School Improvement Episode 28: Refocusing teaching and learning

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Thanks for tuning in to this episode of School Improvement from Teacher magazine. I'm Dominique Russell. In today's episode I'm joined by Principal Elizabeth Humphries and Assistant Principal Nicole Wilson from East Derwent Primary School in Tasmania. Since 2018, they've been on a journey of school improvement which has seen significant progress in student engagement and achievement, as well as staff retention and teacher welfare.

We'll discuss the steps they've taken which have resulted in suspensions at the school decreasing by 75 per cent and fewer staff members leaving the school. A big part of this journey has been the school's involvement in a Tasmanian Department of Education initiative called Refocus Teaching and Learning, which will be explained in much more detail later on in the episode.

So, let's jump in and hear how this journey of school improvement has unfolded. First, we'll hear from Elizabeth, and then you'll hear Nicole speak about some of the feedback they've received from staff.

Elizabeth Humphries: Well East Derwent, it's an urban primary school and it's located just on the outskirts of Hobart. There's a high proportion of social housing in the area and 87 per cent of our families are within the bottom income quartile. So many students begin their education with us facing significant challenges. It's also classified as a ‘difficult-to-staff' school, and in fact, for most of the teaching staff, this is their very first teaching appointment. So it can be quite daunting to start a career given the complexities of the school.

So mentoring, collegial support and a positive school culture are really key in helping them find their feet. But over the past two-and-a-half years we've actually grown a fabulous team who are united in a strength-based approach which taps into the potential of every single child to succeed, regardless of the starting point and they're such a good team, they will accept nothing less. So our commitment to student success is very much, it's a team effort and we've really seen some exciting change.

Nicole Wilson: We also recently asked our staff for some feedback to capture their own thoughts because this is a team effort, it's not just Liz and I, it's definitely all of us. So we just asked them for some feedback in their own words, so I'll just give you some of those quotes, if you like.

So, some of our teachers have said, ‘I'm so proud to work at East Derwent Primary. We work in a low socio-economic community, but this is by no means a negative. Our staff is the thing that makes us unique, we're absolute go-getters, we're passionate and we truly believe our students can achieve'.

Another teacher has commented that, ‘we're a community of families, learners and staff. We believe in positive engagement, personalised pedagogy and learning experiences for every student every day. East Derwent is a unique school in its ability to support children to feel strong, grounded and safe in an environment of learning'.

Another comment: ‘Staff support each other and have an ability to look for the positives'. And we've also got another comment saying that our school ‘positively accommodates the complex needs of all students, with a staff who are collaborative, immensely adaptive and proactive in order to create a learning space that is inclusive and coherently for the students'.

So we've got lots of really great feedback from our staff. And that was actually a really nice process for us to go through when we knew we were doing this podcast to ask our staff, because we felt it, but we hadn't actually explicitly asked them, so that was really affirming as well.

DR: Obviously the school has implemented some significant positive changes to improving student learning over the past few years. So before we do look at the specifics of that, can you give me a broad overview of this journey? How did it begin and what were you looking to address?

EH: Well actually, it's quite challenging to share the difficulties that we were facing in 2018. Essentially, the focus of every day was safety and behaviour. I think it's probably fair to say that staff were exhausted from managing the day-to-day grind of high-level behaviour and staff usually transferred from the school as soon as they were eligible to do so. So there was a lot of churn and a lot of turnover. And that was reflected at the beginning of 2018 and we had a staff change of approximately a third of staff to the school, and that included a brand new leadership team.

So the staff and the students were really struggling to experience success and it became clear that the culture, the expectations and pedagogy, needed a significant shift. It was always going to be challenging, but with a new team we also felt we had a really good opportunity to shift culture. So we needed to, firstly, instil the confidence in the whole school community that we could do this if we worked together. So our sense of team is really fundamental to everything that we do.

We needed for classrooms to be student-centred and responsive to needs. So we tightened behaviour support systems using positive behaviour support and restorative justice. We drew a line in the sand around violence because the school needed to be a safe place for everyone and safety was absolutely not negotiable. And we then focused on addressing the needs of teachers by building their own knowledge and skills of inquiry cycles, differentiation and effective pedagogy.

So our vision was really, it was a whole school commitment to student success. So when students experienced success, their engagement and sense of belonging rose, and that, in turn, instantly decreased behavioural issues including suspensions.

