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. 


Setting up the Google Form is not a difficult process. If working in a browser access is either direct using the link 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. 


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. 


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. 


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 their 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 their 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


Becoming Learners: Making time for OUR Learning

At the heart of all that we do as teachers lies the act of learning. Our hope is that our actions inspire our students to engage in a process that results in their acquisition of new knowledge, mastery of new skills and the development of capacities and dispositions which will prepare them for life beyond our classrooms. Increasingly our focus is on developing the skills and dispositions our students require to become life-long learners. We recognise that in a rapidly changing world, the capacity to take charge of your personal learning journey, to become self-navigating learners is essential. 
"The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. (Ryan & Deci. 2000)
The challenge for teachers is to recognise the value of their personal learning for themselves, for their schools as learning organisations and for their students. Setting aside time for regular personal learning is vital for our professional growth. It is something that some of our most successful entrepreneurs recognise. Michael Simmons has researched the practices of people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. He found that each of these people can attribute some of their ongoing success to their regular engagement with deliberate learning. Michael refers to this focused, consistent pattern of learning as the “five hour rule” in which individuals dedicate at least an hour of each working day to their personal learning. 
For busy teachers finding five hour each week to focus on our learning is a challenge, after all we have up to thirty learners in our classes who require our attention and every day it seems that our to do list expands. To change this, we need to change our thinking and understand that the time we spend on our personal learning is time that will ultimately enhance and enrich the learning environment we provide our students. This is a strategic thinking move that takes us away from what Stephen Covey refers to as “Fire-fighting” where our day is consumed with items which are important and urgent or “Distractions" which demand our attention but are ultimately not-important for our strategic direction. By deliberate action we are able to set aside time in our schedule for the important task of developing our own capacities. 
An easy way to start a learning journey is to set aside time for personal reading. There is an ever-expanding selection of books directly relevant to our role as teachers and I have shared such lists previously. If our goal is to expand our thinking then there is great value in exploring ideas outside of the immediate field of teaching and learning.
With this goal in mind here is a short list of books from outside of the field of education which are bound to get you thinking. 
Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d'Ancona
In this book, British journalist Matthew d’Ancona presents the argument that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ era where we are accepting and tolerant of lies and reluctant to accept the wisdom of experts. It is a book that might help you understand the current political climate and one that will encourage you to re-think how we prepare our students to be sceptical analysers of information and opinion. This is a book you will want to share and one you will soon be citing in conversations. 
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
We are a society that celebrates extroversion and outward displays of confidence and flamboyance but in doing so we ignore and devalue the strength of our introverts. In the classroom, our introverts go easily unnoticed. They consume less of our time and in class conversations seem to have less to contribute than their more extroverted peers. When you read “Quiet” your assumptions about introverts will be challenged and you will see the introverted people in your life through a new lens. For those who are introverts this book will help you better understand your strengths and help you handle life in a world that seems to focus on extroversion. 
Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by Simon Sinek
With his best-selling book “Start with Why” Simon Sinek started a movement committed to understanding why we do what we do. In this new book Simon and his team share the strategies they have used as they help individuals and teams find their why. If you are a fan of Simon Sinek’s ideas and are looking for your why, this book is a must read. 
Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz
Gene Kranz is one of those amazing individuals who has played a critical role behind the scenes of some of the defining moments of modern times. For anyone with an interest in engineering, science, space exploration or who grew up marvelling at the adventures of astronauts this book is a must-read. Gene Kranz is perhaps best known for the role he played in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts as depicted in the Ron Howard film where Gene was portrayed by Ed Harris. Gene tells the story of NASA through the eyes of insider beginning in the early days of the Mercury to flights beyond the Apollo programme. An inspiring read. 
Introducing Chaos: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar, Iwona Abrams
Chaos theory is one of those ideas that we may have all heard of but few of us truly understand. In this book, the authors provide a gentle introduction to the field of chaos theory through a mix of accessible text and supporting images. If you feel that things are increasingly becoming complex and characterised by times of chaotic change, this book is the place to start an exploration of what chaos theory has to offer. A book full of insights. 
and for something completely different . . 
507 Mechanical Movements: Mechanisms and Devices by Henry T. Brown
This is a delightful book and one that anyone with an interest in engineering and how things work will treasure. It is full of images of simple and relatively complex mechanical arrangements. The sort of book that would have been an essential reference items for engineers at the dawn of the 20th Century when it was originally published. If you are exploring maker centred learning this book is bound to provide fresh ideas and could inspire a novel solution to a mechanical problem. 

By Nigel Coutts



Five Great Reads

Good Reads for Great Assessment

Holiday Reading List

Suggested Readings to Inspire Teaching 


Taking the time to think

Time is the most precious of resources. 

It seems that we never have enough of it and the result is a feeling of constant pressure to do things quickly. As a result, we fall into a pattern of making quick decisions, with incomplete information and then proceed to take hasty action and seek short cuts. Our busy lives, the business of those around us, the schedules we set ourselves and the constant stream of distractions and interruptions ensure we have very little time to do things well and we never seem to get things done. 

"Could it be though that the disruptive, 24/ 7, multi-channel communications we value so much are actually eroding our ability to think clearly, creatively and expansively?” (Lewis, 2016 p1)

Against this trend towards doing more, in less time and at a faster pace is a trend towards slowing down, taking time and giving our minds time to catch up. 

