Thinking in the Wild - Thinking routines beyond the classroom

One of the highlights of attending the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) was the opportunity to collaborate with group of teachers in the 'Curriculum Kitchen' workshop presented by Ewan McIntosh and Kynan Robinson of NoTosh. I should have known what to expect. Any conversation with Ewan is likely to make you stop and think. NoTosh celebrates questions and is not afraid to ask the sort of difficult questions you would rather turn a blind-eye to. In this instance the post workshop evaluation left participants at this conference with one mightily significant question. 

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The ‘Curriculum Kitchen’ workshop uses the structures and roles of a professional kitchen and the process of planning a meal for the restaurant it serves as a metaphor for planning a unit of learning. The ingredients are elements from the required curriculum, the participants are asked to take on roles such as head chef and the conclusion is the presentation of the collaboratively planned unit. We were challenged to form groups with people we did not know and to form groups that were a diverse mix of genders, cultures and languages. I was the sole English speaker in my group but despite the language barrier we rose to the challenge and prepared a series of lessons we were proud to share. 

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At the conclusion of the workshop we came back together as one group and discussed the processes we had used to achieve our goals. What we learned had little to do with curriculum development but a great deal to do with how we had approached the challenge of functioning as a collaborative team working to create something new. It was at this stage that Ewan proffered the observation that left us all with this mighty question. 

Despite this being a ‘thinking’ conference, despite us all being advocates for structured and scaffolded models of thinking, not one group had applied any thinking routines, utilised a collaborative planning protocol or talked about applying an inquiry model or design thinking cycle. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about them. It wasn’t that we don’t know how to use them. It wasn’t that we don’t value them. We had all the knowledge we could desire on the how to and the why of a broad set of thinking tools and anyone of these would have enhanced the process, but we did not use any of them. Why was this the case and what does this reveal about our teaching of these methods to our students?

This realisation left us with much to ponder beginning with what is the purpose of our teaching of thinking strategies. Understanding our “why” is an important first step. Clarifying “why” we teach thinking is critical if we are to make the right moves down the track. When you begin using thinking routines and protocols in your class you find that they bring a new depth to the conversations you have with your students. Thinking is hard work and it is a process that can be enhanced by the inclusion of some structure. By requiring students to use a routine you provide them with the structure they need and when used with the right stimulus you are able to both deepen their thinking and make it visible. As the thinking of your students is made visible you gain insights into their understanding and are able to make adjustments to your lessons to target gaps and meet their needs. In this sense thinking routines, protocols and models of inquiry are excellent tools for enhancing student learning of skills and content. If this is our purpose and then we might not mind that a group of thinking experts choose not to use any of these tools, after all they are merely teaching tools and it is the role of the teacher to select the most appropriate tool. 

The trouble is that few of us would argue that thinking routines and the like are merely pedagogical moves to be applied only in the context of a thinking classroom. Our aim is to have our students develop an understanding of the value that these tools bring to their learning, their thinking and their problem solving beyond the walls of the classroom. We would hope that experience with these tools in our classrooms would result in our students adopting the use of these tools independently. Our goal might be to produce life-long learners capable of self-regulating their application of strategies for efficient and effective thinking; but we seemed to be evidence that knowledge of these methods and even valuing them, is not sufficient.

When you analyse a typical classroom it is quickly apparent that the teacher plays the part of the ringmaster. The learning that occurs is for the most part a consequence of the decisions that the teacher makes. To be certain the learner always has the most important role to play in determining the true outcomes that they achieve as consequence of the experience but the context for the learning is set by the decisions made by the teacher. The what and the how of the learning is set by the teacher and students then engage (or not) in the experiences presented to them. In the typical thinking classroom, this extends to the choice of thinking strategies hopefully as a result of the teacher’s identification of the types of thinking required. With an understanding of the thinking they wish to make routine for their students and armed with a selection of thinking routines that will enable this, the teacher invites the students to join them in the process of making meaning. 

What we want is a situation where the students are able to move into the role played by the teacher in the above process. We hope that as a result of regular exposure to this process of learning through the use of thinking routines that our students will be able to self-select the type of thinking required in particular context and then choose a thinking-tool that will meet their needs. If such a process works, we should see this pattern of behavior in adults when problem-solving individually and as adults but the reality is that we don’t. Ask the average person or survey a group of people as they make daily decisions of any scale and they typically do not describe their use of what we may consider a thinking routine. Why might this be?

Is it that thinking routines are relevant to the sort of problem solving and thinking required in the classroom but are not useful in the real world? This is a notion that should seem flawed to teachers who see learning within schools as preparation for so much more than an exit exam. Our aim is to not just fill our students heads with the knowledge they need but to develop in them the dispositions and capabilities they will require to thrive in the world beyond school based learning. We routinely talk about bringing real world learning into our classrooms. From the alternate perspective we can also see how our thinking in this “real world”, the thinking we do as adults leading normal lives can benefit from the application of some thinking routines. Consider the thinking required when making a significant purchase and the factors which determine our ultimate choice. In most cases, we might agree that the application of even a very simple strategy such as a plus/minus chart would at least allow us to see the true benefits of one selection over another, even if our final decision is guided by our hearts. Thinking is after all hard work and we often don’t do it well. 

Group dynamics might have a part to play in the use of thinking routines within self-regulating groups. It is typical to see groups move through stages as they form, storm and norm. In the opening phase group dynamics are shaped by polite interactions, efforts to read the terrain of the group and to understand who fits where. Roles are not clear and there can be a reluctance to impose structure upon the group. If the group is diving straight into the task of understanding a problem the opportunity to apply a thinking routine to this process can be missed and replaced by a form of bumbling ideation where possible solutions are shared and politely discussed in a most unstructured manner. In the classroom, this bumbling disorder is avoided as a result of teacher intervention. We do not typically hand our students a problem, leave them to form groups and come back an hour later to see what solutions might have evolved. Structure of some form is imposed upon the group even if it is quite minimal. 

This points to the need to teach our students not only to value thinking and the use of thinking tools as strategies to enhance the quality of their thinking, but of the need to teach them how to both select thinking routines based on their awareness of the thinking they require and the capacity to integrate these methods into the collaborative process. The learning experience that we had in the ‘Curriculum Kitchen’ is one model for how this sort of learning might be facilitated. The brief we were given was very open. There was some structure imposed but it was minimal and we had scope to make our own ways towards the destination. At the conclusion of the task time was dedicated to reflection on the processes we had used and our teachers played an important role in asking us questions which guided our thinking and helped us develop an understanding of what we had done. In a traditional reading of the workshop model by this stage the lesson was over, in reality it was only now that the learning began. The implication is that when we plan lessons we need to allocate much more time to the process of reflection as it is at this stage of the lesson that we are able to discuss the choices that were made and to evaluate the strategies deployed or ignored. 

Some of our teaching time needs to be dedicated to the task of teaching our students how to collaborate, how to form a group, structure a group, provide leadership for a group and manage the complexities of the groups social dynamics all while achieving the group’s goals and purposes. Doing so requires all of our best teaching moves including modelling, direct instruction, guided and independent practice, with meaningful and transformative assessment that is both external (teacher & peer) and internal (self). Group work is a frequently used strategy in schools but when looked at closely we must question if it is serving purposes other than a division of labour. Collaboration is one of the most commonly referenced 21st Century Skills but successful collaboration is challenging and something that many adults struggle with as evidenced by the large selection of management books and courses which focus on developing the capacity to lead high-perfoming teams. Our students need to learn these skills while at school and then develop the capacity to apply their knowledge when participating in collaborative teams without a teacher providing the external management.

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Harvard’s Project Zero asks us to consider a triadic-dispositions where there is the required capacity, the necessary motivation and a sensitivity to the utility of particular set of behaviours. When it comes to strategic-thinking and with that the adoption of thinking moves, our aim needs to be thusly elaborated. Our students need to value the use of thinking strategies, understand when such moves are useful and have the desire to utilise them but this is not enough. Building on from having established a disposition to utilise a thinking strategy they must also have the social capacity to bring these tools into their collaborative circles. Their needs to be a social valuing of thinking and thinking routines as tools to achieve the purpose of the collaborative group. We need to educate not only individuals to value thinking but to develop a collective awareness of the value of our collective application of thinking strategies. 

