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

Maker-Centred Learning & STEAM

In 2016 we embraced the new possibilities that come with having a dedicated Maker Space and students in their final year of Junior School were the first to fully benefit from this. The Maker Space allowed for a significant expansion of the Maker Centred Learning which was already a hallmark of the Personal Passion Projects and many students developed projects which pushed at the limits of what was possible. The Year Six rooms and Makerspace were a constant hive of activity as students rose to the challenge and teachers endeavoured to ensure safety, respond to questions while facilitating ongoing inquiry and as all sought to solve complex problems. The process was richly collaborative, enormously creative and tremendously energising while also somewhat all consuming. That the day to day running of the school, the daily demands on teachers and the constant struggle for a work-life balance did not go away during this time meant that by the end of the term all involved were ready to collapse. Spectacular learning of this sort is demanding of teacher energy levels and there are no easy days. That said, all involved are keen to be involved in this style of learning again.
 
There is however,  a degree of resistance to this maker-centred style of learning and that must be acknowledged and overcome if it is to thrive. It is considered by some to be lacking the rigour associated with traditional learning methods and is not deemed to be an efficient method of learning the content so valued in the traditional classroom. Traditional curriculum, pedagogical and assessment models favour particular modes of learning and forms of knowledge. High-stakes testing reinforces this and encourages teachers to devote time to teaching facts, developing skills for communicating those facts in the ascribed method and assessing the ability of students to do exactly that. Making by contrast is messy, noisy, complex and difficult to assess. The challenge is to build opportunities for teachers (and parents) to see that Maker Centred Learning develops dispositions for learning far beyond the superficial skills required for a task. Our goal is not produce a nation of carpenters or crafts persons but to provide opportunities which demand creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication such that our students become agentic life-long learners. Making is one part of this process. The hands on nature of the projects, the natural feedback that is provided when an idea falls short of expectation and the very real challenges which are encountered, immerse students in a learning environment that prepares them well for the diverse challenges they will encounter beyond school.
 
The greatest challenge to change in schools, is our exception of what school should be like based upon our experience of it. This is true for teachers, parents and even students. There is an expectation that we go to school to sit in class and to be taught. Learning is something that happens to us, as a consequence of the actions of others. Teachers are experts who have all the knowledge we require and are skilled at transferring this into our heads. These notions are increasingly challenged by a growing understanding that this model of teaching and learning is not fit for the world we live in nor the world we will enter beyond school. The challenge when seeking ‘buy-in’ from the school community with non-traditional methods (IBL, PBL, learner centred models, making, tinkering, play) is to encourage a new understanding of the purposes of education. In 'Future Wise’ David Perkins challenges readers to seek learning that is ‘life-worthy’, that is learning that is likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live. 
 
Similarly for STEAM, further challenges exist as teachers are asked to teach across disciplines and to integrate learning time and goals across departmental boundaries. The economies of time which come from an integrated approach to curriculum delivery, the enhanced transfer of learning that it affords and real world applicability of cross disciplinary tasks are countered by fears of less face to face time, dilution of content, redistribution of budgets away from traditionally vaunted disciplines of mathematics and science and reduced rigour. STEAM will require the development of respectful collaborations, evolving understandings of the place that the traditional disciplines play in society and new approaches to pedagogical content knowledge. In Primary Schools, STEAM is easily accommodated assuming adequate professional development is provided such that teachers may develop programmes based on strategic integrations of the disciplines where the learning outcomes achieved are enhanced as a result. In Senior Schools and Tertiary Institutions STEAM faces the additional hurdles posed by timetables and interdepartmental rivalries.
 
The most significant challenge facing STEAM, Making and Maker Centred Learning is undoubtedly access to suitable professional development. In addition to building an understanding of what is possible in this area teachers need to be exposed to the maker mindset. Sharing what it means to be a maker, to see the world of products and environments as a canvas or set of obstacles to be overcome and hacked to serve new purposes is a key part of this process. Professional development that takes teachers through the Design Thinking process and shows them how this approach is broadly applicable will encourage wider experimentation and begin to shift teachers away from valuing the products of learning over the processes. Methods of planning for Maker Centred Learning, pedagogies for making and for STEAM and effective assessment strategies which adequately capture the breadth of learning which occurs for students within these programmes is vital but largely lacking. What exists presently is centred around guiding teachers through the specific details of a particular project where teachers learn to make a specific item and then run that same project with their students. Beyond this are projects which teachers or schools can buy into that provide students with a formulaic challenge and prescribed set of processes with which to develop a solution. As these projects are often associated with an inter-school competition the rules which are aimed at ensuring a level playing field serve to also limit true innovation and the resulting products are consequently identical in all key dimensions.
 
