Reflections On Visiting Wooranna Park Primary School

Reflections On Visiting Wooranna Park Primary School

Preamble

Early evening, 23rd May 2017.

The Victoria University’s Metro Centre on Nicholson Street in Footscray and the Mitchell Institute is hosting an address by Professor Yong Zhao, who the Institute has appointed a Professorial Fellow for his work focusing on the implications of globalisation and technology in education. The topic is “In an era of world-wide learning, is Australia leading or lagging?”

Why am I there?

I am interested in Professor Zhao’s interrogation of creativity, entrepreneurship and education.  I have been following his quest to understand what needs to change in schools.  I have been particularly influenced by his views in World Class Learners (2012). I have researched the relationship between entrepreneurship and creativity since the start of my postgraduate studies in 1990 when I wanted to understand why my drama students faced unemployment if they hoped to work in theatre.  

As a working-class kid, I thought this was insane, and so I set off to research entrepreneurship and the making of the Australian theatre industry.  I was hugely influenced by Ken Robinson’s seminal report, All Our Futures (1999), for the Blair government which repositioned creativity as generic human capacity, rather than something which was given serendipitously by the ‘muse’.

Finding myself amongst interesting people

As the address begins, I’m aware that I’ve found myself sitting in amongst a group of people who seemed to be relating to one another with a robust familiarity, some calling out for a spare sheet of paper to take notes, others talking about the long journey to Footscray. It quickly dawned on me that I was sitting amongst a school staff. When the gentleman sitting next to me introduced himself as the principal of the school, I received my first introduction to Ray Trotter and Wooranna Park Primary School.

I bungled through explaining something about myself as a writer and researcher in an education start-up, Fantastic Learning Systems P/L,  passionately focused on helping teachers and school leaders benefit from the changing role of the ‘teacher-author’ and the school’s need to practice ‘content strategy’.  I explained to Ray that I wanted to grow the status of the profession which in recent times had taken a beating. I wasn’t erudite, but I must have said enough to warrant Ray’s kind invitation to visit the school.

Early morning, 30th August 2017

The journey to Wooranna Park Primary School involved two trains and one long bus ride from my home in Footscray. Unfortunately, there was a medical emergency on the train ahead which effectively stopped trains on the City Loop into Flinders St Station.

I notified the school of the incident and the friendly voice (Lyn) that greeted my alarm assured me that it would be all right to continue to make my way to the school, that I would be welcome when I arrived.  I didn’t know then, but I came to understand that the warmth I received down the phone line was to be the keynote for the day.  

Now, as I write about my visit, just the memory of the day feels sensational. In part, this is because it makes me think about how I have come to expect indifference from overly busy office staff and teachers running around doing their work.  Or, sadly, I’ve become accustomed to the surly, officious attitudes of school leaders who seem to have left their sense of humour behind, in their climb towards leadership positions.

By contrast, my memory of Wooranna Park Primary School carries the sense of joy which I experienced from staff and students in every part of the school.  There was laughter interspersing the serious tasks of educating children.  There was swiftness of movement with a welcoming smile when my eyes met those I observed in classrooms or moved through the school’s amazingly flowing architectural design.

Elliot Eisner might have been writing about Wooranna Park Primary School when he stated in The Arts & The Creation Of Mind (2002) that

Joy is not a term that is used much in the context of education, but if the arts [WPPS] are [is] about anything, they[it] are[is] about how they[staff and students] make you feel in their presence… about becoming alive.

I didn’t know the half of it!

I have spent twenty years, since the first wave of curriculum reforms in the late 1990s, visiting hundreds of schools in my home state of Western Australia. I thought I could ‘pigeon-hole’ Wooranna Park Primary School on the continuum of ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ schools which I have developed over the years.

