Vardon School (TLIF 2-072) - Collaborative learning within these four walls Publications
The teachers at Vardon School wanted to make sure students made a good transition from early childhood education to primary school, so they were set up for success throughout their time at primary school and beyond.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Peter Cowie
Date Published: March 2019
The school’s historical data had shown a significant discrepancy between the achievement of Pākeha year 1 students and that of Māori and other minority groups. The school’s longitudinal data suggested that the transition from early childhood education to primary school was critical for students’ ongoing social, emotional and academic development. There was a high correlation between students who succeeded in year 1 and those who succeeded in year 6. The teachers had observed that some students were not ready for a standard year 1 programme, while others were ready to be extended. They had also noticed a general decline in school readiness over the previous ten years. As a result, approaches and programmes that had traditionally been successful had less impact. To strengthen the transition to school for their new entrants, Vardon School needed a new pedagogy to better meet their students’ needs. Their analysis suggested that a targeted focus in year 1 would be an effective investment of scarce teaching resources.
School should be fun and exciting, and the play lets them do that. Being kind and working with others is what is more important to me.
Parent discussing Ngā Whatukura’s collaborative learning approach
The result was a new pedagogy based around collaborative teaching. It took some time to establish and challenged the teachers’ preconceptions of quality teaching and their practice. However, the school discovered that, while collaborative teaching can take longer to establish than single cell or siloed teaching, once the pedagogy, structures and routines for it are in place, teachers become more confident, articulate and skilled than if they had stayed in a single cell classroom. They also discovered that initiatives don’t always work and you need to persevere, even if it means changing tack.
The inquiry team was led by Peter Cowie, a Deputy Principal at Vardon School. The members of the Ngaa Whatukura team were:
- Marion Anderson
- Paula Roberts
- Michael Murray
- Emma Driver
- Sharni Honour
- Amy McCormick
- Sandra Wharton.
Dr Jeanette Clarkin-Phillips from Waikato University supported the project.
The inquiry story
The inquiry involved all the year 1 teachers at Vardon School — the ‘Ngā Whatukura’ team. There were some staff changes over the two years it ran — from July 2016 to June 2018 — and a total of six teachers took part. The student target group consisted of the first ten students enrolled each year, and they were tracked until the end of year 2 to investigate the effectiveness of the transition to school. The inquiry ran over 16 five-week iterative cycles and monitored data from teachers, students and whānau.
What was the focus?
The project asked, “How does the development of a collaborative learning environment in the new entrant classroom support children’s transition to school as successful ‘school’ learners and what shifts in pedagogy occur in response to this development?”
Vardon School operated an innovative learning environment for their junior classes but didn’t have the resources to change the physical environment. The teachers’ initial research suggested that the focus on collaboration, flexible timetables, individualised learning, and learner agency that an innovative learning environment provides are what the students need as they transition to school. Not being able to make structural changes to the learning environments or purchase new furniture forced the teachers to think creatively about their pedagogy, systems and use of the existing physical infrastructure to achieve improved student outcomes.
What did the teachers try?
The inquiry ran in four phases, each six months long. In the first phase, from July 2016 to December 2016, each teacher focused on one of the main curriculum areas (reading, writing or mathematics). They would do this for a term, before swapping to another area. They divided the school day into 30-minute segments of time, and groups of students rotated through learning stations throughout the day. Students were ability grouped for the core curriculum areas of reading, writing and mathematics. Students were in mixed ability groups for ‘Ako time’, which incorporated all other areas of the curriculum.
This approach worked well in some ways as students received more targeted group teaching time than in a standard new entrant class, and teachers were giving mathematics a priority it hadn’t had in the past. However, there were significant drawbacks. Teachers did not enjoy it because of the lack of variety. The curriculum became fragmented, and the intensity and rigidity of the programme meant that teachers could not capture teaching moments when they arose. By the end of the first term, several teachers were close to burnout, and they decided for the second term of this phase to change to having two teachers teaching the same curriculum area at the same time, with the third teacher operating as the roaming teacher.
The new model preserved the positive aspects of curriculum teaching while eliminating many of the negatives. Crucially, it led to the teachers exploring play as an integral part of the programme, and for Phase Two (January 2017–June 2017), they relaxed the strict timetable they had established and established play as a major focus to help transition students. The clear lessons the teachers learnt in the first phase about collaborative teaching and timetabling helped them make this change.
This new model allowed teachers to increase targeted teaching due to the collaborative environment. They still taught guided reading, writing and mathematics groups as they would in a single cell classroom. The big difference was that there was no structured follow-up activity. Instead, the students engaged in play. One teacher was rostered on as the play teacher while the other teachers in the team taught group lessons. The play teacher was actively involved in providing provocations, engaging in discussions with students around the play and coaching students to solve problems that arose out of the play. The other teachers withdrew groups for guided lessons. Each teaching session decreased in time but significantly increased in quality.
Through the next two phases, from July 2017 to June 2018, the Ngā Whatukura team consolidated learning through play, and the stability of the programme allowed them to fine tune the model. They became less prescriptive in their provocations and followed the lead of the students in their play. Teachers spent more time deliberately teaching social skills as a whole class.
The biggest changes during Phase Three were in writing as teachers simplified what they were trying to achieve by focusing on a few basic skills. They removed model writing because they found students were copying the teacher and gave explicit teaching around the links between phonics and writing.
In the fourth phase (January 2018–June 2018), the teachers introduced Number Agents as a pedagogy for teaching mathematics as a complementary approach to the learning through play philosophy they had developed as part of this project.
