Innovative teaching and learning. Part two: Spotlight on innovative practice

Peer reviewed article

In the second part of the series on innovative teaching and learning, Dr Kylie Shaw, Dr Kathryn Holmes, Greg Preston, Professor Max Smith and Emeritus Professor Sid Bourke from the Centre for Research, Training and Impact (SORTI) at The University of Newcastle examine the pedagogy at a case study school in the ITL Australia study. The article highlights some of the practices at this school that are contributing to innovative teaching and learning.

This research project (2011-2013) was funded by the NSW Department of Education and Communities (NSW DEC) and Microsoft Australia.

Image: From left to right: Prof Sid Bourke, Greg Preston, Dr Kylie Shaw, Dr Kathryn Holmes, Prof Max Smith

21st century skills

As outlined in the first article of this series about innovative teaching and learning (Scan33.2), 21st century skills are defined as the following:

  • collaboration
  • skilled communication
  • self‑regulation
  • knowledge building
  • problem‑solving and innovation
  • use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for learning.

These skills have always been important for students to master but in the information age they are essential. Employers in the 21st century want and need a flexible workforce that can innovate, communicate and solve problems creatively and collaboratively.

The ITL research project was designed to investigate factors that contributed to the transformation of teaching practices and their ensuing impact on the development of 21st century skills in students. As such, data collection and analysis for site visit schools provided some insight into what innovative teaching and learning practices looked like at both a school and classroom level, in the context of the system-wide approach to schooling in the NSW DEC.

Figure 1 shows, in blue, the mean code for the site visit schools on each ITL dimension across the 97 learning activities. On the whole, all dimensions were quite low with the average between 1 and 2. However, on average, collaboration and use of ICT were higher than the other dimensions, with self-regulation being the lowest. The case study school, shown in red, scored consistently higher on each of the dimensions, in comparison to the total sample. This article examines in detail the pedagogy at this school in order to highlight innovative practice at one site.

Diagram measuring collaboration, knowledge building, use of ICT, problem solving, and self regulation according to both the case study school and the total sample
Image: Figure 1. Learning activity ITL dimensions

Background to the case study school

The case study school is a specialist high school serving a diverse area of Sydney. Set in pleasant landscaped grounds, it features modern facilities and excellent resources. With an enrolment of approximately 1,100 students, the school draws 60% of students from the local area and 40% through selection on specific criteria. The school receives additional funding for teaching and learning activities.

There are approximately 80 teaching staff and 15 non-teaching staff employed at the school. The school’s main focus is on improving student learning outcomes through the consistent application of quality teaching practices, underpinned by whole-school and targeted, teacher professional learning.

'I’m really focused on Quality teaching and looking at ways that we can develop and engage in teaching... it’s really a powerful tool for self-reflection but also for improvement at every single level. Whether it’s running a meeting in your faculty–what does a quality faculty meeting actually look like and feel like – [or] at the classroom level, what does that look like and feel like, not just for us, but for our students too.'


The school had received recognition for Aboriginal education, curriculum integration of technology and teacher professional learning projects. Strong welfare and leadership programs and well-resourced technology facilities complement curricular programs.

In the study, responses to the teacher survey were used to develop an Innovative Teaching Practice index (ITP) for each teacher in the sample (see Holmes et al, 2013 for further detail). The ITP index is an indication of the degree to which teachers incorporate each of the following three components:

  • student centred pedagogies, including knowledge building, self-regulation and assessment, small group work and personalised and individualised learning
  • extension of learning beyond the classroom, including extended classroom community, global awareness and cultural understanding
  • ICT integrated into teaching and learning, including teacher and student ICT use.

Teacher age, frequency of teacher use of extended learning activities and frequency of collaboration were the variables most strongly related to the ITP score. The number of computers available for student use was also important.

Image: Figure 2a: Factors contributing to transformation of teaching practices and ITP index
Image: Figure 2b: Factors contributing to transformation of teaching practices and ITP index

At the case study school, there was an optimal response rate to the teacher survey, with all 63 eligible teachers (teachers of students from Years 7–9) participating in the study. The ITP Index was 0.21, which was higher than average. As shown in Figures 2a and 2b, respondents to the survey also indicated a higher than average level of professional learning in the school both generally and in ICT, higher ICT integration and teaching practices and higher student engagement with ICT. Younger teachers and those with fewer years of experience were also positively associated with the ITL outcome indicated a higher than average level of professional learning in the school both generally and in ICT, higher ICT integration and teaching practices and higher student engagement with ICT. Younger teachers and those with fewer years of experience were also positively associated with the ITL outcome measure. Figure 3 provides a table that explains the significance of the effect sizes in Figures 2a and 2b.

