Our journey with project-based learning and flexible learning spaces
Monica St Baker (Principal), Gary Workman (Assistant Principal) and Gaynor Castellaro (Assistant Principal) at Hanwood Public School describe the importance of having a shared vision of excellence to achieve change for students to thrive in the future global context.
At Hanwood Public School, we have been on a journey. We knew that there was a need for educational change and a change in our school vision that was meaningful and future-focused. We also knew that we wanted to head down the path of project-based learning (PBL) and flexible learning spaces (FLS). However, we did not have the means to do this. We wanted to be innovative and felt strongly that being a rural school should not be a blocker in providing the highest educational standards possible for our students. We wanted to think outside the box to produce an environment and learning opportunities that are first class.
At Hanwood, all stakeholders share the drive and commitment to be a school of excellence. Our dilemma was how we were going to get to this point. We needed to walk the walk in our educational practice.
Thinking outside the box
In 2016, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to submit a Schools Plus and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation (VFFF) application to be a Fair Education phase 1 project school. This application was successful, which allowed us to turn all of our ideas for our school into a reality. We are now on our way to achieving our milestones for our Fair Education project at Hanwood.
We wanted teaching and learning practices that built, established and maintained genuine partnerships with our school community to promote higher-order thinking for our students and skills that would equip them to thrive in the future. We needed to change our educational vision and mindset to match this. Our revised vision statement re-affirms this. It states that our purpose is to be a school of excellence in which deep knowledge, understanding, and ownership in learning and engagement develops the skills of our greater community, to thrive within the future global context.
Create and maintain partnerships
As a leadership team, we learnt about the importance of developing authentic project-based learning experiences. Students were excited about PBL and having authorship over their learning. This excitement, incidentally, led to meaningful parent and community involvement. Having parents and wider community members involved in PBL activities has increased the quality of conversation at home between our students and parents. This has had a great impact on student learning outcomes at school, and more parents and grandparents are wanting to be involved as a result.
Student voice has also increased. Students are becoming more confident with accepting and receiving feedback from teachers, community members and peers. At Hanwood, we follow the feedback prompts of:
- be kind
- be helpful
- be specific.
In relation to our authentic partners, we have involved our school community in meaningful ways. Our community has engaged in genuine PBL interactions that benefit student learning. Examples of this have included:
- inviting community members to speak to the students as experts in their field. We have had real estate agents, carpenters, National Parks employees, and parents from other cultures speaking about their country of birth
- strengthening middle school links by inviting a secondary science teacher to work with year 5 and 6 students on solar energy
- engaging local businesses to support our projects. Our local radio station has interviewed students about a Haunted House project that the students created collaboratively for a school fete
- requiring students to contact our local bus company to book buses for excursions
- contacting local businesses for donations. In 2018, three businesses in the Griffith area donated items such as soil, logs, paint and plants to a Stage 3 gardening project which enhanced the school environment
- completing a gardening project in which 35 parents and grandparents assisted over two school days to be our gardening experts. They worked collaboratively with the students to complete an array of projects such as sculptures, vertical gardens, murals and garden re-design. Students outlined their projects to adults and communicated ways that parents could assist them. They even created budgets and negotiated these with our principal for approval.
Our end of project exhibitions engaged the school and wider community. Exhibitions are always tailored to suit the project, so they are varied. Some take place within the school, where students present their projects to parents. Other exhibitions take place off-site, such as the Stage 3 class who created solar lanterns. For the exhibition, the students travelled to an aged care facility to donate the lanterns for use in the gardens.
Kindergarten created minibeasts and Stage 1 students created board games. Kindergarten students presented their bugs at an open exhibition at the Griffith City Library and Year 1 and 2 students visited local schools and an aged care facility to play their games with peers and elders in our community.
Stage 2 students studied an area of interest of an Asian country. They then organised a community trade fair to present their findings. This was extremely successful. As you can see, on each occasion the exhibitions were very different and authentic.
Other projects have included:
- taking selfies, which involved drawing, drafting and critiquing
- learning about street art techniques
- designing and making a music wall
- researching, designing and making gondolas.
Flexible learning spaces
There have been many benefits of introducing flexible learning spaces at Hanwood Public. The students can choose spaces to work in to meet the needs of learning tasks and their individual learning styles. There is scope for students to work individually, in pairs, in small groups or as a whole class. Furniture is moved to suit the needs of learning tasks. We noticed an increase in students being able to self-regulate their learning and manage their distractions as a result of creating flexible learning spaces.
Students mentor other students in their peer support lesson.
We noticed an increase in students being able to self-regulate their learning and manage their distractions as a result of creating flexible learning spaces.
Students are more on-task, and there is school-based evidence of a decrease in students K-6 displaying off task behaviours. This is an unexpected benefit of both project-based learning and flexible learning spaces. Teachers are increasingly confident in trialling the use of different furniture in their classrooms. The increase in student collaboration and engagement can be partially attributed to the introduction of flexible spaces.
Small groups of students can work together in this campfire space. They can stand to work, or use a stool if they wish.
We have developed staged success criteria across our school. This has allowed us to track the levels students, staff and community members are at against the School Excellence Framework in relation to project-based learning and flexible learning spaces. As these levels and associated descriptors are linked specifically to the School Excellence Framework, we are able to use the criteria to plan for where to next. This ensures that we are always upping the ante and keeps us focused on our journey towards excellence.
We have also recorded anecdotal comments from our authentic partners, where they have articulated their knowledge of PBL and FLS. Two examples of this anecdotal evidence are:
‘Project-based learning brings the school community together to work with the students on ideas they created in class.’
‘Flexible learning allows students to learn in a comfortable environment. [This style of learning is] more applicable to life in the real world.’
This is a cave space where students want to focus and not be disturbed by others.
In relation to flexible learning spaces, we have developed authentic partnerships through:
- holding parent meetings in flexible spaces
- communicating with the school community of this concept and our expectations for flexible learning
- sharing photographs of students working in these spaces.
The library is a flexible learning space. Community meetings are held here after hours.
Students, teachers and community members are:
- becoming better able to articulate the reasons for flexible learning
- demonstrating an understanding that increased collaboration and participation in higher-order learning tasks can occur in flexible learning spaces
- showing other schools our spaces upon request.
We are extremely proud of our school’s journey in project-based learning and flexible learning spaces.
References and further reading
NSW Government. (2019). School Excellence Framework evidence guide. © State of New South Wales (Department of Education), 2019.
Schools Plus. (2019). Australian Schools Plus. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
VFFF. (2017). Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
How to cite this article – St Baker, M., Workman, G. & Castellaro, G. (2019). Our journey with project-based learning and flexible learning spaces. Scan, 38(8).