Late January 2020 saw the final countdown to the opening of the newest State Secondary College for the Gold Coast region of Australia, Foxwell State Secondary College. It had been a nine-month journey since my appointment as principal when I experienced the very first spark of a dream for an innovative, new school in Queensland. During those months, we had one driving challenge: to dare to envision what education could be if we placed students’ wellbeing and lifelong success at the center of all that we do.

After Foxwell’s first 125 hours, we had a chance to look back on the journey so far––to reflect as a staff on the past months’ experience, and on whether our vision was not only realized, but making a meaningful difference for students.

Why Does Education Try to Make Us All the Same?

It took the wise words of an insightful, highly capable, yet disengaged teenager to inspire a shift in my thinking and practice. At the conclusion of her 13 years of schooling, my daughter approached me with one simple question: “Why does education try to make us all the same?” She quoted Einstein, saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

“Why isn’t anyone listening to the students and celebrating their unique gifts?” she asked. Since then, I’ve tried to respond to her challenge.

It started with questions and deep contemplation. Compliant learners may have been “succeeding” according to traditional measures, but were they truly excelling at life? Why were students continuing to struggle in their first years of university and dropping out at record rates? Why were employers struggling to find quality employees with the competencies and skills to meet the changing needs of the global market?

Struggling learners were continuing to disengage and fall further behind, and the mental health of Australia’s youth was declining at crisis levels. Why was it happening, and what could we do? How could we engage and inspire every student?

It was time to stop, reflect, and redesign. It was time to focus on the whole child, and on what our learners need for their present and their future. It was time to put each learner first.

Success Reimagined

From the very first sod-turning, we knew this school was going to be like nothing ever designed before. My leadership team poured over every decision­­––from school name, colors, logos, and uniform to pedagogy, curriculum, and the physical environment––ensuring our school met the needs of the community and provided every student with a path to success.

At the outset, we made (and were determined to keep) a promise to our new school’s community: we would not be creating a 1970s school in a flashy new building. We refused to allow traditional systems, policies, and routines to dictate how our school would operate, so we knew we would have to innovate to create a new approach that both worked within our system and ensured our students flourished. For that, we would have to reimagine success.

Our school was not designed based on the stereotype of what “the” successful student should look like––it was designed with each and every individual student at its center. We stood by our belief that success for students can’t only be whether they get an “A” on their English task. Success for teachers can’t be that their class received the best NAPLAN results. Success for principals can’t be who ranks the highest on league tables. Success for parents can’t only depend on their child’s ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank). We refused to accept that we existed to prepare our students for one singular pathway. We refused to accept that measuring our students only on the criteria that linked to that trajectory was equitable or appropriate. Successful schools, classes, and students need to be measured by something far more human, holistic, equitable, and dignified. We need to measure and celebrate what we value as humans––and it’s much more than traditional academic outcomes.

Our community commitment to equity and inclusion, and our cultural belief in educating the whole child, meant developing and measuring students’ self-understanding, connection, competency, and knowledge––the outcomes that help each individual student find meaning, fulfillment, and lifelong success. By placing our focus on contributive learning rather than only the curricular content, the knowledge and skills students needed to develop could be embedded in something more personally meaningful. Students could learn what they need to succeed, and the “fishes” among them wouldn’t have to climb trees.

A World of Opportunity

With our new picture of success, we needed pedagogical approaches and ways of working to match. We had to resist the urge to revert to old patterns of behavior, and to let past mental models and fears make us waiver from our vision and values. Our leadership team collaborated to develop our unique Quality Teaching and Learning Framework, which guides our four-year Strategic Plan and our yearly “heat maps.” We were clear about the big picture vision, and even clearer about how to focus our time, energy, and professional learning each year.

Our Learning Design was based around a purposefully connected curriculum where we linked the Australian Curriculum learning areas to the “6Cs”––character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. The overarching metaphor for Foxwell State Secondary College is “A World of Opportunity,” so we developed our learning experiences around various “worlds.”

Our Digital Pedagogies Framework supports us to leverage digital technologies to enhance learning, and we took full advantage of the opportunity to design unique learning environments that best cater to our innovative approach to teaching and learning.

Visual representation of our “Worlds”

These worlds paved the way for significant changes to traditional teaching and learning experiences. Our teaching staff very quickly came to the realization that they could be educators––not merely actors delivering a script to an audience of students sitting quietly in their seats. Through our extensive Learning Design process, and a focus on authentic mixed-method assessment, teachers regained the confidence to build extraordinary learning experiences that merged the Australian Curriculum and the 6Cs. This was not easy work. It takes tremendous perseverance and grit, and a tenacity that many educators had grown unaccustomed to. But they rose to the challenge, the light bulbs turned on, and they designed a teaching and learning program that truly met the needs of our community of learners.

