School Improvement Episode 34: PLCs to improve student writing outcomes

Hello, I’m Jo Earp and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine.

My guest on today’s episode of School Improvement is Bernadette Hawker, Head of Department Teaching and Learning at Goondiwindi State High School in Queensland. I caught up with Bernie to talk about the school’s award-winning STEAM Program, which has been successful in improving student writing outcomes.

You’ll also hear about the strong culture of sharing and collaboration among staff, including through Professional Learning Communities, that’s been key to the program’s continued growth and success. So, let’s get started.

Jo Earp: Bernie, welcome to Teacher magazine. First of all, can you tell listeners a bit about Goondiwindi State High School?

Bernie Hawker: Sure, so Goondiwindi State High School is a little co-educational state high school located in Goondiwindi – that’s a town of around 8000 people on the Queensland/New South Wales border and we’re about four-and-a-half hours’ drive west of Brisbane. We have approximately 500 students, about 20 per cent are Indigenous and about 18 per cent have identified special needs. We’ve got about 50 staff – permanent and part-time staff – and our principal Brett has been with us for 12 years, which has been fantastic; usually we have principals for a year or two, so that’s quite an important part of our school structure at the moment.

JE: That might be something actually that we look at later when we talk about how this program has grown and the success of it. So, then the next thing I’m interested in is about your own role there, what kind of things do you do there, what is your title first of all and what does that encompass?

BH: Well I’ve just been officially this year made the Head of Department for Teaching and Learning, and I look after the Arts Department at the school – so, Art, Music, Drama, etc. I teach in the English Department and my other area of responsibility is our whole school professional development, so capacity building of our staff really – that involves delivering PD and also running our STEAM program, which we wanted to talk about today.

JE: Now, we’re connecting by the wonders of online technology. You’re in lockdown currently in Queensland, we’re working from home here in Melbourne. Now, we’ve met before though, face-to-face at conferences, haven’t we, a couple of times? It’s something that seems to be a part of the culture there at Goondwindi, sharing what’s happening with other educators around the country; sometimes around the world, have you done that as well?

BH: We’ve done a couple of national conferences with ACER [Australian Council for Educational Research]. No, we haven’t done anything international – that might be our next goal, potentially! But, no, we love sharing our work. We love sharing within the school, we’ve got a really beautiful culture here of teacher sharing and collaboration. We share in our cluster, in our MacIntyre Cluster, across the schools in our cluster. Across our region we’ve done a lot of presentations and at a state level as well. So we’ve had lots of opportunities to share what we’ve been doing and I would say collaboration is a really massive cornerstone of what we do and how we do it in our school; that I think has grown over time and now kind of is almost just like a mainstay of how we like to do things.

JE: It sounds a great culture that you’ve got going there. So, today we’re going to share what's happening at a whole-school level to improve student writing outcomes – and before we start, actually the school has already received recognition for the work that it’s done, hasn’t it? It won a 2018 Queensland Showcase Award for Excellence in the Secondary Years?

BH: We did and we were so proud to win that award, because for us it was wonderful affirmation of all the hard that we’d done to make measurable improvements in our students’ writing. And it was great because, just prior to winning that award our school was also named as being in the Top 10 biggest improvers in NAPLAN in Queensland, from 2016-2018; so, I think in 2016 we were ranked something like 336th in the state, and in 2018 we were number 10. So, those two things happened very closely together and for us it was just getting some affirmation but also, more importantly, the difference that we could see that the program we were running was making to the writing abilities of the students in our classroom; but also, our teachers’ confidence to actually teach those writing skills, regardless of what their subject area was.

JE: For our international podcast listeners, NAPLAN here in Australia is the national assessment which measure literacy and numeracy for students. Now, for teaching and learning of writing then the school has created what’s called STEAM – the Smart Teachers Enthusiastically Achieving More program. Why was this a priority for students? And, what was the aim?

