The rules of school, or what is worth knowing?

It’s a great day when I discover a great blog, or, should I say, a person whose writing reveals someone I would love to meet. Just yesterday I came across Steve Shann’s blog, Birds fly, fish swim, and I don’t think I’ll be able to read anything else until I finish reading his posts.

In his post today, Steve describes what happened when he blasted his Year 11 students for not taking their writing responsibilities seriously on the class ning. The responses that followed in the ning were surprising (to me, at least) and revelatory. Here’s what one student (eloquently) said in this post entitled ‘Play the game’:

…in Years 11 and 12, it’s barely even about the learning at all. … In most subjects, we learn how to pass the exams… how to structure an essay, how to deliver a speech the way they want it, etc. School is all about how you play the game these days. It’s all about doing what you can to get an A, regardless of what you’re learning. … And I guess it does teach you stuff about the real world. Teaches you to try to beat the system, that menial busywork sometimes is what you need to do to do well in life, and, most importantly, no matter how much you hate your job, the best revenge is success.
I don’t think this is what the people who planned this school system had in mind. I guess those guys at the Board of Studies think that the system as it stands is a genuine attempt to educate kids in the subjects they selected for us. Simply put, they’re wrong.
…The reason why we (I) am having trouble with this course at times is because I have been trained to think like that. I do what I can to do well in the HSC. And I think some others in the class (although they may not know it) think the same way. Blogs aren’t marked, so I don’t do them; projects require organised creativity as opposed to just knowing shit, and suddenly I’m confused; Dr. Shann asks for dedication to the course but he can’t put a date or a number on it, so we just don’t try, et cetera, et cetera. 

I’ve already vented my dislike of teaching to the test, so I won’t say it again. Instead I’ll pull the same paragraph out of Greg Thompson’s post on his blog, Constructing meaning, as Steve did. Only I’ll include a little more of it because I think it’s worth the read:

Standardized textbooks work nicely for standardized testing. However, they do not do much for the idea that life is a big picture. Integration of content into a whole is hard work. It is far easier to teach a fractured curriculum because the result demanded is a standardized test that seeks the ability to see myopically, one subject at a time. Dr. McLeod is correct. This fractured approach has long been the model for education. The assembly line reality of the industrial age required each worker to do one thing and to do it well. Employee A did not need to know what Employee B did to complete their task five feet further down the line. That worked. Today, standardized testing requires each student to know how to do each thing in exactly the same way in order to produce the same product. The world they live in however, requires them to see the integrated picture. The test does not fit with reality.

I really do think that we must keep in mind the integrated picture when we teach, but it’s not going to happen unless we move things around in our education system, and in the way our classes and curriculum are structured. I can’t blame Steve’s students for not doing anything that falls outside of what is required for the final testing in year 12. Sometimes, when I talk to teachers about changing the way they teach, trying something new or integrating technologies into their curriculum to promote engagement and creativity, they will take on the challenge in the middle years, but the final 2 years of school really are devoted solely to the teaching of content that will get students their final ENTER score. If I were teaching senior years, I’d be torn between feeling responsible for students’ final scores, and wanting to  teach skills relevant to the world they were just about to jump into. It’s no doubt possible to do a bit of both, but I don’t think it’s easy, especially when students have been so carefully prepared for the test-readiness game.

Steve closes his post on a positive note. He quotes a student’s reflection which gives hope to teachers looking for evidence of a yearning for learning beyond the test.

English Extension and Studies of Religion are the only classes that allow us to be creative and have a relaxed teaching style that is more about us becoming educated, reflective, well-rounded individuals (if you’ve seen ‘The History Boys’, that is exactly what I’m talking about).

So what I’m saying is, give us a prod every now and then like you did today, because we are trying to untrain ourselves from what we know, or at least I am.

I hope that most students, deep-down, will want their schooling to help them become ‘educated, reflective, well-rounded individuals’, and not only young people whose formative years are summarised and evaluated in the one final ENTER score.


I discovered Wallwisher when I came across Wallwishers created by Nik Peachey and Ackygirl through Ackygirl’s link.


Looking through the FAQs, I discovered the following information about Wallwisher:

Wallwisher is an Internet application that allows people to express their thoughts on a common topic easily.

A wall is basically the ‘web page’ where people actually post messages.

