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“Living on the Edge”: A Case of School Reform Working for Disadvantaged Young Adolescents

by John Smyth & Peter McInerney - 2007

This paper describes an instance of a disadvantaged (urban) Australian government school that realized it had little alternative but to try new approaches; ‘old ways’ were not working. The paper describes an ensemble of school reform practices, philosophies and strategies that give young adolescents genuine ownership of their learning. This school stands out as beacon that school reform is possible, even for young adolescents from the most difficult of circumstances. However, such approaches look markedly different from where mainstream educational reform is taking us at the moment.


The school discussed in this article was part of a multi-sited ethnography (Marcus, 1998) entitled Becoming a Middle School Teacher: Reclaiming the Wasteland of the Middle Years of Schooling, which involved five government schools in a state of Australia. The fieldwork for the school reported on in this article was conducted from late 2001 through early 2004 on how teachers of young adolescents (in the Australian context, 1015-year-olds, in years 69) were reinventing their teaching (Meier, 1995) around a renewed commitment to young people in the so-called forgotten years (Schools Council, 1993). We were interested in finding out how teachers were reforming the middle years of schooling, often within and sometimes against the unhelpful direction in which schools are being taken by contemporary educational policies. The research pursued questions of how teachers were enacting decision-making processes, along with the less visible ways in which they were negotiating power with students, schools, and the community; the experiences and perceptions of teachers as they actively reinvented their pedagogy to accommodate the rapidly changing social conditions impacting schools; the vernacular theories (McLaughlin, 1996) around which teachers constructed alternative discourses outside the official educational policy frames and language of the education system; and how, in the end, teachers were contributing to restructuring and reculturing schools in ways that enabled them to enact a pedagogy that authentically connected with young lives.

This study of a single school, its leadership practices, and the activities and experiences of some of its teachers and students represents an instance of a school that was trying to carry the Australian popular idiom of schooling for a fair go (Smyth, Hattam, & Lawson, 1998)the contested notion that schools ought to be concerned with advancing and keeping alive an egalitarian sensibility (Hattam, Smyth, & Lawson, 1998, p. 1) for all students. The historical idea of publicly funded schools in Australia that provide students with a kind of social escalator regardless of background is an idea that is in some disrepair and possibly in terminal trouble as market-driven reforms reach deep into schools in ways that enhance the privilege of the already advantaged. In the prescient words of a report, Poverty and Education in Australia, almost three decades ago,

People who are poor and disadvantaged are victims of a societal confidence trick. They have been encouraged to believe that a major goal of schooling is to increase equality, while in reality, schools reflect societys intention to maintain the present unequal distribution of status and power. (Fitzgerald, 1976, p. 231)

This study is therefore timely because it presents an alternative to prevailing educational policies around standards, accountability, and benchmarks that are contributing to the exclusion from schooling of increasing numbers of students. Policies of this nature seem incapable of grappling with the reality that some students and their families simply do not have the resources of social and cultural capital necessary to enable them to efficaciously access the middle-class competitive academic curriculum (Connell, 1998) on offer in most schools. This point about the increasing propensity for the damaging effect of educational policy directions was made rather pointedly in the American context in the provocative title of Denise Popes (2001) book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, but it applies equally to the Australian context. It is no accident, therefore, that we are beginning to hear from policy quarters about growing concerns with student engagement at school and its relationship to sense of belonging and participation (Willms, 2003). Heightened international concern about the growth in disaffected students was expressed in the words of a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, which concluded,

It cannot be inferred that low student engagement during the secondary school years is simply the consequence of family-related risk factors, such as poverty, low parental education or poor cognitive ability. . . . Moreover, there is ample evidence that the school environment has a strong effect on childrens participation and sense of belonging. (Willms, 2003, p. 10)


It might be argued that these same school environments have not been unaffected by the kind of educational reform agendas that have been driven into schools worldwide over the past couple of decades. To its credit, the OECD study highlighted the pressing need for all schools to find constructive ways of dealing with student alienation and disaffection:

These findings have important implications for educational policy. First, they indicate that disaffection from school is not limited to a small minority of students. Sense of belonging and participation are important schooling outcomes that deserve attention in nearly every country participating in PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment]. While the prevalence of students with a low sense of belonging or low participation varied significantly among schools in nearly every country, the analyses also found that all schools in nearly every country had a prevalence of a low sense of belonging of at least 15 per cent, and a prevalence of low participation of at least 10 per cent. This suggests that virtually all schools need to deal with problems associated with disaffection, and thus most countries cannot adequately address the problem with problems that are targeted at particular schools. (Willms, 2003, p. 26)

Although large international survey studies of the OECD kind are obviously important in flagging attention to the issues, there is a growing need for detailed studies of particular schools that are experimenting with ways of reinventing themselves through local school reforms and that point to positive possibilities for tackling this deepening international malaise. This article presents an explanation of the method by which we studied a school involved in an innovative reform, a snapshot of the school, portraits of some of the teachers and students, and discussion of the data that reveal something of a remarkable school reform process that was under way.


The study of the school occurred over two years (20022003) in three phases: (1) a reconnaissance, (2) ethnographic fieldwork, and (3) analysis of data, teasing out themes, and tentative theorizing on the basis of evidence.

The reconnaissance phase was crucial in locating a site in which the external circumstances surrounding the school suggested a strong chance of high levels of disaffection, alienation, truancy, and school dropouts, and in which there could arguably be a strong likelihood of a mismatch between the institution of schooling and the students and families being served by the school (we describe these conditions in more detail shortly). The school needed to be located in a context that had many of the risk factors that have been summed up by Bessant (2002):

Low literacy skills, low socio-economic status, minimal parental education levels, geographic status (rural young people are at greatest risk), ethnicity, NESB [non-English-speaking background] and Aboriginality, low self-esteem, unruly behavior and behavioral problems (i.e., disruptive behavior, attention seeking, temper tantrums, use of offensive language, inability to accept criticisms, refusal to take responsibility for ones own behavior), lack of motivation, isolation, sexuality, ill-health and disability, teacher dominated teaching, gender based harassment, restrictive curriculum choices, menstruation, pregnancy, gender, passivity, truancy, withdrawal, stress, tattoos, drug use, developmental difficulties, family structure (reconstituted, fragmented family structures), family conflict/tensions, cultural conflict, abuse/neglect, unsupervised recreation, mobility, poor role models, alcohol use by parents and the culture of the schooling system (i.e., rigidity of rules, uniforms, punctuality, disciplinary policy, authoritarianism of many teachers). (p. 35)

With these constituting a broad set of possible selection criteria, we were interested in locating a school that was working against the grainone that appeared to be making progress despite the odds (Maden, 2001; National Commission on Education, 1996) and that was having a modicum of success in keeping students switched on, in school, and actively and productively learning. In Ancesss (2003) terminology, a school that was beating the odds by working as community of commitment to improving schooling for those otherwise at risk of exclusion. With an agenda of this kind, we were drawn to what Thomson (2002) referred to as schools that are schooling the Rustbelt kids. Finding a site that displayed some of these features was not so much a quest to capture representativeness, but one of locating a school that was accessible and willing to participate, and that appeared to be experiencing evidence of some successes in engaging students who presented with complex lives. In this, we wanted to pursue what Connell (1995) referred to as strategic sampling by concentrating on a particular instance of where [we thought] the theoretical yield should be high (p. 90).

In Australia, there is not yet an abundance of nationally benchmarked achievement data upon which to select a site of the kind we were interested in. However, we were fortunate in locating a school from a previous project (Smyth, McInerney, & Hattam, 2003) that had a large number of the external debilitating circumstances mentioned by Bessant (2002) above and that was performing above statewide standards in numeracy for schools of its type at years 35. On these grounds, along with what we already knew about the school and its current efforts to establish a middle school program at years 8 and 9, it appeared to be an interesting enough candidate to warrant closer inquiry. Besides, we were intensely curious on the basis of what we already knew about the school as to how its extremely innovative student-centered curriculum might be played out with young adolescents. We are extremely mindful of the possible claim of bias here, but we had to balance that against the promised potential of a site that was rich in ideas. In retrospect, we believe the risk was well worth taking, but this is a judgment that in the end will have to be made by readers

The approach we employed in the fieldwork was for two of us to do the observations and interviews together in order to share perceptions and interpretations (on occasions when that was not possible, we debriefed as soon as possible afterward) and to be open-weave in our strategy by not going into the site blinded by research question that was too narrowly focused. In Katz, Fine, and Simons (1997) terminology, there was an element in what we were doing that amounted to soaking and poking around. We were prepared to trade off premature closure for what we regarded as the larger prize of allowing the context of the school to breathe (Marcus, 1998, p. 18) in the sense of allowing the culture of the school to reveal itself to us in terms of its complexity, tensions, dilemmas, and contradictions. We were seeking to develop an account that was not mired in the ambiguities of trying to avoid stuffing reform neatly into a box or imposing a false consistency on events (Katz et al., p. 118). Our intermittent but intense observations over almost 2 years, our visits to the school, interviews (mostly in early 2003), and attendance at a variety of school events and functions brought with them all the reality noted by Fenno (1978):

Research based on participant observation is likely to have an exploratory emphasis. Someone doing this kind of research is quite likely to have no crystallized idea of what he or she is looking for or what questions to ask when he or she starts. Researchers typically become interested in some observable set of activities and decide to have a firsthand look at them. They fully expect that an open-minded exposure to events in the milieu and to the perspectives of those with whom they interact will produce ideas that might never have occurred to them otherwise. Only after prolonged, unstructured soaking is the problem formulated. (p. 250)

This was certainly consistent with the tenor of our experiences. We conducted what we are calling embedded interviews, or conversation(s) based on participation (Burgess, 1988, p. 143). The interviews were located in and followed on from our observation of something that we had seen being enacted in the school, and our pursuit of informants to explain to us what this meant to them, why they were doing it, to what effect, and where it fit with a more expansive set of views that they were committed to pursuing. The methodological genre within which we were working was less one of the formal interview kind, and more of the kind that Burgess labeled conversations with a purpose, or purposeful conversations (Webb & Webb, 1932, p. 130). According to Burgess, having a conversation with informants allows for reciprocity and moves beyond a static and detached presentation that presumes to know the right question. This type of conversation instead allows for the more spontaneous give and take that is only possible through an exchange of ideas and world views, sometimes occurring some considerable time after any formal tape-recorded interviews.