Once we realise that as described by Chris Lewis we are moving too fast to think, we can start looking for an alternate course of action. The obvious answer is to slow down, to pause, switch off and take the time we need to reset but doing this requires deliberate action. We begin the process by recognising that taking our time, slowing down and being deliberate in the processes of thinking is a pathway towards becoming more productive, more creative and more attuned to the world around us. In what seems like a contradiction in terms, the best strategy for coping with the rapid pace of our lives is not to speed up but to slow down. 

 Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

In “Slow Looking” by Shari Tishman the reader finds an approach to slowing doing and taking the time needed to appreciate the finer details in the world around us. 

"Slow looking is a healthy response to complexity because it creates a space for the multiple dimensions of things to be perceived and appreciated. But it is a response that, while rooted in natural instinct, requires intention to sustain."

For educators, the practice of slow looking will align well with strategies from the Visible Thinking movement. If you have used strategies such as “Looking Ten Times Two” or “Look and Look Again” you have experienced slow looking. By deploying strategies which require us to switch modes and adopt a more contemplative stance backed by deliberate efforts to notice things on multiple levels, we open our minds to new possibilities. When you use these strategies with your class you will notice a new depth of thinking emerge from your students. The initial conversation may well disappoint. Surface level thinking and seeing is ingrained and takes time and persistence to overcome. As the students begin to look more closely, to see more detail and notice more of the stimulus they are engaging with a change emerges. Gradually the students embrace the opportunity that slow looking offers. 

 The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

"The Red Tree" by Shaun Tan is a beautiful piece of creative work by a master of the picture book genre. Each page has multiple layers of detail and meaning. It is a book that deserves time and slow looking. In a unit aimed at Year Six students we invite students to immerse themselves in this text. We begin the exploration of selected pages using the slow looking strategy of “Looking Ten Times Two”. In this strategy students are invited to look at an image quietly for at least thirty seconds allowing their eyes to wander before they stop and list ten words or phrases about any aspect of the image. The process then repeats and can indeed repeat again. With each new looking more detail emerges. The students deliberately look for details they did not notice at the first looking. After two rounds of slow looking we invite the students to share their observations. As each student shares their notes, fresh ideas emerge and the discussion takes on a life of its own. Soon students are not just discussing what they saw in the image but are asking questions about the artist’s choices, the meaning of the image and their personal take-aways. 

The strategies of slow looking are not restricted to the visual. Consider looking as a synonym for perceiving and you see its potential across multiple disciplines. Tishman provides numerous examples of “slow looking” in disciplines away from those most immediately associated with the visual and through senses other than our eyes. Consider the place of “slow looking” in science as an essential strategy for noticing what is taking place in an experiment or field observation. In music “slow looking” will allow the listener to notice subtle nuances in a piece and in literature “slow looking” encourages the reader to enjoy the language moves made by the author while the practice of slow looking is a valuable tool for the author to employ as they build descriptions. 

'Slow Looking' is a highly recommended strategy and those looking to implement this in their classrooms or in their own lives should begin by reading Tishman’s book. 

By Nigel Coutts


Lewis, C. (2016) Too fast to think: How to reclaim your creativity in a hyper-connected work culture. Kogan Page

Tan, S. (2001) The Red Tree. Hachette; Australia

Tishman, S. (2018) Slow Looking: The art and practice of learning through observation. Routledge; New York


Banishing The Culture of Busyness

Making time for quiet contemplation

Time- The Finite Resource

Exploring the Changing Social Contexts of Learning

Contemporary learning environments might be best understood when viewed as a complex mix of environments and overlapping social networks. Learners fluidly move between social networks and their learning is influenced by their participation within and across these physical and virtual networks. Understanding how mobile, global and virtual social networks influence our interpretation of socio-cultural theories of learning might allow us to better understand the interplay of settings and contexts within which learning occurs and in doing so better understand how learning may be facilitated.

The socio-cultural perspective on education has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and is an approach which considers the individual and their interactions with the social environment as central to understanding the processes of learning. Learning is said to be that which occurs through interaction between the individual, and all that their biology brings to the table and the social context in which learning occurs. Such an approach shifts our thinking about learning and development as processes contained and constrained within the individual’s biology to a more diverse understanding that incorporates the social context within which all learning is seen to occur. For educators, this approach encourages us to look at the learning environment and the social context in which the learning we design for our students occurs and 'presents a fuller and more accurate picture of children’s learning and development.' (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012 p126) Sociocultural, and the in some ways related social-cognitive approaches build upon earlier research that focused on the individual as the unit of development but seek to explain the differences which were observed across groups and contexts which could not be explained without a wider frame of reference. 

By expanding the frame of reference to include the social context within which learning and development occurs a more complex image emerges of the interactions and processes which are at play. Vygotsky's (1978) research shows how interactions between the child and their social environment enables learning. He explores the gap between what a child can do now independently and that they can do with assistance. Termed the 'Zone of Proximal Development’(ZPD), this is the gap into which teachers hope to move their students (Vygotsky, 1978). Teaching strategies such as formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998) seek to identify where the ZPD is for students and then provide appropriate learning situations which scaffold student’s growth through this zone. Effective teaching will provide a context that allows students to achieve success on learning initially pitched within this zone with guidance while moving towards internalisation of new learning evidenced by success when the scaffolds are removed. It is with this process in mind that we develop teaching programmes and curriculums.

