The school where student empowerment comes first

The school where student empowerment comes first

The late Sir Ken Robinson, who was perhaps the modern world’s most profound thinker on education and creativity, spoke of play as being a primary, and primal, way that we learn to understand and experience the world around us.

Indeed, a plethora of research shows that play can be an effective tonic for stress and can encourage the development of positive behaviours. In turn, this has shown to help students engage more with their learning, and with one another.

At Margaret Hendry School (MHS), a play-based pedagogy is putting children firmly at the centre of their own learning. Through project-based learning and a hands-on approach that is linked authentically to the real world, children are guided to become not just high-achievers, but autonomous change-agents.

Such is the school’s dedication to student agency that even has a ‘Children’s Parliament’, where members oversee portfolios such as Environment, Play, Culture and Integrity and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

At the school children are organised into “multi-age, multi-stage learning neighbourhoods” (Kindy to Year 2, or Year 3 to 6) and learn at a pace that is meaningful to them. Educational plans and learning timetables target children’s specific point of need, and unlike the old model, age plays no part in influencing the content and curriculum.

In recognition of its revolutionary approach to education, MHS was recently named one of The Educator’s most innovative schools of 2020.

Below, The Educator speaks to the school’s principal, Kate Woods, about the accolade, the MHS’ key learnings from the pandemic and opportunities to improve teaching and learning in the year ahead.

TE: Firstly, a huge congratulations on Margaret Hendry School being named among the winners of The Educator’s Innovative Schools 2020. Drawing from your experience in education and leadership, what do you believe are the qualities that make an innovative school?

Thank you! It is really affirming for our vision and all the hard work to date from the team to be recognised as an innovative school. Some of the key qualities and attributes that make a school innovative are having a clear and easily understandable vision and ensuring that you are living and breathing that vision for learning every day. Our four pillars for learning leave no wondering about what we value most at Margaret Hendry School – Love, Collaborate, Grow and Connect. I firmly believe that a leader must work to establish a culture of innovation among the staff and community which is founded in deep professional and personal trust. It is far too easy to retreat into the safety and comfort of doing things the way they have always been done. With trust, we establish a culture where being in the learning pit is a natural part of every day for both staff and children. Where risk-taking and innovating will never lead to being ostracised or left out to face criticism alone, rather, being brought in close to work alongside others to stretch and challenge thinking. I think that being bold and brave is essential, but even more so is being vulnerable with your team and leading with empathy, understanding and a sense of the real you. People must see who you are at the core to really put their faith in you and walk alongside as you step in to the unknown during times of uncertainty.

TE: What kind of year 2020 has been for the school, and what have been the most important learnings for both you as a leader and for the school community?

This year highlighted areas for growth and new ways of being and doing. It allowed us to strengthen the narrative around the vision for learning and support families to develop a true appreciation for the workings of a school day through the eyes of their child. Feedback from families was positive during remote learning, with many families getting that ‘ah-ha’ moment around what the personalisation of learning looks like at Margaret Hendry School. As families sat alongside their child and watched them independently navigate and traverse their learning over the course of a week, they were thrilled with the high levels of self-management, creativity, communication and collaboration from their children. I drew on my agility as a leader to think through the elements of which stakeholders would require certainty, on which they would require consultation and on which they would require collaboration.  In times of volatility, people look for certainty and confidence as they need something to trust and reply on. I felt an enormous responsibility to my school community to provide that sense of certainty. I think there is a more developed understanding across the entire community now around when we need certainty, when we need to be consulted on something and when there is a need and a place for true collaboration.

TE: I understand that Margaret Hendry School is the first ACT government school built to address the Future of Education Strategy. Can you tell us more about this and what it means for teaching and learning at the school?

Margaret Hendry School is the first school to be built since the introduction of the Future of Education strategy. We work alongside our colleagues in all ACT public schools to deliver on the key foundations of the strategy which are to place students at the centre of their learning, empower teachers, school leaders and other professionals to meet the learning needs of all students, build strong communities for learning and strengthen systems to focus on equity with quality. In essence, the principles for the implementation of the strategy informed the vision for learning and our approach to pedagogy and practice at Margaret Hendry School. Equity, student agency, access and inclusion are key to the research and evidence base that sits behind each of our pillars for learning. The model of learning is built around target teaching children at point of need through explicit workshops and providing a continuum of inquiry that releases increasing responsibility to the learner as they progress through the school. Children embrace this model and overtime become empowered learners, constructing their own timetable of learning, capturing evidence of their learning and confidently sharing their mastery of concepts with others. 

TE: Looking ahead, what do you see as the greatest opportunities to improve the way that teaching and learning happens – both at Margaret Henry, and for schools more broadly?

Personally, I believe that society at large needs to have a rethink about the role of a student and the role of a teacher. An opportunity exists to flip the mindset of the community through something as simple as language. We see the role of our teachers as being like a ‘learning coach’ - working alongside the children to stretch and challenge their thinking and develop a personalised program of learning to meet their individual needs. A teacher is not a fount of all knowledge at the front of a classroom whose core role is a simple transfer of knowledge to the child – teaching and learning is a collaborative, immersive and ongoing effort involving all parties. Similarly, to flip the thinking on the role of a student, we always refer to our students as children or learners. A child is not simply a passive recipient of information who progresses through a set of learning tasks provided based on their age – they are an active participant in their own learning and one who has untapped potential and an innate curiosity to learn. We must start with the little steps to garner the support and shift thinking to really make change and reimagine education. The time isn’t now, the time was yesterday. We cannot wait another minute.