Girls play with hula hoops at Wooranna Park.
©Brad White
Interest-Based Learning

One School’s Uncompromising Take on Student Choice

At this Reggio Emilia-inspired elementary school, children take the lead in structuring their schooling.

August 2, 2019

Moksh, a wide-eyed second grader, carefully balances a piece of lumber atop a structure he’s building with a classmate at Wooranna Park Primary School. Their goal as aspiring urban planners is to build a model of a more child-friendly city. In a nearby learning space devoted to coding, students use iPads to help Alice navigate Wonderland in a game they devised. Meanwhile, a sixth grader commands his classmates’ attention by promising that a video about global warming “will change your life.”

But today’s not a special occasion at this public K–6 school in suburban Melbourne, Australia. Igniting students’ passions and ingenuity—and placing even young children in decision-making roles—is the everyday approach to learning at Wooranna Park, where the teaching strategies, the classroom spaces, and even the daily schedule have been reinvented to put kids in the driver’s seat.

From the earliest grades, Wooranna Park students can be found working quietly by themselves or using a common area to collaborate with their peers on projects that can last for months—or even years. Teachers use dedicated co-planning time to design unique, open-ended experiences that provoke students’ curiosity and academic understanding, while still aligning to the standards-based national curriculum. Even more unconventionally, the school day is seen as fluid and often begins with a morning session during which teachers and students as young as kindergarten plan out the day’s activities together, engaging in a true negotiation that respects the interests of the children.  

Although progressive education models are often the privilege of wealthier families, Wooranna Park, a Reggio Emilia–inspired school, has proved that this model of school can be accessible—and beneficial—for children of all backgrounds. The school serves 350 students, the majority of whom are immigrants from countries such as Afghanistan (15.3 percent) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (5.1 percent). In 2018, all student groups who were tested performed at or above the national average for schools with comparable populations on Australia’s national tests in writing, reading, and math. And on a student survey, 97 percent of Wooranna Park students said teachers made sure that all students felt included.

Space as the Third Teacher

While from the outside Wooranna Park still looks boxy—constructed in the traditional, utilitarian style—inside it’s another story. As part of the school’s transformation more than two decades ago, staff and parents volunteered to remake the school’s dated interiors to facilitate more modern teaching and learning practices.

Hallways and walls between classrooms came down, making room for creative venues and larger collaborative rooms, which host meetings and small-group work. New technologies like virtual reality and gaming were gradually integrated to ensure that students are ready for the future.

Some learning spaces are downright breathtaking. There’s a giant red dragon boat that students climb aboard for “dreamtime” stories from Aboriginal culture or for science investigations. Starship Wooranna—a large, elaborate model spaceship with a computer lab and flight simulator—invites explorations of outer space.

But the spaces aren’t merely eye candy. In Reggio Emilia schooling, a child’s environment is recognized as an integral part of the learning experience—so much so it’s known as the “Third Teacher,” next to home and school.

Instead of assigned seats in classrooms, Wooranna Park students are given the freedom to use spaces as they wish. Throughout the school, supplies like colored pencils, building materials, and iPads are easily accessible so that students can express themselves through one of the “100 languages,” or ways they learn best, from drawing and coding to dance and play.

School Snapshot

Wooranna Park Primary School

Grades K-6 | Dandenong North, VIC
350 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures

Seventy-five percent of students at Wooranna Park Primary School are immigrants, with more than 40 ethnic backgrounds represented in the school community. Forty-eight percent of the students live below Australia’s poverty line.

Data is from the 2018 school year.

“We’ve set out to try and excite children’s learning; to give them a lot more freedom than traditional schooling,” said Principal Ray Trotter, a grandfatherly figure who has been the school’s resident visionary for the last 32 years.

A Radical Take on Student Choice

Flexible spaces are not the only part of Wooranna Park that encourages student autonomy, though. Student choice is an embedded daily practice—to a degree seldom seen in Australia or the United States—and is believed to be critical in developing independence and a lifelong interest in learning.

