The Hills District Think Tank for Gifted and Talented Students

Hands on … Hills Grammar teacher and elite sportswoman Alyssa McMurray shares the secrets of athletic success with Think Tank workshop students. Credit: Hills Grammar

An exciting new initiative is bringing together the Hills district’s best and brightest primary school children to intensify their learning potential.

Established by Hills Grammar Junior School, the Hills District Think Tank compounds the intellectual, creative and athletic power of high-ability students from seven independent schools in the local area, including: Tangara, Pacific Hills Christian School, William Clarke College, Rouse Hill Anglican College, Adventist College and Australian International Academy.

The Australian Curriculum (AC) defines gifted students as those “whose potential is distinctly above average” intellectually, creatively, socially or physically, whereas talented students are characterised by their demonstrated outstanding skills in any field of human endeavour.

While the AC acknowledges the influence of a number of factors on student achievement, it emphasises the transformative role of schools in helping gifted students to translate potential into talent by “giving students appropriate opportunity, stimulation and experiences.”

Born to run … Sports Science workshop participants learned how to hone their gifts to achieve even better results. Credit: Hills Grammar

The Think Tank series of workshops meets this imperative by providing deeper and broader enrichment opportunities to supplement classroom learning, says Hills Grammar Gifted and Talented Coordinator Deborah Wightley. “Gifted programs are often just an extension of existing studies. We wanted to expand on what was already on offer and bring in students from different domains of learning: academic, creative and athletic so we can cater for the learning needs of all high-potential students.”

“Research shows that these children need to work with like-minded peers to maximise their learning,” says Mrs Wightley.

Last term’s inaugural Think Tank event focused on physical prowess. Led by elite sportswoman and Hills Grammar teacher Alyssa McMurray, a group of 28 athletically-gifted Year 5 and 6 students participated in a sports science workshop examining performance-optimising strategies.

Students analysed the impact of diet, fitness, technique, skill, and strength and conditioning on athletic outcomes to create a personal training regimen, which they then compared to that of an elite athlete from their chosen sport. Utilising the Hudl app on iPads, these students were able to log their results and can continue to record their progress as they incorporate theory into practice.

Multi-dimensional … the Sports Science workshop examined the many factors required for optimal performance. Credit: Hills Grammar

The collaborative nature of the workshop was enthusiastically embraced by students. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They really enjoyed making connections with like-minded kids from other schools and working together on their area of passion,” Mrs Wightley says.

And it’s not just the kids who are loving the opportunity to take a deep dive into their favourite field. Teachers too are excited by the prospect.

“We asked our staff to self-nominate to design a workshop in their own area of interest,” Mrs Wightley says. “They’ve been very positive, especially as the students’ feedback has been so good. Teachers from the network stayed for the entire day at the first event and were really impressed by the level of engagement of the students.”

Peer perfection … the Think Tank brings gifted and talented children together to maximise their learning potential. Credit: Hills Grammar

This term’s workshop, Debating Skills and the Secrets of Adjudication, was designed for Stage 2 students by Hills Grammar Debating Coordinator Fiona Khoo who is also an adjudicator, “so she’s perfect to run the workshop”, Mrs Wightley says.

In Term 4, Creative Writing and Cookie Characters will bring high-ability students together in a literary bake-off.

Students will be tasked with creating a fictional character and then designing and baking a cookie representative of that character.

“It’s a stimulus to creative writing,” Mrs Wightley explains. “The idea of the workshops is to be engaging for students who have a strength in that area already. It’s about engaging them in higher-order thinking and adding some complexity to the task so they’re challenged.”

After the biscuit-making, participants will spend the afternoon dramatising their characters. The action-packed day is calibrated to match these students’ natural aptitude, says Mrs Wightley.  “The fast pace is deliberate because the kids acquire knowledge so quickly.”

With every member school scheduled to run a workshop for each learning stage, the Think Tank will eventually comprise a multifaceted set of learning tools designed to turn propensity into proficiency.

“We will have a lovely collection of workshops,” Mrs Wightley says. “The schools are really engaged with the vision and see the opportunity for their own school. Between us it’s a very positive network aimed at providing more opportunities for our high-potential students and staff members.”

Interested parents are encouraged to contact their school about this program and other enrichment activities available to their children.

