The True Purpose of an Education

I recently had a discussion with a Woodleigh parent about the notion of the academic or perceived non-academic nature of Woodleigh. The discussion ensued after broader perceptions about our School were expressed to this parent in casual conversation. The conversation was related to school selection, and in particular, the choice of schools on the Peninsula. We chatted specifically about why different parents choose different schools and, in some cases, different schools for different children from the same family.

Images from Wednesday's 'Adventurous Minds Day' for Senior Campus students.
Baking, biking, building, birding, whittling, wilding, walking, sanding, splitting, serving, painting, photographing, pie-making, post setting and more!

Words such as 'academic', 'structure', 'discipline' and 'accountability' featured prominently in this conversation; likewise, a 'generally held belief' that Woodleigh is not academic or structured, and does not hold students accountable for completing work or the quality of their work. As the new leader of our School, I found this conversation intriguing, and it sparked my curiosity.

The concepts of academia, accountability and being pushed are interesting in themselves. The term 'academic' relates to learning and creating an environment where learning is at the heart of everything we do. Academic refers to a mindset based around curiosity, research and the pursuit of truth. Creating an academic environment is to create a culture of responsibility, trust and respect. 'Accountability' and the notion of extrinsic pushing are very much at odds with what I would call an academic environment. In fact, to push learning or create an overly compliant and accountable environment would be destructive to the higher-order notion of academia. 

In the true description of academia, I would describe Woodleigh as the most academic school I have worked at. It is a school where students are given permission to pursue the truth in their learning, where learning opportunities exist in every activity students undertake, and curiosity is nurtured as a fundamental aspect of the learning process.

Accountability implies that students cannot be trusted to do what is required and to do it to an acceptable standard. In the context of education, do we need to hold students accountable for their work and ensure that they are pushed to achieve their best? Accountability and being pushed are imposed actions; they are set upon students, depriving them of voice and choice and creating an extrinsic motivation that is not sustainable, nor does it prepare our students for the lives they aspire to lead.

Woodleigh students develop a sense of responsibility towards their work and the artifacts they produce as evidence to their learning. Developing responsibility is to develop intrinsic motivation. To be a self-motivated and engaged learner is to become a lifelong learner who is curious about the world we live in and passionate about their life's pursuits. Most of us would believe that when we are born, we enter this world as curious, engaged and highly motivated learners; however, over time, we diffuse these natural tendencies with institutional and systemic requirements. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all saw the world through a curious lens and a present mind?

The big question is, how? How does Woodleigh develop independent, curious, motivated and engaged students? Students who don't need accountability, as they understand responsibility and students who know how and when to push themselves.

When I asked our staff to articulate 'the how', they were very clear on Woodleigh's culture and their responsibility as staff members within that culture. The main points they stated were:

  • At Woodleigh, students develop positive and trusting relationships with their teachers.
  • The teacher's role is to support students through mentoring, coaching, advising and scaffolding.
  • Developing responsibility and independence doesn't mean 'hands-off' or leaving students to fall through the gaps. It is about walking alongside our students on their journey of growth and discovery.
  • It is not about giving the students the answers it is about guiding them to find their own solutions.
  • It is about knowing our students so well that we can determine the appropriate point of challenge for each student. To ensure our students are comfortably uncomfortable when learning.
  • The safety net for our senior students is the Homestead Program and the caring and supportive role taken on by the Tutor.
  • It is about providing timely feedback that is useful and guides our students to the next stage of their learning.
  • It is about working with parents to provide a strong and supportive network for each student.

As part of our discussions, one group of staff came back with the following, profound and enlightening statement.

"At Woodleigh, we are engaged in giving students the skills and thinking capabilities to set them up as informed global citizens and lifelong learners. 

Academic studies are important but not the sole focus. Students at Woodleigh are mentored in self-regulation and responsibility for self rather than compliance to a set of rules. This is framed around the 3Rs. Students are guided to understand the full breadth and depth of these, as we want them to be independent learners with adventurous minds. This takes time to develop, and students will, at times, fail or fall over as they come to terms with the skills and mindset needed to master these attributes. 

Situations which are messy for students are experiences in which profound insight and learning occur in the safe environment that the School offers. To help students navigate this, we use restorative practices rather than punitive ones so that students spend time reflecting on their actions and thoughts and commit to making meaningful changes."

As a School, every member of our community must have a shared understanding of our purpose, our culture, our educational philosophy and the behaviours that we must all role model and support. Woodleigh School has always been very clear and very purposeful about the philosophy of the School and why we support and strive to create the environment described in the statement above. 

I am incredibly honoured to be Woodleigh's Sixth Principal, and to be leading the School at this time. As the steward of our culture, our purpose and our vision, my responsibility is clear. It may be a great challenge to ensure that these things are shared by all and portrayed in everything we do; however, it has never been more critical than at our current point in history.

When I ponder the real value of an education and the education I desire for my own children, it is to ask them the question – "How do you want to live your life?" Education should equip young people to make good decisions about the lifestyle they desire. It should develop their appreciation of the gift that life is, value it, and reveal how best to share it with others. A true education is about developing a sense of worth, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. 

At Woodleigh, true education is about teachers and parents walking alongside students, mentoring and guiding them through the challenges and triumphs – and helping them to learn to appreciate and make the most of the gift that their lives are.