The learner's role in their search for learning

In ‘The Spirit of Professional Learning’, Tina Blythe utilises the metaphor of searching for driftwood on a beach to describe the process of connecting learning opportunities with our particular needs. The beach wanderer passes by many items which do not meet their needs. Only a few of the pieces of detritus will fit the wanderers needs, maybe fitting into a particular project or perhaps offering enough possibility to be collected for one yet to be imagined. For the professional learner, the journey is the same. They engage with many ideas, strategies and solutions, but only a few are implemented or saved for future use.

“Sometimes, I go to the beach and I know exactly what I’m looking for: sea glass of a certain color, shells of a particular shape or size. Sometimes, I see something that catches my eye, and I’ll pick it up and bring it home, even though I’m not sure at that moment what I’m going to do with it. - you never bring home the whole beach.”  
Tina Blythe

I particularly connect with this metaphor of searching for driftwood. It points to the role that the life-long learner plays in the process of learning. Rather than expecting to be immersed in learning that shines a light on the path forward the notion of searching for driftwood that suits the learner’s needs is very empowering. It requires an imagining of learning as a very active process where the learner is aware of their context, their current understanding and what they might need to move forward. It demands a conscious practice of reflection and a disposition towards taking charge of one’s learning. It is a very agentic view where learning is something that you do, not something that happens to you. 

It also connects very nicely with how I use Twitter. There is a small ocean of ideas available on Twitter and one could never hope to read, let alone embrace every good idea that passes by. A small number of the ideas that are encountered will seem to fit perfectly with what you need. Others might challenge your thinking and encourage you to look at something from a fresh perspective. Some posts and threads are best ignored; freedom of speech was never meant to come with a guaranteed audience. I like Twitter most when it hints at a question, when it leaves me wondering why and wanting to know more.

This metaphor of searching for driftwood extends my understanding of the role of the facilitator, particularly in professional learning. If the learner’s role is to search for and collect what they need then the facilitators role is to make that process possible. If as a facilitator I demand that the learner accepts what I offer, then I take away the possibility for them to find what they need. The facilitator's role is one of supporting the learner in their process of making meaning, finding what they need and valuing what they find. An effective facilitator relies on great questions that encourage reflection, not a pool of knowledge. Rethinking the role of the facilitator helps me see the value in a question like ‘What makes YOU say that?’; not as a test of understanding but as a way of helping the learner clarify how they arrived at the statement or belief that they have shared; a prompt for a very personal reflection on thinking and a question for the benefit of the learner.

What I find challenging in this, is how such a learner centered notion of facilitation and professional learning fits with how many people seem to view learning. If our only experience of learning is traditional teacher led learning, then it is very natural to expect all learning to be like this. This experience hard wires our thinking about the process of learning and shapes our expectations for what the learning experience will be like. If I expect the teacher to teach and me to thusly learn, how will I ever become a self-navigating life-long learner.

The challenge is how might we shift the learner’s mindset from a view of learning as a consequence of the actions of another, to a process that we are in charge of.

by Nigel Coutts

What might our children most need from Education?

According to many STEM or STEAM skills are essential to future success and the prosperity of nations. In these times where technology is increasingly a part of the solution and where understandings of science, engineering and mathematics are central to so many industries this makes sense. But counter to this argument is a growing body of educators who point to the significant role that the humanities have in producing young people who are empathetic and aware of the social aspects of the modern world. They argue that a focus on STEM pathways ignores the human elements of change, the interpersonal and societal power relations that shape our society. What path then should schools take in planning to meet the needs of our learners and to what degree should the needs of the economy shape our curriculum?

Much of this debate arrives from observations that we are facing a time of unprecedented change. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) are to be the norm and the pace of change is set to accelerate, we in what has been termed ‘the age of accelerations’. In an effort to make sense of this world, the OECD has identified three mega-trends which are shaping this change; globalisation, technological progress and demographic change. Each of these trends alters the nature of our societies and so we must also manage the changes that they induce in areas parallel to their immediate sphere of influence. Factors such as automation and globalisation of markets and workforces will place pressures on our workforces and change what skills are most valued. Some professions will disappear altogether while others will be transformed. Any work that is routine, repetitive and machine learnable is likely to be relegated to the pages of history while careers involving non-routine cognitive skills are set to expand. While economists predict that our economies are likely to expand as a consequence of all this change, it is uncertain as to how many people this new economy will require or if we will be able to prepare our young people to thrive in this new work-order. 

The term “Great Acceleration” was coined by scientists to capture the holistic, comprehensive, and interlinked nature of all the changes simultaneously sweeping across the globe and reshaping the human and biophysical landscapes of the Earth system. (From “Thank You for Being Late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman p10)

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development identifies the need to prepare young people for times of constant change in environments laden with technology.

Prepare young people for the jobs of the future by ensuring that they are equipped with the right type of skills to successfully navigate through an ever-changing, technology-rich work environment, (OECD - Future of Work & Skills - 2017)

To many, this process involves developing STEM skills and dispositions. According to ‘The Innovation Policy Platform’, a group within the World Bank Group, 'Increasing students’ participation in STEM remains a primary component of policy measures to strengthen education for innovation.’ Economists at PwC state that 'Australia needs a STEM capable workforce if we are going to continue to prosper in an increasingly complex and competitive world.’ Indeed there is a close affiliation between papers addressing the importance of STEM and those which point to needs for an innovative workforce. There is also some evidence that STEM careers have tangible benefits for the individual as reported by ‘Education Technology’ citing research by ‘Institution of Engineering and Technology’ who 'found that those who’ve pursued STEM in their education or career earn more, get on the property ladder quicker and save more than those who haven’t pursued STEM subjects.’

Another line of thinking is that the skill set most required in our future will be that of the entrepreneur. While in the short-term STEM skills might be in demand, it is not certain that this trend will continue. We may always need some scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians but there are many routine tasks within these careers which will be subject to automation. Coding, data analytics, structural analysis, quantity surveying/estimates, repetitive laboratory tasks are just some of the STEM careers which are likely to diminish as machines and artificial learning moves in. It is not that there will be no need for humans in these roles, but the number required is bound to decline and this is most likely to impact entry level positions.

What becomes important then is the skill to exploit emerging opportunities in a constantly shifting market. This requires a capacity to see opportunities where others do not and then take decisive action to maximise the return available before the market shifts again or others move in. To this end there is an emerging trend towards teaching the skills of entrepreneurialism in schools and colleges. This goes beyond teaching problem finding skills, creative or innovative thinking to include the specific skills required to transform an idea into a business opportunity. Indeed, in the spirit of entrepreneurship there is a growing marketplace for those who are looking to sell ‘Entrepreneur Education’ programmes to schools. 

The common thread to much of this debate is that schools are seen as places which prepare the next generation worker. In this discourse, Education is absorbed into the machinery of the economic system and has a part to play in assuring the continued growth of our economies, even if that means preparing individuals to be the makers of their own destinies as may be the case for entrepreneurs. This economic imperative driving education is important and to some extent unavoidable. After all we hope that our young people will have secure futures beyond their time at school and at least in part this demands financial security. 

But only in part. There are hopes and wishes for the future world which are not readily measured in economic terms or served directly by participation in the workforce. There are many pressures confronting our society which require understandings that have little to do with STEM disciplines or entrepreneurialism. 

2016 was a landmark year for the VUCA world. In June of 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and in November the United States elected businessman and reality tv host Donald Trump as president. While these events are perhaps not the origin moments of what has been termed the ‘Post Truth’ era these two points in history illustrate clearly that we have entered a time where truth and opinion are interchangeable terms. The democratic traditions and rule of law upon which our modern western society was built are increasingly under attack. Amidst this political turmoil we face rising threats from global warming, societal change through immigration and an expanding refugee crisis, and with it all, threats to our values and human rights. To some there is a growing pattern of actions and discourse that is reminiscent of our darkest days prior to the breakout of total warfare and the rise of fascism. 

How should education respond to these threats and how might we best prepare our students for this world? STEM and entrepreneurialism have little to offer here. What our students require are the understandings developed most capably by the humanities. An ability to interpret our history and use that understanding to shape our present. An awareness of political discourses and a disposition to speak truth to power. An empathetic understanding of ‘otherness’ and a desire and capacity to read the stories of our individual and collective humanity. The ability to create and sustain a movement driven by a desire to make the world we share today a better place for all and for those who will call it home in futures yet to be imagined. To know who we are, where we have been and how we might shape where we are headed. 

By Nigel Coutts


For more on the "Post Truth Era" read:
Matthew D’Ancona (2017) Post Truth: The new war on truth and how to fight back. Bury Press; London

Engaged, Disengaged and Overengaged - The consequences of engagement on learning

If you consider the day to day life of many of our students today, you see that they have very little time that is free from some form of programmed activity. Indeed, it is increasingly the norm for families to fill their children’s time with the maximum number of learning, sporting and co-curricular activities. Schools naturally are happy to facilitate this and many see the breadth of programmes that they offer as a measure of success. But is there a consequence to all this activity and constant state of engagement?

During school hours, we hope that our students are actively engaged in the process of learning. We understand that learning requires engagement and that all learning is a consequence of thinking. Unlike a cake baking in an oven, where it is sufficient for the cake to sit passively on its tray while the process happens to it, learning demands the active participation of the learner. Observe some students as they undertake internet based research and you see where this process goes wrong. The student flicks aimlessly from one site to another, pauses here and there and then quickly moves on. It is as though they imagine that by being near the information they will somehow come to understand the material. A similar pattern is evident in some classrooms as the teacher delivers content to their students with little awareness of whether the students are joining them on a learning journey or imagining what they might be having for lunch. And before we blame the students for their lack of engagement, how many times have we bodily sat through meetings and professional development sessions while our minds are busy elsewhere?