Given the multitude frames which might be used to inform our understanding of what culture is, (Jary & Jary, 1991) how it is constructed and how it shapes and is shaped by interactions with individuals and groups it unsurprising that there are multiple perspectives upon the nature of socio-cultural learning. This complexity is expanded when comparisons are made between socio-cultural perspectives and social-cognitive perspectives are considered. Emerging from the work of Albert Bandura (1977) social-cognitive theories like socio-cultural approaches are concerned with the learning that occurs within societies and the cross-cultural differences which such perspectives reveal. 'In contrast, social cognitive researchers have devoted considerable attention to the role of social variables in learning, how motivational processes affect learning, and how social cognitive principles can be best applied to enhance students’ learning from instruction.’ (Schunk, 2012 p117) A further differentiator is evident in the significance given to vicarious learning or learning purely through observation of others that is present in social-cognitive theory but is not evident in socio-cultural theories which emphasise translation of observations of others into action or learning by imitation of the observed behaviours. Social-cognitivists would show that learning can be acquired without the imitation phase. 

For teachers, social-cognitivist approaches shine a light on the factors which result in motivation towards learning. Learning is said to be enhanced when individuals have positive self-efficacy for learning (Bandura 1977). Motivational theories such as self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and attribution theory (Weiner, 2004) point to factors such as autonomy, purpose and mastery (Ryan & Deci) and locus of control (Weiner - internal/external stable/unstable controllable/uncontrollable) as key factors which influence engagement and perceptions of success. In social-cognitive theory these factors are described as acting upon the individual through changes in levels of self-efficacy. When social aspects of learning are accounted for the provision of a safe, supportive and nurturing learning environment is broadly considered to be significant (Tirri, 2011)(Marzano & Pickering, 1997). The complexity of social environments within which learning occurs presents challenges to educators looking to manage the environment in which learning occurs. Students are less likely to engage with challenging learning in settings where they feel unsafe or believe that their attempts to engage are likely to be judged negatively or where the rewards available are low. (Atkinson, 1957) (Dweck & Legget, 1988) (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). 

A shifting emphasis on what is valued as the outcome of formal education places greater emphasis on the capacity of individuals to be creative collaborators. In ‘Participatory Creativity’, Edward Clapp (2017) details the importance of collaborations between individuals in a form of collective agency derived from the work of Bandura. Collective agency acknowledge the role of the individual within efforts of a greater collective. Informed by this perspective and Cskiszentmihalyi’s view of creativity as a product of social systems, Clapp builds a model of creativity that results from the collective efforts of society and focuses on the processes through which ideas evolve rather than a more traditional view which attribution of a product to an individual. Creativity in such a model is like learning in socio-cultural perspectives a social phenomenon.

Significant differences in the socio-cultural setting within which the individual experiences learning can be shown to account for varied outcomes. An example of this can be seen in the exposure to language which occurs in different settings. Hart & Risely (2003) show that a five-year-old child growing up in a home with parents categorised as professionals would have been exposed to 45 million words. By contrast a child growing up in a working-class family would have been exposed to 26 million words and only 13 million if growing up in a lower-class family. This gap in exposure must be seen as more significant than a deficit in vocabulary within a socio-cultural perspective that emphasises the development of language as a critical component for development in general. According to Vygotsky, children learn to use language regulate their psychological functions (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and language is an essential tool in the scaffolding and modelling of learning that occurs both within schools and other environments in which learners learn. This gap in exposure presents significant equity challenges for educational systems.

Traditionally the socio-cultural setting in which learning and development occurs has been defined by the physical settings in which the learner is situated and the culture that is attached to that. Relationships between the individual and their immediate family play an important role in the early years of learning, as the child grows the social context in which they learn widens and peers, teachers and the wider community begin to play a part. As the child interacts with a growing number of social contexts they are able to draw upon an expanding set of models and observations as they learn to regulate their behaviour and adopt (and modify) the cultural norms required for adult life (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012). In more recent times this social context has become increasingly difficult to define. 

Through a variety of factors, such as globalisation, increased mobility and technology enabled networks, the individual is increasingly found to exist simultaneously across multiple cultures and societies (Leander, Phillips & Taylor, 2010). These multiple contexts and cultures bring to the learner new challenges and require learning of multiple norms along with the pressure to activate the appropriate norms for each context.

The once clear boundaries of the social context of learning and development is increasingly blurred and stretched by technologies and networks. In seeking to understand how this space influences learning and development it is necessary to consider the individual, the interacting social networks (physical and virtual) and the technology as agents which influence development. At best the experienced reality is ‘complicated’ (Boyd, 2014) as the individual within the virtual world is able to fluidly shape and reshape both identity and context. 'When teens engage with networked media, they’re trying to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. In doing so, they begin to understand how people relate to one another and how information flows between people.' (Boyd, 2014 p92) The blurring of social contexts further complicates the learning environment experienced by young people when it is recognised that they spend much of their time living within a culture that the adults in their world know little about. The norms, language, symbols, signs and meanings of the virtual worlds may be borrowed or appropriated from the physical world but are often wildly misinterpreted when decontextualised. Further still access to resources, knowledge and tools derived from technologies and their networked lives are viewed with suspicion in many traditional learning environments thus bringing artificial barriers to learning and de-contextualising the skills learned in school from those valued in the ‘real world’. 