Image: Figure 3: Key to the interpretation of effect sizes

In this school, all students in Year 9 and above had laptops provided through the government Digital Education Revolution (DER) program, and staff aimed for consistency through the use of content management programs, such as Microsoft OneNote, so that students could organise their work electronically. The school had 920 computers available for students and staff, compared to the average of 485. Of those computers, 800 were laptops and 100 were in computer labs or the library.

To further investigate innovative practice at this school, a member of the school executive (school leader) and eight teachers were selected to be involved in a site visit component of the study. The school leader participated in an extended interview, whilst the classroom teachers participated in interviews, class observations and the collection of learning activities and student work (LASW). On the whole this school had a high proportion of individual learning activities which scored a 4 on every dimension except problem-based learning and innovation. However, it was also evident through the data collected in the site visit, that there were variations across disciplines and between individual teachers.

'Traditional pedagogy and traditional assessment particularly, pits students against each other. So it’s competitive rather than collaborative. So the idea of developing assessments where students really rely on each other and the assessment really requires them to work collaboratively, to do the best that they can or to get the best result that they want, combines the competitive with the collaborative in a sense because ... the summative assessment is what matters to a lot of them.'

School Leader

Spotlight on innovative practice: case study school

Some of the programs operating in the case study school are illuminated below, through the eyes of the school leaders and teachers involved in the study. The key areas of interest resulting in innovative practice in this school were:

  • action learning projects on elearning
  • teacher collaboration across discipline areas
  • strong support from school leaders
  • individual mentoring of teachers
  • a focus on involving students as researchers.

Action learning

Action learning projects are a feature at this school. Teachers are invited to participate, and projects are often sustained across a full school year. Some teachers stay on the team for a year as projects are worked on, while others join in for shorter periods of time as required. At the time of the site visit, the focus in the school was on elearning and matching elearning pedagogies with assessment processes. Teachers were using technology and ICT based tools; either web 2.0 tools or software already installed on the DER laptops, to engage students in authentic and ongoing self-assessment and peer assessment processes.

As a part of the project, a facilitator would spend whole days with the team, talking about action learning and about evaluation. They would talk about what elearning looked like and what quality formative and summative assessment practices look like. Teachers were also given academic readings and resources that were shared with the team. The idea was that the teachers involved would come up with a research question, then develop a wide range of resources and test many approaches in the classroom with students.

Examples of action learning included the team of teachers trialling different approaches to self and peer assessment through ICT and teacher feedback in their classes. Some teachers used tools such as Edmodoto submit Word documents and then the students used track changes and comment boxes to really refine their work. They could see the development of the different iterations over a period of time. In performance based subjects, students used webcams to record performances and this practice, in particular, had completely changed the way that students refined their performance pieces because they got to see themselves in third person.

Outcomes from action research project in elearning

Outcomes of the action research projects in elearning were assessed by analysis of student work samples, particularly those samples of students who were using ICT to engage in quality self and peer assessment and teacher feedback processes. Work samples of students involved in the feedback process have been compared with work completed by the same students earlier in the year. Teachers also compared the work samples with those of students who were not involved. Teachers believed that the quality of work that students were producing was way beyond what they were producing without ICT and that the difference was the level of peer and teacher feedback, with students creating multiple drafts of their work before submitting it for marking.

In the focus groups, students say that the process was hard and that it took time, but that they liked it more. The pay-off for teachers was that the classroom management issues were reduced and submission rate of assessment tasks increased. Students also had an increased sense of responsibility to make sure their work was of high quality because it was going out to broader audience than just the teacher.

Other outcomes were improvements in students’ literacy and digital literacy skills, which improved significantly. When technology was first introduced in the classroom it was clear that students did not intuitively use it well. For example, when students in Year 9 were introduced to using simple operations like track changes and comment boxes in Microsoft Word for peer assessment, not one student had used them before. This is now a well-established process that students almost take for granted because it has happened across most of their subjects.

Another example was the development of communication skills for online collaborative workspaces. While students use Facebook and other social media a lot, they didn’t necessarily operate in online spaces in the way they needed to for learning. A few years ago, a wiki was set up for a Year 7 class, who were working on a cross-curriculum project. They automatically started just chatting with each other, saying things like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’,rather than focusing on their task. It was necessary to set clear boundaries for students around the purpose, context and audience of these collaborative spaces.

