Maker Education on a Budget

There is growing interest from schools in the Maker Movement and Maker Education but with this have come some subtle misunderstandings about what it is all about. For one the modern maker movement is all about the mindset of the maker rather than developing a set of specific skills for making. The second confusion stems from a belief that the maker movement is all about the tools and the makerspace and that as such it involves large budgets.
Agency by Design is a research initiative by Harvard’s Project Zero that set out to understand the benefits which might be derived from adopting a maker mindset. A key finding is that Maker Empowerment is a vital component of successful maker projects within schools. 

"Maker empowerment: A sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one's world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking." (Agency By Design)

This implies that the maker is an individual who sees the world as a set of objects and systems which can be improved, modified and adapted to new purposes and who engages in the process of making these changes. The maker according to the framework proposed by Agency By Design, looks closely at objects and systems so as to understand them, explore their complexity as derived from their parts and how people and systems interact with them and then seeks opportunities to unlock the hidden potential in what they have noticed. 
This model aligns beautifully with Design Thinking. In Design Thinking we find a model for the sort of action that is central to the maker mindset. A process for understanding what is there and through strategic thinking and an iterative process of planning, testing and modifying, allows new ideas to be revealed. Founder of IDEO, David Kelley explains that "the central tenet of Design Thinking, isn't one of aesthetic or utility, but of empathy and human observation’. We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.” This is echoed in the words of NSW Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus that states "Design thinking is the thought process involved in understanding and developing solutions to design needs and opportunities. Consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from designed solutions are core to design thinking. Design thinking methods can be used when trying to understand a problem, generating ideas and when refining a design based on evaluation and testing.” (NESA)
The Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus has an increased focus on both Design Thinking and Maker Education. It is broadly divided into two overlapping parts; Working Scientifically and Design & Production. In Design and Production "Students identify factors that may influence and dictate the focus of the design idea. They explore options, consider existing solutions, generate alternatives, represent and refine ideas and communicate design decisions for a range of audiences.” They will also be required to “undertake a range of practical experiences” linked to the processes of Design and Production. This requirement is likely to cause school administrators stress as they contemplate the cost involved in meeting this requirement. 
Making can however be achieved without access to the more expensive toys of the maker movement. Indeed, much can be learned from working within the constraints of a very minimal budget. A first step towards a successful low budget maker programme is to embrace the concept of the prototype. Here the aim is to produce at low cost a physical representation of a design that captures the essence of the idea but does so with low cost materials. Paper, cardboard, tape and recycled or repurposed items are often sufficient when developing a model that will demonstrate the idea without the polish of what would become the finished product. Low cost prototyping is also more likely to encourage a rapidly iterative process where design ideas are radically changed or completely abandoned. A 3D printer might produce a more detailed and impressive looking model, but the time taken in both designing it and printing it is likely to discourage students from starting over with a new idea. 
Cardboard is a great material for school students and most schools have an abundant supply. Either brought from home by students or gathered from the office or canteen, corrugated cardboard provides an ideal building material. Students can explore its properties before using it in their constructions and in doing so are bringing an understanding of the materials they use to the process. Traditional methods with cardboard involve copious use of tape and glue in the production process. Hot Glue Guns can bring an element of speed to the process but also bring an element of risks when students ignore the clear warning in the name “Hot Glue” until after a visit to the nurse.


MakeDo is a company that has produced a simple solution to the process of joining pieces of cardboard together. They produce a set of plastic screws that can be easily used to hold two or more pieces of cardboard together. The process is simple enough for Kindergarten students to master and the screws are immediately and readily reusable. A set of cardboard saws with safe plastic blades and plastic screwdrivers complete the the tool kit. It is s simple idea but it focuses attention on the iterative nature of design thinking and allows the maker to quickly experiment with ideas while producing very little waste. Ideas like this are what will bring making into the hands of every learner.
Adding technology to the mix brings additional affordances for learning and new opportunities for exploration. LED lights and button cell batteries are cheap way to add electronics to a project. Electric motors, servos and solar cells can be purchased cheaply online and used to build a kit of maker supplies that are used on a project and then recycled into the next one. Adding an Arduino based computer can also be achieved at very little cost and for educators willing to spend some time in the online markets can be had for less than what is spent on most craft projects. The end result may not have the aesthetic appeal of a store bought robot but will have involved the students in hands on learning and a product that they played a part in bringing to reality. 
By Nigel Coutts


For more ideas on using paper and cardboard as materials for Maker-Centered Learning see:

"Make: Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures You Can Cut, Fold, and Roll" by  Kathy Ceceri


Why such a rapid pace of change?