Edward P Clapp shared his research on ‘Participatory Creativity’ at ICOT. He argues that creativity is not the result of the thinking of the lone genius but a consequence of the thinking of many. Edward encourages us to move from worshiping the individual thinker to an appreciation of the collective intelligence that is revealed when we explore the biography of an idea. While Edward’s work is focused on the participatory nature of creativity, it can be readily applied to thinking in it broadest forms and points us towards an understanding that as all thinking is social we need to be teaching our students to maximise the benefits of their thinking within social groups. This opens the door to a pedagogy that not only recognises, as Vygotsky argues, that learning occurs within social contexts and through the individual’s participation in societies but one that seeks to educate the collective mind. 

By Nigel Coutts

Related - Initial Reflection on ICOT 2018

Read more:

Clapp, E. (2017) Participatory creativity: Introducing access and equity to the creative classroom. New York: Routledge

D. N. Perkins, Eileen Jay, and Shari Tishman (1993) Beyond Abilities: A Dispositional Theory of Thinking Harvard University

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.

 

 

The trouble with Twitter

Twitter is a great place for educators to share ideas. It has become my go to place when I am looking for something to read, a new idea or some inspiration. It is a great avenue for sharing practice, asking questions and building a community. 
 
But . . .
 
. . . Twitter has some problems and these seem to be growing. To get the most out of Twitter a degree of caution is advised. 

The first challenge facing Twitter is a consequence of what is also the greatest strength of all social media platforms and the internet in general. Twitter gives the average person a voice and bypasses the old gate-keepers of the traditional media world. If you have something to share, Twitter will give you the means to do so and with time and persistence you can build an audience and tell your story to the world. In broad terms this is a good thing. Giving a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard benefits us all. Twitter has shown its value as a powerful tool for social change. 

The trouble with such ease of access is that the filters are removed. Anyone can share anything and the end user is left to assess the reliability of the statements which are made. In many cases, it is obvious that what is being shared is based upon personal experience and as such might not apply to other contexts. In other cases, the claims made are backed by solid research and links allow for further exploration. In some cases, statements are made which contradict what might be revealed by quality research. Opinion, personal philosophy, belief based on limited experience, biases and misinformation abound and is rapidly spread across the twitterverse as it is shared by like-minded individuals; All are spread with the authority of fact. 

The danger is that for some Twitter becomes their sole source of information and one where they curate a list of sources that are in agreement with their world view. Divergent perspectives are tuned out and they find themselves surrounded by voices of agreement. The most effective use of Twitter comes from an embrace and active search for diverse opinions coupled with the inclusion of those who seek to share well-researched perspectives. 

As a community of educators, we should also be seen to build in elements of critical thinking and critique of opinions and ideas. There is a line between questioning the perspectives presented in a tweet and anti-social negativity and trolling. In fear of crossing this line or of becoming involved in a heated online debate many avoid asking difficult questions. If Twitter is to truly serve our needs for a learning community, we need to be able to politely ask questions and offer critique. When we see criticism of our posts as an opportunity to understand a different perspective, to review our thinking and analyse the premises behind our beliefs we open the door to continuous learning. 

The trouble is compounded by the limited length of tweets. While the length of tweets has been increased from 140 characters to 280, there remains little space within this for the subtle nuances of more complicated issues to be explored with the level of detail that they deserve. Quick sound bites become the norm and topics which need to be unpacked are reduced to their absolute minimum.  The reader is left browsing a set of catchy phrases and shallow claims about what does or does not serve the needs of our learners. With little detail, available ideas which contradict one’s existing world view tend to be discarded and the reader is readily immersed in an echo chamber where their personal beliefs are never truly challenged. 

The challenges presented by the brevity of tweets is most evident when complex topics are debated. Our tendency to see the world through a lens of false dichotomies seems to be amplified by the limits of the medium. There is little space for any middle ground and debates quickly dissolve into a heated defense of one perspective over another. In many instances were the two parties to meet in person and discuss the topic at leisure, they would quickly find that they had much in common. It is sadly true however that we have a tendency to focus on our differences rather than our common ground and feel the need to defend our divergent perspective at the expense of discovering that we have much upon which we agree. 

There are so many things that our students need from us as educators. They need to develop a love of learning, they need opportunities to develop their agency, they need to master the fundamental skills and dispositions they will require beyond school. They need to learn how to learn and they need to learn how to thrive socially and emotionally. They need teachers who support their learning and development and they need teachers who get out of the way and let them struggle. They need to be taught and they need time to reflect on what they have learned. They need engaging and exciting learning opportunities and they need to see the purpose in the little steps along the way. All of these things matter and have value.

Whenever we begin to focus on a limited set of what education should provide our leaners, when we argue simplistically for one position over another rather than exploring a more complicated middle ground, we reduce the outcomes we offer our students.
 
By Nigel Coutts
 

Building Home-School Connections for Continuous Learning

It is natural as educators that our focus is upon the learning that occurs within our classrooms. We dedicate great volumes of time to the planning and delivery of learning experiences that will see the needs of our learners and that will prepare them for their lives beyond school. Beyond the content we teach are the mindsets, dispositions and competencies that we hope our students will develop and overtime internalise. We hope our students will leave our schools with an awareness of their growth and fixed mindsets, a positive disposition towards thinking, a healthy dose of scepticism, resilience in the face of adversity, a sense of curiosity and the desire to do something with the wonderings they have. 
 
These are indeed lofty goals, but ones that by striving for ensure our students will have received that 'life-worthy’ education we value so dearly. 
 
These are also goals that we cannot hope to reach alone. These are goals that can only be achieved through collaboration with all stakeholders. Through the deliberate nourishing of success network around every learner and the most significant piece of this (after the learner) are the learner’s parents. 
 
Parenting is hard work. It is a role full of delight but one that comes wrapped in challenges. Our children arrive in our lives with no instruction manual and sufficient uniqueness to ensure that what works for one, probably won’t work for the next. We do all that we can to support them as they grow but often times we are not sure what is best. 
 
Our children grow and develop in a space at the theoretical intersection of the many worlds they inhabit. They learn to 'play the game' on multiple fields, code switching competently as they need to. They learn what is expected of them at home, at school, with their friends and in the wider gaze of the public spaces they move in and out of, all the while trying to make sense of multiple and often divergent messages. 
 
This is where home-school partnerships can play a vital role. When schools communicate, and share strategies they are using to develop mindsets, dispositions and competencies with parents and when parents adopt these strategies and elements of a metalanguage for learning and thinking, our students are better able to integrate the desirable attributes. 
 
Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth vs Fixed Mindsets illustrates the benefits of this partnership effectively. At a superficial level the concept is readily understood. We have either a growth mindset, believing we are able to acquire new skills, expand our capabilities and through effort achieve success or we have a fixed mindset believing our ability is fixed and beyond our control; we have what we are born with and that is that. Such a superficial reading of Carol’s work brings with it many dangers. It paints a picture of people with one mindset, and of people with the opposite. It hints that if we focus our thinking on the value of effort to success we will move into a growth mindset and our goals will come easily. 
 
The reality is that we are all a mix of both fixed and growth and we all move between these mindsets based on how we respond to the context we are in. We also know that while through sending the right messages to students about the processes of thinking, learning, risk taking and of attitudes towards success and failure we can shift their mindset towards growth, we also know it is easier to move them in the opposite direction. We believe that by valuing the processes of learning, the effort given to a task, the risks taken in trying new learning moves we will swing the lever towards a growth mindset and so in schools where this is a focus great effort is given over to this objective. 
 
But all of this effort is undone if we have not taken the time to bring our parents along for the journey. Our students might exit our classrooms bubbling with enthusiasm generated by the feedback provided for their latest learning success, excited that their teacher noticed the additional care they had taken in editing their writing and their excellent word choices. At home, they are greeted by parents who are equally excited. But the critical point is what occurs next. Will the parents understand the value of praising the process, or will they praise their child for being so clever? Will parents know how to give praise that aligns with the school’s growth mindsets programme and how do we expect them to do so if we have not included them in the conversations leading up to this moment?
 
