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What is an Exceptional Learner?


One of the biggest movements in education in the 21st century is to personalise learning for every student.

This supports the move away from an education system that had the central purpose of compliance and conformity, ranking students on their ability to reproduce the selected knowledge successfully, usually in an exam situation. Education now recognises that our current and future graduates need a broader and greater level of skills and abilities, and that diversity of these is critical for our society’s progression.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of my favourite education disrupters who passed away recently, advocated for an education system that promoted creativity. Yong Zhao, an international education thought leader, who has worked closely with St John’s Grammar in the development of our Innovative Agency Framework, has been instrumental in encouraging schools to develop and appreciate the full range of skills and abilities that students bring to education and that can be developed and enhanced. And, on top of these and many other developments, we have experienced a global pandemic which has caused some delightful disruptions to education, forcing change that has seemed years away.

Critically, we have survived the year despite NAPLAN testing being cancelled. Our Year 12s have already won places at universities, proving that there really are other ways for universities to select students, other than relying on the ATAR. Technology has developed quickly to support new ways of learning ensuring that we are better poised than ever to authentically personalise the learning journey for all students. Great choice in electives, a comprehensive co-curricular program and our Innovative Agency Framework are simple examples of the personalisation occurring.

There continues to be a core curriculum that guides education. Literacy and numeracy programs and curriculum are now being supported by progressions that allow each student to move at their pace, with teachers better equipped to assess student progress so that they can plan for individual growth. Many students will continue to progress at the traditional rate of their year level, supported by quality teaching that meets their needs, differentiates, scaffolds and provides choice. Other students need things to be different. At St John’s Grammar, we have been focusing on the development of our Exceptional Learning Framework that provides guidance, processes, policies, systems and programs to better meet the needs of our Exceptional Learners.

What does it mean to be an Exceptional Learner?
Exceptional Learners are a diverse group of students with talents and strengths who need a range of adjustments to ensure they are able to access the curriculum and experience success in their learning. Our Exceptional Learners include (but are not limited to!) neuro diverse students, students with a disability, students with a learning difficulty, gifted and talented students, students with physical needs, students with mental health needs and students for whom English is an additional language. Some students are twice exceptional, and even thrice exceptional, and the adjustments different students need are as diverse as the coffee order for a group of Millennials and adjustments vary in learning areas and over time.

The challenge is developing systems that allow us to recognise, respond and implement the best adjustments to support each student. This is a journey of improvement that St John’s Grammar has been on over a number of years, with a significant focus in the last three years. While change has evolved over this time, there are some bigger changes that we are proud to introduce that will further our ability to personalise and authentically meet diverse needs.

St John’s has made an investment in staff to enable stronger personalised learning.
This investment has included an increase in staffing in our Secondary School learning support area for 2021, an increase in counselling time in 2020 and further into 2021, an increase in staffing for students for whom English is an additional language and an increase in allocation for mentors. The Junior Executive has been reviewed with roles allocated to the leadership of literacy, numeracy and student support a priority. All teachers support our Exceptional Learners and more extensive group of staff support each student’s personalised program, as the diversity of need means that a greater level of expertise is required.

Over the last couple of years, our professional learning has been focused on developing capacity of all staff to ensure they are able to successfully differentiate and apply the growing range of adjustments recommended for individual students. This professional development has included a focus on neuro-diversity, specific learning difficulties, mental health training and differentiation strategies that make a real difference. This year, our focus has been on creating positive learning environments: ensuring that all learning environments are safe, responsive, flexible and provide the appropriate challenge and supports for each student. Developing greater consistency of expectations across classrooms, while celebrating diversity, has encouraged staff to ensure that students can confidently navigate from classroom to classroom, knowing what to expect and feeling safer to be challenged. This is important for all students, but particularly for some of our Exceptional Learners where consistency supports success. In the same way that our students are diverse, so are our staff, and their diversity is appreciated by students, so consistency of expectations allows for individual creativity and difference while ensuring students’ needs are met.

