Leadership Q&A: A curriculum reform initiative for 2020

Assumption College in Kilmore, Victoria, has implemented a curriculum reform initiative called ‘myMAP' for the beginning of the 2020 school year. It's a learning program that shifts the language away from ‘year levels' to ‘phases of learning' – where Year 7 is now referred to as the transition year, Years 8-10 have been replaced with a ‘3 year myMAP journey' and Year 11 and 12 replaced with ‘senior pathway years'. In today's Q&A, we speak to Vaughan Cleary, Deputy Principal of Learning and Teaching, to hear about the features of the initiative, how it works in practice and how it supports students on their individual learning journeys.

What was the inspiration for establishing the myMAP curriculum reform initiative in the first place?

The inspiration for the myMAP curriculum stemmed from the desire to expose students to a learning environment that aligned to our strategic plan of 2020 and beyond. This is based on a vision of learning centred on three core principles of enabling deep learning (Mastery), student agency via voice and choice (Autonomy) and experiences that students can relate and connect to (Purpose).

By focusing on the themes of Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose with the notion of learning being truly personalised, we created ‘myMAP'. By using the metaphor of learning as a journey, it has helped the college communicate this new learning paradigm to our community with clarity.

Could you tell readers a bit about the process for putting this initiative together? How long did it take? Who was involved?

Under the leadership of our Principal Kate Fogarty, the college has focused on the transformation of the teaching and learning environments that our staff and students are engaged with. In 2016 the role of Deputy Principal Learning and Teaching was created alongside the existing Deputy Principal Student Wellbeing – clearly signalling the college's focus in this area. Since then there has been a significant focus on implementing evidence-based practices and removing potential barriers to good learning.

During 2018 the School Leadership Team and Learning Leaders highlighted five core areas that were to be the focus moving forward. These areas included a focus on collective teacher efficacy, school-wide literacy improvement, improved use of data, development of a social and emotional learning program, and ‘stage not age' learning.

Late in 2018 the staff were invited to be part of one of these groups. A significant proportion of staff opted in (close to 50 per cent of our teachers). This has resulted in significant commitment from our staff to be part of school improvement strategies. The group entrusted with investigating the ‘stage not age' was chaired by myself and two Learning Leaders, with approximately another 15 staff from various learning domains also involved.

A number of us visited Templestowe Secondary College, a Melbourne-based government school that had successfully implemented stage not age learning. Major takeaways from the visit included the centrality of the student in the decisions made by the school, the focus on equality and the simplicity of how the timetable was constructed. With a school of approximately 1300 students and over 100 teachers, a major concern was how we were going to construct a timetable that was functional.

We received a Curriculum Innovation Grant from Catholic Education Melbourne and with this funding we worked with the team at Timetabling to design a model that would enable stage not age learning experiences for our students. This was in late March 2019. Since then a plethora of work has been put in by our teachers and learning leaders to ensure that the myMAP program started in Term 1, 2020.

You mentioned that the college had been implementing evidence-based practices and removing potential barriers to good learning. Could you share some of these initiatives with readers?

Some examples of initiatives that Assumption College has introduced over the last few years include:

  • Stripping back school-wide blanket policies around learning and entrusting our great teachers with their own autonomy to make well-informed decisions themselves;
  • Use of Action Research groups that have provided information to our staff and community to guide their practices;
  • Creation of learning hubs around the school to support teachers within specific learning domains. This has enabled staff to have better access to necessary resources, created opportunities for team teaching and spaces where teachers can have regular formal and informal discussions centred around teaching and learning;
  • Disbandment of traditional Learning Area Coordinators and creation of a team of Learning Leaders, who are the experts in the areas of learning and teaching;
  • Shifting to continuous reporting, where ongoing formative assessment to students and families is the focus;
  • Going ‘gradeless' in Years 7-10 with the emphasis on ‘growth' and learning, not ‘grades';
  • Reducing unnecessary disruptions to class time by ensuring that only events and other experiences that truly value add to the school experience are held;
  • Ensuring that there is equity for opportunities for all, ensuring that practices such as streaming do not exist;
  • Supporting our ‘teachers as designers' – that includes them having autonomy over course writing and the scope and sequence within and across subjects (consequently textbooks are not required for students until VCE);
  • Adding extra class time by eradicating semester-based examinations for all year levels (only practice examinations are completed for yearlong courses (English and Mathematics in Year 10 and Year 11 examinations, where the experiences of Year 12 examinations are replicated);
  • Longer periods during the day, now 75 minutes, meaning greater opportunities for deeper learning and less disruptions during the day.

Could you briefly explain how myMAP works?

All students experience a transition year (Year 7) where they are engaged in subjects across all learning domains. From here, students embark on a three-year learning experience (Years 1-3 of myMAP), before they enter the senior pathway years (Years 11 and 12).

Learning experiences are designed around four levels of sophistication, mapped to the college colours. White courses are the foundation courses and extend to yellow, light blue and dark blue. As the colour intensifies, so does the learning experience. Dark blue courses aim to replicate the level of rigour required in VCE, providing significant learning experiences to prepare students for what is to come.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

The levels of learning outlined in the Learning Domains document from Assumption College.

In a traditional learning model, many of our most talented students go through with all other students a pre-packaged learning experience across Years 7-9 before many of them start a VCE subject in Year 10. They therefore are placed in an extended class without important foundation skills and knowledge – a situation that is far from ideal.

