School's blended learning strategy a winner


Last week, The Educator highlighted dozens of individuals and more than 100 schools that are driving excellence in teaching and learning in all sectors and jurisdictions across the nation.

The Australian Education Awards, which celebrate the outstanding achievements of the country’s top performing schools, principals, department heads and teachers, are being presented in 23 categories, including Australian School of the Year, Australian Principal of the Year, Best Professional Learning Program and Best Student Wellbeing Program.

In 2019, Brisbane independent school Ormiston College was named a finalist across seven categories and went on to win the Award for Innovation in Curriculum Design before a packed house of 571 principals, department heads and teachers.

Ahead of this year’s Awards, Ormiston College has been nominated across eight categories – Best Co-Curriculum Program, Best School Strategic Plan, Best Use of Technology, Department Head of the Year, Innovation in Learning Environment Design, Primary School of the Year - Non-government, School Principal of the Year - Non-government and Secondary School of the Year - Non-government.

Below, The Educator speaks to principal Brett Webster about how the College has adapted, and thrived, during this time of incredible change and disruption.

TE: COVID-19 has certainly been a massive disruption for Australian schools. How has Ormiston College managed to sustain such impressive teaching and learning outcomes during this unpredictable and challenging period? 

BW: It is because of our team and the culture of innovation at Ormiston College that we have managed to adapt and respond so effectively to the constant shifts and challenges that accompany COVID-19. As the nation moved toward remote schooling, we resisted the decision to just switch on the laptop camera and deliver our usual timetable online. Instead, we imagined and developed a very blended approach to teaching and learning, using a range of synchronous and asynchronous activities. Rather than retain all of their usual timetable responsibilities, our teachers became subject leaders, taking responsibility for a specific subject at a specific year level. This provided time for teachers to create high quality remote learning resources and be available across much of the day to provide authentic feedback to the students. Our approach saw all teachers teaching live, some of the time, using the online platforms of Microsoft Teams, OneNote and Seesaw. However, a flipped approach was the mainstay of our model with teachers developing quality teaching videos for students to watch, pause and re-watch as they learned at their own pace while engaging with the learning activities engineered by us.

TE: When we spoke last year, Ormiston had launched its Centre for Learning and Innovation. What have been the most exciting developments in teaching and learning at the College since then?

BW: One of the exciting developments underway at present is our investigation of Artificial Intelligence and the emerging possibilities to improve student learning. The College is currently looking at how we can integrate humanoid robots in some of our classroom activities, which has certainly sparked a lot of interest from both our young learners and our older students with a passion for coding. While we aim to integrate a range of technologies in meaningful ways to improve learning on campus, the recent COVID crisis required us to think beyond campus-based schooling and reimagine effective teaching and learning for the remote learning environment. As the pandemic unfolded, we were pleased to be invited to partner with experts at the Griffith University School of Education and Professional Studies, for an exciting and exclusive research project to inform effective practice in a remote learning environment.

TE: One of the categories the College has been named as a finalist in is ‘Best School Strategic Plan’. Can you tell us about what you believe makes the College’s Strategic Plan an effective one?

BW: For me, it is not just about leading the development of a new plan. Strategic Planning is about so much more than the plan. Much of the magic lies in the process of development, the way we work together to dream big about the future of the school we love, discuss community opinion and prioritise our values. We take the opportunity to become better informed about the changing nature of the society that young people are facing.  We update our collective knowledge of the social, economic, technological and demographic forces that are driving change in the world and plot the Ormiston College response to these forces. It is always healthy to see our community aim high and perhaps challenge the status quo as we plan for the future with a sense of unity and combined purpose. While strategic planning addresses numerous elements of teaching, learning and school management, we aim to ensure that our process unites the community and establishes a clear mandate for College improvement.

TE: The College has also been named as a finalist in the ‘School Principal of the Year – Non-Government’ category. Can you tell us about the leadership approach you have been taking during this challenging time?

BW: Calm and consistent communication has been key. We wrote to our school community regularly and delivered video messages to students and their families.  Amidst the barrage of news, social opinion and the sometimes mixed messages from various levels of government, I know our community felt reassured by the College’s calm and clear explanations about the COVID situation and the way Ormiston College was supporting students and families. Of course, we were in this together. Like most schools, we didn’t need a crisis to emphasise this attribute of our College. However, our many actions to preserve jobs, care for vulnerable staff, support families experiencing financial hardship and retain a focus on wellbeing all served to make visible our genuine care for the people of our school. The game may have shifted but we were still striving for quality student outcomes. It has been a real team effort and so many staff members have demonstrated leadership, creativity and initiative as they worked within our agreed plans to make a genuine difference for families during this period.

TE: How is the College continuing to effectively manage the transition to remote learning, both in terms of driving student outcomes and professional learning?

BW: Perhaps the biggest change to manage was the reconceptualising of teaching and learning for a remote learning environment. Aside from an unwavering commitment to our students, professional learning has been the cornerstone of our College’s success as our entire teaching team committed to a blended synchronous and asynchronous approach to remote learning. Through a few of our resident experts we tailored a comprehensive yet rapid response program to significantly build the capability of our team. We also partnered with experts from the Griffith University School of Education and Professional Studies to provide further guidance and conduct research into the effectiveness of our programs. Even during a pandemic, leadership involves accountability. As we monitored our performance over recent months, we have been pleased to see strong evidence of student engagement and positive learning results. Clearly, many students have thrived during the remote learning period and the College has learned some new lessons that will inform our future practice.

The Australian Education Awards 2020 will be held Thursday 29 October at Doltone House in Pyrmont, Sydney.