A broader approach seems to be offered by ‘Agency by Design’, (ABD) a part of Harvard’s Project Zero. A multi-year research project, it seeks to answer three essential questions:

 

  1. How do maker educators and leaders in the field think about the benefits and outcomes of maker-centered learning experiences?
  2. What are some of the key characteristics of environments in which maker-centered learning thrives?
  3. What kinds of educational interventions can we develop that support thoughtful reflection around maker-centered learning and the made dimensions of our world?

From this starting point the project has evolved and is increasingly looking at how maker-centered learning can have broad-scale and long-term relevance to the education field through strategies for documentation, assessment and making thinking and learning visible, this resulted in three further questions:

  1. How can learners make visible their ability to look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity?
  2. How can teachers qualitatively measure students’ performance within the realm of these three core maker capacities?
  3. How can we collaborate with students and teachers to design a suite of practical documentation and assessment tools best suited to the development of maker empowerment?

In addition to the just published results* of this study ABD offers an online course for educators looking to add Making to their repertoire.
 
While there are a wide set of resources, books, magazines, teach meets and faires which support Making and Maker Centred Learning translating these resources and opportunities into professional development is not easy. While changes to accreditation processes for teachers through Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) require teachers engage with set hours of professional development not all hours are created equal. There are limits to the number of hours which can be recognised as self-identified and this includes attendance at non-accredited courses, Makerfaires, teach meets and engagement with professional reading. Thus while there is a broad range of supports for teachers, there is a reduced incentive for engagement compared to what would exist with officially sanctioned courses.
 
Building close connections with the school community, industry and tertiary education can facilitate a richer understanding of what is possible and desirable within STEAM and Maker Centred Learning. If schools are to become centres of innovation and creativity we will need to understand what these ideas mean and how they are interpreted beyond school. Since Ken Robinson claimed that schools kill creativity efforts have been made to better understand how we might teach for creativity. A desire to understand how creativity is encouraged and facilitated has resulted in significant interest in research in this area and increasingly teachers are seeking answers to questions such as ‘What is creativity?’ and ‘How might our schools promote this?’. The answers to these questions have relevance beyond schools and there is an extensive cross pollination of ideas here between educators and industries looking to enhance the creativity of their workforce. Encouraging collaborative research between all those who have an interest in understanding and facilitating creativity, innovation and critical thinking is essential. 

The establishment of innovation centres, the adoption of design thinking and a general awareness of the value of creative collaborations is increasingly the norm in industry and this echoes the efforts made in schools as they develop MakerSpaces and strive to teach for innovation. Undoubtedly within our parent bodies lies expertise that can inform our teaching or provide access to Role-Models and Mentors to both teachers and students. Access to mentors can have direct benefits for the students in multiple ways as it expands the overall awareness of what is possible, provides access to technical knowledge and real world expertise in problem solving and potential access to resources and facilities typically not found in schools. Fears that insufficient numbers of students are pursuing STEAM pathways throughout their schooling and that there is gender bias in this area can be addressed through the provision of positive role-models who are able to share with students the exciting career prospects available. For girls in particular it is important that they have access to positive female role models at an early age if they are to see a STEAM career as a viable option. Research shows that girls make their career choices early, before age 14 (Broadley, 2011) and possibly before they move into High School. Peters (2013) shows that girls interest in STEM careers as they exit school was best predicted by interest as they entered Secondary School. This means that schools need to ensure that girls are receiving affirmative messages about the potential of STEM pathways while they are in Primary school.

