On May 12th I was fortunate enough to be able to join other Principals from the Canterbury/ West Coast region on a three day tour of Melbourne schools.
It was a busy and fascinating three day whirlwind and I thank the Ministry of Education and Neil Wilkinson [and others] for the support and organisation that went into this very worthwhile educational tour.
What follows are my reflections of what I saw. It is always important to note that my viewpoint is coloured by my own context as Principal at Rolleston College and what I focused on were the aspects of the schools we visited that were relevant to that context.
In the same way what is always apparent when one visits other schools is the importance of placing their work in the context of their environment and history. It would be a mistake to try and find solutions for one school by looking at another school but we can all learn from each-other and take away provocations and concepts from any interaction that are able to inform developments in the schools we come from.
As a result these reflections are a little random as I am not trying to find any overarching practices but rather note down what I was able to take away for each of the schools.
Taylors Lakes Secondary School.
Our first school was a co-ed secondary school of 1450 students. It was 25 years old.
Their big initiative was in the field of developing student leadership and trying to get more students involved in leadership roles. They had introduced a number of student leadership roles to make sure that they had at least 12 student leaders at each year level.
They had a well developed e -learning programme to ensure that the students were keeping themselves safe in a school that was encouraging the use of devices. The key phrase that they used was the desire to ‘enable not disable’ learning.
They had also developed their version of continuous reporting where families were informed of progress at regular intervals [electronically]. Communication with their community was seen as being of high importance.
The school was largely built with traditional classrooms and they did teach largely in domains but they did have at least one very large learning space with breakout spaces attached. This was where Maths and English [including the reading programme] was delivered to a large number of the junior learners on a rotating basis.
I was able to visit their integrated learning programme. This was a group of advanced 13 year olds who were doing their Humanities /English /Maths and Science learning in an integrated programme around a problem. The particular problem they were wrestling with was concerned with an imagined outbreak of a new plague /virus in Australia. It was great talking to these engaged learners wrestling with this problem, they could easily articulate their learning and seemed to be very motivated.
Other features that the Senior Leadership team emphasised were the importance of learners celebrating their learning and the importance of individual student accountability which included seeing assessment as a vehicle for student growth rather than just an end point.
All of the schools we visited were obviously being highly influenced by the research of John Hattie and using data and evidence to drive decision making.
Talking of John Hattie…
The afternoon was spent with John Hattie as he outlined what research he has been carrying out since he has been working at Melbourne University.
Always a direct speaker I will refrain from detailing some of his more colourful assumptions and concentrate on his research.
He did emphasise the importance of teachers and how we undersell ourselves. In particular he detailed how we can encourage real student development. His key ideas included;
- The need to welcome errors and develop trust in our schools [for everyone].
- The need to work together to evaluate impact. Quite some time was spent on detailing the work of Victoria’s version of COL’s that have been going for a number of years now. All the schools visited were part of this initiative coordinated by the University.
- The importance of giving feedback to teachers about their impact and how this needs to be evidence based.
- The value of focusing on e -learning
- The value of the ‘Goldilocks Principal’ in the tasks we presented our learners. Tasks that were not too easy nor were they too hard but they were just right.
One of the more worrying recent pieces of data to come out of the UK was that teachers in any lesson spend up to 89% of the lesson time talking. This was presented as something that was the norm and Hattie went on to say that most teachers do not know just how much time they spend talking.
He also explained recent research around maths skills and employment. Obviously a learner who has high maths skills will get higher paid and ‘better’ jobs than a person with low maths skills. But a learner with high maths skills and high social skills [cooperation/ communication etc] was even more desirable, employable and sought after. The inverse was obviously also apparent.
What was interesting was that research showed that between these two extremes [high maths and social skills at one end and low maths and social skills at the other] it was seen that a person with high social skills but lower maths skills was more employable/ desirable and in demand that a person with high maths skills but low social skills.
His point was that both areas need to be developed together and in unison to maximise student development and future opportunities.
Whilst he said that we need to value teachers more he also emphasised that as teachers we need to know our impact. This demand was very apparent in all of the schools we visited.
He went on to say that the most valid question to ask a student at any school is;
“What does it mean to be a good learner at this school?”
