Explicit teaching with Northern Beaches Secondary College Balgowlah Boys campus – What works best podcast

This podcast was originally published 29 September 2020.

This podcast is part of an eight-part series. In this podcast, Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, hears first-hand how the school's focus on explicit teaching has helped it become one of the state's top performing schools in English.

Mark Scott speaks with Principal, Paul Sheather, Deputy Principal, Ben Seldon, and students of Northern Beaches Secondary College, Balgowlah Boys Campus.

Mark Scott: So, today we’re talking with the Principal Paul Sheather and the Deputy Principal Ben Sheldon, and students, at Northern Beaches Secondary College Balgowlah Boys campus, and we’re going to talk about explicit teaching, which is one of the eight effective teaching practice areas identified in the ‘What works best: 2020 update’.

So, gentlemen, what are the key features of explicit teaching at Balgowlah Boys? And why is it so important to use explicit teaching with all students?

Paul Sheather: I think Mark, just start with the second part of the question. I suppose why it’s important is because it’s been very, very effective with a full range of students. Both the performance data and the value-added data emphatically support this. The full range of students of all abilities seem to perform better under explicit teaching. The school has, I suppose, experimented with a gamut of teaching strategies over the last 10 years, and explicit teaching has evolved to be the core or the nucleus, the way we deliver at Balgowlah Boys. The key features of this, mate, is firstly teachers map out the learning outcomes, and generally this comes backwards from the HSC outcomes. So, the concepts build accumulatively and systematically. These outcomes are very visible to the students. And secondly, most importantly, the teachers work to develop explicit models to deliver to the students. To enable this, teachers work collaboratively in teams to develop the very best model, answer or product they can. And in these teams, they also deconstruct the model so that when they’re in front of their class, they’re on song, confident, and ensure that the best exemplified learning outcome is presented to the boys. And probably this is best exemplified in the English faculty, Ben?

Ben Seldon: We noticed quite a few years ago after coming back from the HSC marking, that the boys were lacking the specific language that was required to leave high outcomes in the HSC, particularly in advanced level English. So, what we realised then is that we needed as classroom instructors to exclusively teach that language to the students. First, I’d like to address a misconception. I think, just because teachers are creating an exemplar, doesn’t mean that we’re sticking something on the board and we’re saying, “Guys, write that down.” That’s not the process at all. Great exemplar informs the teaching process; it informs question and answer; it allows teachers to ask very targeted questions to illicit language, to illicit content, to help the boys recall meta language and syllabus content and knowledge, and then demonstrates to the students how to put that in sentences. I think there’s another misconception in education which is that because boys seemingly know how to communicate and can talk a lot in class, they can write as well, and that’s not the case at all. As classroom teachers, we need to be very specific, like maths teachers, very explicit in talking through how you put sentences together. So, we’ve created a 2 sentence scaffold, which is beguilingly simple, but it allows students to create very, very complex sentence structures, and to manipulate multiclause sentences very, very confidently. And we introduced that in Stage 4, and it’s taught consistently through to Stage 6 where the boys develop it. And it gives them an enormous amount of confidence, and we’ve had an enormous amount of feedback from students who go on from leaving our school and saying, “Thanks for teaching me how to write.” It's a fascinatingly simple tool. It’s a very interactive process.

Mark Scott: Do you find, Ben, this has been a key to student engagement? I mean, as you take them through this process, that kids are leaning more into learning?

Ben Seldon: Absolutely. English is a very, very popular subject, and there is a mindset students have, that if they don’t know quite how the subject works or what they’re supposed to do, they get a feeling of disengagement. And what this does, is it breaks it down, it makes it very, very simple. It’s like putting a Lego model together. And the boys, they become empowered. We’re able to say, “Those sentences that you put together in Year 8 replicate the kind of grammar that you use in Year 12,” and we can show them a Year 12 essay, show them what they’ve done, and the boys realise, “Wow, I’ve got this.” And that’s incredibly confidence-building for them. It also, as Paul eluded to, it’s very empowering for the teachers. So, they go into the classroom with that exemplar in the back of their mind, and are able to speak from a position of confidence and clarity. They can give explicit feedback about what kind of language the boys are using. They can give explicit feedback about what’s working, what isn’t working, and how to tweak that, and they use the whiteboard to show the boys how to put those sentences together. And the boys in the class sit there and say, “I have confidence in this process because the teachers, they’re just doing it, they’re showing me how to do it.” And there’s a lot of teacher talking time in classrooms around NSW, where you get these fantastic and very articulate, intelligent English teachers who are standing up and talking about texts. Unfortunately, boys don’t learn that way. Very few of us do. We learn by watching it and doing it. So, the teachers have to model it and use the whiteboard and write it down and show the boys how to write those sentences. And then the boys replicate that process, and through that process of replication over time, they develop that skills and that confidence. It’s a very exciting process.

