Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New Era in Learning?

I've just returned from a trip to Melbourne where I had the opportunity to visit a couple of Victoria's outstanding schools, Manor Lakes (P--12) and Silverton Primary.
While I've already Blogged about Silverton, Manor Lakes offers a slightly different approach and context.  The School is a P--12 (only P-7 at the moment) with a special education (specialist) unit that assists students with learning and physical disabilities. 
Jason Smallwood, the Principal, organised for Corrie Barclay, a teacher and ICT mentor, to show me around for the morning.
The school is new and has been open less than a year.  There is still a significant amount of construction still underway on the campus.  The school has 76% of its students in the bottom quartile of the SES index and none in the top quartile.  The school has also become popular choice for parents of students who have had difficulties at other schools.
The classroom design is less open plan than Silverton, but the building design allows classrooms to be opened up with each other and there are breakout areas as well.  Each student is supplied with a Mac iBook laptop and there are significant amounts of additional wireless connected devices available to students as well.  The school is currently taking part in an iPad trial and the students seem to have taken to these devices with eagerness from what I observed.

One of the classrooms I visited had its wall opened up so that two classrooms were joined, although the classes were operating separately.  One teacher was involved in some explicit teaching regarding the writing of persuasive text while the other class were working autonomously with their peers.  iPads were being used by both classes and the students were all on task and engaged.  When I spoke to some of then students, they were easily able to explain what they were doing and why.  Again, as with the Silverton classrooms, there was a quiet hum from students who were working together and on task.

As with Silverton, the students had easy access to a wide range of Web 2.0 tools that are not available to students in public schools in some other states of Australia.  Cyber safety is taken very seriously with students provided with intensive explicit instruction and training right from the beginning of their school experience.  All students and parents sign contracts that explain the required code of conduct. Breaches of Web safety are treated as a behaviour management issue with a number of levels that allow for an escalation of consequences.

While the Manor Lakes NAPLAN performance is not good, it is early days for this school with  the likes of Silverton having some 18 odd years to innovate and adapt their approach.

The Victorian approach to P-12 education is interesting in that there is a great deal of flexibility for regions to operate and innovate.  The Corio/Norrlane region in Geelong, for example, are in the process of undergoing a Regeneration Project that will result in P--8 as the new primary with years 9--12 as the new secondary.  The Victorian Labour government have made significant amounts of funding available for innovation projects and it is with some trepidation that I see that the State election held last weekend has resulted in the Liberal coalition party wining a majority of the seats and are now set to form government.  Let's hope that the devastation in education caused by the previous Victorian coalition government does not occur again!!

So, back to the title of this posting, what are the characteristics for a new era of learning?
  1. Engaged students (adequately supported with ubiquitous technology) with improved behaviour enjoying and being challenged at school. 
  2. Peer mentored/coached teachers who enjoy their work because they are planning and supporting learning rather than managing poor behaviour.
  3. Learning that is transdisciplinary with authentic contexts.
  4. Learning that is meaningful and with outcomes that are valued in the "real world".
Having had the opportunity to meet and speak with some outstanding Principals and a regional coordinator,  I asked them where they saw the most pressing need for improvement in the Public education system.  There were strong suggestions regarding the need for teacher education to catch up with the innovations currently occurring in some schools and to restructure their Programs to better meet the needs of modern schooling and 21st Century students.  While schools can and do develop teachers after they graduate, it would be easier for them if there was less unlearning required.
This is a challenge to all Australian universities and pre-service teacher programs, including my own institution.

Many thanks to my Victorian colleagues who took time out of their busy days to chat and show me around.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Innovative Schools that Engage

I'm currently in Melbourne to deliver the final report of a study focusing on a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) initiative that began about five years ago in three Geelong Schools.  While the findings are interesting, I've also had the opportunity to visit Silverton Primary School in Nobel Park, Melbourne and chat with the Principal Tony Bryant.
Silverton is not your ordinary primary school, its classrooms are large open plan spaces with a wide range of technology spread across the room for students to choose from.  ipads, itouchs, notebooks, laptops, desktop machines, electronic microscopes and much more. The whole campus is wireless accessible with fast router/switches enabling rapid communication between devices and the schools computing backbone.
Most classrooms have over 100 students working and learning in the same space with teachers dispersed amongst the students for support and explicit teaching where it is required.  Despite the number of students, there is little more than an audible hum as students work individually, in pairs, in small groups and in teacher-centred activities.  These kids are ENGAGED and it shows.  They all undertake authentic project work of their own choice and negotiated with the teachers. 
From Prep, students are taught how to inquire and discover--their curiosity is encouraged and fostered. They are also taught how to work together in teams and this sets the stage for the latter part of their primary school years.
Remarkably, this school is not a private school set in the leafy affluent suburbs of Melbourne with students from well to do parents.  This school draws 68% of its students from the bottom quartile based on Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) and is a public school funded by the Victorian government. Only 2% of its students are from the top quartile of parents.

The Principal Tony Bryant explains that the students are pre-tested in areas of literacy, numeracy and key learning areas to determine their needs and have individual learning plans negotiated for each student.  The students are partners in the process and see the testing as a way of identifying their own needs.  Regular post-testing is also used to measure and determine if the agreed outcomes have been met.

Key to the success of this school is the students ability to negotiate their own authentic projects such as radio and TV programs.  Each project is completed by a presentation to the target audience who have the ability to provide formative feedback.  Often the audience is other student groups, parents and outside organisations.  While I was at the school two grade 6 students described how they were planning an open day for the school to showcase to other students across the State just how their school works.  They had convinced Peters Ice Cream and a local grocer to donate substantial amounts of food that would be consumed on the open day.  While a teacher was on hand to help with any problem-solving, she was only at the periphery of the project--the students were making the big decisions.  This approach typifies the schools approach to learning where the students are full partners in the decision-making that occurs with their learning.
And it works, true student-centred learning environments with authentic projects and highly engaged learners who have strong NAPLAN results.

Tony indicated that there were few incidences of poor behaviour in any of their classrooms. I'm sure that this would mystify many teachers who have taught in low SES schools!

New teachers to the school are allocated mentors who induct them with regard to the school's methodology and ensure that the teachers are properly supported throughout the process.

Additionally, the school regularly surveys its students, parents and teachers across a wide range of issues and variables.  The survey data show strong student, teacher and parent satisfaction all well into the top quartile possible.

So what are the implications here? 
  1. These students were engaged and required very little intervention from teachers to remain on task--I was there for most of the morning and saw no instances of students straying from task.
  2. This model would work well in high school as teachers from a range of disciplines could be present at the same time in such a large learning space. This would mean that integrated curricula could work with flexibility for staff and students.
  3. Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) were being created with students storing their work in eportfolios and demonstrating how the students have accomplished their own personal learning goals.  
  4. One of my main reservations to the notion of PLEs in a school environment was the maturity of the students to make informed decisions about their own learning--I may need to re-think these reservations because if this works with early childhood students, the chances are that it will work with high school students!!
If you are in Melbourne and can make it out to this school I would strongly suggest that you contact the Principal and organise a tour--very impressive indeed.