Innovation and excellence: re-energising education for today’s world
The WITS cluster comprises four schools in the Werribee area in Melbourne’s south-west: Werribee Primary School, Iramoo Primary School, Thomas Chirnside Primary School and Werribee Secondary College. Serving similar socioeconomic communities and pursuing common goals, the cluster schools believe in working together to attain benefits that could not be realised independently. In 2005 the cluster won a grant under the Australian Government’s Australian School Innovation in Science, Technology and Mathematics (ASISTM) Project, to implement a collaborative cluster project called ‘WITS Way to New Learning’.
The schools’ foremost aim with regard to the project was to enhance the social and intellectual engagement and academic performance of their students. At the same time, they set out to generate professional learning and build positive relationships between teachers in the cluster through classroom research and professional dialogue. The project also sought to establish mutually beneficial partnerships between the schools and community and business organisations to foster a culture in the wider community which values education.
Preparing for take-off
The cluster used an evidence-based approach to identifying core issues to address. The schools gathered data from student assessments, attendance records and annual student surveys to determine broad areas of need. They also undertook targeted surveys of teachers, students and local employers, as well as teacher interviews, to inform the specific design of the WITS project. The cluster drew on contemporary research and best practice in relevant areas to support the data collected by schools. Mathematics and Numeracy, and Improving Teaching and Learning, emerged as priority areas for development.
The project’s management structure was an essential element of its success. A cluster management team was established to oversee the project and provide professional learning support. Coordinated by the Cluster Leader, this team also comprised the Principal and Assistant Principal from each school to ensure that all cluster schools would have ongoing involvement in the project’s management.
While leadership of the project resided in the schools, the team also enlisted support from experts beyond the cluster. The project has received invaluable assistance from their university-based Critical Friend, Professor Mary Kalantzis, and also received input from Dr Robert Marzano, a US-based expert in long-term school reform, via an international telephone link. The innovative use of external expertise challenged and provoked the cluster to think and work in new ways.
The cluster established five professional learning teams, consisting of representatives from each school. The schools had previously identified areas in which their teaching practices and their approach to student learning needed improvement, and the learning teams now explored these issues in more depth. The Learning How to Learn team examined the multiple ways in which students acquire knowledge, as articulated in contemporary education programs and research. The Learning How to Be team explored the role of values, relationships, and social competencies in improving academic results, visiting each other’s schools to learn from their different cultures.
Interdisciplinary learning explored multiliteracies, designing and sharing sample units of work and hosting a student forum, to identify effective strategies for building student engagement. The X-Factor team had a specific purpose to ‘think outside the square’. Teachers and students in this team visited schools and workplaces identified as leading innovators, and brought together some unexpected ideas. The ASISTM (Mathematics) leadership group also had a role to play in professional learning, exploring ways to make mathematics learning real for students. This team attended professional learning sessions, undertook professional reading, and trialled and documented maths lessons with their students.
The teams presented their findings to a panel comprising cluster principals, recognised education experts and a range of community personnel in November 2005. The presentation celebrated the efforts of all the teachers and students involved in the project, and aided deeper reflection on the cluster’s discoveries. The inclusion of cluster principals in the subsequent panel discussion ensured that existing school cultures could be recognised and continue to grow and flourish in light of new discoveries.
WITS Keys to Innovation
The first four Learning Teams identified areas of education innovation that the cluster wanted to pursue, to re-energise learning in the schools. These were labelled the WITS Keys to Innovation. They encompassed new approaches to both student learning and teacher professional development.
In terms of student learning, the first innovation is injecting purpose and relevance into learning by tailoring it to students’ individual capabilities and learning styles. The second innovation is the creative and purposeful use of ICT. The third innovation is project-based learning, within and across disciplines, incorporating student initiative and design. The fourth is the use of proven innovative programs such as Tribes® or Why Try® to develop students’ social and emotional capabilities.
The establishment of the Professional Learning Teams was itself one of the keys to innovation for teacher professional development, to foster a professional culture that views teaching as a creative science. Another professional development innovation is narrowing the gap between theory and practice by targeting professional learning to teachers’ own action research. The final key to innovation relates to students and teachers learning together with community members, strengthening partnerships between schools and the wider community.