This relates to the importance he sees in gaining student voice. He also saw as important the creation of artefacts, tangible evidence of authentic learning and that learning is not just limited to knowing lots of stuff.
This does not detract from the importance we have as educators of ensuring that we re evidence driven, that we are gaining evidence of our impact and carefully analysing this evidence and having appropriate structures in place to enhance all that we do and are striving to do.
Caroline Chisholm Catholic College.
To say that the buildings at this school were impressive would be a massive understatement. Despite the fact that is served a low socio- economic area the school was visually spectacular. The photo above is of the corridor in the Science area.
The big push here was in the marketing and articulation of the values that were driving the school. These were very overt and based around 4 key words [FACE, faith, compassion, acceptance and excellence].
The school roll was 40 % Vietnamese and there was a push towards knowing their learners well and building relationships. It was a shame that we didn’t get a chance to interact with many of the learners. In fact this was a general feature, mainly because we were trying to visit as many schools possible sop there was not a lot of time for casual and informal chats with students.
They [the school leadership and communications manager]defined quite explicitly the features of what the school considered to be a good teacher.
They also explained that there was a high degree of student choice and an inquiry based approach to learning in the junior school but we did not have the opportunity to observe this.
This school was basing quite a bit of its initiatives not only on Hattie but also the work of Australian academic Simon Breakspear.
For example they detailed the importance of reducing the grain size. Instead of trying to move or understand the boulder [as teachers or students] we need to break it down to pebbles and even down to sand. in other words build the big picture through understanding the component small pictures.
Another memorable concept was Breakspear’s comments about the importance of starting small, learning to fail fast and failing well.
They presented a very cohesive and comprehensive outline of how they are working in teaching teams and as learning teams to lift learner outcomes.
They were also clear about the need to mix the gaining of key competencies with the developing and protecting student well being. They were both important and needed to be developed alongside each other.
They [the staff who spoke to us] see school as consisting of teams of teams and they were driving towards working as a team not just in a team.
They were delivering project based learning but via traditional domains for the main part.
Like all the schools we visited they were rigorously interpreting their data to inform decisions and measure impact.
It seemed they were heavily research based. One of the quotes they used that struck a chord was,
“we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” [John Dewey]
Kambrya has become quite well known in Australia recently and was the subject of aeries of documentaries for the way it has turned itself around from struggling school to a highly effective one.
They have been on a journey of improvement since 2008. The school started in 2002 and initially grew very quickly, it has a current role of 1400.
During their rapid growth some of their structures and processes failed to keep up and this led to some problems that need addressing.
To redress this decline they concentrated n strong and stable leadership, teacher efficacy, high expectations of all, role clarity [for everyone and deliberate capacity building.
They practised model of instruction that involved specif guidelines to lesson planning based on getting started, visible learning and reviewing learning.
They also worked at developing an orderly environment and placing their focus on what mattered most. This was the school that most obviously were reacting to a specific context and much of what they had developed was to improve the learning outcomes within their specific environment.
They had the longest lessons of all schools visited [110 minutes] most school were around the 80 minute mark for a lesson.
Again there was a strong emphasise on knowing their impact through the interrogation of evidence. To put it another way;
how do you know, as a teacher, what your impact is?
Mc Clelland College
This was the last school I visited. It was a school that tended to take the students that other schools had turned their backs on. As a result they had a flexible and adaptable approach.
They had more flexible learning spaces and delivered learning in a variety of class sizes and in a variety of environment. The picture below is the classroom for their most challenging and challenged learners.
The learners here seemed to have a bit more energy and life than many of the previous schools. They were also heavily into measuring growth and we were shown how this takes place within the delivery of maths.
What was apparent here was the ability to deliver a personalised approach to learning within an orderly environment.
Overall take away from the three days were:
1. Interrogate the data to inform decision making.
2. The need for high levels of accountability [teachers and students alike]
3. The need to identify and address the specific needs of the learners and the context within which each individual school exists
4. The need to address how devices and technology is utilised to enhance learning.
5. The importance of communication.
Yes it was busy and tiring but also fun, as all learning should be.