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?
 

The Power of Relationship for Positive School Climate

In teaching and for learning relationships are everything.  

This is one of those statements that cannot be overstated, it is true now, it has always been true.  

For our students to learn before all else they must feel that they are in a positive and supportive environment where they are known and cared for. Maslow identified this back in 1943 when he published his well-known hierarchy of needs. At the base of Maslow’s pyramid sit our most fundamental physiological needs, those we require to maintain life. Above these sit our ‘safety’ needs including well-being needs and above these our need for a sense of belonging and love.  

 Source -  Wikipedia  

Source - Wikipedia 

Maslow understood that before we are able to turn our personal capacities towards the pursuit of other goals such as esteem and self-actualisation, before we can engage in learning, we must have our fundamental needs met. Maslow’s hierarchy shows clearly the importance of establishing a safe and supportive environment if learning is to become a possibility.  

In more recent times this environment has become associated with the notion of 'school climate’. A school’s climate according to the NSW Association of Independent Schools (AISNSW), 'is a holistic concept which encompasses four domains: safety, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning, and the school environment.’ These factors together create the conditions within which the learner becomes immersed. By developing an awareness of these factors and by manipulating them to achieve positive impacts schools can establish a climate that is supportive of student success.  

A recent study by the US Department of Education has thrown weight behind our understanding of the importance of school climate.  “The study found that middle schools with higher levels of positive student-reported school climate exhibited higher levels of academic performance; increases in a school’s level of positive student-reported school climate were associated with simultaneous increases in that school’s academic achievement." 

The benefits of a positive school climate are broad and impact both students and teachers. The AISNSW reports positive effects on academic performance, school attendance, emotional health and wellbeing, self-esteem and self-efficacy for students and job satisfaction, resilience and wellbeing for teachers. Indeed, a positive school climate is shown to reduce teacher burnout and increase retention rates, two significant challenges facing the teaching profession.

At the heart of a positive school climate are the relationships we build; those between students and teachers, between students, between teachers and between the school and its community including importantly its parents. These relationships are built on the visible foundations of the school’s mission, vision and values but more importantly they are constructed and sustained by the everyday actions taken at every point of contact between stakeholders. It needs to be understood that the friendly welcome our students receive as they enter the school each day is as significant a factor in their academic growth as any lesson they will ever attend.  

In an environment where the teacher’s role was to deliver knowledge into the memories of the student, the key attribute of the relationship between teacher and student was one of basic trust. The learner needed to trust that the teacher and the knowledge they held was trustworthy. With few competing sources of information, this was an easy relationship to establish and it was maintained by the authority of the teacher, the school and indeed the privileged position of educational institutions.  

In contemporary times a positive school climate built through caring and supportive relationships is perhaps more critical than ever. As the focus of schools moves towards models of learning centred on creativity and critical thinking, when we want students to be the drivers of their learning who take risks and learn from failure, we must establish a school climate where this is achievable. If we want our students to bring their passions into the classrooms, if we hope that they will seek out new challenges and be prepared to learn from failure they must know that they are doing these things within an environment where they are safe.  

All schools will espouse that they aim to create a positive school climate. All teachers will share that they know and care for their students, encourage responsible risk taking, creativity and learning from mistakes. Where this falls down is in the broader mix of messaging systems that are at play. We might encourage risk-taking in our conversation with students, but does our grading system reward it or punish students who tried an alternative path? Do we acknowledge students who tried a new idea and failed or do we only acknowledge first place? Do we claim to care for our students’ emotional needs but focus on the neatness of their uniforms more so than the mere fact that they have arrived at school at all and almost on time? Do we move straight onto the content of our lessons or do we take time for conversation?  Do we stop on our way to the staffroom to check in on a student or are we too busy?

The challenge confronting those hoping to construct a positive school climate (a challenge that applies also for changes to school culture) is that it is shaped by everything we do and every choice we make and it is confounded doubly so by every misstep we make. To craft a truly positive school climate demands our fullest attention to every detail of every relationship we build but the effort is well worth it.  

By Nigel Coutts

Making the best use of our time with Google Forms

Teachers are a busy lot. We are a profession whose workload seems to be forever on the rise and as much as you do, there is always more to be done, more to be learned, new challenges to be surmounted and exciting new opportunities to be explored. For all of this it is important to make the most efficient use of the tools we have at our disposal. 

Often technology in education is seen as a contributor to the challenges faced by teachers. There seems to be a constant stream of new ideas, gizmos and gadgets for us to review and potentially integrate into our students learning, each with its own learning curve and each hinting at changes to our programmes. But alongside this are the technologies which can, if used smartly give time back. 

Google Forms is one such tool. A part of Google’s suite of productivity tools along with Docs, Sheets and Slides, it is a powerful and in most instances, free tool that can save teachers time and frustration. Google Forms will transform how you gather information and in conjunction with a handy ‘Add On' can streamline the process of creating standardised documents.

Schools love paper and electronic forms. We have forms for excursions, incursions, ordering supplies, student referrals, leave forms and all manner of forms required for finance. We gather data in spreadsheets for student tracking, incentive programmes, budgets, and the list goes on and on. Each requires someone filling in tick boxes. adding data into the right field, in the right format and all too often then having someone else re-process that data into an electronic format. Google Forms can streamline this process. 

In essence Forms allows you to create and share an electronic document that the end user completes online by responding to a set of questions with open or closed response options. As the creator of the Form you decide what sort of responses will be available to the user. Options include short answer, paragraph responses, multiple-choice, check boxes, linear scales and more complex matrixes with Tick Boxes or multiple choice options. The beauty of using forms is that you can ensure all of the necessary information is entered by setting questions as required and you can control how the responses are entered. This is particularly important when you want to make use of the data later and depend on having all of the students in Year One listed as ‘Yr1' and not some other arrangement. 

