Down the Rabbit Hole and back again

Investigating new directions for learning innovation at Santa Sabina College

What has Alice in Wonderland got to do with Santa Sabina’s ongoing journey to improve teaching and learning? Well, just like Alice, teachers have journeyed through a wonderland of ideas, met some quirky people with good advice on the way, and came to understand that being curious, asking questions, experimenting, investigating, taking risks, accepting challenges and finding solutions was the only way forward through “the rabbit hole” we call teaching and learning.

What have been the highlights of this journey?

HIGHLIGHT 1 – Looking AT learning

“I don’t see how he can ever finish, if he doesn’t begin.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

How do we know where we want to go if we don’t know where we are?

This Alice-like question initiated the first phase of our journey in 2014, where Siena, a P-12 Learning Innovation team of Senior teaching staff, were charged with obtaining a snapshot of the teaching and learning in the school. This “Looking at Learning” tour involved 6 senior teachers and 16 student researchers accompanying the Principal. The group visited 77 classrooms across K-12.

HIGHLIGHT 2 – Establishing Learning Principles

“Who in the World am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

A set of Learning Principles was collaboratively developed by the teaching staff in a series of workshops, informed by professional readings and research relevant to our context. These principles would sit at the core of our teaching and learning practice and provide a consistent standard.

“The following principles guide our practice from P-12. They are aligned with the College Mission and Strategy that both honours our past and shapes our future. The principles are dynamic and interrelated and therefore are not placed in a particular order.

Growth Mindset: Learners have the capacity to grow and improve in an environment that focuses on learning goals, personal best, and mastery rather than comparative performance only.

Personalised learning: Learners have diverse needs and backgrounds. In order to build deep understanding, learners need to connect prior knowledge and experiences with new knowledge in an environment where they are known and respected.

Complexity and challenge: Learners need developmentally appropriate complexity and challenge to achieve personal excellence.

Feedback and reflection: Learners need regular, constructive and timely feedback. They also need opportunities to reflect so that they can plan and monitor their own learning, and improve their performance.

Collaboration and inquiry: Learners thrive in a collaborative culture of inquiry that promotes dialogue, debate, problem-solving and divergent thinking”

  • College Learning Principles, informed by: 
    Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success 
    Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education
    Lev Vygotsky, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers’ Professional Development
    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    John Hattie, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn
    Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, Developing the theory of formative assessment
    David Perkins, The Thinking Classroom: Learning and Teaching in a Culture of Thinking 

To learn more about the Santa Sabina Learning Principles visit:

HIGHLIGHT 3 – Looking FOR Learning

“’Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

What was the impact of these Learning Principles on Teaching and Learning? Could we discern any difference in classroom practice and student achievement?

So running twice as fast, we undertook an evaluation tour called “Looking FOR Learning” The “FOR” was quite a deliberate word choice to emphasise that we were looking FOR the Learning Principles being embedded in daily classroom practice and FOR our own enlightenment. Over a two-year period a member of the Siena team, accompanied by the respective Head of Department, visited the classrooms of approximately 90 individual teachers of Years 6-12 for an 85 minute period in each key learning area.

The “visitors” did not merely observe, but participated as students, completing the learning tasks during that lesson. This gave them the opportunity to work with students, talk to them about their learning, observe how students approached their learning, and how deeply they were engaged. Each individual teacher received oral feedback immediately after the lesson on how the Learning Principles were evident in the lesson. The collated feedback of teachers within a faculty was delivered to them as a written report using the Principles as a template. By the end of the two year period 13 Faculty reports were shared with staff. The reports celebrated the overt ways the Learning Principles were being made visible within classrooms, as well as identifying areas for development.

HIGHLIGHT 4 – Shaping teacher practice across the College

As this “Looking for Learning” Tour was in progress Alice was also the focus of a series of staff led conferences, all with the intention of deepening our understanding of the Learning Principles and promoting our own innovative practice.

January 2015

“Curiouser and Curiouser” was a staff-led learning conference focused on exploring aspects of the Learning Principles with over 40 workshops offered by Santa Sabina College staff. As the name suggests the focus was particularly on our use of Inquiry.

Following this conference 11 teams of teacher researchers conducted Action Research projects interrogating their own practice through the lens of Learning Principles.

June 2015

The Alice motif again helped us frame our learning. “Curiouser and Curiouser – Back Down the Rabbit Hole” focused on the following objectives:

  • to deepen teacher learning and knowledge to broaden student learning
  • to develop and sustain a dynamic community of adult learners who identify themselves as discerning scholars
  • to share current research on teaching and learning through Collegial Networks P-12 in order to build teacher capacity and shape exemplary, innovative teaching practice.