What our observations from 2020 have taught us about the personalisation of learning…
Every day is a learning opportunity for our staff but, in particular, the events of 2020 have provided some valuable learning. During the weeks we were online, St John’s Grammar staff developed their skills and have taken away some key learning that has furthered their ability to personalise learning:
Harnessing technology to elevate learning experiences requires ongoing training, a willingness to try something new and an acceptance of the vulnerability that comes when we are pushed out of our comfort zone. But the power of technology has never been more exposed and it can form the basis of successful adjustments for many students.
Task design, scaffolded learning, choice in learning mode and focus, and alternative forms of assessments improve the learning experience for all students, especially Exceptional Learners. Time spent in providing adjustments for one student actually end up benefiting many students and considering student needs while designing learning tasks and assessments, enables greater success.
Wellbeing, relationships and individual teacher skill are critical. St John’s introduced a Wellbeing Framework two years ago. It is impossible to define our success in personalising learning without recognising the profound affect that our work in Wellbeing has had on our whole school. During our time online, many of us learnt that there is an inherent ability in the way that we teach and work with students that has been honed over many years. Often we personalise the learning experience in the moment, simply by observing a student’s response, listening to their feedback, looking at their body language and adjust accordingly – it is nuanced and individual. The classroom relationship that is developed, is so critical to learning and when I lost my physical classroom to go online, that natural responsiveness to individual student needs, needed to be carefully planned to ensure students were supported.
Mentoring and individual support is critical. A student recently popped by my office for a chat, telling me that they missed our zoom calls during online learning. Personalising learning ensures that every student is connected and being given the opportunity to set their goals (or have individual goals set), review their progress and plan adjustments and supports to ensure their success.

Two of our big areas of focus this year have been in data collection and review, and in the review of policies and procedures to support our Exceptional Learners.
Recently we reviewed our individual Education Plan template and policy and, with the support of an advisor from AISSA, have mapped changes to better enable all Exceptional Learners to have their adjustments reviewed, mapped, articulated and shared so that they can consistently be applied by every teacher for the full diversity of our learners. Our work with Literatu, including a range of professional learning, has allowed us to collect and analyse a greater range of student learning data, not just achievement data, to ensure we can respond to every student’s learning progress. Use of data to inform our personalised action is one of focus areas in the Strategic Plan over the next couple of years.

Refining our processes, improving staff capacity and increasing our shared understanding about each individual learner is fundamental to our quest to authentically personalise learning. Personalising learning is also about embracing diversity. At St John’s Grammar we seek to work with the range of people involved in a student’s learning to gain information to ensure we can put the best adjustments in place to enable them to access their curriculum and to develop the capabilities. We look forward to developing Individual Student Plans (ISPs) with all our Exceptional Learners and their families. This newly developed plan will ensure that the critical individual adjustments for the learner that ensure their success are captured and clearly communicated so that teachers and other school staff are able to consistently apply these.

Our partnership with family and external supports is also critical in our quest to improve.
Critical to our improvement for our Exceptional Learners is developing better, more regular and transparent communication. Throughout the journey from ELC to Junior School to Middle and then Senior School, there are unavoidably many people who will provide support and successful transition requires rigorous communication. Defining clear communication expectations for staff with families, supports and each other, will ensure that our families know what is in place for their child, what adjustments are being used and regular opportunities to review and reconsider these.

Personalising learning requires us to continually adapt and respond. Student’s needs change and so do the available adjustments. I was interrupted during my writing of this article to read my daughter’s draft for her Research Project. She has spent this semester investigating the limitations to the current adjustments allowed by SACE for the support of dyslexic students and is in the process of developing a presentation for the SACE Board to encourage critical changes. Her recommendations, including allowance of voice-to-text software in final SACE exams and the printing of exams in Open Dyslexia font, are, like many of the adjustments that can be made for learners, simple and possible, yet would have a profound impact on her, and many other Exceptional Learners, to demonstrate her understanding and knowledge without her dyslexia being such an inhibiting factor.