WITS Keys to Excellence
The fifth Learning Team, the ASISTM leadership group, developed the WITS Keys to Excellence. These describe ‘best practice’ in the classroom that supports the innovations the cluster hope to introduce.
Excellence in the classroom begins with preparing students for learning. It involves setting learning goals for the lesson, and activating students’ prior knowledge through strategic questioning (eg ‘Do you remember ...?’,’What do you know about …?’). It also involves addressing the social skills that students need to participate effectively in the lesson.
Excellence in teaching is reflected in direct, explicit instruction. Thinking aloud and modelling strategies engage teachers and students together in the learning process. Open-ended tasks are used to encourage students to take risks and accept responsibility for their own learning, while effective questioning by the teacher helps students to remain focused on the goals of the lesson. At the end of the lesson, students reflect on and share what they know, related to the learning goals. Exposition of students’ individual perceptions enables learning to be sequenced to cater for individual differences.
The keys to innovation and excellence were brought together into a new approach to learning for the cluster, entitled ISLANDS: Individualised, Supported Learning And Negotiation in Diverse Spaces. While the acronym relates to student learning, ISLANDS is also about teachers exploring the very best of their teaching, and looking for opportunities to transform themselves as they hope to transform their students.
Off and running
Some elements of the ISLANDS approach outlined above have already been implemented successfully in the WITS cluster. The cluster has clarified school values and has developed and documented sample lessons in which the new approach to learning has been embedded. The cluster has devised a draft ‘Digital Learning Journey’, to enable teachers and students to demonstrate their learning in multiple forms and deepen reflection and understanding. School-community relationships have been strengthened through a Community–Business–Education Partnership Forum, hosted by the schools in collaboration with the Wyndham City Council.
However, making the leap from developing an innovative educational approach to implementing changes to teaching practice has proved challenging. Last year was one of both validating project findings from 2005, and discovering what is easy to transform in schools’ practice and what is more confronting. At first, the cluster attempted to write mathematics tasks using the complete ISLANDS approach, but found that the comprehensive nature of the model was initially too much to deal with at once.
A more incremental approach to implementation has since been adopted, with teams established within each school to strategically trial components of the keys to innovation and excellence. A planning tool has been created to help teachers write units of work based on ISLANDS, as well as a Teacher’s Toolbox, consisting of proven strategies for improvement. These resources will assist the gradual implementation of ISLANDS in the cluster schools.
Teachers in the cluster are tracking their progress in applying and understanding the ISLANDS approach by documenting sample lessons, so that further successes and challenges can be recorded as they emerge. The cluster has also engaged Professor Peter Sullivan to continue challenging teachers about how they use the WITS Keys to Excellence to improve student learning. The project period funded by ASISTM will culminate in reflection on the project’s outcomes, and the development of an action plan for ongoing improvement, in consultation with school staff and community members.
Reflections on the journey so far
In the WITS cluster, we believe that we have a model for learning that will improve our students' academic, social and emotional capacities for lifelong and lifewide learning. We have some evidence that this model is working for our students and teachers involved in the ISLANDS for Learning project. The various innovations already implemented, including diverse physical spaces for learning and the dynamic use of school–business–community partnerships, are igniting excitement in the cluster schools. The work has been ground-breaking, challenging and confronting for teachers and students alike; even more so than initially expected.
Leading school improvement is both challenging and rewarding, and the pendulum can swing quickly from excitement to frustration and back again. Those who choose to participate in developing educational innovation and excellence have amazing determination and goodwill when dealing with those teachers and school leaders who have not yet moved beyond comfortable, ‘one size fits all’ traditions. The WITS journey has been designed and enacted by many remarkably capable teachers and school leaders, who are committed to making a difference for the young people in their care, and narrowing the gap between school learning and learning for living in today’s world.
The ISLANDS approach has engaged teachers and students in new ways of thinking that will set them on the path to real improvement. The challenge now is to translate the new theoretical approach developed by the cluster into revitalised practice in the schools. As the WITS cluster reaches the end of its ASISTM funding period, its journey so far provides insights into the processes and challenges involved in bringing about deep and sustainable improvement in a collaborative school cluster.
WITS Management Team:
Our project has been informed by the following publications:
Subject HeadingsSchool leadership
School and community