Stand back and be amazed

Dr Ann Farley, Director of Differentiated Studies Faculty

As parents and teachers we take great delight in seeing “our girls” constantly perform beyond our expectations. At each assembly we celebrate the achievements of girls who present insightful reports on activities conducted across the country and the world. At so many special events the students prepare, manage, present and perform with mature and sophisticated aplomb.

On Friday night as we experience all the fun and excitement of Open Day the student population assumes the responsibility for showcasing the School to their parents and the broader community. The evening plays a significant role in the leadership development of the Year 11 cohort as they consistently rise to the challenge of organising many aspects of the evening. At this time last year, many of the 2012 Year 8 students were being welcomed to the Grammar community. Now they are the “welcomers”, encouraging our Year 8 students of 2013 to feel comfortable and confident in a new and sometimes challenging environment.

Each year as I watch the girls prepare for, participate in and reflect upon the Open Day activities in which they have been involved, I am amazed at their confidence and their abilities. Several years ago the pace and business of the night would have worried me. The girls had so many commitments, could they really execute all their plans? Now experience tells me that the girls will demonstrate their initiative, problem solving skills, compassion and sense of fun to ensure that all runs smoothly and we are again amazed by their abilities.

This tangible sense of pride and responsibility that underpins so much of Open Day is an essential element of wider student success in and beyond the classroom. Parents and teachers agonise over how to encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own learning. Therefore, what is it about the Open Day environment that encourages our students to demonstrate such confident, responsible behaviour? Perhaps this is because there is choice, opportunity and multiple ways in which students can be involved and showcase their talents. There is also the potential to work with friends and team mates in like-minded groups.  However, perhaps significantly, there is freedom, a great sense of excitement and an expectation that everything will go well.

These elements of Open Day are reflected in research conducted by Mergler and Patton (2007) who, after conducting a number of interviews, concluded that personal responsibility in adolescents has four components:

  • an awareness of, and control over, one’s own thoughts and feelings;
  • an awareness of, and control over behavioural choices;
  • a willingness to hold oneself accountable for one’s behaviour and its outcomes (consequences); and
  • an awareness of, and concern for, the impact of one’s behaviour upon others. (p. 68)

We all acknowledge the importance of assuming a sense of responsibility for one’s own learning yet McCombs, writing for the American Psychological Association on developing responsible and autonomous learners, makes a concerning statement:

When students first enter school, they generally feel confident in their ability to learn and to direct their own learning. Repeated failures, criticisms from teachers or peers, negative family influences or attitudes and a variety of other factors can undermine students’ natural autonomy, curiosity and motivation to learn. Students need help with getting back in touch with their natural motivation and curiosity, as well as helping them master strategies for self-regulation. Confident learners are a reflection of the connection between positive self-beliefs, motivation and learning outcomes.

In his book Success 101 for Teens: 7 traits for a winning life, Mark Hansen (2009) identified  characteristics of thinking  that are important for teenagers to acquire if they are going to make the most of their lives. He also speaks of responsibility, not only in terms of taking charge of their behaviour and actions but also in terms of accepting the reality that “we are each the only example of who we are”.

Hansen emphasises the importance of utilising positive patterns of thinking to provide the tools that create a mindset for success in learning and life. As well as accepting a sense of responsibility, he highlights the importance of several other vital elements:  determination, confidence, persistence and a positive attitude. These are all significant but finally he speaks about the importance of dreams.

Dreams are important, they are the fuel for our engines. We must keep each of our dreams alive, each of our personal dreams we have for ourselves.

Learning environments across this School are always shaped with a view to providing opportunities that encourage growth of both responsibility and a positive sense of self.  Wagner (2012) argues that our students want to change the world and schools need to focus on the essential practices that will give them the skills to do so. He suggests that we can help students to do this most effectively by not only supporting them in their individual achievements within their specialised subjects but also through providing opportunities for them to work in multidisciplinary teams on projects that are important to them: projects that require them to acquire knowledge and skills in the context of solving novel problems. He identifies the importance of understanding the value of learning from past experiences, both positive and negative, and of the value of fostering intrinsic motivation through “a combination of play, passion and purpose”.

As students progress through the School they will be challenged by many such opportunities. The aim is to balance structure and flexibility in open-ended activities that will allow students to take responsibility for outcomes which they own but can sometimes be quite unexpected. Often learners are confronted by a problem based in an authentic, real world context. Students are encouraged to be innovative, to “think outside the square”, to take risks in supportive environments and to surprise us with their products.

The Year 8 students will be faced with one such opportunity at the end of next week as they combine with students from Brisbane Grammar School to participate in the annual Quest activity. They will be asked to work differently on an unfamiliar design challenge that will require them to utilise knowledge and skills acquired in various subject areas.  Initially, they will work in groups performing a series of activities created to highlight the strengths of each team member. The group will then refine the design concept before allocating roles to pairs of students who will collaborate to develop one component of the final product which will be integrated into a cohesive whole. A vital part of this experience is to make the learning visible to the students who will have to justify why the group employed the processes it did, why they had confidence in the product they developed, and be able to communicate these results compellingly to the audience.

So, as we celebrate all that is wonderful about our School when we open it to the world, and our Year 8s anticipate their Quest challenge, we have confidence that the students of this School will apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired to produce products and performances that are powerful, inspirational, and quite often surpass our, and sometimes even their own, expectations.


Hansen, M. & Ferber, K.  (2009). Success 101 for Teens: 7 Traits for a winning life. St Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House.

McCombs, B. (n.d.). Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A key to motivating students retrieved 19 July, 2012, from

Mergler, A. & Patton, W. (2007). Adolescents talking about personal responsibility. Journal of Student Wellbeing, 1(1), 57-70.

Wagner, T. (2012). Calling all Innovators, Educational Leadership, 69 (7), 66-69.



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