Change fatigue is the response individuals exhibit when the pace of change and the consistency of change becomes too much. Its symptoms are diverse including resistance to change, anxiety, withdrawal and anger. It is not surprising that change fatigue is common in schools, after all change seems to have become a permanent companion and the pace of change only seems to accelerate. For those driving change, there is a constant balancing act that we play between implementing change at the pace we feel is required, while avoiding overload. For those confronting change, there is the easy recourse of blaming those who are driving the change for the anxiety and stress that they feel. Questions are asked and fingers are pointed. Allegations of change for the sake of change are made and purposes are questioned. 
In this climate change becomes difficult and complex. The urgency to change is not distributed evenly and some cling defiantly to the past. There is a belief that what worked in the decades before will continue to serve our needs. There is a questioning of the need for change at such a rapid pace. Change after all is nothing new, so why must we change so rapidly now?
I am currently reading “Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations” and have found in this the answer to these questions. In essence we are confronting two types of change, one that we have always faced and one that is unique to our current times. 
People and the human systems that unite us into societies change at a slow pace. The pace of change at which people and society change, has altered but a little overtime. We slowly learn and adopt new ways of responding to our world. We develop social systems in response to change and when that change is forced to accelerate the results are often troublesome and chaotic. World Wars, civil unrest, political turmoil, violence and upheaval seem to accompany such times. Our responses to the change do not keep pace and we find ourselves struggling for new ways of functioning. The birth and spread of western democracy or the adjustments to work and the economy that came with the industrial revolution are examples of us adjusting our social systems to cope with change.
The other change is that resulting from the exponential growth of technology, population, globalised markets and changes to the very nature of our planet. The difficulty is that all of these changes are occurring at a pace that we are not able to cope with. Take technology alone and consider the implications of Moore’s Law. Named after the cofounder of Intel, Gordon Moore it predicts that processing power will double every two years with little change in cost. Since 1965 this law has held true and for at least the next few cycles is predicted to continue. It is this constant doubling that we humans are not very good at coping with. Thomas Friedman, author of “Thank you for being late” use the story of the inventor of chess to demonstrate the power of this type of growth. The story goes like this, the king liked the newly invented game of chess so very much that he offered its inventor the opportunity to name his reward. A clever man, the inventor asked for enough rice to feed his family. He stipulated that in the first square of a chess board the king should place but a single grain of rice. In the second square twice as many grains as in the first and in the third twice as many as in the second. This pattern repeated still every square was covered with constant doubling from one square to the next. The result is in the order of eighteen quintillion grains of rice. 
The initial change that this sort of growth makes seems small. One grain of rice is not significantly less than two or so it seems. In the early days of computers a doubling of speed seemed like barely enough to meet our need for faster processing. But now as Friedman describes we are entering the second half of the chess board. The changes being felt now are significant and we are struggling to keep up. Schools in particular find it hard to keep up with such a rapid pace of change. With most change projects set to occur over seldom less than an academic year and any new idea needing to be accommodated in the following years budget we quickly find that we are embracing outdated changes. 
More so than before the affordances of the new processing power are set to change how we interact with technology. Our computer systems backed by access to massive data sets, huge processing power and social networks are altering the way we interact with the world. This is resulting in new ways of doing business, think Uber and Amazon, new demands on information, think of the power of the mobile phone, and new pressures on society, think lifelong learning so that you are able to maximise the opportunities just emerging.
Technology is just one area where the pace of global change is outstripping our ability to keep up. While population growth in some parts of the world has slowed in others it is increasing and it is doing so in areas where access to services and quality of life is least. Our social systems have not kept pace with improvements to health care and where mortality rates decline and fertility rates remain high population growth becomes exponential. Our environment faces similar challenges and despite the rhetoric of politics climate change continues to accelerate. 
What does this mean for schools? Firstly, we need to accept that we are living in a time of rapid an unprecedented change. That the pace of change is now such that the children we teach today will enter a world of work that is very much divergent from the one we know. They will require a different set of skills to compete in a world that is dominated by an unstable climate, accelerating technology, a larger much more connected population and a market driven by forces of globalisation and acceleration. Change is going to happen whether we like it or not. Moore’s Law will win. 
But this does not mean we should despair. While we may not be able to describe the exact opportunities that will emerge from this change, we do have an understanding of the skills which will allow our students to thrive. The capacity to think and behave intelligently with what we know, creativity and a disposition for problem finding, skillful communication and empathy will serve us well. By providing our children with opportunities to collaborate with their peers, to access global networks, to solve problems that matter and to do so through models which are responsive to changing circumstance such as design thinking we can prepare our students to thrive in a world of accelerations.

Highly recommended reading:

Thomas L Friedman (2016) Thank you for being late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.


By Nigel Coutts

Avoiding Assessment Mistakes

Assessment is arguably the piece of the learning cycle we get most wrong. Whether looked at from the perspective of the learner, the teacher, the school administrator, the politician or the parent, assessment is misunderstood and poorly utilised as a tool for learning. The importance of changing this situation is only made more salient in light of the countless research studies from the likes of Jon Hattie & Dylan Wiliam that points to the power of effective assessment. So, what are the common mistakes and how might we avoid them?

Effective assessment is a part of the learning process. In their book "Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning”, Crockett & Churches compare assessment to the processes driving lean startups. The fledgling startup aims to develop a product that is a just viable product and rapidly releases this to market. The product launch begins an immediate process of product evaluation driven by user feedback. Through a rapid process of iteration and refinement the product evolves to meet the needs of the market. This is how assessment of learning should be. The learner feels comfortable sharing their learning in progress, they don’t need to wait for it to be a polished piece of work before they share. Feedback is sought early and the feedback provided is specific and allows for improvement. The learner makes changes and adjustments based on the feedback, the process repeats. With each cycle of feedback the learner moves closer to their goal but the process never stops.

Effective assessment is timely. This is where we make the biggest mistake. Assessment is seen as an end point by the learner and by the teacher. This is made very clear when the assessment is placed at the end of a unit of learning and feedback is then provided after the learning has occurred. The concluding assessment, the final test at the end of the unit send a message to the learner that assessment is the end of the learning process. According to Dylan Wiliam, "It is formative only if the information is used by the learner in making improvements that actually take their own learning forward. That is why to be formative, assessment must include a recipe for future action.” When assessment is only provided at the end of the unit, or the most valued assessment occurs at the end of the unit, it offers no opportunity for adjustment and sends a clear message that learning is not a continuous process.

Timely assessment needs to occur as close to the performance of understanding as possible. If you are coaching a child to catch a ball you go through the process and after each turn offer feedback. “Keep your eye on the ball”, “relax your arms as the ball hits your hands”, “move your body so it is behind the ball”, “don’t overreach”. You back the verbal feedback with modelling of the desired actions, you make adjustments to the throw of the ball to allow for success, you allow multiple practice opportunities and over time you praise improvement even when the growth is small. If we learned to catch the way we might learn mathematics or writing we would be given one or two examples, be left alone to apply the new skill and then be given an assessment of our ability. More than likely the result would be in the form of a grade or percentage and we would be left with few if any insights as to why the ball continually ended up at our feet. 

We value grades and percentages more than quality feedback. The disappointing reality is that when we are given are grade or a percentage as feedback on an assessment no learning occurs. Indeed, the damage goes deeper and impacts our desire to learn. Where grades are offered Ruth Butler found that interest and performance declined, where only comments were provided the opposite was true. If both comments and grades were provided the results paralleled those achieved with grades alone. A grade sends a clear message to the learner that the learning is done with according to Crockett and Churches, and a grade handed down by a teacher removes learner agency from the equation. Apply the typical pattern of assessment and grading to the process of building a house. The foundation is laid and assessed with a percentage for overall quality of say 75% and a B grade. By this stage the framers are on the job having started while the foundation’s assessment was still being processed, when they finish they achieve a percentage of 80%, slightly better than the foundation but clearly with room for improvement. The roof follows, the bricks are laid and in no time at all the house is found to be falling behind code, a building certificate is never issued and the house is condemned. The trouble is the fundamental issues with the foundation and each subsequent step were never addressed. Now imagine the same process applied to a child’s years of schooling and it is little wonder that we have students with significant learning gaps. Sadly, as Lane Clark points out we are too busy moving on to the “Electricity” unit to stop and address any issues.

