Dean of Learning

Dean of Learning

Learning experiences to inform the present and build skills for the future

One could argue the explorer Charles Sturt led a colonial life of repeated failures and yet decades later, a university was named in his honour. The lessons of explorers like Sturt could be applied to student learning.

The goal of Sturt’s first expedition was never going to be achieved. In 1828-29 he headed to the north-west of NSW searching for the inland sea. He was not to know it was unachievable but he did discover the salty Darling River flowing to the south-west. This failure led to his next learning journey.

So having put to rest the idea of an inland sea, in 1829-1830 his expedition rowed down the Murrumbidgee and Hume Rivers in search of the Darling River and the mouth of the Hume, now known as the Murray River.  At the mouth of the Murray, Lake Alexandrina blocked access to the returning whaling ship, resulting in an epic 80-day row upstream and weeks of walking back to Sydney Town.

So Sturt had two expeditions, one with an unobtainable goal and a second that did not go to plan, however, there were valuable personal learnings and community outcomes from these failures.

On the first trip, the Australian born Hamilton Hume taught Sturt strategies on working with the First Nations peoples.  On the second trip, learnt from the experiences of Hume, Sturt demonstrated an empathy and understanding of the First Nations peoples which enabled him to develop good relations with a tribal elder who provided safe passage through the different tribal areas of the Murray River. Secondly, his explorations opened up a vast tract of agricultural land with grazing stock, grain and irrigation producing settlements. This was to benefit the whole community, producing a major food bowl area to service both NSW and Victoria.   

From a learning perspective, repeated setbacks can lead to self esteem and confidence issues which can hinder learning. How much failure is too much?  Sturt’s final trip in 1844-1845 to the inland desert, is an example of failing one too many times as it resulted in him being escorted home to Adelaide in a state of blindness.   Though this is an extreme example, it does raise questions. 

Generally, when a student fails too much there are two options: give up or keep going, however, there is an alternative. Students can also improve their chances of success by learning lessons from the experience of others, as Sturt did with Hume’s advice.  This way the fewer setbacks students’ experience can more easily be framed as endorsing learning experiences without a negative impact on self esteem and the likelihood of ‘giving up’.  This involves learning from reading, observation, research, talking to each other and collaboration.

Of course we want the girls to challenge their thinking and yet still be realistic about what they can achieve in relation to their ability and priorities. This can be facilitated by taking on feedback and having discussions with their teachers, tutors, family members and friends who have been down the same well-trodden path.

Sometimes having a goal can paralyse students into inaction. There is no need to experience this if a student can learn from others.  This can be addressed by thinking and working in stages whereby the girls can have audacious learning goals tempered by incremental short and medium term objectives to achieve the long term goal. There is also evidence that learning outcomes can be negatively affected by obsessing about work, figuratively dotting and crossing too many “i’s” and “t’s”. To alleviate this, the focus needs to be on smart work, building faith that the goal achievement is down the road.  Students could acknowledge the myth of multi-tasking and focus on fast-switching between activities to meet deadlines.

 The journey of learning and the snapshots of wisdom along the way are as important as the achievements at the end of the journey. At Loreto Normanhurst we strive for girls to learn from their experiences, take on the wisdom of others to avoid unnecessary failures and develop strategies to minimise setbacks in learning. Hopefully these experiences can be used to enable improvements in personal learning and in the wider community.


Mr Martin Pluss

Dean of Learning