When designing student learning, what questions guide us?

We ask lots of questions as we plan for our student's learning. Some of the questions we ask are about where they are with their learning. These are the questions that we answer with information from assessments combined with our professional judgement and our interactions with our students. Some of the questions are about what our students need to learn next. These are the questions where continuums such as those described within the curriculum provide us with guidance. We combine this prescribed continuum with our knowledge of learning and learners to decide where we hope to take our learners in their learning journey. Some of the questions we ask involve our understanding of the world beyond our classrooms and our thinking about the skills and dispositions which will be of most value to our students in their tomorrows.

But perhaps we miss one important question along the way. Maybe we should be asking questions about how our students will apply what they learn?

David Perkins describes the ‘uppity question’ that students ask; “Why do I have to learn this?”. Often the answer is something along the lines of ‘it will be on the test’ or ‘you will need this as an adult’. The truth we know is that much of what we teach is at best infrequently used and while it may be on the test, the students would be right to counter our argument with ‘why is it on the test?’. The typical response to this line of thinking is to reconsider what we are teaching so that when we tell our students 'that this learning will matter in the lives they are likely to live’, we are confident that it will be.

But maybe we can strive to avoid the question altogether. Maybe we can plan for learning experiences where the utility of what is taught becomes self-evident.

Some of the learning situations that our students engage in have such clear relevance that the question ‘why do I have to learn this?’ is never asked. Consider a situation where a student is developing a solution to a problem that matters to them. Maybe the student is making something through a design thinking methodology. From developing an understanding of the problem, through a process of ideation and prototyping the student’s efforts are clearly linked to a problem that matters to them. Along the way they undoubtedly find themselves requiring new skills and knowledge in areas which may not be immediately associated with the problem they set out to solve. Perhaps they need to budget for resources, communicate their ideas with collaborators, research related concepts and phenomenon. This secondary learning has meaning because of the part it plays in the primary task.

Other learning tasks reveal their relevance in other ways. A teacher who reveals their passion for a subject invites their students to share in that interest. When we find a topic engaging, beautiful, powerful and share our emotional connection to the learning with our students we remove the sense that it is merely content to be learned for its future utility. Learning that is situated in a context of social connections and relationships takes on a meaning that brings immediate relevance.

Another path is to reveal the empowerment that comes with a new skill or understanding. Telling our students that 'knowledge is power’ will not suffice, they need to be shown how the knowledge and skills they acquire empowers them. Learning to analyse poetry so that one can write an essay on the evolution of the sonnet has little meaning but being shown how poetry serves to ignite powerful emotions in the reader or provide an avenue towards self-enlightenment might spark an interest. With the right start, the learner can be invited to participate in a process of evolving and fine tuning their skills and expanding their repertoire such that they are increasingly empowered by the knowledge they possess.

Increasingly in contemporary times we understand that our students need not wait for adulthood before they apply their learning to real-world purposes. The young entrepreneur who transforms and idea into a business reveals the presence in society of new opportunities. Innovative ideas no longer require the backing of big-business to succeed. Small-scale, grass-roots projects baked by crowd funding and low-volume manufacturing techniques or purely-digital solutions allow anyone with an idea to capture new markets. Social media brings new avenues and youth activism is revealing itself as a powerful agent for change. Young people are not waiting to achieve voting age before finding their political voice. When students learn about global issues such as climate change, poverty or gender inequality they are able to take action and discover their agency. Education needs to keep pace with these trends and recognise that it has a part to play in training both political actors and the next generation of industrialists to use their power in responsible ways.

These new opportunities for students to apply their learning immediately bring with them new challenges. Once, education was like filling a bucket with water in the hope that it may one day be used to fight a fire or nurture a garden. Today our students are using their knowledge, skills and dispositions to solve problems and achieve goals that were once the preserve of adults. It was sufficient in the past to teach the skills of persuasive writing and leave learning about the consequences of its use in achieving political goals for later. This is no longer a safe strategy and we have seen repeated examples of young people who have found themselves in the midst of a political storm for which they have little or no preparation. What are the understandings children need to navigate these waters and what opportunities might schools provide for students to experiment safely in this new territory? Clearly there is a new set of questions to be asked about what we might teach our students.

By Nigel Coutts

What meal would your team be?

What makes a team truly great? What are the qualities which allow some teams to perform at a high level while others seem trapped? One approach to this question is to consider a team as though they were a meal. Thinking metaphorically, we ask what are the ingredients that make a great team and how might we combine them to produce the best results?

Some teams are like a stew. Each member of the team has their unique qualities, their particular strengths and peculiarities. A good stew combines diverse ingredients into a single pot with the result being a meal that always tastes exactly like stew. The mixing and blending of flavours in a stew is so complete that it becomes difficult to see the contribution of individual ingredients. Teams are like stews when the individual differences melt away and the team becomes a heterogeneous blend. There is minimal tension, very few arguments, no conflicting opinions and everyone seems to be working from the same page. Such a team can be a pleasant place to work. It can be very supportive and individual weaknesses are blended over by the cohesion of the team.

A team that has morphed into a stew is the sort of place where innovation goes to die. New ideas seem to sink down into the stew and disappear with little evidence to be seen in the overall flavour and texture. New members are inevitably indoctrinated into the “way things have always been”. Fresh perspectives and voices that challenge the status quo have little hope of transformation. Stew like teams are dangerous in times of rapid and uncertain change. They lack the flexibility required to adapt as circumstances change and new opportunities emerge. So deeply ingrained is the flavour of a stew that it is perhaps easier to throw out the whole pot and start again. If that is not possible, then maybe the only solution is to consistently add more and more of the one transformative ingredient until its flavour begins to overwhelm the otherwise inescapable last of stew.

Some teams are like a freshly tossed salad. Such teams are almost the complete opposite of our previous example, the stew. In a salad, each ingredient stands on its own. The contribution of each ingredient is clearly evident. Each ingredient adds its unique personality to the salad and as you add fresh ingredients to the mix the possibilities widen. Salads are adaptable and can be easily remixed and rearranged in new combinations. In a team that is like a salad diversity is evident, many perspectives are shared and the voices of individuals are heard.

A team that is like a salad can be a great place to work. The culture of such a team can be very dynamic and responsive. Individuals are able to find their place and with little need to “fit in” that individuality is readily expressed. Arguments can be difficult to deal with and tensions can be left to fester or frequently explode as there are few normative pressures. A salad like team can be a place that generates new ideas in abundance but is unable to move from divergent ideation to convergent transformation. Everyone has an idea but no one is willing to give an inch to achieve consensus. A salad can also be a place where there is little support for individual weaknesses. The observation that one bad egg can ruin a salad applies also to teams that are salad like. It is also too easy for one ingredient to dominate. A single overpowering ingredient in the team or too much of one type of ingredient can result in an imbalance that is difficult to address.

Some teams are like “meat and two sides”. A good simple meal with minimal fuss and easy preparation. The standard fair of pubs and clubs the world over. A team becomes like “meat and two sides" when it is centred on one talented and dominant member. In teams like this the ideas, thinking and bulk of the work is done by one member. Take that one member away and you are left with an almost empty plate, a vacuum that needs to be filled. Without the meat on the plate the two sides have little to offer, they were always secondary to the main show and merely basked int its glory.

A team that is like “meat and two sides” will only be as strong as its dominant member. It will be for the most part well managed and will get the job done. In the right circumstances where the challenges of the day fall within the areas of strength of this dominant individual the team will run smoothly. The two sides add a certain something and so long as they know their place and are content with playing along with the dominant team member disputes will be avoided. When the challenges are beyond the scope of the dominant member, even if they may have been addressed by one of the sides moving into a more substantial role the team is unlikely to succeed.

Of course the range of meal which we might select as a metaphor for our teams is endless. The trick is to know what type of team we have and what type of team we might need. Just as there are times when our culinary needs are well served by a tasty stew there will be times when a team with stew like properties fulfils our needs; unless change is likely. There will be times when a salad is perfect while at other times a good serve of fish and chips might be best. By closely scrutinising, understanding and valuing the team we have; by knowing each individual ingredient and the combinations made possible we begin to plan a successful meal (team).

