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Strong teaching culture encourages better results in the classroom

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The academic performance of Australian school students has stagnated compared with students in countries with similar economic development. One of the factors that contributes to the success of high-performing countries is a school culture that encourages teachers to reflect upon and improve their teaching practice.

Dr Jill Aldridge from Curtin’s School of Education has developed the Effective School Improvement (ESI) program, a suite of tools that assists teachers to use their own expertise to improve the learning environment in their classrooms. The program also helps principals and school leaders work towards creating a school culture that is inclusive and promotes deep academic engagement in students.

In 2011, a group of seven schools in Western Australia piloted the program. By 2016, the ESI program had been adopted by 25 schools in Victoria, ACT, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.

The ESI program is based upon a series of questionnaires: the Classroom Climate Questionnaire (CCQ) that assesses students’ perception of the learning environment within an individual classroom; the What’s Happening in this School? (WHITS) survey that assesses how inclusive a school feels to its students; and the School Organisation Climate (SOC) survey that measures the perceptions of teaching staff.

Dr Aldridge stresses that the program is not just about administering surveys.

“Data’s just data. In the end it’s what you do with it that makes a difference. What we try to do with schools is help them to work with the data to make a difference,” she says.

“There’s a whole lot of purpose behind the process,” says Dr Paul Rijken, principal of Cardijn College and Marcellin Technical College in Adelaide.

Dr Rijken began working with Professor Aldridge in 2012, when 28 of the college’s teachers volunteered to be part of a pilot to trial the ESI program. The pilot was so successful that the following year, 60 teachers wanted to be involved. Rijken says the program is now an essential part of how teachers engage with their students at the college.

Teachers use the CCQ to assess the quality of the learning environment at the classroom level from the students’ perspective. Students are asked questions about how engaged they are in the subject being taught, and how collaborative they find their classroom environment. Each student surveyed is asked to provide two responses to each question: what is actually happening in the classroom, and what would the prefer to happen?

Teachers can use the feedback from students to develop teaching strategies to improve the learning environment in their classrooms and re-administer the survey to see if their new approach has made a difference to their students.

“The teachers have really felt that this has been a productive and constructive way of them engaging in their professional learning about their classes,” Dr Rijken says.

Dr Aldridge says that the one of the strengths of the ESI program is that teachers are more likely to re-use a successful strategy that they developed themselves and make it a regular part of their teaching practice.

The ESI program also helps teachers provide evidence that their teaching practice meets the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers administered by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

“It’s part of the narrative of the school,” says Dr Kath Partridge, principal of Sevenoaks Senior College in Perth.

Sevenoaks has been involved in the development of the ESI program since its inception in 2000. The college is culturally diverse, with the 500 students enrolled in years 11 and 12 coming from 40 different nations. It also has one of the largest enrolments of Aboriginal students in Western Australia.

Dr Partridge says that the data generated by the questionnaire allows the school leadership to set specific targets to refine and improve teaching practice. These targets are set out in the school’s business plan, giving parents and the broader school community a clear understanding of the ways in which the school is striving to improve student learning.

In 2011, a conversation with a teacher whose child had committed suicide led Dr Aldridge to expand her research from its initial focus on improving the learning environment in the classroom towards building inclusive schools that foster the wellbeing and resilience of their students.

The What’s Happening in this School? (WHITS) program is a five-step process that quantifies the quality and character of a school’s culture from the perspective of its students. The WHITS survey is administered to all students (or a representative subsample) and provides data on how supported students feel by their teachers and school, and how connected they are to their school and peers.

The survey also allows the school to assess whether students from different cultural backgrounds feel acknowledged and valued, as well as measure risks to wellbeing, such as the prevalence of bullying, and disruptive and delinquent behaviour.

The WHITS program has helped Cardijn College improve how it approaches the pastoral care and well-being of its students, Dr Rijken says. This has led to significant improvement in student outcomes in factors such as self-efficacy — how prepared a student is to extend themselves to solve a problem or continue with a subject they find difficult.

Dr Rijken also attributes the rapid change in Year 12 and NAPLAN results to the ESI program.

“We can only surmise that it’s around the climate in the school that has now translated into a change in culture, and that is a deep academic culture where students know their responsibilities towards their learning,” he says.

Both Dr Rijken and Dr Partridge describe working with Dr Aldridge and her colleagues on the ESI program as a delight.

“The findings and recommendations of academics often just add to or validate other research undertaken in the university sector,” Dr Rijken says. “What Dr Aldridge has done is take this research and develop it into programs that can be established in schools to become part of the practice of a teacher.”

This story is from A Decade of Impact

A Decade of Impact is a series that showcases some of Curtin’s most impactful research projects in recent years. The chosen research projects are examples of how Curtin translates its research into economic, environmental and social impact.

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