Co-Constructing Knowledge

As long-time head of St Michael’s Grammar, Simon Gipson has cemented the school’s reputation for innovation in learning. Now, the newly built Gipson Commons continues its namesake’s entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit.

By Eileen Ormsby

When the head of St Michael’s Grammar found himself rapping student-written lyrics to a Grandmaster Flash backing track, he had only himself to blame. After all, he’s the one who impresses upon his pupils the importance of taking risks and operating outside their comfort zone.

“Entrepreneurial behaviours stem from understanding creativity, understanding innovation,” Simon Gipson says, “but, most importantly, understanding the value of taking risks, being able to step out and beyond from where you are comfortable and being prepared to fail from time to time.”

When you create an environment that aims to foster this entrepreneurial spirit, you have to be prepared to lead by example. So when the students approached him with an idea to promote their annual Merry Month of May charity drive, Gipson could hardly object.

The YouTube generation’s buzzword is ‘viral’ and 2015’s school leaders thought a video of the head of a prestigious school rapping may just fit the bill. Year 12 students put together a production team and wrote their own storyline and lyrics designed to raise awareness for the selected charities.

The result was a professional, and very amusing, music video. Other teachers and staff – including Terry the crossing supervisor – had cameos, but Gipson was the star. And it did better than just go viral.

“The kids ended up on Sunrise, chatting with Kochie about what they’d done,” says Gipson, clearly proud of their efforts, which raised a significant amount of money.

“What they learned was that if you’re prepared to take a bit of a stretch, be entrepreneurial and employ all your combined skills, you can do things that genuinely make a difference.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Making a difference and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit epitomises the style of Gipson, who is finishing as Head of the school at the end of 2017 after 18 years in the role. His avant-garde approach to education and dedication to educational reform has cemented St Michael’s reputation for innovative teaching, learning and caring programs.

The school enjoys academic success, with most graduates getting their top choice in the first round tertiary offers. But Gipson takes a more holistic view of the definition of ‘success’ than how many students go on to study law or medicine. Notable alumni include politicians, athletes and those in the arts. “At the end of the day, we want students to leave us confident in who they are, what they are passionate about and what they are good at,” he says.

“Our job as educators is to provide our incredibly diverse student population with the confidence to enable them to take their place as contributing citizens, in productive roles that add value to whatever community they are in.”

Community is something St Michael’s takes seriously. As a school that caters for Kindergarten to Year 12, the age range of children is three to 18 years old. The school’s youngest teacher is 21, the oldest 77. “There are few communities in your life that have that span of ages all in one place,” says Gipson. “So we wanted an environment, a physical space that would embody that, while encouraging innovation and creativity. We wanted to create a building that completely deconstructed conventional designs for schools.”

From this vision the largest and most ambitious building project in the school’s 121-year history was conceived. ‘The Gipson Commons’ was to be an area that would provide ‘spaces for possibilities’, an environment to help students ‘learn how to learn’, somewhere for all to work, study and relax.

“We began with the concept of a Balinese house,” says Gipson, “with different rooms, platforms and levels branching off a central atrium, everything related, yet discrete.” The idea was to build a welcoming space to be used and enjoyed by students from Kindergarten to Year 12, as well as parents and teachers, and which would nurture relationships among the whole school community.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Building relationships is the cornerstone of how St Michael’s does business. After reviewing submissions from shortlisted candidates, the contract to build The Gipson Commons was awarded to Architectus. That firm had a competitive proposal, but just as importantly had a longstanding relationship with St Michael’s. Its architect John Wood had previously worked on the Allan Pizzey junior school building (later recognised by the prestigious CEFPI – Council of Educational Facility Planners International Awards), the Community of the Sisters of the Church Building (renamed the ‘Nun Shack’ by the students) and earlier projects. The board was confident that Wood understood the values of the school and would work closely with Gipson to realise his vision.

