Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards
Ulladulla High School (NSW)
Principal Denise Lofts saw huge potential and knew that a radical solution was needed to enliven her Ulladulla High School students’ disengagement and low aspirations for futures they couldn’t imagine.
She collaborated with High Tech High in California, which seeks to equip students with broad creative thinking and problem-solving skills for jobs that may not yet exist, adopting its mantra that “authentic learning” happens when students work on real issues that actually matter.
The community has swung enthusiastically behind Denise as she redirects the large NSW south coast school away from traditional curriculum teaching and towards project-based learning – often centred on local themes.
Murramarang Elders judge students’ preparation of Indigenous-influenced foods, town GPs review student research on vaccines, and farmers help students understand pest control and student self-publish their novels. More than 600 people typically attend Learning Expos when students present their work.
Denise’s approach has re-energised Ulladulla, with a significant increase in high-range HSC scores and university offers.
Ulladulla High School sits in the centre of the small town on the NSW south coast, barely a five-minute walk from the ocean.
For its Principal, Denise Lofts, the ocean is a metaphor as well as her students’ daily environment. “Much like the big wave surfers, principals navigate that ‘sweet spot’, remaining calm, confident, committed and courageous to ride the waves of successful leadership,” she said.
The challenges are many and the “big waves” can be scary. With more than 1250 students Ulladulla is among the largest secondary schools in the state, but it is in a rural area, without the networks and shared resources of city schools.
Tell Them From Me student surveys indicated many students felt disconnected from learning and had low aspirations for their future.
Mrs Lofts turned to the USA for ideas about how to motivate students in a world undergoing massive transition through technological and economic upheaval. She developed a collaboration with High Tech High, a network of charter schools in the San Diego area focused on group learning via project work.
The fundamental ingredient for the Ulladulla students, she decided, was to promote authentic learning focused on real-world issues – the antithesis of the throwaway posters and Powerpoints that still typify much schoolwork.
Students undertake original research, work through frustrations and collaborate with peers and teachers. Rather than specific knowledge, they acquire lateral thinking and problem-solving orientations that stand them in good stead no matter what career they pursue.
Mrs Lofts has drafted the expertise of the Ulladulla community to give students context for this work.
The Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Wandarma AECG provides judges for a learning unit in contemporary cuisine influenced by Indigenous foods. Town GPs review student research on vaccines, while local farmers collaborate with agriculture classes on pest control, and local publishers professionally produce students’ creative work.
Their input raises the bar, Mrs Lofts said: “The expectations are high and the curation of works of excellence is foremost in our vision.”
Proof of the community’s engagement is in the annual EXPO@UHS, where more than 600 local people come to view student presentations, asking questions and providing feedback.
The approach will be further embedded this year, with a new commitment to co-teaching and cross-curricular programming. Three teachers have been timetabled to two combined classes in several year groups, giving flexibility to respond to diverse needs as they arise through project work.
Supporting the transformation, Mrs Lofts has taken Ulladulla High through a “rigorous, consultative school planning process” and has emphasised meaningful professional development for all 92 teachers, including mentoring and coaching.
The results are beginning to show at HSC level. In 2017, 148 students (from a total of 158) earned Band 5 results. There was also a 24 per cent increase in Band 6 results; these more than doubled to 32 across 30 subjects.
Success comes from riding out the rough patches, Mrs Lofts said: “I am a surfer. The challenge of overcoming my fears of big wave surfing absolutely informs my tenacity, way of being, influence and vulnerability within my leadership.”