In conversation with Coonabarabran High School
This audio was originally published 28 June 2020.
Coonabarabran High School Principal, Mary Doolan and CESE's Rydr Tracy, discuss how Coonabarabran has applied the evidence base from 'What works best' in their school.
CESE's 'What works best' resources support schools and teachers to use evidence-based teaching practices that are known to improve student outcomes.
Welcome to a special CESE video on the new ‘What works best’ resources. My name's Sally Egan, CESE's Relieving Executive Director. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in which we meet today here on Darug land, Parramatta. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging and extend my respect to all Aboriginal colleagues watching today. In April this year CESE released the What works best 2020 update along with a new practical guide and resources. These resources are designed to support teachers and schools when implementing evidence-based practice that are proven to have a positive impact on our student learning and in our classrooms. Used together, the practical guide and toolkit enable teachers to ask questions, collaborate, develop and strengthen their collective efficacy. As you know, to really see the value of educational research we need to do more than just read the research. We need to apply it, evaluate it, create a cycle of continuous improvement. This ongoing improvement will impact every student in all our schools. You're about to hear from Coonabarabran High School Principal, Mary Doolan and CESE's Rydr Tracy. They'll discuss how Coonabarabran effectively incorporated the original what works best themes through year-long staff professional learning journey. I hope you enjoy hearing a real-life example of what works best in action, as I have.
To help us think through how to operationalise that and what that actually means in practice, we've got the good fortune to be joined today by Mary Doolan, Principal of Coonabarabran High School.
Rydr: Hi Mary, how are you going today?
Mary: I’m well, nice to be with you, Rydr.
Rydr: Could you please tell us just a little bit about Coonabarabran?
Mary: Well, the town itself is a small township of about 3,000, and our school is 7-12, 385 students, about 42 teaching staff. We are the only High School in town. Really strong community support and a very long established culture of high expectations. I think that an education at our school will serve you well into the next phase of your life.
Rydr: Excellent and I appreciate the reference to What works best already. So my next question is around how did you first come across the What works best document?
Mary: Well it grew out of some professional learning that myself and two fellow executives were doing in 2016, called the secondary learning strategy, and as part of that, we were shown through the CESE site and looked at what works best in terms of what gives the most impact. So we were looking through the CESE site which led us to that document. So I guess to get to the punchline, in 2017 we agreed to carve out a professional learning space for our staff in cross-KLA groups to try and break down those faculty silos and to give time for those professional conversations that we want to have to lead to improved outcomes. And we had a focus in 2017 which was the secondary learning strategies which were largely focused on literacy and numeracy and explicit approaches to teaching. And when I came back to the CESE site which I had been introduced to before at the PL, that document, What works best, just, you know, snapped out at me and thought this will directly align with where we want to keep going as a school. We were quite relieved because we carved out the professional learning space but we were sort of thinking, well how can we make that, you know, first-rate for our staff in terms of PL, and there was this document that it had put it all together. So we thought great we don't have to reinvent the wheel. Someone's done that thinking and looked at the data for us. So that's where it came from and then we implemented that whole school in 2018.
Rydr: Right, and so with that implementation, how did teachers respond to that as being the focus?
Mary: Well a couple things I guess, what we learnt from 2017 and implementing the secondary learning strategies is if you want something to work in a school, you've got to give it time, resources and you've got to put it on the timetable. So first you got to create that space because teachers are busy. The other thing too is, I think, we played the smart game in terms of contextualising it for staff and why we were doing it. So it wasn't that, you know, we don't do things well in Coonabarabran High School – I think we do and I think staff take great pride in their work, but as professionals you always want to try and do it better and the What works best strategy aligns directly with why we're teachers. You know, we want to get the best educational outcomes for our students. So it was a pretty easy sell to say look what we do, we do things pretty well, but here's how we can improve them. And the other reason that I don't think it was hard to get staff buy-in, apart from the fact that it was you know on the timetable and we had this learning time, is because with the What works best strategies it didn't require staff to re-program or re-do their scope and sequences. The strategies were largely things that you could learn about one day and implement the next. You know, so they were very, they had great utility. You could just go into the classroom and try them on. And so, I think staff found them a great support and it was easy for us to get that whole-school buy-in from our staff that this was the direction we wanted to go in.
