A Brave New Education: Disrupting the Traditional Model through inclusive practices (PBL)

Schools towards inclusion and access to quality learning

Maria Benedita de Castro Nunes Santos Silva

Prime school twenty years ago decided to disrupt the traditional Portuguese model and make inclusion and the use of autonomy for the curriculum a priority

In 2007, the OECD released a document where Finland is reported to be the Miracle of Europe in terms of Education. Students perform best scores in PISA, and teachers report the importance of systemic reform to the traditional schooling approach.: "Finland exemplifies the principle of slow schooling described by Honoré (2004) as leading patiently to sustainable success (also Hargreaves and Fink, 2006), compared to the rush to raise test scores quickly." (OECD,2007) Finland, like all Nordic countries, values lifelong learning and therefore has no standardized or high stakes testing method and therefore does not devote resources and time to test production and preparation (Sahlberg, 2006). Instead, it has a broad curriculum that is not preoccupied with tested basics. Maths and sciences are essential for business and economic development, but so are artistic and other forms of creativity that have long contributed to the Finnish school identity. As a result, Finland promotes quality learning and records the lowest high dropout rates. Finland committed to reforming the traditional system by improving and developing the curricular steering system, achieved through shared values, high participation, and widespread cooperation via curricular reform. Furthermore, Finland has demonstrated a solid commitment to inclusive, equal, and innovative social ideals both outside and within the educational system. Therefore, the prevention of dropout rates and promoting quality learning passes through restructuring the school pedagogically to promote school success.

Prime school, instead of following the industrial traditional model, where classrooms resemble a fabric, the school believes that there is always space for improvement.

Dropping out of school and early schooling leaving were seen as a certain inevitability dependent, above all, on the children's inability to learn, on the young people's lack of interest in Education, or on the (non) willingness of families to keep their children in school, therefore it was considered as a phenomenon that did not depend on school organization, pedagogical methods, teacher qualifications or national and local policies brought to the field by the management of schools. Nevertheless, through various studies and throughout the years the consensus, is becoming more evident that the pedagogical practices are key to avoiding dropout rates and ensuring an inclusive approach. For example, in a study conducted by Mohlouoa (2014), the dropout rates were not strongly linked with social and economic conditions; instead, the pedagogical approach played a major role.

Since Prime School believes that every child has the right to a second opportunity, the school follows a non-retention policy, where all students are incentivized to reach their full potential. Therefore, Prime school opts for a different pedagogical approach where practices intend to put the student in the center, customizing the curriculum to fit the best needs of each and every student. The pedagogical board in Prime school is composed of a group of educational researchers to guarantee and ensure that education is delivered in the best quality possible.

The democratization of Education leads eventually to the massification of Education. Massification of Education is supported by the assumption that only the one-size-fits-all approach would guarantee equality for all. The problem is not that we must have a school for all. Instead, it is the wrong idea that school should be the same for all, since students are heterogeneous, and they don’t learn in the same way. Finland, for example, as the role model of Education, refused to engage in the principle of Massification. Massification as the "equality temptation" represents one of the major causes of school failure and early school leaving. (Silva & Pinto, 2016). The aim is to prevent students from disconnecting from school, promote school success, and ensure the quality of learning. Prime school delivers a student-centered approach in order to combat the one-size-fits-all as a means of learning.

In Portugal the educational model is centralized, therefore public schools cannot manage the curriculum. While in Prime School, an International private school follows the Cambridge curriculum and it possesses a certain degree of autonomy to adapt the curriculum according to the student's capacities and desires. For the reasons presented above, the Pedagogical Director of Prime School, Edite Reina, makes quality education and inclusion a priority for 21st-century students, in accordance with the UN SDGs 2030.

The school of the 21st century questions its place as a space for the construction of knowledge. The reflection on the demands and urgencies of compulsory schooling of twelve years in a liquid world, in constant change, announces a paradigm transformation about school success. Teaching in the middle of the digital age contributes to creating "never-before-seen opportunities to make teaching a passionate and motivating profession that makes a difference for a future society. Such opportunities are related to new roles, new content and new teaching and learning methods".  