There are opportunities here for formal collaborations and for industry to develop programmes connected to their ideals of civic responsibility and community connectedness. Mastercard’s ‘Girls4Tech’ programme is one model of this and one that offers staff an opportunity to enthusiastically share what they do back into the community. Other opportunities are made possible through the CSIRO’s ‘Scientists, Mathematicians and Engineers in Schools’ programme which connects schools with industry experts and provides resources and training to facilitate this. Greater success will occur in this area as industry and schools work in close collaboration to develop programmes which leverage the pedagogical, curriculum and assessment expertise of educators along with the entrepreneurial understandings and business acumen that industry can offer. These collaborations will be to the benefit of all involved as educators have much to offer industry in regards to specialist knowledge of learning, thinking and personal growth which can directly inform programmes within industry. Further to this, as educators increasingly develop research based understandings of the creative processes of problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration and develop practical methods to enhance the capacity of individuals and groups to do so, the value of their expertise to industry is enhanced. 

*'Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds' By Edward P. Clapp, Jessica Ross, Jennifer Oxman Ryan, & Shari Tishman

By Nigel Coutts

Engaged by, in and with learnng

As teachers we hope our lessons are engaging and that our students are engaged. We understand that positive learning experiences are more likely to occur when we are engaged cognitively and affectively by what we are doing and that when we are, new ideas and skills are more likely to stick. Engagement is an important consideration in learning and as such it is worth taking time to consider what it means to be engaged and perhaps how we bring the benefits of engagement to our teaching and our learning. 
 
In schools, engagement occurs in multiple flavours dependent upon perspective. From the teacher’s perspective we hope that our students are engaged by the lessons that we plan and deliver. This is an important goal and one that we cannot take for granted. In a time where we are competing against a vast array of powerful distractions, entertainments and even alternative sources of learning the task of engaging our students is increasingly difficult. Being aware of the factors which intrinsically motivate us is one step towards success. Understanding that we are more likely to engage with learning that is relevant to our daily lives and where we can see opportunities to develop mastery in domains that matter helps. As teachers we must have good answers to the student question which we so often face ‘why do I have to learn this?’. At one point it may have been enough to reply because you need to know it for the test, or you will need to know this later in life but if our goal is genuine engagement then we must do better. Our students are more likely to be engaged by our teaching when we understand the true value of what we are asking them to learn, are passionate about the teaching of it and show our students the relevance of it to their lives.  
 
One way to view engagement is to consider it as a consequence of interest. “If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life) In this way engagement is not only a consequence of what we find interesting but also of our conscious decision to show interest in a subject. For teachers this is an important notion for much of our role is bringing our students to ideas such that they may engage with them even where the student had not previously imagined them as interesting or engaging. This introduces the perspective of the student who is engaged in learning. Here we move beyond engagement as something that others provide for us and see that we can make the choice to be engaged in our learning. Students who value learning, who see it as a personal life-long goal are more likely to actively seek engagement. For this to occur students need teachers who value learning as a process, who celebrate the embrace of positive dispositions for learning and who encourage a growth mindset.
 
We can also consider learning as something that we need to engage with. This affirms that learning requires active participation and mindful effort towards the goal of learning. Learning is not something which can occur as a consequence of our passive involvement or exposure to a set of experiences but is one that requires our fullest attention. Learning is a process that we can control; a result of our active engagement with the process of learning and a consequence of deliberate application and reflection. As a process, it is one that we can learn to do and as such our engaged practice in the learning process is one that may be enhanced through our choice to actively engage with understanding how we learn. For students, having teachers who understand how we learn and devote time to teaching the processes of learning will have positive impacts. This can include the use of scaffolds for thinking, reflective practices that encourage students to become mindful of how they learn and opportunities to share learning practices with fellow learners. 
 
We can see implications here for the choices made about the type of learning experiences we offer students. Students are more likely to engage with concepts that matter to them and to this end autonomy or choice in the topic can assist. Topics which are relevant to the students’ daily lives will promote engagement and this can be often achieved by making meaningful connections between prescribed content and local or national issues of import to the students. Revealing the applicability of an historical issue to today’s politics or the usability of a mathematical concept to real world problem solving are simple examples of using relevance to enhance engagement. Engagement with learning can be enhanced through the use of problems and provocations which lead students into a problem solving or inquiry based learning environment. Problem solving and inquiry are active processes of and for learning and once a learner has bought into the need to find a solution learning can easily become self-sustaining as the challenge inherent to the task drives engagement. Sharing our processes of learning and inviting our students to collaborate with us on learning tasks shows that learning has real value, supports the development of a culture of learning and encourages a life-long engagement with learning. 
 