Mark Scott: Paul, one of the really interesting things, if you look at the experience of Balgowlah Boys, this is a school that’s had a remarkable and sustained life in educational outcomes over the last decade or 15 years, and I think one of the really interesting things about it is, it wasn’t just a sugar hit effect where you had a good year or two; you lifted it and you’ve sustained it over time, and so outstanding results, outstanding value add. One of the things, though, about high quality explicit teaching practices, if you’re implementing it the way that you’re talking about it and Ben’s 3 talking about it, you need in a sense a consistency in all classrooms, with all teachers, and it needs to be a language and approach that’s used in all staffrooms. How have you brought about that consistency of application of high quality, explicit teaching practices in all your classrooms?

Paul Sheather: Intrinsic in this process of explicit teaching, and the modelling as we alluded to prior, is teachers working collaboratively in groups to ensure that they come up with the best possible model. Once in those groups, they are also deconstructing those models in a way as if they would be doing it in front of the class. So, these teachers are working and deconstructing these models in front of their peers, and that ensures that homogeneity of practice and blueprint across the school. First, practice in English, and we’ve got some amazing results in that area, and then taken through other faculties across the school. The same form of delivery, with teachers in all faculties now working in collaboratively groups to hone their skills in being able to develop the best possible model, and their skillset enable them to deconstruct and deliver it in the classroom. So, that’s enabled us to ensure that particularly with a growing school, the new and less experienced teachers across the school gain this skillset and ability to be able to model in such a way in their faculty area.

Mark Scott: All right, that’s great. Gentlemen, how are we? Students: [Overtalk]

Mark Scott: So, Charlie, Sebastien, Luke, thanks for joining us. We want to talk about what it’s like to learn at Balgowlah Boys. Tell me, how do you know what you’re going to learn, and where you’re headed in your learning, and whether you’ve been successful? How do you know about the learning journey that you have in classes there?

Charlie Longmore Year 8 student: It’s honestly a really easy process when it comes to objectives in English. Going off of knowing when you’ve been successful, the scaffold provided creates a structure for us to build off. If what you’ve produced is similar to the standard set by the teacher, or even better, then you definitely k now you’re on the right track, and the teachers pick up on it. It really helps to have a bar to reach when in class or at home, writing deconstructions, et cetera, that clearly states the goal of what you’re trying to achieve, so you’re not mindlessly going off route, not knowing what you’re doing. It’s very easy to stay focussed, I guess in summary. And you know where you’re headed and what’s next, because as you progress different units in English, you pick up new strategies and tips, and it’s very easy to see the improvement from when we first started in Year 7.

Mark Scott: So, what are some of the practical ways that your teachers show you what to do, and to show you how to be successful in your learning? 4 Luke O’Donnell Year 11 student: Well, specifically done in Year 11 now, and recently with our last English assessment, we were able to send in lots of drafts. I had up to six drafts before the day of the assessment, and every time that’s available for all students in the class, and our teacher has taken the time after school and on her weekends to go through those and make each individual draft, showing which areas we can improve on and what we’ve done well, so we know where we’ve succeeded and where we can improve. And just getting that feedback really, really helps, so we know what we’ve done well, what we haven’t done well, and what we could improve on. But also, in the classroom, in the lessons, going through scaffolded responses, and the teachers usually prepare pre-written texts, pre-written deconstructions of the texts, at a really high standard, so we know what we can achieve and what we can aim for. And it’s kind of like an, “I do, we do, and then you do” approach; she shows us exactly what she wants us to do and we do it together so we understand it, and then we have homework set so we can go and do it ourselves and put those skills into practice.

Mark Scott: And when you look at the first draft you did and the final paper that you submit, can you chart your journey of improvement through that? Is it a big difference?

Luke O’Donnell: You can definitely tell there’s been improvements, because you’ve done so many revisions of it. You can see the areas, again, as I said, that you can improve on, and which you’ve done really well in from the start, but you just have that feeling of assurance that you know that you’ve done the best work possible right from the start, and on the day as well.

Mark Scott: Then finally, how do you find this helps you with your learning, and helps you with your preparation as you work your way through school towards the HSC?

Sebastien Bush Year 10 student: Well, getting this explicit teaching strategy and getting the simple sentence structure, “This does that, doing that, and doing that,” I guess it gives us confidence to explore more sophisticated language. So, it gives us the freedom and will to extend our vocabulary from just basic words in order to get those Band 6’s in order to be highly achieving. So, we work really hard to meet that standard in class with the decons written down on the board, being closely guided by our teachers. So, they are making sure that we know what we’re doing.

Mark Scott: It sounds to me like it’s pretty specific, like very real goalsetting, you know what the challenge is.

Sebastien Bush: Yes.

Mark Scott: And it’s very engaging, it’s kind of like a game in itself, in a sense, to be able to deliver to that standard and that expectation.

Sebastien Bush: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Each English lesson I really do look forward to, because it’s a really good challenge. And when doing decons for 5 homework and in class and really impressing myself with multi-clausal sentences and introductions, and it’s very satisfying, I’ll admit, and you want to strive more and more, and improve it as much as possible.

Mark Scott: Brilliant, great answer. Thanks, everyone.

Student: Thanks.

Student: Thanks, Mark.

Student: Thank you very much.

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