From the most recently produced reflections, new goals were announced, skills to be acquired by students - the 4 C's (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity) gave way to 6 C's - critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, citizenship, personality (Fullan & Geoff Scott, 2014).

In 2009, the European Council established a strategic framework for European cooperation in the field of Education and training, agreeing, by 2020:

  • Making lifelong learning and mobility a reality. 

  • Improve the quality and effectiveness of Education and training.

  • Promote equality, social cohesion, and active citizenship. 

  • Encourage creativity and innovation, including the entrepreneurial spirit, at all levels of Education and training.

The document stresses that lifelong learning should be considered a fundamental principle. It should include learning in all contexts (formal, non-formal, and informal) and at all levels: from pre-school and school Education to higher Education, vocational education and training, and adult education. Prime school offers vocational training if the students are committed to taking a step forward.

 In the last decade, worldwide educational innovation has driven new practices that impact and improve students' motivation and learning. Examples are Finland and the network of Jesuit schools in Barcelona. 

Prime school follows such examples and disrupts the traditional classroom model where the teacher debits and the students reproduce, with the PBL approach students have the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge acquired in the classroom and apply it to real-life situations closer to what will be faced when entering the labor market.

The importance of pre-school and teacher training is highlighted, one of the main actors of change. In Prime School, a change that integrates new ways of organizing class groups, schedules, and disciplines and spaces, which have been adapted to new organizational forms is in place. The teacher-student ratio corresponds to 1-5. "They conceive school activities in larger groups, from 2 to 3 basic classes, with the respective teachers teaching at the same time, sometimes working with all students, sometimes breaking down into different groups, with variable geometry, according to the type of activity in progress the pace of learning and carrying out activities, and also according to the projects in execution". -Amanda Santos, Marketing Teacher

Prime school takes a student-centered approach:

In short, it is at school that qualitative and sustainable change may or may not happen, regardless of what is enacted. And it is at the level of the classroom or the (which can be multiple) and what teachers do with student teaching-learning moments that change can occur, if teachers duly supported, duly clarified and able to inform, feeling part of a professional culture that reflected, dialogue and discussed common goals of according to the diversity of students it has, and which concluded the need for change in structure. “A school change is multidimensional, involving the purpose, the structure, the culture, politics, continuous learning, and discreet administration (...) everything affects everything else '' (Hargreaves, Earl, and Ryan, 1996). 

If education plays a major role in social change, it will be no less true that social changes call for a rethinking of education. But, unfortunately, the successive reforms applied had little influence on teaching practices. Therefore, having seen the failure of some supposed innovations in the organization of teaching, evidenced in the continuation of retentions, school dropout, demotivation of students and teachers, it is urgent to think again and in continuity, the importance of the “School” and its practices.

Prime school wants to revolutionize the education system in place and it's reflected on the results of students. The majority of Prime school students have access to the world's best universities

Furthermore, if the examples from schools that dared to change the current models resulted in the promotion of school success, it is advisable to think about the changes necessary for success to occur in our educational contexts.

Curriculum as the Gamechanger

Prime school believes that Portugal needs a school where pedagogical stagnation does not recur and where better results are obtained. "The curriculum and the way it is managed can be decisive in this process”, referring to the process of improving the schooling system in Portugal.

“In our school where innovation takes place, (…) in a logic of continuous professional development, and assuming shared and collective responsibility for the learning process of all students) Teachers assume themselves as builders and not mere executors of the curriculum, a sine qua non condition for implementing pedagogical innovations leading to relevant improvements in their students' learning." -Gabrielle Parrinha, Pedagogical Secretariat

Curriculum reform became in the past decade the primary focus for Education reform in Europe. The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop)   released a study in 2012 named "Curriculum reform in Europe and the impact of learning outcomes”. It concluded that curricula reform can benefit both the teachers and students and that making changes to the curriculum resulted in more effective and meaningful learning and teaching. The literature surrounding curriculum development and innovation suggests that dissemination (curriculum) occupies a central role in the process of change. (Fullan, 2008)

