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.

1 comment:

VRBones said...

Wow, that sounds very encouraging. I, too, was wondering about what the minimum level of development is needed for appropriate self-reflection and self-directed learning to kick in.

If you're still down there, here's some other questions I'd like to know:
- How much time (both student and teacher %) is used up in formulating and negotiating projects?
- Are there still cohort boundaries?
- How much of an impact is the 100+ student spaces? Can the same principals be largely applied in an existing school with rooms for ~30?
- is there any collaboration with other schools?
- Are the projects negotiated over outcomes aligned to the curriculum, or to generic skills?
- Does this model live an die on teacher buy-in?
- And lastly, any challenges they see in this type of system being rolled out across a larger sector?