Inside Story

Are we really running schools like factories?

Gonski called time on Australia’s “industrial” model of “mass education.” But does the diagnosis — and the prescription — reflect classroom reality?

Tom Greenwell 17 January 2019 6973 words

“We have an answer”: Peter Hutton, shown here in 2016 with students Lulu Roberston and Justin Vitale, when he was principal of Templestowe College in Melbourne. David Geraghty/Newspix

When Lindfield Learning Village opens its doors to its first 350 students at the end of this month, it will stand at the forefront of what many hope will be a revolution in Australian schooling. This kindergarten-to-Year 12 public school in northern Sydney will jettison the most basic building block of schools as we know them: the age-based class. Instead of grouping students according to their “date of manufacture,” as the critic Ken Robinson derisively puts it, the new school is being designed to enable students to progress through stages of learning at their own pace. In July, the Sydney Morning Herald described Lindfield as “a revolutionary new state school that will scrap year levels, school bells and the word ‘classroom.’”

While the Lindfield concept has been gestating since 2014, it resonates strikingly with the recommendations made last May by the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. When David Gonski released his second major report on Australia’s education system he articulated a feeling — common among educators as much as the broader public — that our schools are no longer fit for purpose.

“Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children,” Gonski argued. TV shows are streamed on demand, news feeds are curated to individual taste and most teenagers own a smartphone, but schools — those artefacts of the industrial revolution — are still “focused on trying to ensure that millions of students attain specified learning outcomes for their grade and age before moving them in lock-step to the next year of schooling.”

Whether the recommendations made in Through Growth to Achievement will ever be implemented with any fidelity is now a very open question. The political circus has well and truly moved on since May, and where Gonski was concerned that spending on schools should be cost-effective, the Morrison government seems more focused on whether it is politically effective. But if the politicians have forgotten Gonski — at least for the time being — the challenges of what he called the “industrial model” of schooling have not gone away.

The issue with the age-based class, Gonski explained, is that there may be as many as half a dozen “learning years” separating the strugglers from the high achievers. A Year 9 class could well include one or two students who are confident doing Year 12 work, some who are more comfortable at a Year 7 level, and the rest spread everywhere in between. As Gonski observed with characteristic delicacy, “it is impractical to expect that the same curriculum content can adequately cater to each student’s different learning needs.”

But if it is easy to observe the limitations of the conventional aged-base class, it is less obvious exactly what the alternative might look like. As the Gonski report acknowledged, we already stream, repeat and accelerate students, as well as grouping them into composite classes — and the merits of these practices are heavily contested. So Australian educators are left with some very basic questions. If children are not to be grouped with others more or less the same age, who should they learn with? If progression to a new learning level is not to be occasioned by the passing of a summer, when should it occur? And if the destination is not a new level of an age-based curriculum, what should it be?

These are the questions that Stephanie McConnell, principal of Lindfield Learning Village, is attempting to answer as she brings the new school into being. McConnell agrees with Gonski that the conventional Australian school is decidedly behind the times. “As an educator for a long time now,” she has said, “I’ve felt that there is a need to do things differently, because I don’t really feel that a system that was created over a hundred years ago serves the needs of our young people today.”

How, then, should we go about meeting the needs of today’s young people? McConnell has found inspiration in a handful of schools, here and overseas, that have convinced her of the degree to which individual students can take ownership of their own learning. What schools like High Tech High in California and Clevedon School in New Zealand do, McConnell says, is give students the agency to make their own decisions about what they learn, when, how and with whom.

“What I have seen done extremely well,” McConnell says, “is students being able to articulate where they are at on their learning journey. These are very young children I’m talking about. They were able to say: ‘Here’s where I’m at. I’m in a group with this person, and we’re working on our learning goal together. Then this is how we’re going to seek further learning.’” And so, as McConnell sees it, the alternative to the industrial school is a highly individualised approach to learning — not replacing the age-based class with yet another arbitrary grouping, but giving students a new degree of freedom and flexibility.

