GARTH BOOMER AWARD
Tomorrow's school, for today's students
Opened in 1971, Wooranna Park is a government primary school servicing the community of Dandenong North. The school has approximately 340 students from over 40 different ethnic backgrounds. Most of these students come from socially underprivileged homes.
The school is endeavouring to address the need for systemic change in education, with a focus on creating a learning environment consistent with social constructivist principles and more recently sociocultural theories. An emphasis is placed on students accepting responsibility for their learning, along with learning through collaboration with peers. Opportunities are also provided for students to pursue personal learning passions and negotiate their curriculum. There is a strong emphasis on media literacy and the use of computer software to create film, animation and music. Students are encouraged to co-create their learning where appropriate.
The school is strongly influenced by the philosophical thinking underpinning the Reggio Emilia Schools of Northern Italy. Like numerous schools around the world, Wooranna Park has tried to incorporate their philosophy about children and learning, into our own teaching and learning programs.
Wooranna Park has adopted a trans-disciplinary, research based approach, to the development of curriculum, with an emphasis on deep learning and authentic learning experiences. All teachers work collaboratively in team teaching units, so as to assist in the role modeling of collaborative skills and to facilitate the provision of a differentiated curriculum.
Since 1997, the School Council has supported the introduction of sweeping changes to the school's teaching and learning programs and the school's physical environment. The school has developed its raison d'etre, (reason for being), around the following focus areas:
- Principles of learning
- Organisational structures
- Pedagogical practices
- Physical environment
- Learning Theory
The inclusion of the school's physical environment as a component of our Raison D'etre recognises the importance of the learning environment as a powerful "teacher" in itself, and its importance in facilitating pedagogical practices. A copy of the school's raison d'etre accompanies this submission.
In order to support the changes introduced, the school has found it necessary to move to a more distributed leadership approach to school governance. At Wooranna Park distributed leadership is about learning together and constructing meaning and knowledge collectively. 'This does not imply simply assigning new tasks to teachers and calling them leaders. Instead, it involves the actual enactment of leadership tasks within their own roles as teachers.' (Earl and Katz, 2006).
Recently, three of the school's learning areas have received major refurbishments. Internal walls have been selectively removed and new spatial divisions, furnishings and services added to create a rich variety of discrete and purposeful settings. A distinctive characteristic of the new multi-option environments is that all spaces/settings are interlinked and accessible, enabling people and ideas to flow easily. The refurbishment of the Year 5 & 6 Unit was judged best school refurbishment, under $1 million, by the 'Council for Educational Planners International', and was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier's 2006 'Design Awards'. Recently the school's Principal and Assistant Principal were notified by Professor Sue Willis, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University, that they were the recipients of the 2007, 'Jeff Northfield Memorial Award for Excellence in Research'. Photographs of the three refurbished precincts accompany this submission.
Staff and community professional development has been the linchpin of the innovations introduced at Wooranna Park Primary School. The changes introduced are based on contemporary educational research and are dependent for their sustainability on the creation of a committed and knowledgeable teaching staff. If there is an underlying approach to what we have accomplished, it involves creating a shared belief structure and allowing that belief structure to transcend the totality of the schooling process. The smallest of stones thrown into a pond will quickly encompass the whole pond. The innovations described in this submission are far from linear by nature and more often than not, are responses to previous innovations.
The school's approach to children and learning is characterised by two essential elements, which strongly influence the design of the physical environment. The first is a commitment to team teaching. This recognises the social nature of most learning. The second is for students to have easy access, at all times, to a wide variety of social and learning experiences. This second aspect is a key to the development of on-going, multidisciplinary investigations - opportunities to explore and express ideas individually, with small and large groups, using a variety of different media.
The innovations describes in this submission began in January 1997, when the school established the Autonomous Learning Unit (ALU) for Year 5 & 6 students. The work of Professor George Betts of North Colorado University provided the philosophical framework underpinning the Unit. All students were grouped into a single entity comprising 118 students, under the supervision of a team of teachers and teacher aides. Two of George Betts' sayings were adopted as school tenets:
'Change the system, not the child'. 'Let's do things with children, not to them.'
