7 years young and the fun is just beginning

On The Mind Lab’s 7th birthday we’ve been reflecting on what it felt like to be 7 years old. We all agreed that 7 was a year of joyous risk-taking, discovery and curiosity; sounds about right…

On the 23rd of September 2013, The Mind Lab opened its doors. Originally, it was a space for children to engage in a different type of learning experience, putting problem-solving at the heart of it all. 

Our founder, Frances Valintine, saw outdated and static systems in education hampering our children’s ability to thrive in an increasingly flexible and digital world. 

“I witnessed my own children, while they were getting a good education for the fundamentals, there was zero collaboration and very little education on how technology works. The only way I could influence things was to work outside the system, to actually create my view of what education could be.”

School children of 5 to 17 years came into the Lab and were challenged to solve problems, collaborate, innovate, create, fail and build resilience using tech such as robotics, electronics, animation, coding or stop motion. The premise was that children naturally problem-solve collectively and are way more innovative, resilient and creative than we give them credit for. We are yet to see anything to the contrary.

Looking back over the past 7 years, that model of daring to do things differently, creating a safe space for groups to collaborate, giving them tools and allowing them to problem-solve, is the same model that we continue to use to this very day. 

The Mind Lab’s success is due to the success of our students. Programmes are created by people witnessing and experiencing the joyous transformation of fun and relevant learning and wanting not only to share it, but to continue the journey. In the beginning, teachers witnessed their students “switching on” and engaging with learning in our children’s programme and wanted to be a part of that transformation. 

Six months into the establishment of the children’s programme, the Postgraduate Certificate in Digital and Collaborative Learning (DCL) was born in partnership with Unitec – to teach digital skills, leadership and collaboration to teachers. 

Frances fondly reflects on the moment when she realised the importance of empowering teachers with 21st Century skills.

“We had four weeks to market the programme before it started; we were expecting to get around 20 teachers, and 120 people signed up. At that point we realised that there are teachers out there who are amazing examples of incredible professionals who want to bring the very best of themselves to the classroom to enable their kids to do great things.

The Mind Lab’s journey is inextricably linked with like-minded impact-makers. 

“If you’re going to be as bold as to say ‘we’re going to transform education’, you have to be open to knowing that you can’t do it on your own,” comments our General Manager, Fiona (Fee) Webby.

Back in 2013, Gisborne came a close second to Dunedin in the ‘Gigatown’ campaign to get fast broadband into a New Zealand city. Although Gisborne did not win the campaign, the city was able to realise its dream of inspiring teachers and students as a result of our partnership with the Eastern Community Trust.

In 2015, The Mind Lab opened on the Esplanade with a wonderfully bright, creative space for children and teachers to be inspired through creative technologies and new ways of learning. Over the four year partnership, thousands of children came through the Lab (many of them on multiple occasions) and hundreds of teachers upskilled in the 9 month DCL programme. 

The NEXT Foundation has also been a phenomenal partner of The Mind Lab; we could not go a moment further without acknowledging the incredible support and commitment of Neal and Annette Plowman who have been instrumental in changing the face of education in New Zealand.

Through our partnership with the NEXT Foundation, we were able to offer 1,000 scholarships a year to state school educators on our postgrad programme. The NEXT Foundation gave us the ability to ensure the programme could reach educators all over the country and we expanded from Kaitaia to Invercargill, from Wairoa to New Plymouth and everything in between.

Soon, we had taught over 4,000 educators in over 100 locations throughout Aotearoa. The NEXT Foundation was instrumental in supporting us as we took our first big strides.

One of the many locations we expanded our Postgraduate Programme to was Rotorua. Again, we could not have got there without the NEXT Foundation. They introduced us to Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru Education Trust who set about creating Rotorua as a place of future- focused learning.

This early partnership in 2015 meant we were able to look at an innovative business model to ensure we could reach educators outside of our main labs of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Gisborne. With innovative thinking from our board, we set up and delivered DCL by using redundant spaces after the school bell rang at 4pm. We soon transformed libraries into innovative teaching spaces where educators from all local schools came to learn between 4-8pm. This was an incredibly successful arrangement and this collaboration has resulted in Rotorua being massively upskilled in digital capabilities.  

Inspiring outcomes spread fast and by the end of 2015, professional teachers all across New Zealand were able to tap into some of the best professional development available.

Soon we were seeing educators, many of whom hadn’t studied for over 30 years were getting excited about teaching and learning again. And, because of the practical, hands-on nature of the programme, they were able to test their learnings in their classrooms the very next day. 

