Innovative teaching and learning: From research to practice. Part one

Peer reviewed article

This report focuses on research data collected through a study on Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL). Australia joined the global ITL Research Project in 2011, sponsored by the NSW Department of Education and Communities (NSW DEC) and Microsoft Partners in Learning (PiL) Australia.

Dr Kylie Shaw Dr Kathryn Holmes   Greg Preston Prof Max Smith Emeritus Professor Sid Bourke
Dr Kylie Shaw Dr Kathryn Holmes Greg Preston Prof Max Smith Prof Sid Bourke

Dr Kylie Shaw is lead author of the qualitative report for ITL Research Australia.

Dr Kathryn Holmes is the Deputy Head of School for Research in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle.

Greg Preston is a Lecturer in eLearning and ICT at the University of Newcastle.

Professor Max Smith is professor in Education at the University of Newcastle.

Emeritus Professor Sid Bourke has a research background in innovative teaching and learning with a focus on mathematics education.


This research study was instigated by the need to rethink how and why learning occurs in schools in response to the shifts in social and economic domains of future work and schooling (Langworthy, Shear & Means, 2010). The global study was conducted in seven countries: Australia, England, Finland, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Senegal.

This article is centred on the Australian study and is the first of a series of two. The study is based in NSW Department of Education and Communities (NSW DEC) schools, from three different geographical regions. This first article provides an overview of learning practices, including use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by teachers and students. The supports for and impediments to innovation are explored in terms of systemic and school-based vision, the impact of leadership, instructional methods and school context. The importance of individual teacher dimensions is illuminated through interview analysis and task exposition.

The second article, which will be published in Issue 3, 2014 of Scan, looks more closely at one school where innovative educational activity is significantly greater than the average across the NSW study. This case study provides useful insights into how innovative teaching and learning can be implemented in schools.

Context for the study

ITL research builds upon the learning on education transformation from leading international research and literature including the Second Information Technology in Education Study 2006(Law, Pelgrum, & Plomp, 2006), the Programme for International Student Assessment(PISA), Frameworks for 21st-century Learning(Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004a,b); and research on specific constructs related to teaching practices that are associated with positive student outcomes (for example, Bryk, Camburn, & Louis, 1999; Groff & Mouza, 2008). These inputs contributed to the logic model shown below.

For purposes of this study, 21st century learning skills are defined as the following set of skills: knowledge building, problem‑solving and innovation, skilled communication and collaboration, self‑regulation and use of technology for learning.

These skills are defined more explicitly and in relation to the research methods in the ITL research design document and the learning activities and student work (LASW) coding guides, both available at ITL research–LEAP 21.

Innovative teachingrefers to three categories of practice:

  • student-centred pedagogies
  • extending learning beyond the classroom to include knowledge building and problem solving in today’s world
  • ICT integration in ways that support learning goals, not as a goal in itself.

The latest ITL research is the clearest conceptual and empirical example ... of how technology and pedagogy can be effectively integrated.

Fullan, 2011

The global studyfound that:

  • innovative teaching does support the development of 21st century skills in students.
  • student opportunities to develop these skills are scarce and uneven in all countries.
  • ICT use by students in their learning is not widespread.
  • innovative teaching is more likely to flourish where there is teacher collaboration, active and direct engagement of teachers in professional development and a school culture that offers a common vision of innovation and consistent support for teachers.
  • pockets of innovation were observed but a coherent and integrated set of conditions to support the adoption of innovative teaching is not found in most schools and in all of the school systems in the study.

While innovation is not yet commonplace in most settings, seeds are being sown.

Shear, Gallagher & Patel, 2011

Methodological approach

The research data for this project was collected in two distinct but interrelated phases: quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative data was collected via two electronic surveys. These surveys were designed to gain information on the views of both teaching staff and school leaders on various aspects of their school, its activities, and innovative teaching structures and practices. Each survey addressed issues such as the frequency of various classroom activities, school-based support structures and limitations, school resourcing, and respondent demographic information. The surveys were analysed in line with the global study requirements and various insights were gained using descriptive and inferential statistics.