From the research of Vygotsky, Bandura and others across socio-cultural and socio-cognitive perspectives we have been provided with a theoretical tool kit with which to better understand the interplay of the individual, society and culture. As we move further into an age dominated by technology and networks it is incumbent on all those with an interest in learning and development to look at the interplay of forces which act upon the individual. By seeking to understand the influences that physical and virtual contexts have on learning we can begin to imagine a model of education which makes best use of the diverse environments in which our young people are immersed.

By Nigel Coutts

Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998), Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London: School of Education.

Boyd, D. (2014) It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

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

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.

Göncü, A., & Gauvain, M. (2012). Sociocultural approaches to educational psychology: theory, research, andapplication. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 125-154.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator 27(1), 4– 9.

Jary, D., & Jary, J. (1991) Collins dictionary of sociology; second edition. Glasgow: Harper Collins.

Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2009) Dimensions of Learning: Trainers manual 2nd Edition. USA: ASCD Publications.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Schunk, D. (2012). Social cognitive theory. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 101 -123.

Tirri, K. (2011) Holistic school pedagogy and values: Finnish teachers’ and students’ perspectives. International Journal of Educational Research 50 pp159-195

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, Trans. & Ed., V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1934)

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68–81


Inquiry vs Direct Instruction - The Great Debate and How it Went Wrong

There is a debate taking place in the world of education. It is not a new debate but recently it has gathered new energy and the boundary between polite discussion of opposing views and hostility has been stretched. The debate is that between those who are advocates of inquiry based learning and those who believe direct instruction produces the best outcomes.
Like most conversations which occur within the public sphere of the online social media world, the debate has quickly devolved into a dichotomous debate where each side seeks to win points at the expense of the other. Humans have a natural tendency towards tribes, as biologist Edward Wilson writes "The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct.” It is a characteristic that may have once served us well but in modern times it focuses our attention on what makes us different rather than helping us to find a common ground. In debating topics like direct instruction vs inquiry based learning our tendency to form tribes causes us to drift from a rational position to a more extreme and one sided view.
There is in this debate a middle ground. Claxton and Lucas deal with this debate and the reality that most educators fall somewhere between the two extremes in their book Educating Ruby. They place Trads (traditionalists focused on knowledge transfer) and Roms (romantics who feel children learn by osmosis) at the extremes of the educational spectrum and Mods (Moderates) in the middle. "Almost everyone who works in education is a Mod. But because Mods prefer to tinker quietly than to bang big drums, it is easy to underestimate how many there are” (Claxton & Lucas, 2015)

The middle ground between Inquiry and Direct Instruction is that place where we take a little from option A and a little from option B. Sometimes we go with direct instruction and at others we go with an inquiry approach. This leads to models where children are taught the supposed fundamentals of a discipline or topic and then allowed to engage in some inquiry. Sometimes this model works, sometimes it misses the point. Often the inquiry component is redundant by the time students get to it, sometimes the direct instruction is an opportunity to lecture at students, sometimes the students are told what they need to know but are not taught how to make effective use of it.
Mixed models like this and indeed the debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems to largely miss the point. Somewhere in the posturing and flag waving we lose sight of what we are indeed arguing for. Maybe we were never quite sure what our argument was. Simon Sinek (2011) claims very few people understand their “why”. The debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems like a good example of this.
Contemporary advocates of Inquiry are for the most part all hung up about what children need to learn to succeed in a changing post knowledge world. The process of learning to learn and conduct meaningful inquiry, to find and solve problems is seen as central to the modern curriculum. While the origins of inquiry models might lie with a methodology of allowing students to uncover the knowledge base of the curriculum this is less the case in modern times. When we shift inquiry away from being a pedagogical method for teaching content, to a valuing of particular skills we see that Inquiry Skills and Dispositions are curriculum elements; the what students need to learn rather than the how they learn it.
But advocates of inquiry get caught up in a debate with advocates of direct instruction about the methods of teaching; the pedagogy. Advocating for the importance of Inquiry does not mean that one abandons direct instruction but that the curriculum is a skills based curriculum that teaches inquiry skills through and alongside other content. What a valuing of Inquiry, Problem Solving, Problem Finding, Project Management etc. does not require is an abandonment of direct instruction, only a rethinking of some of the skills we focus on. If we value, the development of inquiry we spend less time on methods that facilitate memorisation of content.
Direct Instruction is about the pedagogy but it gets caught up in a debate about the curriculum. Advocates of direct instruction claim it is the best method for scaffolding the development of student skills and knowledge, but then focus their energy debating the sort of content that should be directly taught. Advocating for direct instruction should not mean that one is committed to teaching basic skills and knowledge. Direct instruction does not preclude teaching students how to find problems, solve problems, act in creative ways, collaborate with others, and take charge of their own learning.
Advocates of Direct Instruction should be able to teach methods, skills and dispositions required for inquiry and advocates of inquiry should value scaffolding students as they learn the skills of inquiry. Indeed, as Claxton and Lucas state most teachers do exactly these things.
Where the debate goes very wrong is seen if you consider it from the perspective of questions like ‘what is the intended outcome of learning?’ and ‘what do our students most need from their time in school?’. They need to learn how to conduct inquiry, to be problem solvers and finders. They need to be able to communicate their learning and learn with and from others. They need to be able to critically evaluate information and ideas. They need to be taught how to do these things. They need to be guided through the process. They need to see how experts approach these processes. They need opportunities to practise these skills with appropriate levels of support and scaffolding. They need to be given tools to use and be shown how and when to use them.
The debate about inquiry and direct instruction does not serve our students well. It is a distraction from conversations which are more important and the sooner we move past this and focus our attention on how we best prepare our students to thrive in a world that values life-long learning the better.

