Multiliteracies action research at Gilson College: our journey 2010 – 2011
Gilson College is an Independent P-12 Seventh Day Adventist School of approximately 700 students, situated in Taylors Hill on the outskirts of Melbourne. In this article Sandra England, the College's Learning and Teaching Coordinator P-10, describes the school's development of its professional learning culture, and the implementation of a new approach to literacy with emphasis on multiliteracies pedagogy. An accompanying article by consultants Geoff Bull and Michèle Anstey provides an overview of the project.
At the end of 2009 Gilson College changed course in its professional learning journey, beginning to move from a top-down approach toward more active involvement of middle-level leaders and teachers. At the same, the school introduced a new focus on developing literacy pedagogy across all learning areas from P-12. Our vehicle was to be action research projects centred on multiliteracy learning.
To support this change of direction the school worked with educational experts and consultants Drs Geoff Bull and Michèle Anstey. We asked them to begin by developing our senior and middle leaders' skills in leadership, while also introducing them to multiliteracies. Their accompanying article provides an overview of the project, while the current article covers it from a school-based view.
Until late in 2009 most of our whole-school professional learning was driven from the top down. Senior leadership decided on the projects and led them. While we applied data from sources such as NAPLAN and other standardised tests to improve student achievement, teachers were not generally involved in the data and needs analysis. Perhaps as a result, some staff resisted participation in our whole-school professional learning focuses, and a number of teachers continued to prefer being involved in individual professional learning in line with their own interests.
Senior leaders also became aware that we would benefit from having middle-level leaders, which include Heads of Department, Literacy and Year Level Coordinators and Primary Level leaders, more closely involved in the professional learning process, and from developing their ability to lead professional learning projects within their teams. This issue was identified through feedback from staff and also in professional literature. As Dinham et al suggest:
Teachers look not only to principals for leadership in quality teaching…evidence suggests teachers are much more likely to look to expert teachers who teach in the same field…for new ideas and examples of successful practice. Distributed leadership and practices such as action learning are important initiatives of this type…(Business Council of Australia 2008)
A new learning journey commenced in early 2010. We began by developing the senior and middle leader teams and extending their responsibilities. In March 2010 all senior middle leaders attended a day of leadership training at the school with the consultants, focusing on culture change and change management. Strategies for achieving change and supporting staff through the process were discussed.
Alongside the day of professional learning on leadership training, Michèle and Geoff led a second day for senior and middle leaders on implementing multiliteracies. This provided common knowledge and terminology for school leadership on multiliteracies and the visual semiotic system (still and moving images).
In early 2010, under the guidance of the consultants, we surveyed our teachers, and our students and their families on their literacy understandings and practices. The results revealed that, in general, teachers regarded literacy as reading and writing using paper-based texts. These results were discussed with staff in the context of general trends in literacy and the changing nature of texts. The student survey covered years 4 to 12, and here the results highlighted the growing role of digital literacies in students' lives. Geoff and Michèle helped senior and middle leaders interpret this data. The parent literacy survey, conducted in early 2011, focused on the literacy practices of the family in the home and gave us further insights into the literacy practices of our parents and their children.
Individual action plans were initiated across all levels of staff. The consultants introduced staff to an 'Action Learning Model' which could be used to identify an aspect of their literacy practice they wished to change, or an aspect of knowledge about multiliteracies they wished to develop. Each teacher was then asked to prepare an action plan that specified ways to research the topic and implement the required changes to their practice. Teachers used a 'Multiliteracies Matrix' provided by Geoff and Michèle to identify topics related to multiliteracies learning.
The action plans for senior and middle leaders incorporated steps to support their teacher teams, as well as developing their own knowledge of multiliteracies. Senior and middle leaders began developing their plans in March 2010, while their teachers began the process in October, with assistance from middle leaders. Teachers' action plans are due to for completion this month.
The consultants worked in the school with small groups to monitor progress of the action projects, answering questions and guiding leaders and teachers towards pedagogic change. They also provided feedback via email. This month Michèle and Geoff will return to work with leaders and teachers on strategies for analysing their data and developing reports on their action research. Following this, leaders and teachers will carry out the analysis and develop their reports. At the end of July, the project reports are due to be submitted to senior and middle leaders, who will invite 12 staff members to present their reports as part of a Celebration Day in August at which the project will culminate .
The following vignettes, provided by a senior leader, a middle leader and a classroom teacher, outline some other successes.
Raelene Delvin, Head of Primary (senior leader)
The focus of the professional learning meetings I led was around general aspects of multiliteracy (as well as numeracy), including professional reading. My own multiliteracies action research project looked at the visual semiotic system and the development of a metalanguage for discussion of it. I engaged in personal learning and then shared my learning with the teachers, including my own challenges, struggles and triumphs. The most significant change I have observed so far is teachers' increased level of incidental open and meaningful discussion about learning, as well as an increased use of reflection journals, which I have encouraged them to use for monitoring and recording their learning journeys. I plan to develop my project further. I also plan to continue supporting our middle-level leaders as they work with their teams.
