Victor Harbor R-7 School is located in the seaside city of Victor Harbor on the Fleurieu Peninsula, around 80km south of Adelaide, SA. The school is classified as Category 4 on the DECD Index of Educational Disadvantage and has an ICSEA of 969. Among the school population of approximately 600, there are around 50 Aboriginal students and a small number of EAL/D learners.
Victor Harbor has provided public education in the town since 1874, moving to the current site in 1986. The school embraces early years methodology and primary and middle school philosophies and aims to support all students to reach their full potential. This includes providing a strong specialist music and drama program, and a dedicated connection to all SAPSASA sports giving their older students a chance to represent the local district.
The school’s vision is for a dynamic, forward-thinking school continuing to develop children’s skills in numeracy, literacy, information technology and social skills. Staff aim to provide all children with a solid foundation to build life skills, making their learning journey relevant, consistent, fun and memorable.
In 2017, Victor Harbor began to consider, ‘How can we embed student voice into our culture to improve learning outcomes?’ Through surveying students they received feedback such as, ‘We do [student voice] in a come and go sort of way. In our big projects we’re allowed to have our say, but in normal everyday things there’s not quite as many chances for us to have our opinions heard.’
The leadership team understood that in order to improve students’ outcomes in all areas of education, they needed to have ownership of their learning. In the Teaching for Effective Learning (TfEL) compass report, nearly 50% of Year 3 to 7 students gave a neutral response to the statement ‘When I learn, I feel safe to take risks or voice my opinion’, with multiple students sharing comments like, ‘I don’t feel confident to disagree with my teachers’ choices. I am afraid I would get told off.’
They recognised that student voice could not only increase students’ ownership of learning but allow them to develop the social and life skills necessary for the real world.
What happened during the project?
In the early stages of work, Victor Harbor gathered data to inform the direction of individual and whole school professional development. The TfEL framework was used to design learning that improves learner engagement, challenge and achievement. This included involving students in the learning design process and focusing on differentiation and formative assessment. Teachers were given release time to collaboratively work through the LDAM cycle in staff meetings with a specific focus on incorporating student voice in learning.
In 2018, Victor Harbor PS supported teachers to implement strategies for student voice. This began with one-offs like designing a school hoodie before moving to more authentic and learning-focused activities, including co-constructing learning design tasks and assessments, and even teachers analysing achievement data alongside students. Teachers reported these strategies as being effective in the upper years, however Early Years (EY) teachers (Foundation to Year 2) were still struggling with the disengagement of students, and the needs of their learners were becoming increasingly complex (with 24 out of 50 Foundation students identified with a learning difficulty or disability).
A visit to Stirling North Public School, an SVA partner, identified Walker Learning as a possible solution. This evidence-based model of inquiry and play-based learning is facilitated by teachers who plan fortnightly learning intentions but directed and implemented through the students’ interests and their daily decisions on where to investigate. Leadership pitched the approach to EY staff and was pleasantly surprised by the amount of uptake, with every EY teacher keen to participate in the trial.
A key motivator for pursuing this path was that if the school began at the beginning with foundation students, culture change would be more likely as these students would be exposed to student-led learning from the start of their schooling careers and be there to carry that change the longest.
After developing a one-year roll-out plan, Victor Harbor found many teachers had reached full implementation (of having investigations four mornings a week) six months before their goal, motivated by the outcomes they were seeing from students.
Additionally, at the beginning of 2019 Victor Harbor had the opportunity through SVA to connect with an organisation called Maths Pathway. As the school had already been working on including students in the construction of learning design and assessment and analysing upper years students’ achievement data with them, Maths Pathway offered them a way to expand these approaches into everyday teaching and learning. They began a six-month trial with their Year 6 cohort, with funding and plans in place to expand this to Years 5-7 in 2020.