"In the face of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, education can make the difference as to whether people embrace the challenges they are confronted with or whether they defeat them. And in an era characterized by a new explosion of scientific knowledge and a growing array of complex societal problems, it is appropriate that curricula should continue to evolve, perhaps in radical ways." (OECD,2018)

Materializing the change

Inclusive education and curricular reform are key towards the aim to promote school success, which Prime School aims to achieve. Several studies have been carried out in order to grasp the effectiveness of promoting school inclusion through curricular reform. Inclusion demands curricular flexibility since not all students learn the same way. The “one-size-fits-all” approach becomes obsolete and contributes to school dropout rates and early school abandonment. (Rafo & Gunter, 2008)

The commitment to inclusive education, as described in "Policy guidance on inclusion in education" by UNESCO (2009) it’s a process aimed at responding to the diversity of pupils' needs by expanding the involvement and participation of all in learning and the life of the school community, was reaffirmed by Portugal's adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its optional protocol, which was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on December 13, 2006.  In Portugal, it was approved by Assembly Resolution 56/2009 on July 30, ratified by Presidential Decree 71/2009, and reaffirmed in the "Lisbon Declaration on Educational Equity" in July 2015. This pledge also aims to achieve the UN Agenda 2030's sustainable development goals. 

Portugal, therefore, elaborated the document “Students Profile for the 21st century”, a guiding matrix of current decisions regarding the educational process: Framed in the recommendations of the European Union, in the international documents of the OECD Education Project 2030,  and Education 2030 Framework for Action, by UNESCO, which Prime School International pays close attention to, in order to implement it in the school's policy. 

The Portuguese Ministry of Education established a student profile after leaving compulsory education defining a frame of reference that presupposes their freedom, responsibility, appreciation of work, self-awareness, family and community insertion, and participation in a rapidly changing society. 

The document explains principles, vision, values, competencies, and learnings. Some principles that underlie curricular work are listed:

  • Establishing a humanistic base profile, understanding knowledge as fundamental to the construction of a society centered on human beings and their dignity.

  • Contribute to sustainable development; put reality at the center of learning through flexible curriculum management; develop adaptability and boldness.

  • Guarantee stability so that the system adapts. The reformulations take effect, placing the school at the center of the valorization of knowledge through the awakening and promotion of intellectual curiosity.

How does Prime school put it into practice?

Prime School makes the Student Profile for the 21st Century, a priority:

  • Address each area of ​​knowledge's contents to situations and problems present in the student's daily life or present in the socio-cultural and geographical environment in which it operates, using materials and diversified resources. 

  • Organize teaching by providing experimentation with techniques, diversified instruments, and forms of work, promoting intentionally, in the classroom or outside, observation activities, questioning reality and integrating knowledge. 

  • Organize and develop cooperative learning activities oriented towards the integration and exchange of knowledge, awareness raising themselves, others and the environment, and realizing projects out of school. 

  • Organize teaching by providing critical use of information sources and information and communication technologies. 

  • Promote systematically and intentionally, in the classroom and outside, activities that allow students to make choices, confront points of view, solve problems, and make decisions based on values.

  • Create spaces and times at school for students to intervene freely and responsibly. 

  • To value, in the evaluation of the student's learning, the work of the free initiative, encouraging positive intervention in the school environment and community (DGES, 2017)

The role of the Teacher

This section starts to present the Teacher’s importance and the necessary commitment to comply with the expectations of the Prime school and implement them. The teacher is the primary agent for curriculum reform since the teachers and school leaders are responsible for designing it. Therefore, this section will analyze the teaching profession and its impacts on curriculum design and implementation.

The methodology for infallible student success continues to be discussed over the years, and no conclusion yet has been reached. However, a consensus that "The traditional forms of teaching are now obsolete” (Cardoso, 2013) starts to be pointed out. The methodology that accompanied the school fixed in the classrooms for several years should be reconsidered since it marginalized those who could not learn (Robinson & Aronica, 2010). Prime school takes the opportunity to reform the traditional model's classroom layout, considered archaic, although it is still timeless in many classrooms.

