Back to school…

Prior to returning to school after the longest lockdown, we came together as a staff for dialogue and decision making about what matters to us in the transition back to face-to-face learning.

We explored the following questions:

  • What might children have gained from the remote learning experience? 
  • How might we ensure we continue or amplify those things?
  • What do we see as the most important things children have missed out on? 
  • How might we work towards maximising opportunities for those things?

Our vision is based on that shared discussion. Keeping in mind our belief in contextual wellbeing and our focus on aligning our practice with our values and beliefs, the ideas have been synthesised in the context of our learning principles.

Vision for returning to school

We value cohesion, relationships, community, social interaction, play, joy in learning, optimism, growth, kindness, autonomy.

We believe:

Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks, so we will

  • Build cohesion and a sense of belonging.
  • Support learners, academically, socially and emotionally.
  • Create space for expression of  feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
  • Establish routines to provide certainty and safety.

Learning takes place in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests, so we will

  • Understand that the transition will be different for each person.
  • Acknowledge that needs will vary for different people at different times.
  • Respond with empathy to social and emotional needs.

Learning is active and social and is enhanced by collaboration, interaction, so we will

  • Encourage social interaction and collaboration.
  • Model and practise kindness, communication and mutual respect.

Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem-solving, so we will

  • Plan responsively, depending on what the students reveal.
  • Continue to focus on the process of learning, rather than the product.

Learning includes acquisition of skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to different contexts, so we will

  • Ensure  opportunities for learning and practising the ATL skills, in particular social skills, communication skills and self management.
  • Encourage learners to construct meaning by engaging actively with others.

Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging, so we will

  • Meet learners where they are at and focus on growth.
  • Ensure all learners are actively engaged in the process of learning that’s meaningful for them.

Learning includes metacognition and reflection, which support learners taking ownership of their learning, so we will

  • Provide opportunities for reflecting on strengths, challenges and goals while celebrating successes.
  • Encourage learners to reflect on  their learning and on themselves as learners, and to make decisions about how to move forward.

Start with the child…

Start with the child, not the curriculum. Schooling is currently organised the wrong way around. The curriculum becomes the structure for the learning and is delivered via a timetable. Yet we know that every child is different so there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling. Learning and teaching should be designed around each child’s learning strengths and needs. In this way, the curriculum is the reference point, not the blueprint. 

~Greg Whitby

On the first day back after the summer break, we introduce our 2017 focus to our team of educators:


Check in: Choose a word that describes one of your strengths and then one you would like to work towards.

Sharing the justification for our choices serves both as an ice breaker in the cross campus, multi-year level groups, and as a provocation to think about and value the diversity amongst us.


A provocation: Watch till 2:38 and create a title that sums up the essence.

The video provokes a range of responses and lively conversation ensues. To what extent are we guilty?

Pre-thinking: Create an image that represents your first thoughts about the notion of starting with the child.

There are rich conversations about the possible connotations of the phrase and an exchange of ideas about what it might mean to us.



An appreciative inquiry…

Discover: What are we already doing?

It’s important to acknowledge the many ways in which we already start with the child.  This activity creates a space for cross pollinating ideas and sharing practice.


Dream: What are the possibilities for taking it further? 

Teachers are encouraged to imagine. What if…? How might we..? Could we…? How would we…?



  • How do we ensure we cater for diverse needs and interests?
  • How might we rid ourself of the idea of a controlled classroom?
  • Imagine if we didn’t have grades and reports.
  • What if we could get rid of Naplan?
  • What if we had one free choice unit of inquiry every year?
  • What if the children wrote the curriculum?
  • What if we didn’t have timetables?
  • How might we increase opportunities for cross age learning?
  • How might we build a culture where all children value each other?
  • How can we ensure social and emotional wellbeing of every child?
  • What if there were no bells interfering with learning?
  • How might we help every child to believe in himself?

Design: What will you do?

We ask teachers to record something they will start working on right away.