The data set for the study of this school amounted to more than 1,000 pages of transcribed interviews, typed field notes of meetings, classroom observations, records of teaching activities, observations of school events, and school documents, all of which we managed through a detailed informant directory of people, dates, status, form of documentation, and emerging key themes/issues.

Because of the centrality of leadership to the reform process under way in the school, we interviewed the principal four times, the assistant principal once, the 4 middle school teachers, a school support officer, 3 other teachers, 5 students, and 2 former students. In total, we had 19 detailed informant discussion accounts, together with field notes, observations, and school documents and artifacts to draw upon. We also attended and observed four professional development sessions, a school council meeting, a student voice forum, two full-day learning area activities, and two middle school teacher-planning days. Because of the extensiveness of the data and for reasons of manageability, we will restrict ourselves to drawing mainly off the interview material, with some references to observations to flesh out a portrait of the school.

The way in which we engaged with, analyzed, and represented the interview aspect of this complex data set was through carefully crafting and sculpting the most richly textured interview transcripts into detailed portraitsin this case, 4 adults (resource persons) and 2 students. These closely edited narratives of the interviews (often from transcripts of 20 or more pages) were typically reduced to between two and four pages, keeping the informants words intact as much as possible while holding onto the key ideas being presented. The conceptual notion of portraiture was crucial to the study because of the way it enabled us to carry the integrity of the ideas embodied in the data, while holding onto them holistically and avoid treating the narratives in unnecessarily reductionist ways. We were guided in this notion of portraiture by Lawrence-Lightfoots (1997) claim that social scientists often portray their representations in deficit and pathological ways. As she put it, This general propensity is magnified in the research on education and schooling, where investigators have been much more vigilant in documenting failure than they have been in describing examples of success (p. 8). We agree that although this focus on pathology is understandable in identifying things that do not work, or that work poorly, this relentless scrutiny of failure has many unfortunate and distorting results (pp. 89).

The notion of developing portraits as a way of moving from raw data transcripts to nuanced informant case records gave us a much-needed methodological way of framing what we were doing that was epistemically consistent with the kind of orientation we were trying to develop in our study of the school. There were several reasons for this. First, we wanted to go beyond the negative victim-blaming approaches implicit in much neoliberal market-driven school reform, and try instead to understand how a school was struggling with productive and positive alternatives. In other words, we wanted to go beyond magnifying what is wrong and instead accentuate evidence of promise and potential(Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1997, p. 9). Second, we wanted to do this because continuing to focus only on what is wrong leads to a cycle of hopelessness, despair, and paralysis rather than hope, optimism, and the possibility that things might be different. Third, we were compelled by Lawrence-Lightfoots (1997) argument that

the documentation of pathology often bleeds into a blaming the victim. Rather than a complicated analysis of the coexistence of strengths and vulnerabilities (usually evident in any person, institution or society), the locus of blame tends to rest on the shoulders of those most victimized and the least powerful in defining their identity or shaping their fate. (p. 9)

Finally, this led us to the inevitable conclusion that richly textured renditions invited a more complicated and eclectic set of research tools and some pathbreaking paradigms (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1997, p. 9) even if that meant living dangerously and having to be more methodologically courageous.

The efficacy of portraits as a way of making sense of our data seemed to lie in the consistency it enabled with the case we were trying to illuminate:

Portraiture resists [the] tradition-laden effort to document failure. It is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections. The researcher who asks first what is good here? is likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure. But it is also important to say that portraits are not designed to be documents of idealization or celebration. In examining the dimensionality and complexity of goodness there will, of course, be ample evidence of vulnerability and weakness. (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1997, p. 9)

One of the issues around narrative research of the portraiture kind we have undertaken here is the extent to which researchers should engage in extensive interpretation, versus allowing the narrated account to breathe. In other words, at the heart of this kind of research is a primary condition . . . a co-construction of meaning . . . a conversation between two active meaning makers (Davis, 1997, p. 29)the producer and the perceiver. In this respect,

The perceiver . . . attends to the symbols . . . producedwhat they represent and how they are constructedand from that perception, constructs his or her own understanding. Since each individuals understanding is uniquely constructed, the meaning of a [portrait] is negotiated and renegotiated repeatedly and variously as new perceivers encounter it.

To a certain extent, then, the aesthetic properties of a [portrait] exist because the perceiver attends to them. Perhaps of most importance . . . the perceiver attends to the aesthetic properties because [the producer/researcher] has intentionally drawn attention to themrendered them significant. (pp. 2930)

This has been a constant tension for us throughout this study, and we hope that in what follows we have produced a workable compromise. We decided to try as hard as we could to honor the voices of the participants, believing that it was more important to hear their voices than for us to overdetermine them or laminate them too heavily with our interpretations. In the end, this is a conscious decision that we are readily prepared to defend.

It is time to reveal something of the school itself through a brief portrait drawn from our observations. The reader will find traces of these next and in the four portraits from the informants to be presented shortly.


When it comes to outward appearances, schools can be notoriously deceptive places. On entering the grounds of Plainsville1 school, the visual impression is of a scattering of nondescript 1960s pebblecast buildings no different in appearance from hundreds of others in this struggling deindustrialized part of an Australian capital city. This is not a school that is larded with resources; it exists in a swathe of this city that has been ravaged and dealt with harshly by economic globalization. There is no special funding here beyond the schools normal government formula entitlement and what the school has been able to secure for itself from other limited sources. Unlike many of its equivalents in other parts of this city and state, this school does appear fortunate in having seen a paintbrush in the last decade, but the extensive asphalted grounds and the perimeter of the school looking out onto government rental housing give us more than a hint of the difficult socioeconomic circumstances that the school is struggling with. Plainsville is one of almost half of the government schools in this state officially classified as disadvantagedthe local euphemism for communities suffering from poverty, low income, high levels of unemployment, high incidence of family dysfunction and disintegration, high levels of transience, and low levels of parental education. Social inequalities and fractured relationships penetrated the school and intensified the emotional labor of teaching at Plainsville. In a very real sense, teachers were living on the edge as they attempted to manage the daily crisis and ameliorate the distressing effects of custody battles, domestic abuse, and family feuds on students lives. Mediating relationships between home and school often meant that teachers experienced verbal abuse themselves.

There is a tendency to become hardened by the presentation of statistics because of the way we are bombarded with them, and their failure to reveal the human stories and tragedies buried inside them. At the time of the study, the community from which the students in the school come from had a rate of unemployment of 17% (compared with the city average of 7.8%); low incomes (38% of families received less then $400 a week); 87% of children attending the school received government assistance; and 18% of children lived in emergency housing. Many students came from dysfunctional families, often attending school hungry, and for many, the school was the safest and most secure environment in their lives. Less than 50% of students exiting Plainsville at the end of year 8 continue beyond first semester of year 9 of high school. The staff turnover at Plainsville at the end of 2001 was almost 100%, although the hemorrhaging seems to have slowed down recently largely because of a change in the school, allowing it to employ people on contracts as distinct from being sent there from head office. Although figures of this kind can be distressing and depressing, it is what is going on inside this reception to grade 8 government school of 300 students and 30 staff that is of particular interest and that makes this school markedly different.

Impressions change rapidly and dramatically once inside the school reception area, where we were greeted by a sandwich board proclaiming, Plainsville is delighted to welcome Professor Smyth and Dr. McInerney and hope you have a pleasant stay in our school. The school offers this level of personalized welcome to everyone of the several hundred visitors who come through its doors each year. This is part of the notion of respectful relationships that are at the center of everything the school does. More often than not, the visitor is greeted by a student rather than an adult behind the reception counter, for in this school, students know in intimate detail what is going on and can inform the visitors, or even usher them, to wherever they need to go in the school. On any morning, the visitor also is likely to be greeted by the smell of freshly made toast, with up to half of the children at Plainsville starting the day with breakfast supplied by the school.

It is not so much the structure of the school that hits the eye either, even though Plainsville is divided into three open learning areas, each with its own identity: junior primary (reception to grade 2), primary (grades 35), and middle school (grades 69). The school had developed some complex language and an array acronyms to describe what it was doing. We have highlighted these in italics and provided explanation on the appendix.

Our particular interest here is on what was going on with the 88 young adolescents in years 69 and the 4 adults (learning teams) who start each day with talking circles, which are part of the complex process of students constructing and pursing individual learning plans in a context that the school refers to as student-initiated curriculum. Here is an illustration from our February 4, 2003, field notes that indicate of the kind of format involved. The illustration provides a brief window on how respect for relationships is being reinforced moment by moment (see especially the last two sentences):

Talking Circle (Field notes,  February, 4, 2003)

I joined Matthew [adult also in Portrait 3] for the year 8/9 talking circle in Learning Area 5. Matthew is busy catching up with students over the previous days tasks, checking their names off lists as they hand him pieces of work. Julie [another adult and co-teacher with Matthew] joins the talking circle and sits down with 25 students. (There are 4 or 5 students absent today)

The talking circle followed similar routines and rituals that we observed on all other occasions; (a) students and adults are seated on floor in a circle (b) a student chairperson welcomes everybody (c) a student reads the attendance roll personally greeting each student by name and recording details of absences etc. (d) another student reads the daily bulletin (e) the chair asks if there are any issues that need discussingnone today (f) a student keeps a record of the discussion. Matthew intervenes on a couple of occasions to remind students about respectful behavior towards each other. All students are expected to say good morning to the person reading the roll. Grunts and nods are not acceptable, says Mary-Lou [the principal, and also in Portrait 1].

