Silver linings: How PLC Sydney made the most of remote learning

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis chats with Junior School students.

The coronavirus induced transition to remote learning presented a huge range of challenges to schools and families, with many parents fearing that their children would be disadvantaged by the disruption.

But at PLC Sydney, it was far from a bad experience. In fact, “it was a great win”, says Principal Dr Paul Burgis, thanks to swift action and a lot of hard work.

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis.

By the time NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the closure of schools as part of the non-essential services lockdown, PLC Sydney had already taken classes online.

“We started on the Thursday before the premier made it official on the Monday,” says Dr Burgis.

“We decided when the curve really took off that we would try to avoid having a case and look after our staff [who] were particularly vulnerable because of adult-to-adult transmission.”

Using Zoom video conferencing software for lessons and Google Classroom for homework and assignments, the school of almost 1400 students didn’t skip a beat. Even the technology cooperated, with PLC Sydney encountering far fewer problems than anticipated.

The hardest part was keeping students engaged with learning, especially in the early years.

“For years 3-12, it worked really well. We were primarily concerned for the young ones,” Dr Burgis says, “they need more assistance.”

To provide that, PLC Sydney employed a “multi-modal framework” with lots of activity-based learning and problem solving tasks, supplemented by explanations and individual follow-up, he says.

“Power Up Wednesdays” allocated a day every week to creative, physical and wellbeing projects to help students cope with the emotional burden of isolation. A competition to “Walk Around the World” saw the girls collectively take enough steps around their homes to get to Florence, Italy; while the “Portrait in Isolation” project challenged students and staff to express their feelings in a self-portrait. The evocative results are now on exhibition at the school.

Year 9 student Emylene Kuoch’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

“We also did a living history project, where students wrote their experience of working at home to pass on to future generations. One of the museums in Sydney thought it was a great project and they’re going to do something with it,” he adds.

“I’ve been really impressed by how calmly the girls have gone about things. Across the whole school the students have been fantastic. We haven’t had any increase in wellbeing issues; if anything slightly less.

“I want to pay tribute to the teachers for that. The comment from the students was that the teachers were really there for them.”

Positive outcomes from remote learning can be felt throughout the school, Dr Burgis says. Zoom has worked so well that they’ll be incorporating it permanently for classes at PLC Sydney’s Jindabyne-based Winter School. Boarders stranded overseas and in country NSW have been able to return to school virtually, and taking P&F meetings online has tripled attendance.

Year 12 student Helena Law’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

Parent information sessions have gone digital too. Dr Burgis describes PLC Sydney’s inaugural webinar for 130 prospective parents as logistically challenging but ultimately successful.

“I presented, one of our vice-captains spoke and we did a virtual tour of the college. Our executive were all on standby to chat. Parents typed in questions and I answered as many as I could and the executive were all typing away answers.

“We got quite a few enrolments so I think we did okay.”

As constructive as these past few weeks have been though, nothing can replace the social aspects of school, Dr Burgis says.

“Students really missed their peers. After a while, working from home becomes a bit like Groundhog Day, every day follows the same pattern. Face to face we read the nuances and enjoy the physical company of others.”

Remote learning has many advantages but it’s exhausting in the long term and requires heavy lifting from teachers, students and parents to make it work, he acknowledges.

“I’ve really appreciated how the staff, teachers and executive have come together really well to make sure the learning worked. That’s been tiring though. This is normally a long weekend with a professional development day but we’ve given the staff an extra day off. They’ve been working hard and they’ve just done a huge professional development task on the job.

“We’ve been really grateful for the support of the community and because of that it’s worked well.”

Warrah School: A natural approach to educating autistic children

 

Connected to nature … Warrah School students in the playground.

Set on a 30-acre bushland site in Dural, Warrah School provides an idyllic environment for children with moderate to severe autism and other disabilities.

The school is part of the larger Warrah Community that includes a biodynamic and organic farm and a supported community for adults living with disabilities.

Founded 50 years ago, Warrah School offers educational and vocational programs in the Rudolf Steiner tradition of learning, which addresses three key elements of human development – thinking, feeling and activity, incorporating the connection to and healing power of nature.

Growth experience … Warrah student in the sensory garden.

“We have recently developed a new curriculum on the leading edge of special needs education,” Principal Jan Fowler says, “students thrive when they have a connection to the natural world and can see the transformation process revealed to them through working with natural materials, such as wood, wool and fibre and the earth.”