Rydr: So, Mary I'm curious around where the new documents sit for a school like Coonabarabran where you've made a big commitment and engaged with what works best quite a lot at, these two new documents, What works best 2020 update and What works best in practice documents, how do they align and fit and do you see them as useful to your school moving forward? Mary: Oh for sure. And what it will do, it will reinvigorate, you know, what we've been trying to do around school improvement and improving classroom practice and it's, can I say, it's very well timed. I mean, we couldn't have foreseen the COVID pandemic but we've got our students coming back into school and we've already talked as a staff that we've gotta be on our A-game to reconnect our students. And we still have that professional learning space and we move the lens around at Coonabarabran High. So in 2018 it was What works best and those strategies and then in 2019 we moved on to looking at assessment. So, a couple of things from that, it's really nice that this document now picks up assessment and puts that in there because that really completes the package, but our lens had been on trauma training for our staff during those cross KLA PL groups every fortnight. We have agreed, getting our students back in, we need to get back to really focusing on the essentials of great classroom practice. So we have agreed that we want to come back in our PL groups and look at the What works best strategies. So, it's great that we have an update and that we've got that in practice document to look at what other schools are doing, because again, it goes back to the real strength of this document, that it moves from the theory to, what are the implications for schools? What can you pick up and do in your classrooms tomorrow? So, it's a bit of a shot in the arm, we think for where we want to just make sure that we've got a real laser-like focus on classroom practice over the next semester and getting our students reconnected.
Rydr: Do you think the…you know, you talk a lot about the application into classroom practice, do you think the strategies in this document, particularly in that What works best in practice document, help offer a consistency of language, you know across, because obviously implementing the way you use data in your maths faculty might be different to your English faculty but having that consistency of language from the document. I'm curious to hear if that's useful or has played a role.
Mary: Absolutely. There is a real danger of silos as you know, I’m not the first person to say that obviously, in a high school setting and students compartmentalising their learning, their knowledge and skills between different subjects. And so having a consistency of language is actually quite powerful to support student learning. So, you know, things like under the explicit teaching and having clear learning goals and making sure that happens in maths, that happens in English, that happens in HSIE that is very good. And can I just go sideways for a little bit. When we were preparing remote learning for our students, we were better at that I'm quite sure because we were drawing on a lot of the evidence-based practices from What works best. And we've done a quick survey of our seniors only at this stage to say 'hey, what worked for you when you were on remote learning? Is there anything we can you know make sure we keep doing?' And more than one senior student has said 'it was really good that you kept up those clear learning goals, so that we knew, even in the online space, what it was we were meant to be doing and what success would look like'. So, that the uniformity of language definitely, and you're right, the data you are collecting for different, you know, subjects areas will look different. But what is, I think what's filtered through to the culture of our school is the importance of gathering that data whatever it may look like. Something I haven't mentioned is a change it made at our school, a direct change, was giving greater focus upon student voice and collecting the data around that. Like what do our students think about the learning they've done this year? What's worked for them? What hasn't worked for them? And you know, examining that more than just focusing on, you know, hard data like NAPLAN and HSC RAP analysis. So we've I think gotten a bit stronger at a more broad, you know broader, interpretation of the data that we need to look at as educators to make sure that we're being responsive to the needs of our students. And the students from this year, not last year or the year before. Rydr: Would you think the use of data helps inform the other practices, you know, the way you deliver feedback and the way you engage with explicit teaching? Mary: Yeah, and that is one of the strengths of the document, like, they're all mutually reinforcing. You know, so obviously, I wouldn't think you'd ever want to, you couldn't implement What works best in isolation, oh this year we're just going to do high expectations. I don't think it works like that. And I think the success for us, and there'd be many ways to do it, but what worked for us, was that we carved out that space of cross-KLA groups and we would look at a particular strategy, like you know, classroom management. And then you had to go away and come back in two weeks’ time with some sort of artefact of how you have implemented that strategy or an aspect of it and talk about it and, you know, it's hard to measure the power of collegial conversations and the lift that might give in the collective efficacy of your staffBut, so I guess, I'm just giving you an anecdote now, but our sense is that it grew that culture of reflective practice and that, you know, we've got this if we work together and implement these evidence-based strategies. We think it's been, you know, a force for good in our school.
Rydr: And so would you say, so what I'm hearing is, that there was the kind of introduction of the strategy, then teachers were empowered to kind of experiment, trial with that strategy and then feedback in a safe place to inform their next action?