The significance of engagement in the learning process should be one area around which there is little debate. What is perhaps debatable is how engagement should be achieved. There is a line of thinking that seems to imply all learning should be connected to the learner’s personal passions. That all our lessons should be personalised and individually relevant. We see as a consequence of this line of thinking some educators bringing theatrical elements to their lessons in an attempt to engage the minds of every learner or others who attempt to present only content that is matched to the personal interests of their learners. On the opposing side of the fence are those who claim that there is content that just must be mastered and that it is the responsibility of the learner to engage with it or miss out. 

This debate around engagement is, like so many topics in education, made more complex than it need be by the way that we construct false dichotomies. Engagement is indeed important and there is content that we need to learn which might not always make it on to our personal ‘Top Ten’ list of things to learn. What the talented and passionate teacher will do is reveal to the learner how and where the content or skill is relevant to the individual’s learning journey and how it fits with their interests. What will never build real engagement are claims that the content is relevant because it is on the test or will be needed at some distant point in a future that seems increasingly unlikely to turn out like the teacher imagines.  Often when we are engaging in new learning we fail to immediately see its relevance and in these times, it is the role of the teacher to help us make this connection. When we have teachers who truly understand the material in question and share with us their passion for it we are much more likely to make the effort to uncover its personal relevance. 

Where this very much falls apart is when we confuse engagement with entertainment. We want our learners to be active participants in the learning process, for their minds and bodies to be engaged in the process of learning. This requires activity on the part of the learner and any measure of success must look at the learner’s side of the equation. A lesson is only engaging if it engages the learner in learning, regardless of how entertaining it might be. 

All of this engagement however has a significant down side that we often ignore. Our students should be actively engaged during their time in our classrooms. After all the expectation is that this is a time when they are learning. The danger is when we extend the boundaries of their learning day far beyond the time they spend inside our classrooms. Between time at school, time in activities outside of school, time spent on home learning, time engaged in flipped learning, time spent negotiating complex social lives, time interacting with screens, time reading books and consuming other media there is little time left for the average young person’s mind to be quiet and disengaged from external stimuli. Our drive to keep young people engaged is so great that we have removed the downtime that their minds need to process all of this learning that they are engaged in. 

The neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research shows the importance of allowing time for the brain to be ‘disengaged’ from the outside world. From imaging of the brain using FMRI, Immorddino-Yang has shown that the neural networks utilised while attending to our environment, turn off those which we use while looking inwards for introspection and reflection. The direct consequence of this is that if we are forever actively engaged our minds do not have adequate time to make sense of what we have learned and to move this learning into our long-term memories. Immordino-Yang reflects on her research as follows:

"These findings also suggest the possibility that inadequate opportunity for children to play and adolescents to quietly reflect and to daydream may have negative consequences—both for social-emotional well-being and for their ability to attend well to tasks."

"The overarching premise of the article is that although daydreaming and other lapses in outward attention lead to poor performance on concentration-requiring tasks in the moment, skills for reflecting during lapses in outward attention, and time for safely indulging mind wandering, may be critical for healthy development and learning in the longer term."

Filling our days with engaging activities seems like an admirable goal and to a degree has merit. There are many ways in which young people and adults can spend their time which are neither meaningful nor are offering their minds the quiet time they need. Being aware that our minds require time to wander, daydream and disengage from the external world should encourage us to seek a better balance between active engagement and productive disengagement. 
 By Nigel Coutts
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company. 

A stable foundation makes change possible

Schools and more broadly education systems, change at a pace that makes glaciers feel like sprinters. It is often noted that the classrooms of the 1880’s do not look that different from the classrooms of today. The typical reform effort in a school is set to run over five years or more and the slow and steady approach is very much the norm. Even with this slow pace of change it is a not uncommon to hear teachers claim that the pace of change it too fast. We might accept the need for change but need more time to adjust to and internalise the new ways of doing what we have always done. 

The technology industry moves at entirely different pace. Change, evolution, innovation, reimaginings and constant new features are demanded of companies. If any of the large technology companies fail to release a new product in an calendar year the media is full of stories claiming that they have lost their touch and are bound to fail. Rapid prototyping is the norm. Vaporware is released when companies are not quite ready to go to market but fear a competitor might release a new product first. Bug fixes are an accepted part of doing business at such a rapid pace that time to fully test a new piece of code doesn’t exist. The mantras of ‘move fast and break things’ and ‘fail fast, fail early’ continue to shape the thinking of technologists.

The mindset of the technologist is that change is the only way to survive and that the answer to any problem is a new technology or the transfer of an existing technology into a new field. This belief in a combination of rapid change and technology as the way forward was analysed by New York Times writer, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci in a reflection on Elon Musk’s response to the rescue efforts in Thailand. Musk had offered to build a submarine to rescue the boys trapped in a Thai cave; a very high tech solution to a problem that had captured the attention and imaginations of a global audience. Tufekci shows that this thinking is typical of technologists but suggests that such a response is not always the most appropriate. 

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

The stellar success of our current crop of tech giants has become the model by which innovation is measured and innovation is, or so we are told, what we need. Thanks, in part to the pace of change in technology combined with other shifts in the world outside our classrooms, there is little doubt that the skills and dispositions our students will need to master for their futures, are not what they once were. But does this mean that schools should embrace the mindset of the technologist and strive to match their pace of change?

Schools are very stable systems. While they have changed slowly they have evolved to meet many of the needs of the people they serve. It must not be forgotten that schools are made of, and made for people. The concept of rapid-prototyping a child’s education should ring alarm bells; after all we only get one shot at getting right. In this sense schools are like the ‘safety first’ industries that Tufekci references. You don’t want your pilot announcing that she is currently testing a new approach to landing the plane, ‘We’ll see if this works’. Rapid prototyping has no place in the cockpit and no place in school either. If we are to trial a new method we need to be reasonably certain it will work. This is perhaps where the greatest challenge for educators lies; we need to change our practice and we need to get it right first time around. History shows though that education has a tendency to try ideas that don’t work and many ideas have come and gone, remember whole language?

The foundational stability of schools might be our greatest strength. There are certain fundamentals that we are most certain about. These fundamentals are not subject to change and are the elements that schools must get right before they can achieve anything else. Schools must be places that facilitate supportive relationships and build individuals with positive self-images. Our students must know that they are safe, known and cared for. Before anything else schools must create a culture where all learners are nurtured.  Relatedness is a core component of self-determination theory according to Ryan & Deci, and the neuroscience of Immordino-Yang shows that emotions always matter for learning.

Once schools get these fundamentals right, they have scope to try new ideas, to explore alternate approaches and introduce change. When our students feel safe they are more likely to respond positively to new ideas. When they know that their teachers care for them, they are more likely to trust new methods. When this care and respect is extended to teachers, they are more likely to be open to trying new methods and in doing so step outside of their personal comfort zones.

Just as is the norm in the airline industry we need a set of protocols to ensure that new ideas are tested appropriately before they are broadly implemented. The actions of pilots in any circumstance, from the very normal to the worst imaginable scenarios, are dictated by checklists. There is a checklist for pre-flight, a checklist for take-off and a checklist for an engine failure. Before any change is introduced across the industry there are procedures to test the new method or part. At every step the aim is to ensure that safety of the crew and passengers is never compromised. Schools might do well to adopt a similar set of protocols and testing processes to ensure that as new ideas are introduced the safe, nurturing environment that is foundational to their success is not put at risk. 

There is a time and place for the rapid pace of innovation that has brought success to the tech industry, but by being aware of other models for innovation and selecting the one which best fits the circumstances, schools should be able to adjust to the challenges of the future without compromising learning. 

By Nigel Coutts

Immordino-Yang, M. (2016) Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. 

Raising Mindset Awareness is a Challenging Endeavour

There is great interest in the concept of Growth Mindsets within schools and the principle is being widely applied. In many schools, adoption of the language of Growth Mindsets and a desire to engage with and understand the ideas presented in the writings of Carol Dweck has grown rapidly. The notion that a child’s achievement level across diverse fields can be enhanced by promoting a belief in an incremental model of intelligence is appealing. This has spawned numerous intervention and pedagogical strategies aimed at shaping the individual’s mindset. Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The new psychology of success” has been read by many teachers but perhaps a fewer than the number that claim to have knowledge of her work. In schools, everywhere walls are covered with the word “Yet” to encourage students to adopt the phrase “I can’t do that . . . Yet”. This rapid adoption is echoed amongst our parent body who have been introduced to the theory through parent teacher nights and the wider media. A recent survey of parents asked what do they hope their children to be like when they grow up. A common response was that they should have a growth mindset.

Personally, I have presented ideas about Growth Mindsets at two teach meets and included mention of it in numerous presentations to staff and parents. My emphasis is that lasting movement towards a Growth Mindset is difficult and complex. The particular details of how an individual’s mindset is shaped through feedback, self-reflection, metacognition, external rewards, praise and criticism are interwoven. In practice, we see individuals making progress in some areas but not others and that it is easy to slip back towards a fixed or entity view. It is difficult to shift the messaging of all influences on a child towards a focus on the things that they do rather than the things that the child is or has. Praise for effort in a specific field is easily undone by praise for an attribute such as artistic talent or sporting ability or a general assessment that the child is 'so smart’.