Classroom walls were selectively removed and traditional school furniture was replaced with innovative furniture and equipment. Students, for the most part, were required to work in mixed ability and multi-age groups. They established weekly goals in conferences with home group teachers, planned the next stages of their projects and negotiated work requirements. Teacher led workshops were scheduled throughout the week to focus on the language and numeracy skills needed by students to complete tasks undertaken in independent learning. The creation of the Year 5 & 6 ALU in 1997 was the start of a journey that now encompasses the whole school and continues to evolve today, some ten years later.
However, if Year 5 & 6 students were to accept more responsibility for their learning, the foundation for such an expectation had to be prepared in the lower grades. Teachers in Years Prep - 4 classes needed to focus on developing more student choice in their curriculum, as well as placing a greater emphasis on developing skills in thinking and personal development. In order to accomplish this, a more dynamic learning environment, based on active experiential learning, needed to be developed in earlier grades.
In exploring how to prepare our students to become autonomous learners, the school became interested in the Reggio Emilia Schools of Italy. As a consequence, the Year Prep - 4 classes were subsequently organised to include the following:
- Teachers working collaboratively in learning complexes
- Work commitments planned using various forms of Learning Agreements
- Teaching sessions based on student need, or to provoke new learning
- Daily reflections on learning
- Student collaborative projects
- Exploration and documentation of students' growing understandings.
The past ten years have seen numerous changes and improvements to the school pedagogy and physical environment. Not all the innovations were successful and at times the school has had to re-assess the direction it was taking. The school's emphasis on differentiating the curriculum and authentic learning necessitated the creation of learning profiles to adequately assess and track student learning. Copies of these profiles, along with recently prepared redrafts, focusing on the learning understandings that students need to acquire, accompany this submission.
At the heart of the teaching and learning programs at Wooranna Park today are the open-ended inquiry based, research projects, developed in consultation with students. Several of these research projects are documented on the school's web site, www.woorannaparkps.vic.edu.au. The school has its own radio station, featuring students' learning and songs created using Acid software. While still in its infancy, the school radio station has enormous potential as a vehicle for authentic learning. A large 'green screen' facilitates the use of special effects in video production. Feature films were produced by students in 2004 and 2006. It is also hoped that students will make their own historical documentaries to supplement commercially produced DVD's and CD's used in the school's 'Time Machine', the latter a Grade 1 project undertaken in 2002. The school is presently trialling the use of ipods with our Prep Grade students and is exploring the potential use of video conferencing and children podcasting their learning on the Web. The school is presently liaising with two U.K. primary schools for Year 5 & 6 students to participate in a collaborative research project through online forums, culminating in an online 'Innovations Convention'. The schools involved are Cooper Peddy and Robin Hood primary schools in Birmingham.
The changes outlined in this submission were not instigated because of poor test results. Indeed, the school would argue that traditional forms of assessment are often misleading, as many students do not perform at their best under formal testing procedures. Moreover, such procedures often fail to demonstrate whether knowledge acquired by students can be applied in real life situations. In recent years the school has placed increasing emphasis on student presentations, student self evaluation, written and digital portfolios and the school based language and mathematics profiles, to evaluate student progress.
In evaluating the innovations described in this submission, what the school wanted to know was whether improved student engagement would result in students being able to conceptualise problems and solutions, use lateral and creative thinking and work collaboratively with others, to resolve mutual problems. In this regard, subjective and anecdotal evidence point to strong gains in these areas.
Nevertheless, it was anticipated that increased student engagement would result in improved test scores. The school's achievement results reflect well on the school. The following AIM data for the period 2001 - 2006 shows the school's development to be comparable or above the State Mean in the key areas of reading and number. This is very pleasing given the school's category 9 'like school ranking', (the highest level of social disadvantage), and the increasing numbers of students attending Wooranna Park from war torn areas of Africa, with limited or no formal education.