By Nigel Coutts

Lessons from Schrödinger's Cat

There are some ideas which seem to translate nicely into fields of thought far from their point of origin. These are ideas which shine a metaphorical light on concepts and allow us to develop a deeper understanding of that concept once we see it from a fresh perspective.

Schrödinger's cat is a concept within quantum physics; a field that is far from the day to day functioning of the typical (non-science) educator. It is a thought experiment developed by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to help explain quantum superposition. For those who do not spend their days contemplating quantum physics, the ponderous circumstance that Erwin’s cat is placed in is a response to an article that "highlighted the counterintuitive nature of quantum superpositions, in which a quantum system such as an atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes." (Wikipedia)

Schrödinger proposed a scenario in which a cat is placed inside a box with a vial of poison which at a random point in time is broken open resulting in the cat’s tragic death. With no way of seeing into the box the observer does not know if the cat is alive or dead. Schrödinger proposed that we can thus think of the cat as both alive and dead up to the point where we break the box open and confront either an annoyed and very much alive cat, seeking vengeance for its confinement or find ourselves in need of a shovel.

What might this radical oversimplification of a great physicist's work have to do with education?

Consider a typical unit plan or sequence of lessons. Students are introduced to a concept or idea. The teacher guides them through the material essential for them to learn. There might be a lecture, perhaps a stimulating video. Most likely the students will be asked to read something related to the topic before the teacher spends time in class discussing the parts of greatest importance. New methods will be introduced to the students. There will be modelling of the process by the teacher, followed by an opportunity for the students to practice the new method. New vocabulary will be introduced and as the unit draws to its logical conclusion the teacher will artfully draw the many pieces together.

The last piece of the puzzle is the final assessment. Maybe it is a class assessment or maybe it is a high-stakes standardised and formalised assessment such as the Higher School Certificate or the SAT. In this final summative assessment the quality and depth of the students learning as a consequence of their engagement with the learning process and the teachers skill in making the concepts and understandings is put to the test. The result of this assessment is a clear numerical statement of the success or not of the whole learning endeavour.

The final assessment of the student is somewhat similar to opening Schrödinger’s box. Only at this point do we know if the student has mastered that which we set out for them to learn.

When we draw a parallel between Schrödinger's cat and our learning sequence as described above we see a fundamental flaw in our design. While Schrödinger’s sealed box serves a purpose in his metaphor, the educator is much better served by a box with a window. We want to be able to observe our students at every point in their learning journey and should their metaphorical vial of poison break, we want to take immediate action. And yet when we rely heavily on summative assessments as the measure of learning we create a situation where we only discover gaps in learning long after the point where we could have taken appropriate action.

The clear antidote to this scenario is to rely upon formative assessments and strategies to make our students thinking and learning visible; to us and to them. By constantly gathering and acting on evidence of where our students are in their learning journeys and by enabling them to be observers and drivers of their own learning, we set a window into Schrödinger’s box. Our goal is to drastically shorten the time between noticing that a student has misunderstood a concept, is not mastering a new skill or has missed a key connection and the implementation of actions we collectively take to remedy this.

To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, we want to know when the vial breaks open, we want our cat to notice it too and together we want to find a way to avoid an unfortunate ending.

By Nigel Coutts

Curiosity as the edge of knowledge phenomenon that drives learning

We are driven by curiosity. It is an innately human quality that has driven us to explore, ask questions, investigate, wonder why and search for a deeper understanding. In a very fundamental way curiosity is the driver of all self-directed learning. It is our desire to find out more, unlock new knowledge and answer our questions (big ones and little ones) that compels us to learn.

Sir Ken Robinson famously and provocatively asked “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”. The same question might be asked about curiosity.

There is some evidence that this might be the case. Numerous studies have reported that the number of questions asked by a child steadily declines as they grow. From somewhere around the 300 per day mark at age four this declines to less than 100 by the time the child is nine years old. This is of course linked to a steady increase in what the child has achieved sufficient knowledge about and a decline in the number of new encounters in their daily exploration of the world and yet it remains as a point of concern as there are potentially other factors at play here.

As students experience what school is about they quickly learn that what matters most to their teachers and for their success is right answers. The patterns at the heart of education send powerful messages about what learners are supposed to do. Spend a little time in the average classroom and you see that the dominant patterns is typified by the teacher asking a question and the student providing an answer. Indeed, to an alien visitor arriving with no knowledge of “who is who” would be forgiven for assuming that the teacher is the curious one and the students are the keepers of humanities knowledge.

Some students might miss the unsubtle messaging that exists within the dialogical structure of the classroom but they surely will not miss it when the time comes for their learning to be assessed. Few if any assessments offer marks for questions that the students may have at the end of a learning module, even in environments that claim to value curiosity. If we are to value curiosity and seek to encourage it surely it would be one of the dispositions that we assess. Unfortunately the disposition most commonly assessed is recall of knowledge followed closely by the ability to communicate that knowledge in the prescribed method of an essay.

Recently there has been debate about the place that curiosity plays in learning and its relationship with knowledge. The claim is that for a learner to ask quality questions about a field of knowledge they must first possess a sufficient level of knowledge. This line of thinking is used to argue for a pedagogical model that begins with teacher to student transfer of knowledge and moves opportunities for questions and curiosity to the latter parts of the learning journey. This raises some interesting questions.

It is reasonable to agree that a degree of knowledge is required before an individual is likely to arrive at meaningful questions that might drive an inquiry. Before I wonder what is on the other side of the door I need to become aware of the door. Before I am curious about a phenomenon in physics I need some exposure to that phenomenon. The question is do I require knowledge or does a stimulating prompt that stimulates curiosity enable my mind to generate relevant questions at a novice level and then as I acquire knowledge ask more complex questions typical of an expert.

Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi’s description of how the creative process is sparked parallels the role that curiosity plays in sparking a desire to learn:

The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere or a task to be accomplished perhaps something is not right somewhere there is a conflict a tension a need to be satisfied. The problematic issue can be triggered by a personal experience by a lack of fit in the symbolic system by the stimulation of colleagues or by public means. In any case without such a felt tension that attracts the psychic energy of the person there is no need for a new response therefore without a stimulus of this sort the creative process is unlikely to start.
(Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi)

Curiosity exists at the edge of knowledge. For this reason even the most wise person has a point where the extent of their knowledge is reached; what they do at this point is what makes them wise. With this in mind rather than extinguishing curiosity learning should shift the point at which we rely upon our curiosity ever deeper into our learning journeys and further from the point of what is known. Curiosity is the driver of learning for the novice and the expert.

There is a real advantage in including curiosity inducing learning into our routines. Research by Gruber, German & Ranganath reveals the power of curiosity for learning in the moment and its benefits to learning in other contexts. As reported by Jackie Gerstein of “User Generated Education”:

The study revealed three major findings. First, as expected, when people were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information. More surprising, however, was that once their curiosity was aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about. Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it. Second, the investigators found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. Third, when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit.

So if it is agreed that curiosity is an effective driver of learning and has an important role to play in enhancing the effectiveness of our learning, what opportunities do we offer for students to demonstrate curiosity? How do we move curiosity from being something teachers exhibit while planning a unit to one that is at the heart of our learners experience of school? How do we shift the narrative of education from one that values right answers to one that values curiosity and the search for answers.

By Nigel Coutts

Related:

Questions at the Heart of Learning

The Questions that Matter Most

Helping Students to Become Problem Finders

More than Knowing the Right Answer

Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi (2013) Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial.

Matthias J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, Charan Ranganath. States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron, 2014

Educators as Agents for Educational Policy

Education exists in an uneasy domain and the teaching professional is forced to navigate between a multitude of conflicting tensions. Our education systems are dominated by abundance of voices all shouting for attention and offering a solution to the problems they have diagnosed. Each individual claims expertise and insights gained from years as a student is sufficient experience to allow one to speak with authority.