Again we are not only taken by the real attempt to involve students in controlling their learning, but we are reminded of the way in which adults talk up polite respectful behavior rather than constantly chastising students for shortcomings. On a previous observation a student ran through the learning area when a talking circle was in progress. Mary Lou politely asked the student to stop and re-enter the area in a way that showed respect for the group. When he did this she than thanked him for responding so well to her request. The matter was seemingly resolved in such a way that no one felt humiliated.

Here is an example we observed, on the same day, of how a learning plan evolved and of the crucial role of adults in negotiating and assisting students to produce something that lead to valued learning.

A Fishing Learning Plan (Field notes, February 4, 2003)

I join a group of 7 boys who are meeting with Mary-Lou to discuss their ideas for a fishing learning plan. Mary-Lou has a copy of the plan in the form of a concept map. The map indicated the learning audits that have been undertaken and outlines the content or subject matter (partly derived from the learnings and concepts in the state-wide curriculum and standards framework), the resources they want to access and the ways they want to represent their inquiry. They wish to organize an excursion to the maritime museum the natural history museum to gather information for their study. Mary-Lou supports their proposal and assists them to plan the excursion for the following day. With her help, they make a list of the things that need to be donebooking into the museums, costing the excursion, organizing a bus driver for the schools mini bus. They decide to invite Matthew to join them on the excursion because they want to get to know him a little better outside of school. (and he also has a bus drivers license!)

Mary-Lou poses some challenges about the topic the boys have chosen. In the first instance, it seems that the boys selected fishing because it was a recreational interest for some of them and their mates wanted to join them as well. Mary-Lou told me later that she could see the learning potential of this issue for these students, some of whom were often switched off by school. However, she also saw the importance of connecting this topic to important ideas and concepts from the statewide curriculum and standards framework so that their knowledge was extended in a relevant and useful way. She therefore spent a good deal of time with the boys getting them to identify important subject matter and lines of inquiry into the issue. Some of the areas identified by the group included fish anatomy and physiology, feeding habits, habitats, fishing grounds and predators. They wanted to conduct an experiment into fish anatomy and proposed dissecting a fish. Mary-Lou encouraged them to book a learning group on dissection with Sally, the assistant principal and science expert [also in Portrait 2]. She said that the school would be willing to purchase dissecting tools and directed them to a scientific materials catalogue from which to order the tools.

The task of deciding who is to do what to make the excursion happen begins. Two students volunteer to phone the museums to check admission entrance fees and make necessary booking arrangements. Another two agree to do the paper work for the excursionorganize consent forms, complete administration procedures etc. Mary-Lou suggests that 20 minutes should be sufficient time to accomplish these tasks. The boys are used to this kind of planning and move into action immediately. Other students begin to check out resources in the library and investigate the cost and availability of dissection kits in science catalogues.

Mary-Lou explains to me that the school does not have whole class or year level excursions. Instead, excursions arise out of learning plans and cater for small groups only. (A maximum of 8 students can be seated in the mini bus.) The cost of excursions is generally shared between the school and parents, although no one ever misses out on account of money. Kids need to be able to justify the reason for an excursion but once this is done matters proceed quickly, as I observed with this outing.

This is an illustration of how students come up with an idea about an issue they would like to study, how they produce a learning plan, how they negotiate that with adults who help them to extend and challenge their learning. The field notes from the following day indicate the status of this plan, but notice also the sophisticated way the throwaway line about sexuality is dealt with here (at the end of the entry).

Field Notes (February 5, 2003)

At 9.20 a.m. I join Mary-Lou and Matthew and the fishing issues group for a briefing session prior to their excursion. The students have calculated the total cost of the excursion at $104. They are reminded of the importance of keeping invoices. Mary-Lou talks about expectations (a) must wear school colors (b) bus travelsafety issues (c) behavior in museummust follow rules of the institutions and show respect towards others (d) must follow Matthews instructions (e) no swearing or put-downs. She lays it on the line; future excursions and community activities for the group are contingent on responsible behavior this time. The boys have planned a trip on a major river and will need to show that they can behave responsibly.

A boy in the group refers to another as a gay. It is said in jest but Mary-Lou spends 23 minutes talking about how people may be offended in these situations; some people are still sorting out their sexual identity, she tells the group. This is one of the most open conversations I have heard on this topic.

What goes on, or more accurately, what is missing in this school, speaks to what it is that is radically different about the school. Our observations repeatedly revealed a palpable absence of any sense of stress, distress, or anger, but rather a subdued atmosphere of relaxed calm about the place, something that became even more apparent once we entered the learning areas. Missing was any notion of a conventional classroom, with its rows of desks facing the front, and a teachers refuge behind the obligatory desk that so often in most classrooms acts as boundary between the teacher and students, signaling in unmistakable terms where authority ultimately resides. Instead, there is no identifiable teacher domain in any room at Plainsville; it is as if teachers have been made invisible, and as we rapidly found out, to even speak of the personage of a teacher is likely to raise a curious eyebrow among the students at Plainsville. All adults here, no matter what their status, are regarded as resource persons available to all students. This might include adults who are formally trained teachers, but it also includes adults who work as school service officers (SSOs) [professional teaching aides], parents, community volunteers, and the school janitor or groundsperson. All are addressed by the students using whatever name they preferMr., Miss., Mrs., or simply by their given name or some abbreviation of it.

Not only did we observe an absence of conventional classrooms, but also the walls that previously isolated rooms from one another and acted as barriers between students, with corridors for channeling the movement of students, ­have disappeared, creating instead a more communicable space with room for clusters of tables and places in which adults and children can sit on the carpets at the beginning of each day in learning circles. They can share and discuss everyones learning plans, sessions that were chaired by a different student each day. This notion of adults sitting on the carpets at the level of the students conveys an unmistakable message about who has power in this school.

Our attention is soon drawn to the many colorful posters around the school that loudly talk up important messages for students about rigor, expectations, personal possibilities, and a commitment to learningwords like courage, risk, teamwork, concentrate, and challenge. These words seem to fit neatly with the school motto, which is displayed and uttered everywhere: Live on the edge and be the best you can be. These are sentiments also reflected in the guiding principles and values of the school expressed in these terms:

Students who leave Plainsville will leave with a sense of the importance of the following values. All actions and interactions at Plainsville are underpinned by the desire for staff, students and community members to uphold these values at all times:

Respect Responsibility Honesty/Integrity

Equity Caring Fairness

Personal Excellence Commitment Persistence


We observe a large white board with the names of 3040 students in each of the learning areas, which tells us another part of the complex reform story at Plainsville. It is here that students register their whereabouts next to their name during the course of the day, and where they are to be found when not in the learning areaplaces like the library, the art room, other specialist areas, one of the computer areas, or in the school grounds. This appears not to be a surveillance or policing device, but rather a quick and convenient method by which an adult can locate a student to provide resources or to check on progress toward the completion of a learning plan or even to have a prearranged appointment with a student, called an individual learning meeting.

To obtain a more nuanced reading of the reform process under way, its complexity, how it came to be, and the journey that started from small beginnings in 1999 and is still not complete, we need to turn to a selection of portraits from some of the inhabitants of the school. The reader may need to access the glossary of terms in the appendix because this school had reinvented language and its philosophy and practices.


These portraitsalthough presented from the quite different vantage points of the principal, who is on a mission to reform the school; a veteran teacher in her seventh year at the school who went through a gradual conversion to the reform process; a novice teacher in his first year at the school who is on a steep learning curve; and an ex-student who described himself as troublemaker and who was able to reflect on his experiences at Plainsville having recently dropped out of two high schoolsall give a remarkably consistent if complex picture of what was occurring as the school developed increasing layers of complexity to the challenge of reform.

Below is an uninterpreted portrait developed from an extensive interview with the principal of the school on February 1, 2002. She was in her third year as principal and sixth year at the school.

Portrait  1: Mary Lou

The core business of our school is about learning.

We have three learning beliefs at Plainsville. The first is Live on the edge. I think there is great quote stuck on my computer which says, The edge is only the beginning. The second is Be the best you can be. What we talk about is, I have to be the best principal I can be so that the staff can be the best staff that they can be so that the kids can be the best learners they can be. Now weve added a third belief; we really need our families to be the best that they can be for their kids. It was in response to people coming and saying Mary-Lou, I cant read and I dont get this maths. Its that notion of its perfectly okay here to admit you dont know something. So its that: Were all on the journey to being the best we can be; there is no-one who is the best, like if you think youve arrived, youre actually nowhere there. Thinking youve arrived is actually the end.

Building relationships with kids is crucial. For the first two weeks of the school year there is no real learning allowed. Thats an order! Its bonding. The students write two learning plans: one around getting organized and one around bonding. Kids go on a bonding excursion or a bonding camp, to get to know each other. And thats probably because, its my word, because we take our staff on a bonding sleep-over. Bonding is a word I use a lot, and so its pervaded our language.

A couple of years ago, one of the kids said to me, How are you going to make sure were successful, because theres heaps of us here, and at some stage or another we are going to need to talk to each other. How will we know if were successful? And thats one of the places we started when we asked our kids, What enhances your learning? What detracts from it? What came up under detract all the time was what I would call lack of congruence and the kids said, You can never bloody work out what youre supposed to do. You go to this teacher and they tell you that sitting down and putting your hand up is the right thing, but if you go to the next one, then its Have a good time, and then you go to the next one, and you just get it sorted, out and its the end of the year and youve passed onto the next teacher; how do you ever know? A lack of congruence was one of the big impetuses for thinking about: Well how do we create a place where kids and everyone doesnt dont feel like that? It doesnt mean everyone is the same but that theres common beliefs and values and attitudes that underpin our behavior. So I might do it differently, but it will be with the same value that youre doing it.

The kids know that we have to cover everything in the curriculum that the government says we have to, as well as have a good time learning the things you want to learn. Thats the reality of being at school, right. Our kids have issue learning plans, maths learning plans and English learning plans. In the issue plan, they choose an issue of importance, which is the language wed use. Lets take a boring one; Peter was doing fishing because he was really into that at the end of last year, so he did an issue learning plan about fishing and he had a whole lot of things related to science and bitsall the different areas of learning that he might have been interested in. So theres maths related to that issue that he might be investigating.

