Saturday, 14 December 2013

Our wonderful students

Please excuse a bit of bragging in this post, but a theme is emerging during this trip that must be acknowledged. On a number of occasions through the tour, I have been sought out by people who have contact with our group to let me know how impressed they are with the calibre of our students.

At the Sportsmen's Lodge Hotel in LA, both the manager and the supervisor of catering made a point of letting me know how well-behaved our students had been. From the manager's point of view, the measure was the number of complaints that she hadn't received from the other guests. 'Not one complaint!' The catering staff wanted to commend our students on their manners and courtesy.

Jayne, our wonderful tour guide from LAX to San Francisco, made similar comments about the general conduct and manners of the students. Her observations were based on two decades of guiding students around the area; she was effusive in her affirmations of our young people.

The cafe staff who served us on our three mornings in San Francisco made the same comments, as did our San Francisco guides Frances and Joyce.

Some of this could be taken with a grain of salt (or a shovelful of it, as seems to be the case on a lot of food over here!), seen as a way of ensuring that our school feels warmly towards these service providers as a way of increasing the likelihood of repeat business. However, yesterday as we were travelling from San Francisco to Las Vegas we stopped in the late afternoon at a family run truckstop/general store/farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada ranges. We spent 20 minutes there for a rest break and afternoon tea; the students are excitedly trying beef jerky, roasted corn and various other culinary novelties. As I was shepherding the students back onto the buses, the manager/owner came over to tell me how struck she was by the politeness and positivity of our students, noting that it stood out by comparison to other similar-aged groups that have come through over the years. Having shared our story with her, she knew that there was no likelihood of repeat business from us, but she took the time to compliment our students anyway.

From my point of view, recognising my own bias in this matter, I am immensely proud of our young people. They are extraordinary ambassadors for their families, their school and their country.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Glorious days in San Francisco

We embark on a 900km drive to Las Vegas in a couple of minutes, having had a wonderful time in San Francisco.

Our visit to Alcatraz yesterday  was fascinating. For all of Sydney's fascination with water views, the spectacular views from Alcatraz probably wouldn't have been worth it for those incarcerated there! The bleakness of life on the Rock would only have been accentuated by the torment of being able to see, hear and smell the good life in SF across the water. 

Our performance in Union Square in the middle of the day was a memory for a lifetime. It was a great outdoor venue, surrounded by iconic shopping (think Tiffany and Co, Macy's, Saks on 5th Avenue, Neimann-Marcus etc), next to an outdoor ice-skating rink and in the shadow of a massive Christmas tree. The performances rose to the occasion and the students received a huge amount of praise from discerning observers, including professional musicians and music teachers.

We made it to the viewing locations for the Golden Gate Bridge just in time for sunset.

Last night the NBA game between the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks was a nail-biter, with our adopted GSW team coming from behind to win with a buzzer-beater! Great times.

Now for the long drive throughout the desert

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Inaburra Music Tour USA 2013 - Part 1

And the blog returns..

At present I am on a music tour with 62 Inaburra students, 11 staff and 22 supporters. We are in the US for about two weeks, combining musical performances, workshops, sightseeing and .... whatever comes.

A blow by blow description of our activities can be found on Twitter @Inaburra or at

A couple of observations so far, which may or may not emerge from any experiences that may or may not have happened in the last couple of days ...

  • When supervising young people, a culture of trust and mutual respect is infinitely preferable to hyper-vigilant scrutiny
  • It is not difficult to recognise foreigners (including Aussies), even when they aren't travelling in a group of nearly 100 and wearing matching shirts.
  • Not every form of food is improved with a squirt of cheese sauce.
  • The Australian public health system has a lot going for it
  • There are lots of very friendly people everywhere - and an Australian accent is a great ice-breaker.
Off we go ...

Friday, 27 September 2013

Activity-based work spaces - the Commonwealth Bank

Yesterday a small group of colleagues and I had the opportunity to tour Commonwealth Bank Place in Darling Quarter as part of our research into the built environment, particularly with reference to the relationship between space and function. the opportunity arose through a parent at our school.

These buildings are on the leading edge in Australia of activity-based work. ABW recognises there is a spectrum of work styles, demands, functions and activities and that each day, people will have different activities to complete requiring varying levels of concentration or collaboration. Activity-based working delivers the working environment and tools for staff to choose different work styles to suit their work activities. 

Our question was: what can our school learn from this emerging field of thinking about workspaces?

There was lots to enjoy and appreciate about the tour. In no particular order of reflection:
  • Furniture can provide quiet nooks, privacy and isolation - you don't necessarily need walls!

  • Digital technologies are the great enabler of flexibility. If you don't need access to lots of paper files/records/documents, you don't need filing cabinets - nor do you need somewhere to dump your stuff! With mobile phones, you don't need a landline; with a laptop you don't need much else!
  • Atriums are great for visibility, light and generating a sense of connectedness

  • Even in a very big space, there can be a very human sense of connection created by being able to see lots of people getting on with doing their own thing - sitting, walking, talking, as individuals or groups. (Unfortunately, the people are absent from these architectural shots!) 

So what are the takeaway lessons for the school?

Not sure yet - other than that furniture is a key consideration in any construction of space!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Reflecting on change

The Association of Independent Schools (NSW) have developed an excellent resource called Embedding Excellence, which is a program providing a structured approach to school transformation. Information about the program can be found on the AISNSW websiteOne of the resources available through the program is a brief article that is one of the best things that I have read on change management in schools - an area of intense interest to me.

The article suggests the following elements as key drivers of transformational change:

  • the purpose of the change. In schools, there must be clarity that change is taking place in the interests of improving the learning outcomes for all students.
  • building capacity for change. The key here is building sustainably for the long term, developing the skills, knowledge, resources and structures that will be integrated for enduring effect
  • understanding the change process. The process is not linear, it ebbs and flows, and all the elements of change do not coalesce predictably.
  • establishing a culture of learning and evaluation. Significant learning happens in and through the shared experience of peers, so structures ought facilitate collaboration. This culture must also embrace evaluation, not uncritical embrace of change for changes sake.
  • distributing leadership. Both formal and informal leadership are needed to take responsibility for bringing about change around the strategic intent - the moral purpose.
  • resilient and resolute persistence for change. "The change process requires pushing ahead without being rigid, regrouping despite setbacks, and not being discouraged when progress is slow."
Lots to think about ....

