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The journey to becoming a top-performing school

Glenuga article pic 1Since Wendy Johnson became Principal at Glenunga International High School, in South Australia, she has worked with school leaders to radically transform it into one of the top-performing schools in the country. She shares her inspirational story with IB World magazine

In the early 1990s, Principal Wendy Johnson’s predecessor had an admirable vision for Glenunga International High School, a comprehensive secondary school in South Australia. He wanted it to be regarded as a high-performing school, looked upon favorably by universities around the world and, as a start, he introduced the IB Diploma Programme (DP). However, turning that vision into a reality needed a fresh perspective.

On Johnson’s first day at the school, back in 2008, things were bleak. While DP students were excelling, overall, the school was under-performing and showed little signs of improving. “We had a very big group of students – particularly non-English-speaking boys – who were failing,” says Johnson.

While teachers were dedicated, they were too focused on teaching rather than learning: “They hadn’t taken on board anything like approaches to teaching and learning (ATL) or had any understanding of transdisciplinary learning. It doesn’t matter how well you are teaching. If your students are not learning then you’re not actually doing what you need to do.”

Students could also choose whether or not they completed their homework. “For lots of boys, not completing work is an easy way out,” adds Johnson. “It was a combination of all of those factors that led to this very large cohort of failing students.”

The turning point

Johnson rose to the challenge, with help from staff, students and parents. She cites two things that led to the school’s transformation: teachers reflecting on their practices, and giving students a voice in relation to their learning.

Johnson and the deputy principal worked with teachers and school leaders on what they believed were the characteristics of exceptional practitioners. They leaned on Professor John Hattie’s research, which examines the difference between experienced teachers and exceptional teachers. “We asked staff if they fitted into the experienced category or the exceptional category, and what they saw as the difference between the two. That was an important conversation,” says Johnson. They also discussed Hattie’s research into teacher feedback as a way to motivate students.

In the second phase, students were asked to identify what makes for a really good lesson, where they feel engaged and interested in what’s happening. Students examined their responses and spoke about how frequently they experience those characteristics in their favourite subjects. These conversations were translated into a survey with the help of two local universities.

All 1,200 students took the survey and presented their results to staff. “One of the key findings was that students felt that when they didn’t understand something and asked for it to be explained again, it wouldn’t be explained differently. This was an ‘Aha!’ moment for staff, and students felt their voice was valued,” says Johnson.

Students also cited the fact that their teachers were approachable as an important factor.

Glenunga has run this survey with different groups every year since and has experienced a significant change in teaching practice as a result:

Teachers have learnt how to engage students and differentiate their delivery so that the students really get it the first time.

The school now spends a great deal of time working with student data, monitoring which students are progressing, which need challenging and which ones may need intervention. “We help students set and achieve their own goals, look at their grades and discuss their potential, all based on the data. We talk to students about a growth mindset, their confidence and ability to achieve their goals and then help them plan how they’re going to do it,” says Johnson.

Technology has also helped improve learning outcomes. Every teacher was involved in a series of specialized courses, depending on their level of development, to learn how to use technology to support collaborative, personalized learning.

“We also convinced all of our 130 staff members to take a course called ‘How language works,’ to help them understand how to skillfully teach literacy in their subjects,” adds Johnson.

 We have helped teachers understand and change their practice, and it’s now embedded in a pedagogical framework that sits in the context of ATL.

Changing the culture

To change the mindset that homework is a choice, Johnson developed progress markers to help students ensure their assignments would be handed in on time. Teachers check in with students at incremental stages before a deadline, making sure they have started and then again later to see if they’re on track to finish. “This significantly changed student behaviour. They understood that not completing their work was unacceptable and we were able to intervene early if they didn’t understand the task, for example.”

The transparent focus on learning, and the emphasis on a partnership between teachers and students, changed the school culture: “Students began to understand that school is a place where you come to work and push yourself to discover what you are capable of doing.”

A set of values was developed too, and every student and their family was involved in the process. The four values – excellence, in terms of personal best; opportunity, i.e discovering who you are and who you want to become; international mindedness; and harmony – have replaced school rules. “Everything is looked at through the values lens and that fits really well with the IB Learner Profile,” explains Johnson.

learner-profile-sticker-englishoptmizedGlenunga may only offer the DP, but teachers base their teaching on the IB Learner Profile from year 8. “An IB education now permeates all the way through our school. All our year 10 students are involved in a personal project,” says Johnson.

Radical improvements

Johnson’s efforts have paid off.  The number of students taking the DP has doubled and Glenunga now has one of the largest IB Diploma Programmes in Australia. The number of sports teams, student-led lunchtime clubs, and other extra-curricula activities, has also tripled.

It’s not just the teachers who have gone through a personal development journey – Johnson has too: “I’ve learnt a great deal about how you transform the culture of a large, mixed government secondary school. Cultural change is difficult to do well; you need to be persistent.”

It’s inspiring to see what students are capable of if you give them the opportunity to show you what they can really do

Although it’s been a tremendous change, there is still work to do. “I continually remind everyone why we are doing what we are doing,” says Johnson. “The world is changing. We can’t continue to educate students the way my generation was educated – where we moved through a factory model, filled with as much knowledge as possible that we would then regurgitate in exams.

We equip students with transdisciplinary skills, which will help them discover what they are really capable of, and we need to consistently ensure our school’s structure, culture and process all enable that to happen.