A soft chuckle ripples across the classroom as the computer in the corner vibrates with laughter. It laughs and laughs. Finally the teacher goes across to investigate: a student checking his email has inadvertently opened a sound file. At Brisbane's Calamvale community college, the students are supposed to check their emails up to three times a day. It's not a paperless environment but technology is an integral part of the curriculum. And with one computer for every five students, it is possible.
The classrooms look traditional: paraphernalia hangs from the ceiling, art is pasted on windows, ditties about vowels on walls. But inside these "pods" - as the 16 groups of four classrooms are known - a learning revolution is happening.
Calamvale - with 1,500 students in Queensland's fast-growing south-east corner - is one of 59 state schools trying the New Basics curriculum. The trials began in 2001 and will be reviewed at the end of this year. It came on the tail of a 1999 Queensland study of more than 1,000 classrooms that found "dumbing down" in the upper primary and middle years. An important aim was to lift the academic bar.
Its creator was Professor Allan Luke, academic, bureaucrat and head of a new S$49m (pound;17M) education research centre in Singapore. He will help spearhead school reforms in the island state with a view to creating a prototype for all of Asia.
"Like all reforms, there was a rush of innovation and energy in 2001-2002," the charismatic Professor Luke says of the Queensland experiment. "And in the past year and a half the sobering demands of having to pull this off have kind of settled in on people. Some schools (with New Basics) are doing great and some are struggling. And I think the issues that we're struggling with are the very ones that need to be addressed on an international scale."
He cites the balance between traditional discipline knowledge and multi-disciplinary knowledge, teacher preparation and teaching higher-order and critical thinking.
But Calamvale is unlike other Queensland schools piloting New Basics. It was built last year on a greenfield site and was designed around the new curriculum. The principal, Sue Bremner, admits the school has gone "way out on a limb". It has been through two change-managements: one was altering the culture within the traditional primary school next door that was demolished to make way for the new college and where 80 per cent of the teachers, called "facilitators", came from; the other was building a middle-school culture.
Calamvale went out of its way to recruit innovative people, she says. And from the outset, conferences and focus groups were held with parents to see what learning outcomes they wanted. Their views fitted closely with New Basics.
Professor Luke says the programme draws together innovations, not so much curriculum reform as "systematic renewal around pedagogy" to move schools forward. Its central tenets buck international trends: it asks teachers to do fewer things but in more depth; it tries to unload an overcrowded curriculum; it creates new forms of assessment around "rich tasks" where students conduct real tasks such as multi-media displays, organising conferences or designing buildings. One task expected Year 9 pupils to design an outdoor eatery in a tropical school in line with Parents and Citizens Association specifications, building codes, budget limits and flooring and ventilation needs. Pupils researched climactic, ergonomic and environmental factors, conducted a site analysis, built a model and then the association built it.
They carry out five rich tasks in Years 1-3, seven in years 4-6 and eight in Years 7-9. The programme will be extended to the exam Years 10-12, which parents are sensitive about.
The aim is to increase intellectual rigour across disciplines. It promotes individual learning and responsibility for such. Specifically it sets out to prepare students for the new world of complex cultures, for a knowledge economy, and for jobs that do not yet exist.
The middle-school students clustered around some boulders in the garden at Calamvale are keen to talk about their new learning experience. There is a sense of excitement about being part of a ground-breaking venture.
They have come from traditional schools but say they would rather be at Calamvale. Asked what is special, they immediately say "Mayop". The new jargon at Calamvale means you can Move At Your Own Pace.
In the staffroom, the positive response is similar from teachers - sorry, "facilitators". They admit it has been a cultural shift - working closely in teams, moving away from the mentality of stacking the curriculum. One of the hardest things has been to let go of their own content areas.
One teacher, Nicky Hozack, says that while the job is demanding, it is much more satisfying and she expects it will become easier as teachers get used to New Basics. "We are starting to work smarter, not harder," she says.
The centrepiece of New Basics is the rich tasks. They are moderated externally against state-wide standards marked by their own teachers . A rich task could cover web page design, a multi-media presentation on an endangered plant or animal, international trade, a personal health plan, or staging a conference on science and ethics .
Under these umbrellas, students learn core skills and others. For example, in science and ethics, they will target skills such as the etiquette of formal correspondence, the protocols of introduction, focused research and analytical skills, time management, understanding chemical and biological structures and systems, ethical questions and principles.
Of 38 schools in the first phase of the trial, most have not had the opportunity of Calamvale to implement it from the ground up. And some are still clinging to tradition.
At Mackay state high school in central Queensland, students still have a set timetable and move from class to class. But the principal, Ed Bray, is convinced students are better off. "They are thinking more," he says, "they can process, they are more independent learners and therefore they can see connections between things."
Professor Luke says it is about "out-of-the-box" thinking, about the skill sets, knowledge and professional expertise for 2010. It is trying to challenge students in new areas such as biosciences, ecological issues, more complex maths and engineering principles at an early age.
He says when he began he was warned that teachers would try to scuttle it.
He knew teachers everywhere resisted curriculum reform because they saw it as more work. So he cut straight to the chase - their core business: teaching.
"If you go to teachers and talk about pedagogy, teaching, instruction, they're ready to talk, they're ready to do in-service, they're ready to reform, they'll stay after school and work. And when we did that we found the point where we could work together."
Back at Calamvale, the junior school principal says she's off to wallaby pod to watch some students perform. It is not a Rolf Harris song: all the pods are named after plants or animals. Ppossums (pre-school) is about to break for lunch. Eucalyptus is heading back after their break.
Was that a kookaburra laughing?
HOW PRINCIPALS CAN STAY IN TOUCH
* The International Confederation of Principals holds a world convention every two years, the only platform for headteachers from across the globe to meet and discuss their profession and its development. It also has contact details of its member principals' associations in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ghana, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Lesotho, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States and Zimbabwe: www.icponline.org
* The European Secondary Heads' Association co-operates with European universities in their in-service training programmes for principals and promotes international exchanges of heads and deputy heads:http:eunbrux02.eun.orgsites esha.orgindex.htm
* In the UK both the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association have international committees that track global education and leadership issues and have links with other organisations abroad:www.naht. org.uklibrary www.sha.org.uk
WHEN CURRICULA CROSS BOUNDARIES
* The Consortium of Institutions for Development and Research in Education in Europe is a network of national educational bodies involved in curriculum development andor educational research. Its collaborative projects include delivery of cross-curricular themes to schools; teaching English in primary education; and student monitoring systems for socially excluded children in primary education: www.cidree.org
* European Schoolnet is a partnership of more than 20 European ministries of education that provides insight into the educational use of ICT: http:eunbrux02.eun.orgportalindex-en.cfm
* The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), a research institution for England and Wales, contributes to international educational development by seeking projects and consultancies with an international dimension and sharing expertise with other countries: www.nfer.ac.uk. l The NFER also runs eurydice, an information network on education systems across the UK and Europe: www.nfer.ac.ukeurydice.
* NFER has developed an international review of curriculum and assessment frameworks in 18 countries, known as Inca: www.inca.org.uk
* The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement carries out cross-national comparative surveys. www.iea.nl.
These include Timss, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (http:timss. bc.edu) and Pirls, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (http:timss.bc.edu PIRLS2001.html). The IEA also carries out comparisions on information technology in education and citizenship education.