Friday 23 June 2017

An authentic setting for engaged learning

Dilworth School is an independent full boarding school for boys in Remuera, Auckland. Since 1894 the school has focused on the original vision of its founding benefactor, James Dilworth, who bequeathed some of his estate for the establishment of a charitable organisation providing scholarships for disadvantaged boys. Further extending this vision, Dilworth School opened the Dilworth Rural Campus in 2012. Deputy head teacher Simon Cragg explains why the campus was set up and talks about some of the ups and downs they’ve experienced along the way.
The Dilworth Rural Campus (Te Haerenga – The Journey) opened on the site of the former Hotel du Vin at Mangatawhiri in the North Waikato. The campus is home to between 90 and 100 boys for the entirety of their year 9 experience. Most have already been at the Dilworth Junior Campus for 2–4 years, although up to 25 have not previously attended Dilworth. All boys are boarders and, as is the case with all Dilworth boys, are on a full scholarship.
The philosophy of the campus is to facilitate a year-long journey that encompasses all aspects of each boy’s development through learning in the academic, outdoors and social living environments. Boys are on site for 12 days at a time and during their time with us they spend two days in the outdoors doing activities such as tramping, sea kayaking, cycling and rock climbing, among others. They also spend eight days in the classroom doing subject-based learning with a focus on experiential and strengths-based pedagogies. An additional two half-days are spent doing project-based learning. Each boy will complete two half-year projects over the course of their time at Te Haerenga. The first project is a ‘pathfinding project’, which focuses on developing an individual strength or passion, while the ‘Community Contribution Project’ is about giving back to a community to which they belong. 
Over the past four years various strategies have been in place to try to provide the boys with as integrated a learning experience as possible at the campus. One of the goals of the campus is to move to a 50-50 model of fully integrated and subject-based learning by 2017. The key competencies, in particular, have involved a focus for collective planning. However, after the first two years we came to a point where we felt that we were only scratching the surface of providing a truly integrated learning experience that enabled them to make real connections to context and to the real world. Thus, as with all good inquiries, we began with a problem.
In the middle of 2014 we held a teacher-only day to focus on how we could engage students more in genuine cross-curricula contexts. This was a tough day of open and frank discussion where many ideas surfaced and some were discarded quickly. At the end of the day we arrived at a framework that everyone felt was a good way forward and would benefit student learning.
It was decided that we would offer, during Term 4, a three-phase inquiry, teaching skills nominated by each learning area but taught by a cross-curricula team of teachers based on a careers/disciplinary context. Students would choose one of four contexts offered, each with a different focus. The contexts offered were: science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM); society, arts and culture; the natural world; and sport and hauora. Each group used their context to teach the skills as determined by subject teachers.
In Term 4 last year we ran this for the first time. Among many other activities, students were out building trebuchets, helping the Regional Council, creating their own country and developing a personal fitness plan. Anecdotal evidence from staff and teachers was that the students had never been more engaged and that it generated high levels of enthusiasm for what they were learning.  
As a result of staff reflection and student feedback, it was decided to be more responsive to student choice. This led to one of the options from last year, the natural world, not running this year due to lack of demand. Instead, two classes of STEAM were formed in its place.
Another change made was to allow for each group of staff (which include all teaching and outdoor instructing staff and part-time staff who work at other Dilworth campuses) to access, if needed, subject expertise from specialist staff in order to teach the skills required, such as bi-variate data analysis (a maths skill). In the end, specialist staff were not required to teach the skills in person as the conversations and cross-checking of tasks that took place between groups was enough for teachers to feel comfortable with teaching the skills.
So for this year we embarked on a three week learning adventure with three different contexts instead of four. One group – society, arts and culture – decided to pursue the concept of running a comparative study of cultures from three cultures (Aotearoa, China and France), before setting the students an inquiry topic of creating their own country within a defined geographical area that complemented the surrounding cultures. They were set a number of tasks, which involved aspects such as food, education, government, sport, law enforcement, rituals, and art. The highlight of this was a trip around Auckland exploring aspects of Chinese and French cultures, such as tai chi and parkour and, of course, involved sampling food from these cultures!
The STEAM group chose to completely change their context from last year, which was warfare, to investigating the spread of infectious diseases. The lessons began in a memorable fashion, with a ‘corpse’ that was ‘infected’ with the fictional disease ‘zomitis’, (a disease with zombie-like symptoms) found on the campus, leading to an investigation into the causes and possible cures, as well as modelling the spread of the disease.
Highlights that stood out were the strategic and collaborative skills shown by students who battled to survive the disease at Laser Tag; the statistical inquiry into the spread of the disease on a cruise ship; the flash mob dance (performed to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’) reflecting the anatomy and physiology of the symptoms of the disease; and the creation of an emergency broadcast to inform and reassure the public of New Zealand. 
The sport and hauora group used the lens of careers in sport to teach the skills. Students focused an inquiry on a specific sports or health-based career that interested them and investigated this, eventually spending a day shadowing a professional working in that field. Along the way, students learned about anatomy and physiology, including dissection of organs, and about aspects of fitness and creating personal fitness programmes. The group visited AUT Millennium and went on a training mission to the beach, which tested their fitness.
The success of this year’s programmes was evident in student feedback gathered near the end of the three-week period. Overall, students rated the experience an average of 8.7 out of 10. One student commented, “I loved going to school knowing that I will learn a lot and in a fun way by managing my own learning”. Another said he preferred learning in this way “because we focus on one main subject and this is an opportunity to decide what we could do in the future”.
There are still some issues that we are grappling with as staff, such as how to assess the skills that have been taught in an authentic way. Nonetheless, we will be persevering and possibly expanding this method of teaching and learning in the future. So far it has been a worthwhile and challenging journey that is opening up new learning possibilities for the students at Dilworth Rural Campus. I hope our experience so far will provoke discussion in other staffrooms about contexts for learning, and teaching across subjects.