Detractors from afar

Over the last few weeks St Luke’s Marsden Park found itself in the news more than usual. That can be partly explained by our appearance on ABC’s 7:30, a television program with a national profile. Overall, the story portrayed St Luke’s in a positive light; however, the assertions by Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre of Independent Studies  that, “the approach taken at St Luke’s really is an experiment” and, “there is a great risk that this experiment will fail”, could not be left unchallenged. It prompted the various responses including:

Jenifer Buckingham offered her comments from afar, without visiting St Luke’s and without speaking with any teacher, student or parent. I am unsure of her expertise but she certainly presented herself as an expert. If Jenifer did visit St Luke’s maybe we could find the middle ground that seemed to surface with this Twitter exchange.

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Many threads appeared long after the initial tweet. One such example being,

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Of course, comment about St Luke’s has not been limited to ABC’s 7:30. Before and after there have been comments and responses far and wide and across many forums, many them without much evidence. Most educators know that data and evidence are tools of the trade which need to be applied to local context. So, I offer the following:

  1. Apparently, we are teaching our students to see testing as a waste. Well, we do not have exams at St Luke’s. We see little use in it for students until they reach Year 11. At times, teachers use pre and post testing as one strategy to assist students see learning growth from the beginning to the end of a unit of work. Furthermore, quizzes are occasionally uses as are lists which assist students to clarify what they already know and what they need to know. Students refining their lists of “need to knows” and “knows” offers a visible measure of how students deepen their understanding about a concept or content as they learn about it.
  2. Apparently, we have Failing Grades. Well, we adhere to NSW Curriculum requirements of reporting to a five point scale; however, we don’t use A to E. That’s because we map each child’s growth against progressions, so, I am unaware of failing grades. There have been  comparisons between our NAPLAN data with other ‘similar schools’. As a new school, St Luke’s did NAPLAN for the first time in 2017 with just 19 students (across Year 3 and 5). Those NAPLAN results are a measure of an extremely small student sample and may not provide a meaningful insight. I wonder how many of those ‘similar schools’ have grown by over 300 students for two years in a row, and, as a part of that growth, have over 40% of their students not speak English at home? Lastly, NAPLAN stands for National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy. NAPLAN is not a test, it is an assessment, a diagnostic tool which, four months after the event, provides individualised information about achievement levels with reference to strands of literacy and numeracy. The reality is that politicians and media then manipulate the data to develop leagues style tables to suit their own agendas
  3. Occasionally there has been reference to families leaving our community. St Luke’s commenced in 2017 with 86 students across Kindergarten to Year 6. In 2019, we have over 670 students from K-8 with an over fifty nine 3-5 year olds attending our early learning centre each day. We currently provide 120 places for Kindergarten and have a waiting list this year. It is anticipated we will have a waiting list for Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 2 in 2020. In the interests of transparency, we’ve had 7 dissatisfied families leave St Luke’s with only 3 of them citing a lack of testing and a lack of grades as the reason for leaving. Suffice to say, we assess student learning on a regular basis, with a strong emphasis on regular ongoing feedback. Research reminds us that if you provide feedback with grades, students ignore the feedback. We are confident that our teaching strategies and feedback processes assist student learning growth and we see evidence of this on a weekly basis.
  4. We have even been accused of having a sub-standard educational philosophy. This reflection is offered by people who have not even visited the College and is not even worth addressing. 

Other than attending school themselves or sending their own children to school, I am unsure of the educational qualifications and experience of self proclaimed experts. Mine? At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I have a Diploma in Teaching, Bachelor of Education, Graduate Certificate in Boys’ Education and two Masters Degrees. This complements my 30 years in education and 10 years as principal across two school settings.

Over the last 5-10 years, I have noticed an increasing number of politicians, media and people from all walks of life, who think they are entitled to offer ill-informed comment without relevant qualifications, knowledge and experience. For those of us involved in the day to day challenge of educating students for a changing world, we know that literacy and numeracy are important, and they serves as the non-negotiable foundations for further learning. In this rapidly changing world, we also know that students will need to learn to:

  • manage themselves in a world of short term contractual work, not a job for life.
  • relate with others in a world that growing in population with easy access to people through an online world at anytime.
  • inquire and pose questions, especially in a world where artificial intelligence will challenge us to respond to deep ethical questions.
  • think critically and develop ethical reasoning skills in an age of rapid technological advancement.
  • work collaboratively with others in creating solutions to real world challenges.

I trust we can all come together to acknowledge and address the need to provide learning pathways for students which develop the foundations of literacy and numeracy, as well as develop the capabilities required for a changing world. Anyone unqualified and without educational experience can only be considered as detractors from afar.