What will you do? Try out? Think about? Explore? Change? How will you ensure that you start with the child?

Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: WHO WE ARE

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)


  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

An impassioned plea…

An impassioned plea, by my friend and colleague, Fiona Birkin

I’m sure at some stage in your life, you have watched an impressive demonstration of how, with one flick of a finger, energy can be transferred through a carefully thought out maze of dominos. There is a sense of excitement, wonder and anticipation as we see energy powering its way towards its final, planned and observable action.

It’s interesting how the concept of dominos, the very physics of it, can also be seen in a social context.

Kathryn’s choice to end her life was a cataclysmic bomb blast; the energy was powerful! I mistakenly thought that, with that one monumental ‘flick’, my quest to improve the mental health outcomes for children would just move through the stages like the best demonstration of falling dominos; but  it seems, like many bomb blasts, the energy that flowed through me from Kathryn’s death was erratic, wide spread and quickly dispersed.

My talk at a TeachMeet, my presentation at an international online conference, my chats in the staffroom, my work with a colleague on a Unit of Inquiry that focusses on social emotional learning, my discussions with key leaders in my school were like domino shrapnel; they hit some people, had an emotional effect and then their lives got pulled back into the same old routines.

Not one person has answered my Tweets or responded to my requests at my presentations.

I have asked people to go back to their schools, to reflect on what they are doing to promote social emotional wellbeing. I want to get an understanding of what programs and resources are being used, what and how much professional development is focused on the wellbeing of our children. I want to know just how much understanding there is amongst teachers about the personality disorders that can be ‘nurtured’ in an environment that through an over crowded curriculum and a focus on academics manages to miss/ignore the ‘red flags’. It’s like the dominos hadn’t been placed correctly, there wasn’t a clear discernible path; or the power of that first explosion was too immense to be directed down one path.

So despite the fact that people had told me how they have been moved by my talks, they were not moved into action. I now understand why. For energy to bring about a specific action, there needs to be control and a path to follow. I was in too many pieces. One email, provided that first measured push.

The provocation? An article in The Age; to be specific, the photo of two people wrapped in a grief so intense, it was like seeing the loss of a child by suicide personified. I felt as if someone had journeyed into my soul  and taken a photo of my pain for all the world to see!

I was so moved, felt such a connection, that I wrote to Annette and Stuart. Annette wrote back and told me she had shared my letter with friends who are teachers and with Professor Patrick McGorry, who in turn, has arranged to meet with me.

The painful irony of all this, is that when I was trying to help Kathryn battle her demons and I felt as if no one was giving me the information or help I needed, I read about Professor McGorry and had thought, I’ll write to him, he should be able to give me a straight answer.

I didn’t write.  I felt it would be presumptuous to bother someone so well known for his work and that surely, anything he knew must be known by the mental health professionals I was already dealing with.

Now that Kathryn has lost her battle, here I am, being asked by the very person I shied away from, to meet and talk openly about the state of the mental health system here in Australia; to share Kathryn’s story. In a sad way, it’s like when road works on a dangerous intersection only gets started after there has been a number of fatalities.

I could scream to the heavens, “but why  did one of the fatalities have to be my Kathryn?” But that won’t help me, it won’t keep the dominos falling, falling until all that energy transfers into a bigger more powerful action; a reformation to the way this country thinks about, teaches and responds to mental health.

It is up to me to make sure all the dominoes remain positioned correctly so that the momentum is not lost. I will do this because the world needs to know what Kathryn refused to believe, her life was important, meaningful and treasured. I will take up her baton of love for humanity and I will fight for her.

All I need from you, is answers to the questions I have been asking educators for a year now:

What is your school doing for social emotional learning (SEL)?

What resources do you use?

How much PD do teachers get on social emotional learning?

Do teachers have a clear understanding of the ‘red flags’ that could gradually morph into full blown personality disorders and or depression?

What is your schools protocol when a student is struggling socially and or emotionally?

By Fiona Birkin