BH: Well, in early 2015 Ed Queensland at that time had introduced a Master Teacher program in Queensland; so our school was allocated that position and I was lucky enough to become the Master Teacher at Goondiwindi State High School for those four years from 2015-2018. And part of that role was identifying an area within the school that needed improvement, and then developing a plan or a program to ensure that we could make a difference to some aspect of the school.

So at that time Brett Hallett, our principal, and myself sat down and analysed all our school data sets. When we did that, the thing that stood out the most to us was the students’ results in NAPLAN Writing in Year 9 – that was our biggest deficit area across a whole range of things. At that time we were -20.6 per cent behind the nation and had been declining longitudinally, so we decided that that should be a priority.

It did feel like an incredibly daunting task at that time, and so you know we had to work out, well, how to make it possible, but also how to make it achievable for our school.

JE: Like you say, it seems like quite a daunting task in some respects – you say, ‘oh well, we’re going to tackle writing, we’re going to improve writing, right across the school’, but it’s no easy thing. So, setting up an intervention like this then is a big task – if you take me back to those initial stages of planning then, in 2015 you mentioned. What did that look like in terms of who was going to be involved? What were the conversations that you were having in terms of teaching staff, whether you were going to target particular year groups? How did you go about doing that?

BH: Well, initially, we thought that it would be better to start with … I always had it in my head and I’d done a lot of research before we even started looking into this: How had other schools done it? What was working across Australia? What was working internationally? I did a lot of reading, there were some great articles that the Grattan Institute had published about turning around schools, targeted teaching, making time for great teaching … lots of articles like that. I did a lot of reading around Professional Learning Communities, and so, what our initial research told us was that it was really important that we had a sharp and narrow focus for this improvement and that it could be measurable – otherwise we wouldn’t be able to maintain our momentum. We decided to use Kotter’s Change model as our focus for our progress so that we could stay on track.

So, based on all of that, Brett and I decided we would target, initially, students who were in Year 8 in 2015, because we knew we had their 2014 Year 7 NAPLAN Writing data and we’d be able to measure improvements in their 2016 Year 9 NAPLAN Writing data. So that’s why we started with them. So I then went and talked to every single teacher who taught Year 8 at our school at that time. I showed them our data, I talked about why this was such a big problem and said, you know ‘do you want to work together to see if we can make things better for our kids? Because, this isn’t just going to help their NAPLAN data (that was just one aspect that we could measure), but this is going to help you as the teacher, this is going to help your kids feel more confident to write’. Every single Year 8 teacher came to our first meeting. So I think one of the key things was, first of all, just establishing those connections with people and getting them wanting to buy-in to what we were trying to do. And that buy-in was key in that first meeting as well…

JE: That was all the teachers, it wasn’t just teachers teaching literacy was it, or having a role in that? This was right across all subject areas. That must have been fantastic to get that kind of response?

BH: They all came along, everyone from the ITD (Industrial Technology and Design) teacher, to the Phys Ed teacher to Science teacher to the Maths teacher – everyone who taught Year 8. And I showed them some data from a student that they all taught, and that child was failing every single subject. And it was a bit of an ‘aha moment’ because I think, collectively, they realised, and we all realised, that we are all responsible for this child’s learning and if they’re failing your subject and my subject and everyone else’s subject then we’ve all got to do something to help this child and every other child like that who is failing with their writing in our school.

So that was kind of a moment where I had them, I felt, and my principal Brett says the same thing – and STEAM was born from there. We said ‘okay, what are we going to do?’ We came up with our name, they collaboratively came up with STEAM: Smart Teachers Enthusiastically Achieving More. We came up with our vision, with came up with our goals … we decided when we were going to meet, how often we were going to meet, how they wanted to do that. They decided Thursday mornings 8-8.30 once a fortnight and it kind of went from there.

I’m going to jump into the recording at this point with a quick reminder that if you want to find out more about the studies and resources mentioned in any of our podcasts we add in links to the episode transcript, which you can find at While I’m here, a quick heads-up that the next section talks about the TEEL strategy – that’s T.E.E.L. and in the STEAM program at Goondiwindi it stands for Topic sentence, Elaboration, Evidence, and Linking sentence. Okay, housekeeping done, back to the chat!