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Vicious and virtuous circles in teaching practice

I have been thinking about vicious and virtuous circles recently. Cause and effect rarely run in a simple linear fashion, whereby one thing leads to another and then to another without other factors, the environment and the complexity of life coming into play. the key question seems to me - where and how to intervene?

A simple example: A teacher wants to use ICT devices in their classroom. However, some of the students don't bring one. This causes the intended learning experience to flounder, which diminishes the teacher's willingness to try it again. As the teacher uses the devices less and less, more and more students don't bother to bring their device and there becomes less and less chance that an ICT-integrated lesson will work well.

How can this example of a vicious circle be remedied? At what point can an intervention be made that could help the vicious circle to become a virtuous circle? Is it in the teacher's resolute determination to persevere, despite the difficulties? Is it in the school mandating that students bring a device? Is it in the school's provision of resources such as additional 'at the shoulder' expertise to bolster the teacher's confidence?

What other vicious circles exist in schools?  

Monday, 19 August 2013

Spaces that foster entrepreneurship

Continuing to flick through Make Space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration, I came across a fascinating little vignette about the development of a space that would be used by entrepreneurs to create and launch disruptive products from scratch. The Runway Program, set up by Innovation Endeavors, attempts to help budding entrepreneurs form multi-disciplinary teams and support them through the development and launch of a new idea/product.

We realised that the trick was to be clear on what key activities, mindsets and cultural values we wanted to promote, and then understand how they could be manifested in a specific space solution.

The key principles that they identified and ran with were:

  • Embrace imperfection. 'Getting it right' is an evolutionary process and to be welcomed.
  • Make the default stage state high energy, lean forward and collaborative. The active state of mind that is necessary for the generation of ideas and energy is encouraged through mobile, upright furniture, standing-height desks and mobility in the work space.
  • Celebrate getting out into the world. A crucial aspect of entrepreneurialism is engagement in the wider world, discovering problems and testing solutions. This means the space needed to be designed for churn, with people coming and going. It also signalled an opportunity for ongoing work to be displayed for the other members of the program to view, consider, respond to and act on.
In light of Yong Zhao's call for education to cultivate entrepreneurship (about which I have blogged here, here, here and here), the question I am asking is "What mindsets are encouraged by our learning spaces?" I find the embracing of imperfection particularly challenging - I like the school to look good, which can imply a 'finished' message. But does a buffed and polished space discourage creation and innovation, through its implied perfection and completion? How free do students feel to tinker and tweak and 'have a go' with all the risk that doing so implies, when the built environment around them is just lovely. And, in the context of a fee-paying independent school, what are community expectations? What do parents expect a learning space to look like?

I love that learning spaces for students in the younger years are more likely to be characterised by this embrace of imperfection. The spaces speak of creativity and 'having a go', work is displayed at varying levels of finesse and finish and there is frequently an improvisational dimension to the room. Somewhere along the way, we get nervous about displaying work whilst it is in progress ....

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

What sort of posture generates ideas and energy?

One of the books that I am flicking through whilst thinking about space, furniture, the built environment and such things is Make Space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration which is a publication from the - the design faculty at Stanford University.
Make Space : The Book

One of the snapshot articles recounts a project in which the class explored the relationship between a working environment and a team's collaborative dynamic. The team observed a correlation between students' posture and their willingness to generate ideas. For example, students seated on a couch tended to sit back and criticise other ideas rather than creating their own.

The team created a range of prototypes in which teams would work: the War Room - straightbacked chairs around a table; the Lounge - comfortable and soft couches; the Dance Floor - a bare space with clear boundaries and no seating options; and the Sandbox - a wooden box on the floor with a padded interior for seating.

Ideas and energy were highest on the Dance Floor, where lively interplay between students and dynamic movement were noteworthy. Posture demonstrably had a profound effect on student behaviour.

So, the question is, why do we require students in school to spend so much time sitting in static positions in classrooms ....?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Future Perfect - by Steven Johnson

At the ISTE 2013 conference earlier this year, one of the keynote addresses was given by Steven Johnson. I blogged about one of his books here. HIs most recent book is Future Perfect: the case for progress in a networked age.

In this book he surveys three conceptions of political structure. 

The first is centralization, epitomised for Johnson in the construction of the French national railway system - the Legrand Star - in the 19th century. This system was "perhaps the most iconic symbol of state planning ever built: an orderly, geometric series of rail lines radiating out across the nation from the centre point of Paris." Centralisation, according to Johnson, looks best from above. Power is centralised, the peripheries feed the core, master planning trumps local distinctives. In order to make the system legible, complexity, nuance, standardisation are all reduced.

The second conception is decentralisation, which recognises that the knowledge necessary to make centralisation work effectively is ultimately unobtainable. The complexity of society prevents us having a concentrated and integrated understanding of all relevant information; centralisation ultimately ends up being inefficient and unworkable. In contrast, the market as a decentralised mechanism is taken to be the adaptive, innovative and responsive means by which society can function.

The third conception is that of the distributed network; the internet is his exemplar of this model. There is no state-centralised control, nor is the marketplace the key driver of change; rather peer-to-peer connections are the heart of the model. These connections provide the resilience, the creativity and the life of the network.

In the rise of the peer to peer network, Johnson sees a new frame for the social architecture of our world. 

The greater part of this book explores some of the ways that peer-to-peer networks are emerging in society and solving problems that have been intractable both to the centralised state and to the capitalist market. It is a great read! Johnson has a gift for encapsulating ideas in narratives - using incidents to illustrate and unpack the concepts he is describing. This text is unabashedly optimistic about the future, which is tremendously refreshing in and of itself.