There is so much more I could say in this area. This article is just the tip of the iceberg.We have done lots to better meet student needs, and we have lots more to do and remain absolutely committed to continuing to improve. ISP meetings will occur over the next six months as we implement this model.

Leonie Harwood
Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

Literacy & Numeracy Advantage


At St John’s Grammar Junior School, we are passionate about helping every student develop the confidence to soar. Our teachers are committed to providing a learning environment that is nurturing and contributes to the development of students’ self-esteem and enthusiasm for ongoing literacy and numeracy learning.

What gives our students the literacy advantage?
At the Junior School, we wanted to develop programs that make a real difference. Therefore, in addition to our engaging year level English programs that align with the National Curriculum, we have developed a unique and comprehensive genre-based literacy program called Learning Teams AND a rigorous, synthetic phonics program called Spelling Teams. Both Team programs custom design and individualise the literacy program for our students to help maximise opportunities for support, enrichment and extension. Our aim is to provide an English program that balances all 3 strands of Language, Literature and Literacy.

How do these literacy programs support your child?

Learning Teams (genre writing):
Learning Teams is an initiative that focuses specifically on the development of writing skills. It teaches a range of different genres across different year levels, including creative narratives, procedures, persuasive writing, right through to information reports. The common learning intentions are to develop skills such as: planning, organising ideas when writing, applying grammar, self and peer editing, reflection and applying feedback.

During Learning Team lessons, your child will experience:

Smaller groups to enable higher teacher/student conferences (we cater for 4 learning teams per year level)
Specialised, student-friendly genre templates and rubrics to help engage and demystify the assessment and feedback process
Thoughtfully developed resources pitched at the appropriate learning need of your child
Research into brain function, particularly into the way long-term memory works, shows that effective learning occurs when fewer topics are covered but at greater depth. “Curricula that run a mile wide and an inch deep run the risk of developing disconnected rather than connected knowledge.” (School Excellence Initiative)

Spelling Teams
Raising the bar on teaching clear strategies on how to read and spell is at the core of our Spelling Teams program. This program is underpinned by the Letters and Sounds Framework. Letters and Sounds is a systematic, high-quality phonics program based on best practice from international research. This program explicitly teaches students how to segment and blend words.

At St John’s Grammar, your child will experience the Letter and Sounds program from Reception right through to Year 6. We have deliberately extended the program across all year levels to methodically teach each sound in depth across every phase. The aim is to give enough time and practise to support your child to transfer their new spelling learning into their everyday writing.

The Spelling Teams program is differentiated into three groups. These groups are fluid, whereby your child is able to move in and out of these groups based on their individualised data and understanding of their learning needs.

Our Speech Pathologist consultant, Jen Roberston, believes that our program offers quality, individualised learning to suit all students. In speaking about our program, she said:

“It is impressive that St John’s Grammar uses a whole-school approach to reading and spelling, via an evidence based, best practice program such as Letters and Sounds. This ensures that each student receives quality literacy training and, for those students who experience difficulties, Letters and Sounds fits seamlessly with supported learning, such as Speech Pathology, should it be required.”

New Initiatives in our Reading Programs

Developing the love of reading is the heart of our English programs. Reading feeds the imagination, develops creativity and opens our minds to many wonderful and fantastical worlds. Therefore, another new and exciting initiative that we have introduced into the Junior School is an extension of our pre-reading Phonemic Awareness Program. This program helps our students identify syllables, onset rime and phonemes. Developing such skills is a precursor for reading success and gives students extra advantage in developing and consolidating this fundamental literacy skill during their formative years.

These skills will then be further supported by the introduction of a new reading program, Decodable Readers, in the Junior Primary classrooms. Decodable Readers will dovetail with our Phonemic Awareness Program and Letters and Sounds approach of teaching our students how to decode words for meaning.

It is through this intentional structure of weaving these three programs together that we feel your child is going to receive that extra educational advantage in Literacy learning. Our aim is to give students many opportunities and experiences to develop explicit reading strategies and a lot of reading success to entrench a life-long love of reading.

