Does a change in pedagogy improve results?

Schools are being challenged to provide students with a more authentic, relevant and student centred learning opportunity. However, the yard stick for school success in NSW at the moment is achievement on a standarised examination. So can we prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century and achieve success in the HSC?

The answer is ‘YES’. The reason why I know the answer is because I have witnessed it first hand at Parramatta Marist High School. To give some perspective, “it is the oldest Catholic school in the country, but Parramatta Marist High is a model of modern education.” Through the implementation of Project and Problem Based Learning the school has been able to focus on key skills such critical thinking, problem solving, presentation skills and social development and also navigate a crowded curriculum. Students at Parramatta Marist now have an increased confidence to collaborate with other students in solving authentic and rigorous problems.

But that is only part of the story. Parramatta Marist has been consistently in the top 100 schools in NSW over the last seven years, with the 2014 cohort achieving our best results so far. 

The remarkable improvement saw the comprehensive low-fee Catholic school jump from 73rd in the state to 42nd on a list of the state’s top-performing HSC schools, outperforming private schools such as The King’s School, Scots College and Trinity Grammar.

 The 2014 cohort achieved some outstanding individual student success as highlighted on the infographic below. But the statistics that highlight the success of our focus on a student centred pedagogy is the fact that 90% of all students achieved a band 4, 5 and 6. This  shows that students who work together can learn from each other and improve the overall results of a cohort.

Any change is challenging and results are always expected. But many schools will be reassured that such a feat is possible. It requires the confidence of school leadership to manage the change, especially by a dedicated investment in the human capital of teachers. It is imperative that teachers are given the skills to navigate the change and are confident that a focus on skills will always result in academic improvements.

Creating Opportunities for Authentic Learning (COAL)

How to keep it real?

I was lucky to meet Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius when he was involved in PBL World Australia in 2013. The theme of his keynote presentation for like minded educators attempting to implement Project Based Learning (PBL) was to – Keep it real!

From my experience in implementing PBL, one of the key factors for increasing student engagement in the classroom is Creating Opportunities for Authentic Learning or as I like to call it COAL. It is the goal of all 21st century educators to create these experiences, however some times these ‘real life’ experiences occur naturally such as existing competitions or current events. However, often teachers may need to craft real world experiences or occupations to align with the curriculum content. The key ingredient is to keep it real!

Teachers need to be challenged to source opportunities to include COAL into their classroom. Not only does it increase student engagement with the curriculum content, but it also provides a foundation to challenge students to think critically, apply problem solving techniques and develop their social and emotional intelligence. This can be challenging for teachers without a focus of student-centred pedagogies such as Project or Problem Based Learning.

In 2014, Parramatta Marist had the opportunity to participate in a Bridges Project organised by the Global Educational Community (GEC). The project promoted the collaboration of schools in China, United States, Singapore, Australia and Finland on a STEM themed engineering project. Parramatta Marist were fortunate to collaborate with Manor New Tech in Austin, Texas. This COAL opportunity occurred organically from an openness to collaborate globally and a strong focus on student-centred learning and problem solving. 

The video below provides an explanation of the project:

As a result, educational outcomes are also maximised when COAL is targeted. Below are few tips that I have identified to help you in your quest for COAL in your classroom.

TIP 1 – Look for existing competitions

  • There are a number existing competitions that can be easily aligned to curriculum outcomes. These competitions provide an authentic context and importantly an external audience for judging student work.
  • Some good examples of competitions include:

TIP 2 – Using content experts in the classroom

  • The use of content experts is a great way to increase the authenticity of your classroom. Some of the best projects I have implemented have had an external expert. From local politicians, scientists, engineers and journalists, all have challenged students to achieve deeper levels of learning.
  • In 2013, considerable time was spent in populating a parent occupation database. The occupation and interest details of parents were collected to be used in the construction of our PBL projects.
  • The primary aim was to use their expert knowledge and interests as content experts and/or external audiences in project presentations. The secondary aim was a way for teachers to open up channels of communication with parents regarding what is taking place in the classroom. 
  • In recent times staff have used technologies such as skype to bring globally renowned experts into their classroom.

TIP 3 – Providing students with authentic tertiary learning opportunities

  • Providing students in high school with the opportunity to complete tertiary courses is a great way to challenge students in an educational setting.
  • Adriano De Rossi (below) completed a Certificate 1 in Active Volunteering through the Max Potential Program which has also provided him with opportunities for further tertiary courses to be completed in year 12.
  • The University of Notre Dame also provide an Authentic Learning Opportunity for students through their Logo Course.

Adriano De Rossi being presented with his Certificate I in Active Volunteering

TIP 4 – Providing students with authentic mentoring opportunities

  • Creating connections for students in the workplace can foster authentic learning opportunities. Especially, student mentoring which provides students with an opportunity to develop social and emotional intelligences. 
  • In 2014, Year 10 students had the opportunity to participate in the Work Inspiration Program. This program aligned students with mentors at the National Australia Bank. Culminating in students and mentors working together on a collaborative real life project. This was definitely an authentic learning opportunity. 

Parramatta Marist student John Anderson(Left) with his NAB mentor

Finally, I started this blog with the idea ‘keep it real’ and I think that is the key. If you want to achieve COAL in your classroom you have to constantly ask yourself – ‘would this happen in real life’. This should reduce the existence of artificial or fake classroom focuses and provide opportunities for students to challenge themselves to achieve learning opportunities that are outside the boundaries of the classroom.

If you have any further ideas to achieve COAL please share them.