It’s been a great 10 days in Australia, one that’s been too packed for much blogging, obviously, and one that was highlighted yesterday by a visit to one of those “I really wish my kids went to school there” type of schools in a Melbourne suburb. It’s hard to capture everything that’s cool about the Wooranna Park Primary School in a blog post, but let me boil it down to this: the kids are driving the learning, from the design of the school and the curriculum to the decision making around school policy and more. It’s one of those inquiry-based learning environments where the moment you step into it you just feel something different. Different spaces. Different colors. Different conversations. Different stuff up on the walls.
I’m hoping to write more about what the principal Ray Trotter is trying to do at Wooranna, but for now, here are some of the highlights:
- When the school got funding to renovate the year 5/6 part of the school, the teachers and students got together and decided that the theme for their studies that year would be “design”. So the students set out to create the timeline, select the furniture, create the space plans, and manage the budgets. It was an involved process, driven by important questions and fueled by the students’ desire (and passion) for creating a learning space they could flourish in. In the process, they interviewed architects, over-ruled the principal in the choice of classroom furniture (after doing detailed research on neck injuries caused by having to sit at round tables,) designed work stations (using Google Sketch-up), and oversaw the entire process. The result? A really stunning mixed open-space, flexible, comfortable learning environment that the students take pride in.
- Everywhere you look in the hallways of Wooranna you see questions. One poster asks “How can we invent colors?” Another says “How have our tomatoes been coping with the 40+ (C) temperatures?” And my favorite, “What is learning?” The walls aren’t filled with products; they are filled with process. And the teachers and leaders model it. Hung prominently on the wall and often discussed with the students is the school’s “Raison D’Etre”. It quotes Plutarch, Vygotsky, Betts and others, and it’s based on questions; “What are the key principles for transformative learning?” “What do I want to change?”
- School government takes the form of the fifth and sixth grade students meeting each Friday in a discussion session that replicates the Australian Parliament. For the first half of the year, half of the kids run the government, and the other half takes over at the midway point. The leaders are elected by the student body, and they go about making real decisions about real projects and policies.
- When they graduate from Wooranna, students perform original music and dance that they have written and choreographed. In fact, they compose a lot of their own music throughout the year. And art. And media.
- Ray Trotter, the principal, talks easily about social constructivism, connectivism, George Seimens, Stephen Heppel and many of the other ideas and people in this space. But at present, due to some restraints with the technology, there is not a great deal of connecting out to the world, though his is looking for schools to video conference with and is beginning to move down that road.
There’s more, as usual. But I’ll leave it with this one thought from Ray, one of many, that jumped out at me during our conversations: learning is not a linear exercise, it’s random, it’s self-directed, it looks like spaghetti. And at Wooranna, it’s very, very obvious.
Tania Sheko says
It’s interesting that I’m discovering this innovative school through your post; does it take a visitor from overseas to point us to innovations in our own backyard?
WOW! I just spent some time on their site. What a great place! So amazing!
Thanks for sharing ==a school I am definitely happy to know about.
I dream of a classroom environment and educational setting like Wooranna. Through reading about schools like this one, and continually being challenged to advance my thinking in pedagogy, I’m getting there slowly but surely.
Karen Szymusiak says
How fortunate you were to be able to experience the culture and learning at this school. Many great things are happening at Woorana Park. We can all learn from them.
Thanks for noting the trip on your blog and providing a link to their website.
Thanks for sharing your experience. I also checked out the school’s website. They write that “All teachers use an integrated studies approach…” I would be interested in finding out more about the staff’s journey towards this goal.
Roger Lemelin says
Great description of a real learning community!
What is especially wonderful is that these student, teachers, admin and community of parents come to see and experience this environment as `normal`; that posing essential questions and collaborating to shape and reshape possible solutions is not only important in their education, it IS their education.
I wonder how they perceive standardized tests.
Andrew Neely says
I was first introduced to the inquiry-based model of education during my own unique student teaching experience. I have since tried to incorporate inquiry-based projects into my 11th and 12th grade classes for the past few years with mixed results. I have noticed that when students have been “given” their education they are often reluctant to embrace the sense of exploration that inquiry-based education requires.
