Who are our Horizon students?

My last blog post Outside The Square introduced our independent learning program, Horizon. In this post, I explore how the planning team came up with the criteria for the applicants, which year levels were invited and the application process. I also introduce you to each of the 13 students that we were so lucky to work with at Catholic College Wodonga. 


Initially, we set out thinking that this program would be for high achieving students who were looking for a challenge in their school day. However, after many conversations with the team and some healthy disagreements, it became clear that the opportunity to work on passions and learn in an authentic, independent, way should not be limited to those who have already learnt to play the school game. It would have been much easier to manage and plan, if the program was for high achievers, but at a large regional Catholic secondary school, we cater for all students, and so, Horizon did too.

We thought long and hard about the year levels we would invite to participate in this program. We decided to focus on students in Years 8 – 11. Our thinking was that students in Years 8 – 11 have experienced enough traditional learning in school to decide if they would benefit from a different experience. Year 11 VCE students needed to have successfully completed 6 units before being allowed to engage in the program, ensuring enough units for successful VCE completion if they decided to return and complete the VCE after Horizon.

Students applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. We chose not to replace the student who decided not to participate.

After the application process we had the following students: 7 x Year 8s (3M, 3F), 3x Year 9s (2F, 1M), 2x Year 10s (2M), 1x Year 11 (1M).


OUR STUDENTS

Mr W (Year 9) – has struggled at times with motivation and engagement in the classroom. Applied to participate in Horizon to develop skills that would be useful for a career in agriculture. His ongoing project was to design, budget for and finally build a steel dog-box for the tray on the back of his ute.
Miss WP (Year 8) – enjoys school and learning. Applied for the Horizon program to allow her to more intently follow her passion of astrophysics. Projects included exploring quantum entanglement, light pollution and high altitude balloons.
Mr W (Year 11) – has a keen passion for Hospitality. He completed VET Hospitality throughout the program, in addition to solo-catering for 25 people on a 5 day business retreat. This catering opportunity was his ongoing project including recipe development, budgeting and creating a timeline for the event. Mr W has successfully obtained an apprenticeship as a chef and will not be returning to complete his VCE.
Mr G (Year 8) – has been making short films for many years. He chose to apply for Horizon to allow him more opportunity to develop his film-making skills. Mr G engaged with script editors in Melbourne through Skype, worked with media professionals on camera handling and completed a short film as his ongoing project.
Miss C (Year 9) – has a real interest in health and healthy living. Keen to explore the impact of different diets on her own body, Miss C prepared meals and lived through a range of different diets – paleo, Mediterranean, gluten free, vegan etc. all the while keeping a journal of her dietary adventures. A website presenting all her learning made up her ongoing project.
Miss B (Year 9) – couldn’t decide where her passions lay, so she explored a number of them – learning Italian and building.  Miss B engaged in active work experience to fully immerse herself in the building industry, took time to have Italian lessons and returned to playing the piano throughout the semester.
Mr G (Year 8) – listed his passions as: history, politics, geography and basically the world. Fascinated especially with World War Two, Mr G pursued this interest through 3 essays exploring the impact of that event on scientific and technological advancements, social movements and military advancements.
Mr S (Year 8) – loves the media and has an arsenal of equipment at his disposal that he wanted to improve his skills using. Developing a website as a means to showcase his skills and work was his ongoing project, but his drone footage of a whole school event that local media picked-up both in print and on TV was a highlight.
Miss P (Year 8) – came into Horizon listing her passions as Vet Nursing and agriculture. Miss P struggled to settle on an ongoing project, being too young for work experience didn’t help. In the end, she settled on exploring the different forms of agriculture and explored the impact of different soil types on crop growth.
Mr T (Year 10) – jumped at the opportunity Horizon presented as a means to explore his interest in programming and gaming more broadly. Working on both the hardware and the software, Mr T was able to produce a hand-held game device with two different games. Mr T also took the opportunity to explore other areas of interest such as diabetes and insulin.
Miss H (Year 8) – impressed the application panel with her interest in and knowledge of biology and genetics. Throughout Horizon, Miss H’s attendance at school increased exponentially and she explored a range of different genetic mutations and their consequences.
Mr C (Year 10) – is a keen animator, but had had little opportunity to learn the skills and master the craft of animation. Horizon allowed him to explore this interest and in the end, each of his weekly projects culminated in a fully animated short film incorporating movement, lip-synching, and all elements of feature length animations.
Miss S (Year 8) – is fascinated with toxicology and especially interested in the debate surrounding medicinal marijuana. Her ongoing project explored this through a film that zoomed out from the physiological impacts, the neurological impacts right to the social impacts of medicinal marijuana.