To successfully implement and sustain these new approaches and drive teaching and learning improvements, Victor Harbor PS focused on putting structures in place to support the collaboration of staff. Many teachers were working in isolation, whereas now the school has a whole-school model where staff work in collaborative teams once a week to more regularly discuss and evaluate teacher practice and progress these changes. In addition, the school looked to change the perception of observations across their site. This began by having leaders regularly visit classrooms to normalise this approach, and then eventually developed into more formal observations and feedback using the TfEL review tools.
Gaining community buy-in and engagement with these new programs was also key. To assist with the implementation of Walker Learner, for example, a consultant not only provided expert advice and PD for staff but co-facilitated a parent information evening with the team. This gave parents/carers a detailed overview of Walker Learning, which explained why children were now working in less traditional environments, and gave parents strategies to access and talk about this learning at home. This included looking at the learning intentions shared on their class’s communication boards and digital platforms each fortnight and getting involved in various ways, for instance, by providing the school with travel brochures for a class’s airport in dramatic play, bringing in guinea pigs for students to investigate and observe at their science station and even a whole class excursion to a student’s farm to immerse them in their theme for that fortnight. Another example of connecting to the community was a local baker visit to a Year 2 class.
What changed for the students?
Over the course of the project, the school has seen improved consistency and transparency of teaching and learning across R to 7. With the implementation of highly structured programs such as Walker Learning and Maths Pathway, not only are teachers better able to explain their practice, but students are better able to explain their learning.
Through their work in the Early Years, they quickly saw student improvement, with a Year 1 student commenting in the early stages of the Walker Learning implementation: ‘My favourite part about investigations is going to the stations instead of someone just telling us because we can decide between each station.’
In a recent teacher perception survey, the average stage of implementation for key elements of Walker Learning (such as learning intentions, tuning in, reflection and focus children) was “regularly implemented” showing progress to “embedded”.
A teacher also commented that ‘You’ve brought something so meaningful to our EY team that is going to shape our school into the future’, demonstrating that by providing the time and support the EY team is working more collaboratively to share good practice, discuss challenges of practice in Walker Learning, and celebrate their own and students’ success. Having a program such as Walker Learning, also enabled them to upskill students and teachers at the same time, supporting the idea, “we are all learners”.
After six months, Victor Harbor conducted a TfEL student survey in their Year 2 block and found that 80% of those students ‘felt OK to have a go and ask questions’ and 82% reported having some choices about their learning. There have also been literacy and numeracy improvements for children who were reluctant to engage in this learning. A Year 1 Aboriginal student, who mostly refused during writing, wrote a comprehensive recount of his investigations and then received feedback from leadership to celebrate his success. Additionally, students have started to make connections between the learning intentions and the real-world, with a student commenting that, ‘Investigations help me learn because if you’re doing something like the airport, when you’re older you’ll know more about the airport.’
This has been supported by community engagement with investigations, in particular the local baker visit to a Year 2 class. Students explored the process of making bread with the baker, which complemented a science unit they were doing at the time on the effects of mixing different materials together. After the baker’s very interactive visit, students had a station dedicated to making different types of dough as well as a dramatic play space set up as a bakery. They practiced skills such as asking for and taking orders, making lists, and adding up prices. They even developed their own signs and menus which included gluten free options for one of their teachers. This was the first dramatic play space in the school’s Year 2 unit that saw sustained engagement where students stayed at the station for the full investigation. As a result, students connected the learning to not only their personal lives, but to the wider world and real-life scenarios, helping them to begin to better understand and aspire to different careers or professions.
Through targeting their EY students, Victor Harbor has seen significant improvement in students’ engagement and an increase of students’ ownership of the learning, setting them up for success in future years of schooling and the wider world.
‘We can all be at different levels in maths because if you’re in front of something you can get more of a challenge and if you’re behind you can go at your own pace and eventually get there.’ – Anais Foot, student
While Maths Pathway was only implemented recently, the school has also received significant results with this new approach. Students are reporting feeling more in charge of their learning in maths and like being able to see growth more formatively. Across the three classes the school has managed to:
- Diagnose students’ understanding of 78% of the curriculum allowing teachers to provide more targeted and responsive feedback.
