Located in Sydney’s North Shore, Masada College is a Jewish co-educational school. Students from all backgrounds attend the college as part of a close-knit community that offers students an exceptional opportunity to succeed.
Masada is focused on developing critical and creative thinkers. The school helps students become confident and independent learners who demonstrate their knowledge in a range of formats. For that reason, as a learning and teaching priority, Masada identified project-based learning (PBL) as a strategy to introduce across the school.
The school’s Learning and Teaching Team saw PBL as providing a unique opportunity to deliver content while pushing students to question and inquire. Through PBL, student engagement could also be boosted as students continually applied the content they learned to an ongoing project. As a result, the school began internal conversations across 2019 about the idea of PBL and introducing it for 2020.
The timing was also favourable. The school was launching its ‘Blue Sky’ program in 2020, which would transform the way learning and teaching occurred in Year 7 and 8 classes. These year groups had their own space and classrooms on campus, and PBL would be a tool to encourage innovative and creative thinking.
The Learning and Teaching Team was quite upfront with staff about the goal of introducing PBL into the school. This was shared in individual and team conversations, including at the Head of Learning Area level.
In these conversations and discussions, the messaging focused on the important role PBL would play in the school’s pedagogy. The emphasis was on how PBL could boost student engagement, as well as cultivate the critical and creative thinking skills that are so important to the school.
The school understood that PBL would be a radical shift for some teachers. In early discussions with teachers around the idea of PBL, the Learning and Teaching team discovered a couple of things.
First, PBL meant vastly different things to different teachers, and nearly all of these views differed from the actual experience of a PBL unit. There were views that PBL was all about a project or an assignment. In this view, the belief was that students would produce a poster or a presentation, but that it would not be underpinned by deep learning or significant content knowledge
Second, PBL was seen by some as an obstacle to teaching content. They believed that the focus on a project would take time away from students’ learning and understanding
Third, some teachers were sceptical that PBL units would work in their particular subject
To successfully introduce PBL to Masada, the focus would need to be on staff and not students or parents. Masada was keen to tackle all of these concerns head on, address each directly, and help teachers better understand what PBL units actually involved. The Learning and Teaching Team understood that the best way to clarify these concerns was to have experts come in, share an actual PBL unit, and demonstrate the reality of a high-quality PBL offering.
Achieving buy-in from teachers
The focus here was on achieving buy-in from the school’s teachers. Ultimately, individual staff members would be responsible for the success of the PBL units. After all, they would be the ones taking students through the units and guiding their learning through a potentially unfamiliar process. Masada needed their buy-in and for them to have a clear understanding of the goals of PBL.
Masada’s solution was to hold a range of Professional Learning (PL) sessions to give all high school teachers a chance to experience PBL firsthand. They would engage in the unit from a student’s perspective, being guided by PBL experts. They could also ask all their questions and air any concerns in a constructive forum.
The school sent out an expression of interest for faculties and individual teachers that wanted to take part in specialised PL. In emails to staff about the PL, the Learning and Teaching Team clearly set out that Masada would be introducing PBL starting in 2020 and wanted to give all teachers the opportunity to take part in a hands-on experience. The key was the ‘hands-on’ part: the school didn’t want to lecture teachers. Instead, the goal was to provide an immersion experience so they could better understand things from a student perspective.
In delivering this PL, the decision was made to run a number of separate sessions. These included subject-specific times for HSIE, Maths, and English, as well as two other sessions for teachers from other faculties who wanted to take part in a PBL experience. A whole school session was also held for teachers that did not attend the workshops.
The sessions were very successful. Teachers were overwhelmingly positive, even enthusiastic, after the PBL experiences and clearly saw how they would provide opportunities for greater student engagement. They valued the opportunity to take part in the PBL sessions and provided important input into how programs and activities could be tailored to Masada. Teachers were also very supportive of the chance to become involved in a whole-school reform at an early stage.
The school followed up the PL by communicating at staff development days the plan to introduce PBL slowly. Teachers were informed that Masada would start small and roll out only two units per semester in 2020 (one each in Year 7 History and Year 8 Geography).
The teachers teaching the PBL units were then given direct support, with a member of the Learning and Teaching Team working closely with them on how they would approach the unit and what questions they needed answered. As a result, these teachers felt prepared for the experience and received ongoing support in terms of delivering the units to students, including during the period of remote learning during COVID-19.
The school is now in a position where it can increase the range of PBL offerings, confident in the knowledge that our staff understand the goals of PBL and are supportive of their role in engaging students and supporting their learning. Ryan Gill is the Head of Teaching & Learning (7-12) at Masada College. Alex Symonds is a Humanties & Economics Teacher at Masada College.