There is a vast range of strategies to achieve student success, enforce programs, acquire skills and values, and teach according to the profiles in a didactic, active and individualized way. However, there is no methodology or strategy for school success capable of covering all student profiles since its application/implementation determines that the actor-teachers balance and act rationally in each particular context. 

The teacher's work goes beyond the classroom and the act of teaching and correcting tests. Portugal and other European countries have currently changed teaching methodologies at the school, attempting to promote students' success. 

The teacher must remember that they represent “a model of conduct and civics for students", and therefore, the more culture he demonstrates, the more captive and more competent they will be, thus giving the teacher "an added responsibility”. In short, "when students appreciate a teacher and trust him, they like to know her/his opinion on issues that go beyond the strict classroom materials" (Cardoso, 2013).

In Prime school, the teacher does not only guide, accompany, and motivate the student, but teachers should also be responsible for developing students’ skills “such as cooperation, research and the ability to debate,” as defended by Cohen & Fradique (2018). Therefore, teachers create the curriculum in co-authorship with other teachers, focusing on the students' cognitive characteristics. 

Throughout the process, they should do the "setting of objectives, selection, and integration of contents; design of teaching strategies, operationalization of activities, streamlining and organization of resources and teaching materials; guidance and monitoring of students and appropriation of evaluation criteria” (Cohen & Fradique, 2018). 

Lifelong learning and the autonomy to do so is one of the objectives of implementing the student's profile after leaving mandatory schooling principles: "education must intentionally promote the development of the ability to learn, the basis of lifelong learning" (Martins et al., 2017). Therefore, in addition to adequate the changes and adaptations that the teacher must have throughout his professional career, according to Martins et al. (2017), the teacher must also perform some actions that linked with the areas of competence of the profile of the student, such as: promoting activities that allow students to master and express the various forms of expression and communication associated with "language, literature, music, arts, technologies, mathematics and science".

In Prime School, the professors build the annual plan at the end of the school year (July). The class professors accompany them from the previous year, and the teachers of each course are allocated, purposely, for the project sessions. In this meeting, they define, through the agglutinating theme, the sub-themes, and subjects they intend to work on. Throughout the year, once a week, the teachers are supposed to meet to discuss the next week and use an informal group on social networks to stay in touch or finalize some details after school time, stipulated for planning.

Implementing Curricular Changes

Autonomy and curriculum flexibility is helpful to schools seeking to create collaborative planning time for teachers. At the same time, however, these efforts invite technical complexities (e.g., structure school time, arranging interdisciplinary learning when designing curriculum flexibility…)

To implement curricular changes, teachers must develop foundational professional practices that help them achieve new curricular and pedagogical goals. By defining, developing, and enacting these new practices over time, teachers can continually improve their practices. Some of the foundational Portuguese’s methods that teachers could benefit from cultivating and sustaining include:

  • Prioritizing student learning and engagement 

  • Developing a culture of learning, trust, creativity and thoughtful risk-taking (Guin, 2004)

  • regularly practising faculty collaboration, student collaboration, reflection and action to improve teaching practices, and engaging and building partnerships with community members and other stakeholders (Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009).

These practices are vital and they are central for Prime School. Cultivating foundational professional practices that enable teachers and students to exercise autonomy and flexibility takes time. For example, interdisciplinary learning requires teachers in different subject areas to collaborate and learn from each other to find content areas that are amenable to merging. It requires students and teachers to learn and reflect and iterate their practices (Harris & Jones, 2020). Thus, new pedagogical and curricular practices take time to develop and implement, which started 20 years ago when the school was created.

Conclusion

Prime school: Core activities and benefits

  • Intensive Music and Arts  

  • Vocational training and accompaniment through the Career Programmes

  • Cambridge Curriculum

  • Our multicultural school engages in inclusion and the benefits of a bilingual education 

  • Wide scope of teaching and learning

  • Teachers are mentors and not figures of authority

  • Strong pedagogical and educational researchers

  • openness to foster the development of the best education for the student

  • Mix approach between Project-based learning approach and a Student-centered approach

  • Teacher-student ratio: 1-7 students

  • extracurricular activities programme

  • ICT enthusiast