Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Choose your own adventure - Australian Science and Mathematics School

The Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS) is focussed on providing a vibrant, future focussed curriculum for students who have a passion for Science and Mathematics. 390 students through Yr 10-12 (our 11-13) choose and pursue their own adventure in open plan, flexible, colourful and unbelievably quiet spaces. 80% of the students go onto tertiary studies.

Pillars and coloured seating are used to delineate individual spaces within the whole - the pastoral teams have 'team areas' for Learning Studies - the pastoral care curriculum. Purple seating designated non assigned areas in all spaces.  The design will look familiar to those of us who have visited Albany Senior College, Ormiston or HPSS, as ASMS hosts many visiting educators. Part of their school 'brief' is to 'support educators in changing their practice,vimproving student learning.' 

Two students to me in a tour of the school, which covers two floors and an aviation lab in the adjoining Flinders University Campus. As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I noticed was the 'quietness' of the space during the learning times. During recess and lunchtime, the noise level rose considerably. Another thing was that the teacher spaces were fully open to the student spaces, unlike the models we have seen in NZ. If needed, there were rooms where quiet conversations could take place. 

the green team teacher space 

The curriculum is divided into Yr10/11 and Yr12. Unlike us, Australia has only one level of national examinations, in the final year of school. Which makes the system very high stakes. However, this affords a deal of flexibility in the two years prior to this. I guess this was the school with the curriculum that most resonated with me - not just the integrated thematic approach to Yr 10/11. but also the formalised pastoral care curriculum. 

For set periods of the day the Yr 10/11 students work in mixed groupings on 'central studies'. Over the two years they cover 8 broad themes, which focus on real world problems and include 'new sciences.' The slide below is from a presentation shared with me by Andy Stone, one of the schools Deputy Principals - showing the broad themes for the Central Studies courses. 

 Each topic has a 'Fertile Q' - which is then worked on collaboratively by a group of up to 12 teachers. Most are involved facilitating central studies, but Languages, Drama and Music are addressed in 'Adventure Space Time'. The question drives ;the feel' of the unit - then the teachers will decide how the specific aspects of curriculum delivery will be addressed or approached. There is responsibility for curriculum checkpoints and assessment checkpoints within the group. Teams are built around expertise and who would work well together - a balance is created between who creates what work and between teachers' individual contexts and delivery.
Below is an example of a 'fertile question' and the curriculum contexts that evolved from it.

The Fertile Question

The disciplines that sit underneath the fertile question are essential for mapping the curriculum. The 4 central studies are designed so that the essential elements of Science and Maths are covered across the two years. This programme was not designed overnight - Andy mentioned that it had taken a number of years to get these programmes 'right'. One of the key benefits, apart from student engagement, was the time saved working in teams, the willingness of staff to share - but also be prepared to see things change. Understanding by Design (Jay McTighe) provides the framework for unit design, and all documents refer to this planning framework One of the big shifts is that assessment also needs to be interdisciplinary as well. He asked the question - if the kids are learning, do the need to be assessed all the time? I must say that most of the schools I visited were aghast at the fact we had a 3 year examination system.

Central studies form only part of a Yr 10/11 timetable -Adventure Space Time (individual - choose your own adventure topics) and Learning Studies Groups, make up the rest of the timetable. 

Learning Studies Group is the formalised pastoral care programme. The students are divided into 4 teams (designated by colour). Each group had no more than 18 students, and one tutor, and a team leader. An overall Learning Studies Leader coordinator developed the programme in conjunction with the 4 team leaders. Term 1's programme was about making ASMS 'work for me'. These sessions were 40 minutes a day. As well as the structured programme helped monitor and map each students individual curriculum plans  linking to their academic . Sometimes the groups regrouped into Yr levels. Term 2's programme revolves around the neurosciences. Lots of planning time was provided to ensure that this programme ran smoothly. 

Toby and Sion, my student tour guides, talked extremely passionately about their time at ASMS - but it was not all rose tinted glasses! Interestingly the commented on the things they'd like changed in the labs! More sink spaces, as it was annoying to have to wait to wash gear! They felt that they could be a lot more independent at complete work stations. 
I wonder if we have asked our students about this! Both students were taking Psychology as a major - but as ASMS (and I presume South Australia, it sits under the Science, not Humanities umbrella. They reiterated a number of times, that what they valued the most, was the fact that there were no boundaries to what you wanted to learn. An 'innovation space' on both the timetable and in a physical space, allowed students to follow a personalised project - for which funding was available, if required. They also liked the fact that formative assessment work was not compulsory - as students were at different stages - if you needed to do it, you did. They saw this as ultimate differentiation!

For me the innovative curriulum design; collaborative team teaching approach and the focus on Learning Coach model of pastoral and academic care were the key. Obviously the building and learning spaces were impressive. Part of the school's founding philosophy is that they are tasked with providing professional learning opportunities for their own staff, local staff, regional staff and international staff, like myself. 

Thanks ASMS team for your time and willingness to share ideas and resources. 

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