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Setting up the Google Form is not a difficult process. If working in a browser access is either direct using the link forms.google.com or for users of Google Drive through the ‘NEW' items menu and the ‘More' option. Your new Form will be created and you can quickly move on to setting questions and selecting the type of response for each. If you have used Google Docs, the interface will be reasonably familiar. As is the norm, mousing over items will offer a brief description of what the option does. New questions are added using the + button and clicking on the type of question (e.g. Short Answer) presents a drop-down list of possibilities. Multiple Choice works well when you want to give the person the option to select just one possibility from a list, Checkboxes work well when they might need to select more than one possibility. The Multiple Choice Grid and Tick Box Grid allow you to set multiple items each with a range of possible responses. Date and Time options give the user the option of directly entering a date or time or the option of selecting from a calendar. Items can be moved up or down the order by dragging the six-dotted grab handle on each question. 

 Tick Box Grids allow for granular detail to be collected. 

Tick Box Grids allow for granular detail to be collected. 

Once you have your Form set up you will want to make it yours by customising it to suit your organisation. Options are not extensive, but a set of themes is available and you can use images of your own to customise the look and add branding. You can preview the Form at any time by clicking on the Eye icon at the top left and when you are ready you can Send the Form to users via Email, a shareable link, by embedding the form into a website or by social media. You can also set collaborators on the Form itself and these people will be able to edit the questions and see the data gathered by the Form. It is important to note the difference between Collaborators on a Form and people who you Send the Form to complete. 

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A Settings menu allows you to fine tune who has access to the Form, whether changes can be made after submission, who can see responses and aspects of the presentation of the Form. Also, in the Settings you will also find the option to set up Quizzes. With this you can set a Quiz, assign points to each question and set up automatic marking. 

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As respondents complete your Form you will gather their responses in a number of ways. The first is through the responses tab inside Google Forms. You will see a count of the number of responses and can then view those responses either as a Summary with responses grouped by Question or as Individual responses with all of the responses of any single respondent together. A rather well hidden green button on this tab allows you to ‘View Response in Sheets’. When you do this you will be prompted to create a Google Sheet that will be used to store all responses. This Google Sheet allows you to perform all of the typical Spreadsheet functions on your data including sorts, searches and equations. 

The functionality of Google Forms can be expanded with ‘Add Ons’. One particularly handy ‘Add On’ is ‘Form Publisher’. This allows you to use a Google Form to add information to a document that you get to control the look and feel of. Each question in your Form can be used as a field in the document you create using Form Publisher and each time a user completes a Form a new personalised document will be created using the information they enter. You can even set up automatic processes which occur at the completion of a Form such as email alerts and automatic storage of the personalised document as an editable Google Doc and a PDF into a selected Google Drive Folder. 

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The process of setting up Form Publisher is simple, a dialogue box walks you through the initial steps for setting up you workflow and automatically creates a sample document with each of your questions as a field. With this document you can easily make edits as you would to any Google Doc making sure to place the exact text of your questions inside << >> marks (e.g. <<Student Name>> ) wherever you want a response placed in the document. You can return to the From Publisher ‘Add On’ in Google Forms at any time if you need to make changes such as adding or editing an email address to the list of people who receive notifications. 

Used wisely Google Forms and Form Publisher can streamline your processes. Like all tools it is worth experimenting with what can be achieved and making use of the online help from both Google and Form Publisher, in conjunction with forums and your Personal Learning Network makes the process easy.

By Nigel Coutts

Related: Collaborative Learning With Google Docs

Home Delivered vs Home Cooked Learning - Who's in the driver's seat?

Do you like your learning 'home delivered’ or do you prefer it to be 'home cooked’? Is learning something that you are the driver of or is learning something that happens to you? 
 
Our experience of learning shapes many of our beliefs about how it should take place and what it feels like to be a learner. Traditional models of schooling send the message that learning is a product of actions and intentions external to the learner. The teacher teaches, the learner as a consequence learns, or at least that is what we hope happens. The teacher knows the learners needs and presents them with learning experience that will help them achieve the desired learning outcomes; outcomes which are set at an even greater distance from the learner and enshrined in the curriculum.
 
This experience of learning as something that is done to us, delivered to us and managed for us, results in us forming particular attitudes towards learning. Rather than a belief that we can be self-navigating learners, equipped with the skills and dispositions we require, we develop a dependency upon others for our learning. Although we recognise that we have many tools for learning at our disposal, and even though in parts of our lives we might use them (that DIY project in the garden), in other aspects of our lives we feel learning is something that needs to be delivered to us; provided for us. 
 
This dependency on pre-packaged learning impedes our ability to be true life-long learners and creates a false valuing of learning experiences which are outside of our control. This false valuing is reinforced by policies which value registered and accredited courses over and above learning that is self-driven. Teachers who have taken the time to build a Personal Learning Network are likely to report the great value that they find in the connections that they make, the ideas they uncover and shared knowledge they access and contribute to and yet in the broad scheme of things this is valued less than a ‘registered course’. 

"It is better to Know how to Learn,
Than to Know"

Dr. Seuss

As teachers, we hope that our students go on to become life-long learners. We hope that our teaching empowers them to be active problem-finders who are agentic and able to act intelligently with what they know to solve the problems that matter to them and the world they live in. This goal requires that the adults in their lives model to them how we learn, how we problem solve and what we do when we get stuck. Our students routinely see us teach but how often do they get to see us learn?
 
Much is made of building cultures in our workplaces which are tolerant of failure and are open to innovation. In a similar vein there is much to be gained from building a culture which truly values learning. We can do this by sharing our professional puzzles, our wonderings and our questions. When we embrace learning we recognise that gaps in our knowledge should not be hidden but shared such that we may find a path to new understandings. By valuing learning above knowing we also value personal growth and progress and take steps towards a growth mindset. To do this organisations need to create opportunities for their employees to share their learning as a process rather than just a finished product. Many organisations provide opportunities for staff to share what they have recently learned, but fewer opportunities exist for sharing learning that is messy and incomplete. 
 
The corporate world is beginning to recognise the value of a mindset for learning. Increasingly you will hear companies adopt the mantra ‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill’. The idea is simple; skills can be learned but the right hire must come with an attitude that aligns with the corporation’s culture and the capacity and drive to learn. In a fast-paced world, the necessary skills change with the wind, but the underlying attitudes that the best employees possess along with their capacity to ‘learn, un-learn re-learn’ remain valuable over time. 

