In the western suburbs of Sydney, Brother Patrick Howlett is something of an icon. During his 29 years as a principal, much has changed across the global education landscape, and while some bury their heads in the sand, Br Patrick has always embraced progressive teaching methods and change. Moreover, he’s passionate about it.
In his 17th year as principal at all boys school, Marist Parramatta, he’s just been conferred a Doctor of Education by the University of Notre Dame Australia.
It’s fitting reward for a pioneer in this country of project based learning.
“When I first started in 89, the teachers’ roles were very traditional – you taught a certain number of lessons, it was your class and it was your room.
“You didn’t have any real support, nobody gave you much feedback, you didn’t reflect much on your teaching practices.”
Frustrated with traditional teacher-centric methods of learning, Br Patrick craved a better way. But he needed direction.
“I thought that if we were going to change, we’d have to know first of all what to change to.
“There’s no good saying change – you’ve got to know what you’re going to do and you’ve got to have a very firm plan of how you’re going to do things.
“You have to do it slowly, you have to have a vision, too.”
Not surprisingly, Br Patrick says education’s big change agent was the introduction of technology, but it was an overseas study trip in particular, at the turn of the century, that proved a penny-drop experience for him.
Br Patrick and several of his team explored a method in California, and what they observed was a more adult-learning environment, he says.
“It was a public school of 400 kids, [Years] 9-12, they were using this project-based learning approach and they learnt in groups, they learnt individually, they used computers.
“You could see there was a very positive culture there.
“I asked one of the students about the school and he said it was based on trust, respect and responsibility – that was the mantra that they were using.”
Inspired, he set about implementing professional development and training and retraining for his teachers, and that, he says, has been a key to PBL success at the school.
“We started on a small scale in one class in 2005 in Year 9.”
“We came back here and did 18 months of planning before we implemented it.
“We’ve been doing it for ten or 12 years and what we’re doing has seen other schools interested in what we’re doing, so now we’re partnering and giving support to 10 schools – two in Victoria, one in Qld and the rest in NSW.
“There’s a group in the US called the New Technology Network and they had about three schools when that was starting out in 2000. They’ve now grown to about 250 schools throughout the States.
“You have to be in a network of schools doing this.”
Using engaging, rigorous, student-centred and collaborative strategies for ensuring learning is relevant, engaging and successful sounds so logical, yet a resistance to change is endemic in many schools.
Br Patrick believes teachers are the pivotal variable.
“The single biggest determinant of student success is the teacher and schools can’t change without teachers changing,” he says.
“It’s OK for the principal to say things have got to change with a top-down approach, but he or she has got to get the teachers to change, so that was the challenge.
“The students actually embraced a new method. A few parents were a bit worried because of the way they’d been taught at school and thought ‘is this going to affect their son’s academic performance and higher school certificate?’
As more project-based learning has occurred in the last ten years, the school’s results have increased ten-fold.
“I wouldn’t have any walls in a school if I could manage it. I’d rather make it more like an adult learning environment.
“You don’t go into the city in Sydney and sit around and everyone is quiet and not talking to one another.
“If you want productivity you’ve got to get people to work together, and it’s the same with young people.”
We live in an age where careers are evolving and changing so rapidly, we really have no idea what jobs will be out there in the coming decade and beyond
Br Patrick says PD for teachers is vital as we forge ahead.
“You have to give in-house, in-class time for all staff.
“We give 100 hours of timetabled PD here, so that means our teachers work in groups, they’ve got a specific task to do and they reflect on what they’re doing.
“It’s interdisciplinary across all faculties, so every teacher has to go to those because it’s timetabled, it’s part of their teaching program.
“It’s a timetabling issue and it can be done – well we do it here, anyway.
“It’s giving teachers the opportunity to collaborate together.
“One of the things we’ve done, is everything the students are doing, we’re doing in the staffroom now.
“So, we’ve changed the staffroom, it’s all collaborative… there’s no ‘my space’ or ‘my desk’, we want teacher to mix.
“Teachers embrace that. The spirit here is very high, and there’s a certain satisfaction with what we do.
“Also – we teach in groups of two, from 7-10, anyway, there’s two teachers for 60 students, and we work on 100-minute lessons, so we have three 100-minute lessons a day. So teachers have to teach 24 lessons a fortnight. “
Br Patrick’s staff are also having opportunities to spread their wings beyond Marist Parramatta.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to send teachers abroad to present and also attend conferences overseas,” he says.
“We’ve made connections with Singapore, the US, last year four teachers were doing doctoral work from Erasmus University in the Netherlands. So this global connection is so important also.
“Australian schools have got to look outwardly, not just at your school or my class, or whatever, those days are finished.
“Teaching in isolation is a thing of the past.”
Br Patrick says while he’s disappointed more schools haven’t taken on the student-centred learning approach, he’s heartened by his school’s advancements beyond it’s own backyard.
“I’ve made so many contacts overseas, in Singapore with people in the ministry of education there, in schools, in polytechnics and also in the US.
“Ten of our students are representing Australia in a STEM competition called Destination Imagination.
“Now it’s all part of creating something over there, there’s about 8000 students from primary school right through to Year 12 in the States, so it’s going to be quite a big deal.
“I was so pleased when we were asked to send our students over there, it’s very satisfying.
“We’ve also got a program called Learning How To Learn from Singapore, because if you know how you’re learning, you know what the learning is about…. but that’s another conversation.”