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Deeper Learning from “Down Under”

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August 29, 2011 06:51 pm

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Sometimes you find far more than you started out looking for. This has certainly been the case this week as I visited schools in Sydney, Australia to learn more about digital learning. I saw educational systems embracing both digital learning and deeper learning strategies emphasizing core content knowledge, creative and critical thinking, collaboration, communication and self-reflected learning.

This blog post from Australia will focus on deeper learning. Subsequent ones will discuss digital learning and efforts to make teaching a more collaborative process while raising the professional status of teachers.

My deeper learning encounters in Australia started on August 26 in the central office of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, a system of almost 80 schools and 40,000 students. In Australia, the government provides a per student allocation and the Diocese attempts to take applicants regardless of income. What struck me is that this district is the size of many mid-size U.S. districts.

Executive Director Greg Whitby stressed core beliefs. “Every child can learn,” he said. “Every teacher will have a professional working life personalizing learning for kids since every student learns differently.”

Much of the driving strategic intent is summed up in the school district’s REACH framework, which stands for Relevant, Engaging, Accessible, Challenging, and Holistic.

How this translates into practice is demonstrated at Parramatta Marist High School, one of the diocese’s leading institutions. With almost 1,000 male students in grades seven through twelve, the school moved to project-based learning after its principal visited Napa, California and a New Tech school.

At the age of 69, the principal, Brother Patrick Howlett (or Br. Pat), has the commitment and energy of someone twenty-five years younger. Over several years, he implemented the concepts he had observed. In nearly every classroom, students were sitting in teams working on common problems. Even the unique IT and religion class had two-man student teams of upperclassmen developing video games for the lower grades to play that would quiz them on religious facts.

Br. Pat embedded project-based learning in the seventh grade in an effort to have students analyze, process, and, quite simply, accomplish more in the learning process. The goal is to have every student be able to make presentations.

When talking with students ranging from seventh to twelfth graders, the application of the school’s deeper learning strategy seemed to be getting high marks from students. Seniors contrasted the previous education method with the changes this one brought when instituted during their ninth grade year. They said that working in small groups allowed everyone to participate, and students who might be prone to slacking off felt more peer pressure to contribute.

An extremely self-reflecting seventh grader spoke about how working in small teams helped shy students make friends more easily. Students who otherwise would hold back in a large classroom discussion tend to open up in small groups, he explained.

Many noted that students would often teach each other. Student-led tutorials permitted each individual’s skills to complement others’. One student observed that in traditional lecture classes, he “just wrote down for no reason.” Now he is linking information to what he needs to know.

Being a “nongovernment school” does not relieve the institution and its students from taking the Australian national exams. Indeed, like the United States, Australia seems to largely rely on standardized testing. Utilizing the project-based, or deeper-learning method, has moved the high school up to being one of the region’s high performers.

A direct relationship exists between deeper learning and digital learning. While pedagogy and a culture of learning clearly dominated at both the Catholic high school and elementary school I visited that day, underneath both learning systems was a strong technology foundation. As Greg Whitby noted, “the importance of technology is to personalize education. […]Multimedia is a real hook in the digital age. It makes kids the co-creators of knowledge.”

Sydney Opera House

Across town several days later, I visited the Sydney Distance Education High School, where I saw Principal Julie Kennedy and the administrative leaders’ commitment to personalized learning. Discussions revealed evolving strategies for implementing the same deeper learning concepts–only in a largely digital environment.

In a traditional brick and mortar school, students can be easily gathered in teams around small tables. How can this be accomplished when they may live and interact from many miles apart? It is being done, but as one educator noted, still not as effectively as is necessary or possible. Yet the very structure of digital learning –personalizing education, competency-based, 24-7 learning, and ability for constant communication– makes this a powerful learning tool for deeper-learning strategies.

A couple of final observations. First, the deeper-learning approach is taking hold on a much more wide-scale basis. Second, its implementation in a relatively large district like the Parramatta diocese strongly suggests that replication on a district basis, while often slowed by the need to develop collaboration and stakeholder buy-in, is possible.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. Check back for more posts from Governor Wise as he travels through Australia, and make sure to follow him on Twitter at @all4ed_BW.

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