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 Letters lovingly written by hand on paper and transported through rain and snow by tireless mail services have been replaced by the instantaneous transmission of ideas which are dealt with in seconds and discarded.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



Why do we teach?

I had the pleasure of spending my Saturday with a large group of teachers looking to learn more about their craft and how they might create a culture of thinking. Drawn by the opportunity to hear Ron Ritchhart of Harvard’s Project Zero share his research into the cultural forces that shape the learning that is possible in our classroom hundreds of teachers braved the wet Sydney weather on their weekend. Accompanying Ron were thirty teams of teachers who had taken the time to prepare ninety minute workshops. At the end of an exciting day we all left with new ideas, renewed friendships and bubbling with positive energy. 
Days like this renew our energy level and inspire us to persist in our efforts to meet the needs of every child we teach. They are opportunities to connect with colleagues, to share stories from the classroom and share ideas that work. It is the collective wisdom of the profession in action on days like this ensures educators are well supported in meeting the challenges that a rapidly changing society brings. Together we are stronger. 
Seeing this crowd of teachers gather and then disperse back to their schools with new wonderings and puzzles of practice in their minds led me to reflect on a question a parent had recently asked; “Why do you teach?”. It is a question we quietly ponder at times and one that those outside the profession occasionally ask as they consider the logistics of meeting the needs of a class full of overly excited children with vastly divergent learning needs. How we answer this question and the patterns that emerge reveals a lot about the profession. 
Often we recall those rare and special occasions when our actions result in a breakthrough moment for a student. Many years ago, I had a girl in my junior special needs class who passionately loved the colour purple. The staff of the school knew that wearing purple was dangerous. Her response to seeing the colour was extreme and at best would result in her throwing herself at whoever was wearing the purple item and clinging to them with all her might. At worst, it would be a catalyst for fitting and would end with calls for medical assistance. The special moment for us came one day when we were cleaning paint brushes in the sink. Blue paint mixed with red in the sink and the signs of over-excitability emerged as the water flowing down the drain turned purple. I removed one of the brushes and almost immediately the purple vanished and the water returned to a much less exciting colour. Reciting the mantra of “calm” I slowly returned the brush to the flow and the purple came back. Repeating the process a few times allowed the girl to enjoy her favourite colour without the usual dangers. By the end of that year her family was able to paint a wall in her bedroom purple. It remained her favourite colour but became one she could calmly enjoy. Moments like this are special but if we spend our time waiting for them we will rapidly lose interest. 
Teaching is something closely linked to our concept of self. We are teachers. It is part of our nature and our professional practice is an expression of who we are. It connects with a desire to share and to partake in something bigger than ourselves. An opportunity to make the world a better place by shaping the next generation. We teach because we believe what we do matters and has purpose. There are challenges here for some as the nature of teaching changes. For those drawn by visions of the wise professor dispatching words of wisdom with empowering speeches of wisdom the change to a ‘learner centred model’ disrupts their patterns of practice and self-concept. The move from the sage on the stage to the guide by the side brings new opportunities and, for those with a passion for learning, exciting times. 
We teach because we choose a career path where every day brings a new challenge, every day is different and our creative abilities are required. Teaching is an art form, a rich canvas for self-expression and imagination. We take the raw material from the syllabus, blend it with our understandings of our students needs and create patterns of learning that engage, inspire and empower. Our classrooms reveal our passions, our creativity and our values. We maintain a performance schedule like no other artist, with morning, matinee and afternoon shows every day of the week and frequent evening, pre-dawn and all-day events. It is no wonder that by Friday we are ready to collapse. 
Our roles are diverse. We are, on a daily basis a mix of administrator, counsellor, nurse, cleaner, photocopier repairer, data analyst, detective, consultant, curriculum expert, mathematician, entertainer, scientist, author and so much more. Learning new skills comes with the territories, adapting to change is the norm and it is this diversity that ensures we are never bored. We create learning environments and opportunities wherever we are. We work with limited resources and discover novel ways of turning every moment into a chance for learning. We are worn down by the challenges and built back up by the triumphs. At the beginning of the year we see the long climb ahead of us and yet we move forward knowing that at the end of the year the view from the top, the success and growth we achieve with and for our students will make every stumble worth it. 
Only those who have taught a class for a year, who have struggled with the challenges faced by students and who have shared in the moments of success will truly understand why we teach. Maybe that is why we seek out opportunities to gather and share what we do, to spend even a Saturday in the company of those who “get” what it is that we do and why we do it. Teaching is a beautiful thing to be a part of. 
 By Nigel Coutts

