collaborative learning

Australopedia is teaching Australian children the power of storytelling


I believe in the power of story. Storytelling is the way we make sense of our lives, and the lives of others; it’s part of every discipline, every thought, every image. It’s part of running a restaurant as well as running the Olympics, of window dressing as well as quantum physics. Could you imagine Brian Cox without his stories?

I have had a dream for years about projects for young people that would use the power of storytelling. My dream is all about children creating and recreating stories, discovering and telling stories about their families, cultures and the places they live. I could see children using storytelling to talk about who, where and what they are, to create new stories about themselves and rejig old, perhaps less positive, stories.

Reading is of course an integral and wonderful part of this dream. These stories would be created for all to read. They would be gathered and told by young people using their particular talents and their fresh eyes to see potential and possibilities and options for futures.

Maybe, especially for the vulnerable (and many young people are vulnerable), writing a new story could make a new story.

Locality would be basic to all of this. All localities are interesting to me. I love it when books or films are situated in real places where, through the lens of a story, I am exposed to the previously unnoticed. There are so many films I could mention that do this, but a recently watched one called The Lake House. It took me to parts of Chicago I had never seen. I saw the prettiness in the midst of the grime.

My dream as a part of schooling

I have given much thought to how we could use the school curriculum to inspire projects to be part of this storytelling dream. I know the curriculum today has children learning about their local areas and they do local exploring. But could we inspire children to tell stories about it all? Get them to record their experiences of local places, to speak with local families about their experiences say of leaving ‘home’ for a new country; or go to a local RSL or retirement village and gather oral histories; or tell stories about when the first local roads and early shops/churches/banks were built; or find stories about local geographies and ecologies; discover local Aboriginal histories, legends, stories about language and names for places and landmarks (rivers, creeks, rocks, hills).

In my dream I could see each school represented nationally not only in terms of its marks (as on the My School website) but in terms of its cultural richness of places and people.

What I could see was a sort of cultural mosaic of Australian school communities, a jigsaw in which each school/community would be a piece. There is so much more to Australian schools and Australian children than the numbers and scores that represent them on the My School website. My dream was for a sort of ‘Our Place’ or ‘Our Community’ website made up of stories gathered and told by Australian children.

Storytelling helps people connect

Storytelling is powerful in building relationships. It was my experience working with students in challenging circumstances through the IMC Sky High program that made me think about how storytelling might help build relationships within schools and beyond, in the homes of the children and the local community. I saw how families and schools and businesses and clubs can exist in the same locality but be separate, not just in siloes, but sometimes, because of cultural and/or social differences, in distrustful siloes.

So my dream was to use children’s storytelling not only to motivate and create new opportunities to succeed but also to help create meaningful connections where communities can celebrate the local environment and those who live in it.

The Australopedia dream

australopedia-launchWith a lot of help my storytelling dream has come into being. It was launched last month at NSW Parliament House by the premier, with the minister for education and the minister for planning also present. The website is under construction, and will be ready for the first projects coming in from IMC Sky High schools.

Australopedia is a digital, multimedia, multimodal encyclopedia celebrating people, place, and local community. It will be composed of the stories of schools and their communities, stories that are linked to curriculum and created by children and teachers as part of their normal school work.

It is a new model for project-based, interdisciplinary, self-directed learning and real-world collaborations with families, communities, businesses and organisations. Stories can be told through prose, poetry, artwork, music, dance, drama, film clip, interviews, photographs, documentaries.

Australopedia will encompass heritage stories and oral histories collected from local citizens and local heroes. It will explore the local impact of real-life issues and apply STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) knowledge to possible solutions (eg local roads, services, water pollution, public transport). It will discover and record local Indigenous histories, legends and languages and give a platform for appreciating, protecting and enhancing the local environment. And it will all be written/collected/artistically created by children.

And yes, it emerges from strong and progressive pedagogical principles.

Pedagogical principles underpinning Australopedia

Recent research notes the significance of the following for schools and future-focus learning:

  • deeper learning approaches such as project- and challenge-based learning
  • a focus on projects and active demonstrations of knowledge acquisition (note the example of Finland)
  • students as creators of knowledge not just consumers
  • collaborative learning opportunities that are learner- centred, emphasise interaction and doing, and work in groups towards developing solutions to real-world problems:

‘Collaborative learning models are proving successful in improving student engagement and achievement, especially for disadvantaged students.’

  • students working in teams in real world contexts to create a final product and develop skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication
  • active and meaningful relationships, productive and purposeful interaction and partnerships with parent and school communities
  • interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning – how knowledge and skills fit together
  • a rubric that offers diverse students with diverse talents diverse opportunities for success
  • student engagement in (and contribution to ) real world – local world – issues and problems

StArters and STEAMers

It’s very early days for Australopedia, but exciting. It’s all about relationships and collaboration. We have a UTS team skilled in professional learning and development of teachers. We are also gathering a group of expert writers and artists in children’s literature. We are calling them StArters (stories+art), to run specialist workshops for teachers and students. And this wonderful group will be led by Jackie French, prizewinning author, ex-Children’s Laureate, and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year.

We are also developing a group of STEAMers. These are experts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths with the additional A for the necessary accompanying arts of storytelling (yes like Brian Cox!) who will inspire our Australopedia storytellers with their expertise.

A group of Indigenous schools in Western Australia is part of the introduction of the program.

At a recent function at UTS Professor Pat Dudgeon, National Mental Health Commissioner, spoke about the importance of identity, culture, and community. I’d like to add the importance of having opportunities to show other talents and capacities (telling story through art, or music, or dance), especially perhaps when not feeling confident in writing in the mainstream language.

Australopedia celebrates all this and will create a different, deeper, textured, nuanced map. When the school name is tapped, a picture of the school will come up as well as both the Indigenous and English names of its locality. Then the storytelling will begin.

There’s a long way to go, but we’ve started. Every child can be a storyteller. Every school is full of storytellers. Australopedia wants to find them all.


Professor Rosemary Ross Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture and the Director of the  International Research Centre for Youth Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. She leads several large research projects, including IMC Sky High. She has held 3 ARC Grants, a UK Leverhulme Grant and is widely published in the fields of literacy and children’s literature and culture.