McConnell points to the difference between “student-led conferences” and traditional parent–teacher interviews as emblematic of the capacity of young people to design and organise their own learning. “So the student would sit down with their teacher and parent and they take them through their learning journey, and they are able to describe it using the language of the syllabus and the outcomes. And it’s just mind-blowing.”

No more little boxes: Lindfield Learning Village principal Stephanie McConnell at the old UTS Kuring-gai campus in Sydney. Julian Andrews/Newspix

It is a vision that has captured the imagination of the local Lindfield community, with the Herald reporting a rush on enrolments. Prospective parent, Georgi York, says her enthusiasm was inspired by the experience of a similar approach at her daughter’s primary school. “The only reason I’m on board is because I have seen it firsthand with my children,” York says. The model appeals because it meets students at their individual point of need. “Every child advances at their own level,” she says, “and every child is approached by the teacher with an understanding of ‘Well, this is where your child is at.’”

When I speak to McConnell, she is consumed with enrolling students and recruiting staff in preparation for the 2019 school year; the finer detail of how her vision will work when classes start had yet to be determined. But she mentions one model in particular. “If you were looking for what might be closest in Australia, Templestowe College in Melbourne would be the one that I would say most closely mirrors the philosophy.” So it is in Templestowe, in the northeastern suburbs of Melbourne, that we may get the clearest glimpse of what might replace the industrial school.

When the Gonski report came out in May, Peter Hutton, the former principal of Templestowe College, proclaimed in the Guardian, “I built a school that goes even further than Gonski 2.0, and it’s a success.” When I speak to Hutton, he is no less forthright. “We have an answer,” he tells me. “It’s humane. The kids love it. It needs to be experienced.” Hutton must have done something right. Ten years ago, Templestowe was on the verge of closure, with only 286 students, just twenty-three of them enrolled in Year 7; today, it has more than 1100 students.

At the heart of Templestowe’s transformation, Hutton explains, was the adoption of the radically individualised approach to learning that has inspired Stephanie McConnell. Students are given almost complete choice over what they learn and whom they learn with. Individual learning plans are used across Australian schools to modify curriculum and assessment for students with special learning needs; at Templestowe all students go onto one when they reach Year 8 (or what is called “Above Entry”). This is the practical mechanism that allows students to effectively choose their own adventure. In student-led electives like Geek Studies (robotics), the Science of Warfare, and Working with Animals, students negotiate their study focus and level. And because classes aren’t confined to one age group, students at Templestowe are able to choose from over 150 subjects.

As for the age of their classmates, about all the students at Templestowe can be sure of is that they will probably be teenagers too. In some instances of what Hutton calls “radical acceleration,” students who would be in Year 8 at a traditional school even complete Victorian Certificate of Education subjects.

Hutton tells the story of a Year 7 boy named Josh who was very keen on physics and joined a Year 12 class. “So a couple of weeks in,” Hutton explained, “I went and saw Josh and the rest of the class and I spoke to a few individuals and I said, ‘Look, what’s it like having this little fella in your class?’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s a bit weird.’ And I said, ‘Why is that?’ And they said, ‘Because he knows more than we do.’” It’s an extreme example but, in what are known as “vertical classes” at Templestowe, it is normal for students to work with peers of very different ages.

Hutton emphasises that the course load of many Templestowe students doesn’t differ greatly from that of their peers at more traditional schools. “When we look at it,” says Hutton, “almost all kids are still doing some form of English communication and maths and science, particularly in those early years.” But, he goes on, “there is a vast mental difference between walking into a classroom, knowing that you’ve chosen to be there and you can choose to leave if it’s not meeting your needs, rather than walking in going, ‘This is compulsory. I didn’t choose it. I didn’t choose you to be my teacher.’”

And then there are the kids who have “a dramatically different program. So they leave at lunchtime. Or they don’t start until 10.30am. Or there are a couple of kids who don’t have any classes at all and they work in something called a heutagogy [self-determined learning] centre on their own series of projects and they’re responsible to a supervisor.” Students and teachers now refer to the school by its acronym, TC, standing for “take control.”