“The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

 
Home delivered, pre-packed learning can be very nice, but the satisfaction that comes with quality ‘home cooked’ learning is much greater and the benefits of the learning you are personally responsible for will be longer-lasting and nurture your mind. 

Managing the pressure of the 'difficult' class

Sometimes, it seems the class you are teaching is more than you can cope with. 
 
A whole range of factors seem to conspire against you at the start of the year and despite your efforts you don’t feel you are gaining the usual traction with your students. Whether it’s the particular mix of learners, the specific learning needs of some students or the challenging behaviour of others, things are not quite going as planned and you are starting to question your ability as a teacher and maybe even thinking now is the time to switch careers. 
 
The truth is all teachers face times like this. The sad part is that many good teachers decide that the best move for them in these times is to leave the profession; a trend we need to fix. 
 
It is easy to imagine that the mark of a competent teacher is their ability to successfully manage the learning needs of any group of students or the needs of any specific student purely as a result of their individual talents. Such thinking is deeply flawed but is reinforced by organisational structures that isolate teachers and privatise the teaching process. When we become more open and collaborative we see that we are not alone in our struggles to meet the needs of our students. Opportunities to share stories from the classroom, allow us to see that even the teachers we imagine as the most talented and experienced have moments where they are challenged by the learning needs of their students, have trouble connecting with individuals and confront feelings of self-doubt. 
 
Collaborative teams of teachers and specialists are essential and should be the norm in all schools. A collaborative planning team allows teachers to formally discuss the learning needs of their students as individuals and as members of a learning community. A diverse collaborative team will bring new perspectives and understandings of the challenges and offer alternate strategies for meeting the needs of the learners. An effective collaborative team will be supportive of the teacher and ensure that the teacher is well supported. While the ultimate goal of the team is to develop a strategy that serves the needs of the learner, the first task is to ensure the teacher is looked after and knows that the team is supporting their efforts.
 
Membership of the collaborative team will vary depending on the specifics of the situation but should always include the child’s parents or carers. The perspective that the child’s family brings is important to any plans made for the child and their participation in the plans implementation is vital. In schools that achieve the greatest success for their students, close ties will already exist with the parent body and discussions about the learning goals of the school and the part that families can play in supporting these will be the norm. 
 
Access to relevant professional development should be the norm and teachers should be able to tailor their access to this based on the needs of their learners. This professional development should include access to professionals such as child psychologists, occupational therapists and counsellors who have knowledge of the specific circumstances of the child and the context of their learning. Access to such specialists can be expensive and a goal of developing a more equitable education system should include providing access to these professional services for all who require it. 
 
Believing in the growth potential of every student is critical to success. By knowing where our students are with their learning, seeking to understand how they learn and the obstacles that might impede their learning teachers can set achievable goals and map a path towards these. Knowing that the path will take many twists and turns and times progress might seem slow is part of the process. Teachers with a true growth mindset will know that there are aspects of teaching that trigger their fixed mindset and that the same applies for their students. By working and learning together it is possible to see growth as an achievable goal and from that point it becomes possible to make progress in the desired direction. 
 
As individual teachers and as teaching teams it is important that we look after ourselves in addition to looking after the needs of our students. When we find ourselves with a challenging student or class the workload and stress escalates and as it does our capacity to problem solve diminishes. We need to understand that before we can meet the needs of our students we need to meet our personal needs. Taking the personal time to rest, reset and reflect is critical, as is time with our families and time away from thinking about work. Setting clear boundaries, disconnecting from work by turing off email and engaging with our personal interests are habits that make us better teachers. 
 
The teacher that our students need, is the teacher who is willing to do what it takes to meet their needs but who is not willing to sacrifice their own sanity in doing so. Great teachers know their limits and know that the best way to meet the needs of their learners is by building a collaborative team around them. Great teachers seek help, ask for guidance and understand that they cannot know all the answers. They are gentle on themselves and forgiving of mistakes, recognising that every day is a new day with new hope and fresh possibility. 
 
 By Nigel Coutts

A culture of innovation requires trust and resilience

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” 
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Two quotes by Albert Einstein point to the importance of creating a culture within our schools (and organisations) that encourages experimentation, innovation, tinkering and indeed failure. If we are serious about embracing change, exploring new approaches, maximising the possibilities of new technologies, applying lessons from new research and truly seek to prepare our students for a new work order, we must become organisations that encourage learning from failure. 

There is an easy way to avoid mistakes and with the classroom remaining a largely private domain it is easily done. Rather than trying new ideas and sharing the results with your colleagues, maintain the status quo, hide any mistakes and avoid risky situations where your ideas might be challenged. Don’t volunteer for projects, don’t share new strategies and don’t ask for help when you are unsure of what to do. In many organisations, doing so will allow you to avoid critical feedback and ensure you many long and peaceful days. 

The danger in such an approach is that you are locking yourself away from any opportunity for growth and restricting the opportunities available to your students. By not sharing you limit the potential benefits of your innovative ideas to the students you teach and by not asking for help you limit the scope of possible solutions to those you might imagine. What hope will your students have of developing a growth mindset or desire to try new ideas if they never see their teacher doing the same. 

The alternative is to try new ideas, in public, while asking for help and seeking feedback. 

Often your ideas will be criticised. Sometimes they will be misunderstood. Sometimes people will be critical of you. Often your ideas will fail, or be blocked, or ignored. There will be times when you want to hide and there will be times when you want to give up. More importantly there will be times when your idea makes a genuine difference. There will be times when your idea meets the ideas of another and together they grow into something you had never imagined. Through the feedback you receive, from the critical comments, from the questions and by learning from your blunders you will find that your ideas can make a real difference. While it is true that the more ideas you share, the more criticism you face; it is also true that the more ideas you share, the more success you have. 

Being or becoming an innovator within an organisation requires a high-degree of resilience. The innovator must genuinely embrace the belief that ideas are better when they are shared. Innovators know and believe that the surest path to a truly innovative solution is to share that idea early in its development so that it might benefit from the wisdom of many minds. But for this to happen those receiving the idea must adopt a mindset of possibility. Too often our first response to a new idea is to find and share all the reasons why it won’t work or at least won’t work here. Rather than starting with “This won’t work because . . .” we need to flip our thinking and respond “This might work if we . . .”.