JE: Okay, so it sounds great, we’ve got the buy-in from the teachers, the plan is there. So now I’m eager to find out a bit more about the program itself.

BH: Well then, initially it was about, again, where do you start? It feels overwhelming and daunting and I thought well, if one of the measures for improvement is going to be NAPLAN Writing data well we actually need to know how that writing task is assessed, what the criteria is, what does that criteria mean, and then what does that actually look like in our teaching. Because, if we don’t understand the criterion, what kids are being marked on, then how do we know what to teach?

So what we did initially was we looked at the NAPLAN Writing criteria and looked at which areas in that criteria had our kids not been performing; which areas were they performing the worst in, really. And, that analysis showed us that paragraphing was a real deficit area for our kids. And even though, when you look at the criteria, paragraphing is only scored out of three, and there are other things like sentence structure that are scored more highly, that was something that we knew across all our subjects every teacher had to teach paragraphing in some form. So we decided to start there.

And what we did was developed sets of arrows using that NAPLAN criteria – so that broke the skills down for the kids, and then we could look at their NAPLAN data from Year 7 and go ‘okay, this child scored 0 for paragraphing, we’ll give them a Level 1 arrow, which tells them what their next step is to improve their paragraph writing skills’. And along with that went a lot of targeted teaching in our STEAM sessions.

So we actually run our STEAM sessions like a class. I come in and we do a warm up, we do our learning intentions, I actually teach the strategy and the teachers actually do the strategy and then they go out and try it in their classrooms, and then we come back and share how it went – you know, did it work, didn’t it, etcetera etcetera. And we always do fun topics … you know we might do ‘Game of Thrones’ might be our topic one day or ‘ordering beer from the bar’ might be another topic – just random topics to show the transferability of the skills, that they can be taught for any topic, in any subject, and we can get kids writing.

And then we’ve just developed that, continued that same approach across vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation. But what’s been amazing is lots of teachers said they didn’t know how to punctuate a sentence themselves, they didn’t know different types of sentences. So even empowering the teachers with that knowledge has had a massive impact on our kids’ confidence, but the teachers’ confidence as well, in all sorts of ways that we couldn’t have even imagined when we started out.

And what we saw starting to happen was teachers who were in STEAM (and it’s voluntary) would go out into their classrooms and started using these strategies and seeing the improvement in their kids’ writing, and then they started just naturally using them across their other year levels. Then other kids started to say, well, ‘Mrs Hawker, Mrs Bryan is using TEEL [Topic sentence, Elaboration, Evidence, Linking sentence] in her History class, why aren’t you?’ And then we found more teachers started to come to STEAM who didn’t even teach Year 8 just because they’d heard about what we were doing and the kids were saying ‘why aren’t you doing what those other teachers are doing?’ and that built momentum as well.

JE: Perhaps that I should just point out that the choice of topics on ‘ordering beer from the bar’ is one for the professional learning for staff and not for students.

BH: Yeah, that’s right, exactly Jo, exactly!

JE: And another important aspect I should probably mention at this point is the research and evidence base – you’ve mentioned that briefly before. We’ve talked about school-based data, student data, and you’ve also touched on some of the academic evidence. So, I’m interested, why was that crucial to what you wanted to deliver? Why was this research and evidence base an important part, why not just gather round and sort of throw in some ideas and off we go? Which is sometimes what happens.

BH: Yeah. Oh no, well right from the very beginning I just knew that if we were going to have credibility and be able to sustain this and maintain it over a long period of time there had to be a really strong evidence base behind it. We’re a little rural school in western Queensland, you know, ‘what would we know?’ is kind of the vibe that you often get.

So, there were two elements I suppose; one the credibility but also, you know, I think if you’ve got the evidence, even with teachers now you can say ‘this strategy, according to John Hattie, has an effect size of 0.85 in the classroom, it obviously works so let’s give it a go, let’s try it. It’s not just what I think might work, it’s not just what you think might work, it’s what people who know what they’re talking about have tried and proven to work.’ So, that was critical I think and to this day we continue to make sure that everything we do is supported by the research and that we’ve got evidence to say ‘we know this works, let’s give it a go’.