 By Nigel Coutts

Holiday Reading List

For those in Australia the end of the teaching year has arrived or is just around the corner. With holidays approaching now might be the perfect time to find a good book to read and reset your thinking ahead of the start of a new year. Here are my favourite reads from this year. 

1.    King Arthur’s Round Table: How collaborative conversations create smart organisations - David Perkins


Understanding how the conversations we have within our organisations shape them and help us to achieve our goals is the focus of this book by Harvard’s David Perkins. Readers will explore how to shape positive conversations, the challenges that organisations face, the nature and benefits of different leadership styles and how the many pieces can be aligned to create an organisation that fosters success. Told through stories and with the tale of Arthur’s Camelot woven throughout this is a must read for anyone interested in organisational leadership, change and collaboration.  

2.    The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the power to think differently - Sunni Brown


Why do we insist on having our students demonstrate their understanding through the traditional essay? Why is note taking a dry process that produces pages of text we never return to? How do the tools we use to organise our thinking constrain the results? The Doodle Revolution aims to undo all of this and shows us that we can all use doodling or sketch noting to organise our ideas, reflect on our learning and demonstrate understanding. Sunni Brown’s book makes doodling accessible to all and challenges the notion that it is something for the visual thinker or artist.  

3.    The Sketchnote Handbook: The illustrated guide to visual note taking - Mike Rhode


If Sunni Brown inspired you to start doodling, this book and its related workbook will take you to the next level. Full of ideas for how to use sketch noting and with tips to make your notes masterpieces of style and clarity Mike’s book is the perfect guide for the budding sketch noter. Follow the tips and your notes will quickly be transformed into artistic works you will be happy to share and that your audience will appreciate for the understandings they reveal.  

4.    Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge - David Hyerle


Sticking with a visual theme but moving in a slightly different direction is this book by David Hyerle. The focus here is on how we might use strong visuals including mind maps, flow charts and diagrams to better understand and represent information such that it becomes useable knowledge. If you think you know all there is to know about mind maps you need to read this book, it will show you a whole new set of possibilities and bring clarity to an often oversimplified domain.  

5.    The Art of Tinkering - Karen Wilkinson & Mike Petrich


This is a beautiful book that takes you deep into the world of making and tinkering. With good advice on why we should encourage our learners to tinker the book begins with a compelling case for this style of learning. Beyond the theory it invites you to explore a host of projects that are bound to inspire. From creating flying cameras with re-cycled goods to and electronic scribbling machine or an astounding set of improvised instruments the book overflows with projects that will have you thinking 'what if?' and 'how might?’.  

6.    Innovation and its Enemies: Why people resist new technologies - Calestous Juma

Innovation.jpg


If you are wanting to understand why change and particularly new technology is resisted and even feared this is a must read. This book will challenge your thinking about the role of technology in society, our perception of it and our responses to it. In a time where technology touches so many aspects of our lives and change occurs at a seemingly exponential rate understanding the enemies of innovation is vital for all and especially for those charged with teaching the next generation of innovators.  

7.    Maker Centred Learning: Empowering young people to shape their worlds - Edward P. Clapp, Jessica Ross, Jennifer O. Ryan, Shari Tishman

If you are looking to understand the educational implications of making, makerspaces and maker movement this is the book for you. The result of a multi-year study by Harvard’s Project Zero and the Agency by Design team this book shares the learning that has occurred and offers clear guidance to maximise the benefits available from a hands-on, minds-on, student centred pedagogy.  

What the Agency by Design research team quickly discovered was that, while making in the classroom was not a new concept, maker-centered learning suggested a new kind of hands-on pedagogy— a pedagogy that encourages community and collaboration (a do-it-together mentality), distributed teaching and learning, boundary crossing, and responsive and flexible teacher practices.

8.    Participatory Creativity: Introducing access and equity to the creative classroom - Edward P. Clapp

Anyone interested in teaching for creativity, anyone inspired by Sir Ken Robinson’s claim that schools kill creativity or any teacher who imagines they don’t have a creative genius like Steve Jobs in their class should read this book. Creativity is not what we thought it was and teaching for creativity requires a participatory, collaborative and richly social environment to thrive.  