However, WPPS defies such a continuum. Rather, my encounter with Ray, Jennie, Janet and Kieran holds for me a new experience. I see my visit as stepping onto a platform with a group of people ready to be forward-looking, travelling imaginatively to meet the future. I experienced a sense of optimistic realism, as well as a well-researched and rigorous approach. I observed throughout the day, how, as school leaders, they looked to use a sense of creativity in their professionalism. Above all, they are obsessively mindful of their impact on their students and the wider school community

The Welcome: Assistant Principal / Head of Junior School Janet Whittle

As the train incident had made me an hour late in arriving for my 10 am meeting with the Principal, I was preparing myself for a quick visit instead of the whole day I was to spend there. Instead, Janet Whittle arrived within moments of my appearance at School Reception. She explained to me that Principal Ray was with visitors from the Malaysian government, who were looking to develop a future learning centre.

After the customary making of a cup of tea, Janet and I settled in Ray’s office where I was introduced to the philosophy of the school through the “Creating a New Education Paradigm” diagram. I noticed how easy it was to listen to Janet. Her authentic welcome soon cleared away any need for further apologies.  Instead, Janet exposition of WPPS’s concept of a Raison D’etre or, The Reason For Being focused me on the inner triangle of ‘Pedagogy’ at the heart of the diagram.  What struck me was the diversity of configurations learning took on within the school environment at WPPS.

Each of the elements, from workshops to autonomous learners programs listed, described what seemed an extraordinary amount of careful thinking by the staff of the power relationships between teachers and students. All learning environments focused on enabling students to deepen their sense of personal and collective responsibility. There was a willingness on the part of teachers to ‘model’ their own quest for knowledge. Janet and I were also able to share some thoughts on teaching philosophy to primary age children, working with ‘gifted’ students and the importance of teacher as researchers

The Guided Tour: Year 5 Students Jarrah and Namra

After my philosophical orientation of the school, Janet walked to a room of Year 5s participating in a ‘Literature Circle’. On the way through, I noticed the flow in which the various learning areas moved into one another.  There was a transparency about what everyone was doing, yet also a sense of privacy and protection.  Students were not ‘on display’, but neither were they behind ‘closed’ doors: the use of glass and the unconventional shaping of nooks and spill-out areas called up my continuous interest.  

When I was handed over to two Year 5 students, Jarrah and Namra, to be my guides, I noticed the maturity in meeting up with me.  Furthermore, the short disruption Janet and I caused in asking for the guides seem to be minimal: I did not hear either the teacher having to give the conventional direction of ‘get back to work’, nor was there even the slightest hint that anyone was trying to ‘get out of doing work’.  Janet, together with the class teacher, genuinely asked who was free to give me a guided tour and so Jarrah and Namra stepped forward.  

It is not an exaggeration that I felt the students were two of the most amazing young people I’ve had the pleasure to meet for a long time.  They demonstrated a keen understanding as they described their timetable, their projects, their portfolios, their use of the library, their pride in building the ‘flying moose’.

Improvisation and another cup of tea.

Quite by accident, the students and I met up with Ray outside the Year 3/4 area. It was the exact moment that I was insisting that the students go to lunch. Ray then took me to the staffroom in which I had an impromptu meeting with the school leadership team. It was here that I was asked questions about my start-up. I was able to say a little more about the importance of enabling the ‘teacher-author’ to self-publish. As the writer of six textbooks, it was my journey, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t alone. Firstly, because the age of ‘big publishers’ was over as digital tools were available to anyone wanting to become independent authors.  Secondly, if teachers and school leaders were to take advantage of this moment in history, it was likely that they might need help in negotiating the mountains of curriculum documents, policy PDFs, web pages, agendas and strategic plans that were now part of the everyday school environment. I wanted to help navigate the change: particularly on ways of bringing content strategies into school so that school leaders could release the best stories of their work.  

Janet placed before me a book written by a mother and son on the child’s diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes – what would I do? My answer was essentially about building such ‘extraordinary’ happenings into ‘content management’ of the school. I tried to explain that I had come to understand that our overly busy schools are made through ‘add-ons’ that pile up, rather than do what WPPS does, look forward towards solutions, in a sense, before they arise. In the words of the organisational structuring of WPPS,

Change the system, not the child. Do things with children, not to them.  Betts.