Misunderstandings, oversimplifications and poor application is perhaps a curse confronted by all psychological theories that move into the vocabulary of the mainstream. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is a good example of a theory reduced to a list of learner styles. Many teachers believed the multiple intelligences described by Gardner were the singular preferred learning modality of a student and that identifying a learners preferred mode would allow them to target lessons to their needs. In this oversimplified adoption, the understanding that we all might have multiple-intelligences and that intelligence is best seen as multiple was lost. Growth Mindsets is similarly misunderstood and applied poorly. Teachers may believe that the promotion of a Growth Mindset is facilitated by a focus on positive feedback or a model of feedback that sandwiches criticism between praise. Others will believe that it is a universal attribute, that the individual adopts either a Growth Mindset  (an incremental theory or a Fixed Mindset (an entity theory) and that this applies to all learning or challenge situations. That the presence of an incremental or entity theory is dependent upon the context is easily overlooked. 

In ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking: The Eight Forces we must master to truly transform our schools’ developing a Growth vs. a Fixed Mindset is one of the five expectations that teachers are encouraged to address. In outlining, how this goal may be achieved Ron Ritchhart (2012) outlines eight cultural forces which might be manipulated by the educator and/or school including modeling, language, environment and expectations. The assertion is that only by controlling all eight forces can lasting change be achieved. When looked at in combination this dual perspective of ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘eight cultural forces’ reveal the true complexity involved in bringing about a change in mindset. We should not be surprised that studies are emerging which question the efficacy of programs to develop a growth mindset when many of these programmes aim to deliver a quick-fix solution with a one size fits all approach. Posters and wall displays will have little real impact. Only through consistent efforts backed by a genuine understanding of the factors which influence the individuals mindset in specific contexts are likely to bring a desirable effect. Even with the most carefully designed programme results will vary from one context to another and a global shift to a growth mindset is very unlikely. Perhaps it is enough to hope that our efforts might allow individual learners to identify the mindset they bring to particular situations and armed with this awareness make changes to their behaviours where appropriate. 

An interesting detail within this research is that the supportive nurturing environment typical of primary schools may serve to mask a fixed mindset. The research presented by Blackwell et al. with its focus on the transition to high-school is interesting as it shines a light on elements of the dip in learning commonly seen at this time. If it is indeed the case that it is during this transition that some learners first experience learning situations that reveal a fixed mindset, then schools might look at how they move such challenges downwards into primary school and move the supports offered in Primary school up. It seems critical that an understanding of the benefits of an incremental theory of intelligence are developed early and that students experience opportunities requiring them to overcome adversity while in a safe and familiar environment. 

If our students are not experiencing challenging learning situations, if they do not have opportunities to struggle with learning and to get stuck, where will they learn that they have the capacity to cope with such learning. If we normalise challenging learning and encourage our students to persist when they find new ideas difficult instead of rescuing them with scaffolds and teacher interventions, we build resilience. When we share with our learners the reality that we as adults find learning challenging, that we get stuck and need to try things many times before we master them, we provide our students with the positive models of learning they require most. 

Our efforts to enculturate a Growth Mindset or Mindset Awareness are not wasted but the process needs to be understood as complex and demands a multifaceted action plan if it is to produce results. 

By Nigel Coutts


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78. 246-263,

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. 

Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating cultures of thinking: The eight forces we must truly master to transform our schools. SanFrancisco: Josey-Bass  

A curriculum built on the fundamental questions of our disciplines

As we make plans for how we will engage our students in their learning the decisions we make become fundamental to how they will grow to understand the purposes of learning. How our learners approach the curriculum and the disciplines is fundamental to the outcomes we may achieve for them. One path will set them up to view learning as the acquisition of information the other to see it as a process of asking and exploring questions of significance through the many unique lenses.

Our curriculum is simultaneously diverse, rich and overcrowded. There is a great deal that we need to teach, much that we might want to teach and then many chapters that we are obliged to teach. It is easy to see the curriculum as a collection of independent disciplines, each with its own body of knowledge and each functioning apart from the others. An expert in Science has at their fingertips many scientific facts. The Historian knows many dates and happenings from the past, the Geographer knows the names of all the major landforms. The Mathematician has mastered the four operations and is a whiz with their table facts. The common element for the learner engaging with each discipline is that success comes from the accumulation of the required body of knowledge. 

This approach to knowledge accumulation is the hallmark of traditional educational systems and is the norm of learning for students from the time they enter Kindergarten to the time they exit with their first degree. Even where supposedly progressive approaches such as problem, inquiry or project-based learning are adopted often the focus continues to be upon this accumulation of knowledge. Students in this model don’t ‘do’ science, history, geography etc., they acquire a particular set of facts. There is often little opportunity for students to understand what it is that the disciplines are really about or what it is that an expert in any field does. 

We break this pattern when we shift our approach from one that asks, 'what does a scientist know?’ to one that begins with ‘what questions does a scientist ask?’. When we approach the curriculum and its disciplines in such a manner we begin to see them not as a pool of knowledge to be acquired but as lenses through which to view and understand the world. By providing our students opportunities to explore the most fundamental questions that lie at the heart of the disciplines they study, we allow them to see learning in an entirely new way. 

This is not to suggest a reframing of the curriculum’s dot points as a laundry list of questions such as ‘what is the difference between an acid and a base?’ or ‘who was the first Prime Minister?’. Our goal here is to seek to find and deploy the most fundamental questions that are at the heart of each discipline; the origin questions which define the discipline.

For a Historian the fundamental questions to be explored might be distilled to; ‘What happened and who was involved?', 'When did it happen?’, 'Why did it happen then?’ and ‘What might we learn from this?’. Such a set of fundamental questions encourage the world to be looked at through the eyes of the historian and allow our students to step into the world of a historian. 

A Geographer is likely to begin with a somewhat different set of questions. Luke Doran of Mosman Prep shared the three eloquent and fundamental questions he asks as a Geographer; ‘What is there?’, ‘Why there?’ and ‘Why care?’ to which one could add ‘Who cares?’. When seen through the lens of these questions Geography becomes a tool for understanding the physical world that we occupy and the forces which shape it. A Scientist would likely ask questions like ‘What do I notice?’, ‘What happens when . . .?’, ‘How might I explain what I have noticed?’ and ‘How might I prove my explanation?’. 

When reduced to their most fundamental questions we see that the disciplines have more in common than we might imagine otherwise. Each is about developing explanations for what we observe in the world. Each discipline is a sense-making process with a unique focus on particular parts of the world. Each provides us with an alternate perspective and by exploring the world through multiple lenses we develop a richer more nuanced understanding. The greatest power of an approach that sees the disciplines as a lens for understanding the world comes when we apply multiple lenses to a single data set. When we provide our students opportunities to analyse a concept through the lens of a scientist, and a geographer and a historian we empower them as sense-makers armed with a diverse set of tools. 

Such an approach can be seen within the NSW Science and Technology Syllabus where students are asked to engage in Scientific Thinking. The syllabus describes the actions of the Scientific Thinker as:

'A scientific thinker raises questions and problems, observes and gathers data, draws conclusions based on evidence, tests conclusions, thinks with an open mind and communicates research findings appropriately.' (NESA Science & Technology K-6)

This is a broad approach that separates the act of doing science and using science as a lens for understanding from the knowledge base of the scientist. 

The Science and Technology syllabus additionally invites students to engage in Design, Systems and Computational Thinking with each mode of thinking providing a unique way of understanding the world. While each mode of thinking could be dealt with in splendid isolation as has been the norm with our traditional disciplines, a better approach is to encourage students to apply multiple lenses to the concepts with which they will engage. Students will need to develop the skills and awareness to evaluate and apply the most appropriate lens or lenses and we all need to understand that there are a multitude of perspectives to be explored.

When we see the disciplines and other modes of thinking as lenses for understanding the world we are able to break down the artificial silos that we have created. Once we move beyond a discipline as a discrete knowledge set we are able to see how each discipline brings value to our understanding across diverse contexts and concepts. By acknowledging the role that multiple disciplines might play in informing our understanding we open the door to true interdisciplinary learning. 

Overwhelmed by the constant pace of change

Teaching is undoubtedly a busy profession and one where the end of the to do list seems to be forever located in a galaxy far far away. There is always more to be done and as each item on the list is ticked off, three, four or more seem to have appeared. If we ever do get close to the end, we find ourselves reflecting on what we have achieved and the many ways in which it might be improved. 

We are a profession that is confronting and confronted by change. The overwhelming trend in education is a discussion of how the new work order, technology and rapidly emerging global trends require a complete change in how we educate our young people. At the levels of strategic and operational thinking, schools are meeting the challenges of a wold of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity head-on. Change is the one consistent element and the pace of change ensures there is no time to relax. We are as a beach awash by wave after wave, where every fresh onslaught shifts the sands upon which we are founded. 

The consequence of such a high workload and a never-ending stream of new ideas can be a a feeling that we are constantly overwhelmed. Indeed, the very length of our to do list alone can be overwhelming, and lead to a sense that we cannot cope. We find ourselves engulfed by a sense of paralysis, unable to complete even the simplest of chores and with no mental energy for those which require our best thinking. As our workload increases we come to a point where we begin to become less productive as the mental load of what we are yet to do exceeds our ability to cope. 

This pattern of behaviour, where we become incapacitated by all the new strategies we are yet to implement, is so significant that that has come to be known as 'change paralysis’. It is an important consideration for organisations implementing change programmes and without an awareness of the accumulative impact of multiple change initiatives long term success is unlikely. 

