I have an admission to make. I cannot remember many of my classes at school. Especially when I was in the middle years. That might seem an odd thing for a person in my position, a school Principal, to say but, I have a hunch that many adults have similar blurry spaces in your memories of school.
What I do recall vividly are great learning experiences that stepped outside the norm. In year 7, I co-wrote and produced a play for English. We were allowed to sit outside in our groups, to write and perform. As a Year 11 Biology student I went on a field trip to an uninhabited island in Bass Strait. We surveyed organisms on the beach and discovered a new species of shellfish. Then we were invited into the depths of the Melbourne Museum to meet the scientists who were classifying it.
What was different about these experiences is that we had a degree of autonomy: we were engaged in activities that produced something of value and we worked collaboratively, supported by our teachers. This is learning where the levels of student engagement are high, and this is the kind of learning that we need to identify and scale up in our practice.
This year my school has joined a nationwide project – Learning Frontiers – that is being conducted by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership in collaboration with the UK based Innovation Unit. The aim is to help schools to co-design professional practices to increase student engagement in learning that use the design principles of co-creation, personalisation, connectedness and integration. One of the great aspects of the project is that it crosses all sectors: Government, Catholic and independent.
Why do we think this work is so important?
Well we think the key to improving quality teaching and learning is to understand what it is that switches students onto learning. And we think it matters that a significant minority (26%) of students taking the research survey at our school agreed with the statement that “At school I spend a lot of time pretending to pay attention.”
Learning is at the centre of all that we do and the transformation of the culture of the school to one where we are a community of learners, students and teachers alike, is essential.