To begin with nobody felt they had power over anything. I mean, that wasnt what everyone was saying but if you looked at peoples behavior, teachers were hanging on really tight, families were really angry and kids were really angry. And if you looked at why, it was because none of them thought they had any power over anything and so they were all battling with each other to get it.

Initially we made a conscious decision not to look at empowerment within a classroom because we didnt want to push peoples power buttons. My theory is you can either do the chipping away routine where you say to people, this bit needs to be changed and that bit needs to be changed and just keep chipping away, or you can do immersion, which is to change the world around and so the world that theyve got to live in is different and then they may see the need to make those changes for themselves. We went with the second one and on reflection that was a good choice. The second thing we did from the very beginning, was say that we were going to target all three groups so no matter what change process we were going to enter into, would always establish a student team, a staff team and a community team. Now that copped lots of flack from the staff, but we stuck with it and we made this decision to focus on the school first and began by looking at what we call out-of-class learning, and our imperative for change was we were chosen as the a school responsible for researching key competencies [a government learning initiative that the school trailed].

The question we asked ourselves was, How many authentic decisions do children make in our school and in our classroom? That was really our starting point and we talked about the importance of an authentic decision. Not the kind that most adults do where you manipulate kids, like when we pretend to give them a choice, and then manipulate them so they choose what we wanted anyway. So we set up a whole range of teams in relation to looking at this question and one of the key ones was the out-of-school-life team, which looked at out-of-class learning.

The end result was that that we ended up with 25 out-of-class learning programs. The success of these programs helped us to move onto the next stage. The kids said were making all these decisions outside of the classroom, how come were not making any about learning? So we met with student council, got them to go through all of the decisions theyd made in the last three years and sort them into what areas theyd made decisions about. We discovered that theyd made decisions about bins, toilets and discoswhich is the same as every school council [school representative council composed of students] does. So what I said to them was, Youre being ripped off. The school told you that you could make decisions about bins, toilets, and discos. But you havent made any decisions about what were really on about; and my challenge to them was, If the core business of our school is about learning, how come youre not making any decisions about that? Is it because you dont want to; is it because you dont know how to; is it because you havent been allowed to? and How are we going to change that? And, what I said to the kids was, Okay, so you keep talking about litter and bins and stuff. Is that really the issue, or is the issue that the kids in the school dont value what we have, and they dont respect the property? You know like, lets stop dealing with the end result which is paper around the yard. If you really want to change things,. lets look at why the rubbish is there. Lets find out what kids think about the school. Why do they throw stuff around if they do, or why dont they care what it looks like? Is it that they dont care, you know?

And we did the same thing with governing council; we invested a lot in them in terms of looking at the decisions theyd made. A major task the council undertook was to learn about the key competencies and then work out how to teach our community about it. They produced brochures; they developed workshops, which they ran here. I said, Its really good. Have you thought about offering it to other schools? So they sent a mail-out to run key competency workshops in other schools, and they got business and went all over the state. For two terms weve been running these workshops with kids and parents and it has had the most amazing impact. These are people who had never spoken in a meeting before but who managed to stand up in front of a group of other parents and talk about key competencies. That had an amazing impact on our culture, you know. The next time we went to do something around student-initiated curriculum 50 hands went up to be on the planning team.

And thats the thing here. Our kids have been all around Australia and some have been overseas [as a consequence]. All of that has changed families perceptions of our school. Theyve seen us in the paper, on television, on the radio and it has changed their belief in themselves. Instead of being, Oh were a crappy school and na ni na ni na, its like Plainsville, has won all of these things and so that must mean youre actually a pretty okay community and weve got pretty okay kids.

The next portrait crafted from an interview on February 25, 2003, was from a 7-year veteran of the school, one of only three people who returned to the school the first year we undertook the study. This portrait tells us much about how the reform ideas described in the first portrait became insinuated into this teachers pedagogy, originally as a specialist LOTE (language other than English) teacher of Indonesian.

Portrait #2: Sally

Can you come down and show me what it means?

When I came here the kids were not receptive at all, nor was the community. They didnt see a need for a second language, particularly Indonesian. So at home they were being told it was a waste of time and at school they were being toldyeah, and thats how they acted. So, my first 6 months here were less than enjoyable. I only stuck it out because I can be fairly stubborn and decided that they werent going to beat me, otherwise I would probably have moved on. But the kids were pretty difficult. The older kids particularly were not very accepting of anyone new. Theyre difficult kids to get to know, but once you get to know them and they realize that youre not going to go, youre not going to leave and you are going to stay, they became more and more accepting. And I think the families are a bit the same. If youre new, they dont know you and theyre a little bit wary of people from outside their own area.

When I started here we were traditional, we were just a normal (if theres such a word) normal school. We all had our own roomswe all taught in isolation. We had noninstruction time (NIT) once a week and that sort of thing. We were with a class for most of that time. And then, when I took the special class, Mary-Lou used to talk a lot about student-initiated curriculum and professional developmentabout the sorts of things that we could be doing. But we all ignored it, to be totally honest. We couldnt see how it would work. I said to Mary-Lou, You know you talk about student- initiated curriculum, do you reckon the special class could do it? She said, Oh yeah. I didnt found out till later that she didnt know whether a special class could, but she said yes anyhow. I said to her, Can you come down and show me what it means because I dont actually understand. So she came down and worked with my kids on developing a unit of work on Indonesia, but based on what they [the students] suggested, and it went really well. They did some dancing and they cooked and if Im truthful, the things that they wanted to do were the things that I avoided doing. So they wanted to make tie dye, and I would have done it with crayons and that on the desk. They wanted buckets of dye and they wanted to iron, so they really, you know they wanted to get into the nitty gritty stuff.

So that went really well, so I said to her, Well, what would the next step be? and she said, The next step would be getting them to chose their topic rather than telling them, and so I said to her, How do you do it? So to cut a long story short she came down and she didmodeled another lesson for me. Then the teacher from next door came and sat in and listened and they chose a topic again . . . it was Universal Childrens Day. We would have talked about it on the day but we certainly wouldnt have spent 6 weeks doing stuff. That went really well, too. So the next step was to say to her, Okay, where to now? and she said, Oh well, now you let each of them chose a different topic, rather than you say were all going to do the same. So I started doing that and people started to watch what we were doing.

My special classroom was next door to a year 3/4 room and we had the only space that could be opened up in those days. There was big folding door there. So the other teacher and I talked about, Well lets try it again, Mary-Lou knows. . . I did it to prove she was wrong because I didnt think that it would work, with a special class working in with others. I like a little space. Anyhow, we opened it up just to see what would happen and it worked really well. It turned out that it was the best thing to happen, and so at the end of that year we did a lot of talking about it. We brainstormed a whole lot of ideas about what could our school look like if it was different. There were lots of suggestions on the whiteboard in the staff room and one of them was that wed have a year 37 class and theyd work on individual learning plans. But she [the principal] needed someone that was willing to staff it, and one of the other staff members apparently went and said to her, Look, Im happy to have a go at that if you will support me doing it. So after a lot of consultation with the parents of the kids, they chose a range of kids from those with learning and behavior issues, up to the kids that were more able. They put 44 in there with two adults, a nonteaching adult with a teaching adult, and Mary-Lou to support. It was an interesting year because those kids had a lot more freedom than the kids would have had in traditional classrooms with the doors shut. A lot of people watched really carefully what was happening, you know, with a view to saying, Look, its not going to work, or it is?

Gradually other people started to take on board what they were doing. So there were two year 6/7s over in another building and they started to do learning plans for part of the day and then it gradually grew to a bigger part of their day. So that was a year where everyone started to dabble in it, so at the end of that year we had a big conversation about where to go now? It was decided that perhaps we could actually do it across the school and so thats where it went from there. Everybody started to take it on board and yeah, do it for the major part of their day. So we started small. Nobody was ever told, Look, you are going to do it; it was like Are we ready to try this? and everyone thought yeah, this was how we wanted to go, because the kids were much happier. It wouldnt be a secret to say that we had lots of behavior issues and difficulties in getting kids to sit in the class to do anything. But those kids that went into that no-class as we called it, had a year without being suspended because they were able to have input in what they were learning, how they were learning, and where they were learning. So those sorts of issues started to decline which was a huge positive. So I think people saw that, Oh wow! the kids were getting engaged, they actually wanted to do stuff that most people dont.

We had gradually moved to student-initiated curriculum. A lot of things that we started have been refined and changed and some thrown out and new stuff brought in, and we still do that. We quite often talk about the way we do a certain thing, but if we could it a better way or can we do something different or the kids might say something and you think, Oh yeah, that would probably work. So thats when it started to be a whole-school initiative. A big question we used to say was, How do kids know what they want to know if they dont know what there is out there to know? And I think it comes down to the adult, how well you can give the kids an idea of whats out there. How do you do that without sort of saying, This is what you need to do. Its a matter of tuning in. A little while ago, the kids were trying to work out a research question and the boys were going to go the easiest way they could and they were going to find what new rules are in the . . . AFL [Australian Rules Football]. I said, Its not a research question because you already know it. Oh so what! you know. I said, Well go further: why have they introduced them? who has introduced them and how are they going to monitor it? Oh, oh. And so, whereas thats not a question I would have chose for them. . .

So its a matter of trying to tune into the kids, and I think thats our biggest challenge. When I had control I was one of those people that had my whole term mapped out. I knew what I was going to do in every week and whathow we were going to work through. So to let that go and still be accountable, and that the kids are actually going to get some knowledge or grow in some way, is what youve got to try to reconcile. And thats where we use the [statewide curriculum and standards framework] and say to the kids, and even our little kids . . . these are the pages in our student learning record (SLR) that show what the government says we have to learn, so its not that I can just learn what I want to. All of us have to live within boundaries, and I think thats probably a good learning for them because in the old way, we were never open about why? I might have said were going to do the life cycle of the frog. Why were we? We never talked to the kids about it because you need to learn about this sort of strand in this sort of topic. I mean the kids probably didnt even realize half the time what topics we werewhat subject we were doing. So its being a lot more open with them and making sure that they know why theyre doing it and why theyre expected to do it.