Teaching Dispositions for Learning

Increasingly we aim to teach dispositions but some care in the use of the term is required as it is easily oversimplified. While teaching for dispositions is encouraged it will have little effect if it means doing little other than engaging with the terminology. If we are to encourage the expansion of the desired dispositions, we must be sure to adequately unpack them and understand the implications in store for our culture of learning. 
Put simply a disposition is a pattern of behaviours which are utilised to serve our needs in a specified situation. Dispositions may be more accurately defined as "Acquired patterns of behavior that are under one’s control and will as opposed to being automatically activated. Dispositions are overarching sets of behaviors, not just single specific behaviors. They are dynamic and idiosyncratic in their contextualized deployment rather than prescribed actions to be rigidly carried out. More than desire and will, dispositions must be coupled with the requisite ability. Dispositions motivate, activate, and direct our abilities". (Ron Ritchhart - 2002)
This definition is expertly unpacked by Art Costa and Bena Kallick in their book “Dispositions”. Some key points from this are that dispositions are not patterns of behaviours we are born with; they are malleable and changeable and as such we can alter our dispositions. Dispositions are a complex interplay of behaviours, not a singular attribute or response. Learning as a highly complex act will comprise a combination of dispositions and each disposition such as creativity will demand multiple individual skills harnessed for a common goal. Perhaps most importantly a disposition is to be understood in sufficiently broad terms defined by no single list of attributes or actions. 
What is commonly missed when we teach for dispositions is that knowing the actions or skills associated with the disposition alone is not enough. To borrow from Costa and Kallick consider the disposition of skillful listening. It can be agreed that this disposition requires a certain set of skills such as attention to the speaker, reflective thinking, paraphrasing, turn taking, appropriate body-language etc. A skillful listener will have knowledge of these skills and each can be taught and thusly mastered but this alone does not make a disposition for skillful listening. The capacities required for a disposition alone are not sufficient. 
This is where the triadic model of dispositional theory become important. For an individual to fully benefit from a disposition they require the capacities which it demands but also the desire to employ them and an understanding of when the disposition is required. We have all encountered the individual who has no awareness of when they should be employing their skills as a listener and the person with no desire to listen.
This model has implications for us as teachers. Not only must we teach the skills but we must also provide the required sensitivities of when a disposition should be activated and the desire to do so. While the skills may be very concrete and easily mastered the translation of skills to dispositions requires a more nuanced approach. Our students will require extensive modelling of the disposition along with opportunities which demand its application. In learning the what, the when and the significance of dispositions our students will undoubtedly make many missteps but only through repeated exposure to the ideas and with opportunities to reflect on their efforts will the desired dispositions be acquired. 

There are multiple sets of dispositions we might wish to utilise or identify for our students. One set is that described by Costa and Kallick as the Habits of Mind. This set of sixteen dispositions has become popular in schools as they cover the dispositions most needed for successful learning. With the triadic model in mind the website RediQuest was developed to provide teachers and students with information about each of the sixteen habits. It uses three questions to focus attention on each element of applying a disposition. What does it mean? draws attention to the actions, beliefs and understandings which make up the disposition. Why does it matter? develops an awareness of the dispositions significance and may encourage a desire to apply the disposition. When should you use it? points to the important aspect of sensitivity to opportunities which require the disposition. 