These were our first Horizon students, and we’re so proud of what they have achieved. I will continue to share this story through this blog, but please contact me if you have any questions or would like more information.

Shaun, November 2017.
@shaunmason79 

 

 

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“Outside the square”

“Horizon is the closest I have come to not just seeing outside the square, but being there.” @DartaHovey, via Twitter 6/617.

For the past 18 months I’ve been working with a team of Learning Leaders from Catholic College Wodonga (@CCWodonga) in NE Victoria, Australia, trying to solve a problem. We’re not sure, but we think we have a potential solution.

Our problem was – what is stopping students in our school from really engaging and wanting to do their best? Are we giving every student the opportunity to pursue their passions and areas of interest – in an authentic way, not just a tokenistic nod? Where do we hear our student voice?

Our solution – Horizon.Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 1.06.54 pmHorizon is an independent (but collaborative) program that we have begun this semester for 13 students across Years 8-11.

Students effectively have a blank timetable that they fill with the following three elements:

 

  1. A weekly challenge – where they set a question that they want to answer (about anything!) on Monday and present their findings on Friday.
  2. An ongoing project – an area of interest that the students pursue in a sustained and developed manner over the course of the semester.
  3. A collaborative project – connected to Catholic Social Teaching Principles and located in the local area for the common good.

In addition, the students can also choose to continue attending some of their classes, or apply to attend classes that pique their interest (a Year 8 student may apply to attend a Year 11 Physics class, for instance).

Also, Tuesday and Thursday are non-compulsory school days. We know that learning doesn’t simply happen at school between the hours of 9am and 3pm, so, if the students’ weekly challenge or ongoing project requires (or would benefit from being somewhere other than school) a visit to a worksite, a chat with an expert, a day in a library/museum, or a day at an airport, then Tuesday and Thursday can be used for these experiences.

Application Process

Students were presented with the program outline in year level groups. A parent information night was held prior to applications opening in order to get their support and clarify any questions they had (it was fundamentally important that they were onside!)

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Students then applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. From Years 8, 9, 10 and 11.

We’re 7 weeks into the program and we have identified strengths and gaps. I’ll be blogging over the coming weeks about some of the challenges we’ve faced and how we’re going about tweaking the program. I’ll also share more details about what our students are up to, how we’re monitoring their learning, the literature that supported our program, the role of the teachers and how it’s working logistically.

We’d love to hear from people who have tried similar programs or who want more information.

Cheers

Shaun (@shaunmason79)

The choice to lead

I was lucky enough to hear Simon Sinek speak in Melbourne last week at the “Start with Why” Leadership Forum. A quick bit of reading about the event and I was excited, but I was a little concerned that The Growth Faculty event could be very business-world oriented and those of us in the realm of dealing with individuals rather than numbers, could be overlooked. I was pleasantly mistaken.

After listening to him and having had 48 hours to sit on some of his insights I thought I would get down on paper a few things that really resonated with me, so here goes:

  1. Leadership is a choice.

Simon made it really clear that none of us have fallen into leadership. We have not had it thrust upon us without wanting it. We made the decision to step up, apply, and get given the opportunity to lead. We wanted this. We chose it for ourselves. And if you didn’t, then what are you doing?!

