Editor Chad Merchant met Dr Deborah Priest, the new principal at Australian International School Malaysia, and discussed her approach to education and her philosophy of teaching students to think differently.
It’s always exhilarating to talk with someone who’s really switched on, to enjoy a conversation with an intelligent, well-spoken person who’s at the top of their game. Such was very much the case when I met the new principal of Australian International School Malaysia (AISM), Dr Deborah Priest. Poised, articulate, passionate, and with a background that might surprise you, it’s safe to say Dr Priest will usher in an exciting new era at this already high-achieving school.
Hi, Dr Priest. What can you tell us about your background?
I commenced my teaching career as a Mathematics and Science Teacher in Victoria, then spent 18 months working for NCR Computers to develop a background in computer studies which was an emerging area of education at that time. I returned to education and became the first Head of Computer Studies at the Wilderness School in Adelaide, followed by a Senior Lecturer position at the Regency College of Technical and Further Education in South Australia.
I undertook my Master of Educationstudies while taking time to have a family, after which I returned to educational leadership roles in Queensland at Somerset College and Bond University on the Gold Coast and later at Somerville House and Moreton Bay College in Brisbane. It was at Bond University that I took up an opportunity to commence my Doctoral Studies in an area of great interest to me; that of improving student competence in the solving of mathematical problems.
This background in problem-solving, and perhaps less familiar to readers, problem-posing, sounds fascinating. Can you tell us about that, and explain how this is so useful in an education setting?
During my Masters of Education studies, I conducted research into how children learn to solve problems and what the “road blocks” are. Later, during my Doctor of Philosophy program, my research topic was conducted with a group of intelligent Year 7 students who showed excellent mathematical skills in solving routine and familiar problems, but below the mean score results in the solving of non-routine and unfamiliar problems.
I introduced these students to problem posing where they wrote their own mathematical problems to share with their peers in the study group. Progressively, their problems became more complex and the ability of the students to solve them became enhanced. In essence, by becoming authors of problems and seeing how peers try to develop problems that can trick or delay the solution by peers, the students became more confident, more aware, more skilled, more motivated and more able to solve unfamiliar and nonroutine problems. It was exciting research and a delight to work with students with such inquiring and inspiring minds.
You are providing AISM teachers with a number of “thinking routines” for them to choose from to integrate into their teaching. What is the benefit of these thinking routines and of learning to think differently?
Thinking routines, as defined via the research conducted through Project Zero at the Harvard University, are specific ways that children independently explore and extend their understanding on any topic of interest. Children all have different learning styles and it is important to provide them with a variety of ways to learn and encourage them to be independent risk takers with their learning.
Many people may misinterpret what I mean by encouraging risk taking; however, it is important to note that the skills required in the 21st century will no doubt revolve around creativity and innovation in order to live in a world defined by rapid change. Old ways of thinking and operating will be not only obsolete, but also ineffective and unhelpful in advancing the world as we know it. Our children need to feel equipped in a variety of ways of thinking and they need to be brave enough to take the risk of being wrong, without fear of failure. Ultimately we want students to become responsible for their learning with teachers as their mentors and facilitators of learning.
You have spoken about your desire – and that of AISM – to “develop the full character of the child.” Can you expand on the details of this worthwhile goal?
The role of a school is not simply to graduate students with excellent academic outcomes. It would be a travesty of our duty not to provide a nurturing environment for our students to develop as responsible, empathetic, and caring adults who can make contributions to the advancement of society. As Bill Gates reminded students at Harvard University in 2007, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” This is our view at AISM, and we ensure that all students participate in service work so that they may learn how their contributions can make a significant difference to the lives of others.
We want our graduates from AISM to be independent learners and thinkers, to be able to hold meaningful conversations with a range of adults about a range of topics, to have a clear understanding of who they are, and to have a strong self-efficacy. In this way, as educators, we have made the most significant contribution that we can to making a broad and enduring difference to the health and well-being of the global community in which we live.
Source: The Expat Magazine February 2015
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