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How Ulverstone Secondary College used PBL to increase student engagement and lift student attainment

Ulverstone Secondary College is located on the north-west coast of Tasmania, about 90 minutes from Launceston. It was a Year 7-10 school but, at the start of 2017, it moved to a comprehensive 7-12 secondary college. Amongst the multiple challenges this change brought about, Assistant Principal Shane Cleaver was focused on one in particular: how to increase Year 12 attainment through higher student retention, engagement, and attendance.

Shane spent time engaging with students, parents, and the broader school community to identify what the root causes underlying lower attendance and engagement were. He quickly established that how students perceived their learning as being a key factor. Many students were disengaged in class and felt that what they were learning was not relevant to them. For these students, the logical choice was to drop out before Year 12 and take up a trade, an apprenticeship, or a TAFE course. Shane also identified that school attendance had a direct relationship to how far through secondary school the students were; the further up in secondary school students progressed, the lower the average attendance across the board.

In the first few years of moving to a Year 10-12 school, Ulverstone’s retention rate from Year 10 to Year 12 completion hovered around 60%. Shane and the leadership team set an ambitious goal of moving Year 12 retention and attainment up to 90%. For this to be achieved, Shane knew that some significant changes would need to occur to better engage students and make their school experience more meaningful, particularly across Middle School. That’s where project-based learning came into the equation.

Getting PBL off the ground

Shane spent time investigating schools within Australia and overseas where they had introduced innovative ways of delivering curriculum to personalise learning for students and engage them with hands-on, project-based learning. He quickly established that he wanted to introduce a program at Ulverstone which could trial a more personalised learning approach – where students could work on ‘passion projects’ within the framework of the curriculum – and develop their General Capabilities, especially collaboration. Engagement with the broader community was also identified as an important element. This was a crucial part of the Ulverstone strategy to ensure students were both engaged at school whilst also preparing them for the world of work when they graduated.

Shane canvassed his intention with staff and found a few champions to get on board and run the program. In 2019, these champions – who are leading the growth of PBL across the school – were Ashleigh Bonner & Jordana Zonaras. This program – called Ignite – was a multi-age class of Years 8-10 students, composed both of students who were hand-picked (based on how much they would benefit from the program) and other students who expressed interest in joining.

The program ran by taking the students out of core classrooms a certain number of times a week and getting them to work on hands-on projects. The initial intent was for these projects to closely tie in with core curriculum outcomes, but the team have balanced this with the desire to allow students to work on their own projects which ignite (pardon the pun) their passion for a particular topic, focus, or skill area. It is a constant juggling act which requires careful planning, and it is something that the team found they got more comfortable with as the program grew. This year, the projects are being carefully selected based on the outcomes which are to be covered, whilst ensuring that each project has sufficient scope for student agency in the eventual end product which is produced.

You can see some of the results and focus areas of the 2019 program in the image below, which was created by a graphic designer and supplied by the team at Ulverstone.

What were the results?

The early signs were good – the class has always been oversubscribed for student expressions of interest after being promoted internally and at subject selection evenings. But the key markers which Shane, Ashleigh, and Jordana were focused on were the attendance and retention numbers. Had these gone up?

Though it is always difficult to pin down any macro change to any one factor, the evidence suggests that the Ignite program – and the adoption of project-based learning – has had a significant positive impact on these key metrics. By the end of 2019, Year 12 attainment and retention had risen to 74%, with another further rise expected across 2020. What’s more, attendance – a key leading indicator for student engagement and Yr. 12 retention – sat at 90% for students in the Ignite class. This is between 10-15% higher than the main cohort of students who were not a part of the Ignite program.

What’s next?

The challenge for the team at Ulverstone is to build on the initial success of the Ignite program and to begin increasing the uptake of PBL across the school. In higher year levels, this can be done by tying in vocational education and the Tasmanian Education Department’s ‘Packages of Learning’, a cross-disciplinary, industry-focused program. This will be delivered using the same PBL methodology which has been so successful in the Ignite program. At younger year levels, the goal is to sustainably embed PBL approaches into core classrooms through greater staff Professional Development and to increase the number of champions within the school who recognise the benefits of student-driven, hands-on learning.

Key lessons

Despite the success of the Ignite program, the team at Ulverstone has learned a few key lessons along the way:

  • Introduce PBL gradually and in a highly structured fashion. Students will need very clear scaffolding when working through a PBL unit for the first time. Being ambitious is important but try to rein it in at first

  • Explicitly teach the General Capabilities and the soft skills needed for a project. These can so often be the key enabler to student success

  • Hold off on introducing passion projects – where students define the focus and direction of their own project – until students have had some experience working through a more structured PBL unit. They need to get comfortable with the Design Thinking process and the soft skills needed to work with others and think through a project

  • As teachers, be open to the challenge, the change, and the journey you will embark on. Don’t expect to have it all figured out at the start, or even a year in. Be comfortable in the chaos and see it as a learning experience as much as it is for the students

Shane Cleaver is the Assistant Principal at Ulverstone Secondary College. Ashleigh Bonner and Jordana Zonaras run the Ignite program at Ulverstone.

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