The typical response to this problem is to slow the pace of change. The aim is to spread the change out over a number of years so that each step is gentle and those most directly affected have time to adjust. This can alleviate some of the problems with rapid and continuous change but it introduces a new set of challenges. As the pace of change slows the perceived benefits of it can diminish. It is easy to reflect back on a change endeavour and proclaim that it has, over a number of years, had little impact. Critics will point out that little has been achieved while ignoring that the full influence of the change was only ever to be seen once it was introduced in its entirety. Initiatives which require a whole school shift in thinking and which rely upon exposure to a new way of learning over a number of years are particularly prone to failure when implemented slowly and only ever partially. 

Other difficulties of a slow pace of change include that it almost ensures conditions where change is constant and seemingly never ending. By the time that one change initiative is producing results and gaining acceptance, the next is just beginning. There are no times where change seems to plateau, and an organisation enters a ‘steady state’. Slow change is also much more easily ignored. Change initiatives require a sense of urgency and this is not present when the change is spread out over an extended period of time. If one set out to cook a lobster the accepted method involves plunging the poor beast into boiling water. if the lobster is placed into a pot of cold water which is gradually heated the resultant meal will be of poor quality, assuming that at some point the lobster is not rescued by a guilt-ridden chef. When we adopt a plan for a slow change we do the same and in most instances the pace of change is continually slowed until it quietly passes into memory as yet another failed initiative. 

Schools must be aware of these two divergent factors if they are to rise to the challenge of the future and avoid overwhelming their staff. Present efforts in most case fail to achieve both goals and doing so will require new thinking. Teaching is a profession unlike others. it is a performative task that carries with it an emotional and cognitive load that is the day to day norm in few other professions. it is also a profession where everyone is a sideline expert and about which many have an opinion but where only those who have actually taught truly understand what is involved. It is also the profession that is most clearly placed at the cutting edge of social, cultural and economic change; we are preparing todays children for a tomorrow that not even the best analysts can confidently describe. If we want to weather the storm that is ahead we need to find ways to support those charged with delivering the necessary change. 

By Nigel Coutts

Why engagement matters for learning

I distinctly recall the first time I sat down to teach myself how to build a website. At the time the internet was young and the process of building a website was complicated and demanded a good understanding of how HTML worked. I was used to developing print documents in desktop publishing programs live Microsoft Word and Aldus Pagemaker. Moving from this style of mostly "What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) program to working in code with pages that were constructed from linked text files and images was a complete shift. I didn’t get it and quickly gave up. My goal was to learn some of the basics of web design because I could see that this was the next big thing, but at that time I had no compelling purpose for this skill set. 

A few years later my Curriculum Coordinator asked me to construct a website for our Middle School. I still had little to no idea of what I was doing, but I did now have a clear purpose and a deadline and people who were relying on me to deliver. The learning curve was just as steep. I found some books that helped, invested in some software that made the process easier and I dove in. The first version of the site was very basic but it was a start and I had something that could be tweaked and improved. Each update to the site improved its functionality and taught me new skills. The site evolved from a very plain HTML set of pages, to versions using Tables and then Frames. A year and a bit later the site transitioned to the newly emerging ‘Flash’ platform which allowed for new features and continued my learning journey. The site spent some time living on Apple’s iWeb platform before moving to Wordpress and then Squarespace. Today it is mostly replaced by Google Classroom.

This is not a story about the evolution of the world-wide-web. It is not about an evolutionary process of learning or a desire to engage in life-long learning. It is instead about the importance of purpose and engagement as factors in our learning.

Between my initial failed efforts to learn HTML and my later success, little to nothing had changed about the task or about my ability. The key factor was the clear purpose that was brought to the task. Wanting to learn had not been enough, I needed to need to learn. 

We have all experienced times when we are highly engaged by what we are doing and learning. When we are so involved in a task that time seems to move at an altered pace, challenges are exciting and we become distanced from distractions as we focus entirely on the task at hand. This is what Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi refers to as a state of “Flow”, for me it is a time when I become so engrossed in the task that I forget the cup of coffee I have just made until it has long gone cold. 

"Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz." (Csiksentmihalyi. 1997)

As teachers we want our students to regularly experience “Flow”. We want our classes to be full of moments where the learning is personally purposeful, engaging and meaningful for every learner. Beyond our sense that there is value in building connections between our learners and their learning is a growing body of research that should inform our practice. Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research is particularly significant as it reveals the connections between structures within the brain and the circumstances which are required if we are to learn. There is an inseparable link between emotion and our capacity to learn and as Immordino-Yang shares 'It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.’ (Immordino-Yang 2016 p18) The clear implication of this for education as Immordino-Yang goes on to state is that if we hope to motivate students, produce deep understanding or provide for transfer of learning into real-world skills we must be aware of and “leverage the emotional aspects of learning”.

"Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills. Instead emotions, such as interest, anxiety, frustration, excitement, or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the skill itself.” (Immordino-Yang 2016 p21)

When we apply this thinking to education and the complex and politicised context in which it exists today such beliefs can be somewhat challenging even as there are also increased opportunities to bring highly engaging and purposeful learning into our classrooms. There can be a sense that between the standardised testing and the crowded and highly-prescriptive curriculum there can be little wriggle room and few options to truly personalise the learning experiences we present to our learners. On the other hand the movement towards learner-centred pedagogies, which in the extreme allows the child to design their own curriculum based purely around their interests, might not provide the learner with the breadth of experience and skills they will require. The debate around these two conflicting philosophies on Twitter as may be expected has quickly become polarised. Those on one side argue that we must provide learning opportunities that are engaging to the individual while the other side state there is much that must be learned even if it is not what we are interested in. Dichotomies such as this seem to never serve our needs. 

What is perhaps most interesting to observe in this debate is the energy that goes into arguing for certain pieces of learning while stating that engagement is not important. While the author might describe the content as ‘dry’ or lacking excitement they go onto argue for why it constitutes important learning in language that shows how it is at least personally engaging to them. When we look beyond the false dichotomy we create through this debate we find that there is much common ground and the opportunity to view our approach to engaging our learners in a slightly different way. When we truly understand the purposes of what we are teaching and share this understanding with our students we allow them to see the value in what we are teaching. If we set out to show our students the personal relevance of what they are learning in every situation, we allow for the development of the positive affect required for deep and lasting learning. When we assert that this must be learned because it is on the test and fail to show our students why the learning matters to them we close the door on learning. 

"If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.” (Csiksgentmihalyi. 1997 p128)

Our role as teachers is not to become Ice Cream vendors who embrace the mantra of ‘Find out what people want and give them more of it’. Instead our role is to ensure our students are engaged in meaningful, purposeful learning by helping them understand its personal relevance and why they might want to take the trouble of paying attention to it. 

By Nigel Coutts
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. (2016) Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company. 
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”, Basic Books

Thinking in the Wild - Thinking routines beyond the classroom

One of the highlights of attending the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) was the opportunity to collaborate with group of teachers in the 'Curriculum Kitchen' workshop presented by Ewan McIntosh and Kynan Robinson of NoTosh. I should have known what to expect. Any conversation with Ewan is likely to make you stop and think. NoTosh celebrates questions and is not afraid to ask the sort of difficult questions you would rather turn a blind-eye to. In this instance the post workshop evaluation left participants at this conference with one mightily significant question. 


The ‘Curriculum Kitchen’ workshop uses the structures and roles of a professional kitchen and the process of planning a meal for the restaurant it serves as a metaphor for planning a unit of learning. The ingredients are elements from the required curriculum, the participants are asked to take on roles such as head chef and the conclusion is the presentation of the collaboratively planned unit. We were challenged to form groups with people we did not know and to form groups that were a diverse mix of genders, cultures and languages. I was the sole English speaker in my group but despite the language barrier we rose to the challenge and prepared a series of lessons we were proud to share. 


At the conclusion of the workshop we came back together as one group and discussed the processes we had used to achieve our goals. What we learned had little to do with curriculum development but a great deal to do with how we had approached the challenge of functioning as a collaborative team working to create something new. It was at this stage that Ewan proffered the observation that left us all with this mighty question. 

Despite this being a ‘thinking’ conference, despite us all being advocates for structured and scaffolded models of thinking, not one group had applied any thinking routines, utilised a collaborative planning protocol or talked about applying an inquiry model or design thinking cycle. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about them. It wasn’t that we don’t know how to use them. It wasn’t that we don’t value them. We had all the knowledge we could desire on the how to and the why of a broad set of thinking tools and anyone of these would have enhanced the process, but we did not use any of them. Why was this the case and what does this reveal about our teaching of these methods to our students?

This realisation left us with much to ponder beginning with what is the purpose of our teaching of thinking strategies. Understanding our “why” is an important first step. Clarifying “why” we teach thinking is critical if we are to make the right moves down the track. When you begin using thinking routines and protocols in your class you find that they bring a new depth to the conversations you have with your students. Thinking is hard work and it is a process that can be enhanced by the inclusion of some structure. By requiring students to use a routine you provide them with the structure they need and when used with the right stimulus you are able to both deepen their thinking and make it visible. As the thinking of your students is made visible you gain insights into their understanding and are able to make adjustments to your lessons to target gaps and meet their needs. In this sense thinking routines, protocols and models of inquiry are excellent tools for enhancing student learning of skills and content. If this is our purpose and then we might not mind that a group of thinking experts choose not to use any of these tools, after all they are merely teaching tools and it is the role of the teacher to select the most appropriate tool. 

