Dear PLC Sydney Community
On February 22nd I was very pleased to be taken to dinner by Sydney University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence. He hosted the Principals of the 30 Independent, Government and Catholic schools that the university has identified as their best ‘feeder’ schools – those that have, over the past decade, consistently sent the most graduates to Sydney University to study. There were 10 Principals invited from each sector. Most attended. In the Independent sector, eight Principals or their representatives actually attended the dinner – two were apologies. I was firstly interested that of the eight Independent Schools represented that PLC Sydney was one of three Independent Girls’ Schools, the other two being Queenwood and SCEGGS.
Dr Spence was launching the new educational model for Sydney University. After a significant review, Sydney University is changing its undergraduate structure and basing it on four pillars:
- A strong disciplinary framework in order to ensure academic rigour
- A general education whereby all students select subjects from areas such as ‘understanding world views’, ‘ethics’ and ‘digital literacy’
- Extended real world problem-solving
- Global mobility
Dr Spence firstly thanked us for providing such high quality graduates, then spoke of his own son, who despite having an excellent undergraduate degree, CV and set of experiences, struggled to get his first full time job after finishing university.
The new Sydney University model is seeking to add aspects of general education and hands-on learning to academic study. Experience matters.
The model that Dr Spence illuminated fits in well to our own educational structure. Education is not only about ‘head knowledge’, it is also about ‘heart knowledge’ and about challenging yourself. The exchange program at PLC Sydney is an example of this. It is sometimes hard for our 16 year olds to live with another family in another country. Whilst they thoroughly enjoy the cities and landscapes they are in, and are excited by the opportunities to meet new people, they are not doing this in the familiar company of their families. Yet the notion of self-challenge is so very important. It is often when we are thrown back on our own resources that we learn the most.
I am also pleased that Dr Spence spoke of their new course on ‘Understanding the Middle East’. Sydney University is keen to ensure that most students gain an understanding of world politics. This same motivation encouraged us to initiate PLC Sydney 360, where we will have our older students engage with this area. Our subject area in 2017 is the Middle East.
On the way home from the dinner on the train, I read an article by Jason Boffetti called ‘How Richard Rorty found religion’. Rorty is a well-known political philosopher. Boffetti traced the change in his writing over his lifetime from 'ardent secularist' to ‘romantic polytheist’. The philosopher who rejected the value of any religious frame has now embraced one. Even though he is sceptical about traditional faith, he has started a conversation again. The article echoed another of Dr Spence’s comments – the very nature of how we think about categories is shifting. Once upon a time, the so-called effective secular society didn’t engage with faith. That is changing – at University and in Schools.
Years ago when I taught in Zimbabwe I remember walking into a very dusty classroom which had in it only a rough concrete floor, old angular wooden chairs and tables and a poor quality blackboard. The previous teacher had left in rather a hurry and there was not much evidence of his legacy. Yet on the blackboard were three words: ‘Read and think’. I inherited a class of senior students with few resources and poor quality materials. Yet together we were able to really ‘read and think’. Nothing was off limits. It was a very exciting learning environment. They did very well academically and in their subsequent futures because their education was based on a strong foundation.
I asked Dr Spence if I could book some time to discuss education with him. He kindly agreed. We will continue to ponder and make choices as to how we can best serve our students and their futures.
Dr Paul Burgis