Leaders of Primary Schools are frequently asked by prospective parents, “Why should I send my child to your school for their Primary School years instead of the school around the corner or the private school that someone else told me about?”. I cannot tell you exactly how the leader of any other school would answer this question but, as a staunch advocate of prioritising a particular pathway in early years education, I am a specialist in explaining what Moriah College does to position it as the school of choice for Jewish children aged five to 12, and why it is critical to send your child as early on in the learning journey as possible. To answer this question we must first understand what is happening in the brains of Primary School children aged between five and 12.
What the research tells us is happening in the brains of Primary School aged children
Neuroscientists explain that the brain undergoes its greatest period of growth in the early years of a child’s development and is regarded as fully developed by the age of eight. During these years, the essential architecture of the brain is shaped through a combination of biological development and early childhood experiences which affect the development of the brain’s architecture. The next prime window of opportunity to adjust or re-pattern the neural pathways in the brain presents between the ages of eight and 12, before the complexities of puberty enter the arena. Brain patterning and interventions in brain function should occur most intensely in the early years and to differing extents throughout the Primary School years, because the developing brain of a child is particularly responsive to environmental stimuli and is in a phase where neuroplasticity is at its prime. Neuroplasticity means that the neural pathways in the brain can be changed, reorganised, or reshaped by experiences. This makes it an ideal time for children to receive a high-quality all round education that can help them develop to their full potential.
Moriah College Primary School uses this research in neuroscience to inform their practice. It is critical that students enter the Primary School during their early years (and more specifically Year K) because it is during this phase of development that neural pathways are grown most prolifically and our expert team of educators are best positioned to facilitate growth in each little brain they encounter. From the moment a child steps into Year K, a team of Moriah College educators and specialists use data to understand the specific profile and needs of individual students and then, collectively, they foster the growth of ideal neural pathways through 10 key offerings to support the best possible cognitive, physical, spiritual, emotional, and social development.
Ten key offerings, amongst others, that position Moriah College Students for success:
- Evidence and data is used to understand each child and match them to the resource they need to grow.
Moriah College is proud of its status as the largest Jewish Day School in the Southern Hemisphere. Some parents ask whether this means their child will just be a number and fall through the cracks. On the contrary, this means the school has the most personal touch because of its broad-ranging, extensive staff and resources. Our technology platform (or learning management system) captures individual student data quickly and efficiently to generate comprehensive student profiles to guarantee that the needs of individuals are met and that the right resources are allocated to them. Each optimally sized class is gifted with its talented classroom educator, who is screened to ensure they are high performing and maintain the Moriah College standard of exemplary practice. Educators are surrounded by specialist teachers delivering learning in Jewish Life, Ivrit, sport, wellbeing and personal development, music, dance, visual arts and digital technology and design thinking. This ensures that neural pathways in each aspect of left or right brain thinking is expertly developed by the best person for the job and provides for whole brain growth in students.
Students who have various levels of difficulty with learning have access to a village of therapists (occupational, speech and behavioural) on site, in combination with a big team of education support teachers and teacher assistants. Data collected on each child informs a personally tailored learning plan which is implemented by the team and the teacher. Student growth due to changed brain functioning is tracked over time until expectations and goals are achieved. No student falls through the cracks.
Conversely, high performing and high potential students are also identified through the data catchment. From Year K, specialist gifted and talented educators offer courses with challenge, rigour, and depth to meet the needs of such students. This occurs across all Key Learning Areas from Years K-3 and is further adjusted with streaming and academically selected classes in the upper years.
- Best practice, high quality teaching is mandated to ensure that students access prime opportunities to learn.
Findings show that the development of higher order skills is much more difficult if the lower level circuits are not wired properly. Because the plasticity of the brain decreases over time and brain circuits stabilise, it is important to ensure that clear knowledge and skills pathways are formulated so that young children develop good clear foundations (known as schema) in English, mathematics and other learning areas. Educators across Moriah Primary School are trained by an ever-present team of coaches and instructional leaders in the science of learning (Cognitive Science) and best practice. This defines exactly how children learn, what takes place in the neural pathways of the brain, and what techniques, strategies, or differentiated actions teachers need to take to foster authentic learning. Teachers train the students in retrieval practise which ensures students commit learning to their long-term memory and make space for new learning. Furthermore, all educators are skilled at empowering students with techniques, skills and routines for utilising higher order thinking skills which are critical in inquiry learning and problem solving.