You don’t need to sign up to use the Wallwisher, but you do need to provide an email address. A temporary account will be created for you using your email address so that you can come back and make changes to the wall.

Have a look at FAQs for more information about how to use Wallwisher.

You can also share the Wall, embed it in a website or organise an RSS feed for Wallwisher.

I like the collaborative aspect the best,  the fact that it looks better than a list, it links to things easily, and you can even embed a video.

It would be an excellent way to brainstorm ideas and collaborate for students and teachers alike.

What are your ideas on the potential of Wallwisher?

Get tweets from space!


Tweets from space?  So, don’t tell me Twitter is just boring stuff about what people are having for breakfast. Follow NASA astronaut Michael Massimino (@Astro_Mike) on Twitter. You’d better hurry, he’s just launched into space.

From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!

And a little earlier


Thanks to @Zadi for the tip.

Our own process

I’ve been talking a lot about process in the learning journey, so it’s a little surprising that process has flown out the window for me in my conception of what our team is doing for the PLP (Powerful Learning Practice) project.

Tonight the Australian teams had a live meeting with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, and I decided to cast aside the old familiar feeling of being seen as the idiot in asking a question, a question which I probably should not have been asking so far into the session, but one which I was certainly glad I asked.

21st century learning is the theme for schools involved in the PLP learning journey, and each school presents their 21st century project to the entire cohort. I must say, I’m a little apprehensive (so what’s new?) about our project, as I explained during our Elluminate meeting tonight. Yes, we’re creating a ning, and the ning will be testament to what we’ve done using Web 2.o technologies, and to ways we’ve enhanced teaching and learning in the school. As I said to Sheryl and others, I don’t know if that’s enough. Maybe we’re just putting up disjointed projects, and we need a unifying one. Is the ning this unification? Do we need connections outside of the school?

Sheryl’s answer was loud and clear (and I had trouble keeping up with my notetaking, but it doesn’t matter because the session was recorded). She said that the project was not the ning, and we should stop thinking about it as the ning. The project is about the learning. It’s about what we are trying to change and accomplish in our school community, whether that ‘s building community, creating an awareness of 21st century learning, helping start conversations, etc.

It’s about the big goal.  We need to look and see what others have done, then work on developing a comprehensive action plan. Our team should be having regular discussions about how to manage change, and we should be looking at strong evaluation at the end of the journey. Have we accomplished what we set out to do? The success or lack of success is not the aim of the project, it’s the evaluation. Haven’t I been saying this to students all this time? I need to remember that I’m a learner first, and teacher second.

How will we prove mastery? Will we use computer-mediated analysis? Could we, for example, look at blog posts for evidence of teacher discussion? Could we track/count how many times people have posted? How are we going to measure our big picture project?

We need evidence of change and successes in the way teaching and learning happens in our school. We need to be able to show the principal and school leaders evidence and examples of how we’ve grown, how much we’ve shifted, and what we still want to do.

At the moment, I feel that we are still treading water. Good things are happening around the school, but we are yet to come together and have a deeper conversation. We are yet to fuse. I’d like to have more discussions, not just with individuals, but with the whole team. This is part of the process. Realising what isn’t happening, what needs to happen, is part of it. Our last meeting was productive, and we need to do that more often. It’s not easy, but it should be a priority.

Having thought about this overnight, I think we should focus on what we always tell our students –  QUESTIONS.  Too quickly we run to embrace answers, to set things in stone, convince ourselves we’re there. Questioning broadens the scope of our vision, helps to unpack and redefine.

As for me, I’m hoping that my lack of clarity at this point is a good sign that I’m still on the way.

Ever felt you’re waiting for the click?

Design a teacher education program

Jayson Richardson, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, wrote an interesting post, Rethinking teacher preparation, on the ‘Education Futures’ website.  He said:

Let your mind wonder for just a moment. As yourself this question: If I could redesign an entire teacher education program, what would it look like?