The challenge then, is it make the most of it. Not hide behind it. Own the fact you are a leader.

However, the risk is that leaders will fall into doing the job they have always done, the one that they are good at, the one for which they likely got promoted from. So, Simon reminded us that we are no longer responsible for “the job”, but responsible for the people who are responsible for “the job”.

  1. Leadership has nothing to do with being in charge, but taking care of those in your charge.

The effective leader is not ‘in charge’, but rather supports those with whom they work. The effective leader provides a safe space in which colleagues thrive and where they will be prepared to take risks and potentially fail.

Simon talks about the circle of safety where leaders have established behaviours and where it is there role to protect colleagues from the dangers outside the circle. This is the price of leadership. In Simon’s words, this is why we get the bigger offices, the bigger pay-packets etc. So, that we will be the first to take a hit for the team, the first to confront the danger when it arises. We need to be the self-sacrificing leader rather than the self-serving leader. Leadership is the choice to take care of other people.

3. Know your why? 

If you have ever read or seen Simon’s work, you will be familiar with the concept of knowing your why. Why you do what you do – and the fundamental importance of operating from this space all the time.

Simon stressed the importance of this again, but spoke about how we come to know our why. The observation that this is not aspirational, but often a story of how your organisation came to be (an origin story), struck a chord with me. Working in a regional Catholic secondary school, we have recently re-connected with the Mercy Sisters who started our school many years ago.

Hearing stories from long serving staff about these Sisters and the approach they took to education and the community more broadly, assists all staff at our school, not just new staff, to understand and appreciate the why of some of our decisions. Putting these origin stories front and centre at our school brings our why to life.

Ensuring all staff and students know and understand the why of our school is fundamental.

Shaun Mason, 2017

 

 

The challenge of working in a “good” school.

Lots of schools are looking to improve and challenging themselves to innovate. But what drives innovation more than a need to improve, some sort of imperative or potential crisis that needs to be averted – think Templestowe College in Melbourne (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk).

But what if your school isn’t in crisis? What if your results are consistently strong and in fact on the improve? What if different data suggests students and staff are genuinely happy? It’d be easy to rest on your laurels, but of course we don’t want to do this. We see things that we would like to develop and improve. Yet, where schools in crisis have an imperative to change/innovate, “good schools” face another hurdle – the difficulty of convincing staff, students and parents that the improvements are necessary and worth the effort. Legislated changes (i.e new curriculums or system level edicts) provide an opportunity, but they rarely engage staff enthusiastically to radically overhaul how they operate. It requires something else.

We’ve been thinking about a formal independent learning program during the past twelve months. We’re pretty excited. But, excitement will only get you so far, and in a school that’s performing well, this excitement can be quickly replaced with the “that’s unnecessary” retort, or the “yes, but…” brick wall.

Last week I led a group of staff and students through a process to help us explore what this program might look like in our context. Having student involvement was pivotal as this is all about the students. Our day began with us asking one question – Why do this? We started with our gut instinct…”not extending our top achievers enough”, “losing kids in the middle years”, “not engaging our learners” etc. But, we moved very quickly to the available evidence. Where do we see these concerns playing out in our school data and what are our students saying?  When we started looking, it was there, we found it: The Why. It didn’t take much, but without it we had nothing.

So many new programs and proposals are presented to school leaders that are designed to do a range of things; engage students, solve their literacy woes or increase their Year 12 results. The pitch often starts at the WHAT, HOW, WHERE and WHEN we could implement these programs and more often than not the WHY is conspicuously overlooked.

My Principal reminds us over and over again to ask this question of why because without it nothing else makes sense, and because with it, we can justify our decisions and actions.

In a school that is travelling well, the answer to the question ‘Why’? provides the impetus for improvement and a force for development.

Shaun Mason, 2016.

Real student voice?

Last week I was challenged by my colleagues and my students.