I am excited to hear that Wooranna Park Primary School has introduced the inquiry model at the elementary level. It is my sense that students “learn” how school works and when they are presented with something different they often resist. By embracing the inquiry model and trying to instill a spirit of questioning and self-guided learning Wooranna Park is helping students foster their instinctive sense of exploration. Kudos to Wooranna Park, hopefully readers of this blog will be emboldened by their example.
Olga LaPlante says
You nailed it, I am sure that this is exactly what happened, and thus you may not feel very encouraged in your attempts to bring out the inquisitiveness in high school students. They are often jaded, and – have you noticed that in teachers? – want precise directions to follow.
I notice that teachers more than any other professionals like to walk away with notes, a handout, with step-by-step directions. I would actually be curious to find out if teachers are the only population who follow directions when they are putting something together at home! I would bet they do.
Anyway, this is a very exciting post! I am too happy to know that such a school exists. Why, in the high school in our school district the principal is an ex-marine… What does that tell you? And in case you still have doubts, no, the walls aren’t painted in bright colors, not to mention that not only students, but also no teachers have much say in what the school does.
Graham Wegner says
Will, I’m glad you got to see an Aussie primary school while you were here – I do think that you would see similar things at my own school (remember that raincheck) except probably minus the modern decor and furniture. The reality is that this is an exceptional school and the normal, regular Aussie primary school is not as consistently dynamic. The key is effective and visionary leadership – and that is something that is very hard to scale across a large public education system. And my school is at least doing some small scale reaching out via our upper primary blogging community. Your session in Adelaide was very powerful and resonated with my own experiences. The best part was my colleagues who also attended who now can see for themselves via your expertise what they have vaguely interpreted from my own past evangelising!!
Bill Ferriter says
The key is effective and visionary leadership – and that is something that is very hard to scale across a large public education system.
Great point, Graham…I can see this kind of work happening in schools in the States as long as they had the right kind of principal and superintendent on board.
The challenge, then, become a few questions for us to hang on the digital walls of the edusphere:
Are effective and visionary leaders born or made?
Is it possible to develop innovation in everyone?
Those are questions I haven’t yet figured out the answers to.
Greg Carroll says
Good on ya Graham!
Wooranna Park is strongly based on the Reggio philosophy from what I can gather/read. Lots to learn for all of us in the primary school sector.
The strengths model and very child centred focus for learning is something we (should) all aspire to. Early childhood are often way ahead of even primary schools in this, and secondary don’t get a look-in.
Will – you will realise many schools in NZ and Aust follow an Inquiry approach and do it very well. Read the likes of Kath Murdoch, Tony Ryan etc to see what things we aspire to and already do.
I had heard Wooranna Park PS was doing great things and our school is doing similar stuff. Our grade 5/6 teachers (including me) have Teacher Professional Leave to research autonomous learning and individualised curriculum.
Another fantastic school to find out about is Bellaire PS in Geelong. Their Senior Learning Unit is amazing too.
Our team is in the process of creating a similar environment to both these schools. We are booked in to go and visit Wooranna Park in a few weeks time, very exciting!
Olga LaPlante says
How exciting! Really and truly, this is one of the happiest posts on this blog recently!
With all the “change” spirit flying around in the US, what struck me most in this post was the question, “What do I want to change?” (vs. let’s vote for change – what change???)
Thank you for sharing this school with those of us in the United States who dont get to experience school like this one in Austrailia. This concept of inquiry learning it is quite new to me. I have worked in a school for the last 3 years, teaching 5th grade, that is completly driven by test scores. I wonder how this type of learning would change the success of my students?
Very cool way of thinking, I cant wait to explore more.
Thank you for sharing, I am a teacher in NC. It is so inspiring to hear stories of schools that operate in this fashion. I am a huge advocate for technology integration and student driven/centered classes. I have been to Australia and truly enjoyed seeing their educational settings. I am glad my school strives to bring our students, staff, and curriculum into the 21st century. I look forward to sharing some of these ideas with my staff as we collaborate about school improvement.
diane darrow says
So amazed by this school It raised my spirits just seeing a school like this exactly exists. Any schools like this in Northern California?? Boy it would be fun to teach in an environment like this. Complete dream job. Thanks so much for sharing. Have any more to share?