We now expect really high standards from our students in behaviour and achievement and that's underpinned by the belief that they are capable and they are competent. Our core business now, it's learning. Our cohort hasn't changed, but our expectations and management certainly have. Our support staff/teacher assistants have also been really integral in the movement to ensure that every learner's needs are met in a targeted way.

DR: So you mentioned just there that team was really important to building this new culture. So can you tell me a bit about how the staff and students and the wider school community were involved in building this change?

NW: I think it was really important to include the team. We obviously couldn't make these changes without having teacher and staff buy-in, so we had to include them. They could see the need for the change as well …

EH: That's what I was going to say. I think that everybody wanted to change but just really weren't sure what steps needed to be taken to get there. And that certainly hasn't been easy, and the first year, in particular, in 2018, that was really quite challenging whilst we changed culture. So we just really had to be strong and hold the line around the really key issue of behaviour and student support.

And then once we'd really re-established the new systems and processes that was really clearly communicated. I guess, you know, [Vic] Zbar would refer to that to the preconditions for learning, then we moved on to building that capacity of staff and it actually freed them up to be able to take on board the up-skilling. Before that, they were just, they were too exhausted. At the end of every day you couldn't really work through, you know, intensive professional learning with them because they'd had enough. They were a spent force.

NW: And I think as well that without those pre-conditions, trying to deliver professional learning was just not effective because they couldn't see a purpose. There was no room for that teaching or that learning. It was all just – the priority was on behaviour and safety, basically.

DR: Definitely. And so a huge part of this, of course, is the Refocus Teaching and Learning Program which comes from the Tasmanian Department of Education. So, for those listeners who aren't so familiar with this program, could you describe what it is and why it was such a good fit for your school?

NW: Yeah, it was really timely actually. So the purpose of the Refocus Teaching and Learning Initiative in Tasmania is to strengthen early years pedagogical practice. So it's building consistency in the early years, pedagogical understanding system-wide and supporting the successful implementation of two elements of the Tasmanian Education Act. So, in 2017 there was a pilot group of 13 schools that were selected to commence their work in the RTL (or Refocus Teaching and Learning). And then following that in 2018, which is when we had this huge big turnover of staff, new leadership team, we were selected to participate.

So, we were one of 37 schools and six Child and Family Centres in the state in the second phase of the initiative. The RTL is based on an early years pedagogical model. So it's around children, or based around children, from birth to Grade 2. And some key teaching practices include: considering our work through lenses of relationships; play and inquiry; learning environments; and listening and documentation. So there's a model around that.

And then also central to that is an understanding that we work with capable competent learners. So we had to spend a lot of time building that vision and understanding that we are working with capable, competent learners regardless of our context and despite a lot of, yeah, disadvantage in this area, they are capable competent learners. We plan, teach and assess with intentionality and all of this is done through collaborative learning communities of research, action and reflection. So all of those things just tied in so well with what we wanted, our vision for our school at that point.

So in 2018 our early years team invested a really significant amount of time into this approach. We had to challenge our existing beliefs and understandings and there were some tough moments along the way, absolutely, it wasn't a smooth sailing ride through. And just like a classroom there was a range; we have a range of staff, so some of them, you know, jumped in, no dramas, it was an easy transition, but then for others it took a lot longer and it took a lot of courage for them to trust the process and believe in it and see the impact for themselves.

So being an early years initiative we began in the K-2 or the LiL [Launching into Learning] to 2 space. But then we knew we had to build on that, and it had to go right through to Grade 6. So even though it is best practice in the early years, there is so much that is applicable to our primary context. So then we had to move and shift our focus into finding ways that our primary colleagues could make connections with this pedagogy in their context in a developmentally appropriate way.

So it was one of those moments where once you see it, you can't un-see it. We couldn't go back to what we had and we knew we had to keep pushing it through the whole school. So it was really timely that we were on board with that.

DR: And so you spoke just there about staff seeing the impact of the program. So obviously the program is focusing on play and inquiry, particularly in the early years, even though you have extended that. So could you talk a little bit about the effect that it's actually having on student learning and that impact?

NW: Yeah, so one of the ways that we shared our work, we were very lucky – well, not lucky, I shouldn't say lucky – we worked hard to get our, or have our work shared through sharing at our state-wide professional learning day, an early years day. We have one a year here in Tasmania and so we presented our work there. And we were also fortunate to have a video of our practice – a snapshot of practice around oral language and documentation. So that was a way that we shared our work state-wide, but also within our school it was a nice way to sort of showcase our work to our primary teachers as well.