By Nigel Coutts

Striving to preserve Truth

What purposes does education serve? What needs of humanity does education serve? What might the product of our labours be like and how might our efforts contribute to the greater good? These are questions we have long struggled with but with but it seems that in the current times we might need to rethink how we answer these questions. 
For the longest time education was all about the transfer of knowledge and skills. What was known and understood by one generation was passed on to the next. Each generation added to the pool of what was known and the scope of what must be taught grew. Those with a wanting to go beyond knowing engaged in the study of philosophy and dove into the metaphysical. Others looking to unlock the mysteries of the universe studied the sciences and for those with more aesthetic or romantic notions the arts provided a rich and diverse field for exploration. With medicine and psychology, we came to understand the inner workings of our bodies and minds. The scope of education was broad and prepared us to engage with life beyond the realms of formal education and with tools to share our deepening understandings. 

If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand - Gotthold Lessing

In the information decade parts of this model came to be challenged. Knowing lost its value. So much of what was studied in school, the pearls of wisdom passed on from teacher to student became content for the rapidly growing internet. All that we could know or want to know was placed very literally at our fingertips. With this change came shifts in the nature of work and the roles we had imagined we would take on beyond school disappeared. A new order of essential skills emerged and we required an education which would allow us to be critical and creative thinkers, collaborators, communicators and compassionate members of society. Our value was determined by our capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly and our dispositions for agentic action and problem finding gave us the edge. 
Somewhere in the past twelve months an essential aspect of this relationship shifted. Knowledge might be everywhere but somehow ’truth’ seems to have vanished. Knowing which sources of information might be trusted has always presented a challenge and with greater access to information comes an increased possibility for errors and miscommunication. Educators dealt with this by teaching students to look for multiple sources, to use reputable sources and when possible to go to the original source. The challenge to truth today goes beyond trusting in sources, we are confronted by an outright attack on what ‘truth’ is. 
The aim of science has always been to accurately describe and where possible, explain the world about us. The principles of scientific inquiry served to remove bias, remove observer error, overcome the limitations of our understanding and uncover a truth about the world. Philosophers have always viewed ‘truth’ in a different light. For the philosopher ‘truth’ is a notion to be understood and analysed. Rather than trying to find true facts, philosophy has been about uncovering an understanding of how we define, describe, and delineate 'truth'. The search for universal truths, those which are constant regardless of perspective has occupied the pages of many tomes. 
Now the very ideal of ‘truth’ has been reappropriated to become a term more equitable with opinion, fabrication and falsehood. In the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternate facts’ we are confronted by an attack on our most fundamental beliefs about ‘truth’. Truths and facts have little value when they are easily traded, contradicted and ignored. When the powerful, the rich, the loud and the numerous meddle with our definition of truth the call to speak ‘truth to power’ is more prescient than ever and yet those who aim to do so are left with few weapons. 

"[Ideology] always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth" Michel Foucault 'Truth & Power'

Her then lies the challenge for educators. How might we prepare our students to confront these deliberate and sustained attacks on truth? What are the dispositions they will require to confront coordinated attacks on truth? 
I have on my bookshelf a book by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto titled simply “Truth”. Its back-cover claims that ‘We need a history of truth . . . We need it to test the claim that truth is just a name for opinions which suit the demands of society or the conveniences of the elite. We need to be able to tell whether truth is changeful or eternal, embedded in time or outside it, universal or varying from place to place.” It is a book written in 1997, it is one I feel compelled to read today perhaps more than ever. We need a history of truth; we need an imagining of the future of truth and we need the will to struggle to seek it out and keep it safe from those who wish to pervert it for their private causes. 

by Nigel Coutts

Banishing The Culture of Busyness

At the start of each year we arrive back from our break hopefully rested and energised. The new year brings many new opportunities including new students, new team members and new teaching programmes. We begin again the climb up the hill with a fresh group of learners arriving at our doors full of excitement who will rely on us to meet their learning needs in the year ahead. All of this means we are at risk of starting the year with a certain level of panic. There is so much to do, our students are not accustomed to our routines, we don’t know each other well, there are parents to meet, assessments to be done and before we know it we are back to being busy. 