What gives our students the numeracy advantage in our Junior School?

Change in our Maths pedagogy this year is a result of our desire to create more vigour and a comprehensive and cohesive approach to teaching Numeracy in the Junior School.

We investigated the teaching methods behind the success of the highest-ranking countries in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – a test conducted with 15-year-olds in Reading, Science and Numeracy. Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong have all ranked top of the tables consistently for many years in Numeracy. Education in these countries is highly valued and highly competitive.

We wanted to underpin our teaching of Numeracy by adding a dynamic, highly sequenced, comprehensive resource to our teaching toolkits. We chose the PR1ME Maths program (developed by Scholastic) based on the Pedagogy of the Ministry of Education in Singapore. The PR1ME AUS books are newly released in Australia and have been modified to complement the content and outcomes of our Australian Mathematics Curriculum at each year level. What gives us the advantage is PR1ME pushes students to be working in advance of what would normally be expected of the Numeracy skills at each year level.

Our students in Years 1 to 6 are now using PR1ME text-based learning. This system promotes a CPA (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) approach. This structure means that our students are learning through the use of hands-on materials, transferring that knowledge to pictures or images before cementing the concepts by recording in symbols. Another significant feature of PR1ME is the carefully sequenced spiral curriculum that ensures that concepts are taught in the correct order for maximum understanding and retention. Our teachers have access to the text on our Prowise boards, and each PR1ME lesson starts with explicit teaching.

The structure of each lesson is as follows;

Let’s Remember – At the start of a new topic on the Teacher Hub is a section called ‘Let’s Remember’ which revises the learning of the previous semester or year.

Let’s Learn – Teachers use the Prowise boards to teach the new learning explicitly. This is a time that teachers can also address misconceptions and use hands-on equipment to teach a concept.

Let’s Do – In this section, students record their thinking and calculations in their books at the same time as the teacher. This is a time for students to confirm their thinking and learning as they work together.

Let’s Practise – This section is intended to be student-driven recording to demonstrate an understanding and mastery of the concept. Some students are ready to work independently, and others will still need support. Teachers and our School Support staff will record whether children were able to do this independently or needed more assistance.

PR1ME Digital Assessment
All students in Years 1 to 6 also have access to PR1ME Digital Assessments. Pre-tests, end of topic or review tests are completed online. The test formats are similar to what students will experience in online NAPLAN testing in future years. Results are immediately available to students and teachers. Teachers can look in more detail at the answers students give to inform their programs and teaching. Teachers continue to use traditional pencil and paper assessments, observation and group work to assess student capabilities.
Matific is a personalised, interactive teaching and learning platform that all Reception – Year 4 students (and select Year 5 & 6 students) are subscribed to.

This excellent learning resource engages students in games and activities in a fun way using digital technology and complements learning through PR1ME. Teachers can differentiate the learning experience by assigning activities to suit the abilities of individual students. Students can work through activities set by the teacher in the ‘Schoolwork’ or ‘Homework’ sections. Student success is reported back to teachers in real-time. Teachers can also reassign tasks that will enable students to show learning improvement.

In Semester 2, we commenced our new Maths Teams Programs. These are two lessons each week where students break into smaller teams to work on problem solving.

Our class teachers and our Maths Specialist teachers take targeted learning groups. Our open-ended weekly challenges are based on the work of Emeritus Professor and highly acclaimed educator, Peter Sullivan (Professor of Science, Maths and Technology at Monash University). These challenges are differentiated according to student needs and are designed to develop and promote verbal and written reasoning of Maths. Our smaller student-to-teacher ratio enables our teachers to carefully monitor and assist each student with recording their thinking and sharing of their understanding.

A crucial element to these lessons is building a positive attitude to Maths, whilst also developing persistence, resilience and flexible thinking abilities.

Would you like to know more?