We have an individualized approach to learning. Theres no point in teaching a whole class of kids about quotation mark if many already know how to use them. Its a waste of time and many will get bored. Better to teach those that need to know in a small learning group. But youve got to be aware of where kids are up to. Ive actually got to monitor that by being around and interacting with them and seeing what theyre not doing and setting up a learning group. So, it is about being reactive and proactive in those learning groups. Its much easier to do a lesson once a week on quotation marks than it is to be aware all the time of whats happening. In fact, I think its harder work to do it this way than it is the old way.

Our kids dont have a good retention record in high school [i.e., they have high levels of dropping out]. I think there were two kids left that finished secondary who were going into university. The first year I was here they were in year 7ah, and they all left school. Theres some that dont make it behavior-wise; they just dont make it. Others, like their parents never finished school, either, so they dont see a huge value in education. Theyre in a group that just want their kids to get out and find a job and get money. Both the boys and the girls just go and get fairly low-paid jobs even when theyve got the potential to do something else with their life. There are others that just leave school and do nothing because theres two or three generations in their family that have done that. I remember saying to a kid one day, What are you going to do when you leave school? and they said What do you mean? I said, Well what do you want to be? I dont understand. I said, What job do you want to do? Why would I? I said, So you can get money and you can travel and. . . The reply was, Im going to get money anyhow. And thats a difficult situationyou know, value judgments and all sorts of stuff. Youve got to really be careful what you say.

Raising kids expectations is important. I remember Mary-Lou saying she took her class to the university, and as they went in the kids are saying, Oh wow! and she said, Well you know, you might come here one day, and they said, Oh, nobody in Plainsville goes to uni. We do try to get speakers in, people that used to go to Plainsville, and say you know, Look at what Im doing now and stuff. Even the kids in the middle school havent got aspirations as far as work goes. Its more aspirations as far as social stuff, boyfriends. Some of the girls who are not in that so-called in crowd have got aspirations for going on to TAFE [Technical and Further Education] and things like that, but not many of them.

The absentee rate is quite low here now. I know a couple of the girls talked to Mary-Lou one night and said to her, You know, if we hadnt been able to come back here, we wouldnt have gone to school and we would have been in trouble then. One of them in particular has friends that are into drugs and things and she said, Id just be at home doing that [drugs], but Id rather be here with my friends and doing things.

We have done a lot of work with our community. The governing council does lots of phoning and door visits, we have open nights. We invite parents in for lots of things, but we just dont get them. The opportunity is there but people dont take them up. There are a couple of middle school mums that are on the governing council, but I think in a lot of cases their lives are so complex themselves and theyve got so many issues that as long as their kids are at school and not in trouble, thats okay. However, parents are really concerned about the future of their kids at high school. When we had the kerfuffle at the end of last year and they were all told they had to go to high school at the end of year 8, they were all of them, up in arms about that. Then when I rang back and said, No its okay, weve been allowed to keep them [here at Plainsville], at least. . . you know, and they all said the same sort of thing that they were really pleased because the kids wanted to come and at least that was good. But theyre not the sort of people who then come and do anything about it. But yeah, I mean they generally have got their kids welfare at heart but there are other things in their life that take precedence.

The perspective of a novice teacher who had only been at the school a term at the time of the study is also interesting because he presents his perspective on how the school was profoundly shaping his views on how to work with young adolescents. He admits to being on a steep learning curve with regard to children, their backgrounds, and a school reform process that was trying to give them an engaging alternative at school and in life. This portrait came from an interview conducted on February 11, 2003.

Portrait 3: Matthew

 Im on a steep learning curve about relationships.

I started here at the end of term last year as a TRT [temporary replacement teacher] and then did a couple of short contracts to cover the release of some teachers. This is definitely a very different environment to mainstream schools. While I had an insight into the way the school works, over 5 weeks last year in the third term, its still been really eye-opening. The first three weeks now that Ive been here this year, with my own class and group of students, and the first real opportunity to work in a middle school as such.

The most interesting aspect of this school, is with regard to the student-initiated curriculum. You often hear it called SIC by adults and students. Im still coming to terms with a lot of the acronyms and the language used and even the whole process of using a lot of the student-initiated curriculum. I found it really interesting and exciting working with the student-initiated curriculum. Like I said, Im on a really steep learning curve over the last 2 1/2 weeks since I stepped into the class. Its been great with the first 2 weeks set aside with the focus on relationship-building with the students.

Even before the kids come back to school we had a couple of staff chats, as theyre often termed here, rather than staff meetingswhere we got together as a staff and spoke about the kids. When youre told that youre not allowed to do a lot of formal teaching in the first 2 weeks, that was a bit of a shock and a bit mind-blowing for me and you sort of sit there and wonder, Well, what sort of things are we going to do? So, Mary-Lou spoke to the whole staff about the focus during those first 2 weeks. We actually did some team-building activities as a staff, which were also examples of exercises that we could do with students. A lot of those things were based around communication and trust.

Our kids bring in so much learned behavior from outside. You dont want to discredit that as being invaluable or less valuable than the other learning which is going on here but you need to try and set up the understanding that there are certain ways of talking and acting. I dont like to say you hear it all the time here, but it is something that the kids will let off and like some of the children here are reasonably volatile and a lot of them come from, I guessI dont really like to use the word violentbut ah, volatile, I guess, home lives. And because of the nature of the community here, weve got emergency housing out the back and a womens shelter. A lot of them have seen just about everything in regard to domesticagain I dont like to use the term violence, but I guess domestic issues with ah, some with substance abuse and issues of the like.

Its hard to understand how the children must feel when suddenly their family is torn apart and theyre taken with mum or whatever, or dad in some cases. Theyve literally got no place to go except for these shelters and emergency housing and some of them turn up at those with no more than the shirt on their back and they have literally no possessions, no money and in some cases they dont know where the next meal is coming from. And so I guess they bring these worries with them. These are probably foremost in the childrens minds rather than learning and some of the relationships that theyre building here.

Some of the students simply dont have a lot of stability, or I guess a lot of support, from their home structures. A lot of them literally have to get themselves out of bed, pack their own lunch, some of them organize brothers and sisters and they dont really have the driving force that actually gets them to school in the morning. Yeah, and some of them dont have anyone pushing them out the door or even out of bed in the morning and motivating them to get to school, so a lot of them actually do make it here under their own steam.

In spite of these difficulties, we dont have a real large number of absences. Most students do look forward to coming to school even if a lot of them literally do have to get themselves and their brothers and sisters to school and pack lunches in some cases. Some of them come to school without lunches and they have the emergency breakfast programthe breakfast club is every morning. Most learning areas have their own loaves of bread and a toaster and that sort of thing so if students come without lunch they can make themselves an emergency lunch with either toast, most of them have jam and vegemite [an Australian spread] and that sort of thing which is, which we havent really been able to establish in our learning area yet because were only in our temporary learning space.

Building relationships is really important. I have found myself in that sort of situation in the first two weeks where you dont necessarily initiate the confrontation but the students will stand their ground and you almost end up in a no-win sort situation with some students. Sometimes you do just have to back away and say, Look, now we cant speak reason or give you my reasoning at this point. We can perhaps reason it at a later point. So I think in a sense the focus on relationship building which was put to us at uni was important and I think that here they do that really well.

And that was partly the reason behind me taking those eight boys on the trip last week. It was aimed at a bit of a bonding and, yeah, bonding exercise for me and those boys. These boys are sort of recognized as being pretty challenging, but get them to build a positive relationship with someone in the learning area and try and establish that throughout the year so that maybe they will come along a little bit and engage a little more in their schooling. Building good relationships is not something thats going to happen in the first 2 weeks of term or maybe even the first term of this year. Its something that builds up over time.

I guess another focus of the middle schooling program that we looked at [here] is integrated curriculum and how to integrate learning and transfer learning across curriculum bands or the actual subject areasfor example, a theme like cars. They might be doing integrated learning from language and maybe investigating things, researching things like history and maybe transferring some of that into maths, looking maybe at the speeds of carsif theyre looking at car racingand transferring knowledge in these sort of averages of speeds and even in technology and stuff where they might actually build models of cars or things like that. So I guess its working out an area of a students particular interestlike the issues learning plan where students come up with an issue of particular interest or relevance to themselves. It has to be something which affects their lives or the lives of others. Some people are doing issues learning plans on things like hairdressing, and while you might say, Oh how does that affect you life or the life of others? theyre actually investigating a career in hairdressing.

We dont largely differentiate between the teachers and SSOs [school services officers] in the school and we also have a lot of adult helpers, students family membersgrandparents, parents, older brothers and sisterswho volunteer their services to the school in a range of ways, whether it be maintenance around the yard, or helping the kids with their learning. The sewing groups are mainly run by three parents who come in and just do some fantastic work with the kids on sewing. The catering team was also really well-supported by the adults around the schoolteachers and volunteers.

Theres next to no decision-making that goes on in the school without negotiating with either individual students or groups of students as a whole, so the students really understand where the decision-making is actually coming from. Theres not a committee in the school which doesnt have student voice in it from the governing council, right down to the most basic things like talking circle decisions and class decisions. It gets even more basic when you talk about negotiating learning plans. Students here even have behavior learning plans. So you identify with the student an area of behavior which has been an issue over an extended period and come up with a plan of how they can actually work on and improve certain aspects of the behavior. At uni you hear a lot about student-centered learning but here they take it right to the edge. They put students right at the center of literally everything that theyre involved in.

The perspective of students on what was happening at Plainsville is also crucial, but even more so with the benefit of a little distance from which to look back, and the experience of having been in other places. Robert, a 15-year-old ex-student, came to Plainsville and had lived through the reform from the start. He had graduated from the school and subsequently dropped out of two high schools. We interviewed him on February 25, 2003, when he came back to Plainsville looking for advice on where to go from here.

Portrait 4: Robert

The system is always right.

