Author: Stacey Quince, Principal at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School
Campbelltown Performing Arts High School has focused over a number of years on shifting practice to deeply engage and challenge students and more effectively prepare them to thrive in a rapidly changing future. It was no surprise, then, that the focus of Stacey Quince’s Fellowship-funded study tour to the USA with her school team was the investigation of powerful practices that would support them to scale and strengthen their work.
The past year as a 2018 Teaching Fellow has been an incredible privilege, from connecting with the other Fellows, to a study tour of Singapore and our upcoming Dubai trip to the Global Education and Skills Forum. One of the greatest benefits so far, however, has been being able to offer teachers in my school the opportunity, through an internal EOI, to join me on the Fellowship-funded study tour in the USA during our school holidays. Taking a team didn’t just allow me to share the experience with exceptional educators who have helped co-create new approaches to learning at CPAHS, but it also fostered a sense of collective responsibility and ensured multiple viewpoints for our research, on behalf of our school and profession.
Whilst many elements of education in the USA serve as a warning for us in Australia – including the fractured nature of ‘the system’, a huge inequity issue and a lack of support for many teachers and leaders – there are beacons of hope that are changing the learning landscape for students.
Some of the key practices of these schools include:
- Activating student agency
In every school we visited, students were being explicitly supported to develop agency to make a difference in their local and global community. There is no doubt that this is driven – at least in part – by some of the confronting experiences that are literally on their doorstep. For example, many students at High Tech High in Chula Vista see the controversial Mexican border wall daily, motivating their interdisciplinary projects to create personalised picture books and nightlights for displaced children in nearby orphanages. Likewise, students at Big Picture MetWest in San Francisco are confronted by the issue of school shootings in their country and are addressing it through senior thesis projects and a whole-school program, delivered by and for students, called MetWest live. This focus on supporting students to undertake interdisciplinary projects that drive social change seems to be inherent to the DNA of every school on our study tour.
- Anchoring learning in the world
From projects that are aimed to create solutions to real world challenges, to partnerships with business and not-for-profits, students we interviewed could clearly see the authentic connections between their learning and the world beyond school, with lines often so blurred that the two were indistinguishable. Internships featured heavily in many of the schools we visited, taking place-based learning to a new level. At City-as-School, in New York City, every student undertakes an internship with strong support from dedicated internship coordinators. What makes these internships so impressive is that they are co-developed between internee, school and workplace, and structured around a specific, mutually beneficial project. This project is then mapped back to syllabus outcomes and contributes to a student’s overall school grades.
- Shifting assessment practices
The argument about the need to shift the focus from narrow, high stakes assessment to a more nuanced and sophisticated approach that includes the assessment of both knowledge and skills has driven deep change to practice in some schools. For example, at Minerva University, students are assessed on content as well as a broad range of competencies that have been expanded into rubrics. Not only do students have to opportunity to demonstrate achievement of these skills in accordance with task requirements, they can also ‘call out’ examples across all tasks to their teachers to be incorporated into their aggregated data. Furthermore, each grade is awarded provisionally for each task, with students having the opportunity to improve their grades or the achievement of skill levels right up until graduation. It is a powerful model of assessment that is rigorous, responsive and sophisticated.
- Creating individualised learning pathways
The traditional concept of locked timetables and set pathways has also been subverted in extraordinary ways in some contexts. For example, at NYC i-school, teachers constantly change the subjects on offer, students opt-in to those that interest them in vertical classes, and no two student timetables look the same. The process for ensuring students complete state curriculum requirements and address prerequisites for identified subjects means that the mapping and tracking process is tight but to have a timetable respond to students, rather than the other way around, is innovative and highly effective.
- Providing personalised support for learning
The school experience for many students we met is underpinned by passion-based learning and focused on ensuring every young person receives personalised support. In all of the secondary schools we visited, a model of Advisory was integral to the school’s approach. This meant that students had a teacher dedicated to supporting their wellbeing and helping them track and improve academic performance across subjects, often for the duration of their time in high school. In some instances, Advisors also guided senior thesis projects, organised internships and even conducted regular home visits. Whatever the model adopted, it was clear in every instance that students really valued their connection with their Advisor which in turn, strengthened their connection to school.
Of course, none of these practices exist in isolation. Each of the schools we visited had a myriad of other incredible practices at play, were led by bold, smart educators, and were staffed by teachers who’d been selected for their passion, commitment and intellect.
But these beacons of hope were generous, provocative and inspiring and will help guide our way in the next phase of our ongoing transformation.
(Stacey shared more specific examples and links via twitter @staceyquince throughout January 2019).