Innovating through disruption: Australia's trailblazing schools reflect on 2021

Innovating through disruption: Australia

A recent national study found more than 77% parents and schools reported that students have missed learning as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey, conducted by The Smith Family, also found that 75% of family support workers had seen an impact on students’ motivation to learn as a direct result of COVID and/or lockdowns.

This issue is certainly not lost on schools, which have been working tirelessly to improve students’ academic achievement, engagement in learning and, most importantly, mental health.

In recognition of the tremendous work done by schools to innovative through the massive disruption of the last 18 months, The Educator recently announced the winners of its seventh annual Innovative Schools list.

One of the school’s recognised was St Philip's Christian College. The Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12 school, located in Newcastle, has been powering through the chaos of 2020 and 2021 to offer individualised learning frameworks, innovative and engaging learning environments and opportunities for students to thrive, not just at school but for the whole of their life.

SPCC Newcastle principal, Pam O’Dea, said she was “thrilled” to find out that her school had been honoured as one of the leading innovative schools in the country.

“My passion is that educators and students are always uncovering something new which compels them to look at problems in a different way and use higher order thinking to solve the inherent complexities,” O’Dea told The Educator.

“This stimulates engagement and leads to improved learning outcomes for all. We are not afraid to take learning risks, for the benefit of our students, and I think that the interest we receive from others around our various innovations have motivated us to strive to be leaders in this field.”

O’Dea said that the school is currently exploring new and innovative ways to engage students in realising their “unique, God-given potential”, and avoid being labelled or judged, because they learn differently.

“This took us on a journey to look for alternative ways to the HSC and future career pathways, resulting in a new initiative called HSC SmartTrack being launched,” she said.

“While we will always explore STEM opportunities to expand our innovative capacity, HSC SmartTrack, and, next year, SmartTrack Academy, an alternative learning pathway for interested Year 7 students, have been two creative spaces that are drawing great interest and success.”

Another school recognised on the list of education’s top innovators was Ingleburn Public School, which has developed an innovative and entrepreneurial partnership with UNSW to establish the world’s first school-based clinic that provides Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) – a gold standard program for managing DBDs in young children.

The school’s principal, Graeme Greene, said that over the past year, the PCIT at Schools project has become more accessible to families by offering iPCIT (remote delivered sessions) to those unable to physically attend the clinic.

“This has been especially helpful for families during COVID-19 restrictions who were unable to attend the clinic onsite,” Greene told The Educator.

“These families were able to continue their therapy which would have otherwise been interrupted, causing a major setback in their progress.”

Greene said iPCIT can also be adopted in non-restricted circumstances, where barriers exclusive to individual families may be an issue.

“iPCIT has also presented new and exciting avenues, with the potential to extend to regional schools.”

St Clare's College in Waverley NSW was another one of this year’s winners. The College’s innovative programs include an integrated Maths Pathway platform for Stage 4 and 5 students that allows each of them to move through the curriculum at their own pace and an iSTEM Stage 5 elective course, which provides students with the ability to build and code their own robot to simulate an autonomous vehicle, as well as design and build solar-powered cars.

“At a time where knowledge is exploding at an exponential rate, our aim is to give students the skills to apply their knowledge and understanding to ever-changing circumstances inside and outside the classroom,” The College’s principal, Kerrie McDiarmid, told The Educator.

“At St Clare’s this means being innovative in our approach. Innovation is more than a word, it reflects an attitude and a commitment to being adaptive, flexible and responsive to students' needs. As a principal, I aim to ensure that purposeful innovation is our focus.”

McDiarmid said it is not about adopting any initiative that may come along but looking for innovation that reflects the school’s context and supports its overall vision and drives success.

“Innovation is a mindset and as such fosters an environment of excitement and energy that positions life-long learning at the heart of the education experience.”

For Ormiston College, being recognised in this year’s Innovative Schools list was yet more confirmation that its teaching and learning programs are going from strength to strength, even as its students and staff emerge from a massively disruptive period of rolling lockdowns over the last 18 months.

The College, located in Queensland, was named top school for Best Use of Technology in 2018; won the Most Innovative Curriculum Design award in 2019; and received Excellence Awards in eight categories in 2020. The College’s Centre for Learning and Innovation also won the 2021 Australian Library and Information Association’s Library Design Award – School Libraries.

“Confident in the knowledge that we had the technological ability to deliver online learning, the key question became ‘what does best practice in curriculum design and pedagogy look like when students are learning from home?’” Principal Brett Webster told The Educator.

“Our long-term commitment to the meaningful use of technology meant that teachers and students possessed high level skills, and the infrastructure, platforms and software were in place to transition to a remote learning model.”

Webster said the College resisted the decision to simply switch on the laptop camera and deliver its usual timetable online.

“Instead, we embarked on an exclusive partnership with Griffith University’s School of Education to create a project that would support the professional learning of our school leaders and teachers, and develop a rigorous, research validated model for both remote schooling and blended learning in a campus setting,” he said.

“The partnership with Griffith University has continued well beyond the initial urgency brought about during the peak of the pandemic.”