9.    Innovation: How innovators think, act and change our world - Kim Chandler McDonald

If we plan to teach for innovation, we should understand what it is. In this book the author presents a series of over 100 interviews with innovators and from this frames what innovation is and the conditions which make it possible. The author has assembled an impressive set of insights and the book is an easy read that will encourage you to think differently and establish the conditions for innovation in your organisation.  

10.    Solving Problems with Design Thinking: 10 stories of what works - Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, Kevin Bennett

The use of design thinking as a strategy for problem solving in a complex environment continues to gain momentum. In this book the authors explore diverse examples of the use of design thinking and share strategies and tools that bring results. For teachers considering a design thinking approach in their teaching or for the management of change in their organisation this book is compelling reading.  

Also worth a look: 

‘Flow: The psychology of happiness’ and ‘Creativity: The psychology of discover and invention by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi 

'Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us' by Daniel Pink 

‘The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon’ by Brad Stone 

‘Grit: The power of passion and perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth 

‘The Accidental Creative: How to be brilliant at a moment’s notice’ by Todd Henry 

 

by Nigel Coutts

 

Learning to love teach meets

There is a growing momentum in education driven by a desire to share our practice and learn from our colleagues. Increasingly teachers are finding ways to break free of their classrooms and share their ideas. Collaborations in the interests of unlocking the collective potential of the profession are spreading within and importantly between schools. For many these collaborative endeavours and desires are satisfied by online communities but for many the possibility for a face to face conversation is more alluring.
 
This is where 'Teach Meets’ come into the picture. Originating in the mind of Ewan McIntosh the first teach meet as it came to be called occurred in Scotland a little over ten years ago. Since the first meeting the idea has been to provide a venue for teachers to gather in and to discuss and share their practice. The simplicity of the idea has caught on and teach meets are now an important source of professional learning for teachers the world over.
 
A small degree of structure brings a level of predictability to teach meets. The normal routine is a brief introduction by the host followed by a series of short presentations around a pre-selected theme. Presentations typically are in one of three lengths, two minutes for quick snapshots of practice, five minutes or seven minutes to allow for more complex ideas. The relative brevity of the presentations and the option for the quick two minute one removes the anxiety and need for detailed preparation that comes with longer, more formalised presentation models. Naturally the rules are there to be broken and bent to the needs of the community. Some teach meets are followed by a teach eat which is not as frightening or cannibalistic as it sounds.
 
And it is the community that matters most. Teach meets are a construct of the teaching community, relying on hosts and presenters from within it. More than likely if you attend a teach meet presented by a particular teaching community you will find yourself attending others by the same group. In the times between the teach meets social media plays the role of maintaining and strengthening the connections between community members. A popular model is for a teach meet to be followed by an online Twitter chat where participants reflect on what they have learned from the teach meet. 
 
Attending your first teach meet can be a little daunting. Joining a community of unknown teachers can be a little frightening, as is joining any new group. What you will find is a collective of passionate teachers keen to expand their learning community and eager to share and embrace new ideas. On your first visit you may choose to just attend, sitting in the audience and joining the conversation afterwards. Making the move from a member of the audience to a presenter is highly recommended and requires little else than an idea worth sharing and the understanding that if you found it valuable, so too will others. Remember that teach meets rely on community participation and the willingness of its members to share. 
 
The rapid spread of teach meets ensures that you are likely to have access to one in your area and in most cases to have access to one that specialises in areas of education that you are interested in. Searching online for teach meets will produce a list of results and there are sites such as TM Sydney where communities can publicise their events. If you are looking to host a teach meet publishing the details through social media with a #tag relevant to and used by the community, you are targeting will bring attendees. Adding the details to online lists will help too. If starting out be prepared for a slow initial growth that gradually accelerates; don’t expect 100 teachers to attend your first event. Much of the charm of teach meets comes from the smaller size of the groups and the close knit communities that they create.  A real benefit of the teach meet community will be the connections that you make.
 
With increasing demands on teachers to involve themselves in documented professional development teach meets are now a way to engage in learning by choice. A typical teach meet will last about two hours including time before and after for discussion. Most teach meets are free and the cost of hosting one is minimal; a little catering. For the host comes the opportunity to support the community and to bring teachers into your learning environment. For schools interested in encouraging their teachers to attend teach meets being a host can be a positive first step and an accessible one at that.
 