As Hutton wrote in the Guardian, Templestowe College has gone further than anything Gonski recommended, and the ethos of students “taking control” extends beyond the classroom. Students sit on curriculum committees and selection panels for new staff, and at the end of last year they decided to abolish the school’s uniform. The school’s One-Person Policy — “All people will be treated equally regardless of the position they hold” — encapsulates this egalitarianism.

In a range of fascinating ways, the school has blurred the lines that conventionally distinguish students and teachers. Hutton mentions “employing some students who are really good at maths to tutor other kids that are needing some support,” as well as paying students to do work in areas including IT and audiovisual operations, reception and events. “Whenever we have a need to be fulfilled we ask do we have a student who can do that? Because it’s their school.” And students also start enterprises as part of their coursework. “We have eighty businesses, from ideation to operation,” says Hutton, ranging from a coffee club run by thirteen-year olds, to clothes manufacturing, photography and snake-breeding enterprises.

Like David Gonski and Stephanie McConnell, Peter Hutton believes Australian schools are in need of fundamental renewal. “When you empower kids and let them control their learning, amazing stuff happens,” he says. It’s not just the turnaround in enrolments at Templestowe that fills Hutton with confidence. “We had 98 per cent parent satisfaction on the Attitude to School survey,” he says, referring to a statewide survey of satisfaction with schools. “Our ‘connectedness to school’ is in the ninety-sixth percentile: huge gains in student engagement. Our kids are hugely happy.” And, he adds, “It was the most improved school in NAPLAN according to the Australian newspaper between 2012 and 2015.”

Peter Hutton left his job as principal of Templestowe College at the end of 2017 to create the Future Schools Alliance, an organisation promoting the widespread adoption of the philosophy of individualised learning he has implemented with much success. “I left at the end of the year a job that I loved. Even the bad days I still loved,” Hutton tells me. But he was challenged by a colleague who asked him, “Is TC going to be a skyrocket? Just a blip on the timeline of educational history, or are you going to actually scale it?” For Hutton, it is clear that Australian education is in need of a revolution, and he has found an answer to what a twenty-first century, post-industrial school should look like.

Templestowe College clearly embodies original and fascinating responses to enduring questions about how schools organise students, teachers, curriculum, space and time. Is it, as Peter Hutton ardently believes, the answer to the questions raised by Gonski 2.0 and the problems faced by Australian schools more generally? While the school has improved its NAPLAN results, its Year 9 students still underperform in spelling, and — more significantly — the school achieves below-average student gain in reading between Years 7 and 9. NAPLAN is a limited measure of a narrow part of the curriculum, but it is an indicator that should give pause for thought when we are contemplating a sharp break with our educational past.

I also wonder whether Templestowe is a boutique solution, one that may not work well in many Australian schools. I teach in Canberra’s senior secondary system, in which — like at Templestowe — there are no bells or uniforms, students call teachers by their first names, and there is very little in the way of compulsory curriculum. With no statewide exams, continuous assessment allows students to substantially direct their learning, from posing their own research questions to responding to novels with their own creative work. It is a wonderful environment to teach in and, on the whole, the young people I work with respond to the freedom they are granted with great maturity.

But I am also conscious that what works for senior secondary students in the nation’s most educated and affluent cities may not work as well elsewhere. And I wonder if the same goes for Templestowe. Thirty-nine per cent of Templestowe College’s students come from the most advantaged quartile of Australia’s population, and only 8 per cent come from the most disadvantaged. It is one thing to transplant the Templestowe model to Lindfield, an affluent part of northern Sydney barely a fifteen-minute drive from the Harbour Bridge. But will a model that relies so heavily on intrinsic motivation and self-direction work for all ages in all contexts?

My curiosity deepened when I heard comments Hutton had made early last year. “We tend not to pick up kids who have got bad behaviour and things like that, just because it’s not suited,” he said in an interview on the Modern Learners podcast. “Unless the student can demonstrate that they’ve got some ability to self-regulate it’s actually probably not a good environment and they need more structure about their learning.”