I led a planning day with our Learning & Teaching leaders from across the school (Years 7-12) where we were exploring the possibility of formalising an independent learning program. We were challenged by the story of Monument Mountain Regional High School (see clip here) and more locally, the story of Templestowe College (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk) . Both these places take student voice and make it something more than that seemingly token notion. We wanted to do that too. So, for this planning day, I invited our new College Captains to contribute to the conversation and in fact, lead it at times. They were brilliant. They spoke eloquently and articulately about a range of challenges the proposed program might present. They asked questions we would never have thought to, they provided answers we could have sought for weeks and they challenged us to be better leaders at our school.

The intention of the day was to clarify our plan and prepare a proposal for the school’s leadership about how this program would work in our context and why it was needed. But, by the end of the day we had shifted our intention. If this program was all about student voice, then despite the eloquence and ideas of our College Captains, they were only 2 out of 1100. We needed more student involvement. They needed a greater say. It had to be shaped by them.

So, the next step will be to present this program to the student leadership team (students from Year 7 – 12) and seek their adjustments/input and alterations. This will all happen before the school leadership team see the proposed program. That way we guarantee our students will genuinely contribute to the program and we also increase the programs’ chance of success because they have co-created it.

How have you offered students more than their voice?

 

 

 

The Innovator’s Mindset – A Review

Innovation is a word we hear a lot at the moment; it’s bandied around education circles, in the business world and throughout government at all levels.Cover-in-3D

In his recent book, The Innovator’s Mindset – Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity, George Couros argues that innovation is not something that requires wholesale, transformational change, but is a mindset that creates something new and better, either from invention (totally new) or iteration (changing something that already exists). A handy definition for those left confused by the word.

In a clear, accessible text, Couros outlines his definition of innovation, suggests where we might see it in our schools, how educational leaders can develop places where it thrives and offers ideas of where to head next. At the conclusion of each chapter he provides discussion questions and extensive reference lists that help to make this text a useful inclusion on the agenda as a developmental item for any leadership team.

The Innovator’s Mindset is certainly not a panacea for poor student performance, but a challenging read that encourages leaders within schools to look into the mirror at our actions and sometimes, inaction. He challenges us to consider the implementation of new strategies and warns that if we aren’t intentional, we may promote confusion and burnout, instead of inspiring innovation and deep learning. Instead he argues that we need to change our mindset that every new idea, even good ideas, must be immediately implemented. Let’s focus on what we want learners to know and do and select and master resources to create learning experiences aligned with that vision that has been co-created with the community.

Building on the work of a number of educational theorists and commentators, Couros’ work seems to extend that of Carole Dweck, by suggesting the innovator’s mindset is a further iteration of the growth mindset. This book won’t tell you how to implement change, but it will provide you with some ideas of how to generate a mindset in order to innovate, create relationships that empower staff to set sail on a new course and will challenge you to question dominant beliefs.

What struck me most about this text was Couros’ voice. He is an avid user of Twitter (@gcouros), he blogs and he is still involved in education at every level in Canada. There is an authenticity about the examples he uses and the pace at which this book moves. It won’t take long to read, but the results could be long-lasting.

Learning to learn

How long’s it been since you’ve learned something? I mean really learned something. From scratch.

For me it’s been relatively recent and it’s made me reconsider the experience of students in my classes.

My wife has embarked on a new business venture and I volunteered to create the website for her. I did this thinking ‘how hard could it be’? I know computers and can use Microsoft Word pretty well. Oh, how wrong I was.  I’m a wanna-be tech head, but I was about to enter a world I knew nothing about.

So, here’s what I learnt about learning…

The Importance of trial and error (plenty of error) 

The good thing about working online is that you can always hit the undo button when you make an error. In the classroom however, there is no undo button. This is where the teacher plays such a powerful role. Because our students are so used to hitting undo it can feel mightily scary and frustrating to make an error in real life; we need to ensure that our students feel comfortable and supported to make these mistakes. We need to model making mistakes.

I constructed a flat-pack desk for my eldest daughter last week; complete with one part back to front and I didn’t notice until the end. I had to unscrew and re-screw countless times.  Yep, undo and fix is much easier online than in real-life.