Assessment needs to be of the learning that matters. We know that the skills which will matter most for success in the "age of accelerations” (See Friedman - Thank You for Being Late) are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, an innovators mindset and a good grasp of models for problem finding and solving such as design thinking. But, this is not what we traditionally assess. Instead we test for recall of information, an awareness of basic theorems and the formulaic application of knowledge, all of which is easily replaced by machine learning or artificial intelligence. Testing for the skills valued in the 21st century, assessing socio-emotional intelligence and the capacity to function effectively within dynamic teams is difficult to do at scale, so we instead measure what is easy to measure. The trouble is in doing so we assign an inflated value to the parts of the curriculum which matter least and then lock ourselves in to teaching for these skills even when we know they are obsolete. The truly sad part is that the assessments we cling to and that drive so much of what we do in schools, are no longer valued by universities and employers; the very people we designed them to serve. 

Education needs to be about more than placing students on a curve. If the only purpose that years of formal education serves is the ranking of children, then we are wasting our time. The factors which result in individual success are diverse and there are better more efficient measures which might serve our needs. To better understand the confluence of factors which on average result in success read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The story of success”. The emergence of ‘Big Data’ is only likely to provide us with new approaches to identifying those whose life circumstances and biology prepare them for any specific role, but surely this not a direction we wish to pursue.

Assessment needs to involve the learner more so than any other person. Hattie found that the empowerment and self-regulation that is achieved when students become skilled in methods for self-assessment had the highest effect size. Dylan Wiliam identifies three critical agents for assessment; self, teacher and peer. Self-assessment is critical in activating students as owners of their learning according to Wiliam and as such is a critical component of life-long learning where learning continues beyond the classroom. 

If we wish to cling to traditional methods of assessment and view the first twelve years of schooling as little more than preparation for the final school assessment, we need to acknowledge at least one rather disturbing reality; most of what we teach and assess is rapidly forgotten. "From this perspective, the research on educational attainment is especially disheartening. For more than 75 years, studies have consistently found that only a small fraction of what is learned in the classroom is retained even a year after learning.” (Matthew Lieberman (2012) Education and the Social Brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 3–9) Unless we take the time to develop assessment processes that clearly reveals to all concerned, where our learners are with their learning, where they are going and how to get there, this situation is unlikely to change. 

By Nigel Coutts

Learn more about quality assessment:

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for k-12 classrooms by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy

Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning by Lee Watnabe Crockett & Andrew Churches

The Formative Assessment Action Plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning by Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher

Assessing 21st Century Skills: A guide to evaluating mastery and authentic learning by Laura Greenstein

The Power of Feedback in Review of Educational Research by John Hattie & Helen Timperley

And you might also like:

Thank you for being late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman

Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell





Learning by playing, tinkering and making

Last Thursday I snuck out of school and spent the day playing. I hope by boss finds out, he thinks I was just doing professional development. 

I was not alone either. Thanks to Bondi Beach Public School a large group of teachers gathered in the library and under the guidance of Dr. Gary Stager of "Invent To Learn" spent the day immersed in play. We played a computer game, played with blocks, had fun playing with some art and craft materials and finished the day making toy birds. The silent introspection so traditional of professional development days was replaced by noise and laughter as we shared ideas and explored the possibilities presented to us.

The play we were engaged in was the sort of richly purposeful play that requires mental engagement. We were finding and solving problems, learning new tools and developing skills we thought only brilliant technologists possessed. We made mistakes. We made more mistakes and many of our ideas failed and not only the first time. We persisted. We asked questions of each other and by doing so found possible answers. Our instructor knew when to leave us alone, knew when to let us struggle with our problem a little longer and knew when to offer just enough salvation to keep us moving in the right direction. 

We had the right tools to make learning possible. Nothing fancy for the most part. Some software that had us exploring coding and understanding how inputs would produce the desired output. We thought we were just drawing. Turtle Art provides the learner with a deceptively complex learning environment. A friendly turtle, a simple interface of blocks that are dragged onto a blank screen and locked together into a chain of commands. Learning the basics is easy, going further is alluring and before long you are asking meaningful questions about the code you are producing as you wonder how you can create a desired pattern on screen or how you can simplify the code. Turtle Art was our introduction and it played the foundation for what was to come later in the day.

We played with "Little Bits” a tool for prototyping advanced electrical circuits. A large supply of blocks was available for us to experiment with, each bringing a new option to the circuits we constructed. Speakers, lights, switches, motors, servos, coloured LEDs, and sliders were available in the basic kit. Each block connects to another with magnets and each block only fits one way ensuring the right connection is made. More advanced blocks allow coding and computational control to be introduced and advanced prototypes can be quickly assembled in a solder free way. 

Playing with copper tape and conductive thread allowed for and exploration of wearable technology. Clothes with lights and buzzers were tested and proudly displayed. Some members of the group explored the possibilities of Arduino boards while some played with Lego. By the afternoon we were gaining confidence and sharing ideas for how we would take our new learning back to our students. We understood what Gary meant when he told us that "Knowledge is a consequence of experience” and "There is no substitute for the experience”. 

In the afternoon, we tried at our hands at making cardboard robots with motors, lights and servos controlled by a small PC on a chip called a “Hummingbird”. This was our culminating performance of understanding and required us to use all of the skills we had developed throughout the day. The results were, to be honest, rather ordinary. 

Not our work, an example of what is possible from HummingBird.Com

Not our work, an example of what is possible from HummingBird.Com

What we gained from the day was an understanding of the power of learning by doing and through play. There were no lectures. No text books, grades or tests. There were lots of opportunities to collaborate, to problem find and problem solve. We needed to be creative and the environment encouraged us to be so. We assessed the results of our thinking as we went, sought peer feedback and our tutor observed our efforts closely and knew where we were with our learning. We persisted with the challenges not because we had to but because we wanted to. We were engaged with our learning. 

Play is a vital tool for learning. It should be vital part of every child’s learning; the norm rather than the exception and we leave it behind as we become adults to our own peril. 

By Nigel Coutts with thanks to Bondi Beach Primary School @BondiBeachPS

The art of modern writing

Learning to write is one of the fundamental skills we gain from our time at school. Writing is one of the cornerstones of learning and we devote significant time and energy towards its mastery. Skilled writing is a mark of an educated individual and a skill required for academic success. But in the modern world what makes a skilled writer? What has changed about writing and what literary skills should we focus our attention on. 

Clearly writing has changed since the time of Shakespeare. For one our vocabulary has greatly increased and the fine art of penmanship is today much more ‘art’ than highly prized talent. We write more today than in perhaps any previous period of history and yet somehow it seems that what we write has less value. Our disposable society has spawned a seemingly endless chain of disposable messages, emails and tweets that are spewed into the ether never to be seen again. Letters lovingly written by hand on paper and transported through rain and snow by tireless mail services have been replaced by the instantaneous transmission of ideas which are dealt with in seconds and discarded. 