If schools and organisations wish to activate the innovators in their mix they must learn to celebrate the mistakes and missteps along the way. In biology the word ‘culture’ is used to describe a medium that promotes growth; a culture medium. When we embrace this idea and apply it to the culture of our schools we can see that the right culture creates the conditions necessary for growth. Innovation will only thrive in a culture where the individual feels safe to try new ideas. 

The challenge for schools in creating a culture that is accepting of failure is that the messaging of this is conveyed as much in the little things as in the public affirmations of a desire to innovate. The tone of an email, the subtle reprimand, the abrupt response to a question that shuts down the conversation are all factors which restrict innovation. Genuine encouragement of innovative ideas will see individuals and teams praised for the ideas that do not work as much as they are praised for the ones that do. 

I feel lucky to work an environment that encourages innovation and I have seen time and time again ideas that I have shared become better and stronger thanks to the input of many minds. Those who do not work in such an environment need to find ways to innovate within their context. Maybe innovations occurs within a small team. Maybe you share your ideas with a few trusted colleagues before sharing them with the whole school. Sometimes you need to try that new idea in private, gathering evidence of its utility as you do before you share it with a wider audience. Making connections with educators in other schools and other countries via social media can provide you with the support and sounding-board your ideas need. It may not be an easy path, and may often seem a lonely one, but your students deserve it, and so do you.

By Nigel Coutts

Starting the year on the right foot

Across Australia students are returning to school. Armed with fresh stationery, new books full of promise, shoes that are not yet comfortable and uniforms washed and ready to go, students will be heading off for the first day of a new year. What do they hope to find and how might we make sure their first day back sets them up for a successful year of learning? 

Above all else our students will want to know that school is a safe place where they can be themselves. Students will not take risks with their learning, engage in creative thinking, adopt a growth mindset or demonstrate grit and determination if they do not feel safe. A safe and welcoming school climate is one that embraces diversity in all its forms, is forgiving of mistakes and missteps, focuses on growth and sees learning as an iterative process. When we take the time to get to know our students, when we show that we want to hear their story, discover their interests and join with them on the learning journey that lies ahead we show our students that they are what matter most. Great teachers know their students well and use that knowledge just as they use their knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy to construct the right culture for every child's learning.

A teacher I worked with for many years would begin the term by writing each member of her class a welcome note. What made this practise special was the great care with which each note was written. As the students arrived in her class at the start of the year and the start of each term they would find their personalised note waiting on their desk. Each note was carefully crafted to show that the child was known and that their teacher was happy to have them as a member of her class. The notes shared with the child their teacher’s hopes for them in the weeks and months that lay ahead and her confidence in their ability to handle the challenges they would encounter. With this strong foundation, the first hours of the school year were dedicated to building connections and celebrating the rich diversity that the students bring to the class as a result of their backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses. The time spent in these opening hours established a class that put empathy and compassion before all else. 

The start of the year is the perfect time to establish a culture of thinking in our classrooms. When we value thinking, make time for it to occur, ask open ended questions that permit it and when we set the clear expectation that thinking is essential in our classrooms we build a culture that advances learning. Many teachers start the year with stories of holiday adventures but fewer begin with stories of holiday thinking and learning. This can be the perfect opportunity to model your thinking as a teacher and as a life-long learner. By sharing with our students, the learning, problem solving, thinking and wondering we engage with we become the models of life-long learning they need. 

“What makes you say that?” is a powerful question and one of the Ten Things that Ron Ritchhart recommends we say to our students every day. It can be a confronting question and some learners who have not been exposed to it may see it as negative feedback. It is worth explaining to the class early on that “What makes you say that?”  (or the abbreviated WMYST) is a question you will ask often not because their response is flawed but because you value the thinking that led to it. WMYST is one way to take your students beyond right and wrong answers and to move the routine of the classroom away from what Dylan Wiliam calls “ping pong” questioning where the teacher asks a question, a student answers and the pattern repeats. WMYST opens up a richer dialogue where there are multiple perspectives and students are expected to reason with evidence. Establishing an expectation that students will articulate the thinking behind their responses early on brings the advantage that before long students will automatically extend their responses with the addition “and what makes me say that is . . .”. 

This is also the time to set up the conditions required to enable a “growth mindset”. Being clear from day one that this year will be full of challenges and that students will have many times when they do not immediately achieve success. Failure will be a part of their learning and is a necessary requirement for true personal growth. If we reimagine failure as a part of the learning process, as a way of finding out what doesn’t work and of exploring just beyond our personal limit, it stops being a barrier and is transformed as a hurdle on the road to success. Building on this, teachers need to be clear that they value personal growth more than right answers or high test scores. The students who take responsible risks, challenge themselves, look for what they can learn from every experience and who want to be shown where they might improve are the ones who will achieve the most. 

Our recently appointed Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons captured many of these ideas beautifully in her acceptance speech, words that will undoubtedly be shared by many teachers at the start of this year. "I’ve really lived by four mantras - do what is hard, place high expectations on yourself, take risks and do something that matters” Now is the time for us to establish a culture of learning in our classrooms that allow our students to do the same. The little things we do now, the time we spend building our classroom culture, sets us up for the great year of learning we all hope for. 

By Nigel Coutts

10 Things to say to your students everyday by Ron Ritchhart

Developing and Maintaining a Growth Mindset

 

Becoming Learners: Making time for OUR Learning

At the heart of all that we do as teachers lies the act of learning. Our hope is that our actions inspire our students to engage in a process that results in their acquisition of new knowledge, mastery of new skills and the development of capacities and dispositions which will prepare them for life beyond our classrooms. Increasingly our focus is on developing the skills and dispositions our students require to become life-long learners. We recognise that in a rapidly changing world, the capacity to take charge of your personal learning journey, to become self-navigating learners is essential. 
 