Additionally, a range of indices were developed and calculated to assist with the comparison of teacher, school, and regional data. Useful data were obtained for 683 teaching staff, from 22 NSW Public secondary schools, with school leader data also collected from each of these institutions.

The second phase of the project consisted of the collection and collation of various qualitative items related to the same issues explored in the survey data. Again, there were two stages to this phase. Initially, site visits were conducted at 5 of the 22 originally surveyed schools, during which the researchers conducted focus interviews with staff, school leaders and students.

During follow up activities and visits, samples of educational tasks and students’ responses to these tasks were also collected and analysed. The interviews were transcribed and analysed thematically, and the staff and student work samples were coded on the 21st century learning skill dimensions such as use of ICT, knowledge building and collaboration.

A more detailed explanation of the research methodology of the project is available through the SORTIwebsite.

Phase one: teacher and school leader surveys

Innovative teaching and practice index (ITP index)

Phase one investigates the school and teacher level factors that are most strongly related to innovative teacher practices (ITPs). A sample of Australian secondary teachers (n = 683) completed online surveys about current practices and beliefs. The teacher responses enabled the calculation of an ITP index for each teacher, which was used as the response variable in a multilevel regression with various explanatory variables. These variables included, characteristics such as:

  • age, gender and experiences of teachers including amount of professional development
  • size, region and demographic data of schools
  • other characteristics developed from school leader responses (see Holmes et al, 2013).

Responses to the teacher survey were used to develop an innovative teaching practice index(ITP) for each teacher in the sample. The ITP 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. Some of these results are expanded on below. Several other factors were found to be related to ITP including the frequency of use of extended learning activities and teacher collaboration. These findings have the potential to inform school leaders about how best to foster teacher change and innovation.

Key findings: phase one

Teacher age and innovative teaching

Younger teachers scored significantly higher than older teachers on the ITP index, indicating that younger, less experienced teachers were more likely to engage in student-centred pedagogies which integrated ICT and extended learning beyond the classroom (see Figure 1).

Image: Figure 1: Mean ITP index score by teacher age

Teacher qualifications and innovative teaching

Teachers’ educational qualifications were also significantly related to their scores on the ITP index. Teachers with qualifications beyond a bachelor’s degree scored much higher on the ITP index (see Figure 2).

Image: Figure 2: Mean ITP index score by teacher highest qualification

Professional culture in schools—collaboration

The teachers were asked about the degree to which teachers in their school share common goals and held similar views about teaching and learning. This factor was found to be unrelated to the ITP index score for each teacher.

In contrast, the frequency with which teachers reported that they collaborate with each other was found to have a small but significant relationship with the ITP index. As shown in Figure 3, teachers who said they collaborated at least weekly had by far the highest ITP score.

Image: Figure 3: Mean ITP index score by frequency of teacher collaboration

Extended learning tasks

The teachers were also asked the percentage of the target class time the students were working on a question or an investigation for one week or longer. Although the trend was not entirely uniform, as can be seen in Figure 4, teachers who tended to use extended learning tasks more often had higher ITP scores. The suggestion is that using this approach too much of the time (more than 75% of the time) was not optimal.

Image: Figure 4: Mean ITP index score by percentage of class time on extended tasks of one week or longer

Barriers to ICT integration

The teachers were asked for their responses to 12 potential barriers to using ICT with their target class. When taken overall, the relationship with ITP index was complex, as shown in Figure 5. The teachers who indicated there were no barriers had the highest mean ITP index score, followed by those who saw significant barriers. A possible explanation is that the teachers who did not see barriers did not feel the need for computers and other ICT for innovative teaching.