Being busy is rapidly and disturbingly becoming the new normal. Our days seem to get shorter and while we feel like we are fitting more in we also seem to get less of what really matters to us done. Like poor Bilbao Baggins playing riddles in the dark “We need more time”. And yet all this busyness is perhaps the biggest part of our problem. Increasingly those how are interested in time-management, mindfulness, human performance and leadership are offering research that reveals the damage our cult of busyness is causing. The upshot of all this is that to get more done and to start the year positively we need to include time to slow down, switch off, let our minds rest and rebuild our cognitive capacity. Not only does this down-time allow us to better cope with the challenges of the times when we need to be on, it is in these down-times that our brains process and synthesise new understandings and generate creative ideas. Einstein understood this and said ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted’, revealing the importance of giving our minds time to process thoughts in the background of our subconscious.  

Last year at this time I compared the days at the beginning of the year to a sprint and the weeks that come afterwards as the marathon. The initial pace we set for ourselves in these early days as we rush to do all we can as quickly as we can clearly cannot be sustained. The year ahead of us is much more like a marathon and we know we will need to conserve our energy for the many challenges that lie waiting for us; however, there is more to how we approach the start of the year than just conserving our energy for the mid-year reporting cycle. How we start will determine how we finish and wise carefully considered decisions now will set up positive patterns for later in the year.  

For our students, this is the time when they learn to trust us as the guide they will require for the year ahead. Across the days and weeks at the start of each year they are told what to expect and what is expected of them. Promises are made and exciting opportunities for learning are outlined. In the coming weeks, they will judge the reality of their experience. Handled well the result will be students who feel known and trust that their teachers will meet their learning needs; handled poorly and the damage can be hard to undo. If we move too fast now, make quick choices, react rather than taking the time to reflect and get things right the first time we miss opportunities to model to our students our fullest understanding of what it takes to be a learner.  

For students, new to a school the next few weeks may be very important. The initial celebrity that comes with being new has worn off and friendship circles are rapidly forming about them. Some will negotiate this with ease but many will find challenges here. This is the time when our pastoral care programmes earn their keep and a culture of acceptance and inclusion pays off. It is also a time when they need opportunities to switch-off and experience moments of quiet calm. They will rely on their teachers to set this tone and create these spaces for them.  

The initial panic at the beginning of the year is often a construct of our fear that we have so much to achieve and so little time to do it. Compared to the students who have just left us this new group naturally seems to need so much; after all they are a full year behind. The desire to quickly fill that gap is natural but will not benefit our students. Taking a step back and identifying each little step towards our goal for the year is important. This is also the ideal time to remind ourselves that learning should be more about the journey than the destination. Our students might need to be ready for high school or final exams or even University in just twelve months’ time but they also need to enjoy where they are now with their learning.

For us as teams of teachers the start of the year also brings new challenges. Some of us will be new to the school, others will be in new teams and some will be renegotiating well known connections. At the start of the new year a period of ‘storming' within our teams is typical as relationships are tested and negotiated. Beyond this phase comes a somewhat dangerous period of ‘norming' where team cohesion appears. This can be a time of calm as much of the stress of the initial weeks is put behind us and the team’s natural rhythm surfaces. The danger is that too much cohesion can lead to 'group think’ where divergent thinking disappears. Effective teams should be able to shift back and forth between divergent patterns of thinking where new ideas explode into possibility and convergent patterns where the best of those ideas are put into place. Throughout the marathon that is a school year including opportunities to shake things up with some quality divergence can keep teams fresh. 

To maximise the benefits of divergent thinking, innovation and creativity will require that all important down-time. Our busy, always connected lives mean that we are more likely to react to divergent thinking badly, more likely to reduce the space available for creativity in our teams and are less likely to personally engage in innovative thinking. If we hope to have innovative organisations or we desire to produce a culture of learning where new ideas are embraced, we must respond carefully to divergent thinking. Rather than worshiping at the altar of busyness we need to respect the times we spend quietly, calmly and reflectively ‘wasting time’. 

By Nigel Coutts - Adapted and updated from - Between the Sprint and The Marathon

To better understand the cult of busyness join me in reading "Too Fast to Think: How to reclaim Your Creativity in a Hyper-connected Work Culture' by Chris Lewis

Rethinking Mathematics Education

Mathematics holds an important place at the core of all curriculum models for good reason. The traditional focus on Literacy and Numeracy reinforces the special place that Mathematics holds in our educational thinking. The importance of Mathematical thinking to our daily lives is arguably increasing as we rely on computational models and large data sets. Industry, according to multiple reports requires more graduates with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) background and the M in STEM is seen by many as providing the glue which holds the model together. Despite the importance of Mathematics and the high esteem it holds as a discipline too few students are pursuing it as a pathway beyond school and many people report a fear of Mathematics. 