Autodesk Gallery San Francisco

One day last week I had the opportunity to visit Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco. Since 1982, Autodesk has partnered with creative individuals and forward thinking organisations to use AutoCAD and other software, sometimes open source software, to shape a better world. Areas of focus include Architecture, Engineering & Construction; Automotive & Transportation; and, Manufacturing

When you visit you can,

See how design shapes the world, from the buildings we live and work in, to the machines that propel us forward, to the products that enrich our everyday experiences” 

Before the tour started I observed a book on the coffee table in the foyer. It got me to thinking, tinkering, adding, (even misappropriating?) it to read…


Our wonderful tour guide referenced many stories about exceptional design processes and how people are working together and inspired by each other to use technology to imagine and shape a better world.

Our wonderful tour guide informed the group that technology evolution is measured by 7 year increments and that it takes 12 years for invention to become reality; that is, from idea to concept to design to iteration(s) to production. The ideas and concepts are coming quicker than the technology can keep up. To date, ‘the successes’ have been due to the collaborative approach to innovation and the technology ‘catching up’. No one person can do innovation on their own anymore, and that is because access to technology in the cloud accelerates the exchange of knowledge which can be applied across countries and contexts.

There were numerous examples of innovation and I encourage you to visit the website to discover them. However, one of the standouts for me was the ‘Embrace’, a portable infant warmer that does not need continuous power supply. Purchased by non profits and sent to underdeveloped countries, innovative thinking at Stanford DSchool means approximately 20 million premature babies a year in developing countries can now be taken home – source, Autodesk Tour Guide, 8 May, 2019.

Of interest was seeing, touching and feeling the 3D Nike shoe which was worn by the women’s winner of the latest London Marathon.

It is great knowing that Autodesk is a champion for schools. They offer support for schools where students and teachers can,

“access the same software and creativity tools used by industry leaders worldwide and start to imagine, design, and make a better world” 


You can download free software, design projects and get certified. This sits well with a self directed approach to micro credentialing as students grow throughout their pre-eminent post school years.

Autodesk are going from design to product much faster and with less impact on the environment. They are using robots to recycle concrete for buildings, dams and bridges, do welding in factories, and will soon assist companies to locate robots on building sites to do the work of labourers. That’s a real life example on manual labour, even skilled labour, being replaced.

As an aside, Australia featured. As soon as you enter Autodesk Gallery you see a model of Optus Stadium, Perth. The latest addition to the nation’s stadium build, was innovative in the sense that every single contractor had to use BIM = Building Information Modelling software. BIM enables 3D tracking and animation of issues during design and construction phases of projects.

3D Model of Optus Stadium, Perth.

Here are (only a few) photos I took on the day.

If you are even in San Francisco, you must visit.





New Tech High and the Post School World

For those that don’t know, New Technology High School, located in Napa, a 75 minute drive north of San Francisco, was established 23 years ago. The ‘technology’ is no more or no less visible than many other schools. The focus is definitely on learning by bringing even more rigour to its highly credible project-based approach underpinned by their driving principles of learning.Image 9-5-19 at 2.02 am

Aaron Eisberg, the Learning Co-ordinator of the Centre For Excellence at New Technology High School, hosted my visit. Aaron kept ensuring his input and resources were directed to me and my context. He was acutely aware that I was the learner and continually asked questions such as, “What do need to know?” and, “Are you getting what you want out of this?” I was very much at the centre of the experience, much the same as the students at ‘New Tech High’.

Part of my visit was spent touring the campus led by a Year 12 student. As I walked the corridors and entered classrooms, it was obvious that group work is important. However, there is choice with that. There is no set figure of having to work in groups of say 4. One can work independently on a project but still be able to collaborate with experts external to the school as well as seek input and critique from other students within the same class.

A stand out take away for me was how much precision there is to connect senior students to the post school world whilst they are still at school. With that comes school based requirements additional to the required by the state for graduation. These include:

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To support students complete these requirements, there are three counsellors on staff for just over 400 students from years 9-12. Along with wellbeing counsellors there is what is known as an Internships Counsellor. The role of this person is to work closely with each student to align their industry interest with post school possibilities. When speaking with two students about this requirement, they were very animated and stated it was a highlight of their time at New Tech. As aside, it is interesting to note, that students complete the 60 hours within the last 2 years and usually in their own time, outside of school hours.