For more information on independent schools in the Hills area, visit the Hills School Expo on Saturday, September 9 and Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Where: Federation Pavilion, Castle Hill Showground, Showground Road, Castle Hill
When: Saturday, September 9 and Sunday, September 10, 2017
Time: 10am to 4pm both days
Cost: Free admission
Parking: Parking is free and plentiful at Federation Pavilion
Contact: Dorothy Willoughby on 0412 233 742

The independent school advantage: student engagement

From girls to Renaissance women … nurturing student engagement is central to Wenona School’s teaching practice.

Disruptive behaviour, talking back, schoolwork avoidance. These are some of the telltale signs of a disengaged student. Media headlines tend to highlight extreme misbehaviour in schools but low-intensity resistance to learning is far more common — and equally problematic.

A recent Grattan Institute report found that up to 40 per cent of Australian students are effectively tuned out in any given year. The consequences for their education and that of their fellow students are dire.

Disengaged students quickly fall behind with their performance trailing their peers by up to two years, on average. The difficulty of teaching children with insufficient base knowledge is stressful for teachers and hinders the progress of the entire class, the report found.

Study authors Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann have called for urgent reforms. Their recommendations are two-fold: augmented teacher training that incorporates specific classroom management strategies and the development of techniques to establish a constructive learning environment in the classroom.

The overall aim of teaching should be learning — now and into the future, say the researchers.

“The teacher’s ambition should not necessarily be a quiet classroom, but a genuinely productive class. The broader aims are to help students feel comfortable, be confident in their own abilities, be willing to participate and make mistakes, and be keen to challenge themselves in learning.

And effective teaching goes further: creating an environment that not only makes learning possible now, but also teaches attitudes and behaviours that enhance learning and success in later life. Student skills in self-regulation, such as self-monitoring and self-evaluation, are vital for life-long learning,” the report states.

International research bears out these findings. The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has assessed the impact of various components of the educational experience on learning outcomes based on worldwide evidence. Assessing everything from physical aspects such as the built environment and digital technology to parental involvement and teaching methods, the results show that teaching children meta-cognition skills such as reasoning and self-evaluation are the most effective strategies for improving engagement and lifting academic results.

As EEF chief executive Kevan Collins told Quartz, “Getting children to think and talk about their own learning more explicitly can be one of the most effective ways to improve academic outcomes.”

Independent schools are well aware of the benefits of this teaching style and have fully embraced it.

An exemplar is the Renaissance Woman educational framework found at North Sydney’s Wenona School. The school says this holistic practice is “modelled on the Socratic method of teaching, a form of cooperative dialogue and debate that encourages critical thinking; there are no ‘right answers’ in the course. The point is to consider, contemplate and question.

Strengthening student engagement is of primary importance at Wenona. “We explore ways to enhance our girls’ engagement and connectedness, including providing opportunities for them to learn to be present with themselves without distraction. Encouraging this capacity for reflection and self-awareness promotes self-confidence and a stronger sense of identity, building all-important resilience.”

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has found that independent schools have the most deeply engaged students and this is due to the nature of the schools themselves.

Family background and a student’s inherent motivation play a significant role but on the centrality of schools, ACER is unequivocal: “It does matter which school a student attends,” the organisation says. This, ACER explains, is because the highest levels of engagement are found in schools where “students believe that their school has a good school climate, that is one where they have high quality teachers, effective discipline, high levels of student learning and a positive school spirit.”

Research shows that academic achievement is closely correlated with student engagement. “There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between engagement, wellbeing and outcomes. Engaged students do better and doing better increases engagement,” says the NSW Government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

The excellent HSC results attained by independent schools throughout the state are testament to the positive learning climate found in these schools and the deep engagement they cultivate in students.

To learn more about what makes independent schools so successful, visit the North Shore School Expo, August 5-6, at the Concourse in Chatswood.



Engaging Students: Creating Classrooms that Improve Learning — Peter Goss and Julie Sonneman, The Grattan Institute, February 2017

Teaching and Learning Toolkit — Education Endowment Foundation, 2017

We’re asking kids all the wrong questions in school — Jenny Anderson, Quartz, July 7, 2017

Student engagement with school: individual and school level influences — Sue Fullerton, ACER, July 2002

Student Wellbeing — Literature review, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, NSW Education and Communities, May 2015.


Penny wise: Why a good school is about more than money

Peer support … experts agree that school culture plays the strongest role in academic outcomes.