By Nigel Coutts

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

Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London

Why humans, like ants, need a tribe. by E. O. Wilson -

Related Posts:

The Purposes of our Pedagogy

Inquiry Based Learning is dead, long live inquiry.

Contemplating the consequences of constructivism 


Finding a new paradise for education in times of chaos

Sugata Mitra describes learning as an edge of chaos phenomenon, a concept that seems to fit so nicely with the very idea of learning as a process for deriving a new sense of order out of disorder. The chaos and complexity that is inherent in educational systems (schools in particular) is inescapable.
Through any lens schools are complex places. A melting pot of human, social, political, economic, technological, physical and philosophical tensions. At once the stronghold of our cultural traditions and facilitators of our future wellbeing, schools serve as pillars of stability constructed at the event horizon between our now and our tomorrow. Perhaps at this point in time more than ever is this tension between the role that schools play in indoctrinating our youth into the ways of society at odds with the imperative to prepare them for their futures.
Sardar describes these as “postnormal times”. "Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future.” (Sardar, 2010) At the edge of chaos schools confront the pressure to pass down the knowledge of this past that we have increasingly left behind and cannot return to, while preparing our learners for a future we can hardly imagine.
But this contradiction in purpose should not cause despair even while we come to understand its implications. As educators, we are in the business of helping individuals and even whole societies of them to confront and adapt to change. When we empower our students to step into the role of learners, as we shape their dispositions for learning and as we take their understanding of their world to the edge of chaos and beyond, we prepare them for a world of complexity, uncertainty and change.
When we value the process of learning and recognise that the capacity to learn and relearn is our most certain pathway to success in a world of uncertainty, we begin to imagine a future that is a paradise for education. Freed by technology from the need to be societies' dispensers of information, educators can focus their attention on the skills and dispositions of learning. With vast fields of knowledge as our playgrounds we are able to instill our learners with a love of learning and the skills and mindsets they require to be powerful life-long learners.
Learning and creativity are endeavours which should be understood as closely connected. Creating is placed at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning with good reason. Creativity might be seen as learning in its purest form, where the learner moves beyond what is known and explores new territory. Creativity is what allows us to take learning beyond the edge of chaos and is required if we are to bring any sense of order to the complex and changing world we confront.
Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi describes how the creative process is stirred into existence. "The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere or a task to be accomplished, perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict a tension, a need to be satisfied.” The volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of the postnormal overflows with opportunities for creativity. The challenge for schools is to reimagine learning as a creative endeavour. To scaffold the processes required for intelligent action, to train our students to maximise their cognitive tools and to provide a strong foundation of knowledge and skills upon which they can innovate.
When we change our thinking away from learning as a process of accumulation and see it as one of creativity, we are able to shift the focus of our efforts and provide opportunities that require our students to blissfully think and act with what they know at the edge of chaos.
 By Nigel Coutts

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

Mitra, S. (2014) The future of schooling: Children and learning at the edge of chaos. Prospects, 44:547-558

Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435-444. 

What truly drives change in Education?

You do not need to look very hard to find a report claiming that schools and education needs to change. 

According to Sarah Goner of “The Hechinger Report” the latest study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US indicates that "Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind". The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) identifies from their research eight “enterprise skills that are essential for young people as they "engage with a complex world and navigate the challenges they will inherit”. Skills such as problem solving, communication skills, critical thinking, creativity and teamwork are listed. The FYA goes on to state "Given that many young people remain ill-equipped for what employers are demanding, we need to better promote these skills in our education and training systems".

 Foundation for Young Australians - The New Basics - Access the Full Report

Foundation for Young Australians - The New Basics - Access the Full Report

Lists of essential skills, competencies or dispositions are common and there is much overlap. The enterprise skills identified by FYA echoes those presented by others such as the Four Cs of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration & Creativity) and the Seven Cs developed by Lucas & Claxton in “Educating Ruby” which adds confidence, curiosity, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship. The Australian Curriculum makes a good effort at a similar list with information and communication technology, critical & creative thinking, personal & social, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding sitting alongside a back to basics appeasing mention of literacy and numeracy. 


The OECD has used their extensive research base to develop a response to the question of “What do children have to learn?” An intertwined model of knowledge, skills and attitudes & values results. According to the OECD students require; disciplinary, interdisciplinary and practical knowledge, cognitive & metacognitive, social & emotional and physical & practical skills, and an unidentified triad of attitudes & values. 


More evidence for the need to change education can be found in the recently released work of Miranda Jefferson and Michael Anderson. The title reveals the authors position “Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration” and they state their case for change eloquently "Education needs to take account of the prevailing conditions of postnormality (chaos, complexity and contradiction) to equip young people for their rapidly changing future.” 