So the play and inquiry approach has been really successful, I think because it's a constructivist approach. So it's reflected as best practice in line with our department's strategic plan. We're finding that there's a strong focus on student engagement, which is where, you know, we saw a need at our school. It's learner-centred, differentiated, it meets students at their point of need. So, for us, it just was a perfect fit.

We've got a range of needs, as every school does, so it was no surprise that this way of thinking, teaching and learning was successful for here. And then in terms of it impacting student learning, we're actually currently working with ACER. So we're working alongside Dr Amy Berry to develop some rubrics to measure our progress, I suppose. Developmental rubrics that are going to measure learning and success in our context. So, we've found that the data that we've been collecting isn't reflecting the growth and the change that we've seen here in on the ground. It's not the right fit. The assessment is not matching the work that we're doing.

EH: No, we have, we certainly have evidence of student growth and documentation that reflects student growth, but when we get through the standardised testing, it's not actually showing that students have gone up to that very next level. And that's sort of been a little bit of a frustration for us, I guess, because we have that evidence of growth, we have that evidence that it's working, not just within the culture, but also hard evidence of learning. But we just really need some different tools that reflect the progress that we see.

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NW: So this year we've established collaborative grade teams. So our teachers are working in inquiry as well as our students. So we've sort of got two levels of inquiry operating in our school. And we've called them Commitment to Learning Groups, so we've prioritised this as one of our key drivers towards our whole school teaching and learning approach and our whole school vision. So every week we've timetabled in blocks of time for teachers and school leaders to work in a focused and targeted way on their inquiry.

And this cycle's guided by [Rick] DuFour's four critical PLC [Professional Learning Community] questions, so we work around a four to five week inquiry cycle and respond to: What we want our students to know and do? How would we know if they've learnt it? How we respond if they don't, if students don't learn? And then, how will we extend students who are already proficient in those areas? So that's the way our teachers are working within an inquiry cycle.

In the classroom, an example that I found really powerful was our Kinder teachers are working on an inquiry around letters and sounds. So it's always been a little bit controversial in that the early years framework doesn't specifically say that our students need to learn their letter sounds before Prep, however it is an awareness of symbols and that they carry a meaning and message. So their inquiry was around letters and sounds and they wanted that reflected through a play and inquiry approach.

So, they've immersed their students in oral language experiences, hands-on learning, documented their understandings and assessed them before they delivered this teaching approach, and then afterwards. And they found that, prior to this approach 62 per cent of students were unable to recognise a letter as a symbol or identify its name or sound, but afterwards 85 per cent of students were able to identify the letter with either its name, its sound or recognise it as a symbol that carries a message. So that is having a huge impact on teaching and learning, through a play and inquiry approach.

… So walking through our classrooms … our Kinders are exploring growth and working in our school garden and building their understanding of the letter ‘g', so they're making connections with letter sounds, hands on, inquiry-based and play-based learning.

At the moment if you walked into Prep, we've got rollercoasters that the students have constructed set up on the tables because they're learning about the way things move. And they were intrigued by gravity, so the teachers saw, you know, some interest and captured that and went with that.

Our Grade 1/2 students are investigating place and why we shouldn't walk on Uluru. So there's some Indigenous connections – and all of this is through literacy, numeracy and inquiry, all of these cross-curricular areas.

We've got reluctant readers in our Grade 3/4 that have found engagement and enjoyment in a readers' theatre approach. And we've actually just shared that with our department, that's being celebrated state-wide as some excellent practice in literacy.

Our 5/6 students are inquiring into waste in our ocean. So, all of these inquiries are taking many different directions and shapes and building on key curriculum areas; and, in particular, our school's priority of every student being successful in reading and oral language. So it's really exciting, before when you walked through classrooms you certainly wouldn't have seen any of that happening. And the students are just so engaged because their teachers are listening and responding to their interests and needs so it's really targeted.

… The other exciting thing that we're doing is sharing our work. So previously, I suppose, our grade teams would operate within their own sectors. There wasn't a lot of sharing, they'd share within their grade teams but not necessarily across the school. We're now scheduling that into our professional learning time. So after each inquiry cycle our team share their findings, their recommendations, their experiences and that's sort of building that whole school approach.