"The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. (Ryan & Deci. 2000)
 
The challenge for teachers is to recognise the value of their personal learning for themselves, for their schools as learning organisations and for their students. Setting aside time for regular personal learning is vital for our professional growth. It is something that some of our most successful entrepreneurs recognise. Michael Simmons has researched the practices of people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. He found that each of these people can attribute some of their ongoing success to their regular engagement with deliberate learning. Michael refers to this focused, consistent pattern of learning as the “five hour rule” in which individuals dedicate at least an hour of each working day to their personal learning. 
 
For busy teachers finding five hour each week to focus on our learning is a challenge, after all we have up to thirty learners in our classes who require our attention and every day it seems that our to do list expands. To change this, we need to change our thinking and understand that the time we spend on our personal learning is time that will ultimately enhance and enrich the learning environment we provide our students. This is a strategic thinking move that takes us away from what Stephen Covey refers to as “Fire-fighting” where our day is consumed with items which are important and urgent or “Distractions" which demand our attention but are ultimately not-important for our strategic direction. By deliberate action we are able to set aside time in our schedule for the important task of developing our own capacities. 
 
An easy way to start a learning journey is to set aside time for personal reading. There is an ever-expanding selection of books directly relevant to our role as teachers and I have shared such lists previously. If our goal is to expand our thinking then there is great value in exploring ideas outside of the immediate field of teaching and learning.
 
With this goal in mind here is a short list of books from outside of the field of education which are bound to get you thinking. 
 
Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d'Ancona
 
In this book, British journalist Matthew d’Ancona presents the argument that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ era where we are accepting and tolerant of lies and reluctant to accept the wisdom of experts. It is a book that might help you understand the current political climate and one that will encourage you to re-think how we prepare our students to be sceptical analysers of information and opinion. This is a book you will want to share and one you will soon be citing in conversations. 
 
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
 
We are a society that celebrates extroversion and outward displays of confidence and flamboyance but in doing so we ignore and devalue the strength of our introverts. In the classroom, our introverts go easily unnoticed. They consume less of our time and in class conversations seem to have less to contribute than their more extroverted peers. When you read “Quiet” your assumptions about introverts will be challenged and you will see the introverted people in your life through a new lens. For those who are introverts this book will help you better understand your strengths and help you handle life in a world that seems to focus on extroversion. 
 
 
Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by Simon Sinek
 
With his best-selling book “Start with Why” Simon Sinek started a movement committed to understanding why we do what we do. In this new book Simon and his team share the strategies they have used as they help individuals and teams find their why. If you are a fan of Simon Sinek’s ideas and are looking for your why, this book is a must read. 
 
Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz
 
Gene Kranz is one of those amazing individuals who has played a critical role behind the scenes of some of the defining moments of modern times. For anyone with an interest in engineering, science, space exploration or who grew up marvelling at the adventures of astronauts this book is a must-read. Gene Kranz is perhaps best known for the role he played in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts as depicted in the Ron Howard film where Gene was portrayed by Ed Harris. Gene tells the story of NASA through the eyes of insider beginning in the early days of the Mercury to flights beyond the Apollo programme. An inspiring read. 
 
Introducing Chaos: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar, Iwona Abrams
 
Chaos theory is one of those ideas that we may have all heard of but few of us truly understand. In this book, the authors provide a gentle introduction to the field of chaos theory through a mix of accessible text and supporting images. If you feel that things are increasingly becoming complex and characterised by times of chaotic change, this book is the place to start an exploration of what chaos theory has to offer. A book full of insights. 
 
and for something completely different . . 
 
507 Mechanical Movements: Mechanisms and Devices by Henry T. Brown
 
This is a delightful book and one that anyone with an interest in engineering and how things work will treasure. It is full of images of simple and relatively complex mechanical arrangements. The sort of book that would have been an essential reference items for engineers at the dawn of the 20th Century when it was originally published. If you are exploring maker centred learning this book is bound to provide fresh ideas and could inspire a novel solution to a mechanical problem. 
 

By Nigel Coutts

 

Related:

Five Great Reads

Good Reads for Great Assessment

Holiday Reading List

Suggested Readings to Inspire Teaching 

 

Taking the time to think

Time is the most precious of resources. 

It seems that we never have enough of it and the result is a feeling of constant pressure to do things quickly. As a result, we fall into a pattern of making quick decisions, with incomplete information and then proceed to take hasty action and seek short cuts. Our busy lives, the business of those around us, the schedules we set ourselves and the constant stream of distractions and interruptions ensure we have very little time to do things well and we never seem to get things done. 

"Could it be though that the disruptive, 24/ 7, multi-channel communications we value so much are actually eroding our ability to think clearly, creatively and expansively?” (Lewis, 2016 p1)

Against this trend towards doing more, in less time and at a faster pace is a trend towards slowing down, taking time and giving our minds time to catch up. 

Once we realise that as described by Chris Lewis we are moving too fast to think, we can start looking for an alternate course of action. The obvious answer is to slow down, to pause, switch off and take the time we need to reset but doing this requires deliberate action. We begin the process by recognising that taking our time, slowing down and being deliberate in the processes of thinking is a pathway towards becoming more productive, more creative and more attuned to the world around us. In what seems like a contradiction in terms, the best strategy for coping with the rapid pace of our lives is not to speed up but to slow down. 

 Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

In “Slow Looking” by Shari Tishman the reader finds an approach to slowing doing and taking the time needed to appreciate the finer details in the world around us. 

"Slow looking is a healthy response to complexity because it creates a space for the multiple dimensions of things to be perceived and appreciated. But it is a response that, while rooted in natural instinct, requires intention to sustain."

For educators, the practice of slow looking will align well with strategies from the Visible Thinking movement. If you have used strategies such as “Looking Ten Times Two” or “Look and Look Again” you have experienced slow looking. By deploying strategies which require us to switch modes and adopt a more contemplative stance backed by deliberate efforts to notice things on multiple levels, we open our minds to new possibilities. When you use these strategies with your class you will notice a new depth of thinking emerge from your students. The initial conversation may well disappoint. Surface level thinking and seeing is ingrained and takes time and persistence to overcome. As the students begin to look more closely, to see more detail and notice more of the stimulus they are engaging with a change emerges. Gradually the students embrace the opportunity that slow looking offers. 

