prepares you to pursue the path that you created and want to travel on. Our students will enter the workforce as full well-rounded young-adults as agile, creative problem solvers, primed for life in the 21st century – empowered to set and achieve their ambitions on their own terms.”

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