The exquisite pressure and privilege of educating young women for the twenty-first century

Mrs Anna Owen, Deputy Principal (Academic)

‘Communities and countries and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women.’ — Michelle Obama

On the occasion of her first overseas visit as First Lady, Michelle Obama made a memorable speech at a girls’ school in London, passionately making the case for every girl to take her education seriously. Posted to the TED Blog as ‘an idea worth spreading’, the video has since been viewed more than 600,000 times.

In her speech, Ms Obama cited education among the list of factors that contribute directly to women’s health, and she encouraged young women to reduce the gap between the way the world exists in its present state, and how women know it should exist. She told the students, ‘in pursuing your dreams, use your talents, be resolute, create the world as it should be, not as it is’ (Obama, 2009).

Taking advantage of every educational opportunity that is presented to girls will empower them. It will help them take control and make a positive contribution that not only benefits other women, but also communities at large.

At the heart of our school is the Brisbane Girls Grammar School Statement of Intent: ‘Proud of our Grammar tradition, we are a secondary school that establishes the educational foundation for young women to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity’.

This statement guides our School community in helping to ensure our girls have everything they need to achieve their goals, through their learning network, their families, their extended families and their friends. If our students truly love learning and know what helps them to learn, they will be successful in life. We encourage our girls to embrace knowledge and their individual learning styles and to be twenty-first century learners.

American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler once said, ‘The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’ (Toffler, 2014). To achieve in contemporary life and find their place in the world, our students must have transitional attitudes while remaining flexible, honest and open. This combination of attributes also underwrites the building of resilience in young people. At what stage in the schooling of a Grammar girl are they ready for the ‘real world’? And how is this achieved?

Students must be academically resilient. Academic resilience in a changing world requires the ability to absorb new problems and encounters and create new systems and skills to conquer the challenges. Furthermore, a sharply honed intellect, nurtured through the highs, lows and challenges thrown at us by life can result in a heightened ability to create unique solutions. The young women of today can take up this challenge if armed with skills.

The support, nurturing and love shown by today’s schools and parents is essential, however hardship and challenges are part of everyday life and therefore education must offer a balanced approach. We would never wish tragedy or unhappiness upon our students, however evidence shows that a little bit of hardship builds character and makes us more resilient — so while we want to nurture our girls, we do them no favours by protecting them from reality.

In the words of Samuel Smiles (1859), ‘We learn from failure much more than from success’. When our young women are challenged, or if they feel tired or uncomfortable it is often a time of personal growth. Building resilience is ultimately the responsibility of the individual. Our girls need to practise handling the challenges life will present to them and build confidence through practice to know they are capable of facing adversity. After all, it has been said that the only thing worse than an unhappy childhood is having a too-happy childhood!

Teachers are architects for learning, designing the environments for developing minds and preparing students for a somewhat unknown future. Teachers of today must use higher-level thinking, processing vast amounts of information related to the students they teach, the abstract and essential learnings of the subjects they teach, and the most effective instructional strategies for each situation. It is the role of every teacher in every classroom to bring these aspects of every student’s learning journey into focus.

However, the getting of wisdom is a very individual journey. In their 1991 text, Caine and Caine asserted that to acquire meaningful knowledge, ‘students must be able to perceive relationships and patterns to make sense of information’. To do this, they relate it to their past unique experiences and the current environmental context and interactions. They describe ideas of disequilibrium and self-organisation as central to knowledge acquisition. Disequilibrium is ‘when the original state of equilibrium is disturbed’. So when a learner meets new information that is confusing or disturbing, he or she enters a mental state of disequilibrium. This state is reconciled when ‘the learner moves to a broader or more inclusive notion’ (Caine & Caine, 1991).

Transfer of learning and the development of intellect are the most important reasons for designing concept-based curriculum and instruction models (Erickson, 2007). Transfer of learning supports new learning, and retrieval of past understandings as a student travels their own educational journey.

To prepare our students for life beyond school and a life of contribution and service, we provide the advantage of the open-ended study of topics and encourage a liberal, broad-based curriculum that addresses the central developmental aspects and skills of the curriculum. These are known as enduring understandings and ensure experiences and judgments of what a student knows and what a student can do. The design of curriculum and instruction enables students to take increasing responsibility for constructing their own knowledge.

It is essential that the randomness of current thinking in education, the busyness of knowledge and the presentation of facts in the media, does not disorder our students’ individual learning journeys. A young woman’s education is ultimately about her slow, measured accumulation of facts, skills, an understanding of her own learning, and the getting of wisdom, imagination and integrity. This education will prepare her to go on and create a world for all women, as it should be, rather than as it is.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Erickson H., L. (2008). Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning. (3rd ed.). California, USA: Corwin Press.

Obama, M. A plea for education. Elizabeth G. Anderson School, United Kingdom. April 2009. Speech. Retrieved from:

Smiles, S. (1859). Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct . London: S. W. Partridge & Co.

Toffler, A. (2014). Toffler Quotes.