So what are the implications or challenges for schools? A few obvious ones emerge:
  • Young people need to learn the skills to collaborate and participate productively with others. This will require them to be able to articulate ideas, to think creatively, to improvise and borrow and innovate.
  • In leading a school, it suggests that innovation will arise from the edges, not the centre. How can we make sure that innovation is not stifled?
  • Connecting people (whether students, staff, teachers, parents or other stakeholders) to facilitate the flow of information and ideas is likely to make a more resilient organisation.
  • Problem-solving is best done by networks. When a problem is identified, how can a peer-to-peer network be engaged in solving it?
  • Be hopeful! We may be discovering a better way!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Visiting Northern Beaches Christian School

A team of people from my school visited the Northern Beaches Christian School today, courtesy of their research arm the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. Our goal was to reflect on the relationship between the built environment and teaching and learning; I am confident that all of us found it to be tremendously stimulating. 

A core insight that emerged from listening to the principal, Stephen Harris, is that learning for students takes place in the context of physical space, virtual space, culture and professionalism (which entails the pedagogy, commitment and capacity of the teachers). I particularly appreciated his point that school culture needs to be 'aggressively' cultivated, in that young people receive aggressive enculturation from the world around them, shaping their thinking on any number of fronts. If we want to reframe culture in the school, such that it is distinctively different to culture elsewhere, then we will need to be intentional, purposeful and deliberate about it.

At NBCS I was struck by the engagement and the ownership of learning that was demonstrated by the students. While recognising that NBCS sees itself as on a journey, rather than having arrived, the culture of the school - inasmuch as it is student-empowered and self-initiating was clear to the observer.

In our context, school culture is articulated in our values and in the outcomes to which we are working - that is, our Inaburra Learner Profile. These things describe both what matters to us and where we are going. In order to be effective shapers of our culture, these ideas need to be explicitly embodied in words and tangibly enacted in deeds as a matter of everyday life. I wonder whether these aspirational articulations of our identity, purpose and culture are equally clearly recognised to the visiting observer ...

Monday, 5 August 2013

Seven Spaces of Education Technology

I came across this video by Ewan McIntosh, exploring some ways that thinking about the way that technology functions can be overlaid our educational spaces. Sounds esoteric - but very stimulating. Take the time to watch - it takes just under 15 minutes. I love the way that form follows function and flexibility is key. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Firing the imagination for buildings, space and furniture

During the course of this week I have had the great fun of visiting three different schools in Sydney. Part of the agenda has been to see the way that other schools have imagined and built space to facilitate the learning of young people. The contexts of the schools have been very different from each other - and different again from my school. I visited a K-12 inner-city girls school, the K-2 building of another inner-city girls school and the 3-6 campus of a large suburban K-12 boys school.

Things I noticed:

  • Space has a profound shaping effect on learning. A room filled with rows of desks facing the front makes a number of statements, as contrasted to a room with grouped tables in which there is no evident front. 
  • A sense of play can pervade a space - as can a sense of order and regimen. A room filled with things to touch and move and fidget with and manipulate stimulates creativity and exploration and possibility and fun.
  • Technology needs to be mobile if it is to be integrated into normal life for young people.
  • Learning spaces need to be bigger than they used to be. Also more flexible. 
  • It is easy to say that form should follow function. It is harder to break free from traditional forms and imagine something entirely new. Rip van Winkle awaking from a hundred year sleep would still recognise most classrooms that I have visited. (Even the language of 'classroom' is revealing. Why does it need to be a room? Why a 'class'? What is a 'class' anyway? 
  • Playgrounds in Australian schools should have a water-feature
  • Land that slopes is full of potential for interesting architecture and landscaping, but probably a massive pain to build on
Did I mention the need to build with flexibility in mind? As the world continues to change, so too will the shape of education. Given the unpredictability of the future, if we are investing in buildings, it is only sensible to maximise their flexibility and the range of possible configurations of the space.

Finally, I was reminded that good architects are brilliant. So are good teachers!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Defining and Designing World-Class Education (Part 4)

In the previous series of posts I have summarised and commented briefly on a paper by Yong Zhao for the Centre for Strategic Education (CSE). Zhao has argued that much effort in the field of education reform is misdirected, as efforts to standardise education and raise test score levels fail to understand the need for education to prepare young people for the world in which they will live. This world is one where the basic, routine and standard skills that are the centrepiece of factory-model education are not enough. In addition, this standardisation diminishes the creative and diverse capacity of the individual. An education appropriate to the demands of the age is an education that cultivates entrepreneurship, creativity and confidence. This final post summarises the hallmarks that Zhao suggests are the signs of truly world-class education.

The three essential ingredients of this education are: 

  • autonomy, in that students will become more confident, curious and creative as they are supported and encouraged to take ownership of their learning, including the content - the 'what' - of their education;
  • product-oriented learning, whereby students shift from being recipient and consumer of knowledge/content and becomes creator and provider. Entrepreneurship is created when questions are asked and solutions sought - rather than seeking to identify already known answers to predetermined and artificial problems. Product-oriented learning, through multiple drafts and peer reviews, helps  the learner to develop resilience and perseverance before failure and to learn about the importance of discipline and commitment;
  • globalised learning, whereby learning is embodied in networks and the collaboration, partnership and connections that arise from engaging with the wider world, not just those gathered within the walls of the classroom.
From these three ingredients, Zhao points to a number of indicators of world-class education. These indicators comprise a confronting (for a school leader) series of questions, some of which are listed below.
  • Do students have a voice in governance and school environments? Are they involved in selecting and evaluating staff? Do they have a role in developing rules?
  • How broad is the range of courses offered? To what degree can students choose their own programs
  • Does each student have an adult advisor or coach?
  • What products or services have been created by students?
  • Is there an infrastructure for students to develop, display or market products and services?
  • Is there a process and culture of multiple drafts and review of products
  • In what ways is the school unique? In what ways does it build on its unique strengths?
  • How many international partners does the school have?
  • To what extent does the school utilise international resources?
  • What opportunities are available for students to engage in cross-cultural interactions?
No shortage of issues raised there! To close with a quotation from Zhao's conclusion

This paper is really about the human dimensions. It is about respecting children as human beings and about supporting, not suppressing, the passion, curiosity and talent. If schools can do just that, our children will become global, creative and entrepreneurial.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Defining and Designing World-Class Education (Part 3)

In his paper for CSE, Yong Zhao argues that the traditional model of education is out-moded and that we need to shift to a different paradigm - one that is oriented to the cultivation, development and encouragement of entrepreneurship. Along the way, he engages briefly with the advocates of school reform who argue that "The road to hell in education is paved with false dichotomies". Rather than seeing "either/or" we ought to see "both/and" (cf Michael Barber at Pearson - to be reviewed at some point in the future!).

