Today I was the school's official 1000th visitor (complete with bubbles) since Steve and his staff began the transformational change of introducing a project based personalised learning programme.
Birdwood HS is situated in the Adelaide Hills, about 50km northeast of Adelaide. It has a roll around 500. The school has an agricultural component and runs a brewery and vineyard. It boasts a amazing automotive training centre and a commercial bakery. The 4 local high schools collaborated and each one took responsibility for a tertiary career pathway area. No seniors ( Yr12) have allocated subject time on Weds- they can come to school to work in the Senior hub if they choose to, they could be at a TAFE (our gateway) course etc. this flexibility in senior timetabling was also a feature of a number of these innovative schools.
Steve has been Principal at Birdwood for 6 years. He had always been aware that in the middle years (8-10) engagement - lack of - was a real issue .
When kids aren't engaged no matter how long you make them sit there in rows doing the same thing over and over, they're never going to get it.
All the things that we've know about students and schools today sit behind Birdwood's decision to make radical changes to curriculum and curriculum delivery
- schools no longer need to provide information
- kids communicate in many ways
- employment possibilities are changing
- one size fits all will no longer work
The change to an integrated approach to the Yr 8 was initially optional - and Steve and the team were initially surprised that 2/3 of the kids opted for an integrated approach to their Yr8 schooling. After 3 terms of this approach, all data sets showed significant positive shifts in the integrated classes results - literacy, numeracy, attendance, engagement - interestingly the same teachers were teaching both courses!!
Since then all of Yr 8-10 curriculum, that's our 9-11 has shifted to 'problem based learning' - initially as part of the 'Big Picture' schools, more recently as part of the 'Learning Frontiers'. For a large chunk of the week all the Yr 8 students are together in AIL generally working on PBL. The same for Yr 10 and 11. At other times they are multilevelled or on taster courses (Yr8). Students, community and teacher feedback is overwhelming supportive of the changes that have been made. Attendance, which was always high, rose to 96%. The 'time out room' clients dropped by 85% in the first two years - and the room has since been closed at staff's request.
I was lucky enough to see some of the presentation practices from the Yr 9 students -
The main learning was around the history curriculum content of the Industrial Revolution - set content. However science (the chemistry of developing photos using a pinhole camera) and technology (building a machine that incorporated movement and showed the develoment of something that came from the industrial revolution era) and the skills of oral presentation were being assessed using a multi-curriculum rubric.
Michael's piece was not quite finished but he explained that each box held a picture, some taken with the pinhole, was lit up and showed the develoment of sound. He had made every component - and was working through recesses to complete it.
He was part of a group of three who presented - a key part was the 'warm' and 'cold' feedback given by both teacher and the audience of peers. The group reflected on the feedback as part of the presentation. This is seen as a key part of the learning process.
Other structural changes have taken place. The library (which was huge compared to ours) has been down-sized and more compact shelving installed. This has created a spacious and interesting Yr9 learning area. Some walls have been knocked out; students redesign their spaces; Yr level school camps have disappeared and have been replaced by 'immersion activities' linked to student interests; Faculty structures have been dismantled and a different approach to leadrship has replaced them and what we would call the 'learning coach model' (advisory teacher) was introduced. This was a common amongst all the schools I visited and the ones we saw at conference. Each teacher has a group of no more than 18 students, they meet daily for a good chunk of time (4 hours a week) that is part of the teaching allocation. It's more than just roll, notices and uniform. It's about ongoing learning conversations and tracking of achievement, curriculum goals and pathways. In a PBL and personalised learning system, this advisor is essential. The staff have become better at these since their introduction.
The school is not an overly affluent one and Steve openly admits that they have done things on a shoestring! But this does not matter - the kids were calm, engaged and willing to discuss their learning. Even with a fair few relievers in the mix! Collaboration both between groups of teachers around planning, and with students around the learning is evident - and this has challenged and changed teachers' around 'deprivatising' their practice - for the better.
The Birdwood HS staff and students that I spoke are incredibly proud of what they have achieved and passionate about continuing to look for improvement. They believe there is a lot still to work on -like getting 'truer' integration in the senior curriculum.
I really appreciated the hospitality of Steve, his wife Ngaire and family, Georgia and Liam. The evening I spent with them highlighted the passion and dedication they have in searching for continual improvement.