Woodleigh’s philosophy and direction

This statement below was made by Michael Norman when he was establishing Woodleigh’s philosophy and direction. It was a statement that encapsulated what the school was trying to achieve and how students would be educated. It is a statement that holds true today and reminds us; it is the backdrop of every computer within the school. It is a statement that can also be easily misunderstood or misconstrued without fully understanding the context of our school.

As our students try to unpack their learning at home for the past two weeks, they have certainly struggled and have had to do most of the heavy lifting regarding their education. I am also sure that many parents, particularly of younger students, have had a tough fortnight negotiating frustration and a lack of motivation as students struggle to access learning via zoom—a challenge for everyone. 

Michael Norman’s quote is not unique to Woodleigh; it is at the heart of effective and authentic learning. Learning is a process that we all move through as we try to make meaning of an experience, events, or observations presented as part of the learning process. It requires time to think about your experience, grapple with any new or altered concepts, transfer current ideas and thinking into a new context, and eventually develop understanding. Young children undergo this process naturally and without fear. A discussion with children in the ECCs will see them proposing all types of responses to a particular problem without fear and little concern for the outcome. They are open to learning and do so with little distraction. They are also available to challenge and will take these on with little hesitation. 

What happens to our children as they grow older and more conservative with their learning? Why do they lose the wonder that young children have and develop a fear of failure that prohibits an openness to being challenged and overcoming difficulties? Many things happen to us all on that journey, the development of self-awareness as we grow older and a result of self-consciousness as we become aware of and fear what others might think of us. Something else that happens to us on that journey is education. In its current form, education is designed to meet the needs of the masses and ensure that the maximum number of people achieve a minimum standard of education in our country. Whilst an admirable aim, it has had more to do with statistics and measures than the learning process that genuinely encourages thinking, creativity and curiosity. As schools, we fear not meeting our compliance requirements or national standards, and not doing so would invoke public humiliation and ridicule. 

What do our students think about learning and their evolution as learners throughout their time at school? Their experience becomes more about answers and getting things right and achieving good scores than genuine learning and challenge. If we stop challenging our students and start providing them with the solutions to memorise for low order assessment tasks, they will lose the ability to be resilient thinkers. 

A few years ago, I taught a Year 12 Physics class. It was a class of high achievers, aspirational learners and interested science students. Within the class was a girl who had very lofty goals regarding her tertiary education and life. Given her academic record, these were reasonable and achievable. She had been the dux of every year level during her time at the school. She sat at the front of my class, studiously wrote down everything I said, and constantly seeking answers to questions she had. My usual response to most of her questions was to ask her questions and to challenge her thinking. I often gave the class open-ended problems to solve that involved collaboration, research and small group discussion. She was achieving well and was easily the highest-ranked student in this class. At the end of Term One, she waited at the end of a class and asked if she could provide some feedback. Her feedback was that she hated the way I taught, and could I just tell them what they need to know for the exam and be successful at assessments. At this point, my heart broke as I realised how the School and Australia’s education system had let her down. It had conditioned her to work towards achieving grades and preparing for tests and assessments rather than inspiring her to be curious and love the challenge of learning. I continued to challenge her throughout the year and supported her through coaching and guidance rather than providing answers. It was hard for both of us, and there were tears along the way. At the end of the year, placed in the top 3% of students for Physics in Victoria and achieved a 99+ ATAR score. She went on to study engineering at ADFA and, to this day, is a very successful aeronautical engineer. Two years into her degree, she returned as a school guest and thanked me for helping her understand the importance of challenge, struggle and thinking in the learning process. Skills have benefited me enormously as an engineer. 

Returning to Michael’s quote, our role as a school is to challenge our students, make them comfortably uncomfortable with their journey, and develop as young citizens of the world. To support them with coaching, advice and mentoring and encouraging curiosity. We aim to be a school of questions, not answers and a school that looks for every opportunity to develop transformative learning opportunities, anywhere, anytime. As adults, we need to hold back and try not to rescue our kids whenever they experience challenge and struggle. Our job is to mentor, coach and help them to find their way through learning and life. 

I would like to wish all of our students and safe and restful mid-year break. Once again, the challenge of COVID has provided us with challenges to overcome. Once again, our staff, students, and families have risen to the challenge and enabled us to finish the term together and with optimism. 

I look forward to seeing all of our community next term, rested and ready for a great Semester Two, prepared for the challenges ahead and feeling equipped to take on the world.