Zhao makes three telling points that suggest that the ideal of combinations rather than dichotomies may be very hard to achieve. First, time is a fixed and limited resource. Time spent doing one thing means time not spent doing another. Time spent covering the curriculum for the HSC means time not spent on open-ended inquiry or student-directed learning. Second, certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other. Conformity and creativity do not cohabit the same human spirit easily. Third, non-time resources are also finite. The more money spent on developing mathematics, the less money is available for art.

Having made these observations, Zhao goes on to point out that there is an observable inverse relationship between the countries that are ranked high in standardised international educational assessments and those countries that score highly in measures of entrepreneurship activity. Correlation does not equal causation, but the data is suggestive. An education system that is geared towards high-achieving test scores is unlikely to cultivate creativity, independence and capacity for entrepreneurship.

Zhao argues that what is needed is a new paradigm for education that begins with the child, not the curriculum; we know this as child-centred learning and it is a truism in education theory today that learning ought to be child-centred. It does not assume that all children are the same and therefore it is not geared around standardised age-based expectations; rather, the goal is always to move children forward from where they are. This paradigm is not new; its genesis can be seen in Dewey in the 1930s, although it was foreshadowed by Rousseau and developed further by Piaget, Vygotsky, Gardner, Sternberg and a host of educational researchers and cognitive scientists. In summary form, it is generally accepted that children:

  • are born with curiosity and the ability to learn
  • are not born with exactly the same capacities for learning the same things
  • come to school with different levels of cognitive, emotional, physical and social development due to a combination of nature and nurture
  • come to school with different needs, interests, and different abilities
  • are active learners with unique needs
  • should bear the responsibility of learning
  • learn best when intrinsically motivated
  • are motivated when respected, encouraged and exposed to opportunities that capture their interest, build on their previous experience and are recognised for their accomplishment. (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000)

Given the truth of the bullet-points above, it is evident that learning ought to be child-centred. It is also evident that the our educational system has many many features that cannot be described that way. Can learning be progressively made more and more student-centred within the existing systems or is radical reinvention required?

to be continued

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Defining and designing world-class education (Part 2)

As outlined in my last post, Yong Zhao argues that our existing reform agenda for schools is misguided because it is premised on a factory-model of education that aims to prepare people for an outdated workplace that is no longer their future. He calls for a paradigm shift whereby education aims to produce ....entrepreneurs!

According to the World Economic Forum, entrepreneurship is:

a process that results in creativity, innovation and growth. Innovative entrepreneurs come in all shapes and forms; its benefits are not limited to startups, innovative ventures and new jobs. Entrepreneurship refers to an individual's ability to turn ideas into action and is therefore a key competence for all, helping young people to be more creative and self-confident in whatever they undertake.

As such, entrepreneurship is not limited to those who start businesses and maximise profits. Rather, it is the capacity to innovate, to enact change and to harness opportunity. Historically, entrepreneurs have been only a select few people, but in the brave new world, the entrepreneurial skillset is more akin to the basic survival skills that we will all need.

Yong Zhao argues that our educational system effectively squashes entrepreneurship in its emphases on compliance, standardisation, the downplaying of creativity and the focus on the traditional progression through the education and career. Our schools produce good employees, rather than good entrepreneurs. Our potential for creativity and enterprise can be suppressed or amplified; too often, schools suppress.

The answer is not to teach entrepreneurship as curriculum. In all likelihood, the curriculum standards, guidelines, assessment and evaluation would be antithetical to the cultivation of an entrepreneurial spirit and skills!

So, before going to Yong Zhao's suggested solutions, what do we make of his case? 

I find his point disturbing, as it challenges much that we value and esteem in our schools. Our schools do reward compliance and look askance at deviation from the norms. Divergent thinkers are not comfortably accommodated in many classrooms. Our emphasis on covering the content, especially in the senior years, narrows the focus for our students. Very often the students who experience most 'success' are those who are able to harness their capacity and produce what they are expected to. 

to be continued

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Defining and designing world-class education (Part 1)

The purpose is clear - a better education capable of preparing our children to live successfully in the future - but the direction is not.

The Centre for Strategic Education (CSE), based in Melbourne, Australia, have just published Seminar Series Paper #226 by Yong Zhao from the University of Oregon. The thrust of the paper, which is titled Paradigm shift: Defining and designing world-class education. His central thesis is that contemporary education is inadequate for preparing young people for the world in which they will live. Education needs to be reimagined and redesigned. In the next couple of posts I will summarise his thoughts and reflect on their application.

Yong Zhao argues that the dominant paradigm for education aims to prepare individuals to find gainful employment in the current economy and to fit into the existing society. As such it is a descendant of the mass-production economy, which requires a large workforce with standardised low-level skills and knowledge. To this end, a common curriculum prescribes the important elements. skills and knowledge that students should learn - these are the things that are deemed to matter. Teachers are trained to deliver the content, schools are rated and esteemed on how well the students acquire the content and - most insidious of all - students are sorted onto tracks that lead to certain sorts of careers or jobs that offer different returns of financial reward and social status.

In essence, the employment-oriented paradigm is about reducing human diversity into a few desirable skills.

Yong Zhao's point is that this paradigm worked fine in a local, homogenous, stable society wherein knowledge was not easily accessible and a few experts monopolised all the skills. We are not in that world any longer. Globalisation and the democratisation of information and knowledge, along with the accelerating rate of technological change, combine to mean that we no longer live in a stable society and it has become increasingly difficult to predict the future. Consequently it is no longer possible to prescribe the knowledge and skills children may need for future careers and employment.

