Fly on the wall school doco: Revolution School

Fascinated by the how of ABC’s Revolution School. See A years’ worth of drama: Revolution School on Screenblog.

At high school, drama unfolds every single day. So imagine the challenge facing Revolution School series producer Alex West as he tried to fit the ups and downs of an entire school year into just four episodes. By Caris Bizzaca.

In 2015, the centenary of Gallipoli was commemorated, Malcom Turnbull became prime minister, and in Melbourne, a typical high school was trying to lift their bar under the watchful lenses of a group of documentary-makers.

The result is Revolution School: a four-part ABC documentary series that investigates how to improve high school education in Australia by focusing on Melbourne’s Kambrya College over the course of one year….

The first challenge [Alex West] faced was how.

“How on earth do you begin to capture events in a very dynamic ever-changing school environment where there’s over 1000 people, and you have no idea who will end up being key characters or what might happen to them?” West says.

The second main challenge was finding a way of incorporating the cutting-edge research and work of academics, such as Professor John Hattie from University of Melbourne, into the series.

But having this work cohesively alongside the stories of students, parents and teachers presented an additional problem.

“It’s kind of two genres in a program-making sense, which could fight against each other,” West says.

“Strictly observational documentary making and specialist factual television production had to be somehow aligned into a way that would work.”…

Do read on. I have over the years been involved a couple of times with attempts to capture real school in action. First was modest: just to capture on videotape the interactions of a single lesson in a full class of 30-40 students. This was 1977-78 at Sydney University and involved three full-size television cameras, an OB van, and a director who in his time had worked on Coronation Street and with Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand! The results were fit for the purpose, surprisingly, which was to give trainee teachers material to study and analyse. The best we could do to achieve natural results  was to have two lessons, the first not recorded so students acclimatised to those bloody great cameras in the room and the second recorded. Worked pretty well, actually.

Second was in 2001-2003 at Sydney Boys High with a UTS project on Scaffolding. The camera was much less obtrusive by then and the results were useful.

You can view the Powerpoint slideshow used at the presentation to the final conference at UTS in August 2003. You may also read a 2005 article on the project by Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons: Putting Scaffolding to Work.

The term “scaffolding” is a metaphor taken from the building industry. There it is a temporary structure that is taken away when the building can stand alone. Good teachers often do it “automatically”. On the other hand, some “scaffolding” (if done in a mechanical fashion) may be unnecessary, even counter-productive.

Starting in 2001 and continuing in 2002 with 7E and 7F, a research project on scaffolding was conducted at Sydney Boys High School (and other secondary and primary schools), a collaboration between the Department of Education and Training (Multicultural Branch) and the University of Technology Sydney. Research team leader was Dr Jennifer Hammond of UTS.

7F 2002 was the original target class. The researchers looked at English, Geography and ESL. In 2002 the classes were in English and French.

In 2003 the data was studied and conclusions drawn, culminating in a presentation at UTS in August 2003…

I particularly recall the need to get clearances and permissions from all families involved, something that didn’t bother us in 1977=8! We didn’t get 100% permission either, so we had to make sure a tiny number of students were never shown. I can only imagine the paperwork that went into setting up Kambrya College for a year’s fly-on-the wall with what are in fact spy cameras everywhere!

From the outset,[Alex West] decided two fixed rigs, each with two cameras would need to be installed in the school, so they would never miss an opportunity. They monitored these cameras from an office onsite, so they could selectively record only what was necessary. On top of that were two roving cameras, helmed by shooter-directors Naomi Elkin-Jones and Nick McInerney, and four to six cameras installed on the school’s own CCTV system.

A blanket agreement was made with the school and every child was sent home with a release form. If those weren’t signed, there was an extensive process involved in making sure the filmmakers didn’t include a child who wasn’t cleared.

The amount of footage they accumulated was immense…

We are seeing the edited product where narratives did emerge over time. It is the nearest I have ever seen to the feeling of being in a school of over 1,000 teenagers and a staff of around 70. I really do admire what the doco makers have achieved, not to mention the school itself.


One reason for choosing Kambrya was its ordinariness, but also its great achievement since 2008.

At a time when we are falling behind in the international education rankings, REVOLUTION SCHOOL tells the story of Kambrya College, a typical outer suburban high school in Melbourne. Kambrya struggles, but led by Principal Michael Muscat, it raises standards by applying cutting edge research developed by Professor John Hattie at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

Change is challenging and confronting for students and teachers alike, however by applying simple low cost ideas in the classroom Kambrya undergoes a dramatic transformation. Ultimately this is a lesson for all schools in Australia, identifying what they can do to improve standards at this critical time.