Image: Figure 5: Mean ITP index score for levels of barriers to using ICT in the classroom

Taken separately, the most significant of the 12 barriers to ICT integration in the classroom was not enough computers for student use. The four barriers most often seen by teachers were, in descending order:

  • not enough computers for student use (25%)
  • not enough time to plan for ICT integration (20%)
  • not enough professional development involving ICT (10%)
  • difficulty with to access computers in labs (7%).

The teachers who responded that not enough computers for students was the most significant barrier had, on average, 6.3 computers in their classroom and those who said not enough time to plan had, on average, 17.7 computers. It appears that the availability of computing hardware is a significant barrier but when that barrier is removed, teachers do begin to focus on the importance of seeking out professional development opportunities with regard to ICT use.

Professional development

Teachers were asked about the types of professional development that they had undertaken in the last two years. Their responses were examined in relation to their scores on the ITP index. In general, teachers who had participated in any type of professional development in the past two years scored higher on the ITP than those that did not, but specifically,

  • Teachers who had undertaken a degree (either undergraduate or postgraduate) in the past two years scored significantly higher on the ITP Index than those that had not.
  • Teachers who had undertaken observation visits to other schools in the past two years scored significantly higher on the ITP than those that had not.

The most common formsof professional development that the teachers had undertaken were lectures and demonstrations, while the least common formswere one-on-one mentoring and observations of lessons.

Most of the teachers (73%) had undertaken professional development in ICT use for teaching and learning in the last two years. One third of the teachers wished to participate in more professional development, however, most of these said there was no professional development to match their needs, or that it was too expensive.

Research indicates that professional development is more effective if it is taken over an extended time period. In this study we found that 60% of professional development opportunities were for short durations (< 1 week), with only 12% of teachers undertaking activities that lasted for more than one month.

An abundance of research establishes that changes in behaviour precede changes in the assumptions, beliefs, expectations and habits that constitute the culture of an organisation.

DuFour & DuFour, 2010

Phase two: site visits to innovative schools

Five schools were selected to participate in phase two of the study. Four of the five schools had a higher than average ITP index score (shown as greater than zero) and one school had an ITP index score almost exactly on the overall mean (School D). The ‘site visit schools’were visited by the research team to collect detailed data about the school, teachers’ classroom practice, the learning activities that were created for students and the resulting student work. Comparative data on the five case study schools are presented in Table 1.

Image: Table 1: Case study schools descriptive data (from My School website – 19 March 2013

The ITL research team conducted site studies with the five innovative schools which participated in phase 1 of the study — three sites in Sydney and two in the Hunter regions. The schools which participated in site visits met a 60% response rate target for teacher surveys and 100% response rate target for school leader surveys. They were also identified as ‘innovative’by a panel consisting of staff from the Department and the ITL research team, based on preliminary data.

The site visits to schools involved interviews with school leaders and teacher case studies. The teacher case studies focused on teachers of science and humanities in Years 7-10. Teachers involved in the study participated in an interview about their target class and a class observation. There were also focus groups of students from the target classes.

What did school leaders say?

School leaders of innovative schools in the study shared an awareness of the importance of 21st century learning. On the whole, school leaders in ‘innovative’schools had a collaborative approach to school planning. Professional development was approached in ways where teachers shared innovative teaching and learning practices with faculty members and also at whole school meetings. At one school, staff rooms had been redeveloped so that all teachers shared the same space. The school leader reported a shared approach to curriculum and an increase in communication about student welfare.

All school leaders discussed the challenges of embedding 21st century learning within the school community whilst also meeting school community expectations of ensuring high results in national (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy)and state (Higher School Certificate) testing. A number of school leaders talked of a community decision to focus on 21st century skills.

We have a sustained focus on teaching and learning which involves innovative tailored opportunities to engage students in learning.

School Leader

Some communities benefited from extending learning outside the classroom and by exploring opportunities for learning activities to link to community, especially in the Sydney region.

What did teachers say?