Before I came to the Plainsville in year 3, I attended two Catholic schools. You can just imagine how strict they were. I was always in trouble with teachers and studentsjust misbehaving, being naughty and fighting. I really hated school. Even when I came here I still hated school. It was better but I was going [to school] because I had to. Then a new principal, Mary-Lou, came in and all of a sudden all these small changes began to occur. I started thinking, Yeah, yeah, this is getting somewhere, I might actually want to come every day; I might want to be here. When our school was chosen as the primary school for the key competencies project, Mary-Lou saw some potential in me and slotted me in there even though I was failing. I wasnt failing academically but I was failing in school. I wasnt really getting along with people and I was still mucking around. I was accelerated and I went into the key competencies research team. Then I was put into the conference team. I went around with them. I was learning how to do public speaking and how to set up conferences and facilitate workshops.

A couple of the students that Mary-Lou chose were shy and didnt really get along with kids but they had the potential to really be good leaders and excel in school. They were a bit nerdy, if you know what I mean. And then there were students like me who really hated school and didnt want to be there. She could see that if she could make the learning relevant to kids like me, we would want to come to school. And if she could show the shy kids that they could be leaders and teach other kids, then their self-confidence and self-esteem would be boosted and theyd really want to learn more and become better people.

Generally, when kids are displaying bad behavior a school will say, Right, well youre suspended. I could go home for five days. Id win. Whereas at Plainsville they try to look at alternative consequences, which are going to make the kids turn their behavior around, but at the same time, keep them in school. See, a lot of the kids want to be here. They know a suspension would be a real punishment because they want to be here, they dont want to be at home. Youve got kids that get here at 7 oclock so they can work on assignments before class, and are here until 9 oclock some nights. I was one of those kids. Id be here till 10 oclock at night typing up speeches and different workshops. I didnt muck around because I wanted to be here. I wanted to learn so I tried to stay on task, and yeah, there were fewer temptations to muck around and stuff like that.

Along with the other chairperson of the SRC [Student Representative Council] I was chosen to interview the students and find out what was most significant in their learning and what the staff needed to change in the school to make it better for them. That meant interviewing students, putting up tallies, analyzing the information and presenting it to the staff. Then we all talked about it and made recommendations as to what the staff were going to do from there. So it brought about major changes within the school from the SRC to students.

I know it sounds really bad, but theres no such thing as a teacher at Plainsville. There are 300 learners and the teachers are learning, the adults are learning and the kids are learning. The teachers are really just there to facilitate the students learning rather than to teach them or to keep them in order. . . , for finding information, and theyre really like, Well this is what youve got to learn. Whats the best way for you to learn it? Its really individual. And so theyll say, Well, Id like to do research on the Internet, make a PowerPoint. . . and they go off and they do it and so the teachers are doing more than just teaching them about science, theyre teaching them about learning. So for every day of their life, if they want to know something theyre going to know how to go about getting the information and then presenting it to somebody else. I think thats the most important thing. The thing is that it changed the students attitude towards school. They actually want to come here and get actively involved in their learning. Its not really a problem them coming and just wanting to sit around and do nothing because they want to get down and get involved in their learning and decisions, and learn for themselves. They want to make progress within their learning.


Since leaving Plainsville Ive been to two high schools. High schools are all really the same house, just decorated differently. The biggest problem is the lack of individuality. If theyve got a middle ground and if you dont fit into that, then the high school is going to fail you. I dont really like to use the term above the rest of the kids in the class but if youre a bit faster than they are then youre going to be expected to stay back with them and do that work. Then you get bored and muck around. On the other hand if youre having difficulty, if youve got a learning disability and you can have trouble keeping up, youre going to get left behind. Theres no individuality in what you need to learn and what, how, what is the best way for you to learn it. If youre not capable of sitting there with a pad and a pen and copying and doing what youve been told, then youre not, in their eyes, youre not learning . . .  youre going to fail.

I had a problem with one of my high school teachers. We have some garden sheds in the courtyard outside our corridor where our class is and there was a special education kid locked in the garden shed. Someone had locked him in there and he was getting rather distressed, so I went out and let him out, and my teacher has come up the corridor and seen me mucking around by the garden shed. He comes ripping out, Robert, what are you doing? Get in the class right now! I said, Well, actually Sir, Im just letting this kid out of the shed. Some heartless s, you know so-and-so, had locked him in there. He [the teacher] started to yell and get aggro [aggressive] about it. Dont you start with me. . .  ra, ra ra. Youre already having arguments with all the other teachers, dont you start with me; and um we were talking about that and I said, Why didnt you just come up to me and say, Robert, what are you doing? I could have said, Well, Im letting this kid out of the shed. Someone has locked the special ed. kid in there. Then he should have found out whod locked him in there instead of having a go at me. He said, Oh well, I interact with 300 students, blah blah and all their lives, and if I was to do that, that would take a lot of time because it would be individual. I said, Exactly, youre supposed to work with the individual, and he goes, Oh well, I have you know duty of care and that was a professional decision to make. I said. Well, it wasnt very professional, was it because you doing that got my back up, you and I have no occasionwe hadnt argued and now there are ill feelings between us, whereas if youd just come up, found out what was going on, it wouldnt have been any bother, so it really wasnt a professional thing to do, was it?

I was at this high school for two years and I was not once involved in any major projects. Their peer mediation program is a joke. When Pete and I went there in year 8 we thought it would be a good opportunity for us to show them what weve got, where were coming from. But they told No, theres no way. Youre only year 8, I said Yeah, but I was doing this in year 6. They tried to reteach us everything. We were in year 8 and there was no way that we could have this vast array of knowledge and they were bringing in people from other places, other organizations, to train us how to mediate with our peers when the resources are therethe teachers and students.

At Plainsville they opened up our eyes and said, Look at what you can achieve, and then you go to school to high school, and you have to relearn things. Ive forgotten more in 2 years that Ive learnt. Ive learnt nothing. I look at the kids that are here at Plainsville and what they are doing and I get upset because I could have achieved in 2 years what I havent achieved at a traditional school. The other problem is that year 8 and 9 doesnt count for much. You can really go through with poor grades in a normal high school. Im the living proof of that. I know I should never have got into year 10. I dont think I learnt anything different from what I did in year 8 and year 9 and it was a waste of time. I would have learnt more at the movies or the shops than at high school in year 8/year 9. My year 9 science teacher broke the mold of what teachers at high school are. He knew that science is something that I really excel at. See the thing is, the school doesnt give the teachers a lot of space to work with. But as much as he could, he let me teach myself.

The problem at high school is that heres no teacher-student relationship at all where they can come in and work together to achieve a common goal, which is the students learning. Its Im the teacher, youre the student, Ive given you this. A fine example of that, Miss G, whos the maths teacher in our school. I never interacted with her in my life, didnt even know her. Ive never even said hello to her, and one day I was walking around and she goes, Oh get to class,  ra, ra, Im on a free period. Oh you dont have a free period. Yeah I do because I do a personal development course on Fridays and you have a free period. Uh uh, and she goes, Hang on a minute, I know you, youre Robert Brown. I said yeah, I dont know you though, and she goes, Oh no, Ive heard a lot about you from other teachers, and I said . . . she goes, Oh, they say youve got atrocious behavior and an attitude problem but youve got a lot of potential. Im like, Well, hang on a minute, dont come and tell me Ive got atrocious behavior if you dont even know me. But they . . . must sit around and talk about you or something.

The other problem is that the lack of individuality at high school. Theyre not really interested in individual learning. The whole culture would really need to change just even physically. Theyre all classrooms, a corridor, chairs in rows, a teacher and a whiteboard up front, which isnt really an area which is going to engage students in learning. It needs to be more open, more resources readily available, also um, yeah, its really hard because the teachers would need to change their whole attitude and perception as well. If a student says, Well, I can do this, actually saying, Well maybe they can, instead of just saying, Well, no youre only in year 10, theres no way you can do that. Im in year 10 now, and this is the first year [here] that Ive even come into contact with computers.

The government is talking about truancy and people leaving school, but the problem is that theres nothing there to keep them at school. Theres no reason to be at school. I was at a meeting yesterday and was told that I undermine the teachers authority, that I have a reckless disregard for teacher authority. I could just sit there and be like every other student and I still would fail at the end. Ive got to wonder how many people are out there that went before me that had the potential to be rocket scientists and theyre now on the dole [unemployment benefits] because the school failed them.

But kids at Plainsville want to be at school. They dont want to wag [skip school] and go off and muck around. They dont want to come here and just sit back and muck around with their friends. They actually want to come here . . . and use every learning minute that they have to actually get something out of school. No one at our high school wants to be there and thats why the truancy rate is so high, thats why the grades are so low, thats why youve got people misbehaving, undermining teachers authorityas they would have you believe. Thats why theyve got people leaving early [dropping out]because they dont want to be there but still the teachers dont see that as being their problem, its the students problem and theres nothing wrong with the system. I think theyre scared to say, Well we were wrong, we failed these kids. The biggest problem isnt that students are failing schools, its that the school is failing the student, but they dont want to see it that way. The student failed school; the school never fails the student. The system is always right. The system is never wrong. Thats the problem.


Notwithstanding the significant background problems confronting schools that have a profile like Plainsville, this school was proud of its community, learning programs, and what was being achieved by its students. Plainsville described its context and purpose in these terms:

All members of the learning community are encouraged to be success oriented. . . . Innovation and creativity are highly valued. This is held together by strong values of equity and social justice which focus on increasing the benefit for all, so as to enhance the benefit to the community as a whole.