Meeting Jennie Vine.

Ray was also keen that I meet Jennie Vine and come to hear about the ‘Enigma Mission’. I had watched a video before coming to the school, but it was only in speaking with Jennie that I understood the depth of the approach.  Again, in conventional terms, project-based learning has been around for some time.  However, it seems to me that Jennie places a different expectation of the work. My first impressions were that the name itself ENIGMA MISSION is highly significant in framing the work as an imaginative world in which students might interrogate questions that they value asking.  Furthermore, Jennie looked to her students to make transformational change by being passionate and obsessed with a topic.    

Ironically, Jennie and I both share an Arts background as directors of student productions and creative work. It was fascinating for me to see how she had ‘reverted’ to primary education as I had chosen to do when I set up the ‘curriculum laboratory’ at the Biscuit Factory Arts Centre in South Fremantle. As BFAC’s Creative Director, between 2001 and 2008, I devised and implemented over thirty drama and animation projects in afterschool and holiday programmes for over 2000 young people, in which I focused on developing thinking skills, including work with the Philosophy In Schools association. During that time, I won several grants to produce programmes for local schools, youth festival organisations and arts for special needs. I was also a key researcher on the Australian Research Council Linkage Grant in partnership with Dr Felicity Haynes of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia, studying the impact of arts project on the development of creative thinking skills.

From Enigma Mission To The Enigma Portal

After the staff meeting, Jennie and Kieran invited me to view the Enigma Mission and Enigma Portal at work. I found myself in an uncharacteristic ICT area – uncluttered and imaginatively designed with monitors that displayed the school’s courage to connect globally. I observed the connections to other classrooms in NZ in real time, through the time difference meant no one was in the NZ location. I complimented the presence of the green screen. Kieran’s self-deprecating humour told me about the problems of a curved wall and its shadows. I watched students doing their independent projects and met Nicolina who outlined her project on ‘organic cosmetics’ and the fraudulent claims of cosmetic companies who hide behind the ‘organic’ label.

I experienced the use of a new form of VR through which you can draw and alter effects in real time using two handheld devices.  I had a great talk with Kieran on his projects, including the use of steemit powered by blockchain technology. It was a privilege to listen to his awareness of the pedagogical implementation of the technologies with which he works.  Since my visit, I have made it a point to read the many articles in which Kieran’s work is applauded.

I’m not interested in ‘best practice’ but ‘next practice’!

As a writer and researcher in education, I have used the last decade to become more and more critically engaged in the use of digital technologies in teaching and learning.  For instance, while living in London between 2009 and 2014, I completed training on the use of digital tools that play a significant role in the creation curriculum documents: so today I create websites through WordPress.org and devise curriculum on rapid authoring software, Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate. Since returning home to Australia in 2015, I have worked in a small team of business manager, a digital content strategist, two graphic/media artists and an author of young people’s fiction to further explore being a ‘curriculum maker’.

I have now read several news articles on WPPS. The school’s audacity is inspirational.  There is no doubt in my mind that the staff can demonstrate how students at WPPS are developing into global citizens. There is enormous complexity in everything they do but there is also an overwhelming sense of being in a school community.

As I reflect on Professor Zhao’s work, I’m conscious that there is much to do still in the area of creativity, education and technology. However, having visited WPPS, I feel I have viewed what educators need to do if we are, at the very least, to imagine the future. It may be true that the jobs which will employ our students have not yet be invented, and that we cannot ‘train’ them to be prepared for the workforce.  Nonetheless, if we emulate staff and students at WPPS, we might see the ethical and moral responsibility we have to come together and ask more questions than our teacher training ever imagined we needed to ask, and look for collaborative ways towards solutions.  Together, like WPPS, we must welcome the digital age with the wisdom of John Dewey who saw that “Education is not a preparation for life.  Education is life.”

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