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Author: Esme Capp , Princes Hill Primary School | May 29th, 2013

princeshillAALF President, Bruce Dixon, sat down with Esme Capp, Principal at Princes Hill Primary School in Melbourne, Australia, as part of a series of interview AALF conducted for the recent release of 21 Steps program. She had some fascinating insights to share on the development of the 1:1 program at Princess, as well as some recent 1:1 projects the students have pursued.

Bruce: Thank you, Esme, for giving us time today on a ridiculously busy last day of the school year. Could you please introduce yourself and your role?

Esme: Hi, I’m Esme Capp, I’m principal here at Princes Hill Primary School in Carlton North Melbourne, Victoria.

Bruce: Can you talk a little bit about your role as a leader within the school and what you’ve done in the past four years in building a vision about how you think learning takes place, or should take place, in school?

Esme: I came to Princes Hill Primary School four years ago. I was appointed as the principal for a school council that wanted to continue to collaboratively develop its school in an innovative way.

What I came into was a school that had processes in place which very much reflected wholly implementing systems and ideas within the school, but they often happened outside the every day program.

What we needed was to get the whole community to really reflect on what was happening and to question the practices as to whether or not they all live up to what the school envisioned. We had to reflect on current practices and investigate what was possible. We conducted a lot of research to analyze all aspects. It was a really researched project to analyze all aspects as well from the beliefs and understandings of how we believed children learned to how we believe children should be treated to what was the roles of teachers, parents and children within the school to what was the pedagogy and the teaching approaches to what was the content of the curriculum, what was really meaningful for the children to engage in.

So it was quite confronting for the community, confronting for parents who many had been successful throughout their school years and so believed if their children followed in those footsteps would also be successful and an awareness building that the skills and qualities that children now needed to interact with the world were very different to the qualities we needed when we were young.

Bruce: So, how do you align them with the expectations that the department might have against the curriculum requirements in this different mode of delivery that you’re talking about?

Esme: I think the key element in terms of align to the curriculum development is valuing that each child is an individual. And that each child’s journey will come around in a different timeframe and I often equate it to parents to say, you know, look at all of these young children, tell me the date they learned to walk, tell me the date the learned to talk, and the diversity in that will be enormous just as the diversity will be in when the child finds the need to (write) as the form of expression that they want to use.

Bruce: How do you translate that thinking then to this notion of the pedagogical basis around inquiring and self-directedness?

Esme: Many aspects of the curriculum are very easily covered within the inquiry. It’s about finding meaningful purposes to engage with them. For example, one of our inquiry projects was the children decided that they wanted to redesign a playground and so in redesigning the playground became the purpose to have to actually write letters, to write surveys, to write reports, to interview people, so all of those skills came immediately into a meaningful context as with the measurements. They needed to make a scale model of the area so it needed to bring in the concepts of area of measurement and incredible detail in mathematical calculations.

And so when children use those concepts in meaningful context the ideas are imbedded in their memory and they’re able to then transfer those learning experiences into new context and that knowledge into new context.

Bruce: Can you talk briefly about the structure of the school when you started, and how you have gone about making changes?

Esme: One of the big changes when we made the move towards these contemporary approaches to education was to actually really look at the whole configuration of the school. When I came into the school four years ago there were 18 individual classrooms with an individual teacher and approximately 25 children in each area. When we moved into this way to the design of the environment needed to change to meet the pedagogical ideas that we were exploring.

So if we wanted children to be in inquiry-based learning approaches it meant that they needed access to multiple spaces continually throughout the day so they needed access to performing art areas, to technology, to film studios, to art studios, to science areas, we needed floor space in which they could lay out and they could have discussions in areas. They needed areas which were resourced like a library with coaches and those types of areas.

We also needed areas for multiple groupings. You needed areas in which you could bring a reasonably large group of 50 children together to have a guest speaker to show a film or a documentary but you also needed areas in which a small group could come together and have a conversation and the acoustics were protected within that area.

So of course you couldn’t do this in 18 classrooms across the school so it was about what we called creating neighborhoods of learning which had all of these physical resources within them and enabled usually about 65 children within each of these neighborhoods to engage and to work and that placed three staff members within those spaces to be able to engage and to be able to create that differentiation in the program for the children to be working on multiple different tasks at different times and also be working at different understanding levels on a particular task.

Bruce: Let’s say, as an exercise, you’re talking to an audience of principals who have visited your school and are very impressed with what they have seen. You’ve got 50 principals from a variety of countries who teach at relatively traditional schools, and would like to make the switch to 1:1. What would you say are the two priorities that they should start with if they want to try and move, shift, learning that’s happening in their schools?

Esme: Having met with a group of principals recently who came into the school wanting to transform their practices within their schools, the two pieces of advice that I did give them were firstly about developing strong principles of learning. How is it that you believe children learn? What are the key principles that underpin that approach and having them as the foundation in all decision making that happens within the school and then to develop that you need a community of inquirers, you need a staff to take on the concept as researchers, as a community of inquiries of how we go into enact those principles of learning and to embed them into everything that we do within the school from communication with parents within the community to how teachers teach to the learning opportunities presented to children, to the physical environments, to the curriculum that’s developed.

I’m adamant that children need to be able to read, the children need to be able to write and children need to be numerate and understand the use of mathematics within their world but it needs to be done in meaningful context, it needs to be done with purpose and it is presented to children in purposeful meaningful ways. Children actually excel with it and go way beyond the expectations of what the curricula write and foresee.

But I also believe strongly that the basics have now expanded incredibly into many, many other areas to just be literate and numerate no longer are the basics. Children have to be able to collaborate; children have to be thinkers critically, laterally and creatively. They have to be able to learn how to learn and to be able to celebrate who they are as an individual and what they can contribute to the world.

***To view video of the interview, click here!

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