And that leads us back to the starting point. Education needs to prepare our children to live successfully in the future. The traditional model will not do that.

As far as I am concerned, Yong Zhao is preaching to the choir! I believe! During 2012 our school developed a Learner Profile that attempted to identify the capabilities and characteristics that our Kindergarten students in 2012 will need when they graduate from secondary school in 2025. You can see it here. The same old thing is no longer good enough ... so what does Yong Zhao say is the answer ...? to be continued

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Learning from failure - the backchannel didn't work well!

Failure can be the best way to learn. I failed today - and I learned today.

At school we have a fortnightly Senior Theology and Philosophy forum, whereby our goal is to open up - usually in a lecture and tutorial format - some of the big questions of theology, philosophy and the Christian worldview. Last term we tried to identify questions that the students wanted to explore and, unsurprisingly, the problem of suffering and evil was front and centre. To begin to introduce the ideas, rather than roll in a guest speaker, we thought we would make use of Karl Faase' Towards Belief DVD. It is a great resource!

However, recognising the limitation of the uni-directional presentation (no matter how engaging or well produced), this seemed like a good forum to introduce a backchannel. A backchannel is a way of allowing the audience in a presentation to engage in interactive online chat whilst the main presentation is underway. The intention is that, instead of passively sitting and receiving, the listeners are able to interact with, fact check, query, critique, comment and otherwise engage with the ideas being presented. I have found the backchannels at a number of conferences and addresses to be highly engaging, prompting fruitful participation at the time and a record for perusal after the event.

We used Todaysmeet as the backchannel. For most, if not all of the students, this was their first experience of a formal backchannel and the Todaysmeet tool. Although the students had not been briefed to bring their technology to the session, a significant majority had web-enabled tools with them - mostly smartphones. I had set up the Todaysmeet room and we had the secondary projection screens set up in the auditorium displaying the students' contributions. I framed the tool by explaining it as an opportunity for a more interactive experience and urging them to engage with the process as a respectful dialogue. As the video got underway, I began to model the kind of engagement that we had been hoping for - summary points, queries, comments etc.

It didn't work.

Only a small number of those who had logged on participated. Almost all of those chose not to identify themselves, choosing pseudonyms or the names of other students (and staff). The students who tried to participate meaningfully were starkly in contrast with those were delighting in pushing the boundaries of appropriateness. After a while, we pulled the display off the secondary projection screens to diminish the distraction from the topic, but I decided to keep the backchannel open to see how the social dynamic played out. My read is that a number of the students wanted to push further and further to see what had to be done to draw a public response from the staff. We let it run.

Once the video was over, before going to a panel, we considered the question as to why anonymity leads to inappropriate behaviour. Obviously, freedom from consequences can lead us to cast off restraint.

What did I learn?

  • Meaningful use of a backchannel is a skill that needs to be modelled and taught. 
  • A culture of positive use of a backchannel will take time to develop.
  • Smaller groups will be a better forum for the introduction of backchannel engagement
  • Many students will sit back and observe, before diving in to the use of a tool that puts their own voice out there. A low-risk entry point needs to be created.
  • Don't be afraid to have a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Five global tech trends that will change everything educational

Another of the sessions that I attended at ISTE 2013 was taken by Dr Jason Ohler; the title grabbed my attention, particularly in light of the NMC Horizon Report that I blogged about here and here. I thought it could be helpful to compare the trends and developments that different people/groups discerned on the horizon. It is a lasting regret that I was late to this session; what I heard was thoughtful, engaging and challenging.

Ohler identified five trends with the potential to be massively disruptive, influential and challenging for education. The trend were:

  • Big data (see learning analytics - the educational application of our capacity to crunch immense amounts of data to better understand learners, their needs and their learning. I missed this part of the address.)
  • Augmented reality (I missed most of this. I think it had to do with the ways that ICT would come to augment our everyday experience.)
  • the semantic web (Web 3.0 and 4.0) - Ohler made the point that increasingly search engines and social media are trying to anticipate our interests and provide us with the information that they think we want. The point is that these filters are operating below the surface and are potentially not transparent, accountable or beneficial. Do the big companies (ie Google) end up controlling and shaping what we know.
  • BYOD - this trend is only going to accelerate. It has financial impetus going for it, students want it and it integrates 'outside' life with school life. The standard operating environment will pass away. Somewhere along the way, we will need to teach ourselves and our students what the 'off' button is for!
  • Transmedia storytelling - there is an increasing convergence across various forms of media, whereby the website and online presence of a story is a significant player in shaping the story. Plot points, reveals, background data etc will all become increasingly available and necessary, engaging fans in deeper and deeper ways.
Some common themes emerged in these sessions and were echoed in lots of conversations, presentations and general vibe around the conference. BYOD is indubitably the main game for ICT resources in schools - our school is well positioned in this way, although it is messy and we are not yet leveraging the resource as much as is possible. The application of big data kept coming up as a concept but I did not come across too many educators enthused about it; there were a few exhibitors spruiking their wares in this space. The potentially sinister side of the semantic web is a real concern, in that searches and suggestions could increasingly become an echo chamber in which we keep on encountering and being fed the things that we already know.

No-one doubts, however, that technology is a game-changer for education, both in the way that it has changed the world of today and will change the world of tomorrow for which we educate young people, but also for the opportunities that it opens up for access to information, connection to others and amplification of learning. Exciting days!

Monday, 15 July 2013

Learning to use different tools -Scoopit

I wanted to assemble a number of readings and resources for a Special Interest Group of staff at my school; we are thinking about the built environment as we look towards the next few years at the school. About a dozen staff have volunteered to be a part of the process. Back in the day, I may well have done some photocopying and, if time permitted, perhaps bound the (black and white) pages into folders for distribution. Last year, engaging in a similar process, I compiled a list of URLs into an email and distributed it to the relevant people. Now - I have discovered !