And they were able to do it within their own communities, collaborating on and solving their own local challenges.

2016 to 2018 was a time of smashing milestones: The Mind Lab launched in over 100 locations across the country, and at peak we had 423 students in a single intake. DCL became the largest postgrad programme in New Zealand. 

“Basically, we were on the road almost every day of the week,” comments Fee, “while we were visiting satellite labs, we were also setting up new spaces and creating new partnerships with schools all over Aotearoa.”

At four years old we had the confidence and enough coordination and experience to try new things and explore our independence.

As digital capacity and broadband became more accessible throughout the country, Mind Lab Kids went online in April 2017. Our dream was to recreate the experience that kids on our children’s programmes were having, and sharing that online with every child in New Zealand. Our vision to allow kids to create, innovate and share within a safe, educational online environment was born and we haven’t looked back. 

Next up was the opportunity to focus on the teaching shortage in New Zealand, ensuring high impact in low decile schools. In November 2017 we partnered with Ako Mātātupu/Teach First NZ to support Initial Teacher Education with our two year, practice based Master of Teaching and Education Leadership (MTEL) Programme

Then digital learning truly came into the spotlight. The Ministry of Education launched the Digital Technologies | Hangarau Matihiko curriculum in December 2017. The Mind Lab stepped up to help our educators make sense of this curriculum with Digital Passport, supplying easily digestible information and practical examples in a fun, video based platform.

To date, over 12,000 teachers have achieved their ‘digital passport’.

In 2018, at 5 years old, we launched the Masters of Contemporary Education (MCE) in response to teachers wanting more after their journey with us on our Digital & Collaborative Learning programme. This Masters programme is all about unpacking leadership, and using your position – whatever it may be – to make a positive impact. The programme is practical and educators focus on a change project that is contextualised to their environment. 

2018 also saw us step up to become a Private Training Establishment (PTE) We grew up fast and then took a look around at the rest of the playing field, recognising skills gaps all around us and the many opportunities to transform and innovate learning. We were fast identifying where our value lay outside the classroom.

Digital Skills for the Workplace launched in January 2020 for small businesses, business professionals, and anyone needing the confidence to navigate online. Little did we know the desperate need for this programme a mere two months later. From February to the end of 2020, this programme will have single handedly upskilled 400 kiwis. 

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The Mind Lab @ MOTAT (our childrens’ face to face location in Auckland) was a victim of COVID. This model was the very first iteration of The Mind Lab and we were heartbroken to have to close its doors. The silver lining is that the experience lives on in Mind Lab Kids, which partnered with Genesis School-gen during lockdown and currently has over 10,000 subscribers. This disruption sadly marked the end of our childhood. 

We tackled the tricky navigation of leaving school, what to study and being world ready with HeyFuture! in July 2020. This was a very different programme, created with no blueprint except a heartfelt belief that this support was desperately needed amongst 18 to 22 year olds. When we doubted ourselves, we went back to our roots of ‘daring to do things differently, creating a safe space for groups to collaborate, giving them tools and allowing them to problem-solve’. It was incredibly successful and is a big heart project for all involved. 

It’s fitting and serendipitous that our newest postgraduate certificate in Leading Change for Good, started two weeks ago, exactly 7 years from our beginning. My how we’ve grown! Leading Change gives passionate kiwis the skills, support and education to step up and make an impact in their community or organisation. 

It’s been amazing having the time to take a breath and reflect on our journey; but we’re only 7 and there’s so much more ahead of us than there is behind us. It’s such fun looking at the characteristics of a 7 year old and our parallels; a typical 7 year old:

  • has an unending thirst for knowledge
  • has an innate curiosity and excitement about things in the world
  • is a natural explorer, scientist, and analyst, often asking questions about everything

It’s worth mentioning that our Founder, Frances Valintine, adds that it is also at 7 that kids start to get really mischievous – looks like we’ve got an exciting year ahead!

Our incredible 7 years are first and foremost thanks to our children, who remain our inspiration and who proved us right; also to our teachers who have wholeheartedly embraced learning and doing things differently.

Thank you to our incredible partners who committed so deeply to a shared vision and to our staff who are just as committed to the same vision.  

Journeys are best experienced together – here’s to dreams, aspirations and daring to do things differently in the years ahead.

Happy Birthday to all of us.

Some of The Mind Lab & Tech Futures Lab team at the Auckland office
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