The trouble is that few of us would argue that thinking routines and the like are merely pedagogical moves to be applied only in the context of a thinking classroom. Our aim is to have our students develop an understanding of the value that these tools bring to their learning, their thinking and their problem solving beyond the walls of the classroom. We would hope that experience with these tools in our classrooms would result in our students adopting the use of these tools independently. Our goal might be to produce life-long learners capable of self-regulating their application of strategies for efficient and effective thinking; but we seemed to be evidence that knowledge of these methods and even valuing them, is not sufficient.

When you analyse a typical classroom it is quickly apparent that the teacher plays the part of the ringmaster. The learning that occurs is for the most part a consequence of the decisions that the teacher makes. To be certain the learner always has the most important role to play in determining the true outcomes that they achieve as consequence of the experience but the context for the learning is set by the decisions made by the teacher. The what and the how of the learning is set by the teacher and students then engage (or not) in the experiences presented to them. In the typical thinking classroom, this extends to the choice of thinking strategies hopefully as a result of the teacher’s identification of the types of thinking required. With an understanding of the thinking they wish to make routine for their students and armed with a selection of thinking routines that will enable this, the teacher invites the students to join them in the process of making meaning. 

What we want is a situation where the students are able to move into the role played by the teacher in the above process. We hope that as a result of regular exposure to this process of learning through the use of thinking routines that our students will be able to self-select the type of thinking required in particular context and then choose a thinking-tool that will meet their needs. If such a process works, we should see this pattern of behavior in adults when problem-solving individually and as adults but the reality is that we don’t. Ask the average person or survey a group of people as they make daily decisions of any scale and they typically do not describe their use of what we may consider a thinking routine. Why might this be?

Is it that thinking routines are relevant to the sort of problem solving and thinking required in the classroom but are not useful in the real world? This is a notion that should seem flawed to teachers who see learning within schools as preparation for so much more than an exit exam. Our aim is to not just fill our students heads with the knowledge they need but to develop in them the dispositions and capabilities they will require to thrive in the world beyond school based learning. We routinely talk about bringing real world learning into our classrooms. From the alternate perspective we can also see how our thinking in this “real world”, the thinking we do as adults leading normal lives can benefit from the application of some thinking routines. Consider the thinking required when making a significant purchase and the factors which determine our ultimate choice. In most cases, we might agree that the application of even a very simple strategy such as a plus/minus chart would at least allow us to see the true benefits of one selection over another, even if our final decision is guided by our hearts. Thinking is after all hard work and we often don’t do it well. 

Group dynamics might have a part to play in the use of thinking routines within self-regulating groups. It is typical to see groups move through stages as they form, storm and norm. In the opening phase group dynamics are shaped by polite interactions, efforts to read the terrain of the group and to understand who fits where. Roles are not clear and there can be a reluctance to impose structure upon the group. If the group is diving straight into the task of understanding a problem the opportunity to apply a thinking routine to this process can be missed and replaced by a form of bumbling ideation where possible solutions are shared and politely discussed in a most unstructured manner. In the classroom, this bumbling disorder is avoided as a result of teacher intervention. We do not typically hand our students a problem, leave them to form groups and come back an hour later to see what solutions might have evolved. Structure of some form is imposed upon the group even if it is quite minimal. 

This points to the need to teach our students not only to value thinking and the use of thinking tools as strategies to enhance the quality of their thinking, but of the need to teach them how to both select thinking routines based on their awareness of the thinking they require and the capacity to integrate these methods into the collaborative process. The learning experience that we had in the ‘Curriculum Kitchen’ is one model for how this sort of learning might be facilitated. The brief we were given was very open. There was some structure imposed but it was minimal and we had scope to make our own ways towards the destination. At the conclusion of the task time was dedicated to reflection on the processes we had used and our teachers played an important role in asking us questions which guided our thinking and helped us develop an understanding of what we had done. In a traditional reading of the workshop model by this stage the lesson was over, in reality it was only now that the learning began. The implication is that when we plan lessons we need to allocate much more time to the process of reflection as it is at this stage of the lesson that we are able to discuss the choices that were made and to evaluate the strategies deployed or ignored. 

Some of our teaching time needs to be dedicated to the task of teaching our students how to collaborate, how to form a group, structure a group, provide leadership for a group and manage the complexities of the groups social dynamics all while achieving the group’s goals and purposes. Doing so requires all of our best teaching moves including modelling, direct instruction, guided and independent practice, with meaningful and transformative assessment that is both external (teacher & peer) and internal (self). Group work is a frequently used strategy in schools but when looked at closely we must question if it is serving purposes other than a division of labour. Collaboration is one of the most commonly referenced 21st Century Skills but successful collaboration is challenging and something that many adults struggle with as evidenced by the large selection of management books and courses which focus on developing the capacity to lead high-perfoming teams. Our students need to learn these skills while at school and then develop the capacity to apply their knowledge when participating in collaborative teams without a teacher providing the external management.


Harvard’s Project Zero asks us to consider a triadic-dispositions where there is the required capacity, the necessary motivation and a sensitivity to the utility of particular set of behaviours. When it comes to strategic-thinking and with that the adoption of thinking moves, our aim needs to be thusly elaborated. Our students need to value the use of thinking strategies, understand when such moves are useful and have the desire to utilise them but this is not enough. Building on from having established a disposition to utilise a thinking strategy they must also have the social capacity to bring these tools into their collaborative circles. Their needs to be a social valuing of thinking and thinking routines as tools to achieve the purpose of the collaborative group. We need to educate not only individuals to value thinking but to develop a collective awareness of the value of our collective application of thinking strategies. 

Edward P Clapp shared his research on ‘Participatory Creativity’ at ICOT. He argues that creativity is not the result of the thinking of the lone genius but a consequence of the thinking of many. Edward encourages us to move from worshiping the individual thinker to an appreciation of the collective intelligence that is revealed when we explore the biography of an idea. While Edward’s work is focused on the participatory nature of creativity, it can be readily applied to thinking in it broadest forms and points us towards an understanding that as all thinking is social we need to be teaching our students to maximise the benefits of their thinking within social groups. This opens the door to a pedagogy that not only recognises, as Vygotsky argues, that learning occurs within social contexts and through the individual’s participation in societies but one that seeks to educate the collective mind. 

By Nigel Coutts

Related - Initial Reflection on ICOT 2018

Read more:

Clapp, E. (2017) Participatory creativity: Introducing access and equity to the creative classroom. New York: Routledge

D. N. Perkins, Eileen Jay, and Shari Tishman (1993) Beyond Abilities: A Dispositional Theory of Thinking Harvard University

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.



The trouble with Twitter

Twitter is a great place for educators to share ideas. It has become my go to place when I am looking for something to read, a new idea or some inspiration. It is a great avenue for sharing practice, asking questions and building a community. 
But . . .
. . . Twitter has some problems and these seem to be growing. To get the most out of Twitter a degree of caution is advised. 

The first challenge facing Twitter is a consequence of what is also the greatest strength of all social media platforms and the internet in general. Twitter gives the average person a voice and bypasses the old gate-keepers of the traditional media world. If you have something to share, Twitter will give you the means to do so and with time and persistence you can build an audience and tell your story to the world. In broad terms this is a good thing. Giving a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard benefits us all. Twitter has shown its value as a powerful tool for social change. 

The trouble with such ease of access is that the filters are removed. Anyone can share anything and the end user is left to assess the reliability of the statements which are made. In many cases, it is obvious that what is being shared is based upon personal experience and as such might not apply to other contexts. In other cases, the claims made are backed by solid research and links allow for further exploration. In some cases, statements are made which contradict what might be revealed by quality research. Opinion, personal philosophy, belief based on limited experience, biases and misinformation abound and is rapidly spread across the twitterverse as it is shared by like-minded individuals; All are spread with the authority of fact. 

The danger is that for some Twitter becomes their sole source of information and one where they curate a list of sources that are in agreement with their world view. Divergent perspectives are tuned out and they find themselves surrounded by voices of agreement. The most effective use of Twitter comes from an embrace and active search for diverse opinions coupled with the inclusion of those who seek to share well-researched perspectives. 

As a community of educators, we should also be seen to build in elements of critical thinking and critique of opinions and ideas. There is a line between questioning the perspectives presented in a tweet and anti-social negativity and trolling. In fear of crossing this line or of becoming involved in a heated online debate many avoid asking difficult questions. If Twitter is to truly serve our needs for a learning community, we need to be able to politely ask questions and offer critique. When we see criticism of our posts as an opportunity to understand a different perspective, to review our thinking and analyse the premises behind our beliefs we open the door to continuous learning. 

The trouble is compounded by the limited length of tweets. While the length of tweets has been increased from 140 characters to 280, there remains little space within this for the subtle nuances of more complicated issues to be explored with the level of detail that they deserve. Quick sound bites become the norm and topics which need to be unpacked are reduced to their absolute minimum.  The reader is left browsing a set of catchy phrases and shallow claims about what does or does not serve the needs of our learners. With little detail, available ideas which contradict one’s existing world view tend to be discarded and the reader is readily immersed in an echo chamber where their personal beliefs are never truly challenged. 

