Academic Priorities 2019

Academic Priorities 2019

As we begin a new school year, academic and pastoral staff across the College have been reflecting on the Academic priorities for 2019 which are:

  • Fostering Conceptual Understanding
  • Encouraging Student Agency and Responsibility
  • Developing a Growth Mindset, Grit and Perseverance

We have also considered how this message can be delivered to our students in a way that is appropriate to their age and understanding.

Our focus on Conceptual Understanding ties in with the ongoing work we are undertaking with Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University. We are among a few schools in the country where all staff have undertaken introductory professional learning on the Harvard Cultures of Thinking approach.  The focus on thinking skills and ensuring that students are connecting course content with big ideas continues to develop across the College. Academic research confirms that if students are able to link facts and information to conceptual ideas and prior learning, they are more likely to remember it and more likely to apply that learning to other areas. In an era of instant gratification and information available at the click of a button, the ability to think deeply is something that is at the heart of life-worthy learning and a St Leonard’s College education.

Another key elements of lifeworthy learning is Student Agency. When students have agency they have control of the process that they are undertaking. The analogy that I recently used with a group of Senior School students was that if they are in a car, they have more agency as a driver than a passenger because they are making the decisions. At St Leonard’s College our focus is on co-Agency, where the responsibility for learning is shared between teacher and student. We continue to encourage our students to be responsible for their own learning, seek assistance if they are struggling, ask for clarification and support from their teachers and mentors, and to be in the ‘drivers seat’ of their educational journey.

In challenging situations, which learning can often be, a Growth Mindset, Grit and Perseverance are three things that are essential to ensuring success. Research by leading academics on brain plasticity has shown that the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is actually true. In the same way that muscles get stronger if they are exercised, this research shows us that the brain gets stronger the more it is ‘exercised’ and challenged. We are encouraging our students to understand that when the work is difficult it is actually an opportunity to exercise the brain and allow it to develop. Perseverance is critical to this approach as is a positive attitude. Too often students come to a subject with a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset may sound something like this – “I have never been good at English, I hate reading and I can’t write an essay”. A Growth mindset might sound like this “I know English has been a harder subject for me, but I also believe that it will get easier and I can get better at it if I work hard, practice and get help from my teachers.” Parents have a crucial role to play in catching negative self-talk and encouraging students to reframe their approach.

As a new Academic year begins, it is important that students are setting goals for what they wish to achieve. For younger students, these goals might focus on their attitudes to learning, concentration in class, giving their best effort, committing to daily reading and developing and practicing the virtues of kindness, tolerance and patience. For students in years 5-9, conversations around goal setting are taking place with their Mentors. These might focus on increasing their co-Agency and learning to ask for assistance and support when they are unsure of a task or need further clarification. It might also focus on managing time on task and academic achievement in certain subjects. In the senior years of school, goal setting might centre around performance in certain academic subjects as prerequisites for future study, managing time, balancing cocurricular commitments and home learning tasks. At each age and stage, parents have an active role to play in facilitating and encouraging students to reflect on their learning journey, consider what can be gained from each learning experience and the ways in which the experience can be framed to encourage perseverance and a growth mindset.

In setting goals for the year ahead, self belief is crucial. In speaking to the year 10 cohort recently, I used the example of Sarah Gigante. At 17 years of age Sarah won the women’s junior time trial and road race National championships in January 2018. In May 2018 – half way through her year 12 year where she was studying English Language, French, Latin, Maths Methods and Chemistry- Sarah crashed at a club race. She sustained a broken elbow, broken shoulder, and broken wrist as well as severe facial injuries. Her mother had to feed her using a tea spoon because of injuries to her jaw. In January 2019, 6 months after her crash and 2 months after finishing her year 12 studies, Gigante won both the under 23 and women’s national road championship titles, finishing ahead of Olympian and World Championship Silver Medalist Amanda Spratt.

Sarah’s amazing year was topped off with a perfect ATAR of 99.95.

The key message that I asked students to take away from Sarah’s story, came from her own Instagram post where she wrote “My two secret goals at the start of this year before a couple of things went belly up in April, were to win a junior world championship and to get a 99.95 at the end of year 12.” Sarah set goals for herself and focused on achieving them. And even when it seemed impossible given her injuries she still focused on what she wanted to achieve.


This focus was crucial to Sarah, especially when faced with what many would have considered insurmountable obstacles. This focus is crucial to academic success and a general sense of confidence more broadly. While schools have the responsibility of developing academic competence, we also have the added responsibility of preparing self-assured individuals who are capable of pursing their hopes and ambitions. As Albert Bandura argued: “Educational practices should be gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use but also by what they do to children’s belief about their capabilities, which affects how they approach the future.” Entrusted with the education of students, our focus at St Leonard’s College is on ensuring that our students are well equipped to face the immediate challenges of schooling and career pathways, while at the same time developing the dispositions that will allow them to be contributors to their communities well into the future.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, p 417.

Susanne Haake
Director of Academic Development