I have been reading resources through for the last year or so, mostly disseminated through Twitter, but I had not ever chased the tool down. My assumption was that it was something like Zite which I have been using on my iPad. However, becoming aware that it was a tool for curation as well as search, I taught myself how to use it today - it took all of five minutes!

Here is my first page. The focus is on the built environment and schools.

I don't know if it will of use or interest to anyone outside the immediate working group, but it is far more attractive, accessible and easy to assemble than the old brick of photocopying. The resources that have been curated include a slideshow, a video, a couple of blogs and a couple of .pdf documents - all in the one place and easily accessible. There is space for my commentary on each one, and room for others to post comments. In short - great tool! has boundless utility for teachers as a curating tool. At the moment most of our teachers would use Moodle (or Edmodo) as a location for both documents to be downloaded and for links to web-based resources. I reckon a link to would be the only one needed - and the curation search is accelerated and easy too.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

PL regarding UbyD, UDL, and DI - acronym overload, but brilliant!

The first of our mid-year professional learning days involved Leanne Woodley from the AISNSW presenting on the theory and practice of curriculum design, differentiation, assessment and reporting, using the thinking of Understanding by Design (UbyD), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI). Lots to process - and I think much of the processing took place as the various learning teams reflected on, applied and workshopped the ideas presented. Here are some of the stand-out ideas I appreciated.

The first point, arising from UDL, is that retro-fitting curriculum adjustments for student need is frequently awkward and ugly. Just as in architecture, it makes more sense to consider the range of possible student need when designing and building your curriculum, rather than retro-fitting on the fly when the needs are confronted.

The second point, also from UDL, is that design thought given to people on the margins will result in an improved experience for all. We all benefit from the fact that public buildings are designed with access provision for wheelchairs and that train platforms have gradations and markings indicating the safe zone to the visually impaired. Likewise, all students would benefit from the provision of video resources presenting content, not just the less able readers.

The third point is that the only things in a classroom situation that a teacher is actually able to control are his/her own actions and the learning environment. We don't actually control students; you can lead a horse to water but ...

If there are skills needed for the completion of an assessment task, you need to explicitly teach those skills (or verify that the skills are already established). Literacy is taught across the curriculum.

In the NSW context, we do not need to be content-driven, at least up until the end of Year 10. The focus ought to be on the teaching of skills; the content is there to provide a vehicle through which the skills will be acquired. WE DO NOT NEED TO TEACH ALL THE OUTCOMES OF THE SYLLABUS!

There is a wealth of fantastic material on the NSW Board of Studies website, the Assessment Resource Centre and the Program Builder for the NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum.

There was lots more good stuff - and that is the exciting thing. We have some good ideas about the directions to be chasing next.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Reinventing Professional Learning for teachers

At the ISTE 2013 conference I attended a session on reinventing PD for teachers. It was conducted by TCEA, which is a member-based organization devoted to the use of technology in education. Our primary focus is on integrating technology into the PreK-12 environment and providing our members with state-of-the-art information through conferences, workshops, newsletters, the Internet, and collaborations with higher education and business.

The slideshow from their presentation can be found at 

Their basic thesis was that professional learning for teachers ought be modelled on the same principles as best-practice learning for students. Standing up the front and lecturing cannot be the only (or even primary) model we use. This picture makes the same point! Our professional learning must model what should happen in the classroom - and if the 'teacher' talks at the students for the whole lesson ... As has been noted elsewhere, the main activity that students do at school is pretend to listen. Is this the main activity of staff at professional learning sessions?

There were a couple of unintended learning points in this session. The first was the need to plan your location in order to serve your goals. They were trying to deliver a session modelling interactivity, collaboration and movement in a room jam-packed with staff shoulder to shoulder in rows of seats. The second was to ensure that your infrastructure can support your goals. The session was focussed on online technology, but there were so many devices trying to access the bandwidth simultaneously, the system couldn't cope! Very frustrating.

However, getting past those issues, their model was exactly right. Put the learning into the hands of the learners, stop lecturing, facilitate collaboration, get active exploring, articulate your learning by teaching others and include a call to action - what will you do now?

My takeaways for professional learning:

  • Limit the 'stand and deliver' sessions. Ask one another during planning - is this the best way for this learning to happen?
  • Get administrivia out of professional learning time - deliver it some other way
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
  • Mix the groups up - contact between people from different sectors/teams generates innovation.
We've got two days of professional learning starting tomorrow. I am looking forward to it. UDL. Differentiated Instruction. Technology workshops. My hope and prayer is that our teachers find it stimulating, helpful and enjoyable. That would be a win!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Emerging technologies in K-12 education

The NMC Horizon Report 2013 K-12 Education Edition, which was released at ISTE 2013, identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe. The report identifies two technologies that have a near-term horizon - that is, to be adopted into the mainstream for schools in the next twelve months; two that have a mid-term horizon - within the next two to three years; and two that have a far-term horizon - within the next four to five years. The full report (linked above) is only 40 pages long and it would repay half an hour of reading time - but for those short of time, the headings are as follows.

Near-term horizon: cloud computing

Near-term horizon: mobile learning

Mid-term horizon: learning analytics

Mid-term horizon: open content

Far-term horizon: 3D printing

Far-term horizon: Virtual and remote laboratories

The two near-term horizon technologies can be taken as read. The cloud has become a commonplace element in the school's technological environment. Students use Evernote, Dropbox, Gmail and Google Drive for data-storage, communication and collaboration. Increasingly infrastructure previously provided by the school now lives in the cloud (although, this also ramps up the demands for broadband access since data is going to and from the cloud, not just to and from local servers). Mobile computing is slowly being integrated into education - a lot slower than it has been integrated into everyday life! The BYOT approach moves education towards practice that is consistent with daily life; you carry the tool with you and you use it as you want to/need to/ have cause to.

The mid-term horizon technologies are also familiar in general terms, although not yet in their educational form. Learning analytics is 'big data' analysis applied to education. The data is increasingly being sourced from online tools and interactive resources, but it also arises from standardised testing. Learning analytics can be applied from the macro-level in shaping policy approaches, allocating resources and making high-level decisions, but it is potentially equally significant in adapting instruction to individual learner needs in real-time, in the same way that Amazon, Netflix, and Google use metrics to tailor recommendations and advertisements to consumers.

