A principal perspective

A group of our principals recently visited Silverton Primary School in Victoria. Silverton is one of many inspiring examples of where there are clear and continuous connections between people, environment and curriculum. And where each learning space has an unambiguous purpose. As the principal Tony Bryant says, “it has taken a ten year journey of learning together to become an overnight success!”

As you will have read on my blog, designing fit for purpose learning spaces is a focus for many our principals as they re-think schooling for today’s world.

This is a reflection from one of our principals on the Silverton model:

I must say I was impressed by the way the school (Silverton) staff encouraged us to explore for ourselves. We were given the opportunity to discuss with staff and students, take notes, photos etc as well as clarify observations and ask questions of the leadership team. Silverton was a great advertisement for ‘learning can be both purposeful and fun’. The students were involved in reflection, and goal setting to plan what they wanted to learn.

The outdoors was used in an amazing and versatile way – there was a stage area, a pond, a cubby house and chalk boards, ‘café’ style furniture at the school canteen and areas dedicated to water and sand play.

Students interacted with technology (laptops, software, digital cameras, recording devices etc) in a relaxed and competent manner. The school used the community creatively to support learning eg employing a local artist or dance teacher to teach specific skills.

Silverton was testimony to learning happening within a more relaxed and flexible space which enabled opportunity for formal, informal, presentation and play.

There are many “Silvertons” across Australia and we can learn so much because they have pioneered much of the territory. What strikes me is the generosity of staff to share their story with colleagues in such open and honest ways.

This is the foundation for creating powerful professional dialogue and establishing connected learning communities to both support and challenge each other. A great byproduct of this openness is the celebration of and for learning.

We are each committed in our own way to doing the best for the students. I think Tony and his staff are on the mark, it’s not the end but the journey that has got them to where they are now!


22 thoughts on “A principal perspective

  1. You need to give us more here. Academic results please. As a parent attempting to embrace the idea I am not getting much from you that convinces me that open plan will be good for my children.

    I have researched and researched and apart from quotes like for example ” Baron and Rodin (1978), found that as class size increases, so does learned helplessness.” and there are many more like that, mostly negative that have been learnt from open plan classrooms in the 1970’s. Where are the documented positives learned from the past? Why can’t I find them?

    There seems to be very little research that supports this move. Your trips to various schools and your overseas guest speakers look great, but there are no great success stories for this type of learning yet.

    In society today should we not be decreasing classroom sizes so that children get more of a human approach, more time with the teacher. It seems you are dehumanising catholic schools in your diocese. I fear for the children in these super classrooms, how will your staff be sure to interact with all the children? .

    Parents need research that tells us this will work if you wish us to embrace your ideas. We also need to be consulted before the walls go down. Our children deserve our input not this stealth like behaviour of late.

  2. We are not “dehumanising”Catholic schools in the diocese. Rather, we are strengthening the very fabric of human interaction and learning by building robust learning communities. As you have followed all the posts on this blog you will note that the central theme is about learning – a highly relational process.

    Learning and teaching needs structures and processes that support this view, not diminish it. It’s not about the computers or the spaces – it’s about the quality of teachers. As you would know, good learning could occur in a supermarket if the teacher has good knowledge of the student and understands what they student needs in order to develop critical thinking skills.

    The approach we and others are taking focuses on teachers and students, not processes. At the heart of this work is personalising the experience of the student and using the tools available to ensure this is achieved. Teachers like students learn best when they learn cooperatively, which is why open learning spaces are favourable. Teachers can learn from each other by observation of each others practice. It also benefits students because what is not noticed or known by one teacher is by another teacher.

    Over the past decade, John Hattie for example has developed a body of research on teacher behaviours that make a difference on student learning. You may also find the OECD report “Building Leadership Capacity in Victoria, Australia” illuminating. It is part of a larger project to provide leaders around the globe with data that will help in developing policies aimed at improving learning and teaching.

    This is a work in progress, however challenging the so called norms from the past 100 years is not easy!