Teachers selected to participate in the case study in the innovative schools selected a target class to be in the study. The target classes selected were mainly from Years 7, 8, 9 and 10 classes. Two discipline areas were selected for the case studies—science and humanities. Four staff members from each discipline participated in the study. The classes nominated covered a range of abilities— from GAT classes, to mixed ability and to those focused on life skills. Each teacher was interviewed and participated in a class observation by the researchers. Teachers reinforced the tensions felt by schools in how to engage students in 21st century learning whilst also ensuring they were prepared for assessments and tests.

I am sorry that you didn’t see an innovative lesson today, we have exams tomorrow and I needed to do revision.


Most of the teachers nominated as innovative were younger staff members and in some cases they were not permanent staff members. There was a perception in the schools visited that younger staff, because they were more used to using computers and devices, would be more innovative in their approach to teaching. As innovative teaching involves using ICT to build knowledge, this was not always the case. Researchers found that many of the younger staff observed using Web 2.0 tools in the classroom were using them mainly for lower order learning activities, such as revising for tests or researching information that could be done using a school library.

There were also some problems experienced at the schools given that there is a strict internet protocol in place which blocks students from accessing a range of sites including social media and any sites with flagged key words. This causes frustration for the students when they want to access information, but also for the teacher as, although they have access from their teacher login, the student login for their school laptop can block the site. One teacher said:

The whole blocking I guess for me is my barrier. When I find something online I think ... this is fantastic. I give it to my students … Blocked, blocked, blocked!


The use of technology was questioned when it was used for the ‘sake of it’, and the purpose of the activity was simply replicated in regular classroom activities:

With the senior students, they had already been using Edmodo as a mode of really communicating with their teacher and getting some feedback ... we were having ongoing conversations and feedback. While that was a really valuable and valid experience, I just found the conversations were very similar to the conversations we were having in the classroom, anyway


The teachers interviewed across the site visit schools predominantly agreed that lessons should be student centred and had an understanding of what this should look like, as the schools had been involved in initiatives based on the Quality teaching framework, a focus in NSW Department of Education and Communities schools for the past nine years. Schools involved in the study were at different levels in terms of engaging in the Quality teaching framework. However, there was also discussion by many of the teachers about how it is easier to discuss in theory than to put into practice, particularly in those classes with challenging behaviours or learning difficulties:

The vision of student-centred pedagogies doesn’t necessarily align with the current reality for many teachers. Though I believe that the majority of teachers would agree with the vision goals but there’s a gap between the vision goals, and what reality is.


What did students say?

Student focus groups comprised of students from Years 7-10 talked about innovative teaching and learning (ITL) in their schools. Each student focus group had approximately 10 students participating. Within each school, students were divided into focus groups, dependent on year group and their access to technology. All Years 9 and 10 students in NSW high schools have laptops whereas the younger students in Years 7 and 8 only have access to shared ICT in classrooms. Most students in Years 9 and 10 appreciated the opportunity to have laptops, but there were some inconsistencies across schools in how learning was integrated with the laptop program. In schools where all teachers ‘bought in, students were generally happy because they could do most of their learning on the laptop.

Students in schools using software and tools such as OneNote and Edmodo, to organise class learning across KLAs, reported a positive experience with laptops. Where there was no consistent approach, students were dissatisfied. They found there were too many passwords to remember for different Web 2.0 tools and some preferred to use pen and paper to a laptop.

Students on the whole did not feel that they had opportunities to engage in learning beyond the classroom.

Across the five sites students reported using technology at school, but there was uneven use across subject areas within a school, with mathematics identified as the subject with the least amount of technology. There was considerable consistency across four of the school sites, as reported by the student focus groups, but at one other school the students described multiple 21st century learning experiences (see Figure 6).

Image: Figure 6: Comparing evidence of ITL dimensions in the case study school with incidence in the total sample

The students described how they had undertaken an interdisciplinary project involving HSIE, English, science and mathematics. They were also involved in projects that extended beyond the classroom in the form of a podcast production incorporating interviews with local community members, and in collaborative activities involving peer and self-assessment.