If the Templestowe model isn’t suited to kids who “have got bad behaviour and things like that,” its application could be very limited indeed. When I ask Hutton about this he is anxious to clarify: individualised learning and student empowerment are “absolutely not” just for kids who are already motivated learners and don’t have any behavioural issues. “The only reason where we sometimes end up with situations like that where kids are not self-motivated and they’ve got significant behavioural issues is because we’ve picked them up that way through a primary school, in many cases, that hasn’t met their needs back then.” But the best way of clearing up this doubt, he says, is to talk to a principal by the name of Wayne Haworth who has implemented the Templestowe model at Mount Alexander College in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington.

Just over two years ago, Mount Alexander College featured in an Age report on white flight in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. While neighbouring schools were oversubscribed, Mount Alexander College was running at half-capacity: affluent parents were bypassing the school and the large group of migrant students it served. With 44 per cent of its students from the lowest socioeconomic status quartile and 66 per cent from language backgrounds other than English — many are the children of refugees from the Horn of Africa who live in the nearby public housing estate — Mount Alexander is clearly doing the heavy lifting. When Peter Dutton attempts to demonise Australians of African origins, this is the kind of community that is right in the firing line.

When Wayne Haworth arrived at the school in 2015, he discovered a mood for change. “In Victoria,” he explains, “the parents are part of the selection panel for principals.” The parents told him they “were keen on a model they had read about running in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne” and he duly set about driving the adoption of Templestowe College’s model of individualised, vertical learning. The result, he says, has been remarkable. In 2015, just ten Year 6 students nominated Mount Alexander College as the high school they wanted to attend; now one hundred young Victorians have put the school as their first preference for Year 7 in 2019. “We’ll be moving into being close to, if not at, capacity with more than 500 students at the school, and that’s something that hasn’t happened in more than four decades.”

Thirteen-year-old Erin Breeze started at Mount Alexander in 2017, in large part because she was attracted to its novel approach to learning. “As well as it being my local school, I really liked the structure and how you can mix in with the older year levels. I think that’s really cool. I like how you can choose your subjects and if you think that you are a higher level in say maths or English then you can really go and try those levels and succeed,” says Breeze. “I’m doing an elective called Social and Augmented Reality and in that class there are Year 8s, 9s and 10s.” I ask Erin whether she is intimidated by her older peers. “Not really,” she says. “Everyone kind of just does their own work, and if we need help then we can talk to other students so I wasn’t ever really intimidated.” In her experience, she adds, “some Year 8s are smarter than some of the older students as well, so it’s kind of a good mix.”

Sixteen-year-old Towheed Altahir explains how vertical learning works for her at Mount Alexander. “So, last year, I was in Year 10 and I was doing a Year 12 subject and that was because my teachers, they really pushed me to do a high-level subject. They believed in me and they gave me a lot of support.” Bill Truong, also sixteen, says that the shift to mixed-age classes has created much stronger bonds across the school. “Basically in my maths class I have a few Year 9s, a few Year 10s, and a few Year 11s,” says Truong. “Everyone talks to each other, everyone knows each other.” Erin Breeze agrees. “Compared to other schools, we’re all trying to be the best we can be. So at our school it’s not so much about beating other students but trying to be our best.”

Wayne Haworth believes that multi-age classes have engendered a positive cultural shift. In essence, young people get used to difference being the norm. “We are three years down the track now of implementing the program and we’ve seen a significant shift in the connectedness of students to each other,” says Haworth. Where Mount Alexander previously ranked below or only slightly above the state mean in the various categories that make up the Attitudes to School survey, it now ranks in the top 25 per cent of the state in nine categories. In terms of “connectedness to peers,” Mount Alexander has moved from the thirtieth percentile in the state to the seventy-fifth. For Haworth, these results echo a phenomenon he saw on a study tour in England prior to arriving at Mount Alexander. “They were doing multi-age classes and they said that bullying disappeared overnight as a result. There was a great mixing and because there is mixing, it’s breaking down those barriers and… the school was more harmonious.”