- An optimal rate and pace of learning is considered in every context.
All Moriah teachers are masters at ensuring that each student receives the correct amount of explicit teaching at the right rate and pace and with sufficient repetition before students move on and apply their knowledge independently. Time at school is limited and every opportunity for learning is maximised throughout the day. Essentially, teacher talk is prominent when children first meet a concept or topic but the teacher releases responsibility and student voice dominates as students show that their knowledge and skill has been committed to their long-term memory and can be readily retrieved. Children delight in routine and familiarity and because the practice of explicit teaching, retrieval practise and finally application is sustained across the school, students feel comfortable in their learning, stress is limited, and teaching for learning is high quality.
- Active learning is prioritised and underpinned by sound foundations.
Young children learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process. This includes the offering of vibrant play-based learning experiences, hands-on activities, experimentation, and exploration, as well as opportunities for independent discovery and problem solving. The mix of nature and synthetic play in the school provides range and depth in their experience and builds neural pathways which support creativity and curiosity. Students are also more likely to investigate and problem solve with creativity and confidence because they have received the sound foundations in explicit teaching across the academic and socio-emotional curriculum. This is called “front loading” and is a major teacher provision in every learning context. This clear direction and purposeful teaching positions students for success across a range of play-based, investigative hands-on learning contexts and students feel confident and at ease to be active because they are creating from a baseline of strength.
- Positive relationships and personal wellbeing underpins everything and enables students to “Flourish@Moriah”.
If students feel well, they can learn effectively and achieve. Positive relationships with peers and adults are prioritised across the school. From the moment students arrive on campus, their presence is celebrated and they are made to feel secure, respected and empowered to use their respectful voice and personal agency. Purposeful meaningful praise and positive reinforcement is used as the major powerful tool for nurturing healthy neural pathways. Students are recognised for their physical or academic achievements and socio-emotional behaviours through teacher feedback and public recognition in assemblies and other forums.
Significant consequences which occur for inappropriate behaviours that are mean on purpose (aka bullying) to other students, and compromise the learning environment, are also a key aspect of the wellbeing program. Clear consistent consequences are applied to ensure that all students feel safe because they have well-defined boundaries and understand the consequences for wrongdoing. Students make mistakes and should not be labelled according to poor choices. They are educated and supported in pathways to redeem themselves in the event of them making an error in judgement. Students evolve constantly and develop desired or improved neural pathways in this domain to grow themselves forward. The added bonus is that the educators better understand the students and the students better understand themselves and the preferred behaviours they can choose.
Personal growth strategies for positive self-concept and capabilities are built via the positive psychology otherwise referred to as Flourish@Moriah. Students are taught about how to navigate friendships and build relationships, and they are taught how their brains function, how to name and notice how they are feeling and what strategies they can use to self-regulate, should feelings such as anxiety, anger or fear manifest. Positive, purposeful self-talk is rehearsed in our students and they understand how to use simple routines to ensure they engage mindfully with one another. Wellbeing is the outcome of this multi-faceted offering which occurs via a combination of educators, wellbeing experts and psychologists who also support individual students to overcome social, emotional, physical and academic challenges. This ensures that neural pathways which influence effective social interaction and emotional wellness and security are developed and re-mapped where necessary.
- The students are set up for success because of the flawless transitions between events such as lesson changing, starting school or changing year levels.
Adults enjoy the security and predictability of knowing all the information about a context before they enter it. They also seek clarifying information or rehearsal prior to entry to increase confidence or the likelihood of success. Children can be likened to big people in little bodies and require the preparation towards success in the space before each new experience. Moriah College provides careful transition into Primary School, between year levels, between experiences in the day and even during relationships that feel challenging or uncomfortable. Students are provided with familiarisation moments and pre-briefing before they go through an unfamiliar experience or even go on a camp. They complete practise routines in learning or finding a friend on a playground. They rehearse social narratives and learn how to position themselves for success as they move into different contexts. From Year K onwards, this approach ensures the mapping of neural pathways so that students are well-rehearsed in transition, change and challenge management and know how to move through the negative and positive moments that occur throughout the day.