According to Stanford professor and author Jo Boaler mathematics requires a mindset makeover. “Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ confidence’. (Boaler. 2009) What is needed is a deliberate shift away from perspectives that make it OK to believe that one is not good at mathematics. This perception of mathematical abilities as a fixed set of attributes which some possess and others do not is a significant hurdle to be overcome if we are to encourage all learners to achieve success in the subject. A first step towards this goal is for teachers and parents to adopt the language of a growth mindset for mathematics and ensure that their children and students are not exposed to negative attitudes of fear or failure that many adults carry forward from their experience of school mathematics. 

A recent ‘Guardian’ article by Bradley Busch offers advice for teachers when responding to students about their mathematical achievements. He describes the ‘comfort strategy’ that is often applied when students underperform in mathematics. The comfort strategy tells students that their results, even when they are low, is not something to worry about, that mathematics is hard and that not everyone can be good at it, or that you are good at other things. The opposite approach offers strategies for improvement. The research cited by Busch shows that students offered the ‘comfort strategy’ tend to estimate that they will maintain consistent results while students offered a ‘strategy focused’ response believe they will improve. 

How we learn mathematics is just as important as our attitude towards the subject. Boaler cites research she conducted as part of the last round of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which looked not only at achievement scores but asked how students learned in mathematics. The clear finding was that countries with a focus on memorisation underperformed, countries which achieved positive results focused on problem solving, number-sense and challenge.(Boaler & Zoido. 2016) Boaler’s long-term research supports this finding with case studies that compare schools teaching through challenging problems linked to the real-world use of mathematics with traditional classrooms with a focus on mathematics as a set of rules and processes to be memorised. Classes which produced the best results, the students with the most positive attitudes towards mathematics and the greatest equity of learning where those where mathematics was taught in richly collaborative settings, where mathematical dialogue was the norm and where students embraced challenge. Beyond a focus on the repetitive manipulation of algorithms and manual calculations, successful mathematicians learn to use multiple representations (including pictures, diagrams, charts, tables, graphs and physical representations) of mathematical concepts that assist in the development of ‘number sense’ and particularly the understanding that numbers can be readily decomposed and recomposed. 

The role of challenge in mathematics is important and the research shows that traditional approaches that seek to make mathematics easy by deploying rules, mnemonics and ‘simple’ processes are doing learners a disservice. Research by Manu Kapur (2014) shows that students are better able to develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts when they are allowed to fail on their first attempt to learn new ideas. The experience of failure better activates prior knowledge and prepares students for subsequent instruction. This requires that students are presented with sufficiently challenging material and that it is presented in ways that allow for failure. Kapur (2015) also suggests that students are best served by opportunities to generate problems as a part of their mathematical learning and that doing so assist with conceptual understanding and transfer of learning to new situations. Boaler’s research supports this and shows that “our brains grow when we make mistakes because it is a time of struggle, and brains grow the most when we are challenged and engaging with difficult, conceptual questions”. (Boaler 2009) Steven Strogatz (2015) of Cornell University adds “This is not the way math should be taught, even at an elementary level. There really ought to be problem solving and imaginative thinking all the way through while kids master the basics. If you’ve never been asked to struggle with open-ended, non-cookbook problems, your command of math will always be shaky and shallow.”While we believe we showing care for students by making mathematical learning easy and by removing challenges from our students pathways (particularly those labeled as low ability) we are inhibiting their learning. 
Boaler and others are concerned that the Mathematics is a diluted version of the real subject. This dilution of Mathematics to a set of rules to be mastered and applied robs the subject of its true beauty and real power. Conrad Wolfram as the founder of ‘Wolfram Research’ a company dedicated to mathematical applications is well placed to describe real world mathematics, the sort we should be teaching. "At its heart, math is the world’s most successful system of problem-solving. The point is to take real things we want to work out and apply, or invent, math to get the answer. The process involves four steps: define the question, translate it to mathematical formulation, calculate or compute the answer in math-speak and then translate it back to answer your original question, verifying that it really does so.” Conrad advocates for teaching that makes use of computers for much of the calculating that is required for problem solving just as is the case in the real world “In the real world we use computers for calculating, almost universally; in education we use people for calculating, almost universally”. Conrad has launched a site advocating for “Computer Based Math” as a solution to the crisis he perceives in mathematics education. 
What becomes clear, as you dive further into the emerging research that connects what we know about learning, mindsets, dispositions for learning and the development of mathematical understandings, is that a new approach is required. We need to move away from memorisation and rule based simplifications of mathematics and embrace a model of learning that is challenging and exciting. We can and should be emerging all our students in the beauty and power of mathematics in learning environments full of multiple representations, rich dialogue and collaborative learning. 