Equity of student, community and staff voice in decision-making is the core that binds the site in striving for the maximum learning potential for all. The development of a sense of pride, self respect, history and belonging within the community are essential aspects of the [schools] culture (School Partnership Plan 20002002)

The school is pursuing ways of acting that convey to students the need to be the best you can, while being realistic about the accompanying difficulties:

A high proportion of the families within the [schools community] deal with the issues associated with high levels of poverty, unemployment, single parent families and transience. Low levels of literacy and high levels of students with disabilities and learning difficulties impact significantly on the forward planning of the site. (School Partnership Plan, 20002002)

The school had covered some distance in reforming itself, but the process was far from complete. The starting point for the school reform described here was the way Plainsville confronted and challenged the low expectations students had of themselves, often reinforced from outside the school. They were actively contesting forms of deficit thinking (Valencia, 1997) and the subtractive (Valenzuela, 1999) view that accompanied it. What the school was working against in its self-initiated reform crusade was a set of entrenched views about teaching and learning that were outmoded and irrelevant for themones that simply didnt work, namely the teacher in control; little student voice or choice; a lock-step approach to learning; teacher-directed and content-oriented curriculum; learning in isolated classrooms; an absence of collaboration among teachers; much time-wasting because of the central focus on the teacher; an emphasis on teaching content rather than valued student learning outcomes; a devaluation and degradation of social relationships and social learning; and an exclusion of young peoples lives, experiences, and aspirations from schooling.

In contrast, what was being supplanted and inserted in place of conventional ideas about how to work with young adolescents were notions that amounted to a paradigm shift. The most prominent display of this was the way that the school had begun to move beyond being caught up in the game of imposing the values and practices of middle-class schooling upon working-class and low-income students, and the cultural mismatch that becomes the dysfunctional source of so much behavioral aggravation in schools. This agenda took various forms, and as the school was at pains to emphasize, not all of these were by any means fully implemented and were continually in a state of being renegotiated. The most obvious was student ownership of learning through the development of individual learning plans, in which students were given space to be responsible for their own learning and behavior rather than threats of punishment constructed through behavior management policies. Shifting the locus of control closer to the learner meant that rules reflected learning consequences (how learning is impeded), rather than the logical consequences (do that, and you will suffer in this way). Space was thus created in which students could cool off and think about the effects of actions on their learning (i.e., learning consequences) rather than experience punishment or exclusion. Respectful relationships were modeled by adults in the polite, nonaggressive way that they handled students even in difficult circumstances.

Another prominent feature of Plainsville was the role of adults in steering learning. Adults acted as informed and supportive guides in assisting students to pose challenging and worthwhile questions, thus enlarging the range of possible knowings and helping students to identify and locate resources with which to sustain and maintain a curriculum pathway. In doing this, student choice and decision-making were both negotiated within a centrally required curriculum framework that was used as a point of reference. All students had studentfriendly copies of the statewide curriculum and standards framework and were expected to demonstrate where their learning plans fit within that.

Student voice, power-sharing, and decision-making in various aspects of school organization were part of students learning how to negotiate and exercise self-responsibility for learning choices, the productive use of learning minutes in achieving acceptable quality and meeting deadlines, and the imperative to do this in collaboration with others. This flowed through into roundtable forms of assessment and reporting that enabled students to demonstrate an expanded view of the curriculum and multiple ways of learning that involved service learning and various forms of out-of-class learning that brought the community into the school. Students were thus helped to see their learning as occurring in a schoolwide community and a community beyond the school. What this produced was a focus on future-oriented learning that enabled students to ask and pursue the question, How will this help me to get to where I want to be? In this, students were not only learning how to be articulate about how they learn but also the moral values implicit in their learning. The deeper question students were pursuing was, Are my moral values getting me where I want to go? This was something that was continually being foregrounded at Plainsville.

The kind of structural and cultural reforms occurring at Plainsville were far from complete, but they were ones being pursued with a passion for an improved and alternative set of learning arrangements. At the heart of what they were doing was a refusal to perpetuate a set of social arrangements and ways of organizing their school that admonished, chastised, and blamed disadvantaged young adolescents and their families and had the effect of further damaging an already vulnerable group in society.

The broader point to be taken from this is that as a society, we still fail to understand why it is that some young adolescents dont succeed at school (Smyth & Hattam, 2004; Smyth et al., 2000). We insist on continuing to concoct fanciful explanations and inappropriate solutions while at the same time avoiding the real issue. Rather than pursuing transformational change, we are seduced by inappropriate solutions that reproduce failure while implicitly blaming the students.

In the absence of the kind of courageous thinking being embarked upon by schools like Plainsville, many schools continue to rigidly hold onto what amounts to a governmentalist traditionthat is to say, a set of views that perpetuate notions of a vulnerable, impressionable, untutored, inexperienced population that has to be governed by others but that is in fact able to think, act, feel and grow for itself (Hartley, 1996, p. 17). The image thus perpetuated is one of young people as infantilised and unenlightened . . . and forever in need of correction and protection. . . (Hartley, 1996, p. 17). Constructed in this way, schools become institutions necessary to constrain the young rather than places that provide spaces for educational growth. What remains unresolved in this reproductionist view of intergenerational panics is the issue of how relationships should be lived out in places like schools.

If we are to make any progress in the race against catastrophe identified by Natriello, McDill, and Pallas (1990) over a decade ago and begin to tackle the alarming evidence (OECD, 2000) that schooling is not working for an unacceptably large proportion of young adolescents, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, then we need the kind of grassroots rethinking of educational policy identified and acted on by the school in this case study. It is no longer acceptable to continue endorsing the mantralike chant around standards, accountability, and testing (Sadowski, 2003, p. 1). Little seems to have changed in this regard in the 15 years since the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989) made its pronouncement on the nature of the problem with uncanny clarity:

A volatile mismatch exists between the organization and curriculum of middle grade schools and the intellectual and emotional needs of young adolescents. Caught in a vortex of changing demands, the engagement of many youth in learning diminishes, and their rates of alienation, substance abuse, absenteeism, and dropping out begin to rise. (p. 8)

As Sadowski (2003) put it, the kind of thinking and action needed to turn this around is one that says, in effect, In order for educators to help adolescents as students, we must develop a better understanding of the issues that affect them as people (p. 2); in other words what Osterman (2000) argued for is creating a sense of students belonging to a school community that treats them as real people, or the notion of belongingness. This is consistent with McQuillans (1997) strident call to humanize high schools. Educational anthropologists like Erickson (1987), Ogbu (1982), and Levinson (1992) argued that when young people withdraw or disengage from schooling, they are resisting or withdrawing their assent. When students are not learning, and by implication, when students choose to separate themselves from schooling, this means that they are not learning what school authorities, teachers and administrators intend for them to learn as a result of intentional instruction. Learning what is deliberately taught can be seen as a form of political assent. Not learning can be seen as a form of political resistance (Erickson, pp. 343344). In this regard, a number of tensions within the reform process are still being worked out at Plainsville, and that should be noted.

First, although the school and its staff project a high level of confidence in what they are doing and have the convictions of their ideals about the rightness of their reform strategy, there is still a high level of tentativeness and provisionality in what they are doing. They have good reasons to project an air of assurance in where they are going, but much of this is based around the experience of trying something, then looking back and constructing the experience. But at the time, there is much less certainty about where things are really headingin other words, a classic case of rationalization through postfactum reconstruction, not altogether surprising given the rarity of these kinds of innovations in practice. An example can be found in Portrait 2 of Sally, in which she made it clear that neither she nor Mary-Lou were absolutely confident about whether what they were doing around studentinitiated curriculum would actually work with the special education students. It was only in the light of experience that they are were able to confidently proclaim this, and even then, this was still provisional and susceptible to further revision in the light of contrary experience. The tension here is around proclaiming a degree of certainty in order to carry the school forward with the reform, when in reality much of what was involved was a largely untried leap of faith. They needed an air of confidence, but that was not possible until they had lived through something of the experience.

Second, working with the community and carrying it along with the school was a crucial imperative. To not have community support would be to struggle with continual aggravation, misunderstanding, and contestation. But the problem that the school had to confront as an existential reality was the clash between the middle-class notion of the school as an institution, and the (non) working-class nature of the community served by the school. Where this became problematic was in regard to the intergenerational and personal histories of some parents own lack of educational success; institutional hostility; and a long history of failure by schools in this working-class community. Many parents had histories of negative and exclusionary experiences of schooling, and Plainsville was trying to work with its community to demonstrate that school could be otherwise for their children. Within this, the very real potential existed for distrust, misunderstanding, and what Freebody, Ludwig, and Gunn (1994) called interactive troublethat is, when the school operates out of one frame of reference, and the students and the community another one. What transpires is a miscommunication or an inability on the part of the school to pick up crucial social cues. We can see this being played out in part in Portrait 1, in which Mary-Lou made it clear that for the reform to succeed, the school had to simultaneously carry all three constituentsstudents, staff, and parentsand she expressed the complexity that this entailed. There is a sense that in order do this, a working-class community like this must commit a version of class suicidethat is, engage in an act of betrayal by buying into the meritocratic ideology of the middle class (see Willis, 1977, for an elaboration). This was a continuing but unarticulated tension at Plainsville.

Third, finding efficacious ways of hooking these students into or engaging them in learning what the school wanted them to learn was a continual but productive source of challenge and tension for the school. The school had to pursue a pathway, to fit with that of the school, that demonstrated that it was authentically tuned in to the experiences and aspirations of young working-class adolescents who came to the school, often with limited resources of social capital (Croninger & Lee, 2001; Smyth, 2004; Stanton-Salazar, 1997). The school also had to work in ways that demonstrated the importance of accessing valued forms of abstract learning and knowledge. The school was doing this was by allowing students a high level freedom, choice, and decision-making as a starting point. But that was only a beginning. What the school then had to do, without losing the students, was to negotiate ways of enabling students to use interest-driven approaches to learning that linked the learning process back to a rigorous curriculum. Two examples of this can be seen in the fishing learning plan being negotiated (and reported in the portrait of the school), and when the students wanted to create a learning plan around Australian Rules Football (discussed by Sally in Portrait 2). In both instances, we saw how the teachers were extending and challenging the students in the direction of crafting more sophisticated inquiry questions to guide students in their self-initiated learnings. But this was a process that required considerable energy, astuteness, and close monitoring by the adults to ensure quality and rigor. In this, the school was assisted by the way it drew on the provisions of frameworks provided by government within which learning was to occur. For instance, the skills in the key competencies frameworkthat is, collecting, analyzing, and organizing data; communicating ideas and information; planning and organizing activities; working with others in teams; using mathematical ideas and techniques; solving problems; using technology; and cultural understanding. Again, the fishing learning plan was a good example of this. Notwithstanding, the school was continually straddling and negotiating the invisible boundary between what interested the students and what they were prepared to do, versus the residual skills that the school wanted them to acquire and be able to transfer to other situations. This was a delicate balancing act.