  3. I hope that you are documenting and creating thorough reports for the existing project- based and open learning spaces you have created which will be released to the public and all concerned WAY BEFORE you go ahead and make any judgements… a document that reveals everything, in particullar the academics, because the current ultimate goal is to pass the HSC, if the open learning spaces dont hold any key advantages in the actual academic results, then untill or unless the HSC is manipulated to suite these teaching styles, it would be a pointless effort

  4. Julie the work of people such as Bill Louden, John Hattie, Ken Rowe, Peter Hill and Carmel Crevola all support the position that it is not the size of the class that matters, it is the quality of the teacher and teaching that makes the greatest difference to children’s learning. Having a small class does not ensure quality teaching. The teachers ability to teach, their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter along with how to teach and their relationship with the children in their class are the critical factors.

  5. My feedback from parents with children in these classes is that children are being left behind, not noticed, not seen. I know of families (quite a few) who have left after giving it a go and are now in the public system. I know some parents are extremely upset as to the lack of quality of learning that is happening in these large classrooms.

    I am wondering if we are ready for this type of change yet. I understand that we do need change, but are you sure this is it?

    Informing parents of your intentions, giving parents information and there-by empowering them to understand and appreciate the benefits would have been a wise step here. I understand your pass/fail reductionist comment, but hey society is geared towards standardised testing and you alone will not change this. Will our children cope with the transition to high school then to uni etc, after being in your large classrooms?

    Your ideas sound wonderful though not practical. I would like you to come to my childrens school and talk to us about this as we the parents are not happy. It is about to happen the architects are in and out, and we the paying customer have yet to be consulted.

    What will happen to the special needs children, the bright but quiet, and I dare not think how the adhd/odd children will cope here in these environments. Give us more info and research please.

  6. Julie, we share common ground here in that we (system and teachers) want the best for your children and the other 42,000 students in our schools.

    You ask if we are ready for this type of change and are we sure this is it? My question for you is are you sure that the industrial model of schooling (children sitting in rows facing a blackboard and copying information) is deepening the learning experience for your children? Professor Stephen Heppell says if we don’t have that vision and ambition for schooling then we become directionless. No-one wants this for our schools.

    I am very happy to come and talk to parents about this and to answer questions. I have done this recently at another school and it seemed to go well. Nothing can assure parents until they see it in action. I am a parent of three kids and I asked questions about the quality of the learning and teaching as you do.

    The central issue in this discussion is not the open spaces or the technology, it is the teachers and their interactions with young people. As has been observed in another comment, it is the teacher who makes the difference and hopefully you experienced that when you were at school. That is why we are putting as much of our support and resources as possible into building their capacity and expanding their learning.

  7. Greg, the model of model of schooling you talk about (children sitting in rows facing a blackboard and copying information) has not been the case for many years. With newer technology like computers, interactive
    whiteboards and and other gadgets combined with quality teaching, collaborative teaching and differing types of group work the model you talk of has been dead for many years. The only real difference is going to be the group sizes and the room size.

    Quality teaching has always been directly related to the outcomes in the teaching profession. I understood that the profession has a committment to smaller class sizes as there has been quite a few studies that prove this has a positive impact particularly in low socio economic areas.

    I believe that you are not truly looking at society today, the needs of children encompasses far more than just their learning. I still have a great fear for many of the children in this environment and the word from parents already experiencing this is not all that positive. Many of the problems I fear are happening, children are lost in these large classrooms and teachers are not delivering this quality education you talk of. I don’t believe they have the tools yet. How are you monitoring your progress here? What do you have in place to ensure our children will recieve the quality education you talk of and how are you preparing your teachers for this change in their environment.

