Project Zero Turns 50

This year is the fiftieth birthday of Harvard’s Project Zero, a research project designed to explore the nature of thinking and learning and from this suggest pedagogies which align with what we know about the mind. For its birthday celebration Project Zero shared insights from its five decades of research with presentations from Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Shari Tasman, Steve Seidel and Daniel Wilson. The presentations revealed the changing nature of the work of Project Zero from its early days and focus on arts education to its current position as a research organisation with broad interests across education but with a focus on thinking, understanding and the workings of the mind.

By keeping changes in Mind in mind, we might move beyond replicating classrooms from the 1850s

By keeping changes in Mind in mind, we might move beyond replicating classrooms from the 1850s

Daniel Wilson set the tone of the presentations by stating that educators must keep changes in Mind in mind. The implication being that as our understanding of the mind expands our interactions with it through learning and teaching must also evolve and expand; something that Wilson shows has not occurred historically. This has been the work of Project Zero and projects such as Teaching for Understanding and Making Thinking Visible provide teachers and most importantly learners the frameworks required. The great value that Project Zero brings lies in the research basis for its work and the clear connections its researchers make with practices which are applicable in the real world and real classrooms. 


Howard Gardner took us back to the early days of education where in the 1850s much of the structure of education was invented and implemented for the first time. Over subsequent years and decades our thinking about the mind changed from behaviourist notions with a strict focus on the visible behaviours which could be manipulated through rewards and punishments, testing of intelligence where what was considered intelligent was what the test tested, towards a science of cognitive psychology and an interest in what might lie behind the behaviours and on to more modern understandings from neuroscience. Beyond the individual social factors for thinking and learning evolved and with each new piece of research our understanding of Mind has expanded and evolved. From its early days of exploring linkages between the arts and the mind to today, Gardner shows how Project Zero has evolved our understanding.


David Perkins in his engaging storytelling style shared with us the story of the Evil Empire of IQ and revealed that contrary to popular belief intelligence is so much more than is revealed by a score on a test. Perkins asked the question "what does it mean to be smart” and his response showed that the errors in the common understanding. 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.

Perkins concluded by urging us to consider the implications for this broader definition of what it means to be smart and what this looks like in the classroom. "Imagine a classroom where what’s central is not repeating what you know or repeating the standard routines, but this further layer of exploration putting that knowledge to work. In Jerome Bruner’s famous phrase “Going beyond the information given” That's what should be our earmark for a really rich generative setting for learning “Going beyond the information given”.


Shari Tishman focused on the work of the Visible Thinking project; "Visibility as a force for learning - a rich area of research Project Zero - two decades and going strong”. Tishman asked "What happens when instruction is designed to help learners externalise; to make visible their thinking to themselves and one another?” With examples from the classroom Tishman showed that by making thinking visible we allow learners and teachers to understand where they are with their thinking, how they got there and to move forward to a deeper understanding. She shared how the use of thinking routines such as “Notice, Know, Wonder” allows for a deep engagement with learning and takes students beyond recall of knowledge, towards understanding. 


Steven Seidel urged us to “turn teaching on its head” in response to what we now know about Mind. In his words:

"The radical preconceptions of the minds we have been hearing about and our new understandings of how people learn suggest we probably need a radical reconceptualisation of what it means to teach and indeed I think we do, just as these streams of research and theory have led us to turn our concepts of mind on their head, so to speak, clearly we need to turn teaching on its head as well. "
"To be sure while we have evolved our understanding of the mind in many if not most schools, classrooms and other learning environments, we have not changed our minds about what it means to teach. We may have changed our minds but we haven’t changed our practice so much. If you look in on most classrooms today you’ll see variations on old models of teaching, not radical reconceptualisations of what it means to learn and therefore to teach."

Sadly, as Seidel noted "Paradigms don’t shift until they are ready"
Seidel urged us to see teachers as curators of three core principles at the heart of education; as curators of curiosity, curriculum and culture. 