Politicians know that education is an election issue and politicians exist to give their public what they want. Henry Ford knew that had he sought the opinion of his customers they would have requested a faster horse. Henry listened to other voices instead and delivered the Model T. Henry was not a politician. The political take on education is one developed mostly from a distance. It reflects a belief that education needs fixing and that the blame for its current state lies with teachers. It relies on limited data, that is oversimplified, misinterpreted and packaged to suit the predetermined message. It plays to false dichotomies which in a two party system of democracy neatly allows one side to offer the opposite solution to that recommended by their opposition. Opinion polls drive policy but the opinion of those most likely to offer truly useful information is largely ignored or given equal credence to that of the masses.

The media in its present form exists to sell advertising in competition with Google and Facebook; the pretence that they are in the business of selling papers or attracting viewers has passed its use-by. A headline that proclaims consistent progress or an article that offers an in-depth exploration of the complex nature of educational decision making is unlikely to achieve as many Ad views as one proclaiming that the system is broken. Every journalist has an opinion and celebrity counts more than expertise. Why seek the opinion of an educator when that of a half-baked entertainer is available. Truly deep journalism, that explores complexity and is aware of context is a risky enterprise and one that is unlikely to increase impressions. Only on the fringes does one find a more rounded view where educator voices are included and respected for the expertise they bring but this is not where the mainstream public finds their news.

With little access to a more nuanced view of education the general public has a limited perspective. If you are a parent you will have some insights into what occurs in schools but an understanding of why it happens and a picture of the greater complexity behind the scenes is likely to be lacking. Reporting of assessment results rings alarm bells. Reading that Australia’s results on international assessments leads to calls for inquiries into schools and teachers rather than for a close accounting of what the assessments measure or their inherent validity. Little mention is made of the geographic distribution of underachievement or the link between NAPLAN results and ICSEA ( Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) scores. Everyone who has been to school has an opinion on the subject and debate continues with little reference to research or genuine expertise. Dichotomies abound and issues are oversimplified. Back to basics is the answer unless you advocate for 21st Century Skills. Follow Finland or maybe Singapore; their results are stellar. Rely on the judgement of an education professional; no thanks.

In the middle of all this sits the professional educator. Armed with years of training, a broad knowledge of research, experience from the classroom and an understanding of learners and learning. Teachers understand the complexity of education. They use their professional knowledge to plan learning experiences that meet the needs of their students. They balance multiple demands on their time while complying with seemingly contradictory policies and curriculums. They enact multiple dictates from a polyphony of interest groups all while ensuring that the needs of their students come first. They know that test scores are just one measure of their achievement and understand that the success attained by many students thanks to their care, is not reflected in any of the standardised measures.

In modern times more than ever though, being an exceptional educator is perhaps not enough. If education is to rise to the challenge of a rapidly changing world, if we are to ensure our students are prepared with the skills they will require in times of uncertainty and volatility, educators will need to find their voice and become agents for change. Teachers need to understand that education is shaped by political forces and that excellent classroom practice needs to combine with advocacy for education as a respected profession that takes collective control of its future. Policy must be something driven by educators, not something which happens to educators.

As in so many aspect of education, John Dewey had the measure of the situation,

It is . . . advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticise, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action. John Dewey, 1895.

By Nigel Coutts

The Eight Cultural Forces - The lens & the lever

Schools are busy and complex places. Whenever you bring several hundred people together for an extended period of time on a regular basis complexity is likely to thrive. One way to consider the complexity involved in the average school might be to map the connections and interactions which exist. Start the process with one person, consider all of the factors and experiences which make this person who they are. Now connect this person to one other and make note of the interactions which occur between these two people. Be certain to consider all of the factors and experiences relevant to this second person. Repeat this process again and again and again until you have mapped the interactions and intersections of everyone directly involved in the school. Then keep going, you need to consider all of the people on the periphery of the school and so far we have only considered the people; don’t forget the environment of the school and its community, the culture of the place, its history, its place in the world. Now that you are almost finished, go back and start the whole process again, things have changed since you started.

Education is inherently complicated and any attempt to reduce it to simple terms is likely to fail. The tendency to simplify things to one or two easily addressed factors is behind much of the frustration that teachers experience whenever they listen to politicians or the media offer a soundbite on the state of education. Teachers know how complex things really are, after all they spend much of their time in schools and large chunks of their day thinking about what goes on inside schools. Politicians and the media make short visits or rely on memories of their school days. When a new plan is announced to re-focus education in one way or another it is almost inevitable that it will fail to address most of the complexity that occurs in schools. Those in the know are hardly surprised.

This unavoidable and irreducible complexity means that schools are challenging place to study, to understand and to manage change within. Even for the teacher who spends everyday inside the school there is so much going on that unguided observations and the plans based upon them come with no guarantee of success. This is a fundamental tenet of complexity theory. Complexity theory points towards the importance of exploring the interactions between the intentions and effects of agents within organisations and reveals that the exponential scaling of these connections brings greater degrees of complexity than may be managed.

Perhaps the closest that complexity theory comes to a positive statement on the outlook for managing complex systems is that ‘despite complexity theory’s relative inability to predict the direction or nature of change, by implementing at each constituent level changes whose outcome we can predict with reasonable confidence, we are at least influencing change in the appropriate direction’ (Mason, 2008 p46) This points us in the direction of a lens that enables a clear perspective of what occurs inside schools; a lens that allows us to retain our perception of the whole while permitting us to then influence that whole by targeting its more manageable parts.

Such a lens is offered by the ‘cultural forces’ as identified by the research of Ron Ritchhart and colleagues at Harvard’s Project Zero. In the cultural forces, we find a set of naturally occurring factors which are present in all schools, all classrooms and between all members of a learning community. From an extended observation of schools engaged in the business of education the cultural forces emerged as the factors which have a significant impact on the culture of the organisation. The cultural forces are present without any deliberate action and they are either exerting a positive force or heading an organisation in the wrong direction. While the cultural forces occur across all settings, how they are expressed varies immensely.

Source - Worldwide Cultures of Thinking Project, 2015 Ron Ritchhart, Project Zero at Harvard University.

Source - Worldwide Cultures of Thinking Project, 2015 Ron Ritchhart, Project Zero at Harvard University.

Ritchhart identified eight cultural forces; opportunities, time, modelling, language, environment, interactions, routines & expectations. The teacher armed with an awareness of these cultural forces seeks to ask questions to uncover how each force is currently experienced within their sphere of influence and linked to a particular goal. As Ritchhart was seeking to understand how we might build a culture of thinking questions such as ‘What opportunities am I providing for my students to engage in critical thinking?’ were common. In a different context with a focus on building capacity for positive social learning one might ask ‘How might I offer more opportunities for students to apply their new social skills?’.

As lenses, the cultural forces encourage a focus on actionable items that influence the culture of a school or classroom. For example, by looking at and asking questions about how ‘Time’ is allocated in schools we gain a perspective on what matters most and often find that much time is spent on items which have little to do with our core purposes. Through the lens of ‘Interactions’ we see how the connections between people (teachers, students, the community) are either supporting or hindering learning that matters. Are we focused on interactions that support collaborations and responsible risk taking or are we focused on aspects of command and control? Do we provide our students with effective “Modelling’ of the habits of an effective learner or do they only see their teachers as pre-formed experts? Each cultural force provides us with a fresh perspective and we can then move to how we might make changes to how that force is expressed so as to move us towards a desired state.

The cultural forces do not remove the complexity that exists within schools but they do allow us to see what is there and to see it in manageable chunks. Having used the cultural forces as a lens for understanding what is there, a school might decide to focus on tweaking just one of the forces as they work their way towards their goals. A teacher might notice that her students have difficulty settling after time in the playground and decides to implement a new ‘Routine’ to help the students re-focus at these times. While all eight of the forces are in action all of the time, there is no need for us to address them al at once.