Here is my vision of a teacher education program. I imagine a teacher preparation program that:

  • Challenges the individual. No one in this program would say “But I thought getting an education degree was easy!”
  • Is rigorous enough to attract intellectual, innovative, thought-leaders
  • Robustly develops a student’s ability to solve problem, become a critical thinker, and work collaboratively.
  • Is packed with upper level courses in history, ethics, mathematics, law, economics, policy, research, engineering, biology, anatomy, chemistry, and computer sciences (just to name a few).
  • Is academically challenging so that becoming a educator is professionalized at the level of doctors, lawyers, MBAs, etc.
  • Stresses global, national, and local issues. Students would not only understand where Cambodia is, but have some understanding of its politics, culture, history, and relationship to the rest of the world.
  • Mandates each student study abroad.
  • Mandates the individual gain proficiency in a foreign language.
  • Forces the pre-teacher to act on the tenants of social justice and peace education. This individual would be a skilled conflict mediator.
  • Produces teachers who are intercultural leaders.

How many of these points would you agree with? I wonder how many of these points are currently taught in teacher education programs?

I like the point about student teachers developing the ‘ability to solve problems, become a critical thinker, and work collaboratively.’ If we consider these skills important for our students, then we ought to do the same as teachers. Ideally, school programs and timetables should support teachers getting together, brainstorming ideas, solving problems and pooling their skills, knowledge and talents. Yes, we have teacher meetings, but how much of this time is taken up by the practical aspects of our work, and how much is devoted to a discussion of ideas, even just reflection about teaching experiences, what worked and what didn’t?

Although I don’t think overseas travel could ever become mandatory unless it was subsidised (yeah, right…), I do think we should stretch out to the world as much as we can. It’s easy to become isolated in Australia, and with tools such as Skype, blogging, Twitter, etc., it’s easy to make global connections, both for our own professional development (hey, that sounds formal and boring – for our own enjoyment!) and for the extension of our students’ experiences.

Which of these points do you consider important for teacher education?

What else would you add to this list?

Process, process, process


 Kuhlthau, 2004.

The Year 8 immersive big picture project has come to an end. After an intense and productive week, students presented their perspective on what makes the human race worth saving with creativity and technical flair. Though the bell sounded the end of the week, the learning process, I imagine, will continue visibly and invisibly beyond the project itself. 

I’ve always been more interested in the unseen learning, the mental moments and shifts in between the visible structure.  Supported by a 7 day continuum, uninterrupted by regular classes, if learning moments were audible or contained in comic speech bubbles, we would have heard ‘ping!’ and ‘zap!’ and ‘kaboom!’ If learning was a visible chemical reaction, we would have seen from discussion and interaction marvellous blended colours and awesome explosions.

 Watching and assessing the presentations (mainly film or photostory), a  spectrum of topics and creative approaches was noticeable, as well as depth of thought and synthesis.  Some of the presentations were obviously stronger, and others weaker, but sitting next to the teacher who knew the class well, I was able to glean valuable insights such as whether the student had come a long way, pushed boundaries or surprised with hidden talents. Choice and big picture questions had allowed students to connect with topics of interest, and some had run with this. If the idea behind this project (or one of them) was to engender passion-based learning, then this was successful in a good number of final products, but the architecture of learning and teaching is multi-layered, and in the aftermath, there is much to be reflected upon and pulled apart.

These are some of my thoughts throughout the week as I roamed from room to room:

  • the confusion and mess at the start is normal, and should be a warning  point to students and teachers
  • Carol Kuhlthau’s graph of ups and downs in the affective domain during the research process may be useful to provide an insight into what can initially be a frightening undertaking
  • teachers are just as much learners in this situation, and a forum throughout the process would be great support as well as make transparent the learning journey if recorded
  • there was a noticeable difference between some classes in terms of concepts grasped and degree of synthesis, so teacher support in unpacking questions, leading discussion and debriefing at different stages of the process cannot be underestimated
  • time needs to be taken by teachers to equip themselves for this journey
  • assessment encompasses the whole process through recording in One Note and is more valuable than the assessment of just the final product
  • a celebration involving the entire project cohort is an important part of the journey, and although this was done by some teachers to some degree, there was insufficient time to do this properly
  • the learning process will continue silently after the last day, and we should not lose this but provide opportunities for discussion and reflection, and record these.

I’m looking forward to a recorded presentation of this journey, especially comments from students and teachers about how they felt at different stages, and what they learned along the way.