And that’s also helped build the momentum as well, because once people started to see ‘oh yes, actually that does work’ they were more willing, then, to engage as we went along because they could see that that quality was there. And I think that’s been critical really to a lot of the success that we’ve had.

JE: And an important thing that you said there was ‘let’s give it a go, it’s shown to work in research but, obviously, let’s give it a go’ – we’re not assuming that anything is definitely going to work for you, you might have different needs in your community there. So, as you were implementing then, what kind of discussions were still going on between staff, maybe about the professional learning side of things, maybe about some areas for tweaking, reviewing how it was going for the students? What was going on in the background there as you were going along at the beginning?

BH: Oh, well, constant … at the end of each term we made a decision that our last session for each term would always be a reflection session. So we always did at the end of each term a little traffic light reflection (for want of a better word) – what’s working, what’s not working, what do we want to keep doing? So that was constant. But even at the start of all of our sessions we usually do our warm up is a little reflection: What’s worked? Who’s tried this? What successes have you had? What hasn’t worked?

So that constant discussion all the time. Because, as you say Jo, sometimes, yeah, the evidence says it works but we’ve got a very unique context and we’ve got lots of very young, often first year teachers on our staff, we’ve got a high turnover of staff so those conversations are critical and that evidence is critical to maintaining our momentum and maintaining the credibility of the program.

JE: And, this is a massive question, I’m just going to throw it in there right towards the end! It started 2015, you’ve presented a lot on the success of this, we’ve mentioned you’ve won an award for it, it started off at Year 8 level and you were hinting there that it was gradually expanding, sort of organically if you like. What’s happened since then? The initial aim was Year 8s, obviously, so what’s happened since then?

BH: Well, it’s just grown exponentially as you say. And yes we’ve had some awesome NAPLAN improvements to validate our work. The last time we had any NAPLAN data to look at was 2019 I think and we’d gone from being -20.6 per cent behind the nation to 0.05 per cent. So, we’re still not quite at National Minimum Standard, but that’s, for us, a massive achievement, for Year 9 kids.

It’s just continued to be a really strong force of change in our school. Last week at our STEAM meeting on a Thursday morning at 8 o’clock when it was 2 degrees we had 22 staff voluntarily, that’s basically half our staff there as volunteers on Thursday morning. But what’s starting to happen too now Jo, is that it’s not Year 8 it’s the whole school now. There’s no real focus on any particular year level. We determine what our focus is going to be at the start of each term, and now more and more other STEAM members are actually running the STEAM sessions.

And then what we also have at our school is once a term our school has a whole staff professional development that we call Master Class that I run, but now basically our STEAM team members run Master Class. So they share what we’ve been doing in STEAM, model the strategies that we’ve been using and trying in our classrooms, they model those to the whole staff and then the whole staff goes and uses them as well. So it’s just part of our culture now; that sharing is part of our culture.

Our school opinion survey data has just gone through the roof, in terms of we’ve had continual improvement in that data pretty much every year since we started STEAM, particularly in staff satisfaction and the culture within our school.

Even now our focus is still on writing, primarily, but we’re layering in over the top all the time other focus areas – so at the moment the cognitive verbs in Queensland has become a real focus area through the QCAA [Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority] and so we now … for example at the moment, we’re looking at how do we teach kids to write analytically, really well? So we’re modelling strategies for thinking analytically and then turning that thinking into really strong analytical writing that’s appropriate for your subject area and your year level. So it’s really now understanding – well what does the cognitive verb mean and how do we apply knowledge of that cognitive verb, what does that look like in a strategy in your classroom? So that we can really get students performing really well across those cognitive verbs in the senior phase.