Daniel Wilson of Harvard’s Project Zero speaking in Melbourne noted that designers achieve greater success with complex problems than others. Designers have a capacity due to their thinking dispositions to cope with complexity and to adapt solutions as needed while working towards a vision or shared goal. Daniel indicates that complex situations, such as those which schools increasingly confront as a result of rapid change and previously unencountered challenges, require emergence as a path to solutions. A bubbling forth of ideas which may be transformed into plans and drivers of change from all areas within an organisation is seen as the best approach to change where solutions have not yet been found and cannot be passed down from above. Ewan McIntosh indicates that much of the success that the Designer has is a result of their use of a design thinking process. Their capacity to generate, apply and evaluate ideas is a result of an approach to problem solving that is flexible enough to enable creativity yet provides sufficient structure to avoid complete divergence. ‘You need the box to think in’.

The great strength of the cultural forces as an approach to problem finding and solving in schools is that they provide educators with enough structure while being adaptable to all contexts. The cultural forces do not constrain or describe the solutions that might bubble forward. The change leader in a school is merely offering their team a lens with which to see, a common language with which to discuss it and a lever with which to move things. Armed with the cultural forces a school can allow great ideas to bubble up and to be acted upon purposefully.

By Nigel Coutts

Mason, M. (2008). What is Complexity Theory and what are its implications for educational change? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), pp. 35-49

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

A pedagogy for Cultural Understanding & Human Empathy

"For us, we are all very different, our languages are very different, and our societies are very different. But if we could extract ourselves from our point of view and sort of look down at human life the way a biologist looks at other organisms, I think we could see it a different way. Imagine an extrahuman observer looking at us. Such an extrahuman observer would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same."

- Noam Chomsky

How we see ourselves, how we describe ourselves reveals a great deal about how we see ‘others’. In May of this year, speaking to the audience of the International Conference on Thinking, Bruno Della Chiesa invited us to consider how we might approach the question of "who we are?”. In responding to such a question, what list of affiliations do we invoke to define ourselves? Do we attribute our identity as belonging to a particular culture or nation? How important in our self-definition is our membership to one or more of the subgroups of humanity?

Bruno shared that the cumulative impact of his study of language and of languages is a re-imagining of his identity to one that is defined primarily by his ‘humanity’. With each additional language that he mastered his perception of his place in the world was altered. He moved from a one-dimensional perspective of the world to what he describes as an n-dimensional perspective; an understanding of cultures not in isolation but as a richly interconnected whole. As we learn additional languages we develop an understanding of language from the interferences between them. Each additional language is easier to learn as we see beyond the differences to an understanding of the fundamental constructs which are near universal. The same pattern occurs as we experience and learn multiple-cultures from our engagement with languages. We become open to a cross-fertilisation of ideas resulting in a philosophy of language and with this and through exposure to multiple cultures we develop a philosophy of culture. This philosophy of culture allows us to see ourselves (us) and ‘others’ as members of a global culture defined by our humanity rather than our nationality.

How we construct our identity defines how we see “others”. Human history is marked by the often ugly and bloody interactions between a powerful ‘us’ and new and frightening ‘other’. Too often we see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ’them’ and this perception of ’them’ of otherness has allowed the worst of our inhumanities. It is this perception of ‘others’ as something to be frightened, mistrusted, as unworthy, uneducated or uncivilised which has allowed us to engage both in war and to turn our backs on those in need. But, if we begin by defining ourselves as humans, the notion and power of and negative responses towards ‘us and them' relations is diluted. When we see our commonalities before we see what makes us unique we remove the greatest barrier to a better world.

Recent events locally and globally reveal that despite all our efforts; the rise and rise of democracies, the normalisation of global transactions, of the daily blending of cultures in increasingly multi-cultural societies, of the historical analysis of our past failings, we must never turn away from the threats posed by the perception of ‘us’ and ‘others’ as a relationship which must be dominated.

One day, maybe, we will have a world where the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has dissolved. Where our capacity for human empathy and understanding eclipses our capacity for hate, but such a time will not happen without our efforts and as Paulo Freire reminds us, education has a powerful part to play.

"But the humanist, revolutionary educator cannot wait for this pos­sibility to materialize. From the outset, her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them." - Paulo Freire

When we encourage our students to learn another language so they may better understand themselves and their neighbours, when we encourage them to study another culture not to know how ‘others’ live but to explore what links us all, we make possible a new definition of ourselves, not derived from our place of birth but from our undeniable humanity. We need a pedagogy that allows our students to see 'the very slight variation from one culture to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all cultures are the same'.

By Nigel Coutts

For those about to make a resolution

With the year rushing to a close, this seems like the right time to set goals for the year ahead. To pause and consider what next and make some personal promises.

The trouble is that the history of setting New Year Resolutions is littered with failures. It is so easy at this point in time to make commitments for change and then just a few weeks later to have forgotten what they were. Guilt sets in and what was a positive process now seems like an exercise in futility. By making a New Year’s Resolution we merely set ourselves up for an inevitable failure.

Change is by no means an easy process and it is one that surely begins with wanting to change. It is our desire to change combined with the pressure of the season that leads us to engage with this process of making a New Year's Resolution. But change requires so much more than desire and if we are resolving to change because it is “that time of year” there is a good chance we are not truly ready to commit to the change.

Understanding that change is a process and not a “resolution" allows you to approach it with a better understanding of what it will require. There is a definite benefit in knowing what it is you hope to achieve. If there is a common element in all of the “change manifestos” it is that a clear and powerful vision of the desired state post change is a critical first step.

It also needs to be a vision that is owned by the people who will be most impacted. In the case of a New Year’s Resolution those people are ‘you’. If the resolution you set is a response to what you think others believe you should do or be or become, then you are headed in the wrong direction. This is surely part of the reason why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail, the person making the resolution did not truly want the change, they merely wanted the approval that might have come from others had they achieved it. Once you realise that those you were planning to impress as a result of your new resolve are too caught up with their own issues to notice, you see how your efforts were for naught.

Should you arrive at that point of knowing what you truly hope to achieve and have a clear understanding of why it is of great personal significance, you are ready to start the process of changing. It is one thing to decide you want to climb a mountain; it is an entirely different task to actually do it. One requires an idea and a couch on which to have it, the other involves a whole lot of focused and persistent action.

At some point in the whole process of imaging a change you have to work out exactly what you need to do to achieve it. The mountaineer who only makes plans for how they will hang their flag on the summit will never get as far as the first camp. Success is only likely if you are clear on what you must do, what the first step is, the second and so on. It might be said that the journey of a a thousand miles begins with the first step, but the second and third and every subsequent is as important as the one which starts it all.

Now that you are on your way you will undoubtedly come up against more than a few roadblocks and speed bumps. No change that is worth something as lofty as a New Year’s Resolution can be achieved with ease. The greatest hurdle is likely to be that of habit. The way that we have always done things, the things we do and barely notice that we do them, the habits that are part of who we are become the biggest obstacle to change. Habit is also perhaps the best strategy with which to achieve your goals. Rather than leaving change to chance, make the little steps along the way to success a part of a new habit, one that precludes the old ways you are wanting to avoid. Spend too much time checking email in the morning, change your schedule to include a power walk, not just to clear the head but to get you away from the emails.

The choice to set a New Year’s Resolution should not be taken lightly and if you do and you want to succeed it at it you must commit to the journey. The choice you make on Monday night should be something that you are wanting to live with for a very long time, if not maybe just let New Year’s Eve be a chance to enjoy what might be best described as "scare the wits out of your dog day”.


Source -  The Oatmeal

Source - The Oatmeal


By Nigel Coutts

Holiday Reading - Christmas 2019

With the Christmas Holiday’s finally here this is the perfect opportunity to catch up on some of that reading which has been delayed while more pressing matters are dealt with. Here are the top items on my holiday reading list. With a project underway that explores a conceptual based approach to teaching mathematics there is a bias in that direction.