Maria M says
Thanks Will for letting us know about this school. I really wish newer teachers like myself could have the chance to tour some of these types of schools as part of their teacher-education program, and to have a greater sense for what innovation in teaching and learning can look like and that it does exist, if only marginally, in reality. This is another great example for my own learning.
Charlie A. Roy says
Thanks for sharing this post. Sounds like a great visit. The student government idea is very intriguing. Any schools you know of here in the States who operate on a similar philosophy?
Kay McNulty says
Will, so nice to know this school is out there!
I recently had the opportunity to design a few classrooms through a grant – we created flexible collaborative spaces that kids would be able to flourish in….it seems the administration is now not happy with the design since testing season is approaching and each student does not have an individual desk. They want to take all the furniture out so that the old desks can go back in to allow for students to be seated in rows.
I definately agree this is a school that I would enjoy sending my children too. I think it is great that they are allowing the students to have a say in what happens in their school and what the design looks like because then they’ll be more willing to come and participate. I’m guessing they have a high success rate.
Mitchell Armour says
I think that letting the students design the school was a great idea. A big problem in schools is students having pride in their school. By giving the students the opportunity to do this not only gives school pride but also helps with teaching the skill of making decisions, which is a great skill to aquire.
William Evans says
This highlight of your trip certainly wants me to tear down some of the “work” off our school walls. The segment about process not product…priceless. Any school willing to put up a structure designed by the students is going to get “ownership” of learning at the highest level. Our school is going green and are in the process of writing grants for new efficient lighting. The upper and middle school students are running the show! Great connection. Why not have the Australian school a model for all!
Highlighting schools that hold an abundance of social and cultural capital is not an effective means of promoting pedagogical reform. Highlighting “model” schools as the driving force behind educational reform is ineffective and insulting to vast majority of school children that are struggling to survive in dilapidated, outdated, underfunded schools. There is no question schools such as the one highlighted in your post are achieving great things and I applaud them for advancing education beyond the standardized, hegemonic power structure of school bureaucracy for the sake of the student. The down side is that promoting such schools as the â€œmodelsâ€ only contributes fodder to the meritocratic notion that this is the way all education should be or “lookâ€ like. Your promotion of a school here and science academy there that possess the necessary capital to implant such cutting edge pedagogy completely ignores 90% of public school students and teachers who dig in the “trenches” and work with what they have. How many inner city or rural poor schools are you visiting or better yet how many state departments of education are you and your blogger cronies lobbying to equalize access to the Internet regardless of local tax laws? You are commoditizing education with statements like “I want my kid to go to this school” that props-up the materialism of the elite while reinforcing the lack of the poorâ€¦
John Pearce says
Interesting that Em makes reference to Bellaire PS as I was part of the team that initiated the Senior Learning Unit to which she refers to. It is also the school that I was thinking of when I asked about the extension of the PLP cohort further in Australia. Whilst you will find lots of similarities between BPS and Wooranna Park, there are also some interesting differences. As Graham W suggests, it was a pity that you (understandably), weren’t able to spend a little more time down under. If and when you do return it would be my pleasure to “tee up” a visit to BPS, plus a little Aussie hospitality on the side. Either way I shall be exploring further how I might encourage them down the PLP path.
As to Moe’s point about schools such as WPS and BPS and Chris Lehmann’s etc, whilst the authorities and indeed the school admin may indeed promote these schools for their own agendas, I can say from personal experience that the teachers involved at BPS have done the hard yards under less than ideal conditions to establish an ethos and approach often quite independently of these same administrators. I should also note that both WPS and BPS shared a similar quite drab and unstimulating architecture prior to the moves undertaken to free up space. Most of the continuing development of the school buildings especially at BPS is at best a piecemeal adaptation which has been skilfully managed out of scarce resources. Once again though the key ingredient is the hard work and dedication of the teachers and the students. It is probably more to the point that as you rightly point out there are so few examples of these such schools that they stand out as beacons, that is not your’s or the school’s fault but a failure of others to take up these challenges.
Wow! What a fascinating school! It sounded wonderful just reading your post, and then I went to the school’s website. The school looks and sounds incredible, something you need to see with your own eyes! I completely agree with kids owning the learning. I think they will get so much more out of their learning if they feel they were a part in creating it.