What do you think of when you hear the words “good school”? The first images that spring to mind might be of tidy grounds; well-maintained buildings; exuberant but courteous students; enthusiastic, knowledgeable teachers; and an overall air of diligence and positivity.

Most of us would agree that good schools are happy schools where staff and students are motivated to high performance by a genuine affection for and pride in their school.

So, if we all have a similar idea of what makes a good school, why is it so hard to achieve in practice?

Last year, the OECD released its latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report to much hand-wringing in the country’s media as it revealed that Australia’s students had slipped even further behind their counterparts in 72 countries since the 2012 report. This reflected an overall decline since 2000 both comparatively and in terms of absolute scores.

PISA Senior Manager Peter Adams, a former teacher himself at Melbourne’s Toorak College, told Education HQ this week that there is cause for concern over this “persistent downward trend” particularly in the realm of mathematics. Adams emphasised the need to learn from the pedagogical practices of more academically successful countries and pointed to the very high levels of reported bullying and stress amongst Australian students as impediments to their academic performance.

A lack of discipline is another factor with both PISA and the Australian Centre for Educational Research’s 2015 Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) finding that far too many Australian classrooms are unruly with teachers practising “crowd control” at the expense of teaching.

Disruptive behaviour in the classroom has a measurable impact on a school’s academic quality. The TIMSS report found that: “There was a clear relationship between the achievement of Australian students and teachers’ reports of their school being safe and orderly, with more safe and orderly schools associated with higher achievement.”

That is perhaps why the news is not all bad. One sector of our education system — independent schools — is producing superlative results across the board.

The PISA 2015 scores showed that Australian students attending independent schools ranked in the top five internationally on every measure and they are the world’s best readers, outranking every other student cohort in terms of literacy and reading comprehension. These are fantastically good results, especially considering Australia’s relatively small population, but it begs the question: what are these schools doing differently?

Many people may assume that it comes down to resources. Australia’s most famous private schools are its oldest and most expensive and, consequently, its best-resourced. But these schools make up a tiny fraction of the sector with the vast majority of independent schools being low- or medium-fee institutions serving their local suburbs, ethnic and/or religious communities on a shoestring budget. Yet, they make an outsize contribution to the sector’s academic success. This is where the essential traits of a good school come into play: funding and facilities are important, experts says, but, ultimately, education is underpinned by enculturation.

“PISA shows that the school a student attends has an impact on outcomes,” TIMSS lead author Sue Thomson says. Her recommendation to lift Australia’s academic rankings is for schools to “provide high-quality teaching and foster a culture of high expectations for all students, alongside the development of practices to foster excellence in all schools in order to harness the influence of students on each other as a valuable learning resource.”

With their autonomy and emphasis on community, independent schools are able to cultivate precisely these characteristics. Barker College head Phillip Heath makes the point that: “Independent schools are recognised as having strong school cultures, built on high expectations of all students. There is a focus on development of the full human, including spiritual and character development, through religious, pastoral care and wellbeing programs.”

These qualities can’t be bought. In answer to the question: “Does money buy strong performance in PISA?” The OECD says, beyond a certain point, no. It cites the example of South Korea, which spends relatively little on education but consistently tops the PISA rankings. This is because cultural values are the overriding determinant of a nation’s academic achievement, the OECD says. “Money alone can’t buy a good education system. Strong performers in PISA are those countries and economies that believe — and act on the belief — that all children can succeed in school.”

Money can’t buy you love, nor, it seems, a love of learning. It may take money to run a school, but only its values can make it great.


PISA results don’t look good but before we panic, let’s look at what we can learn from the latest test — Stewart Riddle, The Conversation, December 6, 2016

PISA Senior Manager says Australia’s performance concerns justified — Chelsea Attard, Education HQ, June 13, 2017

Our man in PISA – Melbourne educator creates testing times in Paris — Sally Robinson, The Age, May 8, 2016–melbourne-educator-creates-testing-times-in-paris-20160502-gojufk.html

TIMSS 2015: Reporting Australia’s Results — Sue Thomson, Nicole Wernert, Elizabeth O’Grady, Sima Rodrigues, Australian Centre for Educational Research, 2017

How Australia’s Independent Schools Sector Rated in 2015 — Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, December 7, 2016.

New PISA results show education slide – it’s time to stop the slide — Sue Thomson, The Conversation, December 3, 2013

Does money buy strong performance in PISA? — PISA in Focus 13, February 2012