Wellington East Girls’ College (TLIF 1-095) - Learning hubs: Developing teachers’ dispositions for future-focused education Publications
Wellington East Girls’ College had identified two issues they wanted to find different ways of addressing. The first was that the achievement of their students had plateaued after rising for the previous six years. The second was that there was a growing number of students described as ‘passive achievers’, who were academically engaged and took part in the formal requirements of the school, but depended on their teachers to guide and motivate them.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Professor Jane Gilbert and Ally Bull from AUT
Date Published: March 2019
The school wanted to increase the number of students who were fully intellectually engaged, with a serious emotional investment in learning and using higher thinking skills to increase understanding to solve complex problems or construct new knowledge.
Our current conceptual focus is around student ownership and decision making. We are all noticing that the students in our hub class this year are developing a sense of engagement and responsibility for their own learning. They can be trusted to work independently and make choices within their learning and both teachers and students seem to be really happy in this process.
Year 10 hub teacher
This project built on a pilot, carried out in 2014 and 2015, in which some junior classes were taught collaboratively in a ‘learning hub’. It confirmed the earlier finding that when teachers work this way they are faster to develop an understanding of their students’ pastoral and learning needs, interests and strengths. They become more aware of other disciplines’ pedagogies and can use this awareness to make learning for students more coherent by creating connections across disciplines in terms of skills, key competencies, concepts and approaches. The school found that students could see the cross-curricular links and were developing their skills to engage with the rich learning tasks their teachers developed. However, the change has been hard to embed or normalise in teachers’ practice, and it requires constant attention to keep the focus on true collaboration.
The project initially involved 18 teachers in the early pilot phase but included all 45 year 9 teachers in the two years of the TLIF project. The external expert supporting the project was Professor Jane Gilbert and Ally Bull from AUT.
The inquiry story
The inquiry involved teachers of years 9 and 10 students. In 2015 and 2016, there were four hubs of two year 9 classes and two year 10 classes, which involved 18 teachers. In 2017, all year 9 classes were organised this way, which involved 45 teachers, and in 2018 all year 9 classes were in hubs and the school was piloting two groups of teachers who taught the same year 9 and 10 classes to explore the possibility of organising all the junior classes in years 9 and 10 into hubs.
What was the focus?
Wellington East Girl’s College discovered a pattern of learner disengagement that began in year 9. Further investigation into the perceptions of year 9 students revealed the following:
- Fewer than half of the year 9 students thought teachers made learning interesting.
- More than 40 per cent did not enjoy their learning — they were not challenged enough, thought classes were boring and weren’t given enough work to do.
- Half thought they had not made good progress in their learning.
- Almost 90 per cent of them felt they belonged at school. This suggested high social engagement, but not necessarily academic or intellectual engagement.
In 2014 and 2015, Wellington East Girls’ College responded by piloting a different approach to the way students were grouped. Some of their year 9 and 10 classes were placed into a ‘learning hub’ taught by the same group of teachers. In the first year, these teachers taught two year 9 classes. In 2015, they taught two year 9 and two year 10 classes (the classes that had been in the hubs the previous year). The aim was to support the teachers to collaboratively develop learning programmes that would generate horizontal connections across activities and subjects. Through this, the school hoped to provide students with a more coherent curriculum that they would find more engaging. This TLIF project in 2016 and 2017 continued this approach. It allowed the school to provide more external support for the teachers and to expand the learning hub approach across all year 9 classes.
The two inquiry questions were:
- Will using hubs as learning communities have an impact on teachers’ understanding of their role and bring about a change in their practice?
- Will using hubs as learning communities with a focus on designing activities to develop twenty-first-century skills and cross-curricular approaches improve student intellectual engagement with learning?
The project team worked with the external experts to define the results the programme wanted the teachers to achieve. These were:
- the development of a coherent curriculum:
- teachers have a sense of what each other is doing; and
- students see connections between different subjects and lessons;
- a culture of collegial discussions that critique existing practice and develop new practices (collaborative practice):
- staff regularly interact with a range of different people; and
- professional conversations focus on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of teaching and learning, not just on the ‘how’ of teaching and learning and the pastoral care of students; and
- increased intellectual engagement of staff and students.
Students and teachers used a profile developed to explore engagement. A class learning profile was also developed to identify students and their learning preferences, challenges and needs more visibly for all teachers of that class.
What did the teachers try?
Teacher-only days were set aside for hub teachers to meet at the start of each year and once a term, along with time each week. Teachers took different approaches to developing a coherent curriculum. They were encouraged to work together to find connections between disciplines — both in terms of twenty-first-century skills, concepts or big ideas and key competencies and, where appropriate, through the use of project-based learning. It was surmised that project-based learning would encourage deep learning while allowing more student choice and flexibility. The ideal was for units of work to be transdisciplinary.
Teachers were encouraged to trial different approaches based on the perceived needs of the students within their class. Teachers usually used a thematic approach based on a ‘big idea’ or concept in term one, while they learned how each other worked and got to know the needs, strengths and interests of their students. In one class, social studies and mathematics focused on the concept of ‘identity’. Students imagined the world as a village of 100 people and used statistical data to work as a demographer to discuss population changes, such as urbanisation. Another class visited a bug exhibition at Te Papa and then created integrated projects that grew out of that experience — English and social studies teachers collaborated on generating learning opportunities about cultural interaction, while art, mathematics and science teachers collaborated on an insect topic.