Cross-disciplinary approach

In a secondary school it is easy for faculties to become silos, with teachers only really knowing what everyone in their own faculty does. So all of the action learning projects that were developed at the school had teachers working across a range of key learning areas (KLAs).This process allowed them to learn from the skills, expertise and knowledge of colleagues that they would not usually interact with and to discover similarities between different syllabuses.

Teachers were also grouped with colleagues who taught the same classes, so that core concepts for cross-curriculum units of work were developed collaboratively and organically. To ensure the integrity of their syllabus was maintained, teachers then developed a unit of work that hooked into a shared core concept but also developed student skills and knowledge in their particular subject area. The result was that students completed rich tasks that met syllabus outcomes for individual KLAs but were also required to bring skills and knowledge from each of the other subject areas involved.

An example from the school was a history unit around Aboriginal culture, where students were required to make a film about Aboriginal first contact with Europeans as their main assessment task. At the same time, students were using picture books in English to develop their understanding of visual components they might consider in their filming. In visual art they were looking at 4D film, including 4D artworks and filmmaking, and in music they were looking at how to include sound in their film to enhance the quality of their final product.

The strength of these units was that teachers had ownership of the process; they were not just teaching someone else’s unit of work.

The school has been using this process for the last four or five years. Teachers believe it has made a difference in terms of their development of a rich understanding of what happened across the school and in the way they were learning from each other. The flow on from this was that their students also developed an understanding of how their learning in one subject could enrich another, which is how real world skills and knowledge were acquired and used.

Support from school leaders

One of the aspects highlighted by staff was that innovation needs the support of school leaders. This section highlights the approach of one of the senior executive or school leaders in this innovative school, from their perspective.

'I don’t ask staff to do anything that I don’t do they know that if I say, I’d really love you to be involved in this action learning project, you’re going to work really hard, [that] I’m not going to pretend for one minute that it’s not going to be a lot of hard work...but [I say] I’m going to be there with you. I’m happy to come in and team-teach with you and I’m happy to help you develop resources, my door is always open.

[I also say]... I’ll be doing it with my own class and I’ll be learning as we go. You’ll be provided with stacks of support. So teachers know that they can come and talk to me and I’ll work with them individually or I’ll be in there with them. I’ll release them for a whole day to work with me or to work with a consultant, or to work with each other. So I think generally teachers are willing to take risks because they know that I talk to them about risk taking as an opportunity to learn.

If some things don’t go right, I never see it as failure because the process is really about investigating what works best. You’re not always going to find the best way to do something immediately.

... So I think we’ve got a school culture of risk - calculated, careful risk taking is really supported. I would hope that teachers would say they feel really supported and they feel like they’re given lots of professional learning, lots of support, lots of time to do the things that they want to do. As I said, I teach a class so I have to be always two steps ahead. I reckon my credibility rests on what the kids in my class say happens in my classroom. Staff here know that I’m not going to say, can you please do something, and then delegate it, and not be in there with them.'

Teacher mentor

Individual mentoring of teachers

The school is active in applying for teaching grants and other funding opportunities, so they can use the funding to release staff for targeted mentoring. The school leader and other staff members had also taken on a role where they were mentoring colleagues.

One of those involved in mentoring other teachers had the following thoughts:

'My job was primarily for them to say, this is what I want to do and this is what the syllabus or my program asks me to do. I really want to marry the technology with that. So my thing with teachers is always, if you’re going to use the technology I want to know that the technology enables you to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do without the technology. So if you’re going to say to me that you’re going to do it on the interactive whiteboard I’m going to say, why can’t you do it in a normal whiteboard?... or if you’re going to do it on the internet, why on the internet and not on something else?

So I’m always challenging them to think about what the technology involves. We don’t want to use it just for the bells and whistles. What does it allow you to do that you can’t do without the technology? So the individual support that I give teachers looks really different according to who the teacher is and what they’re looking for.'

Teacher mentor

The teachers who are mentoring others are part of the wider school action learning team, who then become experts and assist colleagues. They are either mentoring teachers or they are presenting their findings at school development days. All of that gets built into the school plan. So the school is working from individuals, to teams of teachers, to the big picture.

Humanities beginning teacher example

An example was given of a second year teacher who was really reticent to use technology in his class. It was assumed that because he was ‘GenY’, he would just pick up technology and go with it, but he was always worried that something would go wrong. To help him to develop his confidence with using technology in the classroom, a mentor was assigned to work with him, over a sustained period of time, to develop a technology-rich unit of work. This took the form of a range of case studies that were embedded into a OneNote file, rich with multimedia such as graphs and pictures and video. The students had to use a scaffold to analyse each of the case studies and make a decision based on real-life criteria for foreign aid dissemination. They then had to write a media release.

