In August, The Educator revealed the winners of the Hot List 2020, recognising and celebrating the best of what Australian education has to offer in an extraordinary and challenging year.
Among the winners, which included principals and head teachers through to school managers and other industry figures, was Marg Clark, who heads up Prospect North Primary School in South Australia.
Clark has led the school to become a powerhouse of student-centred education and one of the state’s leading STEM schools.
Below, The Educator speaks to Clark about her leadership approach during the pandemic, the school’s cutting-edge STEM programs and the outlook for teaching and learning at the school in 2021.
TE: The last eight months have been nothing short of extraordinary for education in Australia and elsewhere. Can you tell us about the leadership approach you have taken at the school during this difficult and challenging year?
It has been a year like no other to be a school leader! The stresses thrust upon us as we watched the world slowly be overtaken by the virus put me in the position of dealing both with my own fears and doubts but also the worry of a whole community. I had to lead with compassion, from the front, confidently, positively and responsively to the emotions of others. It was a difficult time that fortunately in SA only lasted a short time. In saying that though, the underlying fear and worry is still heightened, especially in our community where over 70% of our families are from overseas and still have relatives going through tough lockdowns and virus numbers. We wanted to stay connected to our community and the launch of PNTV at the start of the year was fortuitous. It has allowed us to “let the parents in” and keep them connected, especially to our good news stories and classroom learning. It has allowed us to celebrate our diversity as a community and use “first languages” to keep all our communities involved Our launch of PNC podcasts has helped our students become confident speakers and allowed them to unpack leadership stories of our SA leaders. They have interviewed the Premier, the ED of Education and our Minister for Education along with many other community leaders and sporting heroes. The narrative looks at resilience and self-belief to achieve your goals, our students unpack each person’s journey from childhood to their current job.
TE: A key feature of Prospect North Primary School is its unwavering focus on student-centred education. What are the most powerful/effective ways in which teachers at the school are building students’ capacity to design and influence their own learning?
There are many facets to our student-centred education. Firstly, wellbeing. We want to ensure our students understand the learning process and have control over their pathways. We spend lots of time unpacking the learning process, not just teaching content. Trauma informed teaching using the UK Nurture model allows us to have students feeling safe and included in each class. We give students the language to express their emotions so they can communicate their needs, we co-regulate with them until they can regulate themselves. Our teachers deliberately teach them the systems in schools so that students understand what is needed to learn, this is critical to having informed and confident learners. They access the curriculum, set goals, work towards achieving them and help the teachers to plan their units of work. With most of our students being second language learners we ensure learning is immersive, based on real world problems so we can teach within context. This allows the building of rich vocabulary and understanding, before we identify targeted teaching needs of the curriculum. Students plan and produce learning for others. Our ‘Kids Teach” movement is at all year levels, when you become expert at something then you can teach it to others. Our leadership systems start from our early years including Digital leaders and working groups to help change our school for the better. Students are encouraged to take action from what they have learnt and our student parliament helps that become a reality. Our students have designed our learning spaces inside and out and seen their hard work come to fruition. All students take part in Personal Investigations which see incredible above year level research projects that lead to community action. The exciting part is that we have seen continuous improvement in all our data sets, and we know we are still moving/changing and developing our practices, it’s exciting to think of what is yet to come.
TE: Prospect North Primary School is also a STEM leader in South Australia. What has your school been doing innovatively in this important area this year, and what have been the most encouraging outcomes you’ve seen as principal?
We started our STEM journey as a way of improving our school and making things better for our community. We came to STEM through a lens of strengthening our students through a focus on the general capabilities. In order to have students develop the capabilities we needed to let them take control of their environment and be able to make significant decisions for themselves. We wanted to make opportunities for our students to develop expert skills and we wanted public speaking to be part of that. Building Design Thinking skills, creativity and curiosity is the basis for our STEM work, all classes have integrated STEM units looking at problems identified by the students. These investigations have transformed learning to student driven and organic in nature, our teachers are expert and agile, letting the learning emerge and making sure it goes deep. Each class has a project nest up on their wall which shows their emerging thinking/ questions and prototypes, we nurture the learning journey through critique and voice, everyone’s thinking counts. What we wanted to culture was a way of thinking and questioning, “How would a mathematician/scientist/engineer use their skills to help with this problem?: “How can we use technology to make the job easier/to create a new way/to get ideas from experts and to make the answer more accessible to others?” Our STEM units have brought closer community ties as we seek to involve experts in their fields through local council and industry or local experts in community support to help us create solutions to our problems. “KIDS TEACH STEM” has been our flagship with students hosting conferences (pre-COVID-19) for over 500 teachers/leaders and students showing how embedded student agency has transformed our school. During COVID-19, KIDS TEACH STEM moved online and our connection schools through Social Ventures Australia joined together to interview STEM professionals across Australia, looking at giving primary aged students insight into STEM careers, for the benefit of all our schools.
TE: Looking ahead into 2021, what are some of the key learnings from the pandemic that the school will be implementing to ensure that student and staff are supported to be their best?
Our presence online will definitely be something we keep post-COVID-19. We have deliberately made ways to connect to our community while parents have been offsite, this has forged better ties and understandings of schooling for parents and of the home cultures, feelings and perspectives of our parents, some new understanding for us. Our school has always had a strong focus on wellbeing but during 2020 this has become even more apparent that we strengthen our community with a focus on mental health and ensuring all of the community can access help when needed. The year has made us slow down, given us time to think deeply about what is working, what is important and to refocus on our values and beliefs.