Relationships were also instrumental in funding the $20 million project, thanks to donations from families and alumni. As for bank financing, the board felt little loyalty to the big banks they had used for day-to-day banking.

“They thought we were a nice customer to have, but nothing more than that. We had relatively good service, not great,” says director of business Scott Feehan. “We wanted someone who wanted a relationship with us, someone who would become part of our team.”

That team member came in the form of St Michael’s old girl Anna Volaris of Bank of Melbourne, who put together “what was in our view the most comprehensive piece we’ve ever had,” says Feehan. Not only were the terms competitive, Volaris understood the school, its values and the vision.

“There’s always going to be a commercial aspect to the relationship,” says Gipson, “but if you get that solid values alignment, there’s an opportunity for a real synergy that leads to all sorts of possibilities, and we felt that we found that with Bank of Melbourne, and through Anna in particular.”

“We will always value building relationships over short-term gain,” says Feehan. “But 99 percent of the time, that’s something banks don’t get right.”


BUILDING THE MODERN LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

On a balmy April morning, three teachers are deep in discussion at a table in the light and airy Dolly’s Café. Welcoming and tastefully furnished, its ambience would not be out of place on the trendy Chapel Street strip a couple of blocks away. But later, students will pour in to choose from the full range of healthy options for lunch, while Old Michaelians take a break from working on the archives that preserve the school’s history. Tomorrow morning, parents will mingle over a coffee after drop-off. Dolly’s, named for the first student to be admitted to the school, Dolly Ziebell, is the entry point for the The Gipson Commons.

St Michael’s board of directors name buildings after those who have had a positive impact and long-standing connection with the school, such as Simon and Sue Gipson. The building that bears his name reflects Gipson’s daring and innovative approach to education. It is a stunning space of flexible working spaces for research, learning and relaxing. Each classroom features state-of-the-art audiovisual facilities and the technology throughout is designed to complement the devices owned by the students.

Gipson is quick to point out that the ultimate design was a collaborative process, which grew from the community it was to serve. Potential users were consulted and suggestions considered, adopted or adapted. Students were recruited to test ideas and respond to design developments.

One decision that may shock educational purists was to dispense with the traditional library. Gipson believes the idea of the library being the sole repository of knowledge, its contents “zealously guarded by a harridan in a tweed twinset and pearls” is hopelessly outdated.

“The reality is kids now can access the world on the devices at their fingertips,” he says, pointing out that every child in the school from Year Five onwards has some sort of internet-connected device with them at all times. “So why do we pretend that knowledge is concentrated in one spot?”

That’s not to say The Gipson Commons is a text-free space; books are freely distributed throughout the building, separated by genre, interspersed with inviting nooks in which to read as well as a silent reading room. But the children are entrusted to self-checkout anything they want to take home. Teacher-librarians actively assist the students in accessing and evaluating information, however sourced and wherever it may be in the world. It’s all part of enabling students to become what Gipson calls ‘co-constructors of knowledge’.

On the first floor, a state-of-the-art kitchen that would not look out of place on the MasterChef set teaches students plant-to-table food technology. As with the rest of the building, there are lower workstations for younger students or those in wheelchairs.

But no matter how beautiful or clever the design of the building, the ultimate test is whether it gets used. “The test for me was going back to spaces for possibility,” says Gipson. “We obviously designed it with a sense that certain spaces were going to work in certain ways, and 10 minutes after we opened, students were using the study nooks and spaces as we always hoped.” A few weeks later, however, things changed. “We’re seeing kids use the spaces in completely different ways than we had anticipated,” he says. “But it’s working for them.”

The Gipson Commons was built on community, relationships and the innovative and entrepreneurial vision of St Michael’s head, staff and students. Gipson is pleased with the result. The spaces for possibilities are endless. “If you want quality learning, you have to provide a quality environment,” he says.

Are you a business looking to build something great? With their local knowledge and expertise, Bank of Melbourne business experts are here to help you, whatever you’re making. Book an appointment with your local branch today or call 13 82 66.