  • Teachers as curators of curiosity, both their students and their own - students and teachers as creators of knowledge - Seidel noted that teachers are well placed to develop and extend our understanding of the curation of curiosity.
  • Teachers as creators of curriculum - building on what is there but also on what is within the community and what matters to learners. “A different model of a curriculum, one that is long term, often place based, open to taking new directions as it unfolds, aesthetically rich, community connected and oriented to produce products and performances"  - not a teacher proofed commercial curriculum or one mandated by government and monitored by high stakes testing. 
  • Teachers as creators of Culture - Not as transmitters of the culture of the dominant society. but to "think of things as if they could be otherwise, to use our imaginations in service of our ethical sensibility and to recast our works as teachers toward the creation of just, equitable and democratic classrooms and school cultures”
Learning as . . . according to Steven Seidel

Learning as . . . according to Steven Seidel

The work of Project Zero is ongoing and increasingly global. In the words of Howard Gardner, it is an institution that is not the lengthened shadow of one man as imagined by Ralph Waldo Emerson but is the shadow of a whole community. It is a community dedicated to the betterment of education for all, and one that seeks to understand and respond to debates around the purposes and processes of education with sound research and respect for the complex nature of the subject.


As a teacher who has benefited from the thinking of Project Zero I thank all involved and wish you a happy birthday. We will watch with anticipation to see what comes next. 

Learn more - 

Project Zero 50 Years

Project Zero Website

By Nigel Coutts

Modern Spaces for Contemporary Learning

Think back to how you felt after the last day you spent at a conference or course. If things went well you probably came out feeling enthused by new ideas but also exhausted and fatigued in ways that you don’t after a regular day at work. If the presenters have done their job well and you choose your workshops wisely, the day should have been full of learning that resulted from you having to think. Days like this should work our brains hard and it should be no surprise when we are fatigued by such an experience.

Conferences bring other fatigue inducing factors. A change of routine, the temptations offered by the catering and day under artificial lighting. They also often require long periods of motionless sitting, in chairs that offer little genuine comfort, arranged in cramped rows that afford little to no personal space. Conferences are a great escape, but it is nice to return to our normal routines and give our minds and bodies time to reset. 

Now imagine you are student in a traditional classroom; a student in one of those classrooms that looks just like classrooms did in the 1800s. Let’s assume that you have teachers who challenge your thinking, who are engaging and present lessons full of stimulation. Every lesson throughout your day is a model of quality teaching and you leave every class wanting more. Let’s assume your classmates are actively engaged in their learning and inspire you to do the same. This is perhaps the dream learning experience and yet at the end of the day it should still be no surprise that you are feeling more than a little fatigued by the experience. 

With your brain awash with ideas you head home. After an evening of extracurricular activities, daily chores and an hour of homework you finally get to bed. Throw into the mix a busy and at times challenging social and family life and the average day brings a significant cognitive load. While you sleep your brain busily processes the learning from the day before, makes new connections and extends your knowledge banks. 

In the morning, you awake and do it all again. And then again the next day and then the next. 

In reality, amidst the mix of spectacular lessons are a whole lot of fairly average experiences and some you would rather forget. There are probably whole sections of the curriculum that you don’t connect with and teachers with whom you have barely connected with at all. There are classmates who are distracting, disruptive and difficult to learn with. There are changes to the routine, interruptions and special events which break the flow of your learning. Lunchtime and recess are often the highlight of the day. Boredom more than fatigue becomes the enemy and the mind wanders. 