With almost 1000 trees on the property, fruit and vegetable gardens, and abundant wildlife, the school makes the most of its beautiful environment “to do something purposeful and meaningful,” she says.

“Instead of teaching literacy and numeracy through books — a passive approach — we engage them in a range of practical tasks.”

Students learn traditional crafts, such as spinning and weaving wool on a loom and turning wood on a lathe to create products of use for the Warrah and local community. They also participate in growing the farm’s fruit and vegetables, which they then harvest and learn to cook with. 

Skills-based learning … students helping in the Farm Shop.

In the community’s Farm Shop, students measure, weigh and pack produce for the co-op boxes; acquiring computational and organisational skills while performing a useful job that fills them “with great pride and independence,” Ms Fowler says. 

Manual activities help students “find connection and meaning,” she says: “You can see the A-ha! moment when they realise that they are creating something; it gives them joy and the sequential process provides the learning once realised in an end product.”

And a lot of incidental learning. “The skill that’s required to set up a loom, in terms of getting the quantity of wool, creating the design, colour and being supported to deliver quality workmanship, is an amazing process that encompasses artistry, mathematical calculations and even the biology and growth cycle of the sheep,” she says.

Creative learning … Weaving on a loom, requires knowledge of design, maths and biology.

“We work with technology too but there is so much research that supports the premise that developing the capacity to work with hands fosters the capacity for thinking.”

The rhythms and routines of old-fashioned farm life are a calming influence on autistic children, who often suffer from crippling anxiety, she says, and it equips them with knowledge and skills that can lead to a meaningful job after leaving school.

“We see the farm as a unique gift to Warrah but particularly for the students. They see the cycle of the year, experience the impact of weather, seasons and rainfall,” she says, and “experience food from farm to table.”

Another benefit is a healthier diet, she says, explaining that autistic children can be very fussy eaters but after a season working in the strawberry patch, they are often eager to taste the strawberries and vegetables they have cared for and find they love them.

Learning to cook in the school’s brand new wheelchair accessible kitchen has a similar impact on their eating habits and is an essential skill, Ms Fowler says.

Life skills … Warrah students learn to cook healthy meals.

Over the course of the program, students learn to prepare a range of simple, healthy meals from soup and casseroles to baking their own bread and, like all kids, “they love making birthday cakes,” she says. 

Teaching life skills is at the heart of the Warrah School mission, she says: “We strive to give them as much independence as possible and share experiences. Sharing a simple meal, going to the shop and buying food ingredients, paying and getting change, learning to clean up after cooking, learn to make a bed, do their laundry. We’re always preparing them to live in the community and realise their potential.”

The after-school program for senior students is an important component of transitioning older children to adulthood, Ms Fowler says.

She says students tend to be anxious about the prospect of leaving the school but through the program’s social activities and supported work experience they gain “a platform and the confidence to step out into the wider world.”

Students receive workplace readiness training via an onsite TAFE course and by attending Supported Employment Centres before being placed with local employers and volunteer groups.

“We had a young student who was passionate about books. We worked with Redfield College in Dural, who took him in for work experience in their library, and as a result he got employment with the council library,” Ms Fowler says.

Other former students help out at the local Bunnings nursery, another is a barista and one particularly “happy, outgoing” student cheers the residents at a nearby aged care home with his regular visits.

The best part of her job is seeing students flourish, Ms Fowler says.

“We focus not on ability but on capacity and we’re always striving to help them master skills. Today, we have a group of students doing horse riding at the local stables. It’s a very carefully thought-out process: they practice sitting in the stable, putting on a helmet, putting on boots and eventually they get to ride and they love it.

“We have a strong relationship with Vision Valley Camp at Arcadia and the students do canoeing, abseiling and rock climbing. 

“We’re so proud of what they’ve achieved. It’s about building physical strength but also overcoming challenges knowing you will be supported, which builds trust.

“Some of our greatest achievements are seeing them become independent, achieve outcomes they never thought possible and getting joy from connection. 

“A meaningful, purposeful life is our goal for each student – becoming the best they can be,” she concludes. 

Beyond School: Pymble Ladies’ College setting girls up for career success

Agenda setter … Pymble Ladies’ College principal Dr Kate Hadwen.

It’s well known that women climb the corporate ladder much more slowly than men and rarely reach the same heights. Motherhood is often blamed for impeding women’s career progression but it seems that the difficulty lies elsewhere.

A 2017 McKinsey report found that women are underrepresented in the corporate world from the outset with fewer female entry-level hires and greater barriers to promotion than men.

