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From project-based improvement to a learning organisation: COVID as catalyst

The below article was extracted from the Australian College of Educators 'Professional Educator volume 24 20/21 double edition: In Principle' journal and written by BGS Executive Director Educational Innovation Jacqui Zervos, Director of Organisational Learning Hannah Campos-Remon and Special Advisor – Educational Improvement Peter G. Taylor. 

For our school community, the relatively brief COVID-19 shutdown was a catalyst for improvement in a long-standing, academically high performing, independent school.

In sharing our story, we draw attention to the enabling conditions that were key to success during our home-based learning experience. 

In 2016, the Queensland Government accepted recommendations to change the assessment system underpinning tertiary entrance through re-introducing external exams. Allied with this decision was a requirement for the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) to rewrite the senior curriculum. The new syllabi were framed, in part, by a consideration of 21st Century Skills, with a particular focus on the specification of cognitive verbs, based on the work of Marzano and Kendall (2007).

The school invited a University of Queensland expert on critical thinking, Dr Peter Ellerton, to work with small groups of teachers in mid-2017. He had been working with the QCAA, supporting their intention to embed a thinking focus within the new syllabi. As interest in this work grew, we recognised its potential to assist in the alignment of our teaching and learning practices with this new curriculum and assessment system. This was our extrinsic catalyst for whole-school action, and the Effective Thinking Cultures (ETC) project emerged.  

The day-to-day focus of ETC is the intentional design of classroom cultures in which multiple foci for thinking are practiced through collaboration and continuous learning by staff and students. This represents a significant shift from a view of educational outcomes as stable, in which mastery of a canon of traditional subject-based content knowledge is considered a core educational goal—a canon very familiar to high-performing academic schools.

The school moved to establish infrastructure to support whole-of-school implementation of ETC. From the beginning of 2018 a key Senior Leader was temporarily redeployed as the Executive Director: Educational Innovation. Concurrently, a team of ETC Lead Learners was created, in part, to support the establishment of Professional Learning Teams (PLTs). The LL team meets every week to learn, plan, and review, under the leadership of the Dean of Teaching Development.

Starting in 2018, all teaching staff were allocated to a cross-faculty PLT, timetabled to meet three to four times a term under the leadership of a Lead Learner. This time is used to provide structured professional learning including support for professional conversation about improvement. Each PLT meeting is planned to optimise collaboration within the team.

Perhaps most importantly, from late 2017 the school employed an external consultant to monitor and evaluate the implementation of ETC, using the dual approaches of program logic planning and realist evaluation.

MONITORING AND EVALUATION PROGRESS WITH ETC

Momentum of ETC built through 2018-19. The Lead Learners became more confident in their roles, and the PLTs functioned more effectively. Importantly, the school received the first monitoring and evaluation report on progress with ETC in June 2018. Data concerning teachers’ professional practice were collected through an ethnographic case study approach, utilising interviews, focus groups, surveys, classroom observation, and documentary analysis. In subsequent phases, data were also collected through observation of professional learning contexts, including PLT meetings.

One intention of the first phase of monitoring was to identify green shoots of progress, and then to use those findings to accelerate progress. A second intention involved identifying and understanding practices that were impeding progress. This contributed to the evolution of ETC, especially in terms of guiding the developing supporting infrastructure.

The second round of analysis, reported in December 2019, highlighted substantive progress. This included that significant progress was made by most teachers in using pedagogical practices consistent with ETC. This was achieved though both collaborative and individual-level critical engagement and reflection on the complexities of practice that PLT activities supported. Crucially, for those teachers with positive responses, pursuing pedagogical improvement was a source of optimism, interest and professional value which in turn created a sense of investment in ETC.

In July 2019 the external evaluator accepted a full-time position, with a continuing focus on monitoring and evaluation, but with a wider remit including the support of strategic planning. Previously each Senior Leader developed plans for their area of responsibility quite independently, and with little need to address detail.

While the resulting Educational Improvement Plan took most of the second half of 2019 to develop, the discipline of documenting intentions and expected outcomes strengthened the culture of collaboration at the highest level of the school’s operation, enabling a much richer level of transparency.  It was at this level, at this time, and in this context, that substantive conversations about the school’s emergence as a learning organisation, informed by the work of Kools and Stoll (2016), began to gain traction.  

Over the 2019-2020 break, a classroom was re-purposed as an open plan office space (with an internal meeting room) for some of the ETC team: the Special Advisor, the evaluation expert, and one of the data visualisation specialists. A part-time data analytics consultant, whose role focused on helping middle leaders become more data-competent decision makers, was also added.

HOME-BASED LEARNING

From the middle of Term 1, the Senior Leadership Team provided weekly advice to staff, students and parents, and shared plans for what would happen if the school was required to close the physical campus due to COVID-19. Following government direction, the school pivoted to home-based learning (HBL) in the last two weeks of Term 1. 

So what did we do? In the first week we used PLT time to focus on how to use the Teams platform to deliver HBL. For some staff this was a relatively straightforward pivot, while for others it was a step into the unfamiliar.

In the final week of the term, we trialled two days of HBL to test our systems and initial curriculum planning. This was followed by two days of intensive professional learning and planning, student free. Again, briefings were offered on the effective use of our online platforms for teaching and learning, particularly Teams. Departments scrambled to adjust existing plans and resources to reflect what was possible and desirable in a home-based learning environment.

The ETC team space became a hive of collaborative activity. HBL afforded new opportunities to collect evidence, and new types of evidence to collect and analyse. On the last day of the term we conducted the first survey of students and parents. Those surveys invited self-ratings, explanations of ratings and open comment fields. 

