Saturday, March 18, 2017

Is Modern Learning a Fail? - Reclaiming Student Agency at St Joseph's

Is Modern Learning a Fail? 
- Reclaiming student agency at St Joseph's

In the years 2012-2015 at St Joseph's we formed a very clear idea of the skills and competencies we wanted our year 8 leavers to have.  The following two videos give some good examples of what this looked like:

Joel and Rhea explain Innovative Learning (2015)

Our students were raised on a consistent journey from year 4 to 8 where the senior teaching team had stable and well established practices of:
  • key competency development, 
  • individualised learning,
  • collaborative learning, and 
  • learning to learn strategies.  
The year 8 classes of 2015 and 2016 exemplify the success of this long term development.

The practice itself led naturally into the MLE-type changes in teaching and learning in 2015 which people have called "the hubs."  Unlike many schools which have MLE-designed buildings but have not developed the pedagogy, we had the pedagogy but not the buildings.  We chose to work around the buildings and do the best we could with them.

Children had a big say in designing how they would use their learning spaces.  The 2014 year 7 class designed them in Minecraft.  They set up their own Minecraft server and shared world which was our learning world for maths - measurement, direction and scale.  Here they talk about the design of the intermediate area for 2015:

What Happened?

Collaborative teaching and learning and flexible environments had been happening for several years already in our school but at the start of 2015 we had a tipping point with more staff ready for them than not and the decision was made to do it schoolwide.  Unfortunately it corresponded with a time when key staff moved on for promotions.  By mid 2016 the whole of the senior leadership team which had enabled this practice, including the principal, had changed, all securing promotions or sought after positions.

The outcome for teaching and learning by the end of 2016 was generally agreed to be a "fail."  The fail had nothing to do with learning environments or how the learning was structured.  All of our evidence over the period shows when key competency, collaborative learning strategies, and student understanding of learning rubrics, learning progressions and SOLO are in place, the students exemplify well managed, self-sustaining life-long learners who thrive in flexible environments.

I returned as principal at the end of 2016 and the community, teachers and many students were very vocal in letting me know the system had failed.  Just looking at it, I agreed.

I was able to establish through staff surveys, interviews and observations that what was really lost was:
  • key competency development, 
  • individualised learning,
  • collaborative learning, and 
  • learning to learn strategies.  
Without which there is no point attempting innovative learning.

So called "hubs" which we actually called Engaging Learning Spaces, evolved to meet the advanced needs of our learners and the pedagogy of some of our teachers.  Maybe the mistake we made was that it didn't suit the pedagogy of all of our teachers.   There was certainly sufficient in-built scope within the system as it was initially set up, to meet the needs of all of our learners.

Our 2015 and 2016 year 8 classes who had been well coached in these systems were a huge success for 21st century learning capacities.  This video shows how the children reflect on their readiness and how we structured the environment to support growth in self-management without forcing it past its limits:

In 2013-14 we worked closely with St Kevin's College in the Learning and Change network.  It has been inspiring to reopen these conversations with St Kevin's in 2017 and see how much they have taken from our learning practices at St Josephs.  They tell us these practices are highly successful for them and that they came directly from our collaboration in 2013-14.  Once again, these are to do with tracking the key competencies, knowing each learner individually, focusing on skills and processes and integrating curriculum.  All the things we are focusing on in 2017 for our rebuild.

Trish and Mannix present about our learning to teachers at St Kevin's College (2015)

If anyone doubts the necessity for collaborative learning and teamwork in the 21st century - have a look at my blogpost analysis of the requirements of the world's top employers: Its what we do together that sets us apart

These videos (with thanks to Jenny Jackson for taking and storing the videos) show this type of learning works for children who have been well-schooled in 21st century skills.

However, if these skills are weak, this type of learning system is not at all appropriate.

I am sharing this not because I have any intention of bringing back the "hubs" as people saw them.  We are talking with the diocese at the moment about a complete physical remodelling of St Joseph's and we will not be attempting to use our existing buildings as MLEs in the forseeable future.  We will not be attempting to do anything "out there" with our practice either.  But we will be bringing back the key things we have lost. We will always use our environment as an innovative learning environment though, as innovative learning is what we do once we get our key skills back together again.

At the moment we have children sitting in desks, in rows in many cases, well controlled by the teacher, and device-use limited.  This is a big step back towards 20th century learning and one we hope is temporary.  The needs of the moment dictate this response.  We need to start again.

I know that we can get back to the place where we can have children engaging thoughtfully in the environment beyond the school, where they can engage in meaningful self-directed projects and where holistic, cross-curriculum learning reflects our Catholic worldview on social justice.  As our charter summary shows:

2017 - Consolidate
Embed St Joseph’s curriculum and pedagogy
Knowing our whakapapa: being a Dominican school
High achievement, future-focused, making a difference, being Catholic
2018 – Platform for growth
Using technology,, design processes, critical thinking and creativity in transformative ways,  to engage with a relevant, active, purposeful curriculum
2019 - growing
Making a difference to our community and world through solving problems that matter

It is staggering to find how quickly good things can be lost and how hard we have to work to bring them back and rebuild a team which can do this together.  Luckily and, I believe thanks to extensive prayer, we have an amazing new team and we just need to continue to focus our energies on the task ahead: