Kimberley Schools Project
A significant historical moment when an educational initiative transcends political and logistical roadblocks and good intentions manifest into something positive and tangible for the people it was first intended for — AKA a miracle.
From the Project’s architects through to the coaches, teachers, support staff, students, and families — you should all be so proud of your immense hard work.
Before we go any further, it must be noted that our contribution to the Kimberley Schools Project (KSP) was minimal at best. But what was a small moment in the story of the KSP also happened to be a huge moment for us, who were classroom teachers at the time advising a multi-million dollar endeavour.
The Kimberley region lies at the absolute north of Western Australia and stretches across almost half a million square kilometres (the size of Spain or 3x the size of England). The environment here can be formidable but also breathtakingly beautiful. Although it is similar to the Pilbara region which it sits above, it was actually part of a separate land mass that collided into the rest of what is now Australia almost 2 billion years ago, which is at least partly responsible for the deep gorges that are such a striking feature of the landscape. Indigenous Australians have called this part of the world home for between 40,000-70,000 years, and at the time of European settlement there were estimated to be over 30 different groups living autonomously across the Kimberley. The story of the Kimberley is inextricably linked to its Aboriginal custodians but we are not the people to tell that story — we will instead just share our experiences in the initial training and setup of the KSP, and then of our tour and demonstrations at KSP schools across the Kimberley region.
Our involvement in the KSP stemmed largely from the success we were having in our classrooms at the time, which started in the Pilbara and that we continued in Perth. Our friendly neighbourhood literacy expert Associate Professor Dr Lorraine Hammond was spearheading the KSP with another educational juggernaut Emeritus Professor Bill Louden. Accompanied by an entourage of important system and community stakeholders they attended our classrooms to observe us teach and to talk pedagogy and curriculum. There was a lot of enthusiasm for high-impact teaching and we were excited at the prospect of sharing what we had learned in the hope of helping other teachers and students. Paying forward the support we had received had become another moral imperative for us.
The Project had an initial lifespan of 3 years and funding from mining royalties in the ballpark of 25 million dollars. Inclusion in the KSP was offered to all schools in the Kimberley region. This represented a collaboration between the Department of Education, Catholic Education Western Australia and the Association of Independent Schools Western Australia. The KSP secured partnerships with 8 schools for the first phase in 2017, but this would would grow to include 24 schools by 2022.
The KSP includes four ‘strands of activity’ with the first being Targeted Teaching. This was our focus. We worked with Dr Hammond to align the Project’s pedagogical practices with the evidence-based teaching that we were using in our classrooms that support all students to succeed — AKA explicit or high-impact teaching. The theoretical basis of this kind of teaching can be found in Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, which has been a guiding light in our teaching for many years.
Almost 500 dedicated teachers and educational assistants working in Kimberley schools received access to pedagogical modules curated specifically for them and presented by Project leaders like Dr Hammond. These were accompanied with research-based direct instruction resources like Spelling Mastery and Let’s Decode that do as much to supplement teacher knowledge as they do to guide student learning. An integral part of the Project’s success in targeting teaching has been the intrepid KSP coaching and support staff who cross vast and unforgiving terrain to visit teachers and leaders in remote locations. We’re talking death-defying trips in single engine airplanes, Mad Max-esque 4WDs with roll cages, and flooded crocodile infested creek crossings… and that’s all before you get to the scariest part, the teaching. We are in awe of the work that these teachers and coaches do on a daily basis.
The first appointed KSP coaches received considerable professional learning and spent time working shoulder-to-shoulder in our classrooms at Dawson Park. We modelled lessons and daily reviews, along with the more intangible instructional elements related to pace, engagement, and checking for understanding. It was a unique situation in that we were all just practising the important elements of instruction together. The coaches, students, and us — it might be hard to imagine, but our students would help give the coaches feedback in real-time and the insight they provided was important. The kids were incredible during these training sessions and relished the opportunity to be little experts. The coaches were teaching at a very high level and these moments felt like an opportunity for them to fine-tune their practice right as they’re about to embark into the Kimberley and model this teaching for hundreds of teachers.