Open content - whether seen in iTunesU, the flourishing of Creative Commons as an alternative to copyright, or Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) - is a significant shift away from the protectionist approach to knowledge, where ideas are commercialised and every attempt is made to monetarise intellectual capital. Increasingly, in a world that is networked and in which information flows despite the efforts made to contain it, more and more people are embracing the philosophical shift to scale resources towards openness as an ideal. This is potentially a shift towards equity, sustainability and innovation. Interestingly, it is at the heart of Steven Johnson's argument in Where Good Ideas Come from - the subject of a previous post.

I must confess, the far-term horizon technologies of 3D printing and virtual and remote laboratories left me a bit bemused. I have passing familiarity with 3D printing, in that I have read a few articles and our school has begun to use a 3D printer in Design courses and I can see the immense potential for design and innovation, but it is not immediately evident to me how 3D printing will have a transformative impact on education. Likewise, virtual and remote laboratories seem like a good idea - but hardly the pre-eminent emerging technologies that will be the focus of mainstream excitement and adoption in five years time. Still - what do I know? 

The future is already here. It just isn't evenly distributed.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Trends and challenges in K-12 education

One of the sessions that I attended at ISTE 2013 was the release of the NMC Horizon Report 2013 K-12 Edition. Although I had, up until now, been ignorant of the NMC Horizon Report series, I found it to be one of the most interesting sessions that I achieved. Nearly everything I learned in that session is available on the website linked above and it doesn't take long to read, so I commend it to you.

The NMC Horizon Reports attempt to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe. Before summarising the six technologies that are identified in the 2013 report, I will list the key trends and challenges identified in the report that form the backdrop to the emerging technologies.

The key trends are:

  • Education paradigms are shifting to include online learning, hybrid learning and collaborative models - our school is yet to make much progress in this area, but my post-graduate studies are now conducted exclusively online
  • Social media is changing the way people interact, present ideas and information, and communicate - think Facebook, Twitter et al. Twitter in particular presents me with new ideas every day. You just need to make sure you are following interesting people (not just celebs!)
  • Openness - concepts like open content, open data, and open resouces, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information - is becoming a value - in education at least, we are much less focussed on protecting intellectual property. It is in the free exchange of ideas that innovation and progress arises. Creative commons and the sharing of ideas just make good sense. See my previous post about Steven Johnson and the associated links for more on this.
  • As the cost of technology drops and school districts revise and open up their access policies, it is becoming more common for students to bring their own mobile devices - BYOT is the way of the future! See Inaburra's approach outlined here
  • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the internet is challenging us to revisit our roles as educators - schools, libraries, teachers are no longer the custodians and repositories of knowledge. What now?
The significant challenges are:
  • Ongoing professional development needs to be valued and integrated into the culture of the schools - absolutely! The challenge is making the time. If something is important enough, we will make the time. If not, we will make an excuse.
  • Too often it is education's own practices that limit broader uptake of new technologies - we default to teaching the way we were taught
  • New models of education are bringing unprecedented competition to traditional models of schooling - we are not seeing this much yet in Australia, but it will come! See NBCS distance education arm
  • K-12 must address the increased blending of fomal and informal learning - ?
  • The demand for personalised learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices - we are still too tied to the factory/industrialised model whereby one size fits all.
  • We are not using digital media for formative assessment the way we could and should - ?
Next post - the emerging technologies

Steve Johnson and good ideas

One of the keynote addresses at ISTE 2013 was given by Steven Johnson. You can see Steven presenting at an early TED talk here on his book about the cholera outbreak in London in 1854 (it is better than it sounds) or here on the web as a city. My particular favourite - and first contact with his ideas, is the RSA Animate video on his book Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation.

In examining the nature of innovation, Johnson identifies a number of elements that are frequently present in the development of good ideas. Rather than innovation consisting primarily in the 'Eureka' moment of individual brilliance, he argues that it is more likely to arise from:

  • the adjacent possible - which is the notion that for an innovation to take hold, certain other pre-requisites also need to have happened. It is possible for an idea to be ahead of its time
  • the slow hunch - wherein the idea gestates over time, often many years
  • liquid networks - wherein there is frequent cross-disciplinary interaction and collective engagement of ideas
  • serendipity - which denotes the accidental/happenstance/unintended/surprising connection that generates something new. Johnson argues that cities, and now the web, have greatly increased opportunities for serendipitous innovation
  • error - which is not just the process of trial and error development, but also the new possibilities that emerge when error happens. Error helps us to see through a different lense
  • exaptation - by which an idea from one sector/industry/activity is put to innovative use in another. For example, Gutenberg's printing press was (in part) an exaptation of the screw-press of the winemakers.
  • platforms - which are spaces (physical, cultural, virtual) that facilitate innovation through the encouragement of many of the factors mentioned above. He argues that open platforms, without protection of intellectual property/knowledge are much more generative of innovation.
The thrust of this book is a call for more and more networked, non-market controlled opportunities for innovation. Let information/ideas be free, rather than constrained behind competitive advantage and patent law! However, my particular interest has to do with education and how his insights can be put to use in our context to facilitate innovation. Some possibilities include:
  • facilitating casual cross-curricular interaction within the school, breaking down the subject-based teams and primary/secondary division. Separate staffrooms maintain these separations - is there a case for a 'common room'?
  • building a culture where error is not punished and new ways of doing things are encouraged
  • building physical spaces and providing furniture that encourage interaction
  • other thoughts?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Some musings on gaming

I am guilty at having sneered contemptuously at the idea of someone doing post-graduate study in computer games. "Your PhD is in World of Warcraft? Congratulations ..." However, having read this book and considered the sheer size of the gaming world as a human endeavour, I can see the case for doing so. Anything that engages 97% of young people and that occupies literally billions of hours of voluntary human activity each week is worth examining.

