Lessons that last a lifetime



The launch of a new Strategic Plan at Speech Day last year saw the start of an exploration into learning at Abbotsleigh: what does it look like and what should it look like? Such questions sit at the heart of everything we do as a school community. Students, parents and teachers alike are passionate about helping our girls be the best they can be. 

Those of you following the current media storm about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs, will realise that the education profession is divided in its thinking about the future. Notable academics vary greatly in their predictions of how developing technology will impact society, but they do agree that there will be widespread disruption to jobs. They also agree that for the 300 000 Australian children who began their schooling in 2018 and who will graduate from Year 12 in 2030, the world they will face when they leave school is unimaginable. These children will spend most of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century.

Our challenge, and indeed the challenge of society as a whole, is what does it mean to say that we want today’s five year olds to leave school 13 years from now with the depth of knowledge, skills and confidence required to navigate a more complex world? Mark Scott, Secretary of NSW Department of Education, has been consulting with leaders from industry, business and education, and believes that the fundamentals of education will not change. The ‘three Rs’ are the building blocks for higher order learning, upon which more complex skills are developed. He says that while we cannot predict the future or the skill requirements of employees of the future, we do know the type of learner that we want to develop – students who are critical and reflective, open to a lifetime of learning and relearning, who are comfortable with change and have empathy and a global outlook.   

This week, we took a bold step in that direction. Working with long term partners, the Crossroads Foundation, all teaching staff and girls from Years 9-12 engaged in a simulation on poverty and tried to ‘step into the shoes’ of those in need. Crossroads is a Hong Kong based, non-profit relief and development agency serving global need. Led by David Begbie and working in ‘family groups’ on a one and a half metre square sheet of plastic representing our home, we tried to earn enough money to survive by making paper bags out of newspaper and home-made glue. We needed to pay for rent, food, sanitation, medical needs and, if we were fortunate, education. Those of us who couldn’t find sufficient funds ended up in the hands of a loan shark. We were thrown into the pressures felt by many and tried to explore solutions to the intricacies of the web of poverty. As we struggled for survival, we explored poverty ‘from the inside’. 

As teachers, the simulation allowed us to explore the role of empathy and service learning in our teaching and learning programs. How can we develop empathy as an important learning disposition for our students so that our girls can act with courage, compassion, integrity and respect in an increasingly connected global society? How can we help them to recognise that they have the capacity to impact positively on the lives of others? 

The students were as moved by the simulations as we were:

  • ‘The harshness of the simulation enabled me to feel deeply, changing my perspective and showing me the harsh reality of people’s lives.’
  • 'This simulation made me realise that even though I am one in 7 billion, I can make a difference. This was a seriously life-changing experience.’
  • ‘The simulation was very powerful. It changed my understanding and perspective on how families feel and how degrading it can be. It also showed me how one person can make a difference.’
  • ‘It made poverty real for me.’
  • 'I kept telling myself it was just a game when something went wrong for my ‘family’ in the simulation. However, you can’t press pause on poverty when it is real.’
  • ‘It made me realise how exhausting and damaging poverty can be. Poverty is more than just statistics; it is the story of individual people whose lives are priceless.’
  • ‘It made me realise the systemic nature of poverty. These people work hard but get little. They need our help.’
  • ‘It was extremely powerful to feel the yearning, pain, pressure and desperation of those in poverty.’
  • ‘It humanised and personalised the reality of poverty.’

(Year 12 reflections)

What our students began to uncover this week is that ‘Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: we are all humans who share the same fears and concerns and deserve to be treated with dignity.’ (Borba, 2016)

Increasingly, academics and organisations are recognising that empathy is a positive predictor of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills. The Harvard Business Review, the Association of American Medical Colleges, academic Guy Claxton and Google’s Project Aristotle (2017) all point to empathy as an essential learning objective.  

Indeed, if the real success of learning is the way in which we act upon any new knowledge, then attitudes and dispositions such as empathy are part of each girl’s 'exciting pursuit to be her best self.' (Krimmer, 2017)  

Below are two extended responses from Year 12 students.

What did you think of the session?
I found the session incredibly moving and very unique, as well as educational and informative. The experience was eye-opening and thought-provoking because it encouraged us to think about ourselves and the possibility of our own impact on the world that we live in. 