1. In the Moment: Conferring in the Elementary Math Classroom by Jen Munson

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In this book the idea of a mathematics conference is unpacked and made practical. By conferencing mathematical understanding students are invited to move beyond knowing and develop deep and flexible knowledge. Teachers gain valuable insight about how their students are processing mathematical concepts and where they might need to intervene. - “A conference is a shared opportunity for teachers and students to learn together in the moment”

2. Making Number Talks Matter: Developing mathematical practices and deepening understanding by Cathy Humphreys & Ruth Parker

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"Number Talks" is an approach to the teaching and learning of Number Sense. Rather than relying on the rote-memorisation of isolated number facts achieved through drills of "table-facts", Number Talks aim to build confident, number fluency, where learners recognise patterns within and between numbers and understand the properties of numbers and operations. Number Talks are a "mind on" learning task that engages students in an active learning process as they search for patterns, decompose and recompose numbers and develop a flexible understanding. It is achieved through direct instruction methods and facilitative dialogue with the teacher or between groups of peers who have had experience with the number talks methodology. It becomes one of the routines of a classroom focused on mathematical reasoning.

Number sense is important because it encourages students to think flexibly and promotes confidence with numbers. . . . The fact is, students who lack a strong number sense have trouble developing the foundation needed for even simple arithmetic, let alone more complex mathematics. A large body of research has shown that number sense develops gradually, over time, as a result of exploration of numbers, visualizing numbers in a variety of contexts, and relating to numbers in different ways. (Keith Devlin)

Making Number Talks Matter is a great introduction for teachers looking to make thinking with and about numbers a routine part of their student’s learning.

3. Yes, But Why: Teaching for understanding in mathematics by Ed Southall

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As teachers of mathematics we all know the maths we need to teach? A more challenging question is do we truly understand it? If we are looking to change how we teach mathematics because we realise that the methods used in the past did not build understanding we might have a problem if we learned our maths by these same methods. In this book author Ed Southall dives into the details behind the mathematics. This is the perfect book for the mathematical thinker who wants to understand the ‘why’ of mathematical concepts, who needs to know their origin story and who enjoys looking at things from a slightly different perspective.

4. Flip the System Australia: What matters in education edited by Deborah M. Netolicky, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson

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The third book in the Flip the System series turns the focus to Australia and its unique context. This is a book by teachers for teachers with a clear goal; challenge the current hierarchy and seek to explore ‘What matters in education’ rather than following global agendas and a ‘what works’ paradigm. The authors draw on their experience from inside the profession and their knowledge of the conflicting pressures that our modern education system faces. "This book does some talking but is ultimately about listening to the wisdom of the profession and engaging them at system level. We hope that by amplifying diverse but collective voices, this book can be part of a move to a world in which similar voices are sought out and valued by those traditionally at the decision-making peak of the education system.”

5. Developing Tenacity: Teaching learners how to persevere in the face of difficulty by Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer

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The growing trend in terms of curriculum design is characterised by a tension between advocates of a capabilities or disposition driven curriculum and those advocating for a focus on knowledge. There is no shortage of opinion and research around what the capabilities or dispositions are that our young people will need for success in their futures and Lucas and Spencer have added their voice to that discussion. In this series, which started with ‘Developing Creativity’, the authors move the conversation to the practical point of describing what classroom routines and pedagogies might we implement if we want to develop these capabilities.

6. Calling all Minds: How to think and create like an inventor by Temple Grandin


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Written by an inspiring and creative thinker who loves to tinker and apply her knowledge of engineering combined with her capacity to visualise ideas to create solutions to problems. This book combines insights into the mind of a world-renowned maker with practical projects which get the reader involved in tinkering. This is a book that challenges a singular view of intelligence as a limited set of cognitive capacities and reveals that it is a much more expansive concept. “There is no better way to start than by making things of your own design. All the projects I made when I was young contributed to the inventions I’ve made throughout my life. And they have given meaning to my life.” If we seek to enable a generation of creative problem solvers who will transform the global challenges we face into opportunities, we need to get them inventing before they leave school.

By Nigel Coutts

Teaching mathematicians shouldn't be like programming a computer

Traditional methods of teaching maths have more in common with how we programme a computer than what we might do if we wanted to engage our students in mathematical thinking. We shouldn’t be overly surprised then when our students consider mathematics to be all about learning a set of rules that they need to apply in the right order so as to output the correct response. But is there a better way?

The product of most computational thinking, an algorithm is in essence just a step by step list of instructions that can be followed by a human or machine. An algorithm is defined by Google as "a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer". This result was returned as a result of the very special and complex algorithm that is deployed by Google to make sense of my search and deliver results that are likely to meet my needs. Google also provides me with a nifty graph revealing the frequency at which the word ‘algorithm’ is used. It shows a rapid increase in the words use beginning around 1960; the sort of growth curve that corporations dream of. The rapid rise in our use of the word algorithm reflects that it is increasingly normal for students to learn to code and in doing so create a list of instructions that are followed by a machine/computer.

Most algorithms are much simpler than the one that powers Google and the algorithms we deal with in most school mathematics lessons are many orders of magnitude more simple. Indeed, it may be because of this lack of complexity that we do not recognise that so much of the mathematics taught in a traditional maths lesson could easily be translated into an algorithm to be followed by a machine. We may not even notice that the methods we use to teach maths to our children are painfully similar to how we would programme a computer.

Typically, the lesson begins with the teacher presenting the required method to the students. The teacher begins with step one being demonstrated on the board. Once step one is complete, the teacher demonstrates step two, and then step three and sometimes steps four and five. With triumphant zeal the teacher indicates the correct answer with a flourish of whiteboard marker and perhaps a double underline for effect. In phase two the students copy the process they have been shown with the teacher looking on to ensure the steps have been followed accurately. Naturally there are some bugs and errors that require correction. By the end of the lesson most students are able to accurately follow the steps and arrive at a desirable answer even if some of the numbers are changed.

Compare this to how a computer is programmed. The ‘coder' determines the steps to be completed and enters them into the machine ensuring accuracy; this equates closely to phase one of our lesson although with our students the coding occurs visually and aurally rather than via keyboard. The coder then runs the code on the computer and looks for bugs in the code which may cause unwelcome results; this is phase two of our lesson. Finally, having checked the code and feeling confident that it is bug free and fit for purpose the coder releases their programme into the world where it runs on a range of subtly different systems and with a mix of inputs; a very near comparison to phase three of our lesson.

If you have some awareness of the limitations of a computer that result from the strict manner in which it follows rules, you are not surprised when a piece of software fails completely when asked to perform a task it was never intended to perform. Even the supposedly ‘intelligent' software that outsmarted Chess master Gary Kasparov would not have been much use to the staff of Pixar Films as they animated Toy Story and for the most part we are not surprised by this. What does surprise is when our students are unable to apply their mathematical knowledge to new situations even though they have been ‘coded’ in the same way that a computer is, one logical step after the other.

What our students lack as a result of their mathematical programming is a true understanding of mathematics. The manner in which they have been taught instils a belief that mathematics is a discipline of rules and procedures to be followed accurately so as to produce the correct answer. Errors occur as a result of missed or inaccurately followed steps. Without an algorithm to guide them they are lost in a sea of numbers and a forest of symbols with no rules to show them the way.

This approach to teaching mathematics as a set of rules to be memorised is reflected in the thinking of mathematical educators such as Ed Southall who writes:

Mathematics gradually became a mysterious entity, whose rules and steps I was expected to unquestioningly memorise – which I dutifully did. However, the process of storing numerous algorithms and their quirky properties became increasingly tedious, and I fell out of love with the subject that once intrigued and excited me. (Southall, 2017 p1)

Fortunately, Ed persisted and has searched for the understanding that his mathematics lessons failed to provide. Many students do not persist and turn away from mathematics as soon as they have the opportunity. It is sad that many of the teachers who have presented mathematics as this dry, sterile subject of rules and procedures believe that they are doing their students a service by sharing methods that make maths easy.