I found McGonigal's explanation of the appeal of gaming to be persuasive; gaming meets genuine human needs in a way that reality often fails to do. Her response is to argue that we ought to bring aspects of gaming from the virtual world into the 'real world'. I am not sure that I can argue against doing so. From an educator's point of view, it seems irrefutable that games engage people in a way that education does not. 

To take one example, McGonigal suggests that games spend about 80% of their time failing.  Roughly four times out of five, they don't complete the mission, run out of time, don't solve the puzzle, lose the fight, fail to improve their score, crash and burn, or die. Yet they persist. In fact, once we master a game, it ceases to be enjoyable. Fun morphs into boredom, once we pass the critical point of being reliably successful (p.68). Consider how this contrasts to education. If a student was 'failing' 80% of the time, would they be likely to persevere? Why the difference between game and school? It is a powerful and important question: what can school learn from games?

The issue that has nagged at me through reading this book, particularly the foundational work of the early chapters, is that gaming is inherently artificial. I accept that it can have benefits such as developing resilience, increasingly social connectedness, and providing an experience of purpose and mission. However, it provides these benefits (in some sense) artificially. The genuine human needs that lie underneath the appeal of gaming ought to be met in real life; gaming appears to be a shortcut or alternative route, substituting for reality. As such, it is escapist. I don't think escapism is inherently a bad thing, but I am nervous about accepting it uncritically.

Reflecting from a Christian point of view, it seems to me that the title of the book is correct - Reality is broken - but the argument of the book is too ambitious; games cannot solve the problems that McGonigal identifies. We all recognise that life is inherently frustrating, it is less than it ought be and our genuine needs, arising from our created nature, are often not met. However, it is not clear to me that the answer is to seek out another world or reality where these frustrations are less prominent.

To be fair, McGonigal does not advocate escapism. She wants games to transform the real world. The bulk of the book is a call to action to mobilise the power of games and gamers to be powerfully transformative in reality. I think  she has too high a hope. Games could help to make reality better and they could help to meet some human needs. However, it seems to me that games are more likely to be a refuge from reality than the saviour of it. In the end, games as the hope for humanity are just another form of Babel and that is a game that doesn't end well.

Tips for good gaming from Jane McGonigal

In an appendix to her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal provides practical advice for gamers to get the most positive impact from playing games. Her tips (and my commentary in italics) are as follows:

  • Don't play more than 21 hours per week. Freak - how is it possible to play as much as 21 hours a week and still have some sort of productive and meaningful alternative life? Three hours per day seems like an extraordinarily large chunk of life, at least for someone at my age and stage of life. Perhaps while I was at uni I could have secured this amount of time - I was doing an arts degree after all!
  • Playing with real-life friends and family is better than playing alone all the time, or with strangers. This seems like a good conclusion to her observations about the social nature of gaming.
  • Playing face to face with friends and family beats playing with them online. She suggests that this is particularly true for parent-child relationships. Both multi-player and taking turns at single-player games have value here. Although we don't often get the Wii out, it is always social when we do and it is a great way for me to spend time with my daughters. We're also enjoying Clash of Clans together at the moment.And.of course, the time-honoured playing of card games and board games while on holidays fits into this pattern too!
  • Cooperative gameplay, overall, has more benefits than competitive gameplay. I hadn't thought about categorising gaming into these categories before, but will do from now on. It makes sense.
  • Creative games have special positive impacts. Minecraft springs to mind as the creative game that students are playing at the moment.
  • You can get all the benefits of a good game without realistic violence. I like the suggestion that you could stick to games that do not require you to hurt human characters - obviously zombies, aliens, vampires etc do not count!
  • Any game that makes you feel bad is no longer a good game for you to play. This is an interesting one. My observation is that some games require a bit more recalibration to switch out of - if a game requires aggression, or quick responses, or in some other way demands heightened adrenalin, it can lead to a twitchy or anti-social mood in the gamer in the immediate aftermath. I also note that, for all the intense engagement that I feel when 'into' a game, I sometimes experience a seedy feeling of regret afterwards - maybe a bit like eating McDonalds or reading trashy fiction. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but ...
Sensible stuff - although the upper limit of 21 hours seems a lot!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Developing collaborative prowess through gaming

The second half of Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken seeks to make the connections between games and real life. One of these points of connection has to do with the collaborative capacity that is being developed amongst those who game. The numbers are staggering.  

By the age of twenty-one, the average young American has spent somewhere between two and three thousand hours reading books - and more than ten thousand hours playing computer and video games (McGonigal, p.266).

McGonigal connects the 10000 hours of gaming with the work of Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: the Story of Success, wherein he makes the case that many people who have experienced extraordinary success and high achievement have done so through the accumulation of 10000 hours of practice at their core activity. (This is a very rough generalised summary of part of his argument; I commend the book to you as a stimulating read in and of itself. Of course, Wikipedia offers this summary for those who are short of time!)

McGonigal suggests that the gaming 21 year old of today has been practising collaboration for 10000 hours. Collaboration in this context entails three different types of concerted effort: cooperating (acting purposefully toward a common goal); coordinating (synchronizing efforts and sharing resources); and co-creating (producing a novel outcome together). McGonigal, p.268. Her contention is that, by virtue of the immense amount of time invested, gamers are developing extraordinary powers of collaboration.

She identifies three capabilities that are demonstrated by these super-collaborators. First, these people are extremely outgoing in a networked environment; they do not hesitate to reach out to others for assistance or to respond to others' requests. Second, they are adept at identifying the best collaborators for a particular task or mission and leveraging individual's abilities towards the goal. Third, these collaborators are at ease in complex and chaotic collaborative environments, being comfortable with uncertainty, being able to maintain a high-level perspective, and practicing possibility scanning (remaining open to unplanned opportunities and surprising insights). McGonigal 277-79

If McGonigal is right, then the habitual gamer is developing 21st century skills independently of their formal education and without realising it. This would be a great outcome.

My main query with this part of her work is this:  How transferable are the (putative) collaboration skills to other non-gaming contexts? Do endless hours of Halo or World of Warcraft or Farmville do anything other than make you really good at games?