At Mentone Girls’ Grammar in Melbourne, the junior classrooms reflect the school’s approach to learning. Rather than having a traditional layout of desks in rows, rooms are open plan spaces that students have helped negotiate and organise.
“At the beginning of each year, teachers engage their students in planning and arranging their learning environment. This is part of the school’s ethos that students have agency and take an active role in their education,” says Donnah Ciempka, Acting Head of Junior School.
“You won’t come into the classroom and
be able to say that’s the front of the room because the whiteboard’s there. There may be areas for quiet learning, opportunities for children to work collaboratively and play and leave their science experiments out so that they can return to the discovery.”
According to Mrs Ciempka, students need to know themselves first as learners, and then contributors to the workforce. “And if we don’t start from the age of four or five, we’re not preparing them for the future.”
Since 2009, the junior school has had the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP) in place, an educational framework designed for children aged from three to 12. Mentone Girls’ Grammar has aligned its teaching of the programme with the Victorian curriculum.
“The PYP is about an education that’s internationally minded – relevant, engaging, significant and challenging, where the learning is meaningful and purposeful,” Mrs Ciempka says.
“So, if they’re learning about numbers to a million, then they’re looking at where in the real world you actually need to have knowledge of those numbers, rather than working with them in isolation.”
Under the PYP umbrella, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), enterprise and inquiry programs have been implemented. One example is Enviro Kids, an inquiry program that has Year 4 students looking after the school’s community gardens. As well as studying the science of plants, they learn about composting and environmentally friendly pesticides. Vegetables they grow are sold, educating them about business and finance, and then they prepare meals with the leftover ingredients.
It’s not just about planting a couple of plants and then tending to them.
The entire program is supported by learning in all curriculum areas.
By teaching these subjects in a practical, engaging way, students pay more attention. “Number one – and to me this is the key to any good education – is engagement. They are so interested in their learning,” Mrs Ciempka adds.
The junior school’s STEM program runs from the early learning centre through to Year 6, and sees children undertake activities such as coding and programming robots. She says that being a girls-only school means students feel less restricted by gender stereotypes that have prevented previous generations of girls from pursuing Science and Maths.
For Years 3 to 6, Enterprise Academy prepares students for areas they’ll study in greater depth in senior school. Staff from other departments, such as finance and marketing, speak with children on their areas of expertise.
For Mrs Ciempka, offering these opportunities is about moulding a “forward-facing generation”, whose work environments will look very different from that of previous generations.
“We really don’t know what they’re going to be up against in 20 years’ time, but we do know that things like teamwork, researching and global connections will be valuable.”