What is needed is a fresh approach, one that begins with an exploration of essential ideas or concepts. Students need opportunities to play with numbers, create visualisations of what might be going on, search for patterns and ask questions. When we approach mathematics as a discipline full of creativity and inquiry we also provide our students with opportunities for true mathematical thinking. We build number sense and flexible fluency where students understand that numbers can be manipulated, decomposed and recomposed. We build with our students an understanding of the effect that mathematical operations have and why a particular process produces a given result. In doing so we teach to the intent of the curriculum. For those in New South Wales this means that we teach our students to ‘wok mathematically' as follows:

Students develop understanding and fluency in mathematics through inquiry, exploring and connecting mathematical concepts, choosing and applying problem-solving skills and mathematical techniques, communication and reasoning . . . As an essential part of the learning process, Working Mathematically provides students with the opportunity to engage in genuine mathematical activity and develop the skills to become flexible and creative users of mathematics. (NESA)

This delightful description of mathematical learning may not apply where you teach but it is not an uncommon declaration of what curriculum planners see as a most vital element of instruction. In the Common Core State Standards, mathematical understanding is valued and the "NCTM process standards of problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, representation, and connections” are included as the first of mathematical processes and proficiencies.

When the moment is right, we may still teach students a particular process, after all there is a great deal of mathematical knowledge on which we can build. What we change is the place that learning procedures has in our curriculum. Rather than being the starting point for our mathematical instruction we teach the processes at the point of need. In a mathematical exploration where students arrive at the point where a procedure is required we teach the method. We unpack it, pull it apart, visualise what is going on, play with moving its parts around and in the end our students have a new tool with which to think and an understanding of its utility.

By Nigel Coutts

Southall, Ed. Yes, but why? Teaching for understanding in mathematics (p. 1). SAGE Publications.

Letting how we choose to learn inform our teaching

Think of a time when you were completely immersed in a learning challenge. A time when you became aware of the need to master a new skill or concept. A situation that took you outside of your comfort zone, when there were times that you became frustrated, when you thought of quitting, downed tools and walked away, but came back time and time again. Maybe it was a problem you had to solve. Maybe it was a challenge you wanted to overcome. Perhaps it came with a significant payoff but perhaps it was just one of those things you had to accomplish. 

This learning challenge may push you into a state of Flow as described by Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi, but at the time it is more likely that you are focussing on the growing feeling of frustration, the moments of elation when you sense a breakthrough and the subsequent despair when it doesn’t quite work. What aligns with Csiksentmihalyi’s description of ‘Flow’ is that time flies, the world fades into the back ground and that cup of coffee you had hoped might reenergise your thinking goes cold on the desk beside you. 

"Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz." (Csiksentmihalyi. 1997)

True learning is and should be a challenge. The moments when we are pushing our cognitive limits are the times when our brains grow. A cognitive challenge should have much in common with a physical challenge. If mountaineering is your thing you will choose the steep and winding path over the tourist cable car option every day. As you struggle your way towards the summit, your legs aching with each step you may long for the climb to be over, but you don’t want to be rescued and robbed of the achievement. 

Think of the actions you take along the path of your learning journey. Do you stop and stare into space as you wait for your mind to process a new idea? Do you frantically jot down ideas only to toss them in the bin moments later? Do you turn to the internet, a book, a video, an instruction manual for guidance? Maybe you ask a friend how they would approach the problem or maybe you plod along in splendid isolation knowing that the answer is somewhere inside. Do you stop and go for a walk, or wander through the house hoping to be struck by inspiration?

True learning is messy, non-linear, difficult to plan for, complicated, frustrating and intrinsically rewarding. As we seek to build an understanding of new ideas either through formal learning such as may occur in a classroom, or through informal learning that we self-direct, we take many twists and turns. The path that one person takes from incomprehension to understanding is not guaranteed to be the same as another even when the learning experiences along the way are the same. We build new understandings on top of those we already have, and this will powerfully influence how we learn and how we value what we learn.

Think also of the conditions which block your learning. Few of us choose to engage with challenging new concepts in an openly public environment where we are exposed to the scrutiny of our peers. Collaborative learning can be powerful but if we are the only one in the group struggling with a new idea and we do not feel safe, we are likely to invoke protective measures to insulate our egos. Without an emotionally safe environment in which we feel accepted and where risk-taking and mistake-making are accepted we are likely to stick with ideas that we have already mastered. 

Think of the physical environment that you choose to learn in. Are you able to adjust the temperature, the lighting, open a window? Can you get up and move around? Can you stop, do something else for a time and go back to your learning? Do you have access to refreshments whenever you feel the need? Do you have a choice of where you sit? Do you need to sit at a desk, in a comfy chair, on a lounge, or maybe you prefer to spread your things out on the floor? Can you take a toilet break when you need to? Are you able to block out distracting noises or do you like to have some background sounds? Are you able to switch off from external distractions or do you find task switching a useful way of overcoming the tedium of focussing on one thing?

The point is, learning is something we do in different ways and under different conditions. We are more likely to be fully engaged with learning that matters to us, that has a clear and meaningful purpose and that we have some control over. We learn best when we feel safe and when the conditions are right, we will persist with learning even when it is challenging; doing this is what makes us human and is what has allowed us to survive as a species. How we learn is also unique to us.

The value to us as teachers in taking time to stop and think about how we learn, is that it should encourage us to reflect upon the conditions which we create for our students to learn in? The potentially painful questions that need to be asked are “Could you learn something genuinely challenging in your classroom and would you want to?”, or “If you were confronted by a fiendish problem, would you choose to solve it in your class?”


By Nigel Coutts


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”, Basic Books

Towards a pedagogy for life-worthy learning

Particular patterns of pedagogy can be seen to influence much of the debate in education, particularly those that shift the focus from what the teacher does to what the students do, individually or collectively. In traditional pedagogical models the emphasis has been on the manner in which the teacher organises curriculum elements, presents these to their learners and assesses what has been retained and can be applied by the student. In a sense pedagogy was the script that evolved for the teacher’s presentation of content to a group of learners as a result of the teacher’s knowledge of the curriculum and the theory of how this content is made most digestible by the learner.

This model of pedagogy had much to do with systems of management. Many of the teaching moves or classroom routines were clearly linked to managing and constraining the behaviour of the students. The organisation of the daily schedule, the physical layout of the classroom, the expectations for behaviour of both students and teachers all point to a system that was designed so that one person may impart the maximum possible knowledge to as large a group as possible. The dominant pedagogical debate beyond questions of how to best manage students was associated with the presentation and ordering of content; how do I present this information to the learner such that it is most likely to be retained?

In the contemporary classroom, there is much greater consideration of what the learner does in partnership with their teacher so that they develop the capacity to learn. Classroom routines and structures are designed to engage the learner in a rich process of dialogical learning.

With this shift comes an emphasis on understanding how students learn and with this knowledge in mind developing learning experiences that will allow the learners to develop their skills and disposition for learning. It is meaningful to speak of learners as problem finders, a role that was once very much the sole preserve of the teacher. Further the curriculum is often negotiated or a consequence of a dialogue between the teacher and the student. Assessment once the preserve of the teaching professional, now involves opportunities for self and peer-assessment and the teacher plays a role in facilitating this process. Where once the teacher’s expertise lay in their ability to teach, now we find a growing emphasis on their ability to model learning.

This pattern comes out of the emergence of a number of elements impacting education. One is the rise of ICT and the shift that this brings to the importance of content knowledge. When access to knowledge was scarce, the teaching of content knowledge was an important role for teachers. The emphasis was on the transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student and teaching was about how effectively this transfer could take place and how this transfer may be measured. The student’s role in this process was relatively passive and entirely receptive. Now that access to content is ubiquitous the value of pools of knowledge stored in long term memory has declined. Memory alone is not sufficient for success. Today the emphasis is on what students are able to do with this knowledge. (Wagner & Dintmarsh 2015) The challenge confronting teachers is how we might prepare students to locate and use information relevant to the problems they identify, recognise the skills they may require and then work creatively and collaboratively to create a unique solution.

