While the 21st century continues to take shape, one of the most striking social transformations is the changing face of education. Technological advancements have acted as a double-edged sword, alternately freeing students from the iconic, primitive trappings of the classroom – chalkboards, copious printouts, overhead projectors – and binding them to a new set of rules that have yet to be fully articulated.
And so it is for teachers, who not only have to help define these rules, but also assist students to come to terms with the new world by making the most of the myriad advantages at their disposal.
It’s a slippery slope; the benefits of technology come with some pretty severe pitfalls and, for some teachers, it’s as much of a learning experience for them as it is for the pupils. Rather than have to deal with these changes on the fly, however, schools are integrating them into the program.
Students can perform to the best of their abilities if their school recognises the challenges of the modern world and prepares them accordingly – and so it is at Canberra Grammar School, a co-educational Anglican school that counts Kerry Packer and Gough Whitlam among its alumni.
“It’s important for our students to have a sense of their place in the world of the 21st century,” says Justin Garrick, Head of Canberra Grammar since 2011. “Rather than have them feel threatened by the great demographic shifts that are happening in the world, we equip them with the language, skill and cultural insight to be excited by our times.”
The Canberra Grammar curriculum, he says, emphasises knowledge, creative thinking and respect for science. “They can then respond to those enormous challenges, such as climate change, with the attitude and confidence to contribute to the needs of the democracy of the moment.”
My favourite part of the job is seeing opportunities unfold and seeing kids excited by discovering their potential.
A Cambridge scholar, Justin’s educational journey began at Sydney Grammar School. “School was a really important place for me as a young person. It was somewhere that I gained tremendous confidence and fulfilment as a student and I always wanted to give that to others,” he recalls.
When he returned to Australia after 13 years of teaching in some of London’s most prestigious schools, the passion still burned. “It took me a while to recognise that this really was my calling, and something that gave me true fulfilment. It’s been the fuel to my career ever since.”
By the time Justin arrived at Canberra Grammar, the school – established in 1929 – was in need of a refresh. “It had reached a stage that all institutions do where it needed a renewal as to what it stood for. I pitched the school more closely to what I sensed is the nature of its community,” he explains.
As the heart of Australian democracy, Canberra is a city full of public servants and outward-looking, globally oriented, socially progressive careers. “I felt there was a real opportunity to reflect that in its curriculum units, in its ethos and in the opportunities it provides to students.”
These opportunities include international baccalaureate programs for both primary and senior students, as well as a strong Indigenous scholarship program. “We’ve also made the school more outwardly focused and explicitly part of Canberra,” Justin shares.
“And that’s brought a richness and diversity to the intellectual life of the school.” Both the school and parents warmly received Justin’s changes; perhaps none greater than Canberra Grammar’s dramatic shift from an all-boys campus to co-educational in 2016.
“That’s had a major effect on the nature and culture of the school,” he notes. At the heart of the move was the struggle to simultaneously preserve and radically alter a beloved culture. “It actually became part of the students’ education itself. They really embraced the opportunity, and we’ve seen the school energised and flourish as a result.”
Another consideration was the increasingly obvious dawn of the Asian Century. “That’s Australia’s reality in the 21st century, that we’re entering a much more Asia-centric world than perhaps had been the case previously, and there’s a real opportunity for us to emphasise that in the nature of our educational offerings,” Justin points out.
It’s the opportunities beyond school that he believes must be the focus for students. “When I was an HSC student, I spent so much time and energy and focus on the end point of school that I wasn’t really aware of the possibilities there were for me after that,” he admits.
“Now, my favourite part of the job is seeing opportunities unfold and seeing kids excited by discovering their potential.” One aspect of Canberra Grammar that hasn’t changed is the school’s faith foundation. Compassion is at the centre of its Anglican faith, and Justin believes it’s inextricably a part of the school’s values. “Our emphasis on respect and inclusion comes from that compassion,” he says.
“We try to live that out in all the decisions we make about how we do pastoral care, how we interact with students about these values, and how we nurture our culture.” Despite being an agent of change, Justin says he’s never forgotten the words of a previous principal.
“His mantra was ‘Never be defensive, always listen openly to what everyone has to say and take it on board, find the truth in their testimony and respond to that,’” he reflects. “I think it’s a tremendously powerful piece of advice, particularly in leading and responding to the challenges you inevitably face in a school.”
During his time at Canberra Grammar, Justin has harnessed that power to be a progressive force, an approach he intends to continue.
“We’ve come a long way in the past few years. We’ve reorientated what we stand for, expanded the range of opportunities for our students and altered the nature of our curriculum,” he says, adding that he believes the future of the school lies in being all of that and better.
“We’ll make sure we’re equipping our students with the attitudes, skills, knowledge and confidence to go out there and embrace the world for all its challenges, and to make a positive difference in it.”
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