January 2016

Alice took a magnifying glass to the teaching and learning at the College, hence the conference title “Santa through the Magnifying Glass”. The conference put our practice under a magnifying glass to help us expand our repertoire of practice and deepen our embedding of the Learning Principles.

June 2016

Finally “Alice on the Bridge” was a combined conference for P-12 teachers. As our Primary (P-5) campus is an IB PYP (International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme) school and it lies across a busy main road connected to the 6-12 campus by a bridge, the purpose of the first learning session of the day was to make connections. We connected the IB Learner Profile implemented by the P-5 teachers and the Learning Principles implemented by the 6-12 teachers. This shared understanding of their similarities helped to strengthen our commitment to these.

HIGHLIGHT 5 – Evaluating our new educational practices

“What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning? Even a joke should have some meaning– and a child’s more important than a joke, I hope. You couldn’t deny that, even if you tried with both hands.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

So…what has embedding the Learning Principles and the Looking for Learning Tours meant for the teachers and students at Santa Sabina College? What did we learn?

Some interesting findings included the need to review how we saw evidence of the Learning Principles. For example, subjects such as Drama and PDHPE, where solving physical challenges are an outcome of the learning, needed to have alternate indicators not shown on the template.

One faculty, Languages, explored ways to differentiate the learning more effectively so that students of different abilities could work in ways tailored to their strengths. Some students were taught through different content or at a different pace. Others were taught through a different process or by producing a different product to demonstrate their learning. This faculty used pre-testing, retesting, deliberate student groupings, flipped learning, self-pacing and online resources on Haiku to explore ways to better meet the needs of students.

As a result of the Languages teachers’ feedback from Looking for Learning and their subsequent Action Research Project there have been changes. Classrooms are more student-centred. There is a strong focus on the personal learning of students through constant formative assessment rather than the traditional summative assessment. As a result we have seen greater degrees of creativity and flexibility being exhibited by students in classes.

As we continue to deepen our knowledge of what these principles look like in classrooms we also discovered something else. We needed to continue to work towards a stronger understanding of the different ways Inquiry Learning could be implemented. We also need to provide a greater focus on genuine and authentic collaborative learning, rather than merely providing opportunities for group work or cooperative learning.

One of the most beneficial practices of our three-year journey down the rabbit hole and back again was embedding Professional Learning into the 2016 timetable. We based this on teaching teams from across subjects and curricula meeting once a fortnight to discuss and focus on transforming the art of teaching.

This time is designed for teachers to engage in regular, collaborative interactions around areas of pedagogy identified as significant to our context. Cross curricular groups read and discuss educational research, trial new teaching and learning practices in their classrooms and share findings with the group. The regular learning time provides opportunities to reflect on classroom practice and analyse student data in a collaborative and supportive environment over a designated time frame.

Also in 2016 we established Deeper Learning Days for students to promote inquiry /interdisciplinary learning. These occur over one full day in a ten-day teaching/learning cycle. We also took the Learning Principles to the students to make those principles particularly authentic. Teachers articulated their understanding of the Principles with students in a fortnightly session known as Learning Fitness.

Learning Fitness is a process designed to empower students to develop self-awareness and build capacity to maximise academic growth and achieve Personal Best. Having teachers ‘teach’ the Learning Principles, was for many the best way to really understand their purpose and the impact on teaching and learning. Students were particularly enamoured of Growth Mindset and the meta language around this can be heard as students set their learning goals, reflect on feedback and recognise the value of persistence.




Learning Principles

The learning principles that underpin the teaching and learning at Santa Sabina College


the method and practice of teaching especially as an academic subject of theoretical concept

Learning Fitness

The time that students meet once a fortnight to learn about learning and understand themselves as learners (a time of reflection and goal setting)

Deeper Learning Days

Once a fortnight where students spend several hours on a project uninterrupted by the bell – they can drill down into their learning; also a time for field trips and other learning outside the classroom

Growth mindset

A belief that talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies and input from others

Meta language

The language that teachers and learners use to talk about language, learning and teaching

Action Research Project

When teachers identify a question about teaching and learning and to answer it they conduct research by collecting data from student assessment, surveys, voice, evaluations which they then analyse

Flipped learning

A reverse of the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content outside the classroom and before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects or discussions


Julie Kadir
Head of Professional Learning