Pop sticks and mini-whiteboards may seem unlikely agents of educational change, but for one Perth high school, they’re proving to be invaluable tools in turning around student results.
In a school where most students struggle academically and have trouble focusing in class, a new approach to teaching — known as explicit direct instruction (EDI) — has seen pass rates skyrocket, behaviour problems all but eradicated and students engaged in their studies for the first time.
Principal Mary Griffiths is delighted at the success of the approach, which is turning the school’s fortunes around.
“It’s just been incredible what a difference it’s made in every area of the school, we are just thrilled,” she said.
“Students are far more engaged, and also we’ve seen that their results have improved, which is what we’re after. It’s really made a huge difference.”
Turning around a struggling school
Armadale Senior High School bears the hallmarks of disadvantage.
Located in the heart of Perth’s south-eastern battler belt suburbs, it’s a school with historically poor NAPLAN results that’s struggled to attract bright and motivated students.
The Federal Government’s My School website ranks Armadale SHS students as below the national average in terms of socio-educational advantage — a measure that takes into account parents’ level of education, their occupation and socio-economic status.
Almost half of its students are at or below minimum national numeracy and literacy levels when they arrive at the school, with a significant proportion starting Year 7 barely able to read to the standard of an eight-year-old, and with similarly low maths results.
But since the school began its new focus on EDI earlier this year, with the help of education charity Fogarty Foundation and direct instruction expert Lorraine Hammond, things have begun to change dramatically.
The approach, based on research about brain function, relies on “small steps” teaching and active participation by students.
Teachers ensure students have understood each step of a concept before moving onto the next stage, and encourage students to write down new words and their meanings on mini whiteboards, which they can show to the class to demonstrate their understanding.
The highly structured lessons aim to imprint learning on students’ long-term memory, and both literacy and numeracy are incorporated into all learning areas.
Rather than relying on students to put up their hands to answer questions, pop sticks with students’ names written on them are drawn out of a bucket by the teacher — so anyone can be called on to answer a question at any time.
Students also repeat key words and definitions out loud together with the rest of the class.
A remedy for bad behaviour
Science teacher Arnah Mallon has noticed immediate improvements.
“Without the EDI model, I found that my students were struggling with the work that I was giving them,” she said.
“There wasn’t enough practice for them to go through the examples that I wanted them to learn, so I was moving around the classroom a lot more, helping students individually, repeating myself 30 different times for the same question.”
Behaviour was also an issue, with disengaged students chatting and disrupting others.
“With explicit instruction we’re teaching them how to read, we’re teaching them literacy skills all embedded within the lesson,” Ms Mallon said.
“So even though I teach science, with the choral responses and the reading together, you’re building in that safety to encouraging students to give reading and comprehension a go.
“When they’re more engaged, they’re less likely to do other things, things like annoying the person next to them, or idle chat.”
‘I get it, I can do this now’
The results speak for themselves.
From a small handful of students achieving a pass rate in science, Ms Mallon now passes around 90 per cent of students.
Fellow teacher Rachel Flynn has seen similar results, with the median mark in her class now between 60 and 65 per cent or C-plus, a vast improvement from the D grade most students were getting at the start of the year.
“When students know the process and they can do something competently, they can do something proficiently, there’s a lot more enthusiasm in their learning, and the confidence comes through,” she said.
“They’ll say ‘I get it, I can do this now’.
“As a teacher, it’s reassuring, it’s nice to have that feedback.”
Students are also positive about the changes
“I feel like my grades are improved because I’ve grown much more close to the teachers and I’m listening to them more and we’re doing interesting things in class, and that catches our attention,” Year 7 student Teyahni Pringle said.
Deputy principal Marcus Gianatti said attendance levels had increased since the new approach was implemented and behaviour had improved.
“There isn’t time to misbehave, there isn’t time to have that conversation with a peer and be off task,” he said.
“The lesson’s so fast-paced, we’re checking for understanding repeatedly.
“Many students have had a sense of failure and they haven’t been able to achieve in a classroom environment, and they can see with EDI the success, the positive praise and the rewards that come from a sense of accomplishment and confidence,” he said.