 The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

"The Red Tree" by Shaun Tan is a beautiful piece of creative work by a master of the picture book genre. Each page has multiple layers of detail and meaning. It is a book that deserves time and slow looking. In a unit aimed at Year Six students we invite students to immerse themselves in this text. We begin the exploration of selected pages using the slow looking strategy of “Looking Ten Times Two”. In this strategy students are invited to look at an image quietly for at least thirty seconds allowing their eyes to wander before they stop and list ten words or phrases about any aspect of the image. The process then repeats and can indeed repeat again. With each new looking more detail emerges. The students deliberately look for details they did not notice at the first looking. After two rounds of slow looking we invite the students to share their observations. As each student shares their notes, fresh ideas emerge and the discussion takes on a life of its own. Soon students are not just discussing what they saw in the image but are asking questions about the artist’s choices, the meaning of the image and their personal take-aways. 

The strategies of slow looking are not restricted to the visual. Consider looking as a synonym for perceiving and you see its potential across multiple disciplines. Tishman provides numerous examples of “slow looking” in disciplines away from those most immediately associated with the visual and through senses other than our eyes. Consider the place of “slow looking” in science as an essential strategy for noticing what is taking place in an experiment or field observation. In music “slow looking” will allow the listener to notice subtle nuances in a piece and in literature “slow looking” encourages the reader to enjoy the language moves made by the author while the practice of slow looking is a valuable tool for the author to employ as they build descriptions. 

'Slow Looking' is a highly recommended strategy and those looking to implement this in their classrooms or in their own lives should begin by reading Tishman’s book. 

By Nigel Coutts

 

Lewis, C. (2016) Too fast to think: How to reclaim your creativity in a hyper-connected work culture. Kogan Page

Tan, S. (2001) The Red Tree. Hachette; Australia

Tishman, S. (2018) Slow Looking: The art and practice of learning through observation. Routledge; New York

Related:

Banishing The Culture of Busyness

Making time for quiet contemplation

Time- The Finite Resource

Exploring the Changing Social Contexts of Learning

Contemporary learning environments might be best understood when viewed as a complex mix of environments and overlapping social networks. Learners fluidly move between social networks and their learning is influenced by their participation within and across these physical and virtual networks. Understanding how mobile, global and virtual social networks influence our interpretation of socio-cultural theories of learning might allow us to better understand the interplay of settings and contexts within which learning occurs and in doing so better understand how learning may be facilitated.

The socio-cultural perspective on education has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and is an approach which considers the individual and their interactions with the social environment as central to understanding the processes of learning. Learning is said to be that which occurs through interaction between the individual, and all that their biology brings to the table and the social context in which learning occurs. Such an approach shifts our thinking about learning and development as processes contained and constrained within the individual’s biology to a more diverse understanding that incorporates the social context within which all learning is seen to occur. For educators, this approach encourages us to look at the learning environment and the social context in which the learning we design for our students occurs and 'presents a fuller and more accurate picture of children’s learning and development.' (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012 p126) Sociocultural, and the in some ways related social-cognitive approaches build upon earlier research that focused on the individual as the unit of development but seek to explain the differences which were observed across groups and contexts which could not be explained without a wider frame of reference. 

By expanding the frame of reference to include the social context within which learning and development occurs a more complex image emerges of the interactions and processes which are at play. Vygotsky's (1978) research shows how interactions between the child and their social environment enables learning. He explores the gap between what a child can do now independently and that they can do with assistance. Termed the 'Zone of Proximal Development’(ZPD), this is the gap into which teachers hope to move their students (Vygotsky, 1978). Teaching strategies such as formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998) seek to identify where the ZPD is for students and then provide appropriate learning situations which scaffold student’s growth through this zone. Effective teaching will provide a context that allows students to achieve success on learning initially pitched within this zone with guidance while moving towards internalisation of new learning evidenced by success when the scaffolds are removed. It is with this process in mind that we develop teaching programmes and curriculums.

Given the multitude frames which might be used to inform our understanding of what culture is, (Jary & Jary, 1991) how it is constructed and how it shapes and is shaped by interactions with individuals and groups it unsurprising that there are multiple perspectives upon the nature of socio-cultural learning. This complexity is expanded when comparisons are made between socio-cultural perspectives and social-cognitive perspectives are considered. Emerging from the work of Albert Bandura (1977) social-cognitive theories like socio-cultural approaches are concerned with the learning that occurs within societies and the cross-cultural differences which such perspectives reveal. 'In contrast, social cognitive researchers have devoted considerable attention to the role of social variables in learning, how motivational processes affect learning, and how social cognitive principles can be best applied to enhance students’ learning from instruction.’ (Schunk, 2012 p117) A further differentiator is evident in the significance given to vicarious learning or learning purely through observation of others that is present in social-cognitive theory but is not evident in socio-cultural theories which emphasise translation of observations of others into action or learning by imitation of the observed behaviours. Social-cognitivists would show that learning can be acquired without the imitation phase. 

For teachers, social-cognitivist approaches shine a light on the factors which result in motivation towards learning. Learning is said to be enhanced when individuals have positive self-efficacy for learning (Bandura 1977). Motivational theories such as self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and attribution theory (Weiner, 2004) point to factors such as autonomy, purpose and mastery (Ryan & Deci) and locus of control (Weiner - internal/external stable/unstable controllable/uncontrollable) as key factors which influence engagement and perceptions of success. In social-cognitive theory these factors are described as acting upon the individual through changes in levels of self-efficacy. When social aspects of learning are accounted for the provision of a safe, supportive and nurturing learning environment is broadly considered to be significant (Tirri, 2011)(Marzano & Pickering, 1997). The complexity of social environments within which learning occurs presents challenges to educators looking to manage the environment in which learning occurs. Students are less likely to engage with challenging learning in settings where they feel unsafe or believe that their attempts to engage are likely to be judged negatively or where the rewards available are low. (Atkinson, 1957) (Dweck & Legget, 1988) (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). 