With learning design that lets each student shine, we can focus on where students are in their journeys without losing sight of the big learning picture––the years of education they are yet to experience, and the worlds of opportunity that await them beyond.

Community Wellbeing

Looking back, the first days are a bit of a blur––with VIPs visiting, media teams circling, and students and teachers exploring the school. But we were ready to open our doors to the community, because we had already developed a community connection. We recruited with purpose, designed personalized enrollment interviews, and developed strong relationships with students and parents. Much of the early success of our school can be credited to building a connected community.

In the spirit of community, wellbeing, and connection, we wanted to offer much more from education. Our students engage with our FoxWellness Program, based on Positive Education theory and the RULER approach; SPIRIT Values; and WIN (What I Need) before and after school support and engagement program. We also offer Excellence Programs that partner students with Industry or Tertiary role models, including:

  • G-STEM (Girls in STEM), where our leading female STEM students are partnered with “big sister” mentors from the University of Queensland PhD program;
  • Sporting Minds, which supports the physical and physiological needs of our athletes and is powered by InspireOnline, a 24/7 student wellness tracking and personal development program;
  • Creative Voices, which caters to students who are passionate about The Arts, Public Speaking, or Youth Advocacy; and
  • ALP, our Advanced Learning Program based around the unique passions of the students.

Kindness is the Foxwell Way––we take a strong stance against bullying, and we emphasize the need to develop respectful relationships and to address behaviors that put them at risk. We are strong advocates for inclusivity and equity and have very high expectations around integrity and personal behaviors. We want our students to be offered every opportunity to be the very best person they can be, and for every student to be aware of how they can contribute to a better world for everyone. And our staff are there to help them every step of the way.

The staff of Foxwell State Secondary College are not just brilliant and passionate educators, but truly reflective practitioners who actively engage in cycles of inquiry. Nothing is left to chance. Adequate is not enough when we can reflect and review to design something extraordinary.

Our Learning Partners––teachers, students, parents, industry and educational network members, and our critical friends––have been engaged in the process from the very beginning. We sought regular feedback, and we acted on anything we thought could improve practice for our staff and outcomes for our students. We have encouraged and challenged our staff to become calculated risk takers––solutions-focused experts who research, plan, and innovate. The work is exhausting, relentless, and empowering.

The Start of a Journey

In our 8th week after opening Foxwell State Secondary College, the Leading Learning Team met with Joanne McEachen and Matthew Kane (The Learner First, authors of Measuring Human Return) for our first onsite Learning Design and Review collaboration. We completed the School Conditions Rubric and analyzed the progress of our school against the rubrics’ proficiency progressions. Being the passionate educators we are, we felt a little deflated that we could not rate ourselves as expert, until our Executive Coach and Mentor gave us all a reminder: our school was 125 hours old. We were still at the very early stages of our journey, and happy to have already come a long way.

Joanne and Matthew openly communicated with our teachers, staff, and students while visiting, and they confirmed that our vision was alive in our school––in every corner, from our entrance, to our Administration building, to our Learning Hub, to our playgrounds, and in all of our classrooms. You could hear and feel the SPIRIT of Foxwell, 125 hours into the journey.

“Exploring the school and interacting with the teachers and the children at Foxwell gave me great joy. Here was a school brimming over with excitement and ideas about how to make school work for children, and who have the support, creativity, and commitment to bring those ideas to life. The children, in turn, feel connected to their school, the freedom to learn in their own unique ways, and a true sense of pride, responsibility, and ownership––they want to make Foxwell the best environment it can be, and everything I saw tells me they’re up to the challenge.”

Joanne McEachen, Founder & CEO, The Learner First

So, what did our students, staff, and parents say about their first 125 hours? Students spoke of being challenged, inspired, excited, valued, connected, and, most importantly, proud of their learning. Parents told us that they could see their children being more self-motivated, engaged, reflective, and inquisitive. Our teachers celebrated that students were more responsible, relational, confident, curious, and collaborative. They were no longer compliant learners waiting to be told what content they needed to know, or whether it was going to “be on the test.” Behavior issues were minimal, student engagement was high, student attendance was strong, and relationships between students and staff were of genuine respect and connection. That is a collective achievement worth celebrating, and it was also motivation for the hours to come.

In the staff room that day we reflected on our journey, celebrated where we were, and projected ahead. Where would we be after 125 days with our learners at the center of all that we do?

Kym Amor is the principal of Foxwell State Secondary College in Queensland, Australia. Stay tuned for more from Foxwell’s journey, including an upcoming article on the school’s first 125 days.