Using others 

My dad, a keen golfer, always says: “There’s nothing you do on the golf course that hasn’t been done before.” This is meant to make me feel better for again missing the ball. However, I think it applies just as effectively to learning. When I wanted to do something with my site, I looked at other sites to see what they had done and how they had done it. Of course, our students need their learning modelled. They need to know that others have been there too and that they finally made their way through.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We rely on the internet as much as our kids do. Never have I realised this so much as for the past few weeks, Google and Squarespace Help have been my most frequented sites. Using this ‘other’ in the classroom has to be encouraged but also managed.

Problem solving, or waiting for the solution to come

There were times when I got so frustrated with the computer and the programs I was using that I had to stand up and walk away. Wait time.

When we talk about wait time as teachers we’re generally talking about waiting for the class to settle down. But, perhaps there needs to be a rethink of wait time. I’ve learnt that I needed space; to get away from the problem before I was able to solve it. Perhaps I need to build some wait time into my classes during the week, in order to allow my students to solve their problems and process what it is I’m asking them to do.

Talking it out

For me, I bored my wife senseless with hours of talking about how block content needed to be arranged in order for the code to be injected at the right spot so that the content aligned. She had no idea what I meant, but just allowing me to ‘talk it out’ helped me process what I was attempting to do and spot potential problems that I might not have identified without the talk.

I use collaborative work in my classes regularly, but I’m not sure I have explicitly built in time for students to talk through a solution to a problem. I will be now, it might make a difference for some students.

Time (hours of playing) 

This learning takes time. Lots of it. For mastery of skills and for deeper learning we can’t be rushing through content. If we are rushing then there’s too much; and this is the bane of a teacher’s life.

However, we know that good curriculum design focuses on necessary skills and is supplemented by content. I think this is a bit like building a website… On my site each separate page generally includes the same features. The repetition of these features allowed me to practice these skills and cement my knowledge of how they worked. However, the content on each page makes them look completely different. Perhaps this is a reminder to make explicit to the students that each new topic is using similar skills and building on the last, they just look so different because of the content. Something for me to think about.

None of these are groundbreaking, but it’s funny how I took on this web design to do something a bit different from the classroom and the whole time I was working on the site, all I could think of was the classroom.

If you’re interested in the final product (not just the process) then click HERE 

Shaun

 

 

Modern Luddite?

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Four days ago an article appeared in The Australian newspaper where, Dr John Vallance, Principal of Sydney Grammar School, outlined his school’s decision to ban students from bringing laptops into the classroom, in a bid to return to return to a more traditional classroom dialogue. (see full article here or a Daily Mail version here)

I have some problems with this argument.

In my mind the argument is actually a veiled attack on teachers who are, in Dr Vallance’s mind, abdicating their role to that of the computer.  Dr Vallance claims he’s made this decision in order to re-focus attention back on learning and teaching delivered from the front of the classroom, reinforcing the thinking that the teacher is the font of all knowledge. And of course, students should agree with them, or if not, be brave enough to take up the mantle to disagree with the ‘so-called expert’ in the classroom.

Of course technology won’t replace quality teaching, but it can certainly enhance quality teaching and learning. And this decision by Sydney Grammar removes a valuable tool from the hands of their teachers and students. Technology, provided in the classroom, is the great democratiser – the tool with which students are able to confidently ‘take on the teacher’ and develop their arguments to engage with the teacher, who in the twenty-first century, should no longer be seen as the expert, but rather the facilitator of their learning.

“One of the most powerful tools in education is conversation,’’ Dr Vallance states. Yet, it would seem that he’s happy to remove the world from his classrooms and limit the conversation to a one-way didactic voice. Dr Vallance argues that technology in the classroom is “making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things — the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.’’ In the greatest of ironies, please take a moment to look at the comments written under the initial article for evidence of a digital conversation; one that crosses borders, nations and time zones, not inhibiting conversation, but actually extending it and certainly questioning things. You see, when used correctly, technology will actually enhance a conversation rather than limit it.

