Brookman Primary School has become one of Western Australia’s most distinguished schools for STEM education over the past five years.
An independent public school located in the suburb of Langford, about 15 kilometres south-east of Perth, Brookman Primary boasts students from approximately forty-one cultures with 26% of students being of local Noongar Aboriginal descent. The school has few of the facilities of its private school counterparts, which can afford to build facilities and run complex programs to teach the hard sciences.
After committing to an integrated approach to STEM nearly five years ago, the school has earned a strong reputation across the state, gaining acknowledgement for excellence through being awarded the 2018 ‘Primary School of the Year’ followed by consecutive Governor’s Primary STEM Awards for ‘Leadership Excellence’ in 2018, 2019 and 2020. In 2020 the school’s consistency in leadership excellence and continued growth and expertise in STEM (STEAM), was further acknowledged when it became the first school inducted into the Governor’s STEM ‘Hall of Fame’.
As a Teacher Development School in STEM for the WA Department of Education over the past four years, Brookman staff have led and presented professional learning to teachers and administrators from across the metropolitan and regional areas. These sessions occur regularly onsite and provide participants with the opportunity to not only become versed in the theory, but also visit classrooms to see STEM in action at the grassroots level. Staff have also presented in person and online at local and national STEM conferences and forums, presented to other schools and hosted visitors from interstate and overseas. Our school-based professional learning opportunities allow participants to interact and engage with both teachers and students to gain first-hand knowledge to facilitate their own growth as teachers. Finally, participants are guided through forward planning to progress their own school’s journey.
Brookman Primary’s whole-school approach integrates subjects as diverse as History and the Arts with Mathematics and Science and is employed across cohorts. Teachers look for ‘teachable moments’ to incorporate or build on STEM learning. In supporting staff, specialist teachers in both Performing and Visual Arts have collaborated with the Science specialist to develop STEAM-based learning opportunities for students.
Kindergarten and Pre-Primary students are encouraged to be creative through both free and intentional play-based learning activities from innovating with building blocks to working in thought provoking interest centres. Other year groups are guided through varying project-based learning activities which encourage individual critical analysis, problem solving and student voice.
Brookman’s teachers grasp that high performing countries are characterised by STEM literate populations that celebrate discovery and innovation. Further, they endorse the belief that exemplary STEM education offers a rich context for developing skills such as creativity, independent thinking, critical analysis, problem solving, teamwork and communication essential for success in the twenty first century. Further to this they understand that young people need skills for jobs of the future, not the past.
In attaining high level skill development, teachers focus on building ‘Capabilities’ (21st century skills) in classes across the three key areas of: Foundational Literacies (how students learn); Competencies (how students approach complex challenges); and finally, Character Qualities (how students approach their changing environment).
STEAM planning at Brookman is not assessment focused, that is to say, while assessment is important to track student skill sets, it is not the main focus of activities as seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent across learning areas in some schools. Traditional assessments are kept to a minimum across all subjects, with students encouraged to take risks, build resilience and develop a broad skillset rather than focus on one or two subjects they are good at.
The school’s extraordinary success is founded around ten key embedded premises:(Zbar, Kimber and Marshall)
- Strong leadership that is shared
- High level expectations and teacher efficacy (the belief one can succeed)
- An orderly learning environment
- A focus on what matters most
- Building teaching and leadership expertise
- Structured teaching ensuring student success
- Data to drive improvement, (Where are we at?) but not too much!
- Professional culture of sharing & responsibility
- Tailoring initiatives to direction of school
- Engendering pride in the school
Further to these key elements, our experience at Brookman showed that the implementation of STEM works best when key signposts are met. Namely: A whole school approach which revolves around a shared vision and common understandings across the staff. Secondly, STEM (STEAM) needs to be a whole school priority. In achieving this, there needs to be strong leadership support, clear direction and plan, resources and finally, champions/key staff need to promote STEM across the school. Thirdly, staff need to be invested and understand the broader context as to the importance of STEM and look to STEM activities as opportunities to expand student learning as opposed to a blocker. Teachers need to see the benefits for themselves (workload) and students (engagement); finally, staff need to be provided with professional learning to build capacity to use technology; work collaboratively with each other and be interested, passionate and committed. The final challenge for schools is to provide students with the skills, but that they then be given the freedom to use them.
For administrators or key leaders across schools, the embedding of STEM/STEAM is about managing change. Nothing will change without the key areas previously mentioned being actioned. However, in achieving this, staff need to understand the need for change; they need to plan to make a difference and then convert their planning into action in the classroom. Leaders need to ensure targeted professional development is provided to those needing it, often through the use of collegial expertise. We live by the mantra: ‘The best leaders of STEM make teachers feel like they own the process’.
There are some key strategies for leaders of change. Firstly, it is important that mentors/leaders work shoulder to shoulder with colleagues. They need to make it fun, look for opportunities and develop activities which offer a balance between skills and enquiry. In regard to assessment, project-based learning offers excellent opportunities.
In effecting change, some staff may need to shift their mindset not only around their role but also about student capabilities. Part of this mindset shift comes through guiding and encouraging staff to become enablers. Teachers can be further supported through cross-curricular planning with colleagues, the creation of planning documents and the development of reflective practices.
A key strategy for success at Brookman is teachers learning from teachers. This occurs at the last staff meeting of each term where staff share their term’s STEM activities with colleagues. Staff greatly enjoy these opportunities as they learn from each other, ‘steal’ ideas and reflect positively on their and their colleagues’ activities; not to mention that staff enjoy not having to attend a ‘heavy’ staff meeting at term’s end when they are ‘brain dead’!
Finally, our whole-school approach is documented in our three-year Business Plan, with clear expectations on students, teachers and leadership teams. This plan is a dynamic document, reviewed annually, modified if necessary and re-presented to the School Board for ratification. This ensures all levels of the school are literally on the ‘same page’.
The gains to our school community from a STEM based education have been clearly visible. Students continually demonstrate high levels of engagement, motivation and learning readiness. Attendance of ‘students at risk’ has also increased significantly as students experienced high interest learning through project/inquiry-based STEAM activities. Students value opportunities for self-directed learning and continue to take greater responsibility for their own learning. In regard to teachers, improved pedagogy through professional learning has led to improved student outcomes and teachers willingly engage with specialists in embedding a STEAM Culture. Further to this, staff feel valued, motivated and supported.
Positive spinoffs have seen improved ‘trust relationships’ between staff, increased levels of school pride, the unexpected development of creative networks, while ECE classes have moved increasingly into Intentional Play Based Learning, while maintaining an important focus on the core areas of literacy and numeracy. Our students fully engage in STEAM activities and often want to further their knowledge at home. A further offshoot has seen our Science, Visual Arts and Performing Arts Specialists collaborate with teachers to create STEAM. In seeking feedback on STEAM from parents and students through our bi-annual surveys, the level of positivity was enormous with four pages of comments from students.
As a school, Brookman staff continue to look for and accept new challenges and I am excited to see what the future will bring our school.
Three sayings help keep me focused as a leader:
‘Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.’ – Roger Lewin
‘What we learn with pleasure we never forget.’ – Alfred Mercier
‘If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.’ – John Dewey.
Hans Geers has held leadership positions in a range of schools in both regional and city locations. In his fourteenth year at Brookman Primary School, the school has been transformed from a school with a high level of social disadvantage to one which has been acknowledged state-wide for its high level curriculum achievements.