On social media, we share the most mundane events of our lives publishing our every passing thought for the world to see. A cacophony of voices writing the story of us all in 140 characters or less and read in full by no one but the artificial intelligence used to decipher what the next great fad might be. We have media articles written for us by computers, rely on our devices to correct our spelling and sign our correspondences with “Sent from iPhone” so that our poor grammar is forgiven.

Some of us do try to cling to the traditions of quality writing and the beauty of the ‘Queens English’. We mock those foolish enough to split their infinitives and debate the merits of the Oxford comma. Words are our friends and punctuation our sword. We delight in our propensities for expansively, expressive vocabulary and ignore the reality that most people read nothing beyond our first paragraph. Sadly, beyond the most academic of tomes our skilled writing is ill appreciated if not plainly mocked.

Why write a page when a paragraph serves as well? An email shall not be read if it is longer than one-hundred words and no policy document should exceed one page. Dot points are not only acceptable in most communication, they are widely appreciated by the time poor reader who needs to cut to the chase. Quality writing will include a 'top ten' and should allow the reader to spilt their attention between reading, driving and chatting on the phone. 

Clearly writing is not what it once was but not a lot has changed in schools. The traditional three-part essay is still taught, as is letter writing. Handwriting is a skill valued for its use on standardised assessments even though we recognise it will be used beyond school for little besides personal notes, lists and the occasional form which has not yet migrated to a digital format. Students for the most part do not learn how to compose emails and tweets are not touched on at all. Newspaper articles are written modelled after the fine work of Woodward and Bernstein but we do not teach how to compose the perfect "and you want believe what happens next” headline. 

This does not mean that the skill of the writer is diminished only that it has changed. A well composed email can influence the direction of a government. Carefully constructed Tweets reach a global audience. Amidst the bland and the ordinary those who have mastered modern writing will still be noticed. It is our understanding of what makes for effective writing in the modern age that needs a rethink.

Great writers have always written with their purpose and audience in mind. What am I writing for? and what do I hope to achieve? are the questions which should guide our constructions. Today how we answer this dictates the form our written communications should take and there is much to consider. Maybe I am writing for a global audience. If I am, then how will machine translation alter my message? Skilled writers will consider this as they compose their thoughts and select words and phrasings which survive the process with their message intact. What device will this be read on? Am I aiming at a mobile audience where screen size and data rates favour brevity? While scorned by traditionalists and an older generation of readers, the use of emoji might hit the mark perfectly with the right audience. Is my purpose to quickly communicate a few key points or is this part of a more nuanced conversation full of subtlety? What font should I choose? What colours might I use? Should the headings be bolded or underlined? Many are the decisions that the modern writer must make. 

If educators cling to traditional forms of writing when will our children learn to master the diverse styles they will require for survival in the real world? Do we hope that an understanding of classical writing can be transferred suitably to less stringent contemporary forms or should we seek to empower our students as skilled communicators able to master writing in all its forms?

By Nigel Coutts

Creativity is a beautiful, messy, chaotic thing

Collaborative creativity is a beautiful thing to see in action. Picture a room full of students engaged by a creative challenge. Groups of children loudly and forcibly stating their opinions. Each offering a different perspective on what might be achieved. A tumultuous free flowing exchange of ideas carried along by the voices of the excited participants. Drawings are exchanged, arguments come and go, gradually consensus is reached and forward progress is made but only for a moment before chaos returns. This is the scene that visitors to Year Six would have found early on Friday morning.

This scene of chaos had its origins in an inspiring presentation by artist, author, musician and educator Boori Pryor. Through his natural style of storytelling, coloured by music and dance Boori brings alive his culture and provides the perfect stimulus for the creative challenge that lies ahead. His story comes to life and he has every student dancing as the telling moves from the orator into the hearts, minds and bodies of his audience. The magic of his style is that he becomes one with the audience and the story becomes their story. With such an inspired beginning to the day it is not surprising that the creative passions of the students are set free.

With their imaginations set free the students confront the challenge of telling a part of the story through collaborative art with vim and vigour. Canvases are provided, paints distributed and with pencils, paper and enthusiastic debate the process of transforming ideas into workable plans begins. Participation is active, visceral, physical and loud. Listening skills are abandoned and chaos rules. Take a step back from the noise and you can see ideas begin to emerge. Each group of ten or twelve students begins to explore what it is they need to achieve and an understanding of the possibilities of the task emerges. The noise starts to come in stops and starts. Leaders begin to emerge and bring order to the mess. Ideas worth further exploration bubble forth while others slip out of the way. From the chaos merges a sense of order. 

Come back an hour later and you find the groups all functioning under a new paradigm. Decisions have been made and the process of transforming rough plans into a finished artwork is well under way. Cooperation is the new norm. Overlapping spaces and patterns of movement allow the artists to create together, alongside and with each other like dancers. The shouting and arguing is replaced with jovial conversations, encouraging observations of another performance and occasional renditions of ABBA classics. This is not the image of school students learning invoked by rows of desks, neat uniforms and teacher sermonising from the front of the room. This is real learning owned by the students and with their teachers as collaborators and facilitators of learning who know when to step out of the way and let things happen. 

The results are amazing. The once blank canvases are wholly transformed into magical renderings of the shared story. Each artwork captures the spirit of each artist who touched it. More than that the students have had an experience of learning that transcends the time allowed to it. They are each subtly changed but the experience and have ricer understandings of their place in the stories that ultimately unite us all. They have risen to new challenges and shown that they are capable of great things when they come together and participate in creative endeavours. 

At the end of the day all involved are exhausted and yet at the same time buoyed up by the positive feelings that flow from what has been achieved. Creativity is hard work. it is messy and times frustrating. It requires an embrace of chaos and is ill served by the structures of traditional schooling. It requires inspiration and is fueled by collaborations. Creativity is often said to be the key to the future. The essentially human attribute that will ensure our utility in a world dominated by automation. It is said to be an essential ingredient in education but it will not be truly learned unless we provide students with opportunities to dive fully into its waters. 

By Nigel Coutts with thanks to Boori Monty Pryor and the Year Six Team @Redlands_School

Learn more about Boori Monty Pryor  -  or access his new film  - for school visits contact Young Australis Workshops

You might also like - Understanding the Power of Stories

Growth Mindsets in the Great Outdoors

School camps are a wonderful opportunity to observe how our students handle the challenge of a different learning setting. Away from the norms and familiar settings of the classroom, we see students in a different light. For the students, camps are an exciting and for some frightening challenge. For teachers, they are an outstanding assessment tool that should inform our practices long after camp is over. 