So in terms of changing his practice, it has been about developing his confidence and developing his skills. It has been about convincing him that the technology allowed him to do something that he couldn’t do without it. This was because the OneNote file integrated and hyperlinked the content, which provided a richer learning experience for students. The package he produced is now being piloted to iron out any problems and will be rolled out across every Year 10 class. So part of the process is about giving the task, in which the teacher and mentor have invested a lot of time, every chance to succeed.

Students as researchers

Another project underway at the school is the Students as Researchers Project. The school wants to develop an authentic student voice and empower students to have a greater say in what pedagogy looks like in their school. The school has already done lots of work where they have gathered student opinions through focus groups, surveys, observations and analysis of work samples. But the difference is that the students themselves are analysing this data and have presented a summary for the school leaders on what works best for students and what they would like to see less of. The next step is for students to be collectors of data. Interested students will volunteer to participate and will gather data from their classes using video. They will analyse the videos, and also interview teachers and student focus groups from those classes.

In preparation, the action learning team will spend time talking to student researchers about what quality feedback and quality self and peer assessment looks like. They will also be outlining the difference between elearning and traditional pedagogy so that students develop a sophisticated understanding of what it is they are looking for. Students will then report their findings to teachers and that will guide what’s happening across the school in terms of those processes.

The vision is that a broad range of students across Years 9, 10 and 11 will be involved and, to minimise disruption to student learning as much as possible, it is likely that students will collect data from their own classes.

Innovative learning activities

This section will highlight some of the exemplar learning activities from this case study school which were collected during the site visit. They are presented for the ITL dimensions of collaboration, use of ICT and knowledge building.

ITL dimension: collaboration

Collaboration in this study required the learning activity to be designed to allow students the opportunity to work in pairs or groups. To score highly on this dimension, students were required to share responsibility and make substantive decisions with other people.

Year 8 science learning activity: eye dissection

Groups of students in Year 8 were asked to conduct an experiment involving a dissection of the eye, to identify parts of the eye and then to investigate why blind spots stop people from seeing properly.

Image: Figure 4: OneNote screenshot: eye dissection experiment critique

They had shared responsibility in planning the experiment, filming the subsequent investigation and allocating roles to each member of the group. Each group identified tasks for its members and together they were asked to make substantive decisions about process and product. At the completion of the task, groups were then asked to critique another group’s film of their experiment; using teacher-generated criteria as shown in Figure 5.

Image: Figure 5: Eye dissection experiment marking criteria

This learning activity was coded as 4 (the highest level on the rubric) because it required students to work with shared responsibility for the making the film of the planned experiment and make substantive decisions about how they would conduct the experiment, how they would make the film and what role each member of the team would take. There was one product produced by the collaborative group, being the film of the experiment.

ITL dimension: knowledge building

Knowledge building in this study required the learning activity to be designed to allow students the opportunity to generate ideas and understandings that are new to them, through interpretation, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. In stronger activities, knowledge building was the main requirement of the learning activity and the strongest activities required students to connect information and ideas from two or more academic disciplines, for example, integrating learning from both science and literature.

Year 7 Science learning activity: plant cell analogy

Students were asked to work in small groups and use the web 2.0 tool Prezi to create an analogy of a plant cell through comparison with an organisation. Prior to commencing the activity, a class discussion was held as to which organisations may have the appropriate components to their structure which would support the analogy of a plant cell. Groups then worked together to decide what organisation they would base their analogy upon. They then had to choose between five and seven of their major components of a plant cell to specifically compare through Prezi. After completing the group Prezi, the group presented their analogy to the class through a visual presentation and gave peer feedback to other groups.

This learning activity was coded as a 4 on knowledge building because its main requirement was knowledge building, requiring students to synthesis information about plant cells and compare that information to an organisation’s structure. The activity was also considered cross-disciplinary, as it required knowledge of geography, specifically how organisations are structured in modern society. ITL dimension: use of ICT

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are becoming increasingly common in the classroom, but ICT is often used to support practice on basic skills rather than to build knowledge. ICT includes computers and related electronic devices such as smart phones, personal digital assistants, camcorders, graphing calculators, and electronic whiteboards

This dimension examines how students use ICT, whether or not the use of ICT helps students build knowledge, and whether or not students could build the same knowledge without using ICT. To score highly on this dimension, students were required to use ICT in the learning activity to build knowledge in the given discipline.

Year 9 Science learning activity: podcast on contraception

Students were asked to design and provide relevant and accurate information about different forms of contraception as a part of the topic, The Human Body. Students conducted individual research on different forms of contraception, using internet sources provided by the teacher.

