Hope, Optimism and Learning

Hope, Optimism and Learning

2020 has been a year beyond all years in my lifetime, and in the role of Principal I look to my allies for deep collaboration and support. One such trusted ally is Adjunct Professor Erica McWilliam and I look forward to our weekly conversations and exchanges about the world we find ourselves in and how our school is weathering this storm of a pandemic year. Professor McWilliam is our 2020 virtual scholar in residence and is currently researching and writing a history of the School in preparation for celebrations of our 130 year anniversary in 2023. It was agreed that the text of the book would read as a patient documentation of MGGS as a learning place for building intellectual capital and concomitant ethical and aesthetic sensibilities. I have been thoroughly enjoying reading the early draft chapters and learning about the jewels of ours and Melbourne’s curious past. Working in close concert with historian, Dr Mark Cryle and our school archivists, Pip O’Connor and Helen Moylan there have been many treasures uncovered.  The following paper has been written by our MGGS ally and friend, Adjunct Professor Erica McWilliam. Enjoy!

Dr Toni Meath

There is a song, Keep your Sunnyside Up, that was recorded just before the Great Depression of 1929. It has been sung by many different vocalists ever since, the lyrics getting a re-run whenever people needed to boost their sagging collective spirits. Some of us may be heartened by the cheerfulness of an exhortation to “stand up on your two legs” and “be like two fried eggs”, as the song goes. In challenging days in the second surge of a pandemic, however, such advice can seem to others to be both banal and insensitive. Joni Mitchell’s suggestion that we find “comfort in melancholy” may seem closer to the mark.

Whether we tend towards optimism or pessimism in our daily approach to living, learning and earning, however, it is worth looking more closely at the qualities of those who make something worthwhile out of a set of adverse circumstances. How do they differ from the rest? Is it simply that they are sunnier by nature? Or is there another way to understand their mindset?


In the long history of a school like MGGS, we are fortunate to have so many examples of astute ‘optimisers’ – individuals who were filled with hope for their future and who succeeded despite the odds and the negative historical moment. One shining example can be found in the career of Nancy Millis, a graduate from our school in 1938, a very inauspicious year in a world about to join another world war. After completing her science degree, Nancy went out looking for work, with war still raging and few worthwhile jobs offered to young women. She could be forgiven if she had grabbed with both hands something – anything – that was being offered. She might also have blamed others and given up. She didn’t do any of these things. As she tells it:

I went to the Department of Agriculture in search of a job and they gave me the most appalling tour showing me the seed testing laboratories where you counted out 100 seeds on rotting paper to see whether they germinated. I thought hells bells, have I done four years of a Science degree to do what I did in kindergarten?  I thought oh bloody hell with this. So I’m afraid I told them that I wasn’t very interested in that job.  So that was that.[i] 

Nancy did not know it then, but her career was beginning, not ending. She returned to the university, was offered a scholarship in microbiology, from whence she went on to a professorship, was awarded an MBE in 1976 for her work in biological sciences and education, a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1990 for her service to science in the field of microbiology and its application to industry, and then a Centenary Medal in 2001 for her pioneering research in fermentation technology in Australia.[ii]

Nancy hoped for more than what was being offered to her at the time, but her hopefulness was not naïve or romantic. Hopefulness for Nancy and other Old Grammarians like her is a disciplinary imperative. It took discipline to return to further study and it took discipline to turn her back on a job that would pay her a guaranteed salary, no matter how menial the work. Hopefulness mobilised her powerful sense of personal purpose and her steely resolve to make something better for herself than what was offered. She could have simply acquiesced, as others had, believing that there were no better options for a young woman like her in Melbourne during wartime. What is palpable in the unfolding of her long career trajectory is her capacity to keep seeking out opportunities for personal and professional growth whatever the circumstances.

The term discipline became unfashionable towards the end of the last century, so we are now more likely to associate discipline with harshness than with hope. Yet there is a positive meaning that many of us are re-discovering as we adopt the ‘good constraints’ that are needed to move our entire community to a post-COVID phase of living and learning.

What is becoming evident in preliminary research about ‘COVID-time’ learning is that some students do embrace uncertainty, and they do so in a disciplined and personally purposeful way. Recent research conducted at the Brisbane Grammar School (BGS) indicates that a sub-group of individuals in the student population are, like Nancy, able to respond to opportunities and/or challenges as optimisers.

While findings of the BGS study are yet to be formally documented, student survey responses appear to indicate that optimisers are to be found in all BGS year levels, from Year 5 to Year 12. Importantly, optimiser individuals are willing and able to discuss their learning progress, not just ‘work completed’. They understand the conditions under which they are most learning-productive, some of which are set by the school (e.g. longer lesson times) and some by the individuals themselves (e.g. a routine for checking emails).

Optimisers take the spaces created between and within online and face to face learning during the COVID pandemic as opportunities to problem solve. They invest in projects that give them purpose beyond simply completing tasks set by their teachers. Rather than fearing the lack of close supervision and guidance, they welcome the chance to demonstrate initiative, to take ownership, engaging with the instructive complications of technological and related uncertainties as personal challenges. Simply put, they don’t sit and wait for the intervention of a teacher. An obvious challenge, at a time when anxiety threatens to overwhelm assurance, is to create more opportunities for our girls to practise being optimisers. This means that we all do our best to support every girl in learning that is hopeful, purposeful and disciplined.      

Adjunct Professor Erica McWilliam

[i] Interview with Dr Jean Jackson (Millis 1931) and Emeritus Professor Nancy Millis (1938), conducted by Philippa O’Connor, MGGS Oral Historian, at Mt Eliza 5 November 2009). MGGS Archives 33/6/798

[ii] MGGS 2018 Old Grammarians Honours List, MGGS Archives, viewed 20/7/2020 https://www.mggs.vic.edu.au/community/old-grammarians-society/celebrating-alumnae