Under our myMAP model, a student who would like to study a VCE subject during myMAP can do so, as long as they have completed the highest-level course offered within the specific learning domain. For example, a student can complete Biology courses at a white, yellow, light blue and dark blue level before starting their VCE Biology experience. This is a far cry from studying General Science courses across Years 8-10 with limited exposure to Biology before starting VCE. Our program enables students to have a much greater level of mastery within the subjects they elect to do.

The only compulsory yearlong subjects are English, Mathematics and Religious Education. Aside from Mathematics – where all of our students use the Maths pathway program – every student has autonomy over their choice of subject, with myriad choices with each learning domain.

In what ways does the initiative ensure that every student is able to follow their own learning journey and desired career pathways?

As we have moved away from year levels and core groups within the myMAP years, it has freed up timetabling to enable students to be placed in learning opportunities of their choice. This has enabled approximately 700 students to be pooled together to create classes across all learning domains. We are running over 160 different subjects in 2020, with some subjects offering multiple options across all levels of learning (white, yellow, light blue and dark blue), whilst others have opted for less options.

How are students supported through this process?

We have developed multiple ways to support our learners through the process of subject selection. We engaged the services of a marketing company that we have used in the past (DMC) who helped us design resources that would help our community understand the program. This included the development of an interactive PDF that outlined the intentions of myMAP and the options within it.

We have used the metaphor of a journey to support our students throughout their school experience and we have likened the adults in their lives as tour guides. These adults – including a learning mentor, Learning Leaders, the Pathways Team and parents – encourage, support, guide and challenge the students. All students are encouraged to be resourceful and well-informed adventurers throughout their journey. They are reminded that it is not a race and each journey will be unique to them.

To support the transition to myMAP we held a series of workshops for students and their families that were well attended. Families could also have a consultation with Learning Leaders and the Pathways Team to help.

To also assist in the process, we developed some guidelines that mapped student data to recommended levels in subjects such as English. We overlayed NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) and PAT (Progressive Achievement Test) data to the various learning levels to help teachers recommend a learning level for each student.

Could you tell me about how the school has shifted the language away from year levels to phases of learning?

Shifting away from using ‘year levels' to label students is at the core of myMAP. Although our students are engaged in a social and emotional program with their age level peers (a new program called myBeing that sits alongside our academic framework) the rest of their school experience from myMAP Year 1 onwards will be in a class environment with students of similar interest but different ages. We have therefore worked hard to use the terminology of transition year, myMAP Years 1 to 3 and senior pathway years.

We have also shifted the language in other areas and are strong on the mantras of ‘teachers as professionals', ‘growth not grades', and ‘students taking greater ownership of their learning'.

What has been the feedback from students, teachers and parents/families?

There has been overwhelming support from our community. We had a great response to our parent sessions – they have appreciated the opportunity to attend information sessions, have access to a range of resources to support their understanding of the ‘why' of the program and what it means for each individual. Communication has been a key factor.

From a teacher perspective, we could not have had any better support. The myMAP team spent considerable time and effort workshopping subject ideas, and ironing out any practical barriers that may have hindered the program. From the word ‘go' we made it clear that subject proposals would be welcomed and offered teachers the opportunity to bring to the table the subjects that they have always dreamed of teaching but could not do because of the restraints [of a traditional secondary school curriculum].

Consequently, individuals and teams of teachers have proposed a wide range of subjects that they have ownership of and are looking forward to teaching subjects that they have great passion for. For example, a specialist History teacher no longer needs to teach a general Humanities course and the Geography teacher can focus on Geography.

Other wins for the teachers is that we have, on average, smaller class sizes, more subjects than ever before running, and because all subjects have equal weighting of six, 75 minutes lessons over a fortnightly cycle, teachers can only be teaching a maximum of five classes per semester. This will give students and their teachers the opportunity to build great relationships that support positive learning environments.

We have also encouraged teachers to have a fresh look at how the scope and sequence of each learning domain is structured to support learning progressions from myMAP into VCE and VCAL. The teachers have been amazing and worked incredibly hard to generate ideas and write curriculum and lesson plans ready for 2020.

In 2018 you completed the Graduate Certificate in Education (Assessment of Student Learning) at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). Could you tell me about how this study inspired your work with this initiative?

From a personal perspective, the study deepened my knowledge about what constitutes quality learning progressions and quality assessment in education. It also presented an overwhelming case for education reform where schools adopt practices that support students with learning opportunities at their zone of proximal development (as described by Vygotsky) rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that we largely had.

Doing this study was incredibly beneficial and I would highly recommend that at least one staff member per school study this course so that the information can be shared with colleagues. Although I have been teaching for close to 30 years and have had significant experience with assessment development, there was a lot I learnt about developing reliable and valid assessments and [the course] challenged some of my views and practises around this topic. An additional benefit was the flexibility that this online course gave me regarding when I studied and completed the assessments.

The planning phase of the myMAP initiative involved extensive collaboration with staff. They were offered the opportunity to bring to the table the subjects that they have always dreamed of teaching. If you were afforded the same opportunity, what ideas and suggestions would you put forward?

The next intake for ACER’s Graduate Certificate of Education – Assessment of Student Learning is July 2020. Applications close on 3 July for the course starting 13 July. Visit www.acer.org/professional-learning/postgraduate for more information.