We also have a much better understanding of what learning is like from a neurological perspective. We know for example that emotion plays a significant part in establishing the conditions necessary for learning. 'It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.’ (Immordino-Yang. 2016) We know that all learning is a consequence of thinking and that the consequence of this is an understanding that learning is an active process requiring the participation of the mind of the learner. We better understand what it means to understand and know that to achieve this level of competence with concepts requires opportunities to use what we have learned in novel situations. Our classroom practice can be informed by research that describes, the factors which result in intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci. 2000), the conditions necessary for creativity (Csiksgentmihalyi. 2013), the development of a growth mindset (Dweck. 2006) or a culture of thinking (Ritchhart. 2015)

For pedagogy the consequence of this is that we shift towards a student centred learning model in which the students are empowered to be learners. Seeing students as creators of works, finders of problems, metacognitive learners and global connected collaborators brings a shift in the role of the teacher to one of guide and mentor. (Loughran 2013) Much is made of measuring who does most of the talking in classrooms and the shift is towards a classroom dominated by the student’s voices. (November. 2012). We set up scenarios in our classes that allow students to fail and in doing so explore iterative learning cycles of trial and error through which students learn ‘grit’ and expand their ability to grapple with complex ideas and solve ‘wicked problems’. Assessment for learning in these classrooms is more interested in evaluating the processes of problem-finding/solving, inquiry or creative and critical thinking utilised by the students rather than the recall of content.

The difficulty experienced by those implementing this shift in pedagogy arises from the fact that neither the curriculum or the ‘High Stakes Testing’ of NAPLAN, HSC, SAT or PISA has kept pace with the change. While teachers struggle to adapt their pedagogy to better fit this new model they do so with a narrow, content heavy syllabus, in a climate of testing that focuses on base skills across a limited and disconnected curriculum. That compliance with the curriculum and student performance on standardised tests are measures of school and teacher success, makes the task of delivering a student centred pedagogy more difficult.

Our students are confronted by a conflict in the three message systems that play the most significant role in prioritising education; curriculum (the what might be taught), pedagogy (how teaching and learning is delivered) and assessment (what is valued by its measurement). The result is we have students who are engaged by learning that focuses on their long-life skill development and challenges them with meaningful learning experiences linked to their interests and real world problems and yet they are measured against a curriculum that overemphasis specific content knowledge and tested in ways that do not allow them to use their skills for creativity, collaboration and connectedness. Our students very quickly learn to play the game and through their experience of the realities of schooling develop a clear understanding of what truly matters. So long as the teacher says that they value thinking and creativity but assess students on memorisation and recall, students will know where to place their efforts and what learning truly matters.

If there is a positive message attached to all of this, it is that the development of dispositions essential to success as a life-long learner are also excellent preparation for tests with an emphasis on memorisation and recall. A learner who possess a deep understanding of fundamental concepts within a discipline, who is a creative and critical thinker, who can find and solve problems, is also able to achieve when the test requires less of them. Our challenge is to show our learners that their path to success is not a short-cut to knowledge, but a winding path towards understanding and life-worthy capabilities.

By Nigel Coutts

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. (2016) Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company.

Loughran, J. (2013). Pedagogy: Making Sense of the Complex Relationship between Teaching and Learning. Curriculum Inquiry. 43, 1, 118-141.

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

November, A. (2012) Who owns the learning?: Preparing students for success in the digital age. Solution Tree Press; Bloomington IN

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.

Wagner, T.& Dintmarsh, T. (2015) Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Simon & Schuster; New York

How might we confront the challenges of time and "the system"?

Speak to teachers the world over about what they want for their students and you find clear patterns emerging. Key dispositions, capabilities and attributes emerge from the conversation. There are the traits of kindness and empathy which allow our students to become caring stewards of the world, its animals, its people, its biomes, its history and its future. There are characteristics which allow them to be productive problem finders and solvers imbued with capacities for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. They are respectful of diversity, open to new ideas, flexible in times of change and aware of their place in the world. They are happy in their own skin, aware of their limitations but always aware of their potential for growth. They are agentic and desire to take action for a better world with an understanding of their role within the collective citizenship of the planet.

Dig a little deeper and you find that these teachers have a reasonable imagining of what is required for our young people to achieve these goals. An education which values and enculturates these dispositions is essential. Teachers the world over understand the part that they can play (alongside families and the broader community) in providing our young people with the foundational experiences they require to emerge as young adults ready for the challenges which lay ahead. While the methods required to achieve this may vary the goal is clear and we are blessed with a highly professional collective of educators who are driven by a desire to meet this challenge with their energy and passion.

What then stands in the way?

Two forces seem to present the most significant obstacle to educators hoping to achieve these illustrious goals for and with their learners. The first is time, the second is “the system”. Together these two factors act as a bulwark to change; the constraints within which progress is able to occur but only to the point that it strikes against the seemingly immutable obstacles.

Time, as Bilbo Baggins exclaims is what we always need more of. Our greatest plans and hopes seem to be dashed by the limited time that we have in which to make them real. Teachers want more time to understand the needs of their learners, more time to collaborate, more time to explore the details, time to spend on detours from the curriculum, time to reflect, review and redo. We work within the limitations of time all of the time. We make plans spread over multiple years to give ourselves the time required to implement our designs and yet we know that the students before us now will have moved out of our care before our plans are fully realised. Our limited time causes all manner of pressures and tensions. We seek a semblance of work life balance and strive to give time to all that matters to us across all the spheres of our life. We need and want to spend time with family and friends, we hope to find time to take care of our health (physical and mental) and we desire to learn and enrich our lives with arts and culture. We see that our days are often occupied with the minutia of our roles and sense that we are not spending our time on that which has the greatest impact on our quality of life or that of those who rely on us.

We may have no control over the amount of time that we have but we must at least strive to take charge of how that time is used. Only by taking stock of how we utilise our time and value it as the limited and irreplaceable commodity that it is might we hope to allocate it and our energy more wisely. This is no small task but it is one we cannot hope will be done for us.

The other great tension felt by educators looking to better serve the true needs of their learners is "the system”. Individual teachers function within schools, which function within the boundaries and demands of larger organisations which serve the needs of governments driven by a desire for reelection by a citizenry that may well be misinformed of what is required to build a future-focused education system. The legacy of the past, the incessant pressure of the now, the structures which are imposed, the processes which constrain action, the poorly applied proxies of success which measure only what is easily measured act in combination to restrict and limit teacher agency.

For the teacher within this system it can be near impossible to imagine a way to enact change in the face of such an overwhelming entity. The system takes on the proportions of Hobbesian “Leviathan” acting with malicious intent to stifle and suppress our best intentions. We come to see the system as either an unassailable foe or as great authority figure to whom servitude is required. As meek individuals within this system our role in its functions is erased by the inky completeness of our adversary. And yet it is a truth that the system is us and we are it. We choose to see it as that which authorises us to maintain the status quo even where we see it failing our learners or to see it as that which binds our hands. Change has never had its roots within the system but always within the minds of those who seek it out.

As we confront "the system” we make choices about the path we shall take. One is to accept that it exists and that we must be content with acting within its constraints and hope that in a brighter tomorrow that it may change and allow us greater freedom. Another path is to take what action we might, to bring about change where we can and push against the limits of the system where it constrains us. Others will confront the system head on, question its authority and demand change.

In all of this we must not turn away from the promise of our own agency. Time is short but we can choose how we use it, the system is mighty but we are a part of it and can act to maintain it or to change it. In the end, we can choose to let the world happen to us, or we can let our voice be heard.

By Nigel Coutts

Schools are made of People

Schools are made of people. Schools are all about people. Schools are made from the connections between people. Schools exist to serve people and make the lives of all people better. 