If you would like to find out more about our new Literacy and Numeracy initiatives, please feel free to contact Joyanne Gardner, our Literacy Coordinator, at or Amanda Hinton, our Numeracy Coordinator, at They would both enjoy the opportunity to talk further with you.

Joyanne Gardner & Amanda Hinton
Literacy Coordinator & Numeracy Coordinator

Relationships and Connection Aren’t Interchangeable


I had a colleague point out to me once that the words ‘connection’ and ‘relationship’ aren’t really meant to be used interchangeably. Taken literally I do see his point: one can connect all sorts of things together but that doesn’t necessarily imply any sort of relationship is formed – think telemarketers or the need for ‘unsubscribe’ links and you see what I mean.

As a teacher with a few years’ experience teaching Electronics to Middle School students I can personally vouch for the basic truth that connecting things together does not always lead to a productive relationship, and it is here that this little monologue dovetails with the subject of classrooms and teaching.

Most of us are aware that ‘building relationships’ with children in our care is one of the fundamentals of good teaching, but I wonder how often this is treated as a throwaway phrase?

As though it is somehow really straightforward, or something that a child simply must experience in absolutely every aspect of his or her School life. Any counsellor will tell you that relationships take time and effort to build and maintain; they are the product of conscious choice and the active commitment to strengthen and maintain the links between individuals.

Personally, I think it is a bit of a fantasy to think that a single teacher can form a meaningful ‘relationship’ with every single member of their (sometimes several) classes, but perhaps this is because the term is not fit for purpose; rather than wonder what might have gone wrong when we don’t seem to deeply relate to everyone we cross paths with in a School day, perhaps we should instead consider the fundamental importance of really good connections.

It is basically true that even the world’s worst teachers will ‘connect’ with their students several times each week – the timetable pretty much guarantees that.

However, I think what has been proven across the world in 2020 is that the classroom is far more than just a location where students ‘plug in’ to learning resources.

Teaching is a tricky activity and schools are complex places. At one point in the murk of the Term 1 period of online learning, I came to the firm conclusion that we were unlikely to stumble across the Future Of Schooling through Zoom conferences and Screencast-O-Matic; to be sure, these were fantastic tools which served us well in a time of dire need, but to me they really did show that classroom learning and school communities are so much more than simply a means of connecting students with learning materials.

Speaking further with colleagues it was remarkable how many spoke about common things they were missing about the classroom; the sense of theatre and ‘grip’ one has with a class, the banter and anecdotes and Dad jokes, smiles and frowns, loaded pauses and thinking time.

And – most importantly to me – the five-minute unplanned cul-de-sac where the discussion turns to critical learning that is only tangentially joined to the lesson at hand.

Why do we miss these things so much when they are absent? Probably because they are all true connection points for students and teachers. I have experienced the same with my family when away at conferences or workshops; it does not take long to notice just how many connections we make with the people we are with every day, and how much we miss them when it becomes more of a challenge. That network of incidental connections forms a child’s community; some connections will be transient, some permanent. Some will happen immediately and others might take years to nurture and grow.

We probably underestimate just how important it is for us as parents and teachers to connect constantly with the children in our care.

So, this weekend, I shall make a deliberate effort to cook and tinker, play music and chess, run and rest and lots of other things, but I will do them with others – and on Monday morning I will ask some of your children not what they did on the weekend, but who they did it with – and hopefully we can each talk about the really strong connections we made this week.

Nick Raimondo
Leader of Learning & Curriculum


Why Build An Innovative Framework at St John’s


In a world that is increasingly characterised by complexity and change, the need for young people to be enterprising and innovative, to both cope and thrive, has never been greater in these challenging and uncertain times. Enterprising young people are typically optimistic about their future and have raised aspirations for further education and training, employment and self-employment.
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Empowerment in Action


Empowerment is one of those concepts that can take on a spectrum of meaning and, as a result, end up meaning very little. It can be a very over-used term and freely sprouted in any narrative about outcomes, as if those most in need will suddenly be able to do something about their disadvantage. So, in a school context what does empowerment end up looking like in action?
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