A shifting emphasis on what is valued as the outcome of formal education places greater emphasis on the capacity of individuals to be creative collaborators. In ‘Participatory Creativity’, Edward Clapp (2017) details the importance of collaborations between individuals in a form of collective agency derived from the work of Bandura. Collective agency acknowledge the role of the individual within efforts of a greater collective. Informed by this perspective and Cskiszentmihalyi’s view of creativity as a product of social systems, Clapp builds a model of creativity that results from the collective efforts of society and focuses on the processes through which ideas evolve rather than a more traditional view which attribution of a product to an individual. Creativity in such a model is like learning in socio-cultural perspectives a social phenomenon.

Significant differences in the socio-cultural setting within which the individual experiences learning can be shown to account for varied outcomes. An example of this can be seen in the exposure to language which occurs in different settings. Hart & Risely (2003) show that a five-year-old child growing up in a home with parents categorised as professionals would have been exposed to 45 million words. By contrast a child growing up in a working-class family would have been exposed to 26 million words and only 13 million if growing up in a lower-class family. This gap in exposure must be seen as more significant than a deficit in vocabulary within a socio-cultural perspective that emphasises the development of language as a critical component for development in general. According to Vygotsky, children learn to use language regulate their psychological functions (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and language is an essential tool in the scaffolding and modelling of learning that occurs both within schools and other environments in which learners learn. This gap in exposure presents significant equity challenges for educational systems.

Traditionally the socio-cultural setting in which learning and development occurs has been defined by the physical settings in which the learner is situated and the culture that is attached to that. Relationships between the individual and their immediate family play an important role in the early years of learning, as the child grows the social context in which they learn widens and peers, teachers and the wider community begin to play a part. As the child interacts with a growing number of social contexts they are able to draw upon an expanding set of models and observations as they learn to regulate their behaviour and adopt (and modify) the cultural norms required for adult life (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012). In more recent times this social context has become increasingly difficult to define. 

Through a variety of factors, such as globalisation, increased mobility and technology enabled networks, the individual is increasingly found to exist simultaneously across multiple cultures and societies (Leander, Phillips & Taylor, 2010). These multiple contexts and cultures bring to the learner new challenges and require learning of multiple norms along with the pressure to activate the appropriate norms for each context.

The once clear boundaries of the social context of learning and development is increasingly blurred and stretched by technologies and networks. In seeking to understand how this space influences learning and development it is necessary to consider the individual, the interacting social networks (physical and virtual) and the technology as agents which influence development. At best the experienced reality is ‘complicated’ (Boyd, 2014) as the individual within the virtual world is able to fluidly shape and reshape both identity and context. 'When teens engage with networked media, they’re trying to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. In doing so, they begin to understand how people relate to one another and how information flows between people.' (Boyd, 2014 p92) The blurring of social contexts further complicates the learning environment experienced by young people when it is recognised that they spend much of their time living within a culture that the adults in their world know little about. The norms, language, symbols, signs and meanings of the virtual worlds may be borrowed or appropriated from the physical world but are often wildly misinterpreted when decontextualised. Further still access to resources, knowledge and tools derived from technologies and their networked lives are viewed with suspicion in many traditional learning environments thus bringing artificial barriers to learning and de-contextualising the skills learned in school from those valued in the ‘real world’. 

From the research of Vygotsky, Bandura and others across socio-cultural and socio-cognitive perspectives we have been provided with a theoretical tool kit with which to better understand the interplay of the individual, society and culture. As we move further into an age dominated by technology and networks it is incumbent on all those with an interest in learning and development to look at the interplay of forces which act upon the individual. By seeking to understand the influences that physical and virtual contexts have on learning we can begin to imagine a model of education which makes best use of the diverse environments in which our young people are immersed.

By Nigel Coutts

Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998), Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London: School of Education.

Boyd, D. (2014) It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Csiksgentmihalyi, M. (2013) Flow: The psychology of happiness’ and creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial. 

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

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.

Göncü, A., & Gauvain, M. (2012). Sociocultural approaches to educational psychology: theory, research, andapplication. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 125-154.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator 27(1), 4– 9.

Jary, D., & Jary, J. (1991) Collins dictionary of sociology; second edition. Glasgow: Harper Collins.

Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2009) Dimensions of Learning: Trainers manual 2nd Edition. USA: ASCD Publications.

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.

Schunk, D. (2012). Social cognitive theory. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 101 -123.

Tirri, K. (2011) Holistic school pedagogy and values: Finnish teachers’ and students’ perspectives. International Journal of Educational Research 50 pp159-195

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, Trans. & Ed., V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1934)

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68–81

 

Inquiry vs Direct Instruction - The Great Debate and How it Went Wrong

There is a debate taking place in the world of education. It is not a new debate but recently it has gathered new energy and the boundary between polite discussion of opposing views and hostility has been stretched. The debate is that between those who are advocates of inquiry based learning and those who believe direct instruction produces the best outcomes.
 
Like most conversations which occur within the public sphere of the online social media world, the debate has quickly devolved into a dichotomous debate where each side seeks to win points at the expense of the other. Humans have a natural tendency towards tribes, as biologist Edward Wilson writes "The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct.” It is a characteristic that may have once served us well but in modern times it focuses our attention on what makes us different rather than helping us to find a common ground. In debating topics like direct instruction vs inquiry based learning our tendency to form tribes causes us to drift from a rational position to a more extreme and one sided view.
 
There is in this debate a middle ground. Claxton and Lucas deal with this debate and the reality that most educators fall somewhere between the two extremes in their book Educating Ruby. They place Trads (traditionalists focused on knowledge transfer) and Roms (romantics who feel children learn by osmosis) at the extremes of the educational spectrum and Mods (Moderates) in the middle. "Almost everyone who works in education is a Mod. But because Mods prefer to tinker quietly than to bang big drums, it is easy to underestimate how many there are” (Claxton & Lucas, 2015)

The middle ground between Inquiry and Direct Instruction is that place where we take a little from option A and a little from option B. Sometimes we go with direct instruction and at others we go with an inquiry approach. This leads to models where children are taught the supposed fundamentals of a discipline or topic and then allowed to engage in some inquiry. Sometimes this model works, sometimes it misses the point. Often the inquiry component is redundant by the time students get to it, sometimes the direct instruction is an opportunity to lecture at students, sometimes the students are told what they need to know but are not taught how to make effective use of it.
 