More than 700 kilometres away, in the western suburbs of Adelaide, Findon High School has a similar student profile to Mount Alexander College’s, with a very high proportion of disadvantaged students and forty-three different cultures represented among the school’s 260 students. Like Peter Hutton and Wayne Haworth, new principal Phil Fitzsimons has a brief to turn the school around after years of declining enrolments. Fitzsimons is convinced that schools like Templestowe and Mount Alexander show the value of individualised learning and its relevance to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

School captain, Sumaya Keyse Abdinoor, likes the changes happening at Findon High, and she makes an interesting point about how they are helping her and her peers see the relevance of education and make connections with the world beyond school. “Student-centred learning goes beyond the classroom,” she points out. “It goes into creating your own business at school and learning how to run that with the support of your teachers and then learning how to manage it on your own.” These kinds of activities, she says, help young people like her identify post-school pathways.

Fitzsimons acknowledges the cultural transformation at the school over the past year has not been completely plain sailing, but sees that as perfectly natural. “Some students have struggled a little bit taking the responsibility, to transition into that space. That’s probably because for a long time they’ve not been given that opportunity,” he reflects.

Schools like Findon High and Mount Alexander College show that Peter Hutton’s philosophy of radically individualised learning can travel successfully. They are also testimony to his outsized impact on the Australian education landscape. And yet his frustration with the pace of change is palpable. “It has just got really good outcomes for kids, but for some reason it just hasn’t… Sorry, the message is spreading, but nowhere near the viral contagion that it should be,” he says. “As educators we continually look overseas to places like Finland and Canada for models. We are going, ‘If only we had a solution’ and ‘If only we had an answer,’ and yet there is one in our own backyard and people are too blind to actually go and have a look at it.”

Hutton cites the lack of response to his overtures from the Victorian Department of Education and Training. “I have made this offer to the education department: ‘Give me your twelve worst schools and let us turn them around.’ And I have made this offer to the deputy secretary: ‘You give me the schools, and I’ll show you the turnaround.’ I am just frustrated that they have not jumped on something that is working and taken it to scale.”

Hutton’s impatience derives not only from a profound belief in the value of the kind of school he created at Templestowe, but also from a scathing critique of the status quo — of what Gonski called the industrial model. A few years ago, Hutton gave a TEDx speech that began as follows. “I hated school. The violence. The bullying. The day-to-day put-downs. It was almost as much as I could take.” Then came the punchline: “And that was from the staff.” The muffled laughter among the audience was quickly extinguished: “I’m not joking about that… Now my question today,” Hutton continued, “is how did we let learning get that bad?”

At heart, Hutton’s critique is a visceral response to the raw institutional power of schools, conspicuous in the call for students to “take control.” He approvingly refers to the late John Taylor Gatto, the New York school teacher who famously resigned with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and titled “I May Be a Teacher, but I’m Not an Educator.” Gatto went on to write Weapons of Mass Instruction, in which he quoted the satirist, H.L. Mencken, to characterise what he regarded as the real purpose of schools: “simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

While Hutton advances an extreme version of the critique of contemporary schools, he is only the most strident spokesperson for a view that, in one form or another, is very widely shared. David Gonski, cautious consensus-builder and bespectacled denizen of Australia’s boardrooms, is not Peter Hutton, and Gonski’s critique of our schools is significantly more qualified in substance, as well as less vociferous in style. (In response to criticisms, Gonski panellist, Ken Boston, clarified that “the report proposes evolution not revolution.”) And yet Gonski was happy to describe the schools serving millions of Australian children right now as belonging in another century and another era. Indeed, the fact that Gonski was willing to endorse this sweeping critique of the current education landscape is an excellent indication of its pervasiveness.

