However, the housing boom and increased population in Western Sydney has seen our little part of the world change rapidly over the past five years. As part of the NSW Government’s strategy to cater for the demands of tomorrow’s Sydney, Riverstone High School is receiving a complete rebuild and our student population is expected to increase from 400 to over 1,000 in the next few years. Construction has already started on a new future focused learning space that will include presentation spaces, lecture halls, outdoor learning areas, media/AV rooms and collaborative learning spaces. Most significantly, the new build will not include traditional classrooms. It goes without saying that in order to prepare for our brand-new learning space, we needed to rethink our approach to teaching and learning.
As Relieving Head Teacher of English and History, I was tasked with the challenge of implementing a cross curricular, Project Based Learning program for Year 7. The process has been extremely rewarding and has had measurable impact on student achievement and engagement. Below is an overview of our process;
Step 1: The logistics
Initial phases require negotiation with various staff members about the logistics of the project. After receiving approval from the Senior Executive, we worked closely with the staff member that creates the timetable to ensure Year 7 had three, 2hr PBL lessons per fortnight. These lessons were held in the school library and consisted of the whole cohort making use of one open plan learning space. Also, any resources that need to be purchased or financial considerations need to be discussed early in the planning process.
Step 2: What do we want the students to learn?
As with all quality teaching and learning we begun with our noses in the glossy NSW English and History syllabi. Close analysis of the English outcomes and the requirements of the ‘Investigating the Ancient Past’ depth study in History allowed us to summarise the key competencies of the project – we asked What do students need to know? And What do they need to be able to do?
Step 3: Establishing the Driving Question and deciding on the Public Product
Analysis of the syllabus outcomes illuminated a cross curricular focus of ‘the importance of technology.’ The English outcomes required students to create new, digital texts and the History syllabus allowed us to open up the definition of technology to ‘anything that has helped humanity progress (artefacts, tools, weaponry). After careful consideration we decided on the driving questions ‘Does Technology help or hinder humanity?’ It is abstract, has a real world connection and most importantly, is not google-able. Students would have the option to choose a significant piece of technology and make a 3-5 minute documentary on it’s development and impact on the human race. A documentary stood out as the perfect text type because it is a factual film that requires the support of evidence and sources.
Step 4: Sustained inquiry through quality assessment design
To ensure students engaged in a continual process of inquiry and reflection, we created an assessment task with multiple tasks and check in points. One highly valuable element of our program was the use of learning conversations. These took the form of an informal meeting with a teacher where the group members provided an update on their progress and collaboration. In addition to this, mandatory hand in tasks were all backward mapped from the final public product (documentary) and ensured students were working towards the creation of a documentary (storyboard, transcript, source analysis).
Step 5: The Hook Event
Integral to the success our project was captivating student interest through an engaging hook event. At Riverstone High School we gathered a range of old technology including a wheel barrow, floppy disk, arcade machine, wagon wheel, gramophone and much more. The technology was displayed in the school hall and students completed a group challenge where they had to guess the use of the technology and list each item in the order it was first invented. Students were highly engaged and the activity assisted students in considering technology was more than just the latest iPhone.
Step 6: Creating the language around PBL
One element of our project that I am particularly proud of is the work we did around explicitly teaching future focused learning skills. Beginning with the learning modes created by the department’s Futures Learning team, we used student friendly language to create our own modes. These included
- The Watering Hole (working in groups)
- The Campfire (One person presents and the group listens)
- The Cave (independent learning tasks)
- Break Away Lessons (Direct Instruction)
Students and teachers actively used this language when completing tasks and the model clearly communicate the different learning modes required when completing projects. Before we begun PBL lessons we explicitly discussed effective teamwork and introduced group roles such as manager, time keeper, recorder, speaker and encourager.
In my opinion, it is the work we did around the language of PBL that led to the success of our project.
Step 7: Public Product
Our Public Product took the form of a film premiere. Complete with popcorn machine and red carpet, families and community members were invited to the school to view the student work. Hosting the event in the evening and sending out an official invitation increased the stakes for the students and motivated them to produce quality work. The Premiere was attended by 50% of all Year 7 families which is a significant increase compared to other school events.
Overall, the PBL journey at Riverstone High School has been a successful one. All students worked in groups to plan, script, film, edit and produce a documentary. Feedback gained through student surveys indicated that 75% of students wanted to do more PBL projects in the future. Similarly, parent surveys indicated that the Pride Premiere was considered an example of quality teaching and learning. There has also been 85% reduction in negative SENTRAL wellbeing incidences when compared to 2018 when students were in traditional classroom structures.
At Riverstone High School we are at the beginning of our PBL journey. As a faculty team we have incorporated a PBL task in to each Year level and we are currently working on a cross-curricular project for Year 7 in Term 3.
If you have any additional questions or would like to visit us at RHS, please do not hesitate to contact us.