  8. Julie, I think you have raised some critical issues and your posts are a core debate that must be had. At the risk of a long post,I will try to draw together some of the threads I think I see running through this discussion. The central proposition as I see it is that the literature tells us that the thing we have most control over that effects student learning is the teachers capacity and ability. I think as Trudie suggests the work of Hattie and Rowe and others in particular, bear this out. It then follows that what is needed is what creates better teaching? Clearly pre- servcie education, knowledge and skills etc. are vital. What others here have suggested is that the way teachers learn best is by collaboration and modelling. It follows from this then that team teaching, deprivatised learning etc should all mean that the teachers become more effective and therefore that the learning of all students improves. The logic then follows that if teachers learn best from other teachers the way to improve teacher learning and student learning is to break down the traditional classroom model to allow different kinds of spaces to be created that suit the needs of the students and teachers and are more flexible. At the same time the technology exists for us to enable more collaborative and engaged student and teacher learning.
    Of course this approach raises some issues. How do we measure effective learning? Is it NAPLAN results? is it happy, confident and creative students? is it enrolments? I think it is is a range of metrics. I think as we collect more data then some of these measures will give clarity around results. I think the waters are somewhat muddied by stating that what exists currently is black or white; ie all seated in rows in factory model schools or all in open plan vistas wired for learning 24/7 ,obviously the truth is it is a continuum and every school in all systems are at all different points in the journey and I think the point you make about that is a very valid one.
    I am concerned if feedback from students and teachers in these spaces is that the emotional and social needs of the students are not being met as well. If the model is valid then students who are engaged and learning well will have strong engagement with their fellow students and teachers and the personalised nature of the delivery of the curriculum should lead to more and not less support. Clearly there is a need to find out what the issues and perceptions are if it is not working well in some areas. I agree Julie that monitoring and tracking student progress and welfare are vital. I think the philosophy we are promoting is the best outcome for each and every student, with learning at the core but the holistic welfare of the child the ultimate aim. I think the more debate and discussion is heard the clearer the path will become.

  9. Thanks for the above post. I am going to do some more research. Talk to a lot more people and get a clearer picture. The one I have, still does not fit within the constraints of the current education system, its curriculum and the way it is outcomes driven.
    My children and the other 42,000 in the diocese need the current powers that be, to be absolutely sure that they are in fact providing a better model than the one they already have. In better I mean one that will not only deepen the learning experience , but will also prepare them for their future within the current constraints of the education system as it is now. A good teacher can do all this within a small classroom and a good staff should work collaboratively as most I know do. On the other hand a fragmented staff, without good leadership will fail regardless.
    My children live in the here an now, and whilst I am not at all opposed to change within the education system it really needs to be done on a larger scale and in conjunction with all sectors. Change within the primary system only and for a select few only does not seem to be the answer. Combine this with the fact that smaller class sizes promote a feeling of family and unity, particularly for our infants and their parents alike. I for one would not have liked to have left my kindy child in a room of 90, no matter how many teachers there were.
    Its a sad fact of society today and perhaps a harsh reality in life that as we grow older we become a part of a bigger group, we are expected to join this great big world and become one of the many. Most people will tell you it was during their transition to high school where they suddenly realised that the world was so big. The wonderful cocooning and nurturing that most primary schools offer is to be cherished and seen for what it is, a small step from family towards learning on a much larger scale.
    Mr Whitby has said he will come to my childrens school and talk to the parents. I look forward to this as I have many questions and a great deal yet to learn of this new teaching environment.

  10. John and Julie your comments are music to my ears. This is the discussion we need to have. Yes, your children live in the here and now which is why we are so focussed on delivering the quality we know that kids deserve.

    The work we are doing is based on the best theory and evidence on schooling. We build our approach not on a wim, fad or personal perception but on something that has been researched and proven.

    Too often, we have seen innovation and change stifled by a new principal or leader who operates from their personal theory or preference. We are trying to make that paradigmatic shift in this diocese. We continually reflect on, as John points out in his post, “whether the learning outcomes for every student improving?” ,”are our students happy and have high levels of self worth?” and so on.

    I’m looking forward to discussing this with you and other parents face to face.

  11. Another question Greg, why isn’t the public school system looking at the open plan classroom idea? I would have thought if this concept was better that the current model they would be looking at it in all schools.

  12. Julie, Silverton, Wooranna Park PS (which I have written about on this blog) and the Australian Science and Maths School are a few examples of public schools who are certainly taking the lead in this area. Galilee Learning Community in South Australia and Bethany in Victoria are examples of Catholic schools that are designing contemporary learning spaces around a relevant pedagogy for learners. The uptake is slow for so many reasons but it’s probably a question you need to ask Education Minister, Verity Firth or your local MP.

