Learning, Learning Learning and Learning
Merrylands East Public School (MEPS) is situated on traditional Aboriginal Dharruk land, near the main central business district of Parramatta. The student population is drawn from over 40 socio-cultural backgrounds predominately from Pacific Island, African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities. Eighty-four per cent of students speak a language other than English and around 10% have refugee experiences. The vast majority of students commence learning English for the first time when entering school at varying school years. English as a Second Language programs, a refugee transition program, and a parent English program support students and parents to access the school's curriculum.
MEPS is a leader in sustainability programs. The school received the United Nations Association of Australia World Environment Award 2009 - a first for a NSW school. In the same year, the school received the Director-General's School Achievement Award for Leadership in Sustainability. Set on picturesque grounds, the school has 5 water tanks that harvest 100K litres of water for ablution blocks and landscaped lands, and a photovoltaic system consisting of 64 panels. In the same year, the school received the Director-General's School Achievement Award for Leadership in Sustainability.
The challenge of working in a culturally diverse community and finding solutions to improving our students’ results has been rewarding but at times difficult. It’s very easy to be swept up with the rolled out trending packaged educational program with the notion that it will solve all MEPS’ issues. In fact, the opposite happened with staff easily becoming overwhelmed with the vast choice on the open market and within our public education jurisdiction.
The inclusion of MEPS in Microsoft Partners in Learning (MSPIL) 2012 is unlike any other professional learning session that our school has undertaken. It’s not like, here’s a program for implementation and if you do it, then the results will come your way. Instead, MSPIL forums in Sydney, Canberra and Darwin have been an opportunity for collaboration with Australian educators and a pathway of self-discovery, reflection, challenge and evaluation of our school’s current policies, practices and most importantly, pedagogy.
Merrylands East is undergoing four major areas of change with the knowledge gleaned from schools on the MSPIL and global educators.
1. Learning Staff
Traditional professional learning involves every staff member coming together and hearing the same message. While there’s an acknowledgement that all staff do need to be together for specific purposes, professional learning is about an individual’s improvement as a teacher to increase student learning and outcomes. What is improvement for one teacher is not necessarily so for another because individual teachers are at different stages of learning and work in vastly different contexts with diverse students even within MEPS. For this reason, Merrylands East is revamping professional development with a more micro team approach and utilising social media like Edmodo and Twitter to share readings, resources and strategies. Every Thursday evening, the power of social media is evident through the twitter chat #ozprimschchat. Topics are chosen addressing primary connections with educators making connections and learning from each other.
2. Learning Spaces
The 15 rectangular tables and 30 chairs mentality has not changed too much in the last fifty years in NSW public schools. The only real difference has been the number of desks and chairs, and maybe the materials and colours. MEPS is undertaking a dramatic change based on information gleaned from a Microsoft Virtual University Webinar about learning spaces, visiting Microsoft Sydney Offices and through the sharing of ideas from leading academics.
The Merrylands East Reform Innovation Team (MERIT) has been instrumental in identifying space around the school that historically has been wasted as a learning space and assisted in their transformation for students. Learning space is not about aesthetics but pedagogy. The changing of MEPS furniture to include funky furniture, whiteboard tables, round height adjustable and mobile furniture are all about the promotion of student collaboration and engagement.
3. Learning Anytime and Anywhere
Early in March this year, Merrylands East polarised the community with a front page major metropolitan newspaper story that indicated that our school had commenced a process of consultation about the change of school times. Talkback radio went into meltdown with callers ringing to express their views. Some callers made the assumption that if students were not at school, learning would not take place. How wrong!
In the 2nd decade of the 21st century, students are learning from each other via social media and web 2.0 tools. Many of MEPS students are on line in the evening and sharing their work with class teachers using Edmodo. Cloud technologies and web 3.0 technologies will further enhance the mobility of learning as we progress in this decade.