With this in mind, I share some strategies which might be of use to parents as they support their children through their learning journeys. The goal is to provide some idea of the strategies and learning moves being made in the learner centred classroom that while perhaps taken for granted by educators, are not typical of the experience parents have had of school and so might be completely foreign. 
 
Praise Effort, Process, Resilience and Struggle
When you are praising your child give specific, actionable praise around what they have rather than what they might be. Yes, your child is wonderful, amazing and perhaps even smarter than you but knowing these things won’t help them. Hearing that they have made variety of success-oriented choices, demonstrated resilience, taken responsible risks, embraced challenge and shown persistence will encourage them to do more of this in the future. 
 
The power of Yet.
There are many more things that you can’t do than what you can, but if we have belief in our capacity to grow and learn there is little we cannot accomplish if it is what we truly desire to do. This is where the power of ‘Yet’ comes into play. Add it to those statements you once made about what you cannot do, and you see your potential in a new light and your children are likely to copy you. Don’t say "I can’t do that” say “I can’t solve that YET"
 
 
Questioning Strategies
Teachers utilise a broad set of questioning strategies and see the value that comes from using the same language across learning areas and years of learning. These are useful when having a discussion with your child where you are hoping to push them towards deeper thinking. It can be useful to do this as a game. It is definitely important to explain why you are doing this; not because you are questioning their ideas, or that you think they are wrong, but because you want to encourage a deeper level of thinking. Some students initially think you are looking for different thinking; an alternate answer because their first attempt was wrong.

  • WMYST – What Makes You Say That – or What makes you think that?
  • Five Why – Have your child make a claim about a piece of knowledge and then challenge them by asking why (at least five times). It can be great modelling to reverse roles and let your child ask you Why five times. (Maybe don’t try this for the first time with ‘why do I need to help with the dishes’ or as any part of the bedtime routine)

 
Shift their focus from answers to questions
Instead of asking what did they learn today or what did they get right today, ask 'What questions did they ask today?' or ‘What questions occurred to them?' or What questions did they struggle with today?'. Sharing the questions you asked, found interesting and struggled with can take this even further and is great modelling of life-long learning. Particularly with the questions that they struggled with, don’t rescue them but get excited about the possibility of exploring these together.
 
That leads on to . . .
 
Don’t Rescue Your Child
Learning occurs when we are confronted with new ideas for which we do not have a ready-made solution. If we are going to learn what to do when we don’t know what to do, we must have opportunities to spend time in situations where we are struggling with new learning. It is tempting at this point to rescue the child and provide a solution and yet when we do so we rob them of the opportunity to learn. Next time you are confronted by a child struggling with a new piece of learning help them move forward with questions like, ‘How might you explore this idea further?’, ‘Can you look at the challenge from a different perspective?’ or ‘What do you think you know that might help here and what do you think you need to know?’. 

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A More Beautiful Question
This is a great website for generating beautiful questions with some great examples to explore. The flow of finding questions is to notice something that could be better and then asking:

  • Why . . .?
  • What if we . . .?
  • How might we . . .?

You can tweak the questions to the situation, maybe ‘How might we explore this . . .?’
Taking time at home to explore great questions developed by your child can be immensely rewarding and can be an excellent bonding opportunity. You might like to start a “Wonder Wall” where all members of the family share the questions they find most interesting. Doing so will send strong messages about the value of questions and curiosity. 
 
The Understanding Map
This identifies the types of thinking your child is likely to need and suggests thinking routines to support this. Your child's teachers will use tools like this to identify thinking moves they want to see more of from their students and to then identify tools to make their thinking visible. When you adopt these thinking moves you are showing that you value thinking and recognise that it can be enhanced through the deliberate use of thinking routines. 

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Nine Apps for Parents
This is a set of strategies for parents to use in supporting a culture of thinking developed by Harvard’s Ron Ritchhart. Don’t be confused by the title, these are practical strategies to apply, not computer/tablet Apps. It includes some of the ideas from above with some nice additions such as giving time to explore and share passions (those of your child and your own) making your thinking visible to your child and naming and noticing the thinking moves being made by all members of the household. 

By Nigel Coutts

Modern Learning with Modern Tools

We are a tool using species. Our use of tools defines us and our survival now and in our past, is dependent upon our capacity to discover, invent and use tools. 

Our use of tools has always been a driver of change and innovation. From earlier times the way that we live has been shaped by the tools that we had at our disposal and the affordances which came with them. 

Once our survival needs were met through our use of tools, once we were able to construct shelters, protect ourselves from the insults of weather, wild beasts and marauding neighbours, our use of tools became connected to our productive capacities. This remains the same today. The farmers of the modern world are expected to be far more productive thanks to the tools at their disposal than were the farmers of the pre-industrial era whose output was limited by the power of their muscles and the basic tools with which they toiled. In every aspect of our lives tools have allowed us to do more in less time and with far greater efficiency than was previously possible. 

The exception to this rule seems to be within certain aspects of learning. While we are more than happy to embrace tools which free us of the burden of physical labour, we are reluctant to do the same with particular aspects of cognitive labour. 

We do have some seemingly magical tools for cognitive work at our disposal today.

For generations, the calculator was the gold standard for making mental work easy. Armed with their pocket calculator even the most challenging of equations would succumb to the calculating capacities of any student and yet today even this mighty tool seems quite ordinary. 

The modern student will tackle the highest realms of mathematics armed with tools like ‘PhotoMath’. This is the sort of tool that seems to defy the laws of what should be possible for anyone born prior to 2007 when the iPhone became a reality. PhotoMath allows its users to point their phone’s camera at a mathematical question, even one hurriedly written on a piece of paper or whiteboard and it will not only return an answer, it will explain how it was achieved. The user sees the step by step process used to solve the equation and it works with all manner of mathematics including the sort of advanced algebra that gives many students of mathematics nightmares. It is calculator and maths tutor in one. 

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Before teachers of other domains relax in the belief that they are safe from such technological tools, ‘Socratic’ provides a similar experience across a widening range of disciplines. Socratic overcomes the tedium of having to type text into a search engine, but its real power comes from the artificial intelligence behind it. As it is used by more people and is exposed to more and more questions it will learn how to best respond. Tools like Socratic and PhotoMath become more capable as their user base expands. We are seeing more of these tools emerge as tech giants explore what they can do with enormous data sets and access to massive computing power. Artificial assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Home are all a part of this response. Each use sophisticated voice analysis tools and artificial intelligence to provide immediate access to the information we want. Google Translate serves as another example of this technology. Thanks to machine learning, backed by massive amounts of data and computing power, Google is able to analyse an image of text in one language and convert it to another. The magical touch is that preserves the font and colour of the original text and will even then read the text to you in either the original or translated form.

There has been a distinct shift from the early days of computing which were marked by questions around 'how can we make our processes faster?', to modern times when we are asking 'what can we do with all this computing power?”. 

Tools like ‘PhotoMath’ present educators with a genuine challenge and leave many asking should we allow our students to use tools such as these? There is the concern that if our students have access to these tools they will use them to pass the test, but will they gain the knowledge they require. Further, there is the worry that students will use these tools to gain an unfair advantage on assessments which rank them against other students. Some teachers will see such tools as an easy way out and worry that students will not learn to overcome difficulty and challenge if they are able to use tools that make solving even complex problems easy. 

All of these concerns are valid and deserve consideration. The inescapable reality is that tools like this are only going to become ever more powerful and ever more prolific. Our students will be making use of them and we can only hope to restrict their use during school hours. 

The better response might be to embrace the tools that we have and then understand what learning our students will require so that they can become masters of the tools they have and not their servants. If I am armed with a tool like ‘PhotoMath’ what mathematical knowledge do I require to best utilise its affordances? What questions become reasonably accessible by a student empowered with such a tool? How do I move from being a teacher who asks my students questions to one who requires my students to be problem finders and how do they then use the tools they have, to find answers and then use their wisdom to explain why they are valid? In essence, how might we use tools like ‘PhotoMath’ to move our students beyond the doing of calculations and into the creative and exciting world of mathematical thinking?