The precision around ‘post school’ also sees students access ‘pre-college courses’ which, if need be, can be transferable to local California universities. Many of the students go above and beyond school requirements to complete engaging College courses within areas of interest. I was informed that one student had completed courses which saw them attain all first year university requirements and some of their second year university requirements. Due to local district agreements these courses are free for school students. So, not only are the university course costs reduced, so too is the length of stay at university.  This option may not be for everyone, but it is great for each student to know that this is an option.

At the end of Year 12, a capstone event is organised by the College. This event provides each student with an opportunity to present an online folio of work to “showcase business entrepreneurship and market readiness skills” and, the public is invited – now there’s an authentic audience! I wonder if there have any been any job offers have come out of the evening? Hhhhmmmm.

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The other stand out for me hearing about the professional learning communities where teachers work together in groups to respond to driving questions. These include:

  • What does effective assessment look like within the context of a project? Why, what, and how do we assess students?
  • How can scaffolding be used within a project to deepen rigour and applied learning?
  • How do we use culminating events to bring more authenticity and adult connections to our projects?

The intent is to ensure that project based learning continually evolves, improves and responds to the needs of student learning.

For those interested, you can read PBL vs Project Based Learning. It will offer insights for you and your colleagues.

The New Technology High Center for Excellence – An incubator for deep professional learning!

For many of you reading this, it will be no surprise to know New Tech High are doing great things, both with project based learning and working with students for post school life. The challenge is, how can that be scaled in a way that transforms learning across the United States and across the world? Well, the New Tech Network is one response to that.

Thanks for taking the time to read,


Napa Junction Elementary School

A fault line runs underneath Napa Junction Elementary school. In 2014, the Napa Valley experienced an earthquake and while there was damage to the region the school remained rock solid despite the chaos.

That memory acts as a metaphor for the learning at this vibrant K-5 community. There is an unshakable belief that the students have to do the learning, and that is demonstrated by the teachers who challenges students with high expectations from as young as Kindergarten.


Principal, Donna Drago, courageously introduced Project Based Learning 5 years ago, 5 yeas after she started as principal at the school. Donna was quickly joined by champions on staff. Together, and over time, the results, outcomes and learning growth of students have all validated Donna’s decision.

Whilst PBL is integral to the work, the greatest observation I made is that there is no ‘dumbing down’ of the learning. Planning is meticulous and implementation of learning is methodical – in a good way. After being introduced to learning targets at the beginning of each unit, all of which remain highly visible throughout the days and weeks which follow, there is great expectation placed upon each student to know those learning targets and their individual progress towards achieving those targets. Furthermore, there is requirement that students can discuss their learning, talk about their highlights and reflect on their struggles – all of which I heard from children as young as 5.

Targeted professional learning provides the focus of teacher learning. The school acknowledges that all teachers are learners first. Each fortnight, extended time for professional learning (although this is not the only time) ensures that teachers extensively plan. This ensures quality teaching, not just through project based learning, but of the critical foundations of literacy and numeracy – it is rigorous!

There is great flow within lessons with smooth and seamless transitions between activities. During each activity, students know where they are supposed to be, with whom they are supposed to be working (individually, in groups or with the teacher) and what work will assist them with the ‘next steps’ towards the learning target. There is great growth for each child. One data set which supports this are the flattering state based test results.

Students are constantly required to self reflect on their progress towards the learning target.
A visual assisting students to reflect about 1. what stage of the learning process and 2. where to next.

Overall, whilst the classrooms did not have all the ‘bells and whistles’ of a shiny new learning environment, staff were completely committed to supporting students grow as capable learners who can confidently discuss and maturely reflect on their learning.

What else? Among many things,

I heard from Donna… “PBL lends itself best for Science” and “with the big push for the information as part of the (elementary) science course, it can incorporate literacy strategies really well”.

I was reminded that reading is highly instructional – “You have to teach reading. ‘I read’ is an online scholastic program which reinforces rather instructs.”

I saw this wonderful “Peace Path”.


I noticed the excitement of  Year 4 students as they learnt how to engineer the fastest gravity powered green car through as well planned, rigorous PBL approach to learning as seen by the pictures below.

In conclusion, “thank you” Donna for taking the time to show me around as well as discuss learning and broader educational matters. “Thank you” to the teachers who warmly welcomed me into their classrooms, and special appreciation to the classroom ambassadors who spoke so articulately well to help me learn.

You know, the more classrooms I see and the more articles I read, the more I come to understand that whilst context is different from school to school, educational challenges and opportunities are universal the world over.

If you ever get the chance to visit Napa Junction Elementary School, please do yourself and favour, and enjoy!

Kind Regards,