For the students camp will bring many diverse challenges. For some the biggest challenge will be managing their feelings of homesickness. For some camp will be their first experience away from the comforts of home and company of parents and siblings. The time away from home and possibly even the distances involved travel wise creates a sense of separation that can be difficult. Teachers know that this is always worse during the quiet times between activities and as the sun sets will be on the lookout for those struggling with anxiety. 

For many students, the challenge of camp will be associated with a particular activity. Maybe it is something well known to induce fear like abseiling or a night in a tent surrounded by a thousand and one frightening creatures all determined to turn you into dinner. Some students know their challenge points well in advance of camp, others discover theirs when first confronted by it. Many a student has discovered their fear of heights only at that moment as they lean back over the edge of a cliff with nothing but a slender rope holding them in place. Only at that moment does their previously resilient demeanour turn to jelly and they find themselves overwhelmed. 

Camp will also reveal to us the students who thrive in this alternate learning environment. It might be the student who struggles at school who discovers at camp the conditions they need to achieve to their fullest potential. Freed from the demands to sits still, pay attention and solve problems with their mind detached from their body they find the physicality of camp suits their learning style. There will also be those who show a quiet confidence in the new setting. They accept the challenges that are placed in front of them, calmly rise to the occasion and succeed thanks to their grit and determination. 

For teachers camp is a rich assessment opportunity. If we wish to fully understand our students we need to see how they deal with the unfamiliar. This is particularly important if we are to understand the mindset of our students. What camp reveals is those in our student body who might display the hallmarks of a growth mindset in the familiar and comfortable setting of the classroom but are unable to transfer this to a new setting. Alternatively, it reveals those who show a fixed mindset in the classroom but are able to attack the challenges of camp with the grit and determination we wish they exhibited in a mathematics lesson. It is a common misunderstanding of the theory of growth mindsets that allows us to imagine that we do not all struggle with aspects of a fixed mindset. 

New perspectives of our learners' emerge as fresh demands on their determination, habits of mind, empathy, social understanding and capacities for collaboration are invoked by the experience of camp. 

What becomes very clear is that the context of learning plays an important part in the outcomes achieved. If we wish to have every child in our class experience success on a regular basis, how will we bring the challenges and triumphs of the camp experience into their everyday experience of learning? How will we challenge those who find the specific learning environment of the classroom a perfect match to their needs? How do we help those whose first or only experience of success with learning happens while at camp? It was once OK to believe that the learner must adapt to the setting and the context of academic learning. Turning to the business world we see an understanding of the value that comes from adjusting the context to the needs of the individual. Gone or going are the tightly controlled and highly structured work environments that were the norm. The challenge for schools is to find ways to adjust the context of learning to suit the needs of every individual while ensuring every individual is prepared for whatever might lay ahead. 

By Nigel Coutts

Transforming Homework to Home Learning

Each night in homes across the globe young people and adults prepare to do battle over the completion of homework. Parents often have strong beliefs about homework and its benefits for student success and believe their involvement in its completion is a key measure of successful parenting a view supported by Jeynes’ (2007) analysis of parental involvement in home learning. Students by contrast see homework as a burden that takes them away from family time and time with their friends. John Hattie speaking in an interview with BBC radio in August 2014 said ‘Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school, it’s larger. Which is why we need to get it right… Treat the zero as saying, “It’s probably not making much of a difference but let’s improve it”.

A recent strategy to alter the negative image that homework has built is to re-brand it as “home learning”. But is this enough and if we are going to “get it right” what do we need to change besides the name?

Research on home learning conducted by Jianzhong Xu (2012) concluded that teachers needed to focus on ‘designing more interesting, well-selected, and adequately difficult and challenging home learning assignments’ if they wish to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. Xu adds that the time spent on home learning compared to the effort applied can indicate aspects of student motivation Students who choose to engage with distractions such as games or social networking according to Xu choose to do so because they are not motivated to complete their home learning. Xu concludes it is important to listen to students and find ways to make home learning more interesting. This contrasts starkly with the traditional approach that blames and punishes students for not completing home learning on time. 

According to Xu ‘This, in turn, will further promote students' self-efficacy, self-regulatory skills, and responsibility for managing their own home learning.’(Xu. 2012 p192) Research by Harris Cooper (2003) indicates that home learning does promote academic achievement in high-school students, has a reduced effect in junior-high and no effect in elementary school. Cooper states that ‘Home learning should be one of several approaches we use, along with soccer and scouts, to show our children that learning takes place everywhere. (Cooper. 2001 p38) Cooper acknowledges that home learning can have non-academic benefits for students in the primary grades where it can help students recognise that they can learn at home, it fosters independence and responsible character traits. But for these goals to be achieved students will need to appreciate and value the purpose of the learning that they engage with. 

In a 2012 meta-analysis Cooper, Steenbergen-Hu and Dent (2012) report that ‘individualised home learning assignments, particularly those assigned according to students’ learning styles, outperform un-individualised ones in terms of improving student achievement, attitudes, or conduct.’ Educator and blogger Mark Barnes refers to Cooper’s research in a post where he asks ‘When will the home learning madness end’. Barnes questions the value of homework that is enforced in a punitive way and denies students the opportunity to develop responsibility and independence. A valuable goal for home learning is that can facilitate self-regulated learning and set patterns of behaviour which are a foundation for adults who are self-navigating professional learners. This goal might be best supported by parents who engage with personally purposeful learning alongside their children rather than committing energy to homework enforcement. 

Choice is a factor linked to student engagement and a method used for individualizing home learning. Patall, Cooper and Robinson (2008 p 294) found ‘The conclusion that can be drawn from this meta-analysis supports the assertion that when individuals are allowed to affirm their sense of autonomy through choice they experience enhanced motivation, persistence, performance, and production’. Patall et al. advise; that choice should not be allowed to become a laborious process, that multiple options should be offered up to a point and that allowing multiple choices can be of benefit.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) identifies three factors which influence motivation, namely autonomy or internal perceived locus of control, competence in ones abilities with the task and relatedness or feelings of security with the setting and people involved. ‘In particular, options should be constructed that are relevant to students' interests and goals (autonomy support), are not too numerous or complex yet not too easy (competence support), and are congruent with the values of the students' families and culture of origin (relatedness support).’ (Katz. & Assor. p439. 2007)

Ryan and Decci (2000) researched SDT and established its theoretical underpinnings in their paper investigating the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. They explain the role that the principle factors of SDT play in developing intrinsic motivation or in self-regulated extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Decci (2000) refer to numerous studies that show increased levels of self-regulation can be fostered by providing autonomy (choice), secure connections to carers and supporting perceptions of competence.