Reforms of the kind we have described at Plainsville can broadly be envisaged as encompassing the following: (1) giving students significant ownership of their learning in other than tokenistic ways; (2) supporting teachers and schools in giving up some control and handing it over to students; (3) fostering an environment in which people are treated with respect and trust rather than fear and threats of retribution; (4) pursuing a curriculum that is relevant and that connects to young lives; (5) endorsing forms of reporting and assessment that are authentic to learning; (6) cultivating an atmosphere of care around relationships; (7) promoting a flexible pedagogy that acknowledges the diversity of young lives; and (8) celebrating school cultures that are open to and welcoming of students lives and backgrounds regardless of the problems or where they come from.

These do not constitute especially novel or radical set of ideas, but what sets them apart is their rarity or prevalence in practice, and it is to this aspect that we want to turn briefly in concluding this article. We could even argue that the way these ideas were passionately pursued at Plainsville makes them a part of what Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) called compelling organizational themes (p. 25) in this school. In her nomenclature, there was a certain element of institutional goodness here that constituted a broader, more generous perspective than the one commonly used in the literature on effective schools (p. 23). Goodness is a complicated notion that is more than an aggregation of discrete additive elements, and it is more akin to a schools ethos: It refers to the mixture of the parts that produce a whole. The whole includes people, structures, relationships, ideology, goals, intellectual substance, motivation, and will (p. 23). We believe that the nature of this goodness, or ethos, at Plainsville is well captured in the above points.

In respect of these pervasive themes at Plainsville, if there were two simple words that underscored what was unique, it would be the dynamic duo of courage and leadership. By this we mean, the courage to admit that schools are not working for the increasing numbers of disadvantaged children, especially those who do not fit the middle-class model of schooling. Put most directly, for Plainsville, this meant a preparedness to think outside the square and to literally put every aspect of the school under scrutiny regarding how it was serving students and their lives and futures, rather than systems or business or corporate imperatives. Concomitantly, it also meant having an abundance of the leadership skills to be able to envisage an alternative, and the passion to convince others of the indispensability of student inclusiveness in their reworked vision of schoolingand to carry all constituents along with that idea in practice over a sustained period of time. But it was more than that. It required, in addition, the strategic and human skills to move a whole school and its community forward with this idea, without some parts moving too quickly, or others feeling left behindno mean feat. In large measure, what emerged repeatedly at Plainsvilleand what is not easily replicablewas the ability to remind everyone when the going got tough how far the school had traveled, rather than allowing them to dwell excessively on the depths of some particular impasse.

A major aspect of what made Plainsville qualitatively different and set it part from other schools even within the public education system of which it was a part was its persistent preparedness to move forward collectively on its agenda despite an absence of leadership at the systemic level. Put more directly, Plainsville took a principled moral and ideological stand on why schools serve some students well, while actively damaging or marginalizing others. This school was prepared to put a negotiated set of common understandings about children and how they learn at the center of everything they did, and continually subject those ideas to interrogation, dialogue, and debate. It was unprepared to stand by and blithely accept an untenable neoliberal view of school reform that in effect blames students and their families, backgrounds, and cultures for a lack of educational success. The view at Plainsville was that schools ought to be vibrant and engaging places for all students and that the crucial ingredient was creating school cultures, structures, and pedagogies that gave students and their families a real measure of ownership over learning. Part of this meant having partnerships and alliances that filled the void left by the system, but it also meant having a sustained and visible ideological stance that guards against powerful and shifting societal intrusions (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1983, p. 25). In the end, they were prepared to be measured, and measure themselves, in terms of their success in firing up the imaginations of learners.

Another of the educational shibboleths and misrepresentations that Plainsville was actively contesting through its grassroots reform strategy was the international contemporary fiction that unless rigorous standards are set and robustly maintained externally, schools will somehow degenerate into places of anarchy, chaos, and illiteracy. What Plainsville was able to demonstrate was that allowing students to have real ownership of learning was not inconsistent with maintaining high expectations of students, pursuing rigor in learning, and ensuring that students and teachers are accountable for that learning. On the contrary, what they have demonstrated is that all these are possible within a set of harmonious arrangements that are respectful, trusting, humane, and, above all, educative.

With whatever level of incompleteness or tension that may still exist in their unfinished agenda, schools like Plainsville are tangible testimony that alternative educative relationships are possible in mainstream government schools for young adolescents, especially those suffering from the effects of the tilted playing field of educational disadvantage. It is a bountiful illustration of Sizers (2004) comment that education policy must have a childs face (p. 208). Although the project under way at Plainsville is far from finished, the most salutary learning of all is that there can be no turning back.

This study was funded by a Discovery grant from the Australian Research Council.


Adults( learning facilitators or resource persons): These can be any adult in the school; a teacher, a school services officer, volunteer member of the community, another worker in the school, or a parent. No distinction is made as to status and adults decide how they want to be known (e.g. Joe, Miss, or CJ [initials], etc.).

Behavior learning plan: Students identify an area of behavior and develop a plan of how to improve aspects of that behavior.

Breakfast club: Learning areas have loaves of bread and toasters so that students who come to school without having eaten can make themselves an emergency meal.

Individual learning meetings (ILMs): Individual students meet on an as-needed basis with adults who assist with identifying issues for learning plans, assist with student progress, help with identified problems, and locate necessary resources.

Issues learning plans: Where students come up with a topic of particular interest to themselves and their lives that they wish to pursue. There can be a range of other kinds of learning plans including, English learning plans, math learning plans, writing learning plans, speaking and listening learning plans, reading learning plans, and out-of-class learning plans (see also learning plans).

Key competencies: A framework and a language with(in) which students can locate and articulate what skills they have learned, why they are learning something, what valued capacities it will give them, and why it is valued knowledge (e.g., collecting and analyzing data, communicating ideas, working in teams, planning and organizing activities, solving problems, using technology).

Knowing cards: Formally signed-off acknowledgements that a student has completed a learning plan and achieved certain specified competencies (or knowings) in accordance with the statewide curriculum standards and accountability framework.

Learning areas: Broad combined year-level groupings (e.g., year 6/7 and year 8/9) that might contain up to 90 students with 6 adults who meet regularly in learning meetings to review progress.

Learning audits: Opportunities for students to ascertain how much they know prior to developing a new learning plan (i.e., finding out what they know as a starting point for new learning).

Learning groups: These groups are subcomponents of learning areas (e.g., year 6/7 or year 8/9). They are the sites where learning plans are activated and pursued by students.

Learning minutes: Time explicitly and publicly proclaimed to be for active learning. This is part of a concerted effort to get students to think about maximizing their learning opportunities. Loss of learning minutes is made up at recess or lunchtime under adult supervision.

Learning plans: These are the crucial platforms upon which student learning in school occurs, and the students follow a number of well-articulated phases in developing them, including choosing an issue of interest; producing a concept map; developing some learning challenges; identifying and locating resources needed; indicating how learning will be documented; locating an adult and booking an individual learning meeting; and explaining how learning will be shared and made public.

Learning teams: Weekly gatherings (sometimes more frequently) of adults who convene to develop curriculum opportunities for students.

Roundtable assessment: When students have completed a learning plan, they meet with an adult and three of their peers to ascertain what has been done, what has been learned, how it is relevant, and how they have learned it.

Staff chat sessions: Weekly discussions, chaired by staff on a rotating basis, at which collaborative decisions are made. These are also positive feedback sessions and opportunities to share successes and to talk aboutbest practice. Minutes of meetings are kept and displayed, and a one-week thinking period occurs before any resolutions are taken in order to try and reach consensus before proposals move forward to final decision, based on staff vote if necessary. There are protocols for these chat sessions: one person speaks at a time; no put-downs; constructive debate is encouraged; and air time is shared and monitored by the chair.

Student-initiated curriculum (SIC): The term used to indicate the broad process in which students had a high level of ownership in deciding, designing, and pursuing learning.

Student learning records: (SLRIs):  The repositories in which students place learning plans, knowing cards, feedback of various kinds, and other documents. Also called learning folders.

Talking circles: Class meetings that occur at the beginning of each day, chaired by a student, in which each student speaks about his or her learning plans for the day. These circles can occur at other times in the day to ascertain problems and to publicly espouse progress.


1 The name of the school and all of the informants in the study are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 5, 2007, p. 1123-1170
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12864, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 11:00:28 AM

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About the Author
  • John Smyth
    University of Ballarat
    E-mail Author
    JOHN SMYTH has recently been appointed Research Professor in Education, School of Education, University of Ballarat, Australia. In 2004–2005 he held the Roy F. & Joanne Cole Mitte Endowed Chair in School Improvement, College of Education, Texas State University-San Marcos. At the time of writing he was also Adjunct Professor, Charles Darwin University, and Visiting Professor, Wilf Malcolm Institute for Educational Research, Waikato University University. New Zeland. He expresses his grateful appreciation to the Australian Research Council and the Mitte Foundation for supporting this research. Recent books include ‘Dropping Out’, Drifting Off, Being Excluded: Becoming Somebody Without School (with Hattam and others, Peter Lang, 2004), Critical Politics of Teachers’ Work: An Australian Perspective (Peter Lang, 2001), and (with McInerney) Teachers in the Middle: Reclaiming the Wasteland of the Adolescent Years of Schooling (Peter Lang, 2007). His research interests include policy ethnography, sociology of teachers’ work, student voice, and critical approaches to school reform.
  • Peter McInerney
    University of Ballarat
    PETER MCINERNEY is a former high school teacher and is currently a research officer in the School of Education, University of Ballarat, and previously Flinders University in Australia, where he worked on various research projects. His recent book is entitled Making Hope Practical: School Reform for Social Justice (2004). Research interests include critical social theory, teachers’ work, and school reform.
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