A thoughtful feature in the Good Weekend late last year aptly described this likening of schools to factories: “Ringing bells tell students when to clock on and off and mark the times at which they must move from one stage of their manufacture to the next,” while teachers are “conduits of content that must be memorised and later regurgitated in a barrage of standardised tests.” As Lindfield Learning Village’s principal, Stephanie McConnell, puts it to me: “I think in the system that exists currently, we train students to be the “round peg in the round hole.” Learning is done to them. It’s not co-constructed and owned by them.” The default position among educators I spoke to for this story was that whatever it is we are doing now, it must be wrong. I worry this attitude will lead us to dispense with the bathwater before we have a firm hold on the baby.

For Peter Hutton and others, the case for change is clear. The status quo only survives courtesy of cultural inertia, organisational blindness, callous indifference or worse. But is it really the case that conventional schools move students in lockstep through a mass education, as Gonski would have it? Or that learning is “done to” students, as McConnell claims? Or that the goal of schools is to stifle dissent and originality, as Peter Hutton suggests?

As hard as I reflect on my own experience, I just can’t see this. In a unit I taught last semester, students presented seminars on the origins of an international conflict of their choice — and choose they did. We ended up hearing about everything from Darfur and the South Sudanese civil war to the first and second Congo wars and the Rohingya crisis. Students didn’t just choose their topics but negotiated their research questions, as they did when they wrote an essay on a conflict a classmate had presented on. They then did a unit of work on achieving agreement and managing disagreement, the premise of which was that they had a range of views that deserved to be heard and that would only be enhanced through sharing and exchange.

None of this, it seems to me, fits in the critics’ picture of what happens in our schools. It’s true that in an English class I took, I dictated that we study Joe Cinque’s Consolation. In that sense, the book was imposed on students, but it was an imposition based on a judgement that the local setting and true crime elements would appeal enough to inspire students to engage with Helen Garner’s meditations on the nature of justice and responsibility. And this time, at least, my judgement proved correct: numerous reluctant readers finished a book. If that outcome was achieved via a teacher-controlled process, it also seems to me like the essence of education, in which we are introduced to things we would not find, or could not do, by ourselves.

I share my own experience because, I venture, it is entirely unexceptional. “Student voice” is a mantra of educational orthodoxy. It is standard for students to choose from an array of electives; for topics within subjects to be chosen by students; for teacher judgement to be heavily guided by perceived appeal to students; for students to have opportunities for self-directed inquiry; and for teachers to use formative assessment to gauge the state of a student’s understanding prior to a unit of learning, thereby enabling them to differentiate learning experiences for the different students that make up a class.

Even in the most conventional classroom, discussion, group activities and developing, articulating and defending one’s own opinion are entirely standard. Critical and creative thinking are at the core of the Australian Curriculum, just as they are at the core of what happens in Australian classrooms. The strong tendency towards student-centred learning within the educational orthodoxy extends to significant modifications of the conventional “grammar of schooling”: flipped classrooms, team-teaching, multidisciplinary approaches like inquiry and project-based learning, and open-plan learning spaces are widespread. In some instances, these innovations are found in schools that are run according to a distinctive philosophy, like Big Picture Schools, but often they are the modus operandi in the local public school.

There is clearly a need for ongoing innovation in Australian education. Our decline in the OECD’s PISA tests — relative to past performance as well as other countries — is profoundly disconcerting. It should cause serious reflection, as it has. And there is evidently much to learn from Peter Hutton and schools like Templestowe and Mount Alexander College. But just as schools can become anachronistic, so can critiques, and it would be a mistake to take a caricature of the present as our point of departure. It’s not just that solutions for problems that no longer exists are unlikely to help; the danger is that individualised learning will be taken too far. A lack of balance could result in students who might be able to think for themselves but won’t be familiar with the traditions in which their thinking takes place; free to pursue their own curiosity but ignorant of things they should know; empowered to challenge authority but as polarised as the rest of the culture; confident in who they are but denied opportunities to transcend themselves.

In practical terms, it is essential that students feel learning is relevant to them, but the more students are pursuing their own topics at their own pace, the more thinly a teacher’s efforts will be spread across the class. Given a constant level of investment and teacher workload, there is an inevitable trade-off between giving students the freedom to pursue individual topics and supporting them in a methodical, systematic way.

