Deep Learning in the 21st Century

From theory to practice – deep learning in the 21st century – article from NCSL Futures website

Australian educator Esme Capp was visiting Birmingham to work with the National College and with Robin Hood Primary School when Future journalist Bill Hicks caught up with her.

How do children learn? And how should schools organise themselves to ensure that all their pupils are able to learn in the most effective way?

These deep, fundamental questions about education are constantly brought to the foreground by Esme Capp (pictured), the former assistant principal of Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne, Australia – the school whose successful implementation of  a fully collaborative, “negotiated” curriculum based on learning by enquiry – is now one of the leading exemplars for primary school transformation around the world.
Esme, who recently moved on to effect a similar transformation in another, very different primary school – Princes Hill in the same city – has a passionate belief in the right of the child to determine his or her own learning, and is a powerful evangelist for theories of learning first expounded by the Russian, Lev Vygotsky. She has put these theories into practice within the relatively conservative educational system of the state of Victoria – and they worked. And she was so motivated that she travelled to study contemporary interpretations of the Russian expert at the Vygotsky Institute in Moscow. Now she’s eager to share her experiences with English primary schools undergoing transformation through the Primary Capital Programme.

Wooranna Park’s transformation began in the mid 1990s, when Esme was appointed assistant principal with responsibility for pedagogy. Initially she focused on Year 5/6 children, where it was most apparent that children had different learning needs and styles:
“We began with a focus on gifted and talented – then very quickly realised that all children needed to be catered for individually,” she said.  “That’s when we set up the Year 5/6 autonomous learning unit.”

“But we very soon realised that children don’t become autonomous learners in Years 5 and 6 – they always had been! So the whole school system needed to be looked at again.”

‘We changed the pedagogy, we changed the organisation, and we changed the space’

Esme asked herself – and Wooranna’s staff – the question: “If we started with a blank page, and created a new education system – what would it look like?”
The answer was, totally different, and with inspiration from the  George Betts’ Autonomous Learning Model and  the pre-school education system in Reggio Emilia, Italy, Esme and her team set about total transformation: “We changed the pedagogy, we changed the organisation, and we changed the space.”
The Wooranna story is unusually well documented – not only on the school’s own website but in a number of articles and videos (see links at the end of this article). For Esme, that 10-year journey from 1995 to 2005 had an additional, personal dimension as her own son was in the first cohort that went right through from prep to Year 6.
“So I saw it all from a parents’ perspective as well, which was important,” she said. In fact, the parents at Wooranna – a school in a relatively deprived suburb of Melbourne – quickly came on side and had been supportive, active participants in the change, largely because Esme and her team had ensured that the children’s learning was “made visible” to them.
The transformed curriculum is again based on the beliefs that all children are autonomous learners, that they want to learn and learn best through inquiry. Thus the school uses project-based learning, and the children’s work is displayed on the walls every day for all to see. On her visits to schools in England, Esme had been surprised by the way everything was packed up at  the end of each day: “I’d say, leave it there! The goal is these children come back tomorrow, they revisit, they build, and they go deeper into the project.”
For her, classroom displays are not mere decoration or even celebration, but a vital part of the process of making learning visible, both to the children and to their teachers and parents.
She has also been surprised at what she sees as a lack of understanding of how children learn, even among senior educators – a failing that can be partly attributed, she reckons, to the removal of education theory from teacher training courses.

‘Without staff understanding of learning, school democracy cannot be achieved’

