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.

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