In Britain the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has added their voice to the clamour of those calling for change. Their report titled "First Steps” claims that it "deals with the most important part of the UK’s long-term growth strategy – improving education”. The CBI has a list of characteristics that they feel we should aspire to, “The system should encourage young people to be Determined, Optimistic and Emotionally Intelligent” this will produce a “Compelling Individual” 


The answer according to CBI includes a “clear focus on attainment for every child”, “better parental and community engagement leads to more vibrant schools”, “better teaching” a curriculum with "rigorous expectations of every child, on both knowledge and the development that we expect schools to deliver” and holding schools accountable for delivering all of these outcomes. Australia’s Productivity Commission added its voice to the conversation in a recent report that became the subject for an article by Ross Gittins of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Productivity Commission states "A good school system ensures that people have the key foundational skills — numeracy, literacy, analytical skills — and the capacity to learn so that they can easily acquire knowledge throughout their lives. And‘soft’ skills, such as teamwork, collaboration, leadership and creativity are equally essential to adaptability and retention of employment”. According to Gittins "It's obvious our classroom teaching isn't as effective as it needs to be, but we've done little about it.”  and the productivity points the finger at teacher effectiveness and calls for "a more rigorous micro evidence base about what works in schools and how it should be implemented”. 

The pattern here is clear, schools need to change, education needs to shift its focus and the point of action is at the coal face with better teaching and accountability. But this seems to ignore the most significant obstacle to change, the elephant in the room perhaps. 

Assessment is probably the strongest driver of education and the most significant obstacle to change. While high stakes testing focuses on low order skills, an emphasis on recall of knowledge and learned strategies for responding to predominantly content based questions progress will be stifled. Open a dialogue with teachers about the need to teach dispositions and it will not be long before someone says “That’s all very good, but I need to get my students ready for the test”. 

Not that students suffer when we provide them with a curriculum that includes content and competencies, capabilities or dispositions. As research by the likes of David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart and Guy Claxton makes clear: If we teach our children to think then they will do better on the test and they will do better in life. Nevertheless, educational reform would occur at a faster pace if an at least equal emphasis was placed on gathering evidence of students attainment of the dispositions that so many are claiming to be essential. What we test is what we value and if we do not test for dispositions such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration they will continue to be second rate citizens to foundational skills in numeracy and literacy.

By Nigel Coutts



Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind - Sarah Gosner

Foundation for Young Australians

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

First Steps - CBI

Miranda Jefferson & Michael Anderson (2017) Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Reflection, Communication, Collaboration. London; Bloomsbury

OECD 2030 Framework for Education

Something's gone badly wrong with teaching

Australian Productivity Commission - Shifting the Dial

Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status and Education Pt 3

Pedagogy and curriculum that engages students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and is deemed personally relevant to the lives they live, are seen as important factors towards equality of outcome by Wrench, Hammond, McCallum and Price (2012). Their research involved designing a curriculum and pedagogy that would be highly engaging to students of low-socioeconomic status. 'The interventions involved curriculum redesigns that set meaningful, challenging learning task(s) (culminating in high quality learning products); strong connection to student life-worlds; and a performative expectation for student learning.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p934) 'Themes included: identity and agency within a community context; models of communities of practice that focused on learning in social settings; and, a holistic approach to the constructions of well-being and engagement.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p935)

The inclusion of ‘place-based’ learning and experiences that created a sense of community were found to be important factors along with well-being aspects of a holistic programme that engaged learners with their learning and allowed students to better engage with their aspirations. 'Re-designing the curriculum with a well-being focus provided the opportunity for students to explore and imagine possible futures and aspirations beyond their current life-worlds.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p943)

In exploring a pedagogy of poverty Haberman (1991) found that the tendency is to align the students with a model pedagogy, one that is reactive to the perceived needs of a setting where economic disadvantage is the norm. ‘Simply stated, we act as if it is not the pedagogy that must be fitted to the students but the students who must accept an untouchable method.’ (Haberman 1991 p292) Haberman notes that in schools with a low-socioeconomic status teachers are not judged for their failure to educate their students but for a failure to elicit compliance. This results in a particular pedagogical style dominated by top-down control with limited student agency.

This ineffective pedagogy is absent from quality schools regardless of their student population replaced by the strategies of ‘good teaching’. Student involvement with issues they believe are important, discussion of human differences, student planning of activities, student application of ideals such as fairness and justice, inclusion of real-life experiences, heterogeneous groups, critical thinking, polishing and improving work and active reflection are the hallmarks of quality teaching according to Haberman (1991).

Programmes such as ‘School is for Me’ (DEET NSW, 2006) aim to alter the way that students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds perceive and engage with school. By focusing on presenting students with engaging messages around who possesses valued knowledge, who has ability, who is in control, who owns the place and who has a voice in the school the program aims to reveal to students that school is a place for them and not one that is owned and controlled by teachers or others external to their community. The success that such a programme has had in engaging students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, who had previously shown disengagement from school reveals that funding alone will not produce equitable outcomes. Changes to the messaging systems of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment need to occur so that all students see the personal relevance of school to their lives. 

In a deficit discourse students of low-socioeconomic backgrounds are described as disengaged and having low-aspirations which schools need to raise but this view is contradicted by research undertaken by Reid and Faye (2014). This research indicates that indeed students in their study 'positively expressed a desire to be engaged in their learning and to succeed in their schooling.’ (Reid et al 2014 p205). What the students required was assistance in mapping a path towards their aspirations and dreams and help in expanding their capacity to aspire, something schools can and should play a part in.