Creativity, a sense of purpose and belonging

In his latest post (6 May), Will Richardson asks this question:

So when I read Jay Cross’s latest piece in CLO magazine, I wondered how many schools could point to someone, anyone, who is in charge of learning. By that I mean someone who manages the culture of the school by focusing not on outcomes as much as how learning is writ large in the system.

Learning is occurring at my school this week. Learning with a capital L. We are coming to the end of a pilot project where the entire Year 8 cohort, along with its teachers, has been involved in researching a big picture question culminating in a multimedia presentation of their choice.  Normal classes have been suspended, and each teacher has stepped into the continuum at different points, providing the support needed at that time. Teachers have been in a unique situation, supporting not content, but skills; and this often meant that they were learning alongside the students, at times from the students. The process seems to have taken on a life of its own, and teachers have reported being surprised that students’ projects are taking shape, and that they are on task and engaged, even excited.  Trust in the students’ abilities and creativity has been growing.

This is the part of the project that gets me going – the learning process of both students and teachers. This is what I hope we can record, make transparent, discuss collaboratively, reflect upon, project into the future with. I’ve been enjoying discussions with teachers at different stages of the project: the initial feeling of not knowing how to begin, being overwhelmed by the enormity of something new and big, the joy and relief with the first successful day, the surprise when students took the task and ran with it, in all different directions, in a variety of ways, the excitement upon seeing things take shape, and the anticipation of the final presentation.

I’d like to record all of this. I think that this discussion is the guts of the learning. It’s exciting to see shared discussion in a shared project, and I wish it would happen more often. For a change, the teachers are not in charge, they are facilitators, they are not in control, but are taking one step at a time, and trusting in the students, they are not keepers of the content, but observers of the process.

This is learning. I hope we can capture this for reflection and evaluation. We can base next year’s project on what we have observed, what we’ve learned. I hope we can come together for discussion, reflection and evaluation, modifying the assessment rubric from experience of what the process has involved. Teachers have been talking excitedly not of perfect products or best products, but of the learning leaps for individual students.

I read Will Richardson’s latest post (6 May) and he says

I wonder how many of us can look at our colleagues and answer the question “How does that person learn?” And think of the leaders in our schools in that light as well.

This week, Year 8 teachers have seen with new eyes how their students learn. I think they’ve had an insight into their own learning process. Learning has been shared by teachers and students alike.What does Will Richardson say about teachers’ learning? In discussing Jay Cross’s latest piece in CLO magazine, Will wonders if any schools have one person

 ‘who is in charge of learning. By that I mean someone who manages the culture of the school by focusing not on outcomes as much as how learning is writ large in the system. Someone who also understands the ways in which social Web technologies accentuate the need for the learning skills we’ve desired all along: creativity, critical thinking, independent thought, collaboration, etc…

And it really is about a culture that supports, celebrates and shares learning.

The Year 8 immersive project has given those involved a taste of the learning culture which supports, celebrates and shares learning.

In the article about Chief Learning Officers in companies, Jay recommends looking at the workplace through different lenses: from the point of view of the anthropologist, the Web 2.0 specialist, the informal learner.

Some of the questions posed through these lenses are:

From the anthropologist:

Are people sharing the information or are they just hoarding?

Are people taking time for reflection, or are they so busy they only live in the moment?

Are they experimenting and taking risks, or are they doggedly following the rules?

Are people working collaboratively or are they in isolation?

Through the Web 2.0 lens:

Are people using instant messaging, social networks, search engines and multimedia resources that are as good as or superior to those they are accustomed to in their homes?

Are discoveries recorded and shared with one another and documented for future use?

Do workers have blogs or other means to express themselves?

The informal learning lens:

Are there comfortable places for people to talk?

Are workers intrinsically motivated to learn and increase their professionalism, or are they waiting for their next class?

Is informal collaboration encouraged?

Are people learning from observing others… and reflecting on experience?

These are questions I’ve chosen which are most pertinent to the school situation. As Will says, do we or should we have a CLO in our schools,

 … people to lead that work, …  who understand deeply the passion-based, self-directed potentials for learning in a connected world, and the importance of a vision for true learner-centered classrooms and curricula for everyone in the building.

Do you have such leaders in your school?

(Now, I’m not sure about this, but it seems that the Chief Learning Officer is like our Training (or Learning) and Development Manager in Australia).

What’s it worth? A teacher’s beliefs.