- Students develop a strong sense of belonging and personal identity so they know who they are and where they fit into the world. The Hebrew, Jewish Life and Jewish Experiential program provides students with a weekly and yearly rhythm of Jewish life that is predictable, routine and enjoyable. This builds their feeling of security. They identify strongly with the routines and practices of their Jewish life and they feel well anchored in the fact that they have value and significance as members of the Moriah and broader community. They celebrate the family they belong to and their brain lights up as they practise the rituals, traditions and discourse that makes them who they are. This anchor point is liberating for students and their self-confidence and willingness to take appropriate risks to solve problems is impressive and highly evident.
- Students are enabled to be future ready via the future-focused orientation of the curriculum at Moriah.
Students are skilled up as digital citizens who leverage technology effectively when appropriate, and maintain their personal safety. Students from Years K-6 are provided with a personal Apple device and are taught to use technology safely, responsibly, and to generate a desirable digital footprint from the outset. Technology is only used when it is the best teaching and learning tool for the experience and, in these instances, neural pathways are mapped so that students understand how to use the suite of applications and platforms in technology to enhance their learning. Handwriting is taught as a priority and no aspect of the child’s development is hampered because of the introduction of technology. Students are enabled to be the master of technology as they analyse systems, deconstruct them and reconstruct them to meet the needs of the task at hand. This is known as computational thinking. The information they access via technology in unsupervised contexts outside of school can also be harmful to young children and they participate in programs such as the Amazing Me learning experience so that they know how to respond to pornographic or offensive material and locate the language to name what has happened and seek assistance from the right support networks. No matter what, students are deliberately taught the skill of face-to-face communication and how to share their story, their ideas, in the most powerful manner. They leverage digital when they wish to augment their message and, in this case, they use the central hub of the school which has a multi-modal film studio, tech equipment, a computer laboratory and a design and prototype Makerspace with 3D printers and other equipment. Mapping this line of thinking in our young translates into high functioning digital citizens.
- Music is prioritised in the Primary School students’ experience of The Arts and this has a profound impact on their education.
A targeted music program commences in Year K and progresses developmentally through the years alongside the instrumental program. Not only do students develop neural pathways that assist them to compose and respond to music, this activity simultaneously develops pathways that assist their literacy (phonological training, decoding and comprehension) and promotes attention, stamina, speech filtering and auditory and working memory. As students progress through the years, the social benefit of this art is highly evident as inclusion, social collaboration, trust and respect come to the fore in their band and orchestra participation.
- The broad exposure to co-curricular offerings gives children the opportunity to try everything and find their niche as students don’t know what they don’t know.
Exercise is not only good for physical health, it also supports brain development. Students receive the foundational training in physical education and sport in their weekly classroom lessons. They are then coached to progress their skill and participate as a member of a team in competitive sport. The sport co-curricular offering builds progressively over the year levels and extends across netball, soccer, gymnastics, tennis, athletics and swimming, to name a few. Additionally, dance, the thinkers guild for brain challenge, drama, coding and robotics, debating, chess, torah study and sustainability and gardening club are on the menu for children to experience a myriad of possibility and determine the area they wish to pursue. They taste a world of offerings and map multiple neural pathways and choose their zone of passion based on a comparison of real life experience.
Moriah Primary School is indeed well positioned to grow greatness in its students, one child at a time. By understanding the principles of neuroplasticity, and how to develop critical neural pathways in the developing brain, the educators, working in partnership with parents, play the most significant impactful role in child development. Each of the 10 key offerings above describe how Moriah College Primary School builds a strong foundation for cognitive, emotional, spiritual and social development in children during the years when their brains are most receptive to growing the neural pathways which position them for success. With the right environment and support, young children can thrive and reach their full potential in both school and life, but the important thing is that they start mapping these neural pathways as early as possible. There is someone waiting with passion, commitment and all the right smarts to welcome them at Moriah, so I urge parents to start their children as early as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.