Trust learners and decisions get easier – for technology too, says Dan Buckley
Picture the scene, a 10-year-old showing a proud headteacher (and fellow lifelong learner) a detailed model of the RMS Titanic, made from imagination, sticky tape and a week’s worth of full-time enthusiasm. Dig deeper and you find that this model is – excuse the pun – the tip of the iceberg.
The project, entirely designed and inspired by the learner, involved detailed research, scientific experimentation, presentations to audiences, art work, project planning and target setting, collaboration with more than one other group, a presentation on the school-based radio station and an appearance of Silverton Primary's own student-led TV station.
For more than 20 years headteacher Tony Bryant has been quietly and patiently transforming Silverton Primary School in Melbourne, Australia, to make such scenes commonplace (and you can see plenty of other examples of their work in the school"s online video gallery). Five years ago the world found out what he was up to and now he is quite rightly an education 'superstar' with people falling over themselves to give him awards.
Tony is careful to stress that there is no magic bullet and that the school is successful through the combined efforts of an outstanding staff who are all continuous learners. However, such universal engagement by staff and students is supported by some outstanding guiding principles.
Authentic learning experiences – Learners I spoke to at the school were always able to relate their work back to something in their world outside the school or to a future career aspiration. The student we saw rushing around the home-made stage getting all the microphones working for a performance his peers were devising described himself as the ‘roadie', for example.
Learner-led choice of ICT – The school is at the low end of the funding spectrum but invests in a copy of any new form factor that comes out and puts it in a charging trolley in the middle of each learning space (four classrooms knocked into one). So, for example, the trolley could have an iPad, a Kindle, a laptop, Flip camera, a PC slate etc. Learners simply use these as and when they need them.
At the end of each term the school asks for a vote on what they should buy more of. As in many settings, there was an initial rush for the iPad and it was booked pretty heavily at first, but by the end of the term the learners opted for more netbooks.
This is an inspired idea, costs less and works even when the teacher isn’t as keen on ICT or isn’t able to invest time in finding apps. I watched the viral spread of an idea while I was there: a "wow" was followed by a brief clustering of children and the odd "cool" could be heard and the revolution continued.
Content on the students' radio station is not vetted by adults
Trust and belief – The school’s FM radio station transmits in a 2.5km radius to the devoted fans and relatives in the community. The station is entirely run by students with no adult vetting of content. All students are involved and organise the rota themselves. I discovered this while I was interviewing a girl working at the other side of the school from the radio station who said, "Sorry, I need to dash now. I’m live on the radio in five minutes."
If you feel you couldn’t trust the students in your own school then you may well be right: the question is how can we build this trust across the whole school so that one day we will be confident enough to let them own the radio station? Trust and belief are endemic in Silverton.
Collaborative teachers – Walls have been knocked down and teachers work for the entire day in teams. Throughout the world I have found that teachers rarely want to go back after they have worked in this way although it is extremely hard to convince them initially. Of course there are other structures that need to be in place to make this work (such as clearly defined roles and each teacher having clear accountability for a particular cohort of students) but the basic model allows continuous non-threatening observation and peer coaching as well as skill sharing and a whole range of other benefits.
Challenge based learning – Students set themselves a challenge and work on this for most of the day. The content area may be provided for them but their approach and time management is autonomous. They can take time out to play the Kinect or Wii games cemented behind Perspex in the playground or work through break, as many of them do.
In brief, Tony Bryant has taught a community how to trust and believe in young people while at the same time challenging them to achieve. Schools built on such strong educational foundations just keep growing better, whatever direction the prevailing political wind is blowing in.
Silverton Primary School