by Nigel Coutts

References & Resources:

Learning to learn with a MakerSpace

Making, Maker Centred Learning and STEAM fit neatly alongside Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) for many schools. Commonly this approach includes a constructivist view of knowledge and teachers seek to establish conditions which allow students to explore questions and ideas with greater independence than may occur in the traditional classroom.  Learning becomes a collaborative partnership between teachers and students with a clear focus on a learner centric approach. These core beliefs are enacted through a combination of scaffolds such as those developed from the research of Harvard’s 'Project Zero’ where cultural forces, thinking routines, and an awareness of habits of mind focus the learner’s efforts on developing positive dispositions for learning while building deep understandings. In such an approach to learning Making becomes a pathway to developing the dispositions required for success in the 21st Century and a way of demonstrating one’s competence within a creative and collaborative environment. 
This philosophy of teaching and learning has significant implications for the nature of inquiry and Making in schools. Student projects are developed as responses to the problems, wonderings and questions which result from the student led inquiry process. The long-term goal is that students become effective and tenacious problem finders and solvers and this requires that students have a sufficient degree of freedom to identify the problems and subsequent projects which they explore within the necessary constraints of the curriculum. Success in this goal is indicated by the degree of autonomy evident in the student’s projects; the deviation from the norm present in each response and the variety of processes used in achieving a final solution. This brings challenges in terms of resources, project management, time-frames, lesson planning, assessment and evaluation. For teachers with experience in a traditional classroom each of these challenges require an adjustment to not only how they teach (pedagogy) but to how they perceive and value what they teach (curriculum) and significantly the place that assessment has in the teaching/learning cycle. This shift most critically requires teachers to place greater value on the processes of learning (the capacity for empathy, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity their students develop) rather than the product produced or the knowledge retained. This is made increasingly difficult given the current quantitative assessment and accountability frame through which educators, schools and systems are evaluated.
A MakerSpace brings with it new affordances and this is reflected in the projects undertaken by students. The most significant use of the space that I share with my teaching team thus far has been that associated with the Year Six, ‘Personal Passion Projects’. In this, students are given time across a semester to develop a project that extends their interest in a personal passion. Many of the projects undertaken included an aspect of making as a way of concluding the project and sharing a solution to a problem defined through the initial planning phases of the project; the ‘Why?’, ‘What if?’ and ‘How might?’ questions that students started with. The diversity of Maker Centred projects undertaken was significant and included items of furniture, mixed material artworks, clothing/fashion projects, sporting equipment, instruments, games/toys and basic electronics. With this diversity came the use of a wide range of materials, processes, tools and subsequent skill development.
This diversity shone a light on the challenges to pedagogy, curriculum and assessment identified above which result when students are given autonomy in their pursuit of inquiry based learning but this was largely overcome by measuring the success of each project against the broader skills which were involved. In each case the student projects offered clear evidence of learning associated with project management, problem solving, application of a design process, attention to detail, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. Teachers quickly found that they became ‘insiders’ with students on the projects and from this perspective as co-learners and collaborators a very clear view of the learning that was achieved by each student was evident. In many respects the Maker Centred Learning environment is an opportunity to make visible the student’s ability to take charge of the inquiry process and all that it entails from initial ideation to concluding performance of understanding.