When applied to home learning this would indicate a need for home learning; to support autonomous engagement, include elements of choice, be sufficiently challenging while not beyond what is achievable with reduced scaffolding (think Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) and fits within a learning environment that supports a growth-mindset where risk and mistakes are a part of learning. 

By Nigel Coutts

Cooper, H., Steenbergen-Hu, S., & Dent, A. (2012). Homework. APA Educational Psychology Handbook, Vol 3: Application To Learning And Teaching., 475-495. 

Cooper, H. (2001) Homework for all in moderation.Educational Leadership, Vol.58(7), p.34-38  

Katz, I., & Assor, A. (2006). When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 429-442.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270-300.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist55(1), 68-78. 

Xu, J. (2012) Homework and academic achievement. In Hattie, J., & Anderman, E. (2012). International guide to student achievement. (pp 191 – 193) New York, NY: Routledge. 





Five Great Reads

One of the great joys and best strategies for expanding your understanding is to engage with a great book. Fortunately the options available today are immense and electronic options and audio books make access easy and possible wherever you may be. Here is a short list of what I have been reading lately with some brief reflections. 

Assessing 21st Century Skills: A guide to evaluating mastery and authentic learning by Laura Greenstein

Having embraced teaching for 21st Century skills and with an understanding of the importance for preparing our children to thrive in a world of rapid change we are then confronted with how to assess these skills. Traditional assessment methodologies of post-tests and multiple choice exams will not meet the need and will do more harm than good. Students very quickly learn to align their efforts with what will be on the test and if the test requires little other than recall of information we should not be surprised if students resist modern teaching methods. This book will help you better understand the relationship between learning intentions and assessment strategies and reveal strategies which will ensure the focus remains on the essential elements of learning in the 21st Century.

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 Classrooms by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy

Interested in using assessment to enhance student learning? Looking to understand how assessment can be a powerful tool for learning rather than a strategy for ranking students? This book is a must read. From the guru of Formative Assessment or assessment for learning, Dylan Wiliam, this book gives clear strategies for transforming practice and placing learning and the learner at the centre of what we do. This book shows how assessment is a vital step for student growth and one that must be woven into the fabric of every lesson if it is to bring effective results. "Good formative assessment is not about keeping records of students’ achievements; it is about the minute by minute and day by day adjustment of your teaching” (Wiliam and Leahy)

Radical Candour: How to be a great boss without losing your humility by Kim Scott

By sharing her vast leadership experience and through highly engaging stories from the worlds of Google and Apple Kim Scott shows how bosses who care personally and challenge directly are able to build effective teams and create the conditions where people achieve their best. From building relationships, providing effective feedback, utilising highly effective communication strategies and understanding the effect you are having as a boss within your organisation this book guides you gently yet forcibly to being the great boss you wish you had. Infused with humour and humility this is a book you will devour and want to share. 

The Coaching Habit: Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever by Michael Bungay Stainer

Looking for the right approach to that difficult conversation? Wanting to open up dialogue with your staff and understand what is causing them to behave the way they are? Are you finding that you are constantly playing the role of fireman in your organisation? The Coaching Habit provides a set of simple scripts that will transform the conversations you have and free you from constantly having to have the answer to every problem dropped in your lap. If you have a team to manage, if you are needing to unlock their potential and provide effective feedback this book should be hidden in your top drawer ready to be called upon at need. 

Sketchnotes for Educators by Sylvia Duckworth

Spend but a little time on Twitter and you are bound to find educators using the beautiful sketchnotes created by Sylvia Duckworth to illustrate their point. Beyond the insights offered by each image is the simple joy that the image bring. Sylvia’s talent is in representing complex ideas in a manner that makes them easy to understand without oversimplification. This is a book you will want to share and thanks to the links to downloadable versions of every image the possibilities for doing so are endless. Do not be surprised if you find yourself printing copies of Sylvia’s artworks to pin on staffroom walls. 

A bonus:

Top Ten Must Reads on . . . by HBR

If you subscribe to Audible you should check out the selection of 'Ten Must Reads' from Harvard Business Review. Each book presents a compilation of articles around the specified topic and each comes from the talent pool of Harvard's Business Review. Covering topics such as Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Strategy and Change Management to name but a few and with authors that include John Kotter, Peter Drucker and Daniel Goleman these books will keep you reading or listening for hours. 

Shifting from awareness to action

It seems clear we are in a period of rapid change. Technology coupled with broad changes in society is bringing new challenges to how we live and work. The skill which served us well in the days of the industrial revolution are rapidly approaching their use by date. The evidence is mounting and the narrative around education is shifting towards a story centred on long-life skills, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Success in the future seems to be connected closely to one’s capacity to innovate, to problem find and to make strategic decisions when confronted by unique situations for which we have not been specifically prepared. 
Data on the future of the workforce increasingly indicates that many of the jobs in high demand today will disappear. A CEDA (Committee for Economic Development of Australia) report indicates that "More than five million jobs, almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today, have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years due to technological advancements”. Globally a report by the Boston Consulting Group indicates that 25% of jobs will be replaced by robots and Stephen Hawking adds that "the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining”. 

The future workforce might look like this - Servers running AI software

The future workforce might look like this - Servers running AI software

Most at threat are the jobs categorised as routine-cognitive tasks. Those which are easily replaced by computers and artificial intelligence. After a long period of decline in manufacturing jobs with human labor replaced by robots this sector has stabilised. Now is the turn of the office worker, the clerk, the desk jockey to be replaced by servers and AI. If your job involves processing information, evaluating forms and manipulating data you should be nervous. The wider effects will come as the number of people required to complete these routine tasks dramatically shrinks and the effects extend into all sectors up and down the career ladders of the corporate world. Only those who are employed on the basis of their ability to handle complexity, to find new problems and transform them into opportunities are likely to thrive in this new economy. 
The implications for educators of this shift are enormous and the pressure to make changes immediate. While the predicted transformations might be some ten to fifteen years away this equates neatly with the lead time for schools. The students entering kindergarten today will entire a workforce that is significantly impacted by the rapid expansion of Artificial Intelligence we are seeing today. Will they be ready for this future or will they have experienced a model of education that is better preparation for the age of the steam engine and the factory?
Here lies the challenge, to move from awareness of the future we are heading towards to an embrace of the change it requires. To shift from rhetoric to action. 
What do we place at the centre of our schools? Do we focus on the capacities for success in the 21st century or do we cling to the past and teach the skills required for life in the office? Do we value creativity, critical thinking, innovation and collaboration and if so how do we ensure these skills are experienced by every child and valued in every classroom? What values and attitudes do we instil and how do schools and the broader community prepare our children to lead balanced lives where success is measured in moments of joy rather than in dollars earned? 

