“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)

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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?