“The biggest gender gap is at the first step up to manager: entry-level women are 18 per cent less likely to be promoted than their male peers,” the Women in the Workplace 2017 report says.

“This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the pipeline as a whole. If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the senior vice president and C-suite levels would more than double.”

Redressing this imbalance is one of the main aims of newly appointed Pymble Ladies’ College principal Dr Kate Hadwen. 

“I’d like to think we can start to better understand that and start to really work on it for our girls so that when they do get into their mid-20s and they’re at their first point of promotion, actually we can start to shift that needle a bit,” Dr Hadwen says.

“I’m really passionate about girls’ education. For me, helping young women, particularly in the workforce will probably be the tenor of my life’s work now.”

Dr Hadwen comes to Pymble Ladies’ College after four years as principal at PLC Perth. She’s worked in a variety of teaching roles at both the primary and secondary levels and taught in every state bar South Australia. 

She sits on several national boards, remains an adjunct research fellow at both the University of Western Australia and Edith Cowan University and was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research in 2011.

Improving young women’s career prospects is an eminently realisable ambition, Dr Hadwen says, and as principal of Pymble Ladies’ College she is well placed to see it through.

Research shows that single sex schooling is immensely beneficial for girls, especially in terms of academic results and engagement with STEM subjects, she says.

But it also impacts character development, Dr Hadwen says, citing a recent Australian study by Dr Terry Fitzsimmons that analysed “self-efficacy” — a psychometric term denoting self-confidence and resilience — in boys and girls attending single-sex schools.

“All the studies previous to that had said when girls finish school, their self-efficacy is lower than boys on average. His work found that actually, no, at single sex girls’ schools and single sex boys’ schools, when they finish Year 12, it’s the same.” 

She says that these results are probably because girls’ schools tend to explicitly teach leadership skills and provide an environment that is all “about developing strong women, developing women who have resilience, women who are future leaders, who understand what that looks like — to feel comfortable to be a young woman and to step forward confidently.”

Actively supporting girls’ wellbeing is an integral part of that, Dr Hadwen says. At PLC Perth she developed a world-leading health and wellbeing curriculum and dedicated wellbeing centre because “evidence shows that where schools have implemented a wellbeing program, there’s an 11 per cent increase in academic outcome,” Dr Hadwen says.

Girls are experiencing anxiety at “record highs” and technology, particularly social media, is exacerbating the trend while contributing to an epidemic of sleep deprivation amongst adolescents, she says. Parents often struggle to rein in their teenagers’ mobile phone dependency and need help, which is what led her to introduce a “no technology after bedtime” policy at PLC Perth.

The “wildly successful” initiative saw a whole of school pledge to turn off phones and other devices at bedtime. As a result, Dr Hadwen says that the girls got more sleep and no longer felt compelled to maintain a 24/7 social media presence. 

“When I announced it to the girls and the community, I was inundated; my in-box overflowed with messages from parents saying thank you,” she says.

Interestingly, reducing technology use also serves to increase self-efficacy in children. As Dr Fitzsimmons concluded in his report: “Overall, computer gaming and social media usage were identified as the greatest detractors from the development of self-confidence.”

There are many strands to supporting girls to succeed not just academically but for their whole life. As principal at Pymble Ladies’ College, Dr Hadwen says she is looking forward to “pushing that agenda” even further.

With approximately 2250 students, Pymble Ladies’ College is the largest girls’ school in Australia and, at 103, one of the oldest. It is also, thanks to its “long-standing history of excellence” very influential, Dr Hadwen says.

“What we do at Pymble sets the pathway for what other girls’ schools do. I think that’s a really unique position to be in as a leader of a girls’ school — to have that exciting opportunity but also that responsibility about where education for girls might go in the future,” she says. 

References

Women in the Workplace 2017 — Alexis Krivkovich, Kelsey Robinson, Irina Starikova, Rachel Valentino, and Lareina Yee, McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, October 2017
https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2017

Hands up for Gender Equality: A Major Study into Confidence and Career Intentions of Adolescent Boys and Girls — Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, Miriam Yates and Victor Callan, AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace, University of Queensland, 2018
https://bel.uq.edu.au/files/28153/Hands_up_for_Gender_Equality.pdf

Collecting Technology at Bedtime — Dr Kate Hadwen, LinkedIn.Com, October 31, 2017
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/collecting-technology-bedtime-dr-kate-hadwen/