And we’ve had some great results in the ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank] subjects as well. So we’ve got lots of little pieces of evidence that we can put together to demonstrate the success, I guess, of what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

JE: And Brett Hallett, the principal, he can’t be with us today unfortunately but you mentioned he’s been there 12 years. How important has that been to have that consistency there from leadership?

BH: I would think that has been one of the most critical factors of our success, that Brett right from the very beginning was such a strong supporter and advocate for STEAM and he has himself been an active participant in STEAM. So, he comes nearly every single time – he can’t come every single time as the principal, obviously he has other priorities, but he is there 90 per cent of the time. He is at our STEAM sessions, he’s participating as a member like anyone else. He’s sitting there next to the first year teacher saying ‘I don’t know what a complex sentence is, can you …?’ So, modelling that desire to learn, modelling that participation and that active involvement in something that we’re doing to improve student outcomes and teacher confidence. So that has been critical and he’s been a really, really important factor in driving and helping to maintain that momentum.

JE: Finally then, before we finish, thanks again for today; we talked right at the start of the episode about the fact you've presented at conferences and really shared what's been happening with the STEAM program. There are lots of experiences there along the way, what have been some of the key learnings then that you'd share with listeners?

BH: Well I would think one that we’ve just mentioned, the importance of the principal as being not only an advocate but an actual key participant in the program, that’s been key; that would be one of the most important things I would say.

I think also that idea of having a very sharp and narrow focus, because otherwise it’s just overwhelming – so that would be something that’s key. But also knowing what your next steps for learning are, not only for the students but also for us as the teachers so that we are always sort of forearmed, I guess, in terms of progressing students’ skills.

I think the power of PLCs [Professional Learning Communities] has been amazing – that collaboration and that shared work has just … I can’t talk enough about the culture in our school and the staff and the way they have embraced it and the way they have supported everything that we’ve tried to do to make our kids perform as well as they can possibly perform.

I think key also is that willingness to share and creating that culture of trust. I think that feeling of psychological safety that we have – when you come into STEAM it’s okay to say ‘I actually don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know what that means, I don’t actually know where to put a comma myself in a sentence, so how can I teach my students to do that?’ So that’s really important and I think part of that, that comes down to the power of our relationships and really making sure that we’ve got positive and supportive relationships between the staff at our school so that you can continue the work. And I think celebrating success to maintain that momentum is really key as well.

And then I just think also just a lot of hard work over a really long time! And we have a saying – I don’t know where I heard it at one of the conferences I went to – that idea of being ‘respectfully relentless’; and just never giving up and just chugging away and doing the work that’s required to get the outcomes that you want. So that would be my top tips!

JE: Thanks Bernie, keep chugging away up there in Queensland. We wish you all the best for the future – keep on sharing, keep on collaborating. It’s been fantastic to catch up with you again, hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up face-to-face soon, if we can do that. But, for the meantime, thanks again for sharing your story with Teacher.

BH: Thank you for having us Jo.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts or SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so that you can be notified of any new episodes. While you're there, we'd love for you to rate and review the podcast in your podcast app.

Related reading and resources

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2009). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Students’ Achievement. Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2012). The School Leader's Guide to Professional Learning Communities at Work. Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R. B., Eaker, R. E., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. W. (2020). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Solution Tree Press.

Goss, P., & Hunter, J. (2015). Targeted teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning. Grattan Institute.

Jensen, B. (2013). A new way to help new teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(7), 76-77.

Jensen, B., Hunter, J., Sonnemann, J., & Cooper, S. (2014). Making time for great teaching. Grattan Institute. (PDF, 1.1MB)

Jensen, B., & Sonnemann, J. (2014). Turning around schools: it can be done. Grattan Institute. (PDF, 661KB)

Bernie Hawker says having a very sharp and narrow focus and knowing what your next steps for learning are – for the students and teachers – has been a key to the program’s success. Thinking about an improvement initiative in your school, would you say this is the case?

Principal Brett Hallett’s support for the STEAM program, and the fact he is an active participant, has been another important driver. As a school leader, how often do you attend staff professional learning sessions? How do you model to staff the importance of continued professional learning?