Every Student Podcast: Stephanie McConnell
In an episode of firsts: a student joins the Every Student Podcast with Stephanie McConnell – the first principal of Lindfield Learning Village.
In an episode of firsts: a student joins the Every Student Podcast with Stephanie McConnell – the first principal of Lindfield Learning Village.
Hi, I am Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with Stephanie McConnell. Stephanie is the Principal of Lindfield Learning Village and it is one of our newer schools in NSW. It opened this year and it has an innovative model and approach to teaching and learning that has proven already to be extremely popular with students and parents. Welcome Stephanie.
Thank you very much.
Tell us a little bit about how you got to Lindfield Learning Village. It is one of our most famous schools already and we will talk a bit about why it has gathered so much attention. You started out as an English teacher?
I did, I started as an English teacher at Merrylands High School and originally got the job there as a mobile teacher. At the time I didn’t know what that meant but it meant that I was at Merrylands for fifteen years.
So you weren’t very mobile?
Not very mobile, no. From there to Killara High School as a head teacher of English there and from there to Turramurra as deputy and eight more years at Turramurra High School as the principal before I came to Lindfield.
How did the Lindfield job come about?
I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, the seed was planted when I was at Killara with Mark Carter and he and I and a couple of other colleagues there had a cheeky little meeting with the then Director-General of Education – Michael Coutts-Trotter – to suggest that it might be a nice idea for the department to purchase the Lindfield site as a senior campus for Killara High School. So from that point onwards it emerged in my thinking as a really interesting idea concept to pursue. It just happened to evolve in the time I was at Turramurra as I was able to be on the steering committee and then the reference group working on the design of the educational model and the actual design of the building which is quite a unique opportunity.
Let's talk about the building if people haven’t been to that old UTS site in Lindfield, it’s buried down in the bush and it was the Ku-ring-gai College of Advanced Education before it was UTS. Brutalist architecture I think is how they politely describe it, but not designed to be a school.
Not designed to be a school but always has been a place of learning and education, even as far back as in its Aboriginal history which I think is really interesting. It is certainly a building that I have grown to love over the last few years and has taken a lot of work to adapt it to become a school, particularly a school for Kindergarten students through to what will be a K to 12 school eventually. There has been a lot of work done in that period of time leading up to our opening this year to make it suitable for a school setting.
About 300 students now with a trajectory towards 2,000 students by the time it is fully operational. What is of interest is the way you are going about the teaching and learning experience there. Tell us a bit about the planning of the school and how you came up with the model of teaching and learning that you are trying to develop at Lindfield.
It has been a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity and I think it is one of those things that as a teacher you often go to professional learning and they say “what if you had this amazing opportunity to wipe the slate clean and to create a school from scratch?” That is literally the opportunity that I have here to create a brand new school and to build community, to build culture. It was back in 2014 when I had that opportunity to work with Professor Stephen Heppell and my current Director Sue Lowe and previous Director Meredith Ash to develop the educational model, to pull together the educational research that was emerging internationally as well as the many experiences that I have been lucky enough to have in working with some really key change-makers in education in NSW and also visiting a lot of innovative schools both across Australia and internationally. Out of all of that emerged the model as it has become today and since that time even in the five years hence, research has continued to reinforce that what we are doing is really cutting edge in terms of best practice.
We turn up at Lindfield today what do we see that makes it different to a regular school?
I think what you see is that there are no classrooms. We have learning spaces that are designed for stage groups so a stage group crosses a couple of years in terms of the span of ages. Obviously flexible furniture and that is something that many schools in NSW are using but it is something that is really quite an interesting component in the larger learning spaces. But I think, more than the physical space, a lot of people when they first walk into Lindfield describe that there is a feel about the place that is very comfortable, students are very welcoming and they call us by our first names that is something that they have decided. We have included student voice in everything that we have done to build the school from the start of this year. A lot of the decisions are theirs and we work along students to build and continue to build the school holding lightly to the work that we are doing because we know that is a really important part of remaining agile as we move forward.
A big focus on Project Based Learning.
Yes. I don’t like to use the word Project Based Learning. You are very correct, it is more that I am quite keen to utilise the opportunity that we have to not just input a known system or process but to question and to unlearn a lot of what we think school is. Obviously, we will be using aspects of Project Based Learning that are critical and important but we talk about design centred learning at Lindfield and building learning design around the individual needs of each one of our students.
One of the things that you have been able to do is to go and recruit your staff because it is a new school and we had an arrangement where you could do that so you could advertise and you had a lot of people that wanted to come and work with you. What have staff had to learn and what have they had to change about their teaching in moving to the kind of environment that you are creating at Lindfield?
I think that is probably one of the most significant things about our experience to this point this year and we are only eighteen weeks old. The unlearning is what we talk a lot about. There are a lot of assumptions that we bring as teachers and as experienced teachers and just as people who have experienced school and school as we know it in our childhood is needing to change for a number of really key reasons. For our staff they co-teach in the learning spaces and teaching traditionally is a very private occupation surprisingly enough.