More generally, the tendency to casually dismiss current practice also discounts the complexity of the ongoing challenges schools face. This point is illustrated by the story of an Australian school that is as innovative and individualised as any. Set amid the bars and nightclubs of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Music Industry College is a senior high school aimed, as the name suggests, at helping young people find a future in their passion for music. The school week is divided between “arts days” on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and a more traditional mode on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On arts days, classes are condensed to maximise the time students can spend on their most pressing — or exciting — creative projects.

In their book about the school, University of Queensland researchers Stewart Riddle and David Cleaver write that it “not only prepares students for the creative industries, but also allows marginalised, disengaged and often troubled youth to re-engage in learning, and most importantly, to find themselves.” Music Industry College’s principal, Brett Wood, established the school after running a youth centre and finding that music was the magnet that kept kids coming back. Wood says feedback from students consistently confirms Riddle and Cleaver’s findings. “In fact, we had a performance night here last night,” Wood tells me. “One of our graduates came, and as she left she just burst into tears. I go ‘What’s up?’ She goes, ‘This is my family and I miss it.’”

I ask Wood how his students respond to the freedom to pursue their creative passions. “It’s variable,” he says with a chuckle. “As you can imagine with teenagers, there are some who use that opportunity to do not much. There are others that use the opportunity to do a lot, and there’s some [who] might be passionate about doing something in a particular area rather than focusing on what’s coming up with the next deadline.” Wood explains that the school has tweaked its approach to help students achieve a greater balance between what they want to do and what they need to do, introducing compulsory tutorial sessions in which teachers call on students who need extra support and encouragement on upcoming assignments. “It hasn’t come without its challenges, obviously, because teenagers are teenagers… Humans are humans, actually,” he adds. “We can all be a bit like that.”

As original and exciting as the school clearly is, there is also something very familiar going on here. Students are given a great deal of freedom, but structure and limits are necessary to enable them to realise the possibilities of that freedom. To observe this is not to discount the school’s achievements. Giving young people a sense of who they are and where they belong is no small achievement. But it is to acknowledge that Music Industry College is engaged in the same balancing act — between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, student and teacher-centred learning, freedom and constraint — as more conventional schools. It offers not a paradigm shift but an accommodation of these competing tensions, refined through a process of iteration and recalibration.

About an hour’s drive west from Lindfield Learning Village, St Luke’s Catholic College is located in Sydney’s northwestern growth corridor. Having opened in 2017, it is effectively two years down the track that Lindfield will embark on when it opens this month. Like Lindfield, it will eventually grow to be a kindergarten-to-Year 12 school with thousands of children in its care. At this point, it has around 700 students in kindergarten to Year 8.

Like Stephanie McConnell at Lindfield, St Luke’s principal Greg Miller is convinced of the value of individualised learning. “One of the commitments that I personally have is to do my best to structure things so that students get as much time to lead their own learning in areas of interest,” he says. Miller envisages that “in Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10 students will have the choice of accelerating in certain subjects and maybe even commencing VET subjects or HSC subjects earlier. But they’ll determine that, not some teacher or school criteria.”

That has to wait, though, until St Luke’s has a full secondary school; only in its second year and effectively still only a primary school, it has yet to roll out the full model. So individualisation of the curriculum at St Luke’s currently occurs through Adventure Learning, a weekly program in which students pursue a passion project in subjects with names like “Design and Make Pokémon,” “Let’s Create a Mess,” “Kitchen Chemistry,” and “It’s My Beanstalk, Not Jack’s!”

While it was only introduced recently, Greg Miller says Adventure Learning has created genuine excitement. “Students talk about Adventure Learning from Thursday morning to the following Tuesday afternoon.” One class, the Minecraft course, is run by a student, with teachers in the room. Another class is based around slime — which, Miller explains, is the product of the moment for five and six year olds. “So, we’ve turned that into a course where there’s sixty-five kids and three teachers doing all sort of experiments with slime, and they are young kids, you know — kindergarten and Year 1. Now, they are just in raptures every Wednesday afternoon, these kids. And they are learning.”