This is when traditional classroom seating comes to the rescue. Uncomfortable, hard and restrictive seating brings your mind back into the room but takes it nowhere near the learning. You notice the painful pressure points and are overwhelmed by a desire to fidget as you try to find a more comfortable position. At this point any distraction is a welcome one and you long for the lesson to end so you can move again. All learning has stopped. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives and many learning institutions are exploring what is possible. Inspired by innovations in the corporate world from tech giants such as Google office design has seen some radical changes in the past decade. Beige is out, colour is in. Static, rigid seating is out and movement permissible options abound. With options for sit/stand desks the notion of office seating is completely challenged. Meetings occur in spaces resembling lounges and sitting on the floor or in a comfortable bean bag is more than OK. Google images of 'innovative office spaces’ or combine IDEO or Google or Pixar with office spaces and you will be amazed at what you find. Places that are as imaginative as the products produced within them.  

Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Schools are starting to embrace these new ways of thinking and companies that design furniture for them are responding. Look at the catalogue of any of the large manufacturers of school furniture and you will find items you would happily place in your home. The shift is away from a one size fits all mentality to spaces that are full of comfortable options with the flexibility needed to adjust to changing circumstances. The most innovative spaces combine comfort with a sense of whimsy which invites creativity and inspires the imagination. Why learn in a classroom when you can learn on a pirate ship or in a pod that looks like it grew out of the floor. 

As with all change in schools the biggest obstacle is tradition. We have strong ideas of what a classroom should look like and balk at ideas which challenge this. Many believe that rigorous learning can’t possibly take place in environments which do not align with images of the traditional classroom; the type that they experienced. We need to challenge these ideas and show that it is indeed possible to create spaces that are a joy to learn in and where comfort, creativity and learning go hand in hand. Contemporary learning expects a great deal from its students and they deserve spaces which ease the physical load while inspiring their best thinking. 

By Nigel Coutts

For ideas look at these manufacturers:


Making Time for Quiet Contemplation

In our busy and highly connected lives it can be difficult to find time to slow down, to deliberately and mindfully engage in reflective contemplation. Taking the time to do so can be significant for success, creativity, mental well-being and learning and yet we seem to struggle to commit time to this valuable practice. Schools, in particular seem to offer little time for students to slow down and think, and with the busy lives students lead such time is often entirely absent.
Taking time to sit and think should not be considered a luxury but as a vital component for learning and growth. Having actively engaged our minds in the activities of learning we must then allow ourselves the time we require to process our new ideas and for this new learning to be incorporated with our prior-understandings. Deliberate reflective time requires us to disengage from highly cognitive tasks. By both reflecting actively on ideas and giving our minds time to “play” with ideas in the background of our consciousness we create the circumstances required for deep learning. 
These times when our mind is not harassed by the general noise of our day-today lives is also the time when new ideas are likely to spring forth. Sadly, the time for such endeavours is often blocked by our always on and always connected lives. We are never more than a few clicks away from our connected selves and the seemingly engaging distractions that this world entices us with. The challenge is to find times in our days where we are almost forced to disconnect and allow ourselves the time we require for contemplative thinking.
For me this time is often during my daily commute. While I travel to work and back each day amidst the stop-start traffic that is the norm of any large city, I find the time for my mind to drift and wander. On weekends the daily walk with the dogs provides a similar experience, although this is frequently disrupted by the excitement of a passing cat or an unusually interesting smell and the resulting jerk on the leads as my companions explore. It is in these times that I make some sense of the day’s events or when possible solutions to challenges emerge. More often than not the best ideas, the more creative solutions, emerge from the quiet moments where the problem is floating in the background of my mind rather than heckling for attention. 
The weekly process of blogging has proven to be an excellent reflective practice. From pondering possible topics, to exploring them in depth through the writing process I have found that I gain and hopefully share insights. I read once that you should only decide to blog for your personal benefit, dreams of building an audience should not play a significant part in the decision. I have found great value in the process of writing each week and for me the blog has become a catalog of my thoughts over the years along with a repository for ideas I have researched and explored within my professional learning. Such a practice of regular reflective writing has value to students and along with daily engagement in reading is a practice that should be encouraged. 
The tendency to fill every waking moment with activities is a trend we should seriously take stock of. Our time is precious and there are many ways in which it can be wasted but the deliberate and mindful process of contemplative thought should not be confused with mindless inactivity. The processes of learning, problem solving, ideation and creativity occur as much or more so during periods of inactivity as they do during times of activity. When we value learning over work we become open to the possibility that a student whose mind seems to be wondering, who is not actively “doing” the set task may indeed be fully immersed with their learning. The subtle shift in our language choices from ‘work', with its focus on productivity and activity, to ‘learning’, associated with cognition and the building of connections between ideas in the mind, allows us to value periods of apparent inactivity. Too often does the ‘work' minded teacher break the mental flow achieved by a learner in a state of contemplation with the call to ‘get back to work”.
Find the time for contemplation and reflective thinking. Value it as a part of your professional practice and never feel guilty for taking time away from the active doing of your duties. 