The doors can be shut on the classroom.
The doors are closed yes that is right and what happens in there is a mystery sometimes. It is very open and transparent and very public and that is important. For our teachers not only is it learning different ways of teaching but when we talk about being a school that has individualised student learning at the heart of what we do – and that is for me the Holy Grail of what we are chasing – it implies that there needs to be a change in the nature of the way we teach. So it is something that we encourage staff to question and to think about and to consider every day and reflect on the changes that they might make.
Have the students needed to adapt as well if they have come from a more traditional setting?
Absolutely yes, it has been interesting the first cohort this year have come from a very wide variety of educational backgrounds from those who have come from the Montessori system, democratic schools, elite private schools as well as other public schools. Our journey has really shown that those who have come from the more traditional settings have taken a bit longer to adapt to having the level of choice and freedom but having said that one of the myths about Lindfield Learning Village is that it is completely unstructured and students are just set free to do whatever they like which is not the case at all. It is actually much harder to teach in a way that we are aiming to do. There is a very rigorous structure and foundation behind the work that we do in order to maintain the important accountabilities around the teaching and learning and to ensure that we know that what we are doing is having an impact.
How do you go about measuring and assessing progress and improvement in this different kind of setting?
I think that is a really important question because around the new pedagogies we need to build new metrics and we need to really be mindful of moving into a space where we measure what we value not just value what is being measured and traditionally I know that particularly in the pointy end of education around that Stage 6 Year 11 and 12 what we value our HSC ATAR scores and NAPLAN of course is something that people rate and judge schools by however I think for us it is about measuring a whole lot of other aspects of learning and changing what we mean by success.
You have taught at Killara, you have taught at Turramurra, we know that socioeconomic status of families are a great predictor of educational success do you still expect to see that a school like Lindfield will perform as well in the more traditional assessments like the HSC, as demonstrated in the ATAR, as those other schools which are drawing students from similar areas?
I can’t see why we wouldn’t, we certainly will be moving into a Stage 6 program next year where we hope to offer quite a bespoke program where those sorts of opportunities we work alongside students to get the best possible outcomes for them based on their own individualised pathway. I have got an extremely experienced team of teachers who are very well aware of the complexities of the HSC pathway but one thing that is important to me is the well-being of students in all of that is critical and that there are a number of pathways into post-school destinations and the sausage factory of the HSC is only one of them and I am pretty keen to create opportunities for students which reduce the levels of anxieties that traditionally I have seen in students of that age but also quite young as well.
Do you think this is a school setting for every student?
I do and that is something that I think is really quite an important aspect of what we are offering because in a model where essentially we meet every student at their point of need and we move them forward from there – in a way that is not necessarily tied to a calendar year – it gives us the opportunity to work with students and to develop their particular skill set and to support them in the areas where they are more challenged in a way that allows them to feel empowered and I think that is a really critical difference in terms of what we are offering.
One of the interesting things about the school is that its reputation has preceded it. This is a school that featured on the ABC’s 7:30 program before a single student had walked through the door and you have these long waiting lists and quite high level of parental expectation and we almost can’t develop the school fast enough for all the parents who are trying to knock on the door. What are those parents looking for? Why the appeal?
That is a really critical point. I have got at the moment 2,500 on my waiting list and it says to me particularly in the part of Sydney where we are, the leafy north shore, a lot of people were quite surprised at the appeal that the school has had. I believe that it is very much because people are looking for something different for their children, people are very aware of the way that our world is changing and that our system and schools are built for an era that was to create factory workers and that we don’t need so many of them anymore and we need to be addressing the world that our students are going into and providing them with the tools to be able to thrive in that world.
Have you found that you have a lot of students who are coming to you and families are interested in coming to Lindfield who really have not fit well into the traditional schooling model?
Yes, indeed and I think particularly any student who has come to Lindfield this year who is not in Kindergarten or Year 7 is moving for a reason. We are really happy to be able to provide an environment for those students who are seeking something different and who have found that the traditional models of schooling have not met their particular needs; whether it be because they have learning difficulty or because they have particular needs that make it difficult for them to work in a large cohort of students where they are all expected to move fairly lock-step through a system. Students who want more freedom, more choice, more opportunity to pursue their passions and that is something that we are working with students to try and create in a system that is quite highly structured, many boxes to tick, what we do is look for the opportunities in that and in fact the HSC syllabus and the new curriculum when you read it closely offers all of that.
What is interesting is this school looks pretty different, ambitious philosophy but you are still operating within the constraints of being a government school as part of a public education system with requirements. Offering credentials like the High School Certificate and meeting the requirements of NESA; you have found flexibility within despite critiques of the rigidity of the system?
