Judy Larsen was given a Pounds 15 million building and told to create a showpiece secondary school fit for the 21st century. The dynamic Australian has torn down the department walls and placed literacy and study skills at the heart of the curriculum. Reva Klein reports.
It's the stuff of dreams. Imagine you're a veteran primary teacher who has moved on to become a literacy consultant. Then one day, the government asks you to take a partially completed Pounds 15 million building and with it create and run a secondary school fit for the 21st century.
The brief is an open one: design a curriculum that will meet the needs of young people in the coming millennium, arrange the building and classrooms in ways suited to delivering it, hire the staff that you think will be up to the job of teaching it. Break some rules, make new ones. But above all else, be innovative.
Judy Larsen had no illusions about the job being a piece of cake. But then she wasn't looking for an easy life. When she took up the challenge of envisaging and then building, step by step, a school that fitted with her concepts of education and learning, she knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
"I had an incredible sense of excitement and also anxiety when I took this on four years ago," says the diminutive and softly-spoken Australian, whose girlish looks belie a powerhouse within. "I thought, 'Wow, I can make a school that is completely different for the future. But when you start thinking about what a school for the 21st century will be, it's actually quite difficult. What exactly does it mean? What shape would it need to take? It was such a nebulous concept."
Four years on, the answer is Ballajura Community College in Perth, Western Australia, catering for 1,500 pupils from a range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. It's the first school of its kind in Australia and could be used as a model for new schools around the world.
Its development says a lot about creative vision, community partnership, strong teamwork, the willingness to embrace new ways of doing things - and lateral thinking.
The central focus of Ballajura was shaped by Judy Larsen's experiences as a literacy consultant, during which she developed the First Steps literacy programme for primary schools. Following on from its success, she was asked to devise a professional development course in literacy for secondary teachers - Stepping Out. For the latter, she spent six months in secondary classrooms. As a primary specialist, it was a fascinating experience, an opportunity to observe "the dramatic difference between primary and secondary".
From the perspectives she gained at that time, she became convinced that many children enter secondary school beset with literacy problems. "There are children who are only establishing themselves in literacy when they move to secondary. And there are others whose skills aren't established at all. I felt I could bridge the gap between primary and secondary more effectively."
She was convinced that the central focus of the school should be on literacy and information technology, and that they should be approached through unconventional ways of working and structuring the new school. To help work through her ideas, she convened what she laughingly admits to as "a politically incorrect think-thank - educationists whom I respected like my dad (a former school principal) and twin sister (a recently appointed primary principal), friends who are teachers, my university supervisor and senior officers from the education department. We spent days and nights trying to conceptualise what a school for the 21st century should look like."
What they came up with, after much consultation with the local community, is a high school that begins at Year 7 (instead of the customary Year 8) and in which students from Years 7 to 9 are grouped in "home" rooms and taught by inter-disciplinary teams of teachers. This arrangement allows teachers from different subject areas to work together, plan the curriculum and deliver integrated (cross-curricular) teaching. The curriculum is designed around integrated modules, which were created by taking the existing curriculum and finding links wherever possible (see box). Literacy and technology come into each module, no matter what the subject areas.
The question they addressed, says Judy Larsen, was: "Do you give students little packages of facts parcelled up into units or do you give them broader understandings and help them to make connections? I think you have to do both at the transitional point of Years 7 to 9."
While integrated learning at secondary level is not unusual in the United States, it was in Australia - until Ballajura came on the scene. But an even more radical departure was the introduction of at least 40 hours of in-service training in literacy for every teacher. Equally radical was her insistence on employing both primary and secondary teachers for Years 7 to 9, to infuse the middle-school classes - where literacy has traditionally been relegated to a low status - with some primary methodology to help bridge the gap. Another new departure was the creation of a head of department for literacy and for information and communications technology, who would work across the school.
Part and parcel of the focus on literacy and technology is explicit study skills teaching. Judy Larsen and her team were determined to redress the ludicrous situation of children not knowing what is expected of their written work and how to go about researching, as often happens in this country. All children at Ballajura are taught how to take notes, how to scan and skim material, how to research and use a variety of media. Computers and Internet connections are in every room to aid their investigations.
When it came to organising the empty new building she had responsibility over, Judy Larsen was committed to doing away with tradition in favour of designing classrooms to reflect the new approach to learning that the school embraces. Needless to say, there were inevitable run-ins with the builders. "They said that they build secondary schools in departmental units according to square metres per unit. And what I was creating was a system where students stay in their home rooms (except for gym, technology and art areas) and work with teachers in their teams."
While the builders won that battle, they did concede to her wishes to redesign science laboratories. "The traditional lab," the principal explains, "presumes that the teacher stands and does experiments and the children sit in rows. I suggested that we put benches around the perimeter of the room and in the centre we put the bunsen burners, sinks, etc. The desks weren't fixed and were configured in groups. This way, the teacher's place is still central to the process but has a different complexion. It provides opportunities for explicit teaching and for explanation."
The flexibility of this cross-curricular, contextualised approach to learning means that teachers sometimes team teach and other times teach individually. Likewise, a teacher may sometimes have three students in a lecture theatre working on a specific angle and other times will have a full class or a class broken up into small groups. To plan the next week's curriculum, teams meet for a highly structured, scheduled half a day a week. During that time they plan, assess the past week's activities, reflect on their work and share problems.
The government of Western Australia is proud of Ballajura Community School. Its minister of education, Colin Barnett, has called it "a trailblazer, a super-school, a showpiece of education". Judy Larsen is proud of it, too. She has worked hard to make it what it is. But in what is one of life's little ironies, she's not there to run the show. The day she was appointed principal of the school, she was awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at the University of London. She arranged a deferral for three years and came last year to the Institute of Education to conduct research on gendered learning. Until she returns, the school is being run by the assistant principal, Jan Sampson. If she really misses the school in the meantime, she can always nip up to, of all places, the Isle of Man. Ballajura, despite its Aboriginal-sounding name, comes from the Manx word ballajora (many inhabitants of the Isle of Man emigrated to Australia), meaning "the place of the stranger".
FINDING THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
A social studies (humanities) class was doing a multicultural project. They first researched the ethnic background of every child in the class by conducting oral histories with families. They transcribed the notes they took on to a computer. To augment this information, they researched thedifferent cultures and ethnic groups they came up with via the Internet. In addition, they organised a multicultural fair, did the cooking for it and wrote and printed a cookery book based on the recipes they had culled from different reference materials. They also took photographs on digital cameras of the fair.
Despite the fun factor involved in the project, Judy Larsen says this wasn't feel-good stuff: "It was focused, explicit teaching in a highly contextualised framework." And by discovering things for themselves, she believes, the children remember what they have learned.