By Nigel Coutts
 
 

Teacher Agency vs The Collective Voice

With good reason, much is made of learner agency but the concept of teacher agency is important too. If we hope to build a profession in which we are all self-navigating life-long learners, we must acknowledge the role that teacher agency plays. 

Being a teacher is baked into our identity. It becomes a significant part of how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. Sir Ken Robinson has done well from his tale of the dinner guest who is seated next to a teacher. 

"What do you do?" and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, "Oh my God," you know, "Why me?" "My one night out all week.”

The story works because we all know that teacher who never stops being a teacher. My grandmother was a teacher. She went on to be a member of the Retired Teacher’s Association. As a child visits to her house were a little like an extension of the school day defined by sound but caring discipline and always bringing your best manners to the table. Meals were served on time and cleaned away at precisely the right moment. She had stopped working in schools long before she stopped being a teacher, it was in her blood. She has continued to contribute to the teaching profession through the contributions of her children and her grandchildren who have followed in her footsteps and taken up lives in the classroom. 

Our choice of career is at least in part shaped by our understanding of what the role involves. This imagining of what it is like to be a teacher, a scientist, a policeman etc, is a construct of our experience. This brings particular challenges where we wish to change the norms within a profession. Efforts to encourage more girls to pursue STEM pathways are hindered by the scarcity of visible female role models. It is difficult to imagine yourself in a career if you do not see people like yourself in it. For teachers, exposure to the profession, both real and fictional, is abundant and those who choose to enter the profession have much content on which to form their imagining of what the profession will involve.

We have all been to school. We have all had good and not so good teachers. We have watched ‘Dead Poets Society’ ‘Stand and Deliver’ ‘Dangerous Minds’ and ‘To Sir with Love’, and wanted to be ‘that’ teacher. We enter the profession with a belief that we can make a difference in the lives of the children we teach, that we will be the teacher we needed. We imagine that our classroom will be our domain and our stage and in it we will create the ideal learning environment. 

We enter the profession full of agentic ideal. A belief that we have the ability to make choices and direct activity based on our own resourcefulness and enterprise. We see the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence.

And then we are consumed by the vast organisational structures that are modern day education systems. From curriculums, standardised assessments and teaching standards communicated down to us by governments to school wide policies and platforms we see ourselves dissolving from the situation. We feel that our ability to make decisions for our learners is eroded along with our sense of agency. 

Change in schools is particularly challenging to identity and, when it is imposed externally, agency. Where the intended change alters the nature of our pedagogy and fundamentally shifts the relationships between teachers and students, and between teachers and knowledge resistance is more likely. Smollan and Sayers indicate the importance of understanding the socially constructed nature of identity and the potentially negative impact that change can have on this for individuals, 'that change ‘dislodges’ identity and leads to anxiety and grieving’ (Smollan & Sayers. 2009 p439) and that this can result in resistance to change.

How then do we manage these competing pressures? How do we embrace change, accept organisational imperatives and find space for teacher agency?

There are great benefits to the students which arise from a well-designed learning platform. The great things which are the norm in one class become the great things which they experience in every class. The cumulative effects become significant for the learner when they are able to readily transfer their learning skills and dispositions from one context to the next and from one year to the next. Elements of a common vocabulary combined with familiar routines for thinking and learning create a school where transfer and continuity of learning become friction free. The start of year dip is minimised in such a culture. A great example of the benefits of this can be seen in the video below. In it you hear the Year 13 students of Landau Forte College describing their learning journeys. What is clearly shown in this are the benefits the students have arrived from a consistent approach to teaching and learning. The students have from this experience become powerful learners who are able to describe how their school has met their long term needs. 

A well-designed learning environment should evolve and become enacted as a result of every voice within it. Confronted by ever increasing levels of complexity and rapid change schools cannot rely on a single visionary leader. The best solutions will be those developed through the cognitive work of many, each acting with personal agency and with commitment to the development of ideal solutions at an organisational level. Absent from such a model is the solo hero teacher but teacher agency does not have to disappear. Our schools are places where we can have a positive impact but this will occur through our collaborative efforts, our contribution to the collective voce of the profession. 

Schools which give their teachers a voice throughout the planning, implementation and continuous evaluation phases of change and growth, schools which embrace diversity and celebrate the unique perspectives which every member of the learning community contributes should be well placed then need to rely on teacher support of the plans which evolve thusly.
 
 
 By Nigel Coutts

 

Smollan, R & Sayers, J. (2009) Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Change Management, 9:4, 435-457

We've always done it that way

Experience shapes our understanding of the world and our responses to it. Our past influences our decision making and constrains our imaginations of what is and is not possible. Understanding this is a crucial step towards change; a first step towards discovering a better way to do things. Until we understand how our experience is limiting our imaginations we will continue to be restrained by the way things have always been done. 

For educators in particular there are important lessons to be gained by asking questions about the way we have always done things. We have in our histories an experience of being students and this frames our beliefs about what school should and can be like. Consciously and subconsciously we perpetuate models of education that are shaped by our experience even as we see that the changing nature of the world requires new thinking.

Schools are shaped by many forces. Some are a result of considered and strategic thinking, backed by research and aimed at delivering the best outcomes to our students. At their best our pedagogy and our curriculum demonstrate aspects of this considered and deliberate approach. At other times we see the fingerprints of our past experience shaping what we do. We cling to aspects of schooling such as homework in the elementary years even though we know it has little effect. We recycle approaches to literacy and numeracy even when we have seen them fail in the past and despite our knowledge that technology is driving new imperatives. We see that artificial intelligence is coming, understand that the workplace is changing shape and know that our students will live in a world vastly different to that which our current model of schooling was designed to prepare them for when it was first imagined at the dawn of the industrial revolution. 

At a structural level schools are shaped by forces which often have little to do with pedagogy. The daily routine, of bells and lessons, of movement from classroom to classroom, of lunches and recess breaks all timed to the minute, brings constraints in its rigidity. The silos of knowledge which are the disciplines we use to structure our students learning present a world where understanding is neatly divided. These structures make the process of managing a school somewhat easier and may have served our needs well once, but now prove to be obstacles more than supports. We want our students to be problem finders and solvers armed with diverse skills and the capacity to use what they know in new contexts and yet we continue to present learning to them in neat boxes. 

Our experience of school tells us that we forgot much of what we learned and make little use of other parts. We hoe our children will have a different experience of school to that which we had. We sympathise with Mark Twain when states that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” and smile as we read Einstein’s well worn exclamation that "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Despite wanting something better for our students, a focus on deep understanding and life-worthy learning, we struggle to overcome structures for how we assess learning and consequently the learning that we value. We measure what is easily measured even though we know it is not what is most valued in the lives our students are likely to live. 

Our schools shape the future pathways taken by our students. We see this in the post school choices that they make and the elective courses they choose for their final years of study. Exploring the data we have on subject selections and post school pathways reveal gender biases*. We know that fewer girls choose STEM pathways and that boys are more likely to take on high level maths even though there is no evidence of gender differences in an individuals capacity for these subjects. We know that changing this pattern is vital for enhanced equity and we see these patterns reflected in the subject choices of those most impacted by social disadvantaged. We know that research points to connections between our pedagogical moves in these subjects, that an emphasis on rote learning, speed of recall, individualism (as opposed to collaborative learning) and procedural methods (rather than creativity and reasoning) combined with a scarcity of strong role models for those who are not white and male contributes to the inequities. 

We can change this but it will require our very best thinking. We must seek to clarify our purposes and understand deeply what our children most require from their time in school. In determine this we need to look forward to the world they will occupy rather than looking back at the forces, knowledge and beliefs which produced traditional models of schooling. We need to reassess all that we do from the most obvious pillars of our educational systems to the seemingly most insignificant elements. We need to align all that we do, believe and value with our purposes and measure their value against how effectively they drive us towards achieving our goals. 