Mary: That's right and a couple of things I didn't mention, we did the What works best reflection guide, we changed a little bit and we got staff at the start of 2018 to do that individually. And then we got them to do that again at the end of the year to see if we'd had a bit of a shift in, am I now more familiar with those strategies? Do I use them more in my classroom practice? That was a definite yes to that. The other thing we did is they fed back in the small cross KLA groups, in those groups we then collated all of that feedback, you know we have about eight groups operating at our school, and then we had the one sort of resource if you like, this is what everybody tried and did and it worked. So we had our own little mini exemplars of how we’d use that and we came back to each strategy again in second semester, so we rolled around again because, you know, it's a cliché in education but it's true: learning is about times not time. So we came back to it and that's another reason the 2020 update is good, apart from staff turnover you know, so we haven't got everyone here that was here in 2018 necessarily, you do forget life gets busy. It's good, you know, to have another reminder to get that back and entrenched in your classroom practice so it's good, I think, and timely.
Rydr: Yeah excellent. I'm gonna ask a question. One of the things that we kind of experience working with schools is often around time, you know, and when you were talking through the aggregation of that data, you know I thought, well, I wonder what that means from a time perspective, if you had any tips or suggestions or you know how that kind of was operationalised in a way that was manageable? Given all the other priorities in schools that occur? Mary: Absolutely, I have to give a shout-out to Cobar High School.And for this reason. That when we went off to professional learning there were three exec in 2016, looking about how to improve things in our school, what do we do. Cobar High School was a bit further along the journey than us and now we're talking about these professional learning groups and I'm sitting there as a deputy thinking ‘well, how do you get that done?’ You know, the thing is our experience was when we copied them, put it on the timetable, carve out the time. It becomes sacred then. Obviously that means you've got to throw money at it, because, you know, that's part of your staffs’ teaching load now. But we did that, and we think the benefits have been great. And staff really value that professional learning time. Also, I know myself you go to professional learning and you learn great things and you have great intentions but if you don't come back and implement that straight away, you know, you've got all these wonderful notes you took, or maybe this is just me, you know, it gets lost through the sands of time, whereas with this in-house PL, what was great about it is, is just yeah, you just walk in. You might be implementing it period five that day. It was, we found that, you know, we found that very good, but you know, I have to be honest, we copied that from Cobar High School.
Rydr: Nothing wrong with good idea diffusion, that's for sure. So I just want to play back a summary of a few of the key things that I think I'm hearing from you. I'm hearing that the What works best strategies work best, when, because they're interrelated, when done holistically. And I'm hearing that whole-school implementation has benefits for, kind of, collegiality and informed professional dialogue offering some consistent language. I'm hearing lots of short, sharp cycles, you know, learn something, or engage with something, experiment with it and come back and share in a safe place to inform next action. A bit of a formative implementation cycle there.
Mary: Yes, and the artefact is really important. Well we weren't naming and shaming people. If you didn't bring in the What works best homework to the group, no one was saying ‘well Rydr, you know, there's a black mark against your name’. But the culture became, people did come and they shared and we learnt from each other but I think the artefact was important. You know, whatever that was, a photo of your smart board, you know, a piece of student work, something to say ‘this is what I did’, and I know on one level that looks a bit artificial but I just think that helped, to be a basis for the feedback the next week.
Rydr: It's certainly consistent with the literature and it becomes a data-informed dialogue, doesn't it? Where, here is data to inform the anecdote that I'm telling, you know, I've got a… or an artefact and then I've got a story that sits under it and most importantly, what I'm hearing is, that from that conversation, the information and dialogue is purposeful for what I'm going to do next and it's just the newest improvement cycle.
Mary: Yes and can I say, it has led to some pretty significant changes that have grown from our focus on what works best. You know, for example, in the wellbeing sphere, like I said we thought we did things well at Coonabarabran High School. We're a caring school but we thought maybe not systematic enough, and I'm not sure if I mentioned this earlier, but that's led us on the journey of becoming a PBL school. So it has actually significantly changed the landscape of our school in some respects.
Rydr: Fantastic. Mary, thank you so much for your time today and that's been really informative. And we're really grateful for your insight into Coonabarabran High School and What works best and all the best in your future school improvement journey.
Mary: Aw, thank you and thank you for taking an interest in our school.