One issue that emerged last night was how literacy was improved. Here the expert input came from Di Snowball.

Di Snowball began teaching in 1972 and quickly realized she didn’t have enough training in how the children in her Grade 1 class in Melbourne would learn to read and comprehend.
Ms Snowball took it upon herself to find out all she could, and over time developed a six-step strategy for teaching reading which has achieved dramatic results in low-performing schools both in Australia and overseas.

In 1992 she was invited to provide professional learning for teachers and administrators across schools in New York and other parts of the US, and she carried out that role for 16 years. More recently she has been involved in a program which has led to significant improvement in literacy levels in schools in Melbourne’s western region.

The principal at Footscray North Primary School, Sharon Walker, sings the praises of Di Snowball’s approach to teaching reading. “We look at Finland, Singapore, people go overseas and yet we have a fantastic model on our doorstep,” Walker says.

Di Snowball has written several books and articles about literacy teaching and has produced videos demonstrating the most effective teaching practices.

I was gobsmacked by what Di Snowball gets the teachers to implement, as it is an approach that I had seen back in 1993 when I did a research project for the Department of Education in the Botany area of Sydney! Then we called it SSR, or Sustained Silent Reading. See Sustained Silent Reading in the Classroom.

Independent silent reading has been viewed as a time-honored educational tool. Yet today, many teachers sacrifice it for direct instruction, arguing that there are more effective ways to spend the time. What do the experts say?

Let’s begin with the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report. That report stated that “independent silent reading is not effective when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills.” I agree; purpose, design, and integration are critical.

The Forgotten Element: Improving Fluency in Struggling Readers

At the same time, the panel admits that it “does not negate the positive influence independent silent reading time may have, nor the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension.” They simply call for more well-designed studies.

Respected researchers Stephen Krashen and Michael Pressley agreed with the need for those studies and cited significant SSR research that the NRP did not consider. (See The Case of Phonemic Awareness and Effective Beginning Reading Instruction.)

High school English teacher Steve Gardiner adds other strong arguments in his new book, Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading. A 28-year classroom veteran, Gardiner asserts, “Giving them time to read is clearly the most important thing I do with my students. It

  • builds vocabulary;
  • connects to writing;
  • develops an understanding of the qualities of great readers;
  • meets needs the teacher might not know about (What an empowering statement!); and
  • gives students a chance to connect with reading in an unstructured situation.”

It was most encouraging to see again last night what this commonsense approach can achieve. The critical issue is that you learn to read best by actually reading something that means something, as I said back in 1998:

Both whole language and Natural Approaches are attractive, and it is fair to say that they have enhanced the learning and educational experiences of many students. Both mainstream and second-language classes became places where meaning was valued, where communication really took place, where the students could deploy their growing resources of language in interesting and stimulating ways.

Looking back through my own teaching in the 1970s and 1980s I must acknowledge the positive inputs of this family of approaches and their continuing relevance. Among the benefits was an opening of the concerns of English teaching to the world itself, including the mass media and issues of importance in the lives of students and their communities. It was a liberation from the narrow round of literary text analysis, vapid ‘compositions”, mechanical ‘comprehensions’ and arbitrarily sequenced sentence grammar exercises. Students engaged in reception and production of much more authentic texts for real purposes. There was more scope for small group work and an increase in classroom talk and reflection on process. We all found much to be excited about in those years.

It was not all fizz and excitement, however, with blind faith in the students to become literate ‘naturally’. Bob Walshe, an influential advocate in NSW of the process approach to writing, always advocated careful attention to what he called the ‘writing situation’ with attention to the effect on text of variables such as purpose, audience and context. He also advocated the teaching of a minimal sentence grammar, preferably as the need arose in students’ writing. (See Emmitt and Pollock 1991:103.)

Conscious study of language was recommended even by the ‘growth through English’ school:…

Di Snowball seems to have weaned the Kambrya teachers off a kind of “direct instruction” deadness working on tiny snippets of text with stultifying exercises.

For more on Di Snowball see Not beyond comprehension: the six easy steps to improving literacy.

The six comprehension strategies Snowball adapted for teaching reading are: prediction/prior knowledge; think-aloud; text structure; visual representations; summarisation; and questioning. Each strategy is explained and modelled by the teacher before students apply it to their own reading.

Importantly, students must be reading independently every day to practise using the strategy and also reflecting on how it has helped them with their reading.

Further reading: PDF Summary of Survey and Research from the Revolution School site. Most interesting.

Related: my post from May 2016: At last! Sound and sensible journalism on our schools.

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  1. Pingback: Last episode of “Revolution School” | Neil's Commonplace Book

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