Protocols for communicating outcomes were developed over the Easter break, once we had started to process responses to those surveys. Where students or parents self-identified as not travelling well, the relevant Head of Year (for wellbeing) was alerted, and, within 24 hours made phone contact with the individual. We developed infographics to share averages and trends of responses with students, staff and parents. Subject-specific comments were shared with Heads of Department. Senior leaders were briefed every week on trends in the data. 

A number of key messages emerged from the initial surveys. The boys wanted more opportunities for peer-with-peer collaboration – so group-focused channels in Teams were set up by most teachers. The timetable was not optimal. It was changed to increase the length of lessons, while the number of lessons each day was reduced. Time was allocated between lessons to allow breaks. After-lunch lessons were designated for student-directed consolidation, preparation and homework, during which teachers from the morning lessons were available for individual student email or Teams (chat) contact. We introduced an optional structured exercise session each day before school—very popular with both parents and students. These responses showed we were listening. 

For the remainder of HBL we surveyed students every week, and parents and staff twice over the 5-week HBL period. We soon identified a patterns in how the boys were approaching their learning in within-survey responses. We identified optimising – boys who looked to self to consider ways to learn more effectively, including how they might use available supports and resources (including their peers). There was complying – boys who focused on completing all tasks, in set times frames, but did little beyond this to take responsibility for their learning. A troubling, but relatively small proportion of boys were left out or left behind – despite the herculean efforts of their teachers, they were unable to keep up with the rest of the class or to resolve specific problems. Finally, opting out – boys who did not respond to the surveys. 

Each week we conducted virtual cross-role-leader conversations around the week’s data. These meetings were led by a member of the ETC team, supported by a Senior Leader. Where before HBL, some middle leaders had shown little interest in quantitative data beyond achievement data, most now saw value in data that reflected student experience, and could readily connect it to actual pedagogical decisions. 

Teachers reported an increase in students asking questions like “what if...?”, “why not?” and “does that mean…?” They also reported that these questions were coming from students who would not have done so previously. This suggests that students found new opportunities to optimise – to exercise a sense of agency and ownership in their role as a student when they were relatively free from the usual constraints of the classroom. We use the term agency to mean ‘the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness’ (Ferguson et al 2015, p.1). 

HBL made it clear that the relative absence of evidence (during on-site monitoring) of ownership was not due to any deficit in our students. We are now having productive conversations to explore our roles (that is, teachers’ and students’ roles) in creating productive freedom for boys to exercise agency – to exercise optimising behaviours.  

The focus on agency has encouraged exploration of opportunities for the boys to be involved in the improvement agenda. While our earlier monitoring and evaluation had focused on teachers’ professional practices, now the focus can systematically expand to include student experiences and preferences. This is a space of active investigation and experimentation, as we engage our boys as partners in school improvement. 

HBL also accelerated the establishment of what is now called the Learning Organisation Team (LOT). This team is led by the Executive Director (now a permanent appointment), and has six members: Special Advisor – Educational Improvement; Director of Organisational Learning; Director of Teacher Development; Director of Learning Programs; Head of Learning Analytics; and Learning Data Manager. 

Components of these roles existed prior to HBL, but they were exercised relatively independently.  HBL was a catalyst for aligning this work to provide just-in-time evidence of student, staff and parent experiences, to support decision-making. This was a breakthrough experience in the collaborative collection, use and sharing of data, especially for academic middle leaders.

We now have classroom and staffroom cultures that are, in the main, focused on effective thinking for learning. In turn, we are seeing the emergence of a culture of organisational learning. Very early in this work we insisted that ETC was a five to eight-year project. Now we see ETC, professional learning, learning analytics, and student voice as integral parts of how we work as a learning organisation. We are increasingly confident this COVID-catalysed emergence will sustain our learning momentum beyond those who are currently leading this work, and this school. 

 

References

  • Ferguson, R. F., Phillips, S. F., Rowley, J. F., & Friedlander, J. W. (2015). The influence of teaching beyond standardized test scores: Engagement, mindsets, and agency. Retrieved from The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University website: http://www. agi. harvard. edu/publications. php.
  • Kools, M., & Stoll, L. (2016). What Makes a School a Learning Organisation? OECD Education Working Papers, No. 137. OECD Publishing.
  • Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objective (2nd Ed). Corwin Press.

 

Biographies

Jacqui Zervos is a member of the Senior Leadership Team at BGS, currently serving as Executive Director: Educational Innovation. She has previously held roles as Head of Middle School and Head of Year.  Her areas of responsibility include leadership of the Effective Thinking Cultures project, learning analytics and coordination of the school improvement planning, monitoring and evaluation process. She leads a team of staff engaged explicitly in building the School’s capacity as a learning organisation.

Hannah Campos Remon is Director of Organisational Learning at Brisbane Grammar School (BGS) and previously worked as an educational research and evaluation consultant. Her consultancy work included projects in both the secondary and tertiary education sectors, including the Effective Thinking Project at BGS. Her doctoral dissertation addressed the nature of teaching expertise for engineering education.  As well as designing and conducting research and evaluation projects on behalf of her clients, she has taught research methods to tertiary students and in-service teachers. 

Peter Taylor is Special Advisor- Educational Improvement at BGS. He spent 20 years as a secondary science teacher before moving to the tertiary sector, initially to lecture in learning theory. He finished his tertiary career as a visiting research professor at Singapore’s National Institute of Education at the end of 2010. He has worked at BGS in a range of capacities (on both causal and part time basis) since 2011. 

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