  13. I thought this was a light blog and a not so deep post. I was briefly inspired by the description of facilities and pedagogy. Then I went to the comments and was astounded with the conversation. People need to relax and reat their sweet little children a little less seriously. Google sir ken Robinson “do schools kill creativity” . Life is not a journey from a to b. Don’t squeeze the creativity out of your own children, let schools and parents encourage it together.

  14. Sorry I was going to say I find very little that is positive about 90 children in a classroom. Luke my sweet little children are not treated as precious. They are well adjusted happy creative kids who deserve your attention as a teacher. They deserve to be not just one of a large bunch of children ferreted through the school system as is happening to children in some of these classrooms. Stop talking pedagogy and start talking to parents who are not finding this a positive environment for their children. Look at the potential problems and areas of concern and do something to make sure this works. Most educators I have talked to are astounded that this is happening. There are only a handful of schools where this is happening and the results as to whether these schools will achieve desired outcomes are yet in. There are however other results taken recenltly that suggest explicit teaching is better than the model you are proposing “The Australian Council for Educational Research suggests it would be a smart move. “The evidence is pretty much overwhelming,” said Steve Dinham, the council’s research director for teaching, learning and leadership. “Direct instruction and explicit teaching is two to three times more effective than inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning.” This was taken from an article in The Age on May 10th this Year.
    Please don’t for a minute think that I am attempting to treat children as precious or am treating this whole issue too seriously. It is a serious issue one that will impact on their future schooling and I question your right without the correct research and marks to support this model in implementing it in so many schools. I also question motives and reasons for doing this. I think that we need to support children to do all this in smaller environments, given the behaviour problems in current school classrooms I fear you will disadvantage a lot of children.
    Children are creative by nature and the industrial model of schooling you so often refer to, has in fact turned out some amazingly creative people. Lets be honest here and say this is an educational experiment and implement it on a much smaller scale perhaps a school or two until we are sure. The Public School System is waiting for results, I have now spoken to a number of people and I asked was this the way forward? I was told no. I asked why and the bottom line seems to be that the current model supports continuing education to change we need to change the way we assess which would mean a massive shift in the way we see success.
    By the way Luke I to was briefly inspired but reality has long since set in.

  15. I am a mother of 4 children. One of my children is hearing impaired. I have great concern’s regarding the open planned class rooms. In theory your plans sound ok but in tend to agree with the other people that have left a comment.
    As a parent of a impaired child I know this will not work. My son just copes with the situation he is in now. He currently gets alot of one on one attention with his teacher.

    How would the teacher’s cope with this enviroment? Children with all kinds of special needs as stated by Julie in one of her comments.
    How would the teacher’s control a ratio of 3 teacher’s to 70 – 90 children when it comes to thier behaviour in the class room?
    EG: Keeping them all quite and paying attention at the same time.

    How would this work when there maybe a child who is struggling in the class room and has not yet been detected? It is good for children to have open discussion in the class room about issues relating to learning, how is that going to work with 70 – 90 children.

    As far as I am concerned there are to may againsts than for’s in relation to open class rooms. Where are the positive documents to prove that this was sucsessful? If this was proven back in the 1970’s then how come it didn’t follow through today.

  16. What a lovely school, all those pages above in the original post.
    Needing results, data to show the right decisions are being made? Waiting for solid proof is prudent, and at once debilitating for effective change making.
    I expect school leaders to know their business better than I do so I can get on with my job of trusting them to get on and do it. I won’t always ask them for proof, or even expect it.
    My Nan told me to eat my veges decades before we had concrete proof of the benefits. Conversely we had a good idea that cigarettes killed you, but the tobacco industry waited the decades needed for clear proof to be presented.

    Change sometimes involves trust in our leaders more than proof, and that trust will be different from school to school. But Julie you’re right to raise the questions, and they need to be answered by your own school. Do you trust your school?

    Change is risk too. Schools changing at different times is distributed risk. Teaching is also risk. When it’s not, it’s dire and lifeless. Waiting for proof of value for every idea I put in place in my room would be at a great cost to my kids. Trust me.

    Open plan? I’m not a fan myself but I was never in a culture that supported it by default. That support is key.

    Building a school with options is good. My room has sliding doors to the next room, so it’s open plan, or not. Pedagogies change. Infrastructure that can respond to change is powerful.

