Expanding World, Expanding Minds

31 August 2015

This article was first published in the School Newsletter on 31 August 2015

Last term I wrote in our newsletter about the impact of the Assembly presentation given by two Junior School teachers (Mrs van Senden and Ms  Patterson) about Cambodia. I described then how their experiences challenged our assumptions about what was ‘normal’ school life. We are tempted to assume that a normal school is one in which everyone is entitled to five full days of learning each week; in which well functioning toilets are automatically available; in which students are encouraged to discuss ideas and share their opinions; and in which teachers believe that the foundation of effective teaching is he quality of their relationship with each student. By the time they finished talking, it was clear that a school like that – a school like ours – is far from ‘normal’ in a global context.

For all the newspaper columns of criticism, the educational opportunities across Australia are outstanding – and at Queenwood all the more so. It is essential that our girls understand this, and that we all come to appreciate our great good fortune at being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps, in a perfect world, we might have the luxury of taking it all for granted – but not in this world. So we work very hard to help our girls develop a broad perspective on the world, because that perspective will provide the inspiration and motivation for them to make their own contribution.

We do this in many ways. Mrs Toohey gave me a great illustration earlier this week: in 2006 she herself went to Cambodia to train up student teachers. On her return, she did a unit of work with her Year 6 class which examined Cambodia’s history and culture, and she says her teaching of that unit was transformed by the intensity of her personal experience there, and the girls engaged much more deeply. Four years later, the majority of her Year 6 class committed to the trip to Cambodia. The girls said they had been waiting for years for the opportunity to see it for themselves, and that early Cambodia-Queenwood connection was driving individual engagement years later.

Travel, exchanges, languages, the IB, social justice campaigns – there are many ways to engage with the world, and the key element is curiosity. Our assumption in all we do at Queenwood is that the world is an interesting place, and that our girls are going to be interested in it. This sounds obvious, but too often we back away from presenting challenging material for fear that  it is too hard, too abstract, too complex or too grown-up for a young audience. In my view this is fundamentally mistaken, even disrespectful, towards young people, and that view was certainly confirmed a few days ago when a group of girls told me that of all the assemblies we had done this year, the most interesting was the one in which we examined the origins, beliefs and future of Islamic State. It does the girls great credit that they respond in this way, as it was a challenging talk – going back to the Sunni-Shia split in the 7th century and the Golden Age of Islam in the early Caliphate, through 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Al-Qaeda and up to the present day. It does them credit, but it is no surprise. Young people are curious.

We are tapping into that curiosity in November with a Big Ideas lunchtime series. Each Tuesday for the next four weeks we are inviting interested girls from Years 7-12 to discuss big ideas relating to Australia and its place in the world. The basic question is: how does Australia build its power in international politics, and what has to change now that the power balance of the last 70 years is breaking down? The discussions will be based on the 2015 Boyer Lectures, and will be led by Mr Muir, Miss Saville, Carina Stone (Head Prefect, 2016), Dr Seele and myself. We are encouraging the girls prior to each session to listen to one of the four Boyer Lectures delivered by Dr Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. They are fascinating talks, and if you haven’t already heard them, you may also wish to listen to them so as to extend the debate with your children at home. (You can find them here)

There is a certain satisfaction, too, in noting a Queenwood connection: one of the previous speakers in this influential series was Old Girl Shirley Hazzard (in 1984 – Coming of Age in Australia).

Ms Elizabeth Stone