By Nigel Coutts

Contemplating the consequences of Constructivism

Constructivism is one of those ideas we throw around in educational circles without stopping to think about what we mean by it. They are the terms that have multiple meanings, are at once highly technical and common usage and are likely to cause debate and disagreements. Constructivism in particular carries a quantity of baggage with it. It is a term that is appropriated by supporters of educational approaches that are in stark contrast to the opposing view; constructivism vs didactic methods or direct instruction. The question is what are the origins of constructivism and does a belief in this as an approach to understanding learning necessitate an abandonment of direct instruction or is this a false dichotomy?

At the heart of most cognitive approaches to understanding learning is the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner and informed and influenced by the learner’s previous experiences. Constructivism, in particular, is an approach to understanding learning that begins with the notion that meaning is constructed by the learner. (O’Donnell 2012)

The common element across models is that the learner, exposed to stimulus from the environment, creates, adapts or evolves internal representations or schemata (cognitive structures) and in doing so extends their knowledge. What varies, and it is subtle, is whether new knowledge is a reconstruction of structures in the environment, an internal re-structuring of existing structures in response to the environment or an internalisation of processes modelled and then practiced. The degree to which social factors add further complications. In each case learning is a process which occurs within the mind of the individual as they process stimuli arriving from their sensory buffer from their environment (broadly speaking), into working memory and onward into long-term memory. 
From this basis and underpinning it are a host of beliefs about how the brain processes and stores information, how it uses affect to notice and respond to significant stimuli, while filtering unimportant stimuli and how it manages cognitive load. 
Constructivism is sometimes conflated with ideas about self-guided learning or self-initiated learning and direct instruction but should not be seen as providing a strong case for one over the other. Quality learning should include a mix of both as relevant to the need of the learner and the learning. 
Direct Instruction provides a particular environment in which learning can take place. It provides the learner with relevant stimulus and when well designed should overcome some of the barriers to learning such as directing the learners attention to what is significant, managing cognitive load, providing appropriate modelling and monitoring of learning progress through appropriate means of assessment for learning. Coupled with opportunities for independent practice and application with scaffolding this provides an effective learning environment and the research on what produces effective learning supports this.
One set of goals for learning is to develop the skills and dispositions required by learners to inquire, explore, discover and create or extend knowledge. This desire is evident when we expect our learners to be scientists, historians, geographers, researchers and problem solvers/finders. With this goal in mind we provide instruction in and scaffolds for the processes which the students will utilise e.g. teaching the scientific method or an inquiry cycle. We teach the skills of inquiry, problem solving and experimentation and then provide opportunities for independent practice. We at times model how content might be explored and understood through such processes and at other times we allow the content to be explored by students as they independently practise the skills of inquiry we have previously instructed them in. The skill of the teacher is in knowing which content requires direct instruction and which can be utilised by students practising their inquiry skills.
Self-regulation and the desire to produce learners who are able to initiate and guide their own learning complicates things, but only slightly. Schools should be providing students with opportunities to take charge of their own learning and to inquire and explore topics of their choosing. Inquiry, Project and Problem based learning methods that include elements of choice allow for this but such methods still involve the teacher as the professional guide to learning. A gradual release of responsibility model, where the teacher gradually removes themselves from the learning as the learner gains and confidence ensure the learner develops the skills and dispositions to tackle this style of learning.