- Achieve an average growth rate of student learning in mathematics of 144.33% (meaning the average Year 6 student at Victor Harbor is on track to make 1.44 years of growth in 12 months)
- Have 100% engagement with the reflection and feedback components of the program, demonstrating all students are aware of, understand and engage with their own data, increasing their ownership of the learning.
‘It’s good because if you’re not great at maths it puts you on what you need to do and then you see your growth score and feel good about it. Because sometimes seeing a grade puts you down.’
Olivia Nobbs, student
Where to next?
Victor Harbor will look to consolidate and embed Walker Learning in 2020, focusing on formative assessment strategies such as learning intentions, success criteria and feedback that moves learning forward. Leadership plans to extend the approach into Year 3, where they will create their own developmentally appropriate investigations for middle primary. The team will also conduct another parent information evening on the program for new families enrolling their students in Reception.
The launch of Maths Pathway 5-7 is planned for 2020 and the school will potentially trial the Maths Pathway F-4 diagnostic tool as well.
Leadership will consider and plan for how elements of the above programs that promote and embed student voice can be amplified across all year levels and all learning areas (e.g. feedback, learning intentions etc).
This year will also see the start of the school’s student-led “Learning Dispositions” project, with mentoring from Blairmount Public School, NSW to create a whole school language for learning.
Victor Harbor R-7 School learned the following were important to success:
- Forging connections – Seeking connection and collaborating with like-minded schools is an important catalyst in whole-school improvement. Through its relationship with SVA, Victor Harbor recognised that they will often have to reach out further than their immediate partnership to find these connections.
- Students as changemakers – Students are our biggest resources and changemakers in whole-school improvement. It’s easy to underestimate them, but their insights should help us identify a need for change and their opinions and ideas should drive the change.
- Engaging stakeholders – To get a shift in culture, all stakeholders must have input. Victor Harbor’s journey to embed student voice couldn’t exclude their early childhood cohort. To get a shift in culture, they needed those children to drive student voice from the very start of their learning journey in order to influence their middle and upper primary experiences.
The importance of collaboration
Q&A with the School Principal Brenton Robins
Q: What has made SVA a productive partnership for your school?
The SVA relationship has given us the opportunity to build capacity in leadership. In particular, it has enabled our TfEL coordinator to critically reflect on other schools’ practices and discuss with me the implications for our context.
The opportunity to link with Sue Cridge has broadened my professional network. I feel confident to use this connection in the future either formally or informally to support our work.
Q: Outside of SVA itself, what has been the most productive partnership you’ve developed through your SVA project? Why has it been productive?
Our development of our partnership Professional Learning Community (PLC) in 2018 called Fleurieu Teachers Connect brings teachers in our partnership schools together to share innovative practice. Participants can optionally attend an after-school session hosted at a site in our partnership, and beforehand suggest topics via our social media pages for professional learning. Our team then seeks experts in those areas and co-plans and delivers this professional development.
An example of this was last year where our EY team hosted their own Fleurieu Teachers Connect PLC focused on Walker Learning, as well as hosting 20 of our SVA colleagues from interstate to see it in practice. After visiting the F-2 classrooms during investigations, SVA visitors were able to ask questions to an EY panel where both students and teachers could share their ideas, achievements and suggestions.
Afterwards we received verbal feedback from our visitors who made comments such as,
‘You have articulate and confident learners who take action.’
‘Kids are in charge of their own learning.’
‘I feel like I have been invited into your family today.’
Not only was this incredibly affirming for students and teachers, but it demonstrated how our EY team at Victor Harbor now shares our good practice with the wider teaching community.
Contribution of another school to your journey
It was on a visit to SVA partner school Stirling North PS that we had the opportunity to discuss the challenges around embedding student voice in the Early Years (EY) and identify a potential solution. This was the first time we observed Walker Learning in action.
This connection enabled us to explore a whole-school initiative to support student agency in EY learning. The ability of our TfEL coordinator to connect with teachers (and their leaders) about the “in-practice” implications (what worked and what didn’t) enabled efficient and timely implementation.