Working within such a diverse environment has encouraged teachers to become creative, lateral thinkers. When planning in teams, questioning and examining pathways becomes pivotal, if teachers are to provide deeper learning experiences for students. Much of the discussion starts with the students' current understandings derived from immersion workshops, working from their level of understanding and expanding from there. Teacher's key strengths are utilised within the weekly time table so that students can focus on mastering specific skills and developing understandings that can then be transferred into independent research projects. This process exposes students to further possibilities and also caters for diverse learning styles. Metacognitive and higher level thinking processes are promoted through investigative studies. Students are encouraged to share their learning with others in diverse forums, providing a sense of purpose and active citizenship. Student leadership is modelled on our parliamentary democracy, with students elected to positions of responsibility in the School Parliament, composed of government and opposition members, who switch roles at the start of the second semester.
Learning environments are set up in such a way that students feel central and active. Students' opinions are valued, resulting in increased engagement, interest level and attendance. Learning agreement sessions promote independent thought, decision making and responsibility. Target teaching and conferencing allows for personal, concentrated time, developing student self confidence and levels of understanding, without the pressure or demands of being in a large group. Passion projects have encouraged inquisitive minds to expand their thinking, to pursue those open ended questions that often demand answers.
Through each of these processes and within learning spaces which are designed for self-management, students are given opportunities to see themselves as independent, significant life long learners, people who can make a difference in our world, whose opinions and contributions are valued and considered. Families, local politicians, university lecturers and other members of the community are encouraged to become joint members of the learning process, to work together to make the 'impossible', possible. Our students are reminded that they are the dream makers and the keepers of the future.
Judging by the interest in our school from educators around Australia and overseas, our efforts seem to have 'borne fruit'. The demand to visit Wooranna Park is beyond our abilities to accommodate. Towards the end of 2006 we were forced to ask visitors to view the school during out of school hours, so as not to interfere with children's learning. Interest in Wooranna Park is not confined to government schools, nor is it confined to primary schools. Requests to visit flow from secondary schools, the private school system and the catholic school system. Bialik College is one of many prestigious Victorian schools bringing large groups of teachers to Wooranna Park, in order to replicate important aspects of the pedagogy and learning environment in their own school. Bellaire Primary School, near Geelong, has recently gone to tender with refurbishment plans modeled on Wooranna Park's, Year 5 & 6 'Autonomous Learning Unit'. Their raison d'etre is also modeled on ours.
A few months ago the school was visited by Richard Hunter from the 'Specialist Schools and Academies Trust' in London. After visiting the school's Year 5 & 6 Autonomous Learning Unit, Richard asked if the Trust could be provided with a video of the unit for presentation back in England. The school's Assistant Principal was also asked to speak, via video conference, at a number of their leadership conferences. iNet, the Trust's international arm, has also asked if they could include the school on planned visits by overseas educators, and the school has entered into a partnership with iNet Australia to conduct 'Learning Walks' through the school.
In addition to the film of the school prepared for the Specialist Schools Trust, the Victorian Education Department's, 'eLearning Branch', has commissioned a visual presentation of the school for distribution to other schools. Deakin University, led by Professor Rob Walker from East Anglia University, U.K., is also preparing a documentary on the school for use at Deakin University in their 'Changing Classrooms' teacher training programs. It is the school's sincere belief that the innovations implemented have the potential to impact on the future development of school facilities in scores of light timber constructed buildings, that presently house thousands of Victorian school children. It also has the potential to influence secondary schooling across Victoria. Indeed, the architect for the new $40 million Dandenong Precinct School, Richard Leonard, recently requested that key staff members from each of the three High Schools involved in the project, visit Wooranna Park.
Why the interest in Wooranna Park? We think it is because visitors see at Wooranna Park a new vision of what schools could be like in the future. They see it in the children's eyes, the personalised, yet collaborative nature of the learning, and the vibrant and supportive and functional nature of the learning environment. Visitors quickly realise that they too can transform their schools. It doesn't require millions of dollars to start the program of refurbishment. The ugly light timber constructed school of the 50's and 60's can be turned into a beautiful 'swan', once you realise the creative possibilities that abound in such an environment and are prepared to work within the structural realities of the building.