The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction suggests that cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to independent practice and application by the learner(Fisher & Frey. 2011)

The order in which we offer direct instruction, scaffolded application or learning and independent practice is worth considering. It is not always the case that learning is best served when the process begins with direct instruction. As an example, the research by Manu Kapur on Productive Failure in Learning Math, indicates that the best model can be to begin with an independent exploration of new content even when this produces failure, before moving to direct instruction. 

However, students who engaged in problem solving before being taught demonstrated significantly greater conceptual understanding and ability to transfer to novel problems than those who were taught first. - These results challenge the conventional practice of direct instruction to teach new math concepts and procedures, and propose the possibility of learning from one’s own failed problem-solving attempts or those of others before receiving instruction as alternatives for better math learning. (Kapur, 2014)

Not all learning is a result of a deliberate, planned and external effort, such as that which is delivered by a teacher. Much of the early learning that occurs and a great deal of the social learning which we rely on, is a result of our immersion within stimulating environments and our innate capacities to learn. Schools provide a rich environment within which such learning may occur. By managing the physical environment in parallel with the social and cultural context, schools maximise their impact on the learning that occurs.

What constructivism does bring as a consequence for teaching is a shift in how we engage the learner. Pedagogical models where the teacher is the sage on the stage delivering sermons, where notes are copied from the board and where the learner is a passive sponge are examples of poor quality teaching. In opposition a classroom can be a place full of questions, shared knowledge, discussion and debate and a teacher directed. The learner’s experience of what might be termed direct instruction does not need to be a passive one. What makes some educators nervous is an implementation of the constructivist classroom where all structure is dissolved; where the learner is left alone in the environment to learn what they might, to overcome problems as they arise with no guidance or scaffolding. A Claxton and Lucas (2015) caution in “Educating Ruby”, advocates of such an approach have “never read Lord of the Flies”. Rather than suggesting we retreat from an active role in empowering and enabling learning, constructivism urges teachers to ensure that the learner is at least as involved in the process as their teachers are. 

Ultimately we need to understand that learning is done by the learner, as Dylan Wiliam so clearly articulates - "The crucial thing is that teachers are involved in a creative act of engineering environments within which learning takes place. Teachers are responsible for creating those learning environments but you cannot do the learning for the learner." 

By Nigel Coutts

Related to this: Inquiry based learning is dead, long live inquiry.

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

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011) The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
Kapur, M. (2014) Productive failure in learning math. Cognitive Science. 38 pp 1008–1022
O’Donnell, A. M. (2012)  Constructivism in APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief)

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2013) Embedding Formative Assessment Professional Development Pack. Hawker Brownlow (DVD)

Sharing our Puzzles of Practice

Einstein is often quoted as having said “If I have an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Clearly Einstein understood how to attack puzzling problems. As teachers we face a host of puzzles on a daily basis. Every student we teach, thanks to their idiosyncrasies presents a unique puzzle. The interactions between students further complicates things. Our goals for our learners, their learning needs, the demands of the curriculum, pressures from beyond the classroom all result in puzzles for us to manage and to solve.

Sometimes the approach taken by teachers is one analogous to the Hollywood action hero. We rush headlong into the situation relying on our past experience and bravado to win the day. Time is of the essence and the solution must be applied immediately. We act our way towards a solution and when at first we don’t succeed we try and try again. Such an approach to problem solving is a typical human response. We are short on time and thinking is hard work. Stopping and digging beneath the surface of what is going on might be the approach we advocate as intelligent beings but in the spur of the moment we respond to what we see right there in front of us or we use the methods which have become routine. 