One reason for individualising learning is that students who can choose what they learn will be more motivated. Another reason is that it’s important to recognise differences in ability and thus ensure that learning is challenging (but not too challenging) for each student, at least most of time. These two objectives are both important, but they are distinct and they may not always be compatible.

Adventure Learning is evidently tapping into children’s passion for inquiry, but it is not clear that it is any better than a more conventional class at differentiating instruction to respond to each student’s individual learning level. Miller tells me that in one photography class, Year 1 students sit next to Year 7 students. “If someone was to say to me six months ago, you would have a Year 7 kid sitting next to a Year 1 kid in relation to learning, I would have laughed at them,” he reflects. Doesn’t that exacerbate the differences within the class that a teacher has to attempt to differentiate for, I ask? “Yeah. Look, there’s no doubt about that,” he acknowledges. The school is offering an array of electives that tap into students’ intrinsic desire to learn, but those classes are only affordable because students of very different ages, and possibly stages of learning, are grouped together.

Miller very reasonably points out that Adventure Learning is a work in progress. But the deeper reality is that any school faces trade-offs in the way it groups students. Learning can be completely differentiated if it occurs entirely individually, but social experience is part of what makes learning effective and navigating social experience is one of the major goals of learning. Mixed-ability groups mean, by definition, that instruction needs to be simultaneously pitched to a range of levels, but grouping similar ability students according to stage or stream will likely result in negative peer effects for less advanced students.

Stephanie McConnell says that the urgent challenge is to tailor education to each student’s level of learning. “That’s where engagement happens,” McConnell says. “And wherever that engagement can be connected to the real world, I think that’s the holy grail.” In pursuing the holy grail, McConnell will face the same conundrums as Greg Miller at St Luke’s, along with every other school principal. Peter Hutton argues the answer is choice. “Allow them to choose, and they won’t choose something that is too easy — even if it is with their friends — because frankly it’s boring. And they won’t choose something that’s too hard because it’s meaningless.” Perhaps, but as the experience at St Luke’s bears out, schools continue to face trade-offs in their grouping of students. They can provide more subject choice by creating multi-age classes, but it is likely to leave educators with more work than ever to tailor instruction to the different students in their care.

Schools like Templestowe College, Mount Alexander College and Music Industry College have found ingenious and inspiring ways to negotiate the complex trade-offs all schools face. They offer an invitation to think and rethink how young people can participate in the design of their own learning, as well as the underlying structures in which that learning takes place. It is an invitation we should accept. But these schools may not represent something as emotionally satisfying as epochal transformation. And it might not help to think of them in those terms either.

Back at Lindfield Learning Village, Stephanie McConnell’s vision of individualised learning has been embodied in the design of the school building. She explains that, in contrast to a “box with thirty desks in it all facing a blackboard,” which implies the teacher “at the front of the room owns the knowledge,” Lindfield’s open-plan design will feature a series of flexible, open learning spaces. “What it allows which I think is a real advantage, is that team-teaching approach, to have a space which is much more flexible where you can move students and furniture around in different ways to work together in smaller and larger groups as needed.”

Lindfield’s site used to be the Kuring-gai campus of the University of Technology Sydney — and before that the William Balmain Teachers’ College — and McConnell says that the renovations have recovered the founding vision for the building. “I was actually privileged to be able to meet with the original architect… who, back in the sixties, had an incredible vision for what learning might be like in the spaces,” McConnell says. “And they, in fact, designed the building to be far more open-plan than it became. In the time since then and as a university building, a lot of walls have been put up, a lot of little boxes have been created. And so really what we’re doing for the school… is just pulling down those walls.”

I have taught in open spaces and found that students couldn’t hear each other in class discussions — and I often couldn’t hear them. So when McConnell relates this story, I can’t help but wonder whether those walls weren’t put up for a reason: to bring students together rather than box them in. Let’s hope the experience will be different at Lindfield and open learning spaces, and multi-age classes, will succeed. Let’s hope, too, that in our yearning for change we don’t sweep away much that is of value in schools as they currently exist. •