Shifting how we view the purpose of education plays a part in discourses of educational disadvantage. When viewed as a screening measure differences in educational outcomes, even those that occur systemically and for reasons beyond the individuals control are excused. In a society where education is imagined as a process for screening candidates into future career pathways based on the identification of ability, the failure of this system to account for differences not related to ability is excused for the good of the result. 'It means that unequal incomes and unequal social standing in adulthood are seen as the outcomes of greater or less merit in an impartial process of selection'. (Connell & White 1991 p20) If education is about something more than screening students and if we are able to see that a multitude of factors play a part in allowing for academic success we will look to maximise the place that our educational systems can play in the future lives of every child and every community. 

by Nigel Coutts


Barr, A., Constable, E., Pike, B., Bartlett, D., Lomax-Smith, J., & Welford, R. Scrymgour, M., Firth, V. & Gillard, J. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education.

Bauman, L., Silver, E. and Stein, R., (2006) Cumulative social disadvantage and child health, Pediatrics, Vol. 117, No. 4, April.

Connell, R., Johnston, K. & White, V. (1991) Rethinking the relationship between poverty and education in Running Twice as Hard: The Disadvantaged Schools Program in Australia. Geelong, Deakin University Press. 

Department of Education and Training (2006) School is for me: Pathways to student engagement. Sydney

Foucault, M. (1990) The history of sexuality: Volume 1: an introduction (Melbourne, Penguin).

Gonski, D. (2012). Review of funding for schooling. Canberra: Dept. of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Haberman, M. (2010). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(2), 81-87.

Levin, H. M. (1998). Educational vouchers: Effectiveness, choice and costs. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 17(3), 373–392.

Lim, P., Gemici, S., Rice, J., & Karmel, T. (2011). Socioeconomic status and the allocation of government resources in Australia. Education + Training, 53(7), 570-586.

Najman, J., Bor, W., Morrison, J., Andersen, M., & Williams, G. (1992). Child developmental delay and socio-economic disadvantage in Australia: A longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 34(8), 829-835.

OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting disadvantaged students and schools, OECD Publishing

Reid, A. & McCallum, F. (2014). 'Becoming your best’: student perspectives on community in the pursuit of aspirations. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(2), 195-207.

United Nations (1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accessed Online 22.4.2016 

Vinson, T. (2007)  Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia A report by Professor Tony Vinson for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia. Jesuit Social Services / Catholic Social Services Australia

Vinson, T., Rawsthorne, M., Beavis, A., & Ericson, M.(2015) Dropping off the edge: Persistent communal disadvantage in Australia. Jesuit Social Services / Catholic Social Services Australia

Watson, L. & Ryan, C. (2010). Choosers and losers: The impact of government subsidies on Australian secondary schools. Australian Journal Of Education, 54(1), 86-107. 

Wrench, A., Hammond, C., McCallum, F., & Price, D. (2013). Inspire to aspire: raising aspirational outcomes through a student well-being curricular focus. International Journal Of Inclusive Education, 17(9), 932-947. 

Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status and Education Pt 2

An unavoidable element of the discourse around educational disadvantage or equality is how we define and assess equality. One definition will see this as being in equality of access to education, funding for education and/or resources. Such an approach has largely been seen in government funding models however subtle variations on this theme have resulted in significant differences in resulting policies.

A simplistic funding model would see each school that is funded by the government receive a fixed amount per student (something like $9,697 per primary student and $11,945 per secondary student in 2011 (Gonski et al 2011 p59)). In Australia subsidies for non-government schools (Independent and Catholic) has resulted in relative disparities in socio-economic status with government schools. Parental choice for school type has resulted in a higher concentration of high-socioeconomic status families in non-government schools according to Watson and Ryan (2010). 'Adverse peer effects generated by high concentrations of low-SES students in public schools can be expected to place further downward pressure on student performance in the public school system’. (Watson & Ryan 2010 p104)

This concentration of low-socioeconomic status children in public schools means that funding demands for these schools will be higher conclude Watson & Ryan (2010). Complicating the distribution of students between public and private sectors is research by Levin (1998) who found that families with high-socioeconomic status and high academic achievement levels are more likely to choose a school other than the default public school option for their children. ‘Families that are better-off may be more likely to take advantage of school choice than those that are worse off because of better access to information, greater ability to afford transportation, a higher penchant to exercise educational alternatives, and greater generic experience with choice and alternatives.’ (Levin, 1998 p379)
An alternate funding model was proposed by Gonski et al in what is commonly referenced in the media as the Gonski Report and has given rise to the social media campaign ‘I give a Gonski’. According to Gonski 'Public funding arrangements need to react to the nature of the educational challenges faced by a system or school given its characteristics and student population, regardless of whether it is in the government or non-government sector.’ To do this a new schooling resource standard was suggested; 'The standard would be explicitly linked to expected educational outcomes, rather than historical levels of resource inputs, and geared to providing all students with the opportunity to meet agreed national educational outcomes.’ (Gonski et al 2011 p69) Gonski uses socio-economic status as a value in determining the need of schools using data from Australian Bureau of Statistics to adjust the required funding level. This report resulted in additional funding for schools to be provided over six years starting in 2014. This funding is now under review by the present government.
Models such as that outlined by Gonski are aimed at providing schools with the level of funding they require to achieve a national standard of educational outcomes and aim to take into account many of the factors which influence the success of schools in areas of economic disadvantage. 'Likewise, pressing for additional skilled support to help ensure the successful launching of children’s education and to help maintain their meaningful engagement in school and post-school training and education, would also address another of the recurring features of the most disadvantaged areas'. (Vinson, 2015 p14)

As the largest percentage of school operating costs are directly associated with teacher salaries (78% for private schools (Watson & Ryan 2010 p92)) it is not surprising that much of the debate around school equity relates to teacher quality and teacher/student ratios. Attracting quality teachers into areas of socio-economic disadvantage is a goal proposed to enhance the quality of learning that occurs but is one that significantly oversimplifies the reality of what is required. 