Taking the time to truly understand our puzzles can be challenging. The process begins with realising that we indeed have a puzzle and that we do not have the ideal solution already in our tool-kit. More than that we need to recognise that we have a puzzle that we do not fully understand. Maybe this comes when we see our initial efforts are not working. By this time the puzzle is likely to have been made worse and when our mishandling includes puzzles involving people we are likely to have shifted into damage control. 

A culture that embraces and rewards the identification of puzzles is an important piece of the wider solution. In schools this can be particularly challenging to achieve. With each of us isolated in our classroom it is easy to imagine that we alone are kept awake at night by our puzzles of practice. We imagine that every other teacher knows the answer and that if we share our puzzles we may be seen as unable to cope. Such fear is a danger to a profession facing great complexity and rapid change. Our puzzles are only likely to increase in size and quantity as we explore models of teaching and learning best suited for “post-normal” times. 

Taking the time to share and explore our puzzles has been the theme for a group of Sydney based teachers over the past twelve months. Project Zero Sydney Network was founded as a collective of teachers keen to share their learnings from Harvard’s Project Zero. The focus has been on classroom practices that result in quality learning outcomes for students; life-worthy learning within a culture of thinking. We are united by our Puzzles of Practice and our strength has come from our willingness to share not just solutions but our puzzling puzzles. We have seen that the more time we spend unpacking and understanding the puzzles we confront the more likely we are to find solutions which work. 

For teams looking to explore puzzles there are a host of tools which can be leveraged once the right culture is in place. One place to begin is with thinking routines. As David Perkins explains, thinking is hard work and something we are not very good at, so we need tools to make our thinking more effective. Two simple strategies are:

Circle of Viewpoints - Should you need to understand a complex problem with multiple stakeholders this routine is ideal. It encourages you to see the perspective of each person or group and to understand how they are approaching the situation. It develops new questions and puzzles to be explored that had not been seen before alternate perspectives were considered. 

Circle of Viewpoints - a thinking routine that will help you see diverse perspective and look at a situation from another person's point of view. Useful in small groups.

  1. Brainstorm a list of different perspectives and then use this script skeleton to explore each one:
    1.  I am thinking of ... the topic... From the point of view of ... the viewpoint you've chosen
    2.  I think ... describe the topic from your viewpoint. Be an actor – take on the character of your view- point
    3.  A question I have from this viewpoint is ... ask a question from this viewpoint
  2. Wrap up: What new ideas do you have about the topic that you didn't have before? What new questions do you have? Record your thinking with a mind map, locating differing points of view around a circle.

Connect, Extend, Challenge - is ideal when you are dealing with complex and new circumstance. It encourages you to identify what you are familiar with in the situation, what is new and what is challenging.  

  1. How are the ideas presented Connected to what you already know? What new ideas are presented that Extend what you know? What is still Challenging for you about the new topic and/or its connection with prior learning? 
  2. Use individually recording your responses on paper or in a group with each member responding to the three questions in turn.

As our puzzles increase in complexity we require strategies that unlock the wisdom of the collective. Such a strategy can be found in the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol”. Protocols are a structured conversation that establishes the circumstances for constructive dialogue. The imposed structure of a protocol can at first be confronting and seem awkward, but it is the structured nature of the protocol which allows for conversations which would otherwise be stifled by social convention. In the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol” one member of a group presents a puzzle, describing the context and why the puzzle matters to them. The facilitator allows time for clarifying questions before pausing the discussion and giving time for the group to ponder potential solutions. After this time the group shares their potential solutions. When sharing a possible solution the group members are careful to use language that reinforces that their idea is just a suggestion. The presenter is referred to in the third person and response take the form “One possible solution that Mary might like to try is  . . .” or “I wonder if Mary might find this idea useful  . . .”. At the conclusion the presenter is given time to share their reflections on the suggestions and the group reflects on the process. 