Yesterday I unexpectedly leaped into a heated argument with a very close friend who had come to visit from interstate. It was one of those fires that flare up suddenly from a small spark, blazing fiercely long enough for onlookers to look alarmed and consider calling for help, and then burn down gradually, leaving those involved in a slightly shaky state, surveying the damage.

The offending spark was a question about why my friend’s daughter didn’t have Facebook, and if she did I’d be able to view her photos from the Ball she was attending that night. Remember, these friends live interstate.

Now, you can imagine, with a blazing argument, most of what goes on is reactive, and each person becomes locked in to a mainly defensive position, taking each comment personally and wanting to come back strongly enough to defend their position. There isn’t any room for thought or even fair appraisal of what the opponent has said. Luckily, the latter occurred as the fire burned down; concession and reconciliation was possible in the smouldering stage.

I can only speak for myself in this argument, and I will.

I reacted to my friend’s initial painting of Facebook and MySpace as bad places (which, I think, he must have said unconsciously, because he later denied it), places where, at best, young people wasted their time with inane conversations, and, at worst, young people exposed themselves graphically involved in the worst behaviour.

If I hadn’t been so defensive, I would have said that I’d been there not so long ago. I was initially against my older son interacting online, either msn or Facebook/MySpace. I gave many reasons, but one I pushed the strongest was that online interaction was not real, it was virtual. It was unnatural, it took away from the time spent with people face to face, it was potentially dangerous because it increased solitary time with virtual friends, etc. Why didn’t he use the phone if he wanted to talk to someone? How could he be ‘friends’ with all those people? That wasn’t friendship.

Funnily enough, these were some of the points my friend expressed, in between dodging my line of fire. I wonder (always wonder) when I’ll learn that the conversation ends when the other person feels attacked.

What has happened from the time I held my friend’s convictions and now? Several things. Instead of making conclusions about social networking and online environments from the outside, based on what I’d read, on media reports (which are mainly negative and engender fear in parents and teachers), I decided to play around with these things myself. What happened? I connected with people I hadn’t talked to for years (even decades), I saw photos of where they lived, saw status updates of what they were up to – no, not just what they had for breakfast –  they were about to become parents, or they were travelling overseas, etc. No, I didn’t have deep relationships with all of these people, but I did appreciate suddenly having a general view of what my ‘friends’ were up to, and many of these are scattered all around the world.

I also saw a different side to young people, definitely different to the picture that is often painted in the media, or even in conversations held by people who have little to do with adolescents or university-age students. I saw these people supporting each other with positive comments, engaging in humorous and often witty dialogue, planning events and meetings, putting out interesting links to things they had read or music they listened to, venturing to express opinions they might not in real life.

One of my main points in the aftermath of the argument was that social networking supports real-life interaction. The young people I observe are less isolated than I used to be at their age, not only because they can chat to a group of friends at home in between homework, but because they use these connections to meet up and do something together. They inititate interest groups, they gather friends for events, they learn to function as social beings – important skills for life and work. They do this because these spaces belong to them. They’re not forced to create a group and contribute to discussion; they choose to because of personal interest.

Which brings me to my next point. How much of this initiative and cooperation do we see in schools, in the classroom? Do we see discussion, do we see young  people sharing their interests and passions? Or do we see disengagement, boredom, solitary struggle in place of collaborative effort? Is there room for students to take initiative, pursue interests, work together to solve problems, get involved in real-world research and enquiry.

Are we getting the best out of our young people at school?

To finish my rave, yes! I agree with my friend that there is potential danger in online involvement. And I believe we should discuss these dangers. We should take every opportunity to educate our young people about the irreversible nature of what they put out the web. But we could also create a safe, online environment for them to use at home when they need help with homework, or when they want to share ideas for a project. A place they could become teachers as well as learners. An exciting place where they are enriched by the diverse contribution of others. Where they learn to respect each other. Where they are not afraid to ask questions.

As an educator, I’ve been pushing my boundaries, often painfully, against what I felt comfortable with. But I want to keep my eyes open, and I’m trying to re-evaluate constantly, and I know that I must do that if I’m to have any part in educating young people for their future. No, not going with all the latest fads, not embracing new things without thought, but thinking deeply, and listening to the dialogue in my own online network, asking the deep questions….