Over the past two years I have attended many teach meets and made numerous friendships and collegial relationships along the way. My teaching practice has improved as a result and I have shared my ideas with real audiences who have provided valuable feedback. The team of teachers with whom I am lucky to work have embraced teach meets too and the collective experience has strengthened us as a team and allowed us to better see ourselves as a community of learners. 

By Nigel Coutts

Process vs Product in Maker-centered Learning

The maker movement and with it maker-centered learning brings new possibilities and challenges into the classroom. It has spawned makerspaces and students are busy designing and making products. The danger with all this frenzied making is that it is very easy to miss the point, to focus on the product and not the journey.  

Our year six students are presently engaged with their Personal Passion Projects. Many of the projects fit neatly into the description of maker-centered learning. These are the projects where the students have identified a need and the solution is a product which they design and then prototype. The processes involved in the projects vary immensely as do the materials used and the challenges confronted. The learning curve for some students is very steep as they master new tools and methods. A significant piece of the learning that many of the students are engaged in is linked directly to the specific details of what they are making and this is important but ultimately this learning is secondary to a larger process. 

I doubt that many of my students will enter careers where the maker skills they are learning in this project will be of great importance. I don’t think they will become seamstresses, carpenters or factory workers. I wonder how many of these careers will still exist when they leave school? The fundamental skills of putting things together, of knowing how to use a screwdriver, understanding which glue works best with large flat surfaces or how to use fibreglass to create surfboard fins are nice to have but unlikely to play a part in the lives that the students are likely to live. So why do we have students engage in maker-centered learning? 

Understanding the value of maker-centered learning requires a fundamental shift in our thinking about the processes involved and the nature of learning. The output is not all important. This is not an easy concept for teachers to embrace as it is traditionally the output which we use as we evaluate and assess student learning. The essay at the end of the history unit, the maths test, the narrative, the speech are all examples of the output of learning and in each we hope to have captured evidence of the students learning. Maker-centered learning upsets this pattern. The process is what matters most and it is the process which we must assess even where the output fails to capture the learning which occurred.  

Failing is a part of the process and failing disrupts output based assessments. At the core of the maker philosophy is a process of ideation, iteration and emergence. Commonly it is called Design Thinking and with this comes a certain degree of structure. Students move through phases of thinking that include empathy, needs analysis, ideation, planning, prototyping and evaluation in patterns both linear and non-linear as needs require. Tinkering is another pathway with less structure but offering the potential for ideas to emerge from a free-form experimentation where ideas and goals emerge from play. Regardless of the degree of structure adopted the product will not always capture the quality of thinking that went into nor the level to which the student has mastered a process that they will be required to apply time and time again. 

The creative process that leads to innovation is understood through its practical application. Students need opportunities to learn the process of developing ideas that solve practical problems. Sometimes the solution will be a product, sometimes a service and sometimes traditional research. The common element is the process and it is this process that maker-centered learning teaches. With this in mind it becomes important to look for mastery of the process that students are utilising as they solve the problems they encounter in their making. How do they deal with obstacles? How did they plan their solution? How effectively do they collaborate? What did they do to understand the problem and how did they monitor their progress?  

Capturing evidence of the creative process can be challenging for teachers. Traditional assessment measures are easy to implement, easy to compare and easy to record. Increasingly though we want evidence of the so called soft-skills which students use. Creative confidence, risk tolerance, collaborative intelligence, critical thinking, resilience are important skills and dispositions but each is difficult to measure. Strategies such as those encompassed by ‘Making Thinking Visible’ (MTV) can help here. MTV strategies offer two advantages to teachers and learners. Importantly they provide structure to thinking and encourage a deeper engagement with concepts and ideas. They also allow the thinking that is occurring to be made visible and thus a part of the assessment process.  

MTV routines combined with reflective journals and process diaries can all play an important role in documenting student learning. Design thinking can be supported through the use of mind-maps, hexagonal planning with post-it notes and story boarding all of which captures the process towards a solution. Combined with digital portfolios of images and videos teachers and students can capture a rich story of the learning that has occurred within a maker-centered classroom and use this as a guide for future learning. By valuing the process and not the product in maker-centered learning we can celebrate our student’s success and point them towards their next achievement even when the final product doesn’t meet expectations.  

By Nigel Coutts