About the cluster
Since its official formation early 2005, the cluster of four Beacon Practice schools met monthly to find ways of pushing technology education forward.
When the group first met, the schools were represented at the monthly meetings by Matthew Lane of Wellington College, Geoff Keith and Andrew Hughes of Wellington High School, Barbara Knight of Queen Margaret College and Brian Allen of St Patrick's College. The professional profiles of these teachers varied greatly. Two had recent training in design, two have experience in the building industry and one was trained as a CDT teacher in the UK. Teaching experience varied from two years to over thirty and qualifications include fashion design, industrial design, religious studies and education.
The group's first order of business was to define its purpose, its goals and how they would measure their success in achieving them. In very general terms, the aim of the group was to create an open and honest forum for sharing problems, ideas, knowledge, skills, and resources. A place to talk shop without having to pull any punches or be interrupted by the minutiae of daily school life; a place that encouraged good reflective practice. One specific goal was to get to grips with the Technology Assessment Framework (TAF). Another was the development of technological knowledge bases. Cluster members also wanted to share professional development and work together to form links with industry and tertiary institutes.
The exercise has delivered a range of positive outcomes, not only for the four HODs but for their colleagues and students as well. In terms of shared professional support, cluster members say the group's activities have improved their understanding of planning and assessment, particularly planning for progression and TAF implementation. Increasing their understanding of these educational directives, boosted member's professional confidence and their ability to incorporate new skills and knowledge into their teaching. Another benefit of participating in cluster activities, noted by its members, is increased resilience – an improved capacity to take criticism on the chin. One member says the support the cluster provided reduced the isolation that can bedevil technology teachers.
"... it reduces the isolation that can happen in schools – we can support each other and share the load. It is really beneficial to see student work from the differing schools. We get ideas about teaching methods, standard setting of grades and so on."
Cluster members were determined from the outset of the project, the knowledge and ideas they gained at meetings would flow directly to their colleagues back at school, rather than merely trickle down to them. After each meeting, cluster members held debriefing sessions with their colleagues. As a cluster initiative, teaching staff at all four schools were brought together for a day-long session. The benefits enjoyed by cluster representatives, particularly in terms of professional development – especially planning for progression and TAF implementation – and associated rise in professional confidence were also experienced by teachers back at the four schools.
The flow-on effect on classroom atmosphere has been pronounced, with cluster members reporting students are more enthusiastic, more engaged in their work and more positive about their choice of subject. They report students taking greater pride in their work, improved documentation, and greater creativity and innovation. One member said students were motivated to take risks – "they're challenging themselves and are obviously enjoying their learning."
An important focus of the group was the forging links with industry and with tertiary institutions. In the past, each of the schools had attempted to establish links with industry and tertiary institutes with varying degrees of success. Working together as a cluster appears to be a more effective method of preparation. The group approach seems to have a credibility or weight absent from the individual approach. Links established as a group with tertiary providers and industry have opened doors to knowledge bases, expertise, and mentoring opportunities, and created opportunities for professional development and good, engaging learning contexts for students. Cluster members stress the value of having industry and technology figures visit the classroom, as opposed to having students making class visits to factories. They believe having experts share their knowledge in the classroom and help with lessons and projects is particularly valuable. Many links have been forged with tertiary education providers; of these, Victoria University of Wellington in particular is singled out for special praise by cluster members.
Experts from a range of industry groups committed time to cluster as part of their work for the Futureintech initiative. The establishment and maintenance of links between the cluster and industry has been brokered by Futureintech Facilitator Phil Sadgrove. Part of his role was to arrange for industry figures to visit member schools.
Links with tertiary education providers have allowed teachers to map the transition from school to tertiary education for their students and set up, in one instance, a scheme where tertiary students mentored a Year 13 class at Wellington High School, a Year 12-13 class at Wellington College, and a Year 11-13 class at St Patrick's College.
Cluster members believe industry and tertiary links forged through the project have paid great dividends for their students.
New Wellington College Technology HOD Matthew Lane: "As a cluster we feel that some of the greatest improvements in student learning and tech practice have come through interaction with authentic clients. In working with the clients, students are taking ownership of their work, with the interaction and reflection on client feedback leading to authentic outcomes – not just what the students thought it should be but what the client actually wants."
"...students take their work more seriously when they are working with 'real clients' outside of the school environment. They take more pride in their work and 'listen' to the clients – greater authenticity and status is attached to their work."
What made the project work? Professional support. When it first came together, the group worked out how best to use the professional help it was eligible for under the Beacon Practice project. Professional support facilitator Cliff Harwood was asked to provide guidance and support in the areas of planning and assessment, programme evaluation, and the review of student practice. Cluster members would like emphasise how highly they value the professional support offered by Cliff Harwood and his role in challenging and supporting the professional practice in all Cluster schools.
Cluster members agree that another vital ingredient has been the facilitation skills of Beacon Practice Initiative Co-ordinator Angela Christie, who kept the group on track.
HOD Technology St Patrick's College Brian Allen: "She, in my mind, is a very skilful manager of the group; she recognised that each of us has our different skill areas and has worked to make sure that we are complementing each other. Angela sought to look for the strengths in each school and highlight these strengths so that we could all sort of acknowledge them; so that's why no 'powerful' HOD has emerged in the cluster, because Angela set the platform of how we would work together – right from the beginning."
Team spirit was also another vital success factor, cluster members say. While the monthly meetings of the cluster were the scene for some "frank" exchanges of opinion about classroom practice, from the outset the group had a shared vision and sense of purpose. Former HOF Technology Wellington High School Geoff Keith: "The barriers were down. But rather than vying to compete against each other, we started to work as a team. It was a great thing to be able to pick up the phone and to call people from the other schools, and draw on their resources and different skill bases."
What made it work, according to Geoff Keith, was trust. "When we were in meetings there was no sense of things leaving the room. We'd share ideas and look at the programmes we were running in our schools and talk about them in an honest way. We have developed a professional trust in each other, and can discuss important issues we are having problems with."
To encourage this directness, the first half of every meeting was closed. The second half was open to guests.
Cluster members would also like to acknowledge the contribution IPENZ made to the success of the project. Angela Christie says IPENZ has been very supportive of technology education and the encouragement offered by the organisation and its provision of a venue at its central Wellington offices for the group to meet has meant a lot and contributed directly to the cluster's effectiveness and productivity.
On 31 October 2006, the Beacon Practice Wellington City School Cluster staged a presentation titled 'Talking Technology with Students from Wellington City Schools' at Parliament Buildings. Hosted by the Wellington Central Member of Parliament, Marian Hobbs, the event celebrated the work of students and teachers at the four beacon schools. Two students from each school presented a five minute presentation while two others manned displays of work mounted in the West Foyer of Parliament. The event attracted almost 100 guests, including tertiary providers, parents, teachers, industry representatives. Rather than mark the culmination of the cluster project, the presentation flagged just one stage of what is hoped will be its ongoing success.
By 2007, many members of the group had changed – Brian Allen left St Patrick's College and now works for Victoria University as a technology adviser; his position as HOD was filled by Chris Smyth. Geoff Keith moved from Wellington High School to a position at the Ministry of Education. Andrew Hughes went to Havelock North High School. Geoff and Andrew were replaced by Marietjie van Schalkwyk and Vincent Brannigan.
The full benefits of the project will only become apparent in time. Potential technology students may well come to see technology as an exciting and viable subject as they see current students demonstrating quality practice and producing satisfying outcomes. A true measure of success will an increased student uptake of technology.