Sunnyhill College is a co-educational school under ETB management with over 500 students, serving a large country town and its rural hinterland. The school has been innovative in a number of areas: for example, engaging in a project on the use of tablet devices as a learning tool with TY and LCA students; and trying out various approaches to subject sampling in first year to tackle a pattern of gender-stereotyped subject choice.
Senior management and teachers feel they have learned a lot about the SSE process in the first cycle. After trial and error, they have now embedded a whole-school approach to literacy skills, focusing on the students’ use of key words, some subject-specific but mostly the ‘Tier 2’ vocabulary required for skilful and mature language use. The numeracy focus now embedded is on problem-solving skills. The school contacted the (Project) Maths Development Group for input and resources on the different skills and approaches required for ‘learning for problem solving’ and ‘learning through problem solving’. The third focus on formative assessment that gives clear developmental feedback to students is already having a positive impact on the standard of students’ work.
Step 1: Identify Focus
Senior management and teachers want to focus on the new Junior Cycle in the second cycle of SSE, as it makes sense to apply the process to this important curriculum change. The school planning co-ordinator, whose role entails the co-ordination and overall monitoring of school improvement planning, led an SSE session as part of a whole-school Junior Cycle planning day. She made the point that all the good practices that were surfaced and then embedded in the first SSE cycle were very supportive of the approaches underpinning the Framework for Junior Cycle 2015, and in particular the key skills of ‘being literate’, ‘being numerate’, and ‘managing information and thinking’.
The SSE co-ordinator then gave an overview of the new SSE Guidelines 2016-2020, and the Looking at our School 2016 quality framework for teaching and learning that was presented in them. She played a short clip from the SSE website on the alignment between the new junior cycle and the quality framework, and then asked the teachers to consider which domains and standards might be especially relevant to the implementation of the junior cycle “for our kids, in this school” as she put it. Interestingly, there were almost even numbers identifying ‘learner experiences’ and ‘teachers’ collective/collaborative practice’ as the most relevant domains. However, they agreed that this was really a case of two sides of the same coin.
The first session of the day had focused on the phased roll-out of Junior Cycle, with three new subject specifications now underway, and Irish, Art, Modern Languages, and Wellbeing as an area of learning to be introduced in September 2017. The challenges and opportunities posed by the introduction of Wellbeing had been discussed earlier, but with a focus on practical aspects of delivery. The SSE co-ordinator now highlighted an extract from page 16 of the SSE Guidelines about the quality framework:
The framework takes a holistic view of learning. It emphasises the need for students to develop a broad range of skills and competences that enable personal well-being, active citizenship and lifelong learning. Learning experiences for all students should therefore be broad, balanced, challenging and responsive to individual needs. The framework sees students’ well-being as intrinsic to this holistic view of learning, both as an outcome of learning and as an enabler of learning.
The teachers felt that this view was consistent with Wellbeing as an underpinning Junior Cycle principle, and with what they aspired to for their students. They also saw clear connections with the standards linked to the domain of learner experiences in the quality framework.
Step 2: Gather Evidence
It was decided to continue the investigation phase of the SSE process by gathering evidence in two specific areas: what helps students to persist when learning presents challenges; and to what extent students see ‘school learning’ as learning for life. The sources identified included student focus groups, student questionnaires, group reflection by the student support team, and teacher individual or group reflection.
The school used the student council to gather evidence on students’ views, as this approach would allow each year group to consider how the issues affected their particular stage of learning. Working with the liaison teacher, the student council came up with a few prompt questions about specific learning challenges for the focus group discussions. Questions prompted students to think about what had helped them get to grips with a topic they had had difficulty with, and to make suggestions from their own experience to create a menu of helpful approaches.
Two really important points emerged from the focus group discussions. The first one was the importance of encouragement; students agreed that it was really helpful when teachers said: “Stick at it. You’ll get it”, and told them not to worry about making mistakes. A number of students recalled a teacher reassuring them that “the fella that never made a mistake never made anything!” The second important point was how often students found that help from their classmates was what kept them going and got them over the learning line.
For their part, teachers agreed to keep a reflection record of where students were struggling with their learning in particular areas or topics. Teachers recorded the kind of problems that occurred, how the problems became apparent, and whether they needed whole-class or individual intervention. The school adapted resources from the SSE website to assist in gathering evidence.
Step 3: Analyse Evidence and Make Judgements
Bringing together the evidence gathered from teachers and students, the school could identify strengths to build on, and areas that needed development if they were to help students persist when learning proves difficult. They found many of the statements for the standard ‘Students grow as learners through respectful interactions and experiences that are challenging and supportive’ from the domain of learner experiences helpful and relevant.
|Statement of Effective Practice||Strengths?||Areas for improvement?|
|Interactions among students and between students and teachers are respectful and positive, and conducive to well-being.||YES||We can build on this to address difficulties|
|Relationships and interactions in classrooms and learning areas support a co-operative and productive learning environment.||YES BUT…||Enough opportunities to co-operate?|
|Students feel able to contribute their opinions and experiences to class discussion. They listen respectfully to the opinions and experiences of their classmates.||YES BUT…||Not always able to express themselves|
|They ask questions and suggest possible solutions confidently. They are willing to risk incorrect responses, and accept that mistakes are part of the learning process.||YES BUT…||Confidence is an issue for some|
|They demonstrate a sufficient level of motivation to engage and persist with increasingly challenging work.||YES BUT…||Some get disheartened|
Strengths included generally very positive relationships between teachers and students, and among students; the very impressive way the student council could channel and articulate students’ views; and the willingness of teachers to listen to students and to try new approaches. Looking at areas for improvement, both teachers and students identified the way that new topics were introduced as a potential stumbling point where students lost their way and lost confidence. Students said that learning and using the right subject vocabulary could be difficult. And teachers and students both said that students were sometimes unable to articulate what or where the difficulty was.
Step 4: Write and Share Report and Improvement Plan
The first part of the report set out the strengths, identified in step 3, which the school could use in its action plan for improvement. This was an important learning point that emerged for teachers: the purpose of identifying your strengths is to use them to improve other areas. Simple but powerful! The next and more challenging step was to identify targeted actions to help students to persist despite difficulties. The SSE co-ordinator and a small team drafted an action plan for improvement to present to the whole staff. They took and adapted a report and improvement plan template from the SSE website.
The overall aim of the action plan was drawn from the quality framework standard that the school had used in step 3 to evaluate its practice. It was ‘to provide an environment that offers all learners the appropriate level of support to enable them meet challenges successfully’. The plan set out a number of action or process targets. (See the article on targets in Update 6).
- All teachers to focus on explicitly teaching the vocabulary and terms relevant to a new topic or concept.
- All teachers to plan and implement a carefully staged approach to introducing a new topic.
- All teachers to plan and implement greater use of co-operative learning approaches.
To ensure that the plan would be a helpful reference point when working towards the targets, the SSE team included some pointers for subject departments to develop further. For target 1, they referred teachers to literacy strategies from the previous plan that could be tailored to suit this one. For target 2, they asked subject departments to make explicit links for students between prior and new learning, and to adopt a ‘traffic lights’ system for students to signal levels of understanding. For target 3, they listed approaches ‘brought back’ to the school from CPD sessions, from the familiar ‘think/pair/share’ to placemat work, and strategic pairing to enable more able and less able students to work together.
The principal brought the plan to the board, which approved it and then completed the regulatory and policy checklist. The SSE team then adapted the templatefrom the SSE website to provide parents and the school community with a useful summary of the SSE plan.