Some teachers in Australia will be counting down the days to Vivid Sydney. In addition to the spectacular light shows which attract international visitors, Vivid Sydney has become an ideas festival. Through May and June intrepid educators have the opportunity to share strategies for embracing creativity with innovative trans-disciplinary thinkers. Sessions titled ‘How to Champion Innovation in your Team and the Workplace’, 'Creativity in Education Renaissance Souls’ and ‘Leading Teams for Creativity’ will entice teachers out of their classrooms and into the city. Ideas will flood back into schools and students will for a brief time enjoy learning alongside teachers passionate for change and empowered by new understandings. But will the change stick and will the change scale?
When the routines of the educational systems return, when curriculum pressures and the demands of external testing are felt, will we resist the urge to fall back into old patterns of action? Will the ideas of Vivid spread into every classroom or will we have bubbles of innovation? Research by Dylan Wiliam points to the significant impact that individual teachers have on the success of their learners. More than any other influence, getting the right teacher determines the growth experienced by students in any school year. The disturbing consequence of this is that for our future survival we are relying on the lucky chance of being placed with teachers who are active in transforming their practice for the times ahead. If your teacher is not connected, does not have a personal learning network, does not attend teach meets and events like Vivid Sydney, is not a 'self-navigating professional learner' (@mariealcock) will they have an awareness of what your future will be like and the capacity to take action to prepare you for it?
By Nigel Coutts

What messages are we sending about learning?

Some educators make you think, challenge your assumptions and leave your head spinning with questions. Mark Church of Harvard’s Project Zero is one such educator. I spent an afternoon with Mark recently and left inspired and keen to seek answers to the challenges he posed. This post is a reflection on some of the questions that arose throughout the afternoon. Hopefully you will find that many of these apply to your setting too and that looking to answer them might allow you to refine the messages you send.  
The big question posed by Mark is one that lies at the centre of the research of Project Zero; "What messages are we sending our students about what learning is and how it happens?” The trouble with a question like this is that reaches into every aspect of what we do as educators. Our public facing values and aims are where we are likely to focus our attention. We would hope that we are sending messages about the value of learning, that it is an active process and one that should be a life-long goal. Somewhere in there we will state that learning involves change; the adoption of new habits and dispositions. Learning will be explained as a consequence of thinking, a process associated with attention, effort and motivation. We will have rhetoric about growth mindsets and we will encourage our students to value deep understandings rather than learning for recall. In our public and conscious messages about what learning is we are likely to hit all of the right markers. It is what happens behind the scenes though that has the real impact.
What do we do when we ask our students questions? What types of questions do we ask and what kind of answers do they require? Are we playing a game of guess what is in the teacher’s head or is there scope for a multitude of possibly correct answers? Do we require our students to think deeply with what they know? Do we call on the first hand raised or offer the time required for a more nuanced response to bubble forth? And this is just scratching the surface of the messages we send with our questioning techniques during class discussion. 
Who does the talking in our classrooms? Who does the thinking? Did the best thinking take place while the teacher wrote the programme? Is it the teacher who talks the most or is it the students? The answer to this question will reveal much about who is required to do the thinking in our lessons and subsequently who is doing the learning. It will also reveal the reality of learning as an active or passive process in our classrooms. Do we require more from our students than active listening and how can we be certain that even that is happening? Is our classroom a place of rich debate where ideas are argued, analysed and torn asunder? Do we encourage our students to take risks, to share their ideas, to argue with evidence and show healthy skepticism or is it clear that there is but one source of truth in the room?
What do our assessment processes say about learning? Do our students leave our rooms excited by the new concepts and skills they have mastered or the percentage increase they achieved on an exam? Are our students evaluated by the teacher or is self-evaluation an essential part of their learning? Can our students articulate what they do well, what they can improve on and how they might do so? Are our students excited to receive feedback and value it as a part of their learning or do they dread the moment when papers are handed back? Are our assessments aligned with our beliefs about the conditions required for learning or an artificial subset of what it truly requires?
When do we talk with our students about how they learn? Do we empower them with tools for self-reflection and metacognition? Do we have rich conversations about the many factors which make learning successful? Do we share stories with our students about how we learn and what we do when faced with challenges and road-blocks? Do our students see us as learners or as ready-made experts in every field? 
What do want our students to do when they learn? This was Mark’s follow up question. Again it raises many questions but the key point is that we should seek to ask our students this question. Will they mention that we expect them to think, to pose questions, activate prior knowledge, seek collaborations, argue with evidence or will they believe that we want them to get the answer right and remember their homework.
How can we take more notice of the culture of our classrooms and what it communicates to learners about the value of thinking? - This question brought it into sharp focus. The messages we send to our students about thinking and with it learning are conveyed most strongly through the culture of our classrooms. Shiny brochures, mission statements and philosophies of education are all very well but the culture of our classrooms tell the truth. 
by Nigel Coutts

What do we need to know?

I keep circling back to this question of what do we need to know, or to learn. It comes up so often in conversations around education and is closely connected to what we hope to achieve for our students. It is a question whose answer shapes not only what we teach but how we teach and what we assess. It strikes at the heart of how we perceive the role of education in society and the way we answer it reveals much about our personal philosophy of education. 

In preparing for a presentation I sought out ideas that support the need to teach for agency. I wanted to understand and to demonstrate why teaching our students to identify with their capacity for goal directed action. Peter Johnston offers this advice “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals”. Clearly Peter’s priorities for education are that it might achieve something other than a headful of knowledge. Ryan and Deci are inspiring and aspirational when they describe "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.” Spending a little time unpacking this reveals significant implications for education. What are the conditions required to encourage our young people to strive to learn, to want to extend themselves and to master new skills? How do we spark their curiosity and what role does self-motivation play within systems of rules, rewards and external assessments?