Small groups were then formed to collaboratively write a script for a two minute podcast on one form of contraception, using Microsoft OneNote, suitable for an audience of Year 9 students. Podcasts were then recorded using the program Audacity and edited by the group. Finished podcasts were collated and a full set of podcasts given to each student, who rated the podcasts according to the task criteria using the Two stars and a wish method.

This learning activity was coded as a 4 on use of ICT because students used ICT to support knowledge building.

They were asked to research multiple current sources of information about contraception and then as a group, synthesise the information to provide up-to-date information about one form of contraception. The product they produced would not have been possible without the use of ICT to support their investigation of current sources of information and the use of a web 2.0 tool to produce podcasts, which were then shared with all members of the class for peer assessment purposes through the shared learning platform of Microsoft OneNote.

Where to next?

Close examination of the case study school highlights some of the key practices that support the development of 21st century learning skills in teachers and students. Of particular interest was the extent to which collaborative practice and feedback underpinned many learning activities in the school.

One of the key benefits of the study for participating schools was the experience of coding learning activities, as it was found that when teacher coders analysed and scored learning activities across the ITL dimensions, they developed a deeper understanding of how 21st century skills could be integrated into learning activities.

A professional learning framework based on 21C learning design has been developed for schools, based on the ITL research project. Those interested can contact the authors, read more about the ITL research program, or download the app developed by the Microsoft Educator Network The 21st Century Learning Design app.

This free tool has been designed to help teachers assess and code their own learning activities and provide them with structures and further learning resources to assist with curriculum planning for 21st century skills.

References and further reading

Bryk, A., Camburn, E. & Louis, K.S. 1999, ‘Professional community in Chicago elementary schools: Facilitating factors and organizational consequences’, Educational Administration Quarterly, vol. 35(Supplement), pp. 751-781.

Carneiro, R. & Draxler, A. 2008, ‘Education for the 21st century: Lessons and challenges’, European Journal of Education, vol. 43, no.2, pp. 149-160.

Fullan, M. 2011, ‘Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning white paper, presented at the Global Forum, Washington, November 2011, accessed on 20 January 2017.

Government of South Australia 2008, eStrategy framework, The State of South Australia, Department Of Education and Children’s Services.

Groff, J. & Mouza, C. 2008, ‘A framework for addressing challenges to classroom technology use’, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE) Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 21-46.

Holmes, K., Bourke, S., Preston, G., Shaw, K. & Smith, M. 2013, ‘Supporting innovation in teaching: What are the key contextual factors?’ International Journal of Quantitative Research in Education, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 85-102.

Langworthy, M., Shear, L., & Means, B. 2010, ‘The third level: innovative teaching and learning research’, Inspired by technology, driven by pedagogy: a systemic approach to technology based school innovations, OECD, Paris, France.

Law, N., Pelgrum, W. J. & Plomp, T. 2008, Pedagogy and ICT use in schools around the world: Findings from the IEA SITES 2006 study, CERC-Springer, Hong Kong.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2007, ‘National educational technology standards for students’, 2nd edn, International Society for Technology in Education, Eugene, OR.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2008, ‘National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers’, International Society for Technology in Education, Eugene, OR.

Microsoft Educator Network, ‘21st century learning design’, Microsoft Educator Network, accessed 16 January 2017.

Microsoft Educator Network 2014, ‘21st century learning design app’, Microsoft Educator Network, accessed 16 January 2017.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2006, Are students ready for a technology-rich world? What PISA studies tell us,OECD Publishing.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2009, Creating effective teaching and learning environments: first results from TALIS, OECD Publishing.

Partnership for 21st century skills 2004a, Framework for 21st century learning, accessed 25 January 2009.

Partnership for 21st century skills 2004b, The intellectual and policy foundations of the 21st century skills framework, white paper, accessed on 20 January 2017.

Shaw, K. Holmes, K., Preston, K. Smith, M. & Bourke, S. 2013, ITL research Australia: 2011-2012 phase two report, Centre for Research Training & Impact (SORTI), The University of Newcastle, accessed 25 January 2017.

Shear, L., Gallagher, G. & Patel, D. 2011, Evolving educational ecosystems: executive summary of phase 1 ITL research results, Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA.

UNESCO 2008, UNESCO’s ICT competency standards for teachers, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris, accessed 25 January 2017.

Keywords: innovative teaching and learning (ITL), 21c skills, action research, collaboration

How to cite this article: Shaw, K., Holmes, K., Preston, G., Smith, M. & Bourke, S. 2014, ‘Innovative teaching and learning. Part two: Spotlight on innovative practice’, Scan 33(3)

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