The difficulty is that systems as old and as entrenched as those which shape schools are difficult to change. It would almost be easier to start afresh with the mindset and attitude of a young start up exploring new frontiers for the very first time without the baggage of our existing systems. And yet doing so ignores that there is much to be valued in our current model. Great teachers are those who build empowering relationships with their learners. Our education system is full of such teachers. Passionate teachers strive to understand their learners and act as role models for them to follow. Quality schools make connections with their communities, with industry, with educational researchers and are already asking the right questions about their purpose and how they might best achieve meaningful goals with and for their students. In countless classrooms and you see students engaged with powerful learning opportunities where they are challenged by choice, are drivers of their learning and are active participants in learning that matters to them now and into their futures. Teachers and school leaders who work within the system they have while gently pushing for change. 

Simon Sinek encourages us to “Start with Why”. His claim is that when we start with a clear understanding of why we do what we do, we are more likely to do it well and to achieve true success. For too long the answer to “Why?” in schools has been “Because that is the way we always do things”. The time for changing this is clearly here, we must always ask “why” and our answer needs to always be linked to the needs of our learners today and their tomorrow. 

By Nigel Coutts


*New South Wales, Australia found in 2001 that 19.7% of boys and 16.8% of girls went on to study a mathematics/science combination in the Higher School Certificate . By 2011 these figures had dropped to 18.6% of boys and 13.8% of girls (Mack & Walsh, 2013, p. 1 p. 8).

Our curious ideas about intelligence

We have some strange ideas about intelligence, many of them are wrong. Some of our ideas can have a damaging effect on the people we label as intelligent. When we look at some of the research behind intelligence we find that our assumptions based on what we were once told about it need to be updated. 
 
I recall watching the ‘Dog Whisperer’ some years back and gaining an insight into how we send messages to our learners even when we don’t intend to. The host of the show, Cesar Millan was demonstrating how the fear of the dogs owner are transmitted through the lead directly into the pets mind. It was as though the lead was a conduit through which the owner communicated subliminally with their pet. The behaviour that was observed in the dog was a direct consequence of these messages even when they contradicted what the owner said.
 
Our children are at least as capable of reading the hidden messages we send them as are our beloved four legged friends and when it comes to messages about what intelligence is, who has it and who does not we need to be very careful. 
 
The most obvious misunderstanding we have around intelligence is that it is a fixed attribute. It is not surprising that many people believe this as it was once accepted wisdom that intelligence was indeed fixed. You were born with it or you were not. We insulted those we considered lacking intelligence by claiming they must have been running late when the brains were handed out. We did not think of intelligence as something that could be improved and enriched through anything we could do. Now we understand that intelligence can be developed. That the brain is surprisingly plastic and can be rewired as a result of how we use it. The idea that intelligence is fixed, that some people are smart and others are not, is one of the messages we have sent our children over the years. 
 
Intelligence has also been closely associated with particular activities and not with others. Not only do we attribute high intelligence to certain careers, we attribute it to certain disciplines. If you are good at mathematics you must be very smart. If you understand physics you are smarter than a chemist who is smarter than a biologist. If you are an artist you may have a particular talent, but not the sort of smarts that a mathematician has. Now we know that intelligence comes in many different forms, that it is not a singular attribute but a complex mix of capacities. The mathematician, the scientist, the artist all have differing mixes of what might be considered intelligence, a diverse interwoven mix that allows each of them to engage with the world in uniquely intelligent ways.

There are lessons to be learned from Artificial Intelligence. General Artificial Intelligence would require a machine to possess the sort of diverse intellect that is the norm in humans. The form of AI is still a long way from reality, even among top contenders such as the computer (AlphaGo) that is today the world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go. As impressive as AlphaGo might be it is yet to master the full range of mental acts that are expected of a human. What is rapidly emerging from the world of AI are computer, bots and robots that are very good at a specified subset of what we know of as intelligence. Rather than trying to replicate the many things that a human can do AI is being developed to do but a part of what we do and in achieving this shines a light on the many forms of intelligence that contribute to our notion of General Intelligence.
 
Intelligence is a meaningless attribute if it is viewed independent of behaviour. Forrest Gump got it right when he stated, ‘Stupid is as stupid does’. It was once considered that an intelligence was an attribute purely of the mind, that it could exist as an abstract removed from what the individual would chose to do with it. Today we understand that intelligence is dispositional. This means it is a result of the capacity to act intelligently, the desire to do so an awareness of the need for intelligent behaviour. This concept extends beautifully to the notion of the wise individual. Ready recall of great quantities of knowledge may once have marked an individual as wise. Today we understand that bare knowledge is insufficient, to be smart one must be able to make effective use of what they know. 
 
On the occasion of Project Zero’s fiftieth birthday, David Perkins asked the question "what does it mean to be smart” and his response showed the errors in the common understanding of what intelligence is. He reminded us that the evolving understanding of the mind shows:

  • Smart as multiple - we are not all smart in the same way nor are we smart in a singular way. There are the smarts we use when we are being creative and these are not the same as the smarts we use when we are being business minded and these are not the same as the ones we use when being social
  • Smart as learnable - that through the development of thinking strategies and the use of scaffolds for our mind we can enhance our smarts
  • Smart as dispositional - that much of what we consider as smart are indeed dispositions and that can be developed or enhanced and that the utility of these dispositions requires not only the capacity for the disposition but the desire to deploy it and a sensitivity to its utility in given circumstances all of which can be learned
  • Smart as performative - It’s not the knowledge, it’s what you do with the knowledge, It’s not knowing a lot it’s how you think with what you know.  

For a long time, we believed that intelligence was linked to fast thinking. The quick answer to the complex question was a sure sign of intelligence. Rapid recall of information was a valuable asset to the game of trivial pursuit and a widely accepted mark of intelligence. The individual who could quickly add three or more large numbers together was a mathematical genius. The connection between speed of thought and intelligence has been communicated to our students both directly and accidentally. It disappointingly still the norm that students are drilled and timed on their 'table facts’ in mathematics classes across the map; even though we know this is the sort of mathematics that the machines will most readily take over when they rise against us.
 
In ‘Mathematical Mindsets’, Jo Boaler shares the story of Laurent Schwartz. Laurent has become confident in his mathematical capacities and intelligence but this occurred despite his experience of school. As Laurent describes, a focus on speed at school led to him questioning his ability.

I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent. And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid. I worried about this for a long time.
 
I'm still just as slow… At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn't have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn't really relevant. (Schwartz, 2001)

Laurent was able to move beyond a flawed concept of what intelligence is and is not. Many students do not. They are left believing the myths that they have read about intelligence in the beliefs, values and actions of their teachers. We need to engage our learners in conversations about what intelligence is and what it isn’t. When they understand that it is multiple, learnable, dispositional, performative and varied in speed they have the knowledge they need to see it as an attribute that they can take charge of. 

Speed and intelligence is a complex thing and it is not merely a matter of how rapidly we process information. Brain research shows us that how we move from noticing a sensation via our senses through to developing a suitable response is shaped by many forces. This complexity is revealed in Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ in which he uses the metaphor of two systems to describe our thought processes. Simply put, we have System One that functions very quickly and automatically in response to stimulation. System One is what allows us to survive not just in a dangerous world but in the world of social interactions and complex relationships. System Two is what takes over when System One is unable to respond or when we notice that it is not doing its job very well. Our rapid response System One is phenomenally useful but it has its limitations and this is where our slower thinking System Two is required; yet System Two has its flaws and we need both to thrive. This is very much so an oversimplification of Kahneman’s ideas and those with an interest in this are encouraged to read his book. 

The difficulty is that our deliberate and considered messaging about intelligence is often contradicted by our actions and the pedagogical moves we make. Do we give equal merit to intelligence in all its forms or do we value mathematical or literary intelligence more than the sort of intelligence demonstrated on the sporting field? Do we make cuts to our arts programmes so as to better value the sciences? Do we encourage deep thinking but then administer timed tests? Do we encourage speedy thinking by calling on the students whose hand goes up first? Do we praise correct answers or do we equally acknowledge the students who makes a mistake but demonstrates unique thinking in the process? Only by looking at every aspect of our messaging about intelligence can we hope to transform how our students perceive it. 
 