Deanna Kuhn asks to consider the questions we ask about how we teach in her article ‘Is direct instruction an Answer to the Right question?’. She argues that it is more important for us to look at what we teach than how we teach it. In debating against advocates for direct instruction, Kuhn indicates the importance of understanding the factors which motivate our students to be learners and to be clear on what skills/dispositions they will require: "the only defensible answer to the question of what we want schools to accomplish is that they should teach students to use their minds well, in school and beyond.”  Kuhn indicates the role of motivation in determining what we might attempt to teach our students and the need for them to see the value in what they learn. More than just the acquisition of knowledge long term success in learning comes from the individuals efforts to attach meaning and value to what is learned.  Kuhn proposes "that the most defensible educational goals are those that pertain to mental self-management—taking charge of one’s own learning—and coming to value learning and knowing and one’s self as learner and knower.”

In ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ Ron Ritchhart asks the question "What do you want the children we are teaching in our schools today to be like as adults?”. The common responses focus on dispositions and personal values which have little connection with basic skills or acquired knowledge. They are qualities of individuals who are confident in their capacity to learn and to grow, to interact with others positively and to communicate effectively. These are the so called soft-skills of the 21st Century, the ones which are difficult to assess. 

"curious , inquisitive, questioning, creative, problem solvers, risk takers, imaginative, and inquisitive, collaborative, empathetic, good listeners, helpful,
able to deal with complexity, analysers, makers of connections, critical thinkers, global citizens, members of a community, someone aware of his or her impact on the environment, effective communicators, compassionate, joyful"

For a long time our educational systems served the needs of society well. A structured and disciplined system of lessons and practice, based on a well defined curriculum prepared a workforce ready for the routines of the workplace. Employers knew what to expect from graduates and little other than a foundation in the three Rs of 'reading, writing and arithmetic' was all that was expected. The average graduate would be in the workplace for many years before they might be expected to think for themselves a reality assured by suitably defined policies and procedures. This is the world of dystopian representations of workers as little more than cogs in the machinery of industry and the rationale behind Pink Floyd’s assertion “that we don’t need no education”. 

'What do we need to know to pass the test?' might be the question students learn to ask from their time at school. The unavoidable exit slips that educational systems impose on learning. The need to assess the years of learning and to rank students as they move beyond schooling. Do these assessments reveal learners who are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills or do they capture our performance at one brief moment in time. What are the messages we send to our students about learning with systems that serve purposes seemingly at odds with the purposes for learning?

When we ask what should we teach? or what do we need to learn?, we unconsciously shape our thinking about education. The question itself impedes progress towards a focus on long-life skills and the empowerment of learners. It directs us to lists of content, to skills we can assess, to learning that becomes connected to the purposes of others. We need to ask better questions; ones which are linked to the cultures we create within our schools, to the dispositions and values we immerse our students in and to the conversations around learning that we might hope to inspire. It seems we are clear in what we hope to achieve but tied to our past by the questions we ask. 

Johnston, P.  (2004) - Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Stenhouse Publishers

Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction an answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 109- 113. 

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

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.



by Nigel Coutts

Learning in the age of Social Networks

Learning, according to Vygotsky is a social endeavour. It occurs as a result of our interactions with others, within our environment and through an accumulation of contextualised experiences. We learn by watching others, by the immediacy of feedback in social settings and from the modelling of learned behaviours that we experience. When we are young we learn through play, through exploration and experimentation. Learning is natural and there are few barriers to our explorations. As we grow we increasingly rely on others for guidance, as exemplars and for feedback. We move from relying on our parents as the focus of our social world to an increasingly enlarged and networked social landscape. Entering school brings a host of new opportunities and connections. Learning becomes formalised and control shifts away from us as the sole arbiters of what we attend to as we engage with externally set learning priorities. As the formal education we receive continues, so too does the informal social learning that we engage with and that shapes our identities and understandings of our place in the world. Our priorities for learning are in a constant state of flux between the demands of our formalised learning endeavours and our social learning as members of networked communities. 

The social world in which we live has in recent years been transformed, expanded and exploded to a global scale. Where once our community was dictated by the scope of our physical connections, we today have the possibility to be connected on a near limitless scale. The opportunities for those who actively seek an expanded learning community are immense. Ideas generated in isolation may rapidly spread. Knowledge can be seamlessly shared, refined, expanded and distorted by the networks we create through our social circles. Our devices bring access to information on an unprecedented scale and we have the tools to add our voice to the collective wisdom. We are able to learn across borders, across oceans and cultures.

The challenges that this globally connected world brings are immense. We have access to so much information that our capacity to filter, process and respond is overwhelmed. We live in bubbles and rely on others to filter our world view by means we little understand. Our understanding of how to learn in this globally connected world is limited by our experience of learning. Our formal education has led us to believe that learning is something given to us. We are one step removed from the process of planning and regulating our learning for so much of our lives as learners that we become dependent on educators. We have powerful tools at our disposal and yet make poor use of them. Networks which should bring us closer together are used to divide and segregate. Instead of enhancing our collective understanding we are confronted by the challenges of alternate facts and fake news. We have an abundance of information but seemingly little wisdom and little understanding of who we may trust and how we may find truth. We need to be shown how to live and learn within the affordances of our globally connected communities and how to take charge of our learning. 

Our students have never known a time when their social network was constrained by their physical locality. They take for granted mobile communications, social networks and ubiquitous access to the internet. In their social lives, they have never experienced the constraints of a land-line telecommunications system, never been restricted by long distance calls, never known a time without on demand media. They take Facebook and video chat for granted, watch YouTube not television, shop online and publish their thoughts to world rather than refrigerator door. Only at school in their formalised learning are they required to disconnect, switch off and learn in isolation from their extended network. It should then not be surprising that they grow up with a poor understanding of how to utilise their social networks as tools for powerful learning.

In place of asking our students to switch off we need to show them how to use their networked communities as a source of knowledge. To empower them as media critics and creators who use the tools as their disposal to effect change. Learning needs to be placed inside the social world in which our students live. At the same time, we need to provide them with the tools and cognitive resources to thrive in this world. Just as we learn to live in our physical communities through experience, through exploration and play we need to learn to live in our globally connected online worlds. Just as we have models for learning in the physical world we require models for learning in our digitaly connected worlds. We need the safety of the sandbox, the caring guidance of the “more knowledgable other” to show us the way around. We need places to safely make mistakes and missteps and the opportunities to learn from experience. This requires teachers who are social contractors with expertise and experience in navigating a globally connected reality.

Learning is a social endeavour. Schools need to understand that for our students the social landscape has changed. Rather than turning away from this reality we need to understand what it means and what our children need to know and learn to safely maximise the opportunities it brings.

By Nigel Coutts