Returning to our school times, Merrylands East is looking at starting classes at 8am and concluding at 1:15pm. The MEPS context of culturally diverse parents and students enables our school to be in a very strong position to implement the change. After all, many of the OECD countries ahead of Australia in PISA currently have an early morning start time. School is no longer a start and finish time but a place for seamless learning.
4. Learning Pedagogies
Collaboration occurs on many levels with teachers, students and schools working together in ‘real time’ from various sites around the globe to deliver exceptional inquiry based learning activities. MEPS has established a ‘country cousin’ relationship with North Star Public School (NSPS).
Thanks to some innovative programs, teachers are able to collaboratively plan rich learning experiences from various sites, whether it be the room next door or a classroom on the other side of the world, and deliver them in unison from their very own classroom, to their very own students at their very own level.
Some MEPS teachers are using OneNote and SkyDrive to collaboratively create, alter, extend and critique classroom programs, with social media sites assisting in the frequent communication that is needed to build upon units of work so as to ensure they are engaging, exciting and relevant to their students. The ‘syncing’ of unit plans and day books has also enabled up to date tracking for teachers, assessments, further encouraging rich communication and the establishment of informal professional learning networks.
Much groundwork has been done on investigating how to create collaborative partnerships, with the ultimate goal of sustained engagement, personal relevance and ongoing student engagement. In order to build rapport with NSPS, a joint blog was constructed and an array of games were created to build a competitive relationship, with Twitter Battleship and Twitter Chess proving to be very successful as icebreakers for both staff and students. This bond was further consolidated when students from both schools aligned to form companies as the basis of all activities. Each company needed to communicate regularly through Edmodo, Video Conferencing and emails to ensure that tasks are completed and decisions made about learning. Communication occurred anytime and anywhere, with many students collaborating on nights and weekends to complete set tasks. This is what is now considered ‘Learning Time’.
b) Global Connections
Using an array of multimedia tools and web 2.0 applications, the classroom walls were no longer seen as a barrier when discovering the world. Global connections have been made with schools at a local, regional and international level, to allow students to communicate with local experts who live and breathe the topic of choice each and every day of their lives. Students can now aspire to become experts in their field, using their acquired knowledge to guide and lead others.
At present, Yr 5 MEPS and Yrs3-6 North Star Public School have commenced a unit of work called ‘farm2fridge.’ Students investigate the journey that a chosen product undertakes from the moment a seed hits the ground to the moment it hits the palate. As both schools sit on either side of the food production and consumption process, the program aims to highlight and promote the different perspectives of the students and schools involved and the very different role they play in the process of food production. Each school has been tasked with investigating their side of the process and becoming experts in their respective fields. As the unit/process reaches the medium point, the expert knowledge has been called upon in order to assist the each other school to finish their learning journey.
Participating students have been tasked with displaying their progressive understandings by re-creating the entire process online using Minecraft, and recording their cognitive journey and thought process in OneNote. Using servers and calling upon all of their acquired knowledge, companies have worked together to investigate and build each step of the process, all the time having to justify and explain each decisions.
c) Inquiry Based Learning
The teacher is no longer the fountain of all knowledge. This was a difficult concept to digest and quite a transformational learning journey to undertake. Students are no longer needed to go through the teacher to access the world. Instead, they are doing it already in their own leisure and in their own context. Therefore, our lesson pedagogy had to adapt to such a change.
Lessons are no longer scripted. There is ALWAYS more than one way to arrive at a destination and what students need is a highly scaffolded environment that is adaptive to change and open to learning tangents. What teachers need is a way in which to allow such learning to grow, yet still have adaptable assessment parameters in place to ensure students are monitored and assessed effectively. This is a journey we are still on.
The MSPIL has been an extraordinary relationship that has provided the connections to reshape pedagogy at MEPS. The school staff have embraced the use of technology as a tool for learning for staff and students. However, MEPS is only part way through their journey as the school looks forward to the challenges ahead with additional school connections and shared learning.
John Goh and Robbie Ernsteins
Merrylands East Public School