Once we recognise that we all have puzzles that we struggle with we open the door to solving them intelligently and collectively. As Simon Sinek states in his little book of inspiration “Together is Better”. By spending more time with our puzzles and avoiding the rush to apply potential solutions, we are more likely to find the best response and enjoy the process along the way.  

By Nigel Coutts



Good Reads for Great Assessment

Recently I have been diving into the world of Assessment, seeking to better understand how we might design effective processes around this essential phase of the learning cycle. In doing so I have found a wealth of resources and quality reads that offer insights and strategies to be applied into our classrooms. Here then is a sampling of what I have been reading. 

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy


If you are interested in formative assessment then the research and writing of Dylan Wiliam is a must read. This accessible and immediately applicable book brings it all together with theory and practice covered. This is one of those books that needs to be in the hands of every teacher. Its opening chapters provide a clear understanding of the importance of formative assessment as a tool for learning and its advantages over traditional methods with their focus on measuring and recording achievement. Later chapters provide strategies to be used in developing quality assessments for learning and for activating students and their peers as agents of learning. The book is made complete through the inclusion of numerous resources for teachers to use in their classroom.

Embedding Formative Assessment: A two-year professional pack for schools and colleges by Siobhan Leahy & Dylan Wiliam


If you need to beyond what is available in their book of a similar name, this professional pack will certainly meet your needs. In the two DVD set you will find video, slideshows, meeting agendas, rubrics, articles and trainer notes. The perfect set of resources for a school looking to deliver quality professional development to its teachers. The price might seem high, but when looked at as a resource with the potential to change the practice of every teacher in your team it is well worth it.

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


Backed by extensive research and full of practical advice this is another book that will enhance your understanding and practice. The authors reveal the value of having a system for formative assessment and reveal how this might be developed. The book breaks assessment down into a set of questions which guide the learner; Where am I going? Where am I now? How am I doing? and Where am I going next? Further the authors outline the role that assessment and the four questions play in the gradual release of responsibility from the teacher to the learner; an essential step if we are to produce life-long learners. 

Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies for innovative learning by Lee Watanabe Crockett and Andrew Churches


Anyone familiar with the work of Lee Watanabe Crockett will know he is on a mission to transform learning and teaching. Through the Global Digital Citizen Foundation he and his team provide an excellent range of resources for teachers looking to bring their pedagogy into the 21st Century. The “Fluencies” are at the heart of this and many students have benefited from the use of these scaffolds for thinking and learning. Have a problem to solve, use the Solution Fluency. Need to be more creative, the Creativity Fluency will guide you. Using Information or Media, there are fluencies for those too. In Mindful Assessment, written with Andrew Churches the details of how to assess each of the fluencies is made clear. The book is full of resources which reveal what success with each criteria looks like and is invaluable in developing learning opportunities that will take students from where they are with their learning to where they need to be.

Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go graceless in a traditional grades school by Starr Sackstein


Driving change from the middle out can be hard work even in schools that recognise the important role that their middle leaders play. The “Hacking . . .” series of books aim to empower those seeking to make changes from where they are, starting in the classroom and enlisting followers who are amazed at the results being achieved. In “Hacking Assessment” the author provides 10 hacks which can be implemented without a complete rethink of the system within which the teacher is operating. Each hack is well documented and the reader can implement just one at time, adding others as their confidence grows. Hack number six “Maximise Time” is bound to appeal to every teacher. 

Essential Questions: Opening doors to student understanding by Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins


While not strictly aimed at assessment, this book is an invaluable guide to the closely linked task of asking questions that engage the learner and require them to think deeply and develop a true understanding. If our goal is to teach for understanding, then we must be asking questions which require it. Using this book as your guide you will be asking questions that are highly engaged and that reveal where your students are with their level of understanding. One warning, the questions you ask after reading this are likely to spark lengthy debate and extended responses from your students.  

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