Absolutely I think that is part of the what I have been looking for in the period of time leading up to this is just reading really carefully those policies and documents to find where those loopholes are and to find that there is actually a lot of flexibility in the system and even to the point where one of the things that I know many schools in NSW are challenged by when it comes to thinking innovatively is around the mandatory hour requirements particularly in the secondary setting. I knew prior to starting this year that there was a whole day a week in that curriculum that was in excess of what was required to meet those hours which is how we have then structured our timetable through the week to meet those mandatory hours from Monday to Thursday.
You ask for forgiveness, not permission.
I do “please forgive me Mark”, yes.
You are now a site of educational tourism, many people knock on your door and want to take a look around.
If you are teaching at a regular primary school or secondary school and you don’t have the new facilities and the whole new set up and the whole in a sense bespoke model that you created how much are you offering that can still be taken back and applied elsewhere?
A lot and that is a really important point because for me the last eight years of my journey have been working on transforming an existing culture, an existing school and the way I have done that is by pulling the eyes out of the best that I have seen and I think we offer a lot in terms of the concepts that we are pursuing that are easily adapted to other school settings. That is what I would like to hope that we offer to other schools and I am very much of the mindset that although we are really lucky to have a beautiful new school that offers us all of the opportunities to teach and to deliver the model that we have designed for those spaces. I think I could have done this in a barn. I don’t want to say that now and I would be very happy to see the continuing journey with this school, but it is the learning.
That is a great insight. High profile, a lot of attention, you are now almost two terms in you had a bit of time to get your head around in advance but that is not quite the same as running the thing with real live breathing children, teachers, parents, the like. What has taken you by surprise?
That is an interesting question. The most surprising things for me have been that when you empower young voices they come up with the most extraordinary ideas. Quite often our system and the way that we educate young people takes away that passion for learning and we are all lovers of learning when we are given the right opportunities when we are allowed to pursue things that are meaningful to us that we can see connections to our real world and allows us to cover a whole breadth as our curriculum offers but in a way that gives us access and provides us with new opportunities for learning. Particularly the little voices of our Kindergarten children we have really valued their contribution.
One of the interesting things, of course, you are now running a K to 12 school and your experiences have all been in secondary what have you had to learn about little people?
You can’t walk past them without them grabbing hold of you. I was mentioning as I was walking out the door today to come and speak to you I was having a conversation with Beatrice who is one of our beautiful Kindergarten children and she was asking me where I was going and as I was walking down the stairs to the car park she called from the top of the stairs “Stephanie, why are you a principal?” and I just called backed and said “because I am lucky”.
Great story. One of your students Ayesha is working with us here at the department this week on work experience bailed me at an event and said “can I come and do work experience.” I said, “absolutely come along.” I want to roll her into the conversation too because it is rare for us to have not just the principal of a school but a student of a school here and seeing as it is the Every Student Podcast I thought it would be good to hear from her. Ayesha you are in Year 10 where were you at school before you came to Lindfield?
I was first at school at Newtown High in Year 7 and through Year 8 and Year 9 I went to boarding school in New Zealand.
What caught your interest or the family’s interest about Lindfield?
We have been looking for something different for quite a long time which is the reason that I went to New Zealand and hearing about Lindfield and everything that it had to offer we just thought that is the school that we have been looking for.
What have you found different about the learning experience and the learning approach particularly being in stages and not in year groups, the projects and investigations that you run at the school? Tell us about your experiences as a student.
One of the biggest experiences that I have had is that there is a lot of trust through the school. You have a lot of trust in the teachers and you know that you can go and talk to the teachers and tell them your ideas and what you think that you need from them. There is also you can say the ideas that you have and they will try and live them out.
Compared to a more structured learning environment that you have had in the past how does the workload feel to you? Is it as demanding? Is it as rigorous? Are you working harder? Is it more interesting? Tell us about how it is different?
It is a lot less of a workload in the sense that for most schools when you go into the classroom you will get an assignment and then on top of that you will have to do the classwork as well, whereas at Lindfield when we get the assignment we do it in class. If you don’t do it in class then you have got to do it at home but we have that time in class to really bounce ideas off the teacher and things like that.
Less homework, less work at home?
Yes definitely, more time to do your own thing and you also get time to work on things that you want to work on.
What are the things that you are interested in working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on a documentary about ADHD and the experience of kids living with that in the education system.
Fantastic. A good move for you at the moment. Your sister is there as well.
Yes, she is.
How is she finding it?
She is really loving it because she has a sensory thing called synaesthesia which is where she mixes her neurological pathways are different from other peoples in the way that she perceives colour, taste and sound. In a normal school environment she struggled with sensory overload but at Lindfield, she can sit out and she can do more hands-on things and stuff like that.
Thanks for giving us the voice of the student in the Every Student Podcast that is greatly appreciated. Stephanie thanks to you too and thanks for all the work that you are doing. In this really interesting model that is being developed which we are all looking at so closely, we wish you and your team and all the students there every success.
Thank you for listening to this episode of every student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter at NSW Education on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
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