Mark Burgess, Learning Activist
Mark Burgess has been a key member of the Senior Leadership Team at NBCS since 2010. His title is ‘Learning Activist’, a self-chosen title that encapsulates the vision for his role, leading high-priority projects within the school that look at the way learning culture is shaped within our community.
What is the role of ‘Learning Activist’?
My role is to work with individuals and teams across the school to activate learning, and to challenge current thinking on how we do something, to find a better way of doing it. For example, we put a team together to look at various aspects of our Senior Years learning. We examined how the most successful learners learn, and worked to create structures to help students make the best use of their time.
So what has your journey been, up until this point?
In my previous schools I’ve had leadership roles. In welfare; as a head of Science for 10 years; I've been a head of house. They all came together in this current role, where I am working with teams of staff, teams of support staff, teams of students, to look at learning in a space, and also with a responsibility for managing the physical space. Alongside this is the responsibility for the teaching and learning that occurs there.
What is your role as part of the Senior Leadership Team, not in terms of what your title is, but in terms of how you work with other people?
The way we've organised our roles is in terms of what we call Priority Projects. This is very helpful because it allows us to direct our time and energy to our priorities, which have ultimately been set by the Principal in line with the vision of the school. An example of one of those projects is the Year 8 Quest program (integrated Science and Geography).
What is your favourite space or context for learning at NBCS?
The space I gravitate to the most would be the cafe, and then perhaps the Music room, Rhythm and Blues . Collaborating with other students or staff is an essential part of what I do – sharing the stories, sharing the learning, sharing the work. It all contributes to a shared meaning, shared understanding, and we all go forward in the same way. A cafe-style context really helps with that, it creates a different dynamic.
Rhythm and Blues is quite a different space from a traditional music room. You also have a background in music. How do you feel about that space?
It really is about mimicking the professional environment, and that makes the learning more real. Central to all learning is the idea that theory is embedded in practice and played out in practice. The current arrangement and makeup of Rhythm and Blues allows for that. You don't go to a concert to talk about music theory, you go to a concert to experience it as the orchestra plays it, or as the performer delivers it. And that is what you see in action in Rhythm and Blues.
We have a lot of very different furniture here at NBCS. What do you see is the function of furniture in creating the effective space for learning?
The physical space in any classroom dictates practice. Changing that physical space by changing furnishings and furniture is really important to shifting both teacher practice and student practice. By crafting the space, it can help you get to where you want to go - flexibility, blended learning and utilising technology.
How do you choose the right furniture?
A lot of our furniture we've prototyped at NBCS, so some of it works, and some of it doesn't work as well as it could – it is an iteration. But all of it helps change the assumptions that people bring to a classroom space. For example the first prototype of the sofas you see in many spaces were a bit too soft to sit at with a computer. But they've still changed the dynamic of the classroom. Our classrooms are an example of human-centred design thinking in progress.
Within this learning environment how has the role of the teacher changed?
The teacher remains essential, but the way they relate to students has changed. They must engage with the students, and manage the space and the time. The teacher is the architect of the learning, and is responsible for students being able to take responsibility for their own learning. The role of the teacher is still pivotal – but it is much more subtle, less overt.
What does managing a positive classroom look like?
Over the last few years there has been a fundamental shift in the mindset of teachers. When we have students who, for some reason, have difficulty learning a particular concept we look for an alternate approach to learning that works for them. We need to apply the same thinking to learning as we do to behaviour. Just as we reinforce the appropriate behaviours, we develop strategies to teach them, and then give them a chance to display the appropriate learning behaviours.
What do you see as the main advantage in having an integrated approach to the content, and not stand-alone subjects?
The advantage behind bringing subjects together is to reflect the real world, where we don't tend to compartmentalise an individual aspect of learning. In Year 7 we’ve tied art to history so we can allow our students to express their learning of historical concepts, and their learning of modern day culture through visual arts.
What do you see as the main flavours of Northern Beaches? What are the strengths?
The strengths of NBCS are flexibility and personalisation. We really work hard to make sure that individuals, both staff and students, have a positive experience of the school. We don’t expect people to fit a mould – we cater for the individual differences, and we'll accommodate those things that make people, people. This brings a real richness to our community.
What things would you like to see as part of your role moving forward?
I’d like learning to be as fun, engaging and authentic as possible for the students, breaking down the artificial barrier between school and the rest of life, and school and work. I would like to see that continually moving forward.
We've implemented various models of teaching and learning, such as project-based/challenge-based learning (PBL). The models are helpful as we create structures that push forward elements of learning that involve individual choice: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and authentic learning.
A passion of mine is to make the teaching and learning experience better for both teachers and students. I'd like to be able to develop with teachers the strategies and structures that make that happen.
What do you think are our biggest challenges as a community?
We look very different to the schooling that most people are familiar with – particularly parents. Their children’s experience of schooling is so foreign to their own, so different to what they experienced. I think parents can feel alienated and unfamiliar with what is going on. We want to help parents see how with our learning we are producing students who are real communicators, real collaborators, flexible thinkers, intuitive, aware of their surroundings, self-aware – 21st century skilled for their 21st century workplace and community.