The challenges presented by the brevity of tweets is most evident when complex topics are debated. Our tendency to see the world through a lens of false dichotomies seems to be amplified by the limits of the medium. There is little space for any middle ground and debates quickly dissolve into a heated defense of one perspective over another. In many instances were the two parties to meet in person and discuss the topic at leisure, they would quickly find that they had much in common. It is sadly true however that we have a tendency to focus on our differences rather than our common ground and feel the need to defend our divergent perspective at the expense of discovering that we have much upon which we agree. 

There are so many things that our students need from us as educators. They need to develop a love of learning, they need opportunities to develop their agency, they need to master the fundamental skills and dispositions they will require beyond school. They need to learn how to learn and they need to learn how to thrive socially and emotionally. They need teachers who support their learning and development and they need teachers who get out of the way and let them struggle. They need to be taught and they need time to reflect on what they have learned. They need engaging and exciting learning opportunities and they need to see the purpose in the little steps along the way. All of these things matter and have value.

Whenever we begin to focus on a limited set of what education should provide our leaners, when we argue simplistically for one position over another rather than exploring a more complicated middle ground, we reduce the outcomes we offer our students.
By Nigel Coutts

Building Home-School Connections for Continuous Learning

It is natural as educators that our focus is upon the learning that occurs within our classrooms. We dedicate great volumes of time to the planning and delivery of learning experiences that will see the needs of our learners and that will prepare them for their lives beyond school. Beyond the content we teach are the mindsets, dispositions and competencies that we hope our students will develop and overtime internalise. We hope our students will leave our schools with an awareness of their growth and fixed mindsets, a positive disposition towards thinking, a healthy dose of scepticism, resilience in the face of adversity, a sense of curiosity and the desire to do something with the wonderings they have. 
These are indeed lofty goals, but ones that by striving for ensure our students will have received that 'life-worthy’ education we value so dearly. 
These are also goals that we cannot hope to reach alone. These are goals that can only be achieved through collaboration with all stakeholders. Through the deliberate nourishing of success network around every learner and the most significant piece of this (after the learner) are the learner’s parents. 
Parenting is hard work. It is a role full of delight but one that comes wrapped in challenges. Our children arrive in our lives with no instruction manual and sufficient uniqueness to ensure that what works for one, probably won’t work for the next. We do all that we can to support them as they grow but often times we are not sure what is best. 
Our children grow and develop in a space at the theoretical intersection of the many worlds they inhabit. They learn to 'play the game' on multiple fields, code switching competently as they need to. They learn what is expected of them at home, at school, with their friends and in the wider gaze of the public spaces they move in and out of, all the while trying to make sense of multiple and often divergent messages. 
This is where home-school partnerships can play a vital role. When schools communicate, and share strategies they are using to develop mindsets, dispositions and competencies with parents and when parents adopt these strategies and elements of a metalanguage for learning and thinking, our students are better able to integrate the desirable attributes. 
Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth vs Fixed Mindsets illustrates the benefits of this partnership effectively. At a superficial level the concept is readily understood. We have either a growth mindset, believing we are able to acquire new skills, expand our capabilities and through effort achieve success or we have a fixed mindset believing our ability is fixed and beyond our control; we have what we are born with and that is that. Such a superficial reading of Carol’s work brings with it many dangers. It paints a picture of people with one mindset, and of people with the opposite. It hints that if we focus our thinking on the value of effort to success we will move into a growth mindset and our goals will come easily. 
The reality is that we are all a mix of both fixed and growth and we all move between these mindsets based on how we respond to the context we are in. We also know that while through sending the right messages to students about the processes of thinking, learning, risk taking and of attitudes towards success and failure we can shift their mindset towards growth, we also know it is easier to move them in the opposite direction. We believe that by valuing the processes of learning, the effort given to a task, the risks taken in trying new learning moves we will swing the lever towards a growth mindset and so in schools where this is a focus great effort is given over to this objective. 
But all of this effort is undone if we have not taken the time to bring our parents along for the journey. Our students might exit our classrooms bubbling with enthusiasm generated by the feedback provided for their latest learning success, excited that their teacher noticed the additional care they had taken in editing their writing and their excellent word choices. At home, they are greeted by parents who are equally excited. But the critical point is what occurs next. Will the parents understand the value of praising the process, or will they praise their child for being so clever? Will parents know how to give praise that aligns with the school’s growth mindsets programme and how do we expect them to do so if we have not included them in the conversations leading up to this moment?
With this in mind, I share some strategies which might be of use to parents as they support their children through their learning journeys. The goal is to provide some idea of the strategies and learning moves being made in the learner centred classroom that while perhaps taken for granted by educators, are not typical of the experience parents have had of school and so might be completely foreign. 
Praise Effort, Process, Resilience and Struggle
When you are praising your child give specific, actionable praise around what they have rather than what they might be. Yes, your child is wonderful, amazing and perhaps even smarter than you but knowing these things won’t help them. Hearing that they have made variety of success-oriented choices, demonstrated resilience, taken responsible risks, embraced challenge and shown persistence will encourage them to do more of this in the future. 
The power of Yet.
There are many more things that you can’t do than what you can, but if we have belief in our capacity to grow and learn there is little we cannot accomplish if it is what we truly desire to do. This is where the power of ‘Yet’ comes into play. Add it to those statements you once made about what you cannot do, and you see your potential in a new light and your children are likely to copy you. Don’t say "I can’t do that” say “I can’t solve that YET"
Questioning Strategies
Teachers utilise a broad set of questioning strategies and see the value that comes from using the same language across learning areas and years of learning. These are useful when having a discussion with your child where you are hoping to push them towards deeper thinking. It can be useful to do this as a game. It is definitely important to explain why you are doing this; not because you are questioning their ideas, or that you think they are wrong, but because you want to encourage a deeper level of thinking. Some students initially think you are looking for different thinking; an alternate answer because their first attempt was wrong.

  • WMYST – What Makes You Say That – or What makes you think that?
  • Five Why – Have your child make a claim about a piece of knowledge and then challenge them by asking why (at least five times). It can be great modelling to reverse roles and let your child ask you Why five times. (Maybe don’t try this for the first time with ‘why do I need to help with the dishes’ or as any part of the bedtime routine)

Shift their focus from answers to questions
Instead of asking what did they learn today or what did they get right today, ask 'What questions did they ask today?' or ‘What questions occurred to them?' or What questions did they struggle with today?'. Sharing the questions you asked, found interesting and struggled with can take this even further and is great modelling of life-long learning. Particularly with the questions that they struggled with, don’t rescue them but get excited about the possibility of exploring these together.
That leads on to . . .
Don’t Rescue Your Child
Learning occurs when we are confronted with new ideas for which we do not have a ready-made solution. If we are going to learn what to do when we don’t know what to do, we must have opportunities to spend time in situations where we are struggling with new learning. It is tempting at this point to rescue the child and provide a solution and yet when we do so we rob them of the opportunity to learn. Next time you are confronted by a child struggling with a new piece of learning help them move forward with questions like, ‘How might you explore this idea further?’, ‘Can you look at the challenge from a different perspective?’ or ‘What do you think you know that might help here and what do you think you need to know?’. 


A More Beautiful Question
This is a great website for generating beautiful questions with some great examples to explore. The flow of finding questions is to notice something that could be better and then asking:

  • Why . . .?
  • What if we . . .?
  • How might we . . .?

You can tweak the questions to the situation, maybe ‘How might we explore this . . .?’
Taking time at home to explore great questions developed by your child can be immensely rewarding and can be an excellent bonding opportunity. You might like to start a “Wonder Wall” where all members of the family share the questions they find most interesting. Doing so will send strong messages about the value of questions and curiosity. 
The Understanding Map
This identifies the types of thinking your child is likely to need and suggests thinking routines to support this. Your child's teachers will use tools like this to identify thinking moves they want to see more of from their students and to then identify tools to make their thinking visible. When you adopt these thinking moves you are showing that you value thinking and recognise that it can be enhanced through the deliberate use of thinking routines. 


Nine Apps for Parents
This is a set of strategies for parents to use in supporting a culture of thinking developed by Harvard’s Ron Ritchhart. Don’t be confused by the title, these are practical strategies to apply, not computer/tablet Apps. It includes some of the ideas from above with some nice additions such as giving time to explore and share passions (those of your child and your own) making your thinking visible to your child and naming and noticing the thinking moves being made by all members of the household. 

By Nigel Coutts

Modern Learning with Modern Tools

We are a tool using species. Our use of tools defines us and our survival now and in our past, is dependent upon our capacity to discover, invent and use tools. 

Our use of tools has always been a driver of change and innovation. From earlier times the way that we live has been shaped by the tools that we had at our disposal and the affordances which came with them. 

Once our survival needs were met through our use of tools, once we were able to construct shelters, protect ourselves from the insults of weather, wild beasts and marauding neighbours, our use of tools became connected to our productive capacities. This remains the same today. The farmers of the modern world are expected to be far more productive thanks to the tools at their disposal than were the farmers of the pre-industrial era whose output was limited by the power of their muscles and the basic tools with which they toiled. In every aspect of our lives tools have allowed us to do more in less time and with far greater efficiency than was previously possible. 

The exception to this rule seems to be within certain aspects of learning. While we are more than happy to embrace tools which free us of the burden of physical labour, we are reluctant to do the same with particular aspects of cognitive labour. 

We do have some seemingly magical tools for cognitive work at our disposal today.

For generations, the calculator was the gold standard for making mental work easy. Armed with their pocket calculator even the most challenging of equations would succumb to the calculating capacities of any student and yet today even this mighty tool seems quite ordinary. 