However, I’m a realist. There is no denying that at times technology can be misused but so too can a pen or pencil. Again, it comes back to the teacher. If there is a specific reason for using the technology, surely the professional in the room should be able to call on all resources at their disposal? And, perhaps it is because I’m a realist that I have concerns with this decision –the boys of Sydney Grammar, like boys and girls around the world, exist in a world of technology. Surely learning to use it, live with it and exploiting it is more important than retreating from it and burying our heads in the sand?

Teachers are professionals who make judgment calls every lesson of every day to determine the most effective method to spark creativity, analysis, critical thinking and empathy. Banning technology from the classroom simply treats teachers as misbehaving students; students who are unable to make decisions for themselves, or perhaps students who are making decisions that some people simply don’t like. This shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition and of most concern to me is that the decision has seemingly been made for the staff and students rather than by them.

 

 

The challenge of new school leadership.

 

Startup Stock Photos

 

So, is it just because I’ve started at a new school that everywhere I look I see others in the same boat? My newsfeeds in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are full of people excitedly talking about their new adventures and how much their heads are spinning from all the new information.

It is exciting. But let’s not forget that it’s also really hard work. New colleagues, new processes, new students (and families), new curriculum structures, new reporting style-guides and new politics in the staff lunch-room (where to sit and where to leave the coffee mug).

All the above is amplified if you are also a new leader at a new school. People are looking at you and wondering; they’re waiting for you to speak in order to determine if you are full of edu-jargon or if you are actually able to string a sentence together without using the words ‘pedagogy’ and ‘lifelong learning’. They are wanting to know your plans; your vision. And that’s where I come unstuck. You see, at the moment, one week into a new school year, I’m not yet prepared to publicly share my vision. I mean, I know what I value in education, I know what I prefer and I know what makes a difference to students in the classroom. But, my natural inclination is to initially sit back and watch. Who am I to come into a new school with all guns blazing declaring that the processes and practices, so familiar to staff and students, could do with some tweaking? To me, finding my feet, observing and learning about the culture of my new school and building relationships with staff, students and community is more important.

So, you can imagine my joy to discover that my natural inclination is supported by research. My principal has allocated some developmental reading for the leadership team (Dr Paul Browning’s Compelling Leadership – The Importance of Trust and how to get it) and in it, Browning argues that without vision and trust nothing else matters – and the most important of these is trust. Browning picks up Thomas Sergiovanni’s (2005) line that ‘it is vital to firstly build trust before anything else, even before a leader develops a vision.’

But how to do that?

Browning’s research identified 10 key practices that engender trust between a leader and their staff. They are as follows:

  1. Admit mistakes
  2. Offer trust to staff members
  3. Actively listen
  4. Provide affirmation
  5. Make informed and consultative decisions
  6. Be visible around the organisation
  7. Remain calm and level-headed
  8. Mentor and coach staff
  9. Care for staff members
  10. Keep confidences

They seem like common sense practices, but I think at the beginning of a school year and especially as a leader in a new school, they act as a timely reminder.

What I found especially interesting about the research into trust and leadership is the impact it has on student outcomes. Bryk and Schneider (2002) discovered that schools with positive relational trust levels were three times more likely to be categorised as improving in reading and mathematics than those with very weak levels. Of course, it makes sense – set the bar high relationally; build trust amongst the community and then the community will be receptive to feedback, confident in holding each other to account and keen to support each other along the way. This is the kind of workplace we’re all striving for.

So, I’m going to follow my natural instincts. I’m going to spend some quality time working on getting to know my colleagues. I’ll ensure I’m listening carefully, I’ll be seen around the school, I’ll acknowledge when I get it wrong and importantly I’ll just be me.

 


References:

Browning, P., (2015) Compelling Leadership – The Importance of Trust and how to get it. 

Byrk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in Schools. New York: Russell Sage.

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.