These are the fundamental truths which underly every aspect of education and schooling. They are inescapable, undeniable and they should be self-evident. 

It is easy to lose sight of these fundamental truths. To allow the many layers of minutia to come between our actions and the people who are at the heart of the matter. We may not set out to do so but we allow distracting agendas, organisational structures, policies and processes to act as proxies for the people we are meant to be serving. We might be meeting all the requirements of registration, standards and accountability and yet somehow we have lost that direct connection to the people. 

Curriculum is very important. A well written curriculum should make it clear what is worth learning. It should detail the knowledge, skills and dispositions which the people we serve will need and which schools can develop and promote. Curriculum writers should constantly be connecting what they plan for schools to teach with the people that will be most directly affected by that curriculum. Essential questions such as “What is life-worthy learning?” should echo around the rooms in which curriculum planners work. To be clear, the people that education serve should not be politicians or non-human entities in the form of businesses or global conglomerates. Somehow though our curriculum seems to be a product of many forces and all too often the people most directly affected by it seem to be forgotten. Schools contribute to this dilemma when they measure their success or compliance against the number of tick boxes they achieve in the curriculum. 

Assessment too is important. It should let people know how they are progressing with their learning. What they have achieved, what they are yet to achieve and what they need to revisit or seek assistance with. Assessment should always tell someone who cares, something valuable about someone they care about so that they can take actions to help that someone learn. Assessment should not be about league tables. It should not be a tool for comparing nations, states or schools. It should not be about grading people; let’s save that barbaric process for cattle. Sadly, assessment becomes a measure of the wrong people, used to adjust the behaviours of the wrong people or to validate a decision which fails to take into account the needs of the people who are meant to be served by it. 

Pedagogy might be thought of as an area where we get our priorities right. Pedagogy should be a set of decisions made by a teacher which result in a learning experience suited to the needs of the people that they serve. Unfortunately, pedagogy is often a construct of other forces. A response to a particular philosophy applied too rigorously. A set of actions which have always been taken in such a manner that the pedagogy remains the same even as the people and their needs change. Pedagogy should never be dictated by anyone’s and especially not a politician’s emotional attachment to their school days. Pedagogy should be alive, responsive and in service of the people who experience it most directly. 

Policies, procedures, measures of accountability, routines, timetables etc. all subtly and confoundingly come between us and the people we serve. We implement measures to ensure that we are doing our jobs and they become what we serve. Each layer of structure and procedure sees us become one step removed from the people who matter most. 

As we serve multiple ‘masters’ we forget about the fundamental truths at the heart of education; that schools are made of people, for people and by people. At every level, in every decision, with every idea we implement and with every cent we spend, we need to ensure that we are focused on meeting the needs of the people we serve. 

By Nigel Coutts

For Belinda, who ensured it was always about the people.

How might we develop self-regulated learners?

A common question is how do we facilitate the development of independent, self-regulating learners. With an increased focus on the development of dispositional models for learning where the skills and mindset of the learner are crucial, how do we ensure that our learners move from requiring external regulation to a model of internal regulation? 

"For the learner to become autonomous, as Cohen (2008) points out, he must identify, rehearse and apply learning strategies, structure his own learning, and critically reflect upon his own learning processes in order to be able to utilize his acquired skills, inside and outside the classroom.” (Rajabi, 2012 p348) For this goal to be achieved the teacher’s role is to provide the learner with learning strategies and understandings of how to use them for 'problem-posing and problem-solving’. "helping learners learn how to learn, equipping them with the necessary means to self-direct their own learning” (Rajabi, 2012 p346) becomes a crucial goal. Self-regulation requires more than instruction but also that the learner feels in control and understands the advantages of the learning strategies they are encouraged to apply. Self-regulation thus requires tools for learning combined with the individual’s implementation of metacognitive and reflective practices. The challenge is how do we achieve this goal? What teaching moves will facilitate the desired learning?

Self-regulation strategies can be developed within a community of learners if the appropriate conditions are provided according to Beishuizen. The collaborative learning that occurs within a community of learners provides many opportunities for the development of skills required for self-regulation of learning. The modelling provided by an expert learner in the guise of a teacher, who builds partnerships in learning with their students is a key benefit of a community of learners. 

By expanding the frame of reference to include the social context within which learning and development occurs, a more complex image emerges of the interactions and processes which are at play. Vygotsky's (1978) research shows how interactions between the child and their social environment enables learning. He explores the gap between what a child can do now independently and what they can do with assistance. Termed the 'Zone of Proximal Development’(ZPD), this is the gap into which teachers hope to move their students (Vygotsky, 1978). Within a community of learners this gap between what an individual can achieve on their own, and what they can achieve with assistance is bridged by the capacity of the community and the expertise within it. When the community of learners includes members with expertise in learning and in communicating that expertise to junior members of the community, a highly effective learning organisation can emerge. This is what we see in schools which embrace a learning community model. 

The learning community is enriched when particular aspects of learning are embraced and enculturated. Ron Ritchhart shares that the dispositions so essential for success in contemporary times such as creativity, curiosity and open mindedness cannot be taught but must be enculturated; this requires immersion in a culture that values and models these things. A culture of inquiry, a valuing of questions and curiosity and an emphasis on reflection allows the learner to develop the requisite skills for self-regulation. The conclusion is made that a community of learners can provide an environment in which "By working in teams, students developed collaboration strategies and learned to coregulate their common tasks.” (Beishuizen. 2008 p188)

A number of factors are important in the development of a community of learners and these play a part in the development of self-regulation. Certainly, there are aspects of a community of practice in which a group of learners engage in a learning experience that mimics real world practitioners. This mimicking of the methods of professionals in a field ensures relevance and may have an influence on engagement with the methods. This calls for an embrace of an apprentice/expert model of learning in which overtime the learner is invited to become an equal with the expert. A gradual release of responsibility model where the student grows in confidence and eventually independently takes on all aspects of the task at hand.

For this model to apply to the self-regulation of learning the teacher must re-imagine themselves as an expert learner/problem finder/problem solver who models the methods and dispositions necessary and provides opportunities for the student to rehearse these skills with and without guidance. Our students thus need to see that we are both knowledgeable, as a result of our learning experiences and skilled in the processes of acquiring, analysing and applying the fruits of our learning. In short we need to model our capacity to learn. This requires that our students see us engage with ideas which we have not yet mastered, where we need to draw on our capacity to learn.

At one stage the methods of inquiry, learning and research are directly taught by the teacher but as time goes by the boundary between teacher and student erodes and true partnerships in learning are described; the scaffolding is gradually removed. 

In a learning community a point is reached where the teacher and student find themselves needing to apply the strategies of learning and research and thus the modelling that is provided by the teacher takes on an authenticity that would otherwise not exist. Learning with authentic problems and even contributing directly to true research projects or problem solving opportunities places the community of learners into the domain of situated learning where genuine ‘work’ is being done by the community of learners. Programmes in schools where students and teachers collaborate to solve real world problems within the school’s community are positive examples of a such a model as are service programmes where students and teachers collaborate to serve the needs of others. The essential element is that teacher and student are now involved in the learning process as partners and near equals. Learning is no longer regulated for the student and they enter into truly self-regulated learning.

The process of learning to collaborate and to coregulate is supported by the collaborative nature of the community of learners but it is the process of reflection on individual, peer and collective learning that facilitates the development of self-regulated behaviours at the level of individuals and the group. While the teacher modelling of the dispositions of a learner is critical and ongoing, at some point the learner needs to be given opportunities to become the driver of the learning process; an equal partner in leading learning and with opportunities to themselves be a model to less experienced learners. The cycle repeats. 

By Nigel Coutts

Beishuizen, J. (2008). Does a community of learners foster self-regulated learning?, Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 17, 3, 183- 193

Rajabi, S. (2012) Towards self-regulated learning in school curriculum.  Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 47, 344–350

Vygotsky, L.S. (1930) Mind and society. Transcribed by Blunden, A. & Schmolze. Harvard University Press; Boston. PA