By Nigel Coutts


Boaler, J. (2016) Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. Wiley; Kindle Edition. 

Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

Schwartz, L. (2001) A Mathematician Grappling with His Century. Birkhäuser

Want to learn more:

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) New Kinds of Smart: How the Science of Learnable Intelligence is Changing Education. Open University Press

Taking the Time to Think
What does intelligence look like?
 

The Power of Relationship for Positive School Climate

In teaching and for learning relationships are everything.  

This is one of those statements that cannot be overstated, it is true now, it has always been true.  

For our students to learn before all else they must feel that they are in a positive and supportive environment where they are known and cared for. Maslow identified this back in 1943 when he published his well-known hierarchy of needs. At the base of Maslow’s pyramid sit our most fundamental physiological needs, those we require to maintain life. Above these sit our ‘safety’ needs including well-being needs and above these our need for a sense of belonging and love.  

 Source -  Wikipedia  

Source - Wikipedia 

Maslow understood that before we are able to turn our personal capacities towards the pursuit of other goals such as esteem and self-actualisation, before we can engage in learning, we must have our fundamental needs met. Maslow’s hierarchy shows clearly the importance of establishing a safe and supportive environment if learning is to become a possibility.  

In more recent times this environment has become associated with the notion of 'school climate’. A school’s climate according to the NSW Association of Independent Schools (AISNSW), 'is a holistic concept which encompasses four domains: safety, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning, and the school environment.’ These factors together create the conditions within which the learner becomes immersed. By developing an awareness of these factors and by manipulating them to achieve positive impacts schools can establish a climate that is supportive of student success.  

A recent study by the US Department of Education has thrown weight behind our understanding of the importance of school climate.  “The study found that middle schools with higher levels of positive student-reported school climate exhibited higher levels of academic performance; increases in a school’s level of positive student-reported school climate were associated with simultaneous increases in that school’s academic achievement." 

The benefits of a positive school climate are broad and impact both students and teachers. The AISNSW reports positive effects on academic performance, school attendance, emotional health and wellbeing, self-esteem and self-efficacy for students and job satisfaction, resilience and wellbeing for teachers. Indeed, a positive school climate is shown to reduce teacher burnout and increase retention rates, two significant challenges facing the teaching profession.

At the heart of a positive school climate are the relationships we build; those between students and teachers, between students, between teachers and between the school and its community including importantly its parents. These relationships are built on the visible foundations of the school’s mission, vision and values but more importantly they are constructed and sustained by the everyday actions taken at every point of contact between stakeholders. It needs to be understood that the friendly welcome our students receive as they enter the school each day is as significant a factor in their academic growth as any lesson they will ever attend.  

In an environment where the teacher’s role was to deliver knowledge into the memories of the student, the key attribute of the relationship between teacher and student was one of basic trust. The learner needed to trust that the teacher and the knowledge they held was trustworthy. With few competing sources of information, this was an easy relationship to establish and it was maintained by the authority of the teacher, the school and indeed the privileged position of educational institutions.  

In contemporary times a positive school climate built through caring and supportive relationships is perhaps more critical than ever. As the focus of schools moves towards models of learning centred on creativity and critical thinking, when we want students to be the drivers of their learning who take risks and learn from failure, we must establish a school climate where this is achievable. If we want our students to bring their passions into the classrooms, if we hope that they will seek out new challenges and be prepared to learn from failure they must know that they are doing these things within an environment where they are safe.  

All schools will espouse that they aim to create a positive school climate. All teachers will share that they know and care for their students, encourage responsible risk taking, creativity and learning from mistakes. Where this falls down is in the broader mix of messaging systems that are at play. We might encourage risk-taking in our conversation with students, but does our grading system reward it or punish students who tried an alternative path? Do we acknowledge students who tried a new idea and failed or do we only acknowledge first place? Do we claim to care for our students’ emotional needs but focus on the neatness of their uniforms more so than the mere fact that they have arrived at school at all and almost on time? Do we move straight onto the content of our lessons or do we take time for conversation?  Do we stop on our way to the staffroom to check in on a student or are we too busy?

The challenge confronting those hoping to construct a positive school climate (a challenge that applies also for changes to school culture) is that it is shaped by everything we do and every choice we make and it is confounded doubly so by every misstep we make. To craft a truly positive school climate demands our fullest attention to every detail of every relationship we build but the effort is well worth it.  

By Nigel Coutts

Making the best use of our time with Google Forms

Teachers are a busy lot. We are a profession whose workload seems to be forever on the rise and as much as you do, there is always more to be done, more to be learned, new challenges to be surmounted and exciting new opportunities to be explored. For all of this it is important to make the most efficient use of the tools we have at our disposal. 

Often technology in education is seen as a contributor to the challenges faced by teachers. There seems to be a constant stream of new ideas, gizmos and gadgets for us to review and potentially integrate into our students learning, each with its own learning curve and each hinting at changes to our programmes. But alongside this are the technologies which can, if used smartly give time back. 

Google Forms is one such tool. A part of Google’s suite of productivity tools along with Docs, Sheets and Slides, it is a powerful and in most instances, free tool that can save teachers time and frustration. Google Forms will transform how you gather information and in conjunction with a handy ‘Add On' can streamline the process of creating standardised documents.

Schools love paper and electronic forms. We have forms for excursions, incursions, ordering supplies, student referrals, leave forms and all manner of forms required for finance. We gather data in spreadsheets for student tracking, incentive programmes, budgets, and the list goes on and on. Each requires someone filling in tick boxes. adding data into the right field, in the right format and all too often then having someone else re-process that data into an electronic format. Google Forms can streamline this process. 

In essence Forms allows you to create and share an electronic document that the end user completes online by responding to a set of questions with open or closed response options. As the creator of the Form you decide what sort of responses will be available to the user. Options include short answer, paragraph responses, multiple-choice, check boxes, linear scales and more complex matrixes with Tick Boxes or multiple choice options. The beauty of using forms is that you can ensure all of the necessary information is entered by setting questions as required and you can control how the responses are entered. This is particularly important when you want to make use of the data later and depend on having all of the students in Year One listed as ‘Yr1' and not some other arrangement. 

GoogleForms.png

Setting up the Google Form is not a difficult process. If working in a browser access is either direct using the link forms.google.com or for users of Google Drive through the ‘NEW' items menu and the ‘More' option. Your new Form will be created and you can quickly move on to setting questions and selecting the type of response for each. If you have used Google Docs, the interface will be reasonably familiar. As is the norm, mousing over items will offer a brief description of what the option does. New questions are added using the + button and clicking on the type of question (e.g. Short Answer) presents a drop-down list of possibilities. Multiple Choice works well when you want to give the person the option to select just one possibility from a list, Checkboxes work well when they might need to select more than one possibility. The Multiple Choice Grid and Tick Box Grid allow you to set multiple items each with a range of possible responses. Date and Time options give the user the option of directly entering a date or time or the option of selecting from a calendar. Items can be moved up or down the order by dragging the six-dotted grab handle on each question. 

 Tick Box Grids allow for granular detail to be collected. 

Tick Box Grids allow for granular detail to be collected. 

Once you have your Form set up you will want to make it yours by customising it to suit your organisation. Options are not extensive, but a set of themes is available and you can use images of your own to customise the look and add branding. You can preview the Form at any time by clicking on the Eye icon at the top left and when you are ready you can Send the Form to users via Email, a shareable link, by embedding the form into a website or by social media. You can also set collaborators on the Form itself and these people will be able to edit the questions and see the data gathered by the Form. It is important to note the difference between Collaborators on a Form and people who you Send the Form to complete. 

GoogleForms_Menu_Edited.png

A Settings menu allows you to fine tune who has access to the Form, whether changes can be made after submission, who can see responses and aspects of the presentation of the Form. Also, in the Settings you will also find the option to set up Quizzes. With this you can set a Quiz, assign points to each question and set up automatic marking. 