Parallel to the development of the ‘Makerspace’ has been the enhancements made to the ‘Media Lab’. While the Makerspace supports projects which are large and messy, the Media Lab caters for projects which are born out of digital explorations and designs. The addition of two 3D Printers to this space and a campus wide subscription to Makers’ Empire has allowed Year Five students to include a maker aspect to their study of ‘Space Exploration’. Using the Makers’ Empire students design vehicles and environments that reflect their understanding of the challenges of exploring other worlds. The designs are 3D printed and students use these as they explain their research and understanding to an audience of parents and peers. A similar process was undertaken by Year Six students who used the software to create models of great buildings from the cities they studied in Term Three. In this instance the technology was supporting student understanding of mathematical concepts such as 3D Shape, scale and ratio. Two laser cutters are also available and it is hoped they will play a larger part in Making projects throughout 2017 as students explore options for the accurate cutting and engraving of lightweight materials with CNC accuracy.
Working with younger students, the level of scaffolding required for effective learning increases and with this the degree of autonomy offered seemingly decreases. Working with sticks, leaves, soil and recycled cardboard, students in Year Four have explored the construction of houses from the Australia of the mid to late 1800s. The use of common materials and methods resulted in projects with many common elements and presentation. Looking more closely and listening to students explain their designs and the processes they used reveal that even here students have brought individuality to the projects and achieved varied learning goals. Bringing Making to the younger years as an introduction to Maker Centred Learning, Design Thinking and as an extension of existing models for ‘play’ with loose and found materials should serve to strengthen what students are capable of producing as they move into Stage Three and beyond.
A current limitation to the projects undertaken in the Makerspace is that created by the knowledge, skills, imagining and comfort level of the teachers and students using it. Presently there is a bias towards projects which use timber and associated construction methods; advanced craft projects with additional tools and jointing methods. Some projects extend this into the use of plastics and composite materials (fiberglass) and there is some limited exploration of electronics including the use of ‘Littlebits’. This bias results from a variety of factors but most notably from teacher expertise and familiarity and the influence that early starters have on the projects which other students subsequently mimic. This bias has been identified and efforts will be made in 2017 to broaden teacher understandings of the sort of projects which can be attempted in the hope that this filters into the ideas explored by students. Late in 2016 the Year Six teaching team attended a workshop offered by ICT Educators NSW on the use of Arduino boards and other forms of physical computing within Maker Centred Learning as an evaluation and initial exploration of this for inclusion in student projects throughout 2017. While this offers new possibilities and would allow Making to move into new areas such as Internet of Things (IOT), data harvesting and automation it brings with it a need for greater professional development and new costs in providing suitable development boards and ancillary equipment.
The question of how to fund Maker Centred Learning in schools requires consideration. The materials used in many cases cannot be re-used and in essence become the property or valued trash of the students. Particularly where students are not creating the same product, where they are using widely differing materials, and where they may require relatively expensive materials the question of how this is to be funded cannot be easily answered. Providing a pool of resources to be used is a partial solution but ensuring equitable access to this brings new difficulties. Equity issues are exacerbated when the quality of the finished work is a consequence of the materials to which the student has access and even though teachers are evaluating the processes and thinking behind the product the final display is judged by its audience as an amalgamation of inputs both human and physical.
In looking for evidence of successful STEAM and Maker Centred Learning projects in the wider community there is evidence that many schools are not offering students significant autonomy in how they respond to or develop design challenges. While there are interesting projects being undertaken, the final results often have a very similar look and feel. Instead of an inquiry process driven by student questions, that results in a diversity of ideas, the projects on show resemble colour by number artworks where the real thinking and learning occurred before the students become involved. It is also disappointing to note that very few of the STEAM projects involve the unique DNA of each discipline. Rather than a rich intermingling of ideas revealed by a multitude of lenses, STEAM projects can frequently be typified as amusing technology or simple engineering projects. An important goal for the Maker Movement and STEAM will be to ensure student projects are driven by student ideas and require them to embrace the values and value of each discipline under the unifying umbrella of STEAM.


By Nigel Coutts