Every day, students and teachers have dedicated time—50 minutes up to an hour and a half—for Learning Agreement sessions where students decide where they will work and what they will work on, and agree to support each other as learners.

To guide this self-directed learning for early learners, teachers develop as many as 10 to 15 workstations that feature activities, known as Provocations, linked to grade-level learning objectives but inspired by student interests in particular topics. Students pick their Provocation, which starts with an open-ended prompt and a thoughtful arrangement of materials to invite hands-on exploration. The tasks can take students a few days or even a week to complete. 

Teachers keep a close eye on student progress, asking probing questions to help them grow and taking notes to document individual progress. Provocations are changed regularly: One week, students may manage a cash register in a play ice cream shop to practice math skills; in another, they might reconstruct ancient buildings in Minecraft. 

“I get to see the whole child and the true child... how they choose to express themselves, how they cope in challenging situations, the joy they get from learning,” said Jesse Waters, a first-grade teacher, of observing Provocations.

When students are older, they progress to Enigma Missions, where they are expected to apply self-management and creativity to an in-depth research investigation of their choice.

Putting Students in the Hot Seat

Although much of the learning that unfolds at Wooranna Park is student-driven, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. During individual conferences, teachers provide essential support, challenging students to ask harder questions or suggesting resources or connections to outside experts.

Prodding and support from classmates helps deepen student interest and resolve. After students complete their research, they regularly present to their peers through a Learning Symposium, which aims to bolster students’ critical-thinking skills—as both presenters and observers.

Teachers prepare students by addressing essential skills such as how to conduct research, cite sources, and create compelling visual presentations. While discussions are less formal in the younger grades, fifth- and sixth-grade students present 10 or more times during the school year, debriefing with a teacher after each session.

Through a literature studies course, fifth graders read and researched novels that address children’s rights, then prepared to exchange insights through a Learning Symposium forum.

A boy named Gabby began with a summary of King Matt the First, Polish author Janusz Korczak’s tale of a boy king. But this was no ordinary book talk. Some students had taken on the role of “verifier,” with laptops open to fact-check presenters in real time. Others were primed to be “interrogators,” ready to jump in with follow-up questions. After a few sentences, Gabby was interrupted by a girl who raised a small orange card, signaling a challenge.

“What you’re saying has just gone into emotions instead of actual research,” she said. When he was stumped by a follow-up question, Gabby turned to another student and politely requested, “Secretary, would you please write that down?” Being in the hot seat used to feel like torture, but Gabby came to recognize that “you get more learning out of it.”

More learning is the goal behind every practice that makes Wooranna Park so special. When Vice Principal Jennie Vine observes students like Gabby debating and parrying with classmates, she’s watching “a giant accountability symposium,” she says. “The more they have these experiences, something happens—a transformation occurs.”

Schools That Work

Wooranna Park Primary School

Public, Urban
Grades K-6
Dandenong North, VIC

More than two decades ago, the staff at Wooranna Park Primary Schoolcommitted themselves to the idea that students would be more engaged in school if they were allowed to take the lead in their learning. Drawing from the practices of Reggio Emilia, a child-centered educational philosophy, the school made drastic changes tothe physical space, school schedule, and curriculum.

Teachers now use dedicated co-planning time to design unique, open-ended learning projects that provoke students’ curiosity and academic understanding. The school day is seen as fluid, and teachers and students negotiate the day’s activities together every morning. Today Wooranna Park serves 350 students, the majority of whom are immigrants, and has demonstrated that the school model is accessible and beneficial for children of all backgrounds.

In 2018:

  • 80 percent of grade 5 and 6 students opted to pursue a self-directed learning project on top of their schoolwork.
  • All students tested performed at or above the national average for schools with comparable populations on reading, writing, and numeracy in Australia’s national assessment program (NAPLAN).
  • On a student survey, 97 percent of students said teachers made sure that all students felt included, and 95 percent agreed that teachers asked questions that challenged their thinking.

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