So we're actually working on the ground to, I guess, test out what works, what doesn't work, what's having an impact and then creating our pedagogy around that. So they're all part of the process and it's a really valuable way of teaching and learning.

EH: In our school's strategic plan we name up that our teachers are researchers and that sort of really underpins the philosophy and approach that we take within the collaborative planning teams.

DR: So we've spoken a little bit about how this change in student learning has had a real impact on their behaviour. So how significant has that been?

EH: It's had a huge impact indeed. So our system data shows that across the school our suspensions have decreased by 75 per cent between 2017 and 2020. And we also have the school database where behaviours that need support from senior staff are recorded. In 2018 our senior staff team processed over 2000 of those behaviour issues and halfway through this year we had only 400 which is, you know, on track for an 80 per cent decrease.

So physical aggression is now a rarity, students get back on track quickly because they're engaged, I think, and because they actually really want to be in school and they want to be in classrooms because they're experiencing success. Walking through our classrooms today, you can see students who are happily engaged in hands-on learning, building their own understandings through play and inquiry, making connections across the curriculum, all in a collaborative way.

It's a much calmer, focused school. And people have noticed that even just through walking through the door, there was a time where our senior staff couldn't even meet together during the day.

NW: No, not during school time, we'd have to do it before or after school because it was all hands on deck.

EH: Now we're able to work more intentionally and more strategically as a group, and I think that has also helped with the team approach.

NW: … So again we asked our staff, because we could guess what they're thinking but we didn't want to put words in their mouths and we really value obviously their opinions and views and what their thinking is. So we asked our staff to share their thoughts and we felt really proud and inspired by our team when we read these. So I'll just read through what they've commented:

‘The shift is immense. We've moved from a behaviour focus to a school that works incredibly hard to engage and support all learners. They feel a part of something special as a learner at East Derwent'.

Another teacher has written: ‘The change in learning is absolutely dramatic. I'm extremely proud to be a staff member and part of the team at EDPS. Learning is number one at our school, when behaviour management may have been number one before. There's a genuine love and want to help students succeed'.

Another teacher has commented: ‘It's great, I actually love coming to work. I wouldn't be here now if it had stayed the same. The new normal is students on task and engaged, rather than on the roof'. That's a story for another day. ‘It's inspiring and exciting to be a part of the focus on student achievement through our high standards showing such amazing growth. Behaviour of students is not a barrier to learning anymore. We are teaching a cohort of capable and competent learners'. So you can hear that message coming through our staff, that they truly believe and have that positive sense that our learners can and will achieve success.

‘It's been wonderful seeing a shift from behaviour to learning. The shift in engagement, curiosity and wonder has been incredible to witness. I'm so proud to be a part of this leadership and determination to enable all students to thrive at school. The staff at East Derwent are embracing the shift in learning environments as we can see substantial benefits in participation and enthusiasm among the students. I'm blown away by the staff, the students and the high expectations set by all.

And: ‘The transformation in the short time I've been here, the direction and focus on education for every student has shifted away from behaviour and safety to learning, collecting evidence and progress towards success'.

So reading that was just so affirming that, you know, what we believe is what our staff believe. And it's, yeah, it's just that shared vision I think.

EH: And just the energising factor that it's had, you know. We've gone from, you know, tired staff who just felt surviving the day was, you know, as much as they could hope for, to having that really strong sense of purpose across the school and a sense of pride in what they've achieved.

… Today we were actually in the position where our teaching staff, including those who were eligible for transfers, have committed to actually continuing the work in 2021. They've decided to stay which is really quite ground-breaking for us and our school. And we really feel confident that we're on the right path, but we see it as a long-term commitment and we feel like, you know, we've had great success but we're still just dipping our toes in the water and the best is still yet to come.

And so working with ACER to develop the quality assessment tools which capture the success of our students is the next stage. And I think that's really exciting work for everyone at East Derwent and, you know, that commitment to learning is, I think probably a key message that we found. Because if you're only just focusing on behaviour and, you know, systems and processes around behaviour without that side-by-side focus on pedagogy, effective pedagogy, student engagement and success, then we probably wouldn't have achieved the success that we've achieved, you know, in the last few years. So we actually feel like we're in a really good place to keep on going.

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Assistant Principal Nicole Wilson says students at East Derwent Primary School are far more engaged because their learning is more targeted than before.

As a teacher, how are you listening and responding to the prior experiences, interests and needs of students? Is your teaching meeting students at their point of need?