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A day in the life of a Bundoora Secondary College student - taking control, and the power of choice.

It’s Wednesday period 3 at Bundoora Secondary College and fifteen-year-old Olivia makes her way to PAL - her Pathways and Learning group - with eighteen other students ranging from Years 8 - 12. Not that Olivia or her friends emphasise year levels any more as the school has none, other than Entry and Graduation. They greet each other enthusiastically, sitting comfortably together in collaborative groups, ready for the range of individual and group tasks they will undertake. Olivia and her friends spend some time reflecting on their learning goals for various subjects and monitoring their weekly progress as their PAL leader walks around and chats with each one. They catch up about how they are going socially, emotionally and academically and converse about their skills, interests and subject choices. Olivia’s PAL group are all in the same ‘house’ and they begin work on a whole school activity for Harmony Day which is coming up. Each PAL has chosen a country to represent to gain points for their house. The room is abuzz with anticipation and activity as they work on the games, crafts and music they have decided to create or use.

Olivia now takes for granted how easily the diverse age groups work together. Her multi-year program is called PACE 21, or ‘Passion, Achievement, Choice and Empowerment for 21st Century Skills.’ As the name suggests, it was established to give students choice and control over their learning and the focus is on not only academic success, but also the development of attributes such as persistence, initiative and curiosity and skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

Student engagement at BSC has increased significantly since adopting the ‘Take Control’ model at the end of 2016. Under this model, students have a taster of every learning area in Entry year, after which they are free to choose from any subject offered within the school.  Only English and Maths have remained core and even these have been re-conceived to provide choice.  For example, within English, students can choose from a range of options such as ‘Create Your Own Adventure’, ‘Trolls, Hashtags and Media Manipulation’ and ‘Contemporary and Classic Literature’, just to name a few. Maths also offers a variety of learning options that are offered according to the student learning level.  Its ok to be streets ahead or slightly behind your peers.  Our program is designed to meet you at your learning level and through a balance of explicit teaching, hands on and projects you progress according to your needs. There is freedom and time to make mistakes. Staff at Bundoora acknowledge that interest level is a key motivator in student success.

Olivia’s and her peers’ choices are carefully mapped out and monitored with the support of their families and PALs and this forms the basis of the Subject Selection Plan (SSP), which is a central process. Family involvement is highly regarded and the 3 Way Conferences twice yearly are a celebration with families of student empowerment and autonomy as well as a collaborative reflection and brainstorm to map out possibilities.

Initially there was a concern that students might miss essential knowledge and skills through narrowing their choices at an early age. By and large, the opposite has been true. Olivia is a typical case: having power over her pathway has meant that she has invested in her decisions and maintained breadth of options. Previously she was disengaged in language classes. Having the power to opt out of languages has actually sparked within her the realisation of their benefits and she is now an avid supporter of studying languages. This has been the case throughout all learning areas, as student choice has empowered them to take control over their pathway and true ownership over their learning.

The choice doesn’t stop at individual subjects. Within each classroom, teachers have been transitioning from traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods of teaching to models of practice in which the student is central. Although teachers come into the classroom with expertise, the idea of ‘delivering knowledge’ to students who sit passively is gradually becoming history. Rather, the teachers expertly frame the targeted knowledge and skills into a developmental progression and students have a vast choice over what and how they learn and how they will be assessed. Again, the model of choice has breathed life into even stalwarts of learning, such as essay-writing. Being empowered in what and how they learn has meant that students are actually choosing to do tasks they previously groaned over. English teachers acknowledge that previously, writing an essay for many students was a chore they dreaded. Now, many are opting to do one as their preferred method of assessment!

Walking around Bundoora Secondary College, you are not likely to see many quiet classes of students sitting in rows, passively listening to their teacher or completing drills from a textbook. Although there will always be times at which these methods are appropriate, it is now far more common to see and hear students vibrantly engaging with their teachers and peers, constructing a prototype (the Maker Space is on its way!) and collaboratively solving problems. It’s heartening to witness younger generations, such as Olivia and her peers, engaging with and driving their education in ways my generation never thought possible.

As I ponder the exciting potential of 21st century education, Olivia lines up with her friends to buy a drink from the outstanding business that her fifteen-year-old friend Adam started up as a school project. It strikes me that through the Take Control model this young man has been given permission to shine and he has grabbed the opportunity and challenge with both hands.

There is a lot of negative messaging that goes on about young people in our society, not least of which is the fear mongering that we should just get back to the ‘3 Rs’ because of declining national literacy rates. The call to lock down choice and take it all ‘back to basics’ is never distant. As I observe Olivia and Adam converse about his plans for adaptations and expansion, I feel indignant that this kind of entrepreneurial learning could be seen as less viable or valuable than purely academic studies. I watch them with tremendous pride: these young people are our future. They deserve a world-class education.


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