Johnson Allagapan, year 4 teacher (middle leader - Level 3)
I selected visual semiotic systems and the accompanying metalanguage component of these systems employed in the production of still and moving images as a starting point for developing my pedagogy so I could introduce my students to the concept of multiliteracies. Initially, the challenge was finding a starting point and making decisions about what content to include and how to teach this, because semiotic systems were a new concept for me. As I developed and used my new knowledge and skills, I was amazed how quickly students took to critically analysing still and moving images. My students and I are no longer just viewing images, we are discussing codes such as camera angle, color, line and tone when viewing images, and the intentions of the producers. I intend to educate my students on the use of semiotic systems in the audio and spatial areas as the next step in my project.
Neil McAndrew, year 11 Psychology and Biology teacher
I have always attempted to use visual media in my teaching methodology, but after Michèle and Geoff's presentation I was challenged to allow students to utilise visual media as a form of assessment. So far I have had year 11 Biology students successfully preparing short video presentations. The year 11 Psychology students used their own unique digital camera images, taken on an excursion, to create a presentation explaining complex visual concepts. I was impressed at how engaged all the students were in the process and at the overall quality and creativity of the presentations. The task showcased far more of their multiple intelligences than a more traditional assessment task. As I progress in implementing my action plan, I intend to further develop my knowledge and skills and more explicitly plan for and teach towards a deeper understanding of how the different visual semiotic system codes, such as colour, shape, tone, point of view, and the metalanguage surrounding them, can be used by my students and me to explore, develop and explain science concepts.
Successes in our journey so far
The most common focus chosen by teachers for their multiliteracies action research project is to know, understand and use individual and combined semiotic systems, particularly the visual (still and moving images) and aural semiotic systems. Study of these systems includes explicit teaching of the codes within these systems that help students to make meaning of the multimodal texts they encounter. Another common focus is to have teachers and students develop a metalanguage for exploring and talking about multimodal texts and their semiotic systems.
Consequently, one of the observed successes has been the change seen and heard in many of the conversation topics, both formal as well as informal, as teachers and leaders interact in meetings and around the staffroom table. A number of staff members regularly discuss changes in their practice and their successes with increased student engagement and achievement after introducing one of the semiotic systems.
Time has been a major challenge. Some 'protected time' for staff and leaders to work on action plans was created by freeing staff meetings from routine weekly and daily announcements, many of which are now disseminated by other means, such as the school intranet.
At times it has been necessary to be flexible in adjusting deadlines. As well, trying to meet with leaders on a regular basis has been challenging, usually due to the scheduling of other meetings for departments. In our school, many secondary teachers are members of several departments.
A further challenge this year has arisen from some unavoidable changes in middle leadership in the secondary school. Staff members who have not had the benefit of Michèle and Geoff's leadership development have taken on department head roles because previous leaders left the school or changed roles. This has made it difficult to support teachers in some departments, as those new to leadership are at the same point in the action plan implementation as their team members. This adds to the senior leaders' responsibilities, or to those of other already-trained middle leaders.
As far as possible we have included new staff and middle leaders in professional learning sessions, but they have been exempted for this year from the action research component. Our hope is that participation in the professional learning this year with Michèle and Geoff, as well as ongoing professional learning with leaders, will give them exposure enough to take part in further action research in the future. We have also differentiated professional learning expectations for our newly qualified teachers, who are involved in the professional learning that is part of the Victorian Institute of Teachers registration process.
In meeting these challenges, we have also drawn on Ritchhart's eight 'wants' of professional learning communities. (Ritchart 2010)
There is a need to move forward in small steps and as far as is possible be flexible. As a result, our multiliteracies action research project has been a long-term project. By the end of the project as outlined above, we will have been on this journey for two years.
We also see it as important to continue to provide choice in some way. The school allocates 70% of professional learning funds for whole school purposes and leaves 30% for teachers to apply to their interests.
We still have a lot to learn as we continue on our whole school professional learning journey, but we are pleased with our progress. As we continue our journey, we will continue to reflect and we will continue to seek feedback from all staff – teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders. We will adjust and develop the manner in which we proceed, ever keeping in mind that developing teacher excellence and effectiveness is what has the greatest impact on increasing student achievement. After all, our students' achievements are to be our prime reason for change and development.
Business Council of Australia, Teaching Talent: The Best Teachers for Australia's Classrooms May 2008.
Ritchhart, Ron, Establishing & Sustaining Professional Learning Communities Independent Schools Victoria, March 3 2010.
Subject HeadingsEducational planning