By Linda Stade
At what point do we judge the success of a child’s education? On the day of their graduation when they are beaming with joy and overflowing with potential? On the day they receive the results of their final exams? Wesley College Headmaster, David Gee, says… Neither. He says we should measure the success of an education when a graduate is 28.
By 28 a person is no longer an adolescent, governed by instinct and emotion. They have developed that all-important pre-frontal cortex that enables them to make rational decisions and show sound judgement. The brain has reached an ‘adult state’.
At 28 a person is likely to have tried a couple of jobs or completed a qualification and hopefully found their passion. They may have started out with a career path that was heavily influenced by parents or peers or the allure of high income. However, by 28, young people have often redirected their efforts into a pathway that feeds their passions and their values.
Fingers crossed, by 28 they will have moved out of home and taken on the responsibilities of an adult. They are also likely to have been in a loving relationship. All of the interpersonal and self-management skills taught by parents and teachers will have been tried and tested. So, it’s at that point that we can judge the success of an education.
Mr Gee is most interested in seeing how the values and experiences a child acquires at school translate in the world beyond school. What stays with a person when the school is no longer there to guide and facilitate?
Changing educational priorities
If the measure of success is how much a child retains of their learning and how much they use in later life, then the priorities of education change dramatically. Mr Gee says, “Education needs to be focused on a much more personalised model and focused on skills and dispositions as well as content. We need character-based education, values and holistic learning, where you are looking at more multi-disciplinary concepts”.
When asked which skills he sees as most important, Mr Gee outlined the following:
- Students need a strong sense of who they are and what makes them tick. That is, character education.
- Strong literacy and numeracy skills.
- Well-developed inter and intrapersonal skills, including teamwork and collaboration.
- Adaptive learning skills like creativity, problem solving and problem seeking. “Successful people will be those who find the problems before people are even aware of them.”
- Oral and written communication skills.
How are these skills taught?
Mr Gee has been Headmaster at Wesley College for 15 years. There has been the time and support to allow his beliefs about holistic education to become a part of the College culture. There have been deliberate decisions made to foster this culture, including:
- The College does not mandate courses. Children are allowed to make their own choices about study pathways. They may try and fail, but they will be supported. Many schools are so worried about how their results will look that they don’t allow kids the freedom to fail, yet it is an important part of a child’s growing accountability and resilience.
- The College has a mentor program that is the envy of many schools. Two teachers are allocated to 22 students and those teachers stay with them through their whole time at the College. That ratio of 11:1 means that teachers and students can build meaningful, long-term, rich relationships that promote growth. They meet four days a week including one full period a week. It is no surprise that the last four Head Boys have chosen their Mentor Teacher to introduce them at Valediction.
- There is a measured approach to discipline that takes into account the differences between children and their individual journeys. It is a focus on teaching rather than training, conversion rather than coercion. Mr Gee says, “ We want kids to learn to want to behave, rather than being forced to behave.” He cites examples of students who in other schools may have been expelled but Wesley has nurtured in them the learning that was required to ‘turn them around’. Some of those students have become Wesley’s greatest success stories.
- School trips are often seen as luxuries and in many ways they are. However, the growth that happens on those trips is highly valued by the College. Mr Gee says, “They may be based on a sport or a subject, but the cultural experience, character growth and independence are the most powerful aspects of those experiences.”
- Mr Gee is cynical of wellbeing fads but is committed to wellbeing. “All good teachers use the principles of positive education; they believe in kids, respect them, set high expectations, hold kids to account, and always support them when they fail.” Students learn a lot of relational skills purely from who their teachers are. “At 28 we remember who our teachers were, not what they taught us but how they taught us.”
- There has been a significant investment in programs that foster self-awareness, inclusion and appreciation of difference. Katitjin is a program that every boy in the College experiences. Mr Gee says it “immerses boys in the subject of you and you in the context of others”. Likewise, the Indigenous program, Moorditj Mob, fosters those elements of education you just can’t badge, like inclusion and community and intrapersonal development. By age 28, those values will emerge. We’re providing the infrastructure that will help them emerge.”
Ultimately, this is a noble approach to education, it isn’t about prestige and accolades, it’s all about growth. Not just for students. Mr Gee candidly admits he was very young when he took on the role of Headmaster. “I was 36 when I started at Wesley. Taking a strengths-based approach to leadership I led in a way that fitted my make up. I’ve had to manage my weaknesses. We all have to activate our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses.”
Now Mr Gee is retiring from his role as Headmaster, from Wesley College and from school-based leadership. There will be a certain grief in that. However, as he says, “I’ve spent 15 years telling boys to follow their passions. So I need to do that too”. Mr Gee is starting his own business in coaching and mentoring leaders. Thus he will continue his investment in growth, and long may it continue to positively impact those under his careful tutelage.
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