Having attracted quality teachers into an area the imperative is to then keep them and to extend and enrich their capacities. Access to professional development is essential and this carries direct and indirect costs. A culture of collaboration and efforts to develop professional learning communities are effective strategies towards this goal. Free quality Professional Development is increasingly available through a mix of social media and free events such as Teach Meets. A school culture that promotes participation in these learning communities has benefits for all. 

In Part Three we turn to the question of pedagogical adjustments which benefit students from from low socio-economic backgrounds. 

By Nigel Coutts

Read Part One

Full references published with Part Three.



Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status & Education Pt 1

The role that education plays in issues of social equity and justice cannot be undervalued. It is acknowledged by the United Nations as a human right, 'Everyone has the right to education’ (United Nations, 1948) and as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians 'As a nation Australia values the central role of education in building a democratic, equitable and just society— a society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse, and that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future.’ (Barr et al, 2008). Such lofty assertions of the importance of education as a right and national value should be sufficient to ensure that all Australians have access to an education of the highest standard with equitable outcomes for all, the reality is that this is not the case and the reasons for this remain complex, divisive and politically entrenched. Discourses of equity, power and societal expectation play a part in helping us understand how access to education and disparities in the quality of outcome experienced shapes Australian society and advantages some to the detriment of others. 

The connections between socio-economic status and education are intertwined such that a deficit in one is linked to a deficit in the other. 'The persistent social and economic marginalisation of individuals and groups within society has significant detrimental direct and indirect impacts. Such marginalisation tends to create a “vicious cycle” of disadvantage, limiting access to educational opportunities, which in turn leads to poor labour market outcomes and low earnings.’ (Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011 p570) The connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement is made clear by Professor Tony Vinson whose study of factors resulting in disadvantage and its distribution across Australia states that 'The report highlights the particularly strong link between intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment.’ (Vinson, 2007 p1) Vinson’s study outlines how disadvantage on measures such as education, health, criminality, access to services, employment and community services is unevenly distributed and 'finds that just 1.7 percent of postcodes and communities across Australia account for more than seven times their share of top rank positions of the major factors that cause intergenerational poverty’ (Vinson, 2007 p1).

Vinson reveals the complexity of the interconnections between aspects of disadvantage and the complexity that exists as one tries to describe its causes or identify solutions. 'Poverty, low parental education and single parent family structure are not simply proxies for a single underlying disadvantage but have additive effects on the life chances of children.' (Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006 p1326) While implicated in many studies as a factor (Connell & White 1991)(Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011)((Vinson, 2007 & 2015)(Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006) (OECD, 2012), equity of educational outcome alone can not explain the distribution of social disadvantage and measures to minimise its influence will not be achieved through educational reform alone. As Connell and White assert ‘Poverty and education is an issue no one likes to own. It is complicated, it is frustrating, and it does not lend itself to grand gestures’. ‘In fact the issue is both welfare business and school’s business’. (Connell, Johnston & White 1991 ch2 p 1)

'The observation that children reared in socio-economic disadvantage experience developmental delays and intellectual deficits raises basic questions to do with appropriate social and welfare policies.' (Najman, Bor, Morrison, Andersen & Williams, 1992 p833) This finding by Najman et al reveals a connection beyond academic achievement and indicates a connection between low-socioeconomic standing and attainment of normal developmental milestones. This research indicates that more needs to be done to redress the influence of socioeconomic standing than improving schools as there are broader health issues implicated in this study. A discourse of school blaming or school failure oversimplifies the reality of the situation but is a common element of analysis. The OECD when addressing ‘Equity and Quality in Education’ writes that 'Educational failure also imposes high costs on society. Poorly educated people limit economies’ capacity to produce, grow and innovate. School failure damages social cohesion and mobility, and imposes additional costs on public budgets to deal with the consequences – higher spending on public health and social support and greater criminality, among others.’ (OECD 2012 p3) The implication in the phrasing ‘poorly educated people’ is that the remedy lies within the school and the quality of education received, broader societal issues that impede the capacity of the school to achieve equitable outcomes for students are overlooked in such a simplistic analysis. 

Understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues causing and impacted by socio-economic disadvantage allows individual elements to be addressed singularly while not ignoring their relationship with others. As Foucault warns 'we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies.' (Foucault, 1990, p. 101) Such an approach is useful within education and for those operating within educational systems. Identifying the multiplicity of discourses connected to power and policy that influence the trajectory of social endeavours such as educational reform is essential. 

By Nigel Coutts

In Part Two we explore definitions of Equity and in Part Three Pedagogical response. 

Full references will be published with Part three