One of the most important aspects of her work had been to take the staff with her, and to know that they understood the process of learning as well as she did – otherwise the goal of making the school democratic, with children negotiating their own learning, could not happen.
“A negotiated curriculum means children have a voice in every aspect of their learning”, she said. The challenge for teachers in this is great – in that every stage of every child’s learning has to be tracked and documented. At Wooranna, they developed “Learning journey proformas” which the child, then the teacher would fill in each day,  and which would then go to the parents for comment. 
These paper forms are being replaced by electronic documentation using PDAs – though these techniques have yet to be perfected, she says.
The teachers’ role here is to provide a form of “scaffolding” to support the child’s growing ability to learn independently. The metaphor is extended at Wooranna. Once a learner has learned to learn sufficiently, some of the scaffolding can be removed and they can fly off on their own, to undertake what Esme calls “Passion Projects” – deep inquiries into topics of their own choice.
All of which puts new demands on the organisation of the school, not just in terms of timetable but also of learning spaces, and the way teachers teach. Again, at Wooranna, the issue of learning spaces was tackled early on, initially simply in terms of arrangements of tables and chairs. But soon after, the school received some state funding under  a “designing from the  inside out” project, which enabled Esme to bring in school interior design expert Mary Featherston.
There followed a deep research project involving Mary, the children and staff: “We asked them. What did the children want to be able to do?” This process continued for “months” as children and staff mapped what they wanted. Everyone was happy with the final design – but it  took time and hard work.
“Mary, (perhaps to the frustration of some) won’t put pen to paper with a design until she is happy the pedagogy is totally unpacked.”
Wooranna has a teacher-pupil ratio of  1:28 – but you would rarely see one teacher in a class of 28 children. Team teaching runs throughout the school. Ideally, she says, there would be three adults working with 75 children – so that there’s always one adults available to work intensively with individuals  while the others supervise. It could work with two teachers and 50 children – but that is harder for the teachers.
The questions of settings and furniture (pictured, right) were also addressed, the school opting (surprisingly to some designers) for a rather old-fashioned  “tablet”-style single chair and desk – but modified to include a stationary tray. These were found to be more versatile.
Eventually, having brought about this amazing transformation at Wooranna, Esme almost became a victim of her own success. Everyone wanted to visit the school – “I became a full-time tour guide!”
Which led her, last year, to move on to a new challenge – another primary school, also in Melbourne , but with a very different, far more affluent catchment area.
Princes Hill Primary was in the process of undergoing a rebuild when Esme arrived as Principal in January. “Wooranna took us 10 years; now I want to see how quickly we can do the same thing at the new school,” she says.
Although many of the teachers were using innovative methods, overall the school had a very traditional curriculum. Ironically, Esme says,  a preconception exists that schools in wealthy areas with very engaged, interested parents can be harder to transform than schools in deprived areas: the parent body itself could be an obstruction.
She took care to bypass this potential problem by taking the parents, as well as the staff, with her on the transformation journey. Nine months on, she reckons she has succeeded in the most difficult aspect of transforming a school – getting people on your side.
The Princes Hill story promises to be just as inspiring – and as relevant to English primary schools at similar stages of change – as the Wooranna Park story.
In both cases, schools that were rumbling along in traditional style have undergone, or are undergoing, total revolution: both have aligned themselves to the learning needs of 21st century children. But if you ask Esme Capp what exactly is 21st century learning, she’ll tell you that to understand that you first need to understand what learning itself is – learning, full stop.
Meanwhile, to experience an interactive presentation of the Wooranna philosophy, turn to the “Raison D’Etre” area of the schools website. For those who, as Esme often encounters, enthuse about Wooranna but then hang their hands and say, “Of course we couldn’t do that here,” or “What would the parents say?” or “What about the Sats and the league tables?”  – this little bit of inspiration might just tip the balance.
Wooranna Park Primary School
Wooranna Park Primary School “Raison D’Etre” site
Mary Featherston Design
More information
The Wooranna Park videos for the PCP Leadership Programme are now available on the Future website (see below), and further interviews and insights into the shared work between Esme Capp and Robin Hood Primary School, Birmingham, will shortly be added.


One thought on “Deep Learning in the 21st Century

  1. Great post Neil, it’s good to get some more in depth background on all of this. The video at is particularly good.

    I found it interesting that many of the teachers at Wooranna use language which would be very much seen in the talk of Early Years teachers in the UK. I had a very interesting chat with Esme last week about the learning environment, and I think this notion of providing ‘provocations in the physical environment’ to inspire the direction children take with their learning is a a fundamental one. It is also the only way I can currently see our ‘Learning Agreement Projects’ being manageable with a whole class.

    I am really not sure how to achieve this with a class of 8 year olds who have already been inducted into our more formal system we have, but it is providing me great food for thought.

    I wonder how far you see Robin Hood School as going towards this vision. Is it something to borrow and learn from whilst adapting to what we do already? I really believe in this vision, but to me it is hard to reconcile the practice and beliefs involved in it with what we are currently doing in this country.

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