What were you expecting, and did it differ from your expectations?
Going into this, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, however this was beneficial as it emphasised the confrontation factor of the simulation. 

How did you feel during the simulation?
During the simulation I didn’t have time to think about how this was, in fact, reality for many people in the world, as there was a sole focus to complete the task in order to ‘survive’. As many of the circumstances were out of our control, it was up to the people running the simulation to determine our fate. I felt a sense of powerlessness and helplessness during the simulation as I lost all autonomy over my own actions and decisions. 

How did you feel afterwards?
After the simulation I was reminded that the 30 minutes we had experienced was the reality and every day for so many people, and with more dire complications. Although I felt extremely moved, I was highly aware that this was only a fragment of what these people would experience on a daily basis and that we live in an incredibly privileged society. 

Did it change the way that you think about anything?
I think the idea of poverty is always described in the abstract and we often have a statistical and numerical understanding of the impact of poverty. However, there is an enormous difference between being told how many people live in absolute poverty and actually experiencing the disempowerment that these people have to survive with. It has definitely deepened my empathy and understanding towards the people born into poverty, as well as increasing my appreciation of my own life.  

Any other comments
I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has the chance to undertake this activity because it really broadens your worldview, allowing you to step outside of your immediate community and look at the world with more perspective.

What did you think of the session?
I found the session an eye-opening experience that encouraged true empathy towards people who are in poverty. The simulation of what it was like to experience life from the perspective of 1 billion people worldwide currently living below the poverty line, highlighted the harsh realities of life for some people. However, the session encouraged all of us to take a part in the fight against poverty. The discussions between our group of seven which was a ‘family’ in the simulation, was thought-provoking and engaging. It made me think about what I could do to help people who struggle to pay for rent, buy food and water, and access health and sanitation. Furthermore, the words from DJ, particularly in the debrief, showed his passion for the issue of poverty, and was what made the session so invaluable, as he encouraged all of us to ignite our passion to serve.

What were you expecting, and did it differ from your expectations?
I entered the room without much of an expectation as I did not know what would be involved in this simulation. However, when I found out that we were about to experience life from a completely different perspective, I was expecting to gain a deeper insight and sympathise with their experiences. The simulation was in some ways different to my expectations because I didn’t just sympathise with those in poverty, but I was able to really empathise with their experiences.

Rather than learning about poverty and the effects that it has on families like we do in school classes, the simulation provided much more than that. Hearing about the scale of people in poverty, and experiencing the immense amount of work that they have to do each week showed the genuine struggle in our world. It was shocking to hear the hard facts, and it made me rethink my role in the world, and how I can act to help.

How did you feel during the simulation?
While participating in the simulation, it felt like the sole purpose was to survive, and to create enough paper bags to earn enough money for one week of living expenses. I really immersed myself in the experience, and I think that portraying that mindset enabled the simulation to have a greater impact on me. I definitely felt quite stressed, though it was not real, the crammed ‘living spaces’ and limited supplies of glue (consisting of only flour and water), as well as newspapers made the experience feel more authentic. And to know that my experience during the simulation cannot even compare to the real life experiences for people around the world, showed that poverty is real. It affects real people, and it calls for real solutions. 

How did you feel afterwards?
After the simulation, I felt relieved to know that all the stress of making paper bags could stop. But, knowing that this doesn’t stop for those in poverty made me feel sad. We discussed the endless cycle of poverty, and after experiencing a simulation of poverty, I learnt why this cycle continues to exist, due to the consistently low levels of income, and the systematic oppression from some governments, which denies the access to education and health. 

Did it change the way you think about anything?
The session definitely made me change my thinking, particularly about the role that I can have in changing the lives of others. DJ made it very clear; the importance of taking action – no matter if you think you are only one person and cannot make a difference, you most definitely can. For after all, it is a collective effort and we cannot end poverty overnight, but it takes time and generous, open hearts. Additionally, it also made me consider the role of organisations that promote the cause of poverty and seek to find a solution to end poverty. The Crossroads Foundation has done so much to raise the public profile about poverty, and I think that awareness is important for these social issues. Overall, the poverty simulation changed the way I thought about myself, and how I can seek to serve those in poverty – whether it be volunteering my time or money, or passing on awareness to others around me. Not only did it open my mind, but it also opened my heart.



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