Afterwards, time was given for Q & A with the new KSP coaches as we stepped through our planning, curriculum and coaching processes — and the myriad of small things we had learned along the way. They were starting something that we had been deep in for a while and we had learned a lot from our many failures and handful of successes. Finally, we shared our vocabulary, writing, lesson and daily review resources before the KSP coaches were fast-tracked up north.
There were questions from the coaches and some extra resources provided, but for the most part we had very little to do with the hard work done by those on the ground with the KSP. We had regular updates from Dr Hammond and the coaches, and we could recognise patterns of success in their anecdotes that we had experienced in our teaching. Like how the kids loved the daily vocabulary work and wouldn’t let the teachers skip any part of it, and how the success that students were experiencing was driving engagement. Success, enjoyment, engagement, behaviour and self-worth are all intrinsically linked to learning. The things we unlock when we get the teaching right can be astonishing.
The initial focus of the KSP had been on reading and writing — the gatekeepers to knowledge and success in life. Once these elements were in full swing, there was room to address the teaching of Maths. We were invited to the Kimberley to present some professional learning with a particular focus on the design and delivery of maths daily reviews.
As part of the trip, we would go on a tour of the remote schools where we could demonstrate in classrooms and provide support for teachers and leaders working in those schools. This was an incredible experience because the teaching we saw and the performance of the students that we worked with was comparable to our own. It was the teaching having this impact — not the personality of the teacher or the background of the students. They were so strong that we would have to adjust our teaching in real-time to lift the level of challenge in the daily reviews that we had prepared because the students had been trained so well. The atmosphere was one of celebration, almost as if they were showing off how good they were and how hard they had been working. These students could respond at pace with whiteboards and were able to explain their understanding when called upon — even when they struggled, they seemed confident in trying. This is the product of much guided practice with an expert teacher who has created a safe environment for these students to build confidence in.
The schools were positive places. They seem to do a good job coordinating with community leaders and families. The first victory was that student attendance was high, which is no small feat. When we visited classes, there were unmistakable signs of high-impact teaching. We saw interactive daily reviews that were filled with enthusiasm and energy. There was lots of interaction between the teachers and students, with whiteboards featuring in every class. There was also a lot of differentiation taking place, with an army of adults leading small group learning under every shady nook. Engaged in reading, spelling and writing — the students were going with the flow of routines that had been painstakingly established by the teachers and staff, and that had been supported by Dr Hammond and the KSP coaches. It was working.
There were moments on the tour when we had VIPs visit to observe us teach, and with Dr Hammond watching us, the stakes felt high. They were also filming some media content during the tour, which we got caught up with at certain school visits. It was all a bit intense, so to combat our nerves we would spend our downtime hanging out with the teachers and students. One of the highlights of the trip for us was watching the kids go from dodging black hawks that were trying to steal their lunches (seriously), to then having the most well-managed game of Aussie Rules pickup footy that we’ve ever seen. The kids conducted themselves so well during this game that they were even awarding free kicks and overturning bad decisions. It was also at this point that we were peer-pressured into performing athletic stunts that we have no right doing…
When we spoke to the teachers and staff at the schools when the cameras weren’t looking, there was no hint of negativity — the focus was always on moving forward and improving. Teachers would ask targeted questions that revealed how deep they were in trying to maximise outcomes for their kids. It was obvious that they were invested deeply in their teaching. We would talk curriculum and planning, and there is often some special insight shared when speaking from one teacher to another. These kinds of moments have always been really meaningful for us. All we ever want as teachers is to do a good job for the students in our care and for great things to happen for them. When schools and systems support teachers to embed evidence-based practices like this — the future seems so much brighter.
We had a life-changing trip to the Kimberley and feel so privileged for the opportunity. At the time, we were classroom teachers who were just trying not to look like imposters. Along the way, we met some amazing people and got to see first-hand the efforts that are being put into improving outcomes for the youth up there.
Based on its ongoing success, the KSP has secured further funding and an extension of 5 years (10+ years in total). This is a remarkable statement from the Government regarding its focus on embedding high-impact teaching within our system. This is a credit to the hardworking people who have planned, campaigned, implemented, troubleshooted, and guided this Project to success. In the end, it always comes down to people on the ground… well done to everyone involved, you are all superstars!
— Jared and Jordan