GoogleFormsResponses.png

As respondents complete your Form you will gather their responses in a number of ways. The first is through the responses tab inside Google Forms. You will see a count of the number of responses and can then view those responses either as a Summary with responses grouped by Question or as Individual responses with all of the responses of any single respondent together. A rather well hidden green button on this tab allows you to ‘View Response in Sheets’. When you do this you will be prompted to create a Google Sheet that will be used to store all responses. This Google Sheet allows you to perform all of the typical Spreadsheet functions on your data including sorts, searches and equations. 

The functionality of Google Forms can be expanded with ‘Add Ons’. One particularly handy ‘Add On’ is ‘Form Publisher’. This allows you to use a Google Form to add information to a document that you get to control the look and feel of. Each question in your Form can be used as a field in the document you create using Form Publisher and each time a user completes a Form a new personalised document will be created using the information they enter. You can even set up automatic processes which occur at the completion of a Form such as email alerts and automatic storage of the personalised document as an editable Google Doc and a PDF into a selected Google Drive Folder. 

FormPublisher_Sample.png

The process of setting up Form Publisher is simple, a dialogue box walks you through the initial steps for setting up you workflow and automatically creates a sample document with each of your questions as a field. With this document you can easily make edits as you would to any Google Doc making sure to place the exact text of your questions inside << >> marks (e.g. <<Student Name>> ) wherever you want a response placed in the document. You can return to the From Publisher ‘Add On’ in Google Forms at any time if you need to make changes such as adding or editing an email address to the list of people who receive notifications. 

Used wisely Google Forms and Form Publisher can streamline your processes. Like all tools it is worth experimenting with what can be achieved and making use of the online help from both Google and Form Publisher, in conjunction with forums and your Personal Learning Network makes the process easy.

By Nigel Coutts

Related: Collaborative Learning With Google Docs

Home Delivered vs Home Cooked Learning - Who's in the driver's seat?

Do you like your learning 'home delivered’ or do you prefer it to be 'home cooked’? Is learning something that you are the driver of or is learning something that happens to you? 
 
Our experience of learning shapes many of our beliefs about how it should take place and what it feels like to be a learner. Traditional models of schooling send the message that learning is a product of actions and intentions external to the learner. The teacher teaches, the learner as a consequence learns, or at least that is what we hope happens. The teacher knows the learners needs and presents them with learning experience that will help them achieve the desired learning outcomes; outcomes which are set at an even greater distance from the learner and enshrined in the curriculum.
 
This experience of learning as something that is done to us, delivered to us and managed for us, results in us forming particular attitudes towards learning. Rather than a belief that we can be self-navigating learners, equipped with the skills and dispositions we require, we develop a dependency upon others for our learning. Although we recognise that we have many tools for learning at our disposal, and even though in parts of our lives we might use them (that DIY project in the garden), in other aspects of our lives we feel learning is something that needs to be delivered to us; provided for us. 
 
This dependency on pre-packaged learning impedes our ability to be true life-long learners and creates a false valuing of learning experiences which are outside of our control. This false valuing is reinforced by policies which value registered and accredited courses over and above learning that is self-driven. Teachers who have taken the time to build a Personal Learning Network are likely to report the great value that they find in the connections that they make, the ideas they uncover and shared knowledge they access and contribute to and yet in the broad scheme of things this is valued less than a ‘registered course’. 

"It is better to Know how to Learn,
Than to Know"

Dr. Seuss

As teachers, we hope that our students go on to become life-long learners. We hope that our teaching empowers them to be active problem-finders who are agentic and able to act intelligently with what they know to solve the problems that matter to them and the world they live in. This goal requires that the adults in their lives model to them how we learn, how we problem solve and what we do when we get stuck. Our students routinely see us teach but how often do they get to see us learn?
 
Much is made of building cultures in our workplaces which are tolerant of failure and are open to innovation. In a similar vein there is much to be gained from building a culture which truly values learning. We can do this by sharing our professional puzzles, our wonderings and our questions. When we embrace learning we recognise that gaps in our knowledge should not be hidden but shared such that we may find a path to new understandings. By valuing learning above knowing we also value personal growth and progress and take steps towards a growth mindset. To do this organisations need to create opportunities for their employees to share their learning as a process rather than just a finished product. Many organisations provide opportunities for staff to share what they have recently learned, but fewer opportunities exist for sharing learning that is messy and incomplete. 
 
The corporate world is beginning to recognise the value of a mindset for learning. Increasingly you will hear companies adopt the mantra ‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill’. The idea is simple; skills can be learned but the right hire must come with an attitude that aligns with the corporation’s culture and the capacity and drive to learn. In a fast-paced world, the necessary skills change with the wind, but the underlying attitudes that the best employees possess along with their capacity to ‘learn, un-learn re-learn’ remain valuable over time. 

“The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

 
Home delivered, pre-packed learning can be very nice, but the satisfaction that comes with quality ‘home cooked’ learning is much greater and the benefits of the learning you are personally responsible for will be longer-lasting and nurture your mind. 

Managing the pressure of the 'difficult' class

Sometimes, it seems the class you are teaching is more than you can cope with. 
 
A whole range of factors seem to conspire against you at the start of the year and despite your efforts you don’t feel you are gaining the usual traction with your students. Whether it’s the particular mix of learners, the specific learning needs of some students or the challenging behaviour of others, things are not quite going as planned and you are starting to question your ability as a teacher and maybe even thinking now is the time to switch careers. 
 
The truth is all teachers face times like this. The sad part is that many good teachers decide that the best move for them in these times is to leave the profession; a trend we need to fix. 
 
It is easy to imagine that the mark of a competent teacher is their ability to successfully manage the learning needs of any group of students or the needs of any specific student purely as a result of their individual talents. Such thinking is deeply flawed but is reinforced by organisational structures that isolate teachers and privatise the teaching process. When we become more open and collaborative we see that we are not alone in our struggles to meet the needs of our students. Opportunities to share stories from the classroom, allow us to see that even the teachers we imagine as the most talented and experienced have moments where they are challenged by the learning needs of their students, have trouble connecting with individuals and confront feelings of self-doubt. 
 
Collaborative teams of teachers and specialists are essential and should be the norm in all schools. A collaborative planning team allows teachers to formally discuss the learning needs of their students as individuals and as members of a learning community. A diverse collaborative team will bring new perspectives and understandings of the challenges and offer alternate strategies for meeting the needs of the learners. An effective collaborative team will be supportive of the teacher and ensure that the teacher is well supported. While the ultimate goal of the team is to develop a strategy that serves the needs of the learner, the first task is to ensure the teacher is looked after and knows that the team is supporting their efforts.
 
Membership of the collaborative team will vary depending on the specifics of the situation but should always include the child’s parents or carers. The perspective that the child’s family brings is important to any plans made for the child and their participation in the plans implementation is vital. In schools that achieve the greatest success for their students, close ties will already exist with the parent body and discussions about the learning goals of the school and the part that families can play in supporting these will be the norm. 
 
Access to relevant professional development should be the norm and teachers should be able to tailor their access to this based on the needs of their learners. This professional development should include access to professionals such as child psychologists, occupational therapists and counsellors who have knowledge of the specific circumstances of the child and the context of their learning. Access to such specialists can be expensive and a goal of developing a more equitable education system should include providing access to these professional services for all who require it. 
 
Believing in the growth potential of every student is critical to success. By knowing where our students are with their learning, seeking to understand how they learn and the obstacles that might impede their learning teachers can set achievable goals and map a path towards these. Knowing that the path will take many twists and turns and times progress might seem slow is part of the process. Teachers with a true growth mindset will know that there are aspects of teaching that trigger their fixed mindset and that the same applies for their students. By working and learning together it is possible to see growth as an achievable goal and from that point it becomes possible to make progress in the desired direction. 
 
As individual teachers and as teaching teams it is important that we look after ourselves in addition to looking after the needs of our students. When we find ourselves with a challenging student or class the workload and stress escalates and as it does our capacity to problem solve diminishes. We need to understand that before we can meet the needs of our students we need to meet our personal needs. Taking the personal time to rest, reset and reflect is critical, as is time with our families and time away from thinking about work. Setting clear boundaries, disconnecting from work by turing off email and engaging with our personal interests are habits that make us better teachers. 
 
