Embracing life in the ‘100-acre classroom’

Sustainability lies at the heart of a school set within a sprawling natural landscape

“You can’t expect young people to care about nature unless they get out in nature, in really true and tangible ways,” says Cornish College principal Nicola Forrest. And she’s well placed to wax lyrical.

Located in Melbourne’s south-east, on the cusp of the Mornington Peninsula, the college sits on almost 40 hectares of parkland. Encompassing natural bush, wetlands and farming pasture, aquaponics area and vegetable gardens, the school has beehives and harvests its own honey, and is home to alpacas, chickens and ducks.

“As educators, we have a strong moral purpose,” Ms Forrest says. “Instead of just teaching a subject because it’s in the curriculum, we say, ‘What’s this got to do with making a better future for our children? How can we teach this in a way that they will really live it’?”

The school not only has an exciting outdoor education program but prides itself on its local “outdoor learning” philosophy, where students learn in, with and from nature, and “every inch” of the college property is utilised. “We call it the 100-acre classroom,” Ms Forrest says.

Maths, sciences and art are some of the subjects that are regularly relocated out of doors.

“We find our kids respond hugely to getting outside,” Ms Forrest says. “The change of scene, fresh air, there’s a surge of serotonin … they connect with the subject on a deeper level.”

It’s this immersive education that Ms Forrest and the college want prospective parents and students to sample when the school opens its doors on Thursday 18 March for its Open Evening. Visitors will be encouraged to listen in on lessons and join student-led discussions and activities.

“Usually with these things, you get to see the physical spaces and hear about the programs but what you rarely get to see is what the teaching and learning looks like in action,” Ms Forrest says. “Our open evening will give people a tangible feel of the place, to see what it is really like for the students.”

Cornish College students are not consumers of education, but contributors to, and creators of, their learning experience, adds Ms Forrest. The result, she says, is a lifelong “disposition for learning”.

The school’s alumni include lawyers, doctors, researchers, outdoor educators and environmental activists.

“We believe that you need to be a problem identifier in life, not just a problem solver,” she says. “The young people at our school aren’t afraid to ask questions; they have enterprising mindsets, and they’re future-focused.”

The future of the environment is paramount, but the school’s emphasis on sustainability goes further, with a “Rings of Sustainability” ethos, inspired by the teachings of the college’s namesake, Richard Cornish. These encompass all aspects of life – natural, personal, socio-cultural and urban/technological – and underpin the curriculum.

“Everything we do supports one of the rings,” says Ms Forrest. “This helps students understand their learning in a local, regional and global context, and how they can make a difference to a sustainable world. Our children are equipped in every way to lead a sustainable future.”

Interest in Cornish College is growing. “People are excited by change, and they’re excited by what we’re doing here,” says Ms Forrest. “People are seeking out places where things are done differently, where education isn’t following the same dated models it has for 50 years.”

This article originally appeared in The Age Open Days Guide on Saturday 13 February 2021.

Author: Effie Mann



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