Woodleigh’s philosophy and direction

"We ought never to do for young people what they, with a struggle, could be expected to be doing for themselves."

Woodleigh’s founding Principal made the above statement when he was working to establish Woodleigh’s philosophy and direction. It was a statement that spoke both of what the school was trying to achieve and how it would best educate its students.

However, without a proper understanding of context, it is a statement that can be easily misunderstood or misconstrued.

Young children navigate this process naturally and without fear. A discussion with children in our Early Childhood Centres will see them proposing all manner of responses to a particular problem without fear and with scant concern for the outcome. They are completely open to learning and 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 of toddlers and develop a fear of failure that prohibits an openness to being challenged and overcoming difficulties? Many things happen to us on that journey; we develop self-awareness and self-consciousness as we grow, become aware of and develop a fear what others might think of us.

Another thing that happens to children 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 this is 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, as 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? As they progress further through the system, 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 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 all very reasonable and achievable. She had been Dux every year during her time at the school; she sat at the front of my class, studiously wrote down everything I said, and constantly sought answers to questions she had. My usual response was to ask her questions and 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 1, she waited back 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 why couldn’t I just tell the class what they need to know for the exam and succeed at the assessments.

At this moment, 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, she placed in the top 3% of Physics students in Victoria and achieved an ATAR of 99+. 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 guest of the school and thanked me for helping her understand the importance of challenge, struggle and thinking in the learning process.

As teachers and as a school, our role is to challenge students, to make them ‘comfortably uncomfortable with their learning, and, therefore, to develop as young citizens of the world. As teachers and mentors, our role is to support them – to coach, advise and encourage their curiosity.

At Woodleigh, 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 leading young minds, we need to be careful 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.