The modern student will tackle the highest realms of mathematics armed with tools like ‘PhotoMath’. This is the sort of tool that seems to defy the laws of what should be possible for anyone born prior to 2007 when the iPhone became a reality. PhotoMath allows its users to point their phone’s camera at a mathematical question, even one hurriedly written on a piece of paper or whiteboard and it will not only return an answer, it will explain how it was achieved. The user sees the step by step process used to solve the equation and it works with all manner of mathematics including the sort of advanced algebra that gives many students of mathematics nightmares. It is calculator and maths tutor in one. 


Before teachers of other domains relax in the belief that they are safe from such technological tools, ‘Socratic’ provides a similar experience across a widening range of disciplines. Socratic overcomes the tedium of having to type text into a search engine, but its real power comes from the artificial intelligence behind it. As it is used by more people and is exposed to more and more questions it will learn how to best respond. Tools like Socratic and PhotoMath become more capable as their user base expands. We are seeing more of these tools emerge as tech giants explore what they can do with enormous data sets and access to massive computing power. Artificial assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Home are all a part of this response. Each use sophisticated voice analysis tools and artificial intelligence to provide immediate access to the information we want. Google Translate serves as another example of this technology. Thanks to machine learning, backed by massive amounts of data and computing power, Google is able to analyse an image of text in one language and convert it to another. The magical touch is that preserves the font and colour of the original text and will even then read the text to you in either the original or translated form.

There has been a distinct shift from the early days of computing which were marked by questions around 'how can we make our processes faster?', to modern times when we are asking 'what can we do with all this computing power?”. 

Tools like ‘PhotoMath’ present educators with a genuine challenge and leave many asking should we allow our students to use tools such as these? There is the concern that if our students have access to these tools they will use them to pass the test, but will they gain the knowledge they require. Further, there is the worry that students will use these tools to gain an unfair advantage on assessments which rank them against other students. Some teachers will see such tools as an easy way out and worry that students will not learn to overcome difficulty and challenge if they are able to use tools that make solving even complex problems easy. 

All of these concerns are valid and deserve consideration. The inescapable reality is that tools like this are only going to become ever more powerful and ever more prolific. Our students will be making use of them and we can only hope to restrict their use during school hours. 

The better response might be to embrace the tools that we have and then understand what learning our students will require so that they can become masters of the tools they have and not their servants. If I am armed with a tool like ‘PhotoMath’ what mathematical knowledge do I require to best utilise its affordances? What questions become reasonably accessible by a student empowered with such a tool? How do I move from being a teacher who asks my students questions to one who requires my students to be problem finders and how do they then use the tools they have, to find answers and then use their wisdom to explain why they are valid? In essence, how might we use tools like ‘PhotoMath’ to move our students beyond the doing of calculations and into the creative and exciting world of mathematical thinking?

By Nigel Coutts

Teacher Agency vs The Collective Voice

With good reason, much is made of learner agency but the concept of teacher agency is important too. If we hope to build a profession in which we are all self-navigating life-long learners, we must acknowledge the role that teacher agency plays. 

Being a teacher is baked into our identity. It becomes a significant part of how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. Sir Ken Robinson has done well from his tale of the dinner guest who is seated next to a teacher. 

"What do you do?" and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, "Oh my God," you know, "Why me?" "My one night out all week.”

The story works because we all know that teacher who never stops being a teacher. My grandmother was a teacher. She went on to be a member of the Retired Teacher’s Association. As a child visits to her house were a little like an extension of the school day defined by sound but caring discipline and always bringing your best manners to the table. Meals were served on time and cleaned away at precisely the right moment. She had stopped working in schools long before she stopped being a teacher, it was in her blood. She has continued to contribute to the teaching profession through the contributions of her children and her grandchildren who have followed in her footsteps and taken up lives in the classroom. 

Our choice of career is at least in part shaped by our understanding of what the role involves. This imagining of what it is like to be a teacher, a scientist, a policeman etc, is a construct of our experience. This brings particular challenges where we wish to change the norms within a profession. Efforts to encourage more girls to pursue STEM pathways are hindered by the scarcity of visible female role models. It is difficult to imagine yourself in a career if you do not see people like yourself in it. For teachers, exposure to the profession, both real and fictional, is abundant and those who choose to enter the profession have much content on which to form their imagining of what the profession will involve.

We have all been to school. We have all had good and not so good teachers. We have watched ‘Dead Poets Society’ ‘Stand and Deliver’ ‘Dangerous Minds’ and ‘To Sir with Love’, and wanted to be ‘that’ teacher. We enter the profession with a belief that we can make a difference in the lives of the children we teach, that we will be the teacher we needed. We imagine that our classroom will be our domain and our stage and in it we will create the ideal learning environment. 

We enter the profession full of agentic ideal. A belief that we have the ability to make choices and direct activity based on our own resourcefulness and enterprise. We see the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence.

And then we are consumed by the vast organisational structures that are modern day education systems. From curriculums, standardised assessments and teaching standards communicated down to us by governments to school wide policies and platforms we see ourselves dissolving from the situation. We feel that our ability to make decisions for our learners is eroded along with our sense of agency. 

Change in schools is particularly challenging to identity and, when it is imposed externally, agency. Where the intended change alters the nature of our pedagogy and fundamentally shifts the relationships between teachers and students, and between teachers and knowledge resistance is more likely. Smollan and Sayers indicate the importance of understanding the socially constructed nature of identity and the potentially negative impact that change can have on this for individuals, 'that change ‘dislodges’ identity and leads to anxiety and grieving’ (Smollan & Sayers. 2009 p439) and that this can result in resistance to change.

How then do we manage these competing pressures? How do we embrace change, accept organisational imperatives and find space for teacher agency?

There are great benefits to the students which arise from a well-designed learning platform. The great things which are the norm in one class become the great things which they experience in every class. The cumulative effects become significant for the learner when they are able to readily transfer their learning skills and dispositions from one context to the next and from one year to the next. Elements of a common vocabulary combined with familiar routines for thinking and learning create a school where transfer and continuity of learning become friction free. The start of year dip is minimised in such a culture. A great example of the benefits of this can be seen in the video below. In it you hear the Year 13 students of Landau Forte College describing their learning journeys. What is clearly shown in this are the benefits the students have arrived from a consistent approach to teaching and learning. The students have from this experience become powerful learners who are able to describe how their school has met their long term needs. 

A well-designed learning environment should evolve and become enacted as a result of every voice within it. Confronted by ever increasing levels of complexity and rapid change schools cannot rely on a single visionary leader. The best solutions will be those developed through the cognitive work of many, each acting with personal agency and with commitment to the development of ideal solutions at an organisational level. Absent from such a model is the solo hero teacher but teacher agency does not have to disappear. Our schools are places where we can have a positive impact but this will occur through our collaborative efforts, our contribution to the collective voce of the profession. 

Schools which give their teachers a voice throughout the planning, implementation and continuous evaluation phases of change and growth, schools which embrace diversity and celebrate the unique perspectives which every member of the learning community contributes should be well placed then need to rely on teacher support of the plans which evolve thusly.
 By Nigel Coutts


Smollan, R & Sayers, J. (2009) Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Change Management, 9:4, 435-457

We've always done it that way

Experience shapes our understanding of the world and our responses to it. Our past influences our decision making and constrains our imaginations of what is and is not possible. Understanding this is a crucial step towards change; a first step towards discovering a better way to do things. Until we understand how our experience is limiting our imaginations we will continue to be restrained by the way things have always been done. 

For educators in particular there are important lessons to be gained by asking questions about the way we have always done things. We have in our histories an experience of being students and this frames our beliefs about what school should and can be like. Consciously and subconsciously we perpetuate models of education that are shaped by our experience even as we see that the changing nature of the world requires new thinking.

Schools are shaped by many forces. Some are a result of considered and strategic thinking, backed by research and aimed at delivering the best outcomes to our students. At their best our pedagogy and our curriculum demonstrate aspects of this considered and deliberate approach. At other times we see the fingerprints of our past experience shaping what we do. We cling to aspects of schooling such as homework in the elementary years even though we know it has little effect. We recycle approaches to literacy and numeracy even when we have seen them fail in the past and despite our knowledge that technology is driving new imperatives. We see that artificial intelligence is coming, understand that the workplace is changing shape and know that our students will live in a world vastly different to that which our current model of schooling was designed to prepare them for when it was first imagined at the dawn of the industrial revolution. 

At a structural level schools are shaped by forces which often have little to do with pedagogy. The daily routine, of bells and lessons, of movement from classroom to classroom, of lunches and recess breaks all timed to the minute, brings constraints in its rigidity. The silos of knowledge which are the disciplines we use to structure our students learning present a world where understanding is neatly divided. These structures make the process of managing a school somewhat easier and may have served our needs well once, but now prove to be obstacles more than supports. We want our students to be problem finders and solvers armed with diverse skills and the capacity to use what they know in new contexts and yet we continue to present learning to them in neat boxes. 

Our experience of school tells us that we forgot much of what we learned and make little use of other parts. We hoe our children will have a different experience of school to that which we had. We sympathise with Mark Twain when states that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” and smile as we read Einstein’s well worn exclamation that "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Despite wanting something better for our students, a focus on deep understanding and life-worthy learning, we struggle to overcome structures for how we assess learning and consequently the learning that we value. We measure what is easily measured even though we know it is not what is most valued in the lives our students are likely to live. 