Teachers found that introducing play had an immediate impact on the key competencies and learning dispositions they needed to address before many of the students could make significant progress on the ‘academic’ aspects of year 1. When they relaxed the tight structure they had started with and reduced teacher control to enable opportunities for more student agency, the number of behaviour incidents reduced and the students were more engaged. This happened without any negative impact on reading, writing or mathematics progress.
The new structure allowed for more flexible grouping of students in a dynamic manner so that each teaching session was directly targeted at the students’ individual needs.
The introduction of the play teacher reduced disruptions of teaching sessions to zero. Eliminating disruptions allowed them to cover more ground in a shorter time. As a result, teachers were able to have smaller groups or have more group sessions within the teaching day. This increased precise targeted teaching led to a positive impact on student achievement.
The incorporation and development of play-based learning created unstructured opportunities for quality dialogue between students and teachers about the learning. Teachers noted that these conversations made a significant impact on developing the students’ thinking and skill level. To start with, the teachers needed to be very deliberate about having these conversations, and some of them felt a little contrived. Over time, they learnt to seize the teachable moment, and these conversations started happening naturally.
Teachers became more conversant with Te Whāriki (Early Childhood Curriculum) and started using it when planning, particularly for students who were in the early stages of the transition to school. With the introduction of learning through play, the teachers noticed a significant improvement in students’ learning dispositions, readiness to start academic learning, social skills and oral language.
Analysis of student data during the project showed that:
- the class was tracking as if they were in a standard single cell classroom;
- the key competencies, especially managing self, were more developed in these students than in similar students in a standard single cell classroom. This is significant as this cohort included three students under the MOE severe behaviour team and three students supported under the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme;
- students had increased student agency and engagement in comparison to a standard single cell classroom; and
- students could play for sustained periods.
What did they learn?
The greatest strength of the model of collaborative teaching Ngā Whatukura developed was the amount of quality interaction students had with skilled adults. They achieved this by eliminating ‘busy work’, setting up the programme to work with the natural urges of the students and deliberately trying to do less to focus on the most important things. As a result, teachers had more time to teach guided groups and one-on-one throughout the day. They had the opportunity to seize teachable moments and help students solve problems.
Students have a natural urge to play. Through play, students explore how the world around them works, develop self-management and self-awareness, gain the ability to solve conflict and learn how to be a friend. Learning through play can be harnessed by creating opportunities in the timetable for play, providing the physical space for play and providing loose parts (objects that can be used in an open-ended way) to kindle the imagination. Because a learning through play approach works with the natural urges of students, this approach results in fewer behavioural issues and energises students. Students are very happy to sit down with a teacher to complete a guided lesson.
Routine and structure provide a safe place from which students can launch out and explore the world around them. Students need each day to be predictable so they can focus on the higher order thinking and learning. The teachers used the same timetable for every day of the year, which reduced stress for anxious students and provided security for students with behavioural challenges.
Every student is different. What works for one student will need to be adapted or changed entirely for another student. This collaborative teaching approach developed inbuilt flexibility that allowed teachers to respond to individual specific student needs. This could take the form of working one-on-one instead of in a group setting, using flexible grouping, adjusting the loose parts available, creating a provocation or playing alongside a student.
Change management, communication and time are essential
Managing the change process effectively was a significant factor in the successful development of a collaborative learning environment. Developing a collaborative learning environment takes more time than single cell teaching. Teachers need the time to discuss their educational philosophy, expectations, shared understanding, and personal work styles before they are ready to talk about the more obvious areas such as timetabling and curriculum areas. However, once the teachers had developed the collaborative learning environment, teaching in this manner required less time and energy than single cell teaching. As a result, they could devote more time to ensuring high-quality interactions with students.
Relationships between teachers are central to developing a collaborative teaching environment, and conflict is inevitable when developing one. It is how you handle conflict that will determine the success or failure of collaborative teaching. Having an external change facilitator (in this case, a deputy principal who was not part of the junior school team) enabled the team to navigate some tricky conflict situations in a positive, proactive manner.
Collaborative teaching requires a different pedagogy, structures and routines to single cell teaching. As teachers become more experienced, their classroom practice becomes innate, and they have a fair degree of autonomy. Moving into a collaborative teaching space requires teachers to let go of preconceptions of quality teaching, critically reflect on their practice and explicitly communicate their thoughts to others in the team. This process can cause some teachers to feel very vulnerable. Once teachers develop the pedagogy, structures and routines for collaborative teaching, they become more confident, articulate and skilled than if they remained in a single cell classroom.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecological of human development. Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
Brooker, L. (2002). Starting school. Children learning cultures. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Hartley, C., Rogers, P., Smith, J., Peters, S. & Carr, M. (2012). Crossing the border: A community negotiates the transition from early childhood to primary school. Wellington: NZCER.
Ministry of Education. (2015). Report of the Advisory group on Early Learning.
Mitchell. L., Cowie, B., Clarkin-Phillips, J., Davis, K., Glasgow, A., Hatherly, A., Rameka, L., Taylor, l., & Taylor, M. (2015). Continuity of Early Learning: learning progress and outcomes in the early years. Report to the Ministry of Education. Retrieved from www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications.
Peters, S. (2003). “I didn’t expect that I would get tons of friends…more each day”: Children's experiences of friendship during the transition to school. Early Years, 23(1), 45-53
For further information
If you would like to learn more about this project, please contact the project leader Peter Cowie firstname.lastname@example.org
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