The teacher that our students need, is the teacher who is willing to do what it takes to meet their needs but who is not willing to sacrifice their own sanity in doing so. Great teachers know their limits and know that the best way to meet the needs of their learners is by building a collaborative team around them. Great teachers seek help, ask for guidance and understand that they cannot know all the answers. They are gentle on themselves and forgiving of mistakes, recognising that every day is a new day with new hope and fresh possibility. 
 
 By Nigel Coutts

A culture of innovation requires trust and resilience

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” 
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Two quotes by Albert Einstein point to the importance of creating a culture within our schools (and organisations) that encourages experimentation, innovation, tinkering and indeed failure. If we are serious about embracing change, exploring new approaches, maximising the possibilities of new technologies, applying lessons from new research and truly seek to prepare our students for a new work order, we must become organisations that encourage learning from failure. 

There is an easy way to avoid mistakes and with the classroom remaining a largely private domain it is easily done. Rather than trying new ideas and sharing the results with your colleagues, maintain the status quo, hide any mistakes and avoid risky situations where your ideas might be challenged. Don’t volunteer for projects, don’t share new strategies and don’t ask for help when you are unsure of what to do. In many organisations, doing so will allow you to avoid critical feedback and ensure you many long and peaceful days. 

The danger in such an approach is that you are locking yourself away from any opportunity for growth and restricting the opportunities available to your students. By not sharing you limit the potential benefits of your innovative ideas to the students you teach and by not asking for help you limit the scope of possible solutions to those you might imagine. What hope will your students have of developing a growth mindset or desire to try new ideas if they never see their teacher doing the same. 

The alternative is to try new ideas, in public, while asking for help and seeking feedback. 

Often your ideas will be criticised. Sometimes they will be misunderstood. Sometimes people will be critical of you. Often your ideas will fail, or be blocked, or ignored. There will be times when you want to hide and there will be times when you want to give up. More importantly there will be times when your idea makes a genuine difference. There will be times when your idea meets the ideas of another and together they grow into something you had never imagined. Through the feedback you receive, from the critical comments, from the questions and by learning from your blunders you will find that your ideas can make a real difference. While it is true that the more ideas you share, the more criticism you face; it is also true that the more ideas you share, the more success you have. 

Being or becoming an innovator within an organisation requires a high-degree of resilience. The innovator must genuinely embrace the belief that ideas are better when they are shared. Innovators know and believe that the surest path to a truly innovative solution is to share that idea early in its development so that it might benefit from the wisdom of many minds. But for this to happen those receiving the idea must adopt a mindset of possibility. Too often our first response to a new idea is to find and share all the reasons why it won’t work or at least won’t work here. Rather than starting with “This won’t work because . . .” we need to flip our thinking and respond “This might work if we . . .”.

If schools and organisations wish to activate the innovators in their mix they must learn to celebrate the mistakes and missteps along the way. In biology the word ‘culture’ is used to describe a medium that promotes growth; a culture medium. When we embrace this idea and apply it to the culture of our schools we can see that the right culture creates the conditions necessary for growth. Innovation will only thrive in a culture where the individual feels safe to try new ideas. 

The challenge for schools in creating a culture that is accepting of failure is that the messaging of this is conveyed as much in the little things as in the public affirmations of a desire to innovate. The tone of an email, the subtle reprimand, the abrupt response to a question that shuts down the conversation are all factors which restrict innovation. Genuine encouragement of innovative ideas will see individuals and teams praised for the ideas that do not work as much as they are praised for the ones that do. 

I feel lucky to work an environment that encourages innovation and I have seen time and time again ideas that I have shared become better and stronger thanks to the input of many minds. Those who do not work in such an environment need to find ways to innovate within their context. Maybe innovations occurs within a small team. Maybe you share your ideas with a few trusted colleagues before sharing them with the whole school. Sometimes you need to try that new idea in private, gathering evidence of its utility as you do before you share it with a wider audience. Making connections with educators in other schools and other countries via social media can provide you with the support and sounding-board your ideas need. It may not be an easy path, and may often seem a lonely one, but your students deserve it, and so do you.

By Nigel Coutts

Starting the year on the right foot

Across Australia students are returning to school. Armed with fresh stationery, new books full of promise, shoes that are not yet comfortable and uniforms washed and ready to go, students will be heading off for the first day of a new year. What do they hope to find and how might we make sure their first day back sets them up for a successful year of learning? 

Above all else our students will want to know that school is a safe place where they can be themselves. Students will not take risks with their learning, engage in creative thinking, adopt a growth mindset or demonstrate grit and determination if they do not feel safe. A safe and welcoming school climate is one that embraces diversity in all its forms, is forgiving of mistakes and missteps, focuses on growth and sees learning as an iterative process. When we take the time to get to know our students, when we show that we want to hear their story, discover their interests and join with them on the learning journey that lies ahead we show our students that they are what matter most. Great teachers know their students well and use that knowledge just as they use their knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy to construct the right culture for every child's learning.

A teacher I worked with for many years would begin the term by writing each member of her class a welcome note. What made this practise special was the great care with which each note was written. As the students arrived in her class at the start of the year and the start of each term they would find their personalised note waiting on their desk. Each note was carefully crafted to show that the child was known and that their teacher was happy to have them as a member of her class. The notes shared with the child their teacher’s hopes for them in the weeks and months that lay ahead and her confidence in their ability to handle the challenges they would encounter. With this strong foundation, the first hours of the school year were dedicated to building connections and celebrating the rich diversity that the students bring to the class as a result of their backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses. The time spent in these opening hours established a class that put empathy and compassion before all else. 

The start of the year is the perfect time to establish a culture of thinking in our classrooms. When we value thinking, make time for it to occur, ask open ended questions that permit it and when we set the clear expectation that thinking is essential in our classrooms we build a culture that advances learning. Many teachers start the year with stories of holiday adventures but fewer begin with stories of holiday thinking and learning. This can be the perfect opportunity to model your thinking as a teacher and as a life-long learner. By sharing with our students, the learning, problem solving, thinking and wondering we engage with we become the models of life-long learning they need. 

“What makes you say that?” is a powerful question and one of the Ten Things that Ron Ritchhart recommends we say to our students every day. It can be a confronting question and some learners who have not been exposed to it may see it as negative feedback. It is worth explaining to the class early on that “What makes you say that?”  (or the abbreviated WMYST) is a question you will ask often not because their response is flawed but because you value the thinking that led to it. WMYST is one way to take your students beyond right and wrong answers and to move the routine of the classroom away from what Dylan Wiliam calls “ping pong” questioning where the teacher asks a question, a student answers and the pattern repeats. WMYST opens up a richer dialogue where there are multiple perspectives and students are expected to reason with evidence. Establishing an expectation that students will articulate the thinking behind their responses early on brings the advantage that before long students will automatically extend their responses with the addition “and what makes me say that is . . .”. 

This is also the time to set up the conditions required to enable a “growth mindset”. Being clear from day one that this year will be full of challenges and that students will have many times when they do not immediately achieve success. Failure will be a part of their learning and is a necessary requirement for true personal growth. If we reimagine failure as a part of the learning process, as a way of finding out what doesn’t work and of exploring just beyond our personal limit, it stops being a barrier and is transformed as a hurdle on the road to success. Building on this, teachers need to be clear that they value personal growth more than right answers or high test scores. The students who take responsible risks, challenge themselves, look for what they can learn from every experience and who want to be shown where they might improve are the ones who will achieve the most. 

Our recently appointed Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons captured many of these ideas beautifully in her acceptance speech, words that will undoubtedly be shared by many teachers at the start of this year. "I’ve really lived by four mantras - do what is hard, place high expectations on yourself, take risks and do something that matters” Now is the time for us to establish a culture of learning in our classrooms that allow our students to do the same. The little things we do now, the time we spend building our classroom culture, sets us up for the great year of learning we all hope for. 

By Nigel Coutts

10 Things to say to your students everyday by Ron Ritchhart

Developing and Maintaining a Growth Mindset