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

A matter of principals: great leaders lead to great schools

If you have ever pondered what it takes to be an excellent school administrator, researchers have now devised a formula for the perfect principal.

As part of their How Principals Affect Schools study, University of Melbourne economists Mike Helal and Michael Coelli rendered the elements of school leadership as a mathematical equation.

The formula seeks to calculate a principal’s impact on a school by accounting for variables such as student quality, socio-economic factors and random events like funding cuts.

The math may be complicated but the formula’s solution is simple. Coelli and Helal conclude that “the most effective principals are able to establish a coherent set of goals for the school’s workforce, to encourage professional interaction among staff, and to promote the professional development of staff.”

While the efforts of individual teachers are of utmost importance, together, these three staff management techniques are more likely to bring about an improvement to students’ academic results because “a high-quality principal can affect outcomes among all students in a school,” the researchers determined.

Dr Coelli told the Canberra Times: “It’s important that new principals are told that if you want to have these effects, particularly on literacy and numeracy, these are the kind of things you need to do,” Dr Coelli said. “Leadership is extremely important.”

This is where independent schools enjoy a distinct advantage. Being autonomous and answerable only to their own board and school community, independent schools are able to offer their principals significant professional latitude.

Principals in independent schools hire their own staff according to their school’s unique criteria to ensure the best fit between students and teachers; they shape a school’s professional development programs in consultation with individual teachers; and they enjoy the flexibility to attract and retain the best candidates from throughout Australia and overseas.

Independent school principals hold a unique managerial role combining the jobs of chief executive, human resources manager and lead educator. They are invested with an immense responsibility but are also directly accountable to schools and stakeholders.

While this may seem like a lot of eggs for just one basket, the independent sector’s emphasis on autonomy and strong leadership is not misplaced.

The 2015 School Autonomy and Student Achievement report had three key findings:

* Higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of student achievement.

* The focus of autonomy should be on professional practice.

* The most powerful evidence linking school autonomy and student achievement is seen in the work of principals to build professional capacity through staff selection, professional development and appraisal; setting priorities on the basis of data about performance; and communication of purpose, process and performance.

Independent school principals agree.

Robert Phipps, principal of the Hills Grammar School in Sydney’s Northwest wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year: “After 40 years of experience as an educator there is no doubt in my mind that teacher quality is the single most important factor impacting student learning and development, with ongoing professional learning being the main determinant of teacher quality. While independent schools will approach staff professional development in different ways they all invest heavily in it because they know it directly improves teaching and thereby the learning outcomes of their students.”

Phillip Heath, head of Barker College, echoes those sentiments, also in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that is the role of the principal at an independent school “to relentlessly pursue improvements in teaching and learning, to hold people accountable to their best possible selves and to help them achieve their absolute best rather than settle only for what is ‘good enough’.”

Read more:

How Principals Affect Schools – Mike Helal and Michael Coelli, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, June 2016

The formula for the perfect principal – Henrietta Cook and Craig Butt, Canberra Times, June 2, 2016

School Autonomy and Student Achievement Case Studies in Australia – Professor Emeritus Brian J Caldwell, University of Melbourne. June 11, 2015

Professional learning the key – Robert J Phipps, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015

The role of principals – Phillip Heath, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015