Mixed models like this and indeed the debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems to largely miss the point. Somewhere in the posturing and flag waving we lose sight of what we are indeed arguing for. Maybe we were never quite sure what our argument was. Simon Sinek (2011) claims very few people understand their “why”. The debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems like a good example of this.
 
Contemporary advocates of Inquiry are for the most part all hung up about what children need to learn to succeed in a changing post knowledge world. The process of learning to learn and conduct meaningful inquiry, to find and solve problems is seen as central to the modern curriculum. While the origins of inquiry models might lie with a methodology of allowing students to uncover the knowledge base of the curriculum this is less the case in modern times. When we shift inquiry away from being a pedagogical method for teaching content, to a valuing of particular skills we see that Inquiry Skills and Dispositions are curriculum elements; the what students need to learn rather than the how they learn it.
 
But advocates of inquiry get caught up in a debate with advocates of direct instruction about the methods of teaching; the pedagogy. Advocating for the importance of Inquiry does not mean that one abandons direct instruction but that the curriculum is a skills based curriculum that teaches inquiry skills through and alongside other content. What a valuing of Inquiry, Problem Solving, Problem Finding, Project Management etc. does not require is an abandonment of direct instruction, only a rethinking of some of the skills we focus on. If we value, the development of inquiry we spend less time on methods that facilitate memorisation of content.
 
Direct Instruction is about the pedagogy but it gets caught up in a debate about the curriculum. Advocates of direct instruction claim it is the best method for scaffolding the development of student skills and knowledge, but then focus their energy debating the sort of content that should be directly taught. Advocating for direct instruction should not mean that one is committed to teaching basic skills and knowledge. Direct instruction does not preclude teaching students how to find problems, solve problems, act in creative ways, collaborate with others, and take charge of their own learning.
 
Advocates of Direct Instruction should be able to teach methods, skills and dispositions required for inquiry and advocates of inquiry should value scaffolding students as they learn the skills of inquiry. Indeed, as Claxton and Lucas state most teachers do exactly these things.
 
Where the debate goes very wrong is seen if you consider it from the perspective of questions like ‘what is the intended outcome of learning?’ and ‘what do our students most need from their time in school?’. They need to learn how to conduct inquiry, to be problem solvers and finders. They need to be able to communicate their learning and learn with and from others. They need to be able to critically evaluate information and ideas. They need to be taught how to do these things. They need to be guided through the process. They need to see how experts approach these processes. They need opportunities to practise these skills with appropriate levels of support and scaffolding. They need to be given tools to use and be shown how and when to use them.
 
The debate about inquiry and direct instruction does not serve our students well. It is a distraction from conversations which are more important and the sooner we move past this and focus our attention on how we best prepare our students to thrive in a world that values life-long learning the better.

By Nigel Coutts


Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Wales; Crown House Publishing

Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London

Why humans, like ants, need a tribe. by E. O. Wilson - http://www.newsweek.com/biologist-eo-wilson-why-humans-ants-need-tribe-64005

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Finding a new paradise for education in times of chaos

Sugata Mitra describes learning as an edge of chaos phenomenon, a concept that seems to fit so nicely with the very idea of learning as a process for deriving a new sense of order out of disorder. The chaos and complexity that is inherent in educational systems (schools in particular) is inescapable.
 
Through any lens schools are complex places. A melting pot of human, social, political, economic, technological, physical and philosophical tensions. At once the stronghold of our cultural traditions and facilitators of our future wellbeing, schools serve as pillars of stability constructed at the event horizon between our now and our tomorrow. Perhaps at this point in time more than ever is this tension between the role that schools play in indoctrinating our youth into the ways of society at odds with the imperative to prepare them for their futures.
 
Sardar describes these as “postnormal times”. "Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future.” (Sardar, 2010) At the edge of chaos schools confront the pressure to pass down the knowledge of this past that we have increasingly left behind and cannot return to, while preparing our learners for a future we can hardly imagine.
 
But this contradiction in purpose should not cause despair even while we come to understand its implications. As educators, we are in the business of helping individuals and even whole societies of them to confront and adapt to change. When we empower our students to step into the role of learners, as we shape their dispositions for learning and as we take their understanding of their world to the edge of chaos and beyond, we prepare them for a world of complexity, uncertainty and change.
 
When we value the process of learning and recognise that the capacity to learn and relearn is our most certain pathway to success in a world of uncertainty, we begin to imagine a future that is a paradise for education. Freed by technology from the need to be societies' dispensers of information, educators can focus their attention on the skills and dispositions of learning. With vast fields of knowledge as our playgrounds we are able to instill our learners with a love of learning and the skills and mindsets they require to be powerful life-long learners.
 
Learning and creativity are endeavours which should be understood as closely connected. Creating is placed at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning with good reason. Creativity might be seen as learning in its purest form, where the learner moves beyond what is known and explores new territory. Creativity is what allows us to take learning beyond the edge of chaos and is required if we are to bring any sense of order to the complex and changing world we confront.
 
Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi describes how the creative process is stirred into existence. "The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere or a task to be accomplished, perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict a tension, a need to be satisfied.” The volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of the postnormal overflows with opportunities for creativity. The challenge for schools is to reimagine learning as a creative endeavour. To scaffold the processes required for intelligent action, to train our students to maximise their cognitive tools and to provide a strong foundation of knowledge and skills upon which they can innovate.
 
When we change our thinking away from learning as a process of accumulation and see it as one of creativity, we are able to shift the focus of our efforts and provide opportunities that require our students to blissfully think and act with what they know at the edge of chaos.
 
 By Nigel Coutts

Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi (2013) Flow: The psychology of happiness’ and creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial. 

Mitra, S. (2014) The future of schooling: Children and learning at the edge of chaos. Prospects, 44:547-558

Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435-444.