Teachers in the hub also developed approaches to generate student agency and the construction of classroom learning communities. One group used Hellison’s Model of Social Responsibility to reflect on their work and participation, and another developed an approach they called ‘Pozzie Comms’ to guide students and teachers in productive ways of working together and speaking to each other. They used common language and strategies to teach this approach in all subjects.
Teachers used the class learning profile to develop common strategies or approaches to meet the needs of the class as a whole as well as individual needs. In one class that was not working well together in group situations, the teachers developed a collaboration rubric and a common approach to teaching the students about collaboration and the skills that were part of being a successful collaborative group. At the end of that work in separate disciplines, the class was given a week to complete a project that required them to work in different groups to usual, and that work was assessed using criteria from a range of subjects.
Teachers quickly developed a sense of what the other teachers were doing in their subjects, which allowed them to have conversations with students aimed at making connections between classes. They learned how to integrate subjects or do cross-curricular projects and explore when a thematic- or project-based learning approach, within a single discipline or across several disciplines, would be more appropriate for their class. They also learned that it was important not to force the integration of subjects but to find natural connections between them.
Teachers developed a sense of collective responsibility early on for the hub class, and they started to talk about ‘our class’ rather than ‘my class’. All the teachers agreed that the hubs facilitated pastoral care of the students and enabled teachers to get to know their students better as learners.
Teachers initially found true collaboration more difficult than they anticipated, particularly having conversations that were not just collegial. Early in the pilot, all the teachers were volunteers, and even these highly motivated teachers needed help on how to collaborate effectively as a group from different disciplines, particularly to develop cross-curricular connections. Introducing more structure into teams and their meetings made a difference to the discussions, which tended to slip back to a major focus on pastoral matters without this structure. However, the hubs did facilitate pastoral care of students and enabled teachers to get to know their students better as learners.
Students noticed the connections teachers were making across subjects and how teachers were working together to develop the teaching and learning for their class. Results of the NZCER Me and My Class survey indicated that hub classes were experiencing a more coherent, relevant curriculum than non-hub classes. Students were also able to articulate examples of transfer of skills, approaches and strategies from one subject to another.
Teachers believed many students were academically engaged (they focused on NCEA and how many credits they could gain), rather than intellectually engaged. However, they observed that students in some classes were more curious and developed a sense of responsibility for their learning. When they were intellectually engaged, they worked independently, and the end product was of high quality. The Me and My Class survey included a couple of questions that were sensitive to engagement, and hub classes tended to score these higher. However, the results varied between classes and reflected the aspects the teachers had focused on to enhance engagement.
There was no significant difference between hub and non-hub classes in literacy, numeracy and mathematics assessed using PAT tests, but more students from the earlier pilot hub classes gained Merit endorsement in NCEA Level 1 than those from non-hub classes. However, the school could not attribute this directly to the learning hubs. Teachers did not detect any difference in outcomes for priority Māori and Pacific learners, but they were able to identify them earlier in hub classes and share information about them more effectively among all teachers.
What did they learn?
There were shifts in both teacher and student outcomes. Teachers more quickly understood their students by working together around the needs of a single class. Students saw the links across their subjects and, in particular, the collaboration skills they developed. These more integrated approaches to learning may have resulted in deeper thinking, which was seen in the shift in the Level 1 NCEA results for students who went through the hub trials.
However, it was hard to change from the entrenched way of thinking and practice that many secondary teachers have of seeing themselves more defined by the subjects they teach and with staff groupings based on those subjects. Teachers would often fall back into traditional ways of thinking and teaching when under pressure, usually as a result of pressures from assessment linked to national qualifications for senior students.
Student engagement was hard to measure. The data from the surveys indicated no real shift in engagement, but students’ and teachers’ feedback suggested it was improving and they were able to give examples of this. Students who were in hubs were more able to talk more fully about their learning compared to others. The school is developing a student engagement tool based on what learning behaviours engaged students would exhibit to measure this outcome better.
It was important to keep the vision and purpose of the work very clear and to reiterate it regularly, particularly with high staff turnover. More experienced teachers tended to be more confident in their pedagogy and more comfortable working with others and being flexible when planning learning. It was important when creating hubs to look at the combination of staff and mix those who had been involved in hubs with newer staff.
The school learned that with organising classes into learning hubs:
- The size of the team and the need for those teachers to develop an understanding of each other and their way of teaching is important and providing time for those teams to build positive relationships is essential for effective collaboration.
- Cross-curricular links need to be authentic and real and not forced; as is the need to ensure that the depth of learning for the disciplines involved is being developed, not just a superficial coverage of ideas.
- Projects that involved two or three teachers with one subject teacher taking the lead often provided the best structure for successful cross-curricular units of work.
- True transdisciplinary projects have not been common, although some examples have been developed and very successful in terms of student engagement; however, more professional learning is needed on this.
- Regular sharing of what teachers have been doing and their reflections of what worked well (or not) is important to encourage continued innovation and learning from each other.
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For further information
If you would like to learn more about this project, please contact the project leader Ann Greenaway at firstname.lastname@example.org
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