Our schools shape the future pathways taken by our students. We see this in the post school choices that they make and the elective courses they choose for their final years of study. Exploring the data we have on subject selections and post school pathways reveal gender biases*. We know that fewer girls choose STEM pathways and that boys are more likely to take on high level maths even though there is no evidence of gender differences in an individuals capacity for these subjects. We know that changing this pattern is vital for enhanced equity and we see these patterns reflected in the subject choices of those most impacted by social disadvantaged. We know that research points to connections between our pedagogical moves in these subjects, that an emphasis on rote learning, speed of recall, individualism (as opposed to collaborative learning) and procedural methods (rather than creativity and reasoning) combined with a scarcity of strong role models for those who are not white and male contributes to the inequities. 

We can change this but it will require our very best thinking. We must seek to clarify our purposes and understand deeply what our children most require from their time in school. In determine this we need to look forward to the world they will occupy rather than looking back at the forces, knowledge and beliefs which produced traditional models of schooling. We need to reassess all that we do from the most obvious pillars of our educational systems to the seemingly most insignificant elements. We need to align all that we do, believe and value with our purposes and measure their value against how effectively they drive us towards achieving our goals. 

The difficulty is that systems as old and as entrenched as those which shape schools are difficult to change. It would almost be easier to start afresh with the mindset and attitude of a young start up exploring new frontiers for the very first time without the baggage of our existing systems. And yet doing so ignores that there is much to be valued in our current model. Great teachers are those who build empowering relationships with their learners. Our education system is full of such teachers. Passionate teachers strive to understand their learners and act as role models for them to follow. Quality schools make connections with their communities, with industry, with educational researchers and are already asking the right questions about their purpose and how they might best achieve meaningful goals with and for their students. In countless classrooms and you see students engaged with powerful learning opportunities where they are challenged by choice, are drivers of their learning and are active participants in learning that matters to them now and into their futures. Teachers and school leaders who work within the system they have while gently pushing for change. 

Simon Sinek encourages us to “Start with Why”. His claim is that when we start with a clear understanding of why we do what we do, we are more likely to do it well and to achieve true success. For too long the answer to “Why?” in schools has been “Because that is the way we always do things”. The time for changing this is clearly here, we must always ask “why” and our answer needs to always be linked to the needs of our learners today and their tomorrow. 

By Nigel Coutts

*New South Wales, Australia found in 2001 that 19.7% of boys and 16.8% of girls went on to study a mathematics/science combination in the Higher School Certificate . By 2011 these figures had dropped to 18.6% of boys and 13.8% of girls (Mack & Walsh, 2013, p. 1 p. 8).

Our curious ideas about intelligence

We have some strange ideas about intelligence, many of them are wrong. Some of our ideas can have a damaging effect on the people we label as intelligent. When we look at some of the research behind intelligence we find that our assumptions based on what we were once told about it need to be updated. 
I recall watching the ‘Dog Whisperer’ some years back and gaining an insight into how we send messages to our learners even when we don’t intend to. The host of the show, Cesar Millan was demonstrating how the fear of the dogs owner are transmitted through the lead directly into the pets mind. It was as though the lead was a conduit through which the owner communicated subliminally with their pet. The behaviour that was observed in the dog was a direct consequence of these messages even when they contradicted what the owner said.
Our children are at least as capable of reading the hidden messages we send them as are our beloved four legged friends and when it comes to messages about what intelligence is, who has it and who does not we need to be very careful. 
The most obvious misunderstanding we have around intelligence is that it is a fixed attribute. It is not surprising that many people believe this as it was once accepted wisdom that intelligence was indeed fixed. You were born with it or you were not. We insulted those we considered lacking intelligence by claiming they must have been running late when the brains were handed out. We did not think of intelligence as something that could be improved and enriched through anything we could do. Now we understand that intelligence can be developed. That the brain is surprisingly plastic and can be rewired as a result of how we use it. The idea that intelligence is fixed, that some people are smart and others are not, is one of the messages we have sent our children over the years. 
Intelligence has also been closely associated with particular activities and not with others. Not only do we attribute high intelligence to certain careers, we attribute it to certain disciplines. If you are good at mathematics you must be very smart. If you understand physics you are smarter than a chemist who is smarter than a biologist. If you are an artist you may have a particular talent, but not the sort of smarts that a mathematician has. Now we know that intelligence comes in many different forms, that it is not a singular attribute but a complex mix of capacities. The mathematician, the scientist, the artist all have differing mixes of what might be considered intelligence, a diverse interwoven mix that allows each of them to engage with the world in uniquely intelligent ways.

There are lessons to be learned from Artificial Intelligence. General Artificial Intelligence would require a machine to possess the sort of diverse intellect that is the norm in humans. The form of AI is still a long way from reality, even among top contenders such as the computer (AlphaGo) that is today the world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go. As impressive as AlphaGo might be it is yet to master the full range of mental acts that are expected of a human. What is rapidly emerging from the world of AI are computer, bots and robots that are very good at a specified subset of what we know of as intelligence. Rather than trying to replicate the many things that a human can do AI is being developed to do but a part of what we do and in achieving this shines a light on the many forms of intelligence that contribute to our notion of General Intelligence.
Intelligence is a meaningless attribute if it is viewed independent of behaviour. Forrest Gump got it right when he stated, ‘Stupid is as stupid does’. It was once considered that an intelligence was an attribute purely of the mind, that it could exist as an abstract removed from what the individual would chose to do with it. Today we understand that intelligence is dispositional. This means it is a result of the capacity to act intelligently, the desire to do so an awareness of the need for intelligent behaviour. This concept extends beautifully to the notion of the wise individual. Ready recall of great quantities of knowledge may once have marked an individual as wise. Today we understand that bare knowledge is insufficient, to be smart one must be able to make effective use of what they know. 
On the occasion of Project Zero’s fiftieth birthday, David Perkins asked the question "what does it mean to be smart” and his response showed the errors in the common understanding of what intelligence is. He reminded us that the evolving understanding of the mind shows:

  • Smart as multiple - we are not all smart in the same way nor are we smart in a singular way. There are the smarts we use when we are being creative and these are not the same as the smarts we use when we are being business minded and these are not the same as the ones we use when being social
  • Smart as learnable - that through the development of thinking strategies and the use of scaffolds for our mind we can enhance our smarts
  • Smart as dispositional - that much of what we consider as smart are indeed dispositions and that can be developed or enhanced and that the utility of these dispositions requires not only the capacity for the disposition but the desire to deploy it and a sensitivity to its utility in given circumstances all of which can be learned
  • Smart as performative - It’s not the knowledge, it’s what you do with the knowledge, It’s not knowing a lot it’s how you think with what you know.  

For a long time, we believed that intelligence was linked to fast thinking. The quick answer to the complex question was a sure sign of intelligence. Rapid recall of information was a valuable asset to the game of trivial pursuit and a widely accepted mark of intelligence. The individual who could quickly add three or more large numbers together was a mathematical genius. The connection between speed of thought and intelligence has been communicated to our students both directly and accidentally. It disappointingly still the norm that students are drilled and timed on their 'table facts’ in mathematics classes across the map; even though we know this is the sort of mathematics that the machines will most readily take over when they rise against us.
In ‘Mathematical Mindsets’, Jo Boaler shares the story of Laurent Schwartz. Laurent has become confident in his mathematical capacities and intelligence but this occurred despite his experience of school. As Laurent describes, a focus on speed at school led to him questioning his ability.

I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent. And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid. I worried about this for a long time.
I'm still just as slow… At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn't have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn't really relevant. (Schwartz, 2001)

Laurent was able to move beyond a flawed concept of what intelligence is and is not. Many students do not. They are left believing the myths that they have read about intelligence in the beliefs, values and actions of their teachers. We need to engage our learners in conversations about what intelligence is and what it isn’t. When they understand that it is multiple, learnable, dispositional, performative and varied in speed they have the knowledge they need to see it as an attribute that they can take charge of. 

Speed and intelligence is a complex thing and it is not merely a matter of how rapidly we process information. Brain research shows us that how we move from noticing a sensation via our senses through to developing a suitable response is shaped by many forces. This complexity is revealed in Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ in which he uses the metaphor of two systems to describe our thought processes. Simply put, we have System One that functions very quickly and automatically in response to stimulation. System One is what allows us to survive not just in a dangerous world but in the world of social interactions and complex relationships. System Two is what takes over when System One is unable to respond or when we notice that it is not doing its job very well. Our rapid response System One is phenomenally useful but it has its limitations and this is where our slower thinking System Two is required; yet System Two has its flaws and we need both to thrive. This is very much so an oversimplification of Kahneman’s ideas and those with an interest in this are encouraged to read his book. 

The difficulty is that our deliberate and considered messaging about intelligence is often contradicted by our actions and the pedagogical moves we make. Do we give equal merit to intelligence in all its forms or do we value mathematical or literary intelligence more than the sort of intelligence demonstrated on the sporting field? Do we make cuts to our arts programmes so as to better value the sciences? Do we encourage deep thinking but then administer timed tests? Do we encourage speedy thinking by calling on the students whose hand goes up first? Do we praise correct answers or do we equally acknowledge the students who makes a mistake but demonstrates unique thinking in the process? Only by looking at every aspect of our messaging about intelligence can we hope to transform how our students perceive it. 
By Nigel Coutts

Boaler, J. (2016) Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. Wiley; Kindle Edition. 

Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

Schwartz, L. (2001) A Mathematician Grappling with His Century. Birkhäuser

Want to learn more:

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) New Kinds of Smart: How the Science of Learnable Intelligence is Changing Education. Open University Press

Taking the Time to Think
What does intelligence look like?