    Anyway. Great school back there.

    Thanks Greg.

  17. Charmaine, I can understand your concern. Like you, we know how important it is that the learning environment supports your son’s learning.

    Even though there may be 90 children in a learning space, please don’t imagine them all sitting together doing the same thing at the same time.

    Rather, imagine a scene where there are groups of children of varying sizes from pairs to a more regular class group, working on tasks that their teachers have tailored to their individual needs in a large space designed to enhance their learning.

    Sometimes they will be working on their own, sometimes a teacher will be working directly with them; sometimes they will be talking about their learning; at other times they will be silent.

    In fact, this is precisely what good teachers do in our conventional classrooms because they know how children learn best.

    The benefit of the open plan classroom is the flexibility that so much more space offers…in the case of 90 children the combined space of 3 conventional classrooms, and how that space can be used most effectively.

    For example, there could be a special area for creative arts; a quiet area for reading; an area for science activities etc. Noise actually reduces and behaviour improves when children are actively engaged and interested in their work. The possibilities of a large space have definite advantages in providing both variety and opportunity.

    It is important to remember also that the ratio of teachers to students does not change in the open classroom…in your example; there will still be 3 teachers for 90 children. However, another big advantage of the open plan design is the way that teachers are able to work together to tailor a program to meet the individual needs of their students.

    This is because of the flexibility that working together gives them. In fact, experience tells us that children with additional needs have more opportunities for working with their teachers in this environment and benefit from the different strengths that, in this case, three teachers bring.

    There is also research (Shaddock, Giorcelli and Smith 2007, Kliewer et al 2004, Blakers and Nicholson 2002 and Department of Education Victoria ‘Inclusive Schools are Effective Schools’ 2006) that tells us that this kind of flexible, inclusive and specialised environment has a positive effect on the learning of students with additional needs.

    In working with our school communities to design open plan classrooms, we also take into account aspects of design that will make the physical environment most conducive to learning. This includes consideration of acoustic design.

    There is a trend nationally and internationally to change the design of classrooms to better meet the learning needs of all children. We are committed to making our teaching of the 21st century and not of the 1970s.

  18. Ah but the trend to improve the design of classrooms has never been to make them larger or combined.
    You have to look at every child not just the special needs, the bright etc….and the trend nationally and internationally has never been to place 90 children in a classoom. Be honest its just a select few schools, in reality a handful when you look at how many schools there are in the world. Hey don’t get me wrong I like change but be sure and logical and honest.

  19. Julie, I love the discussion you’ve raised. As a teacher, and someone who is involved with teachers around the world looking at the changes we need in education, to ensure our children are prepared for what ever path they choose.

    As a teacher, who is connected to the ‘metaverse’ of educators doing amazing things I am questioning the idea of Learning Spaces. An Open Space to me is on which kids work with peers globally. There are plenty of creative people doing that right now. A Closed space is a classroom which is autocratic. Kids are not spectators in their learning, they need to be critics, networkers, collaborators and creators.

    The need teacher who understand the balance between ‘critical knowledge’ and ‘showing’.

    Worksheets, text books and MS Office are BORING. Arriving in class to see if your friend in Canada saw the video you made the day before is engaging. A teacher such as Tom Barrett in the UK, is connecting with parents though sharing Google Docs, so his formative assessment is daily.

    There are massive changes in learning, and I am not sure that buildings are that critical. By the time my 7 year old hits high school, I know that he will be connected – though me – to some amazing educators who will help him. What I’d like to be able to say is that I could pass that confidence on and into the classroom.

    Fantastic discussion – you have given me a lot to think about in the post.

  20. “We don’t have to tear the walls down. We just have to stop pretending that the walls separate us from the world, and begin working with students in the pursuit of answers to real and relevant questions.”

    Michael Wesch – October 21st, 2008 – (Brave New Classroom 2.0) http://tinyurl.com/5q57yy

    A fabulous article that takes a different slant on the whole idea of ‘open classrooms’ and future learning. The ‘tearing down of walls’ has a very different meaning to the one that has been focused on in this discussion.

    As Dean observes -are the physical buildings that critical to the essential changes needed for today’s learners?

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