In terms of using technology, students in this school were active in building individual websites although they reported a lot of student collaboration as part of the process. The student focus group members reported making films which were critiqued by their peers before uploading to YouTubeand creating brochures in several different subjects. They liked the opportunity to be creative and to use different forms of language, for example, persuasive text.

In mathematics, the students in this innovative school learnt about trigonometry. One of the students explained the lesson, recounting how their teacher allowed the students to create their own challenging problems to solve.

We started by getting real-life examples – for example, the Eiffel Tower – and seeing how tall it was. Then we could find out how long the shadow was and what the angle was from where we were standing, at the end of the shadow. We used Google Earth to find all these measurements. And then our major project for that subject and term took 4 or 5 weeks to put together.


What did learning activities and student work look like?

Schools involved in the site visits were also invited to participate in the collection of learning activities (LA) and student work (SW). Teachers were asked to select activities which were reflective of the work that they would normally do with their class. The tasks could be single-lesson activities, homework tasks or longer projects that students were working on over a sequence of lessons.

In addition to collecting learning activities, teachers were asked to submit de-identified pieces of student work along with each task to show how students responded to the learning activity.

In total there were 97 learning activities (59 humanities and 38 science) included in the study, along with 559 examples of student work (345 humanities and 214 science). These samples of LA and SW were coded using the innovative teaching and learning (ITL) dimensions:

  • knowledge building
  • problem‑solving and innovation
  • skilled communication and collaboration
  • self‑regulation
  • use of technology forlearning

by expert teachers from the humanities and science disciplines. Learning activities were coded for each ITL dimension separately, according to the coding rubric, and coders were careful not to make judgements about the activity itself. Each complete learning activity and student work example was coded a score of 1-4, with 1 being that the dimension was not evident and 4 being a high-level usage of the dimension.

Figure 6 shows 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. One school in the study scored consistently higher on each of the dimensions, in comparison to the total sample and this school will be examined closely in a separate article in the next edition of Scan in order to explore the implementation of innovative practice at this school in more detail.

From research into supports for practice

There are key supports to innovative teaching and learning reported in the study which highlight areas where schools can direct their goals for future planning. These key areas are:

  • recognising teachers who have qualifications higher than a bachelor degree as being more likely to be engaged in innovative practice in their classrooms
  • increasing opportunities for teacher collaboration – examples seen at site visit schools were to make teacher learning and sharing the focus of every meeting, have teachers planning learning activities in cross-disciplinary groups and combining staff rooms to collapse established silos within schools
  • encouraging staff to engage in professional learning activities, such as visiting other classrooms and ongoing professional learning focused on putting research into practice, which lead to higher innovative teaching practices
  • initiating projects where teachers work collaboratively across key learning areas, to design extended learning activities.

Through the process of coding learning activities and student work in this study, it was found that when teacher coders analysed and scored learning activities across the ITL dimensions, this resulted in a deeper understanding of how 21st century skills could be integrated into learning activities. The importance of these learning activities to students developing 21st century skills was reinforced through the results of the coding, finding that if teachers did not plan opportunities for students to demonstrate skills, then students did not exhibit higher usage of the skills in their work.

This has led to the expansion of the ITL research project into developing a focused professional learning package for teachers, called 21st Century Learning Design, where teachers work collaboratively through materials on how to design learning activities to provide deeper 21st century skills development.

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 2018.

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 2018.

Microsoft Educator Network 2014, ‘21st century learning design app’, Microsoft Educator Network, accessed 16 January 2018.

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 16 January 2018.

Partnership for 21st century skills 2004b, The intellectual and policy foundations of the 21st century skills framework, white paper, accessed on 20 January 2018.

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 2018.

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 2018.

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

How to cite this article: Shaw, K., Holmes, K., Preston, G., Smith, M. & Bourke, S. 2014, ‘Innovative teaching and learning: From research to practice. Part one’, Scan 33(2)

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