Delivering on the promise of STEAM

The emerging interdisciplinary field of STEAM is rapidly becoming the new darling of education. Seen as a panacea to the challenge of preparing students for a rapidly changing workplace and life beyond school the dispositions of STEAM are driving new teaching programmes. Now is the time to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes and to define best practice for the meaningful integration of these important disciplines. The challenge is to ensure that students within a STEAM programme are better prepared than they might be if they studied the disciplines in isolation and that in seeking to integrate diverse fields we do not weaken the efficacy of one for the inclusion of another.

Many of the emerging STEAM programmes show signs of forced and artificial integration. Dancing robots may hint at an integration of technology and art and yet a closer examination sees that little is truly understood of the dynamics and human factors which transform loosely coordinated movements into the art form that is dance. That the robot is wearing a dress fails to change this reality. Other disciplines which may be thrust into this dancing robot scenario such as science (perhaps forces or studies of electricity) mathematics (length and time perhaps) are dealt with in equally superficial ways. Asking the students what they are doing and why would reveal the truth. ‘We are making our robot dance’ might be the response but if pushed to define what makes the robot’s movements dance and not just movements they are less convincing.

This style of project, where technology is the driver places the STEAM movement as a whole at risk. A class set of identical projects using Arduino boards and flashing LEDs assembled to match a set of directions involves little real learning and only prepares our children for lives as process workers. Where is the problem finding and solving in projects where the final product or response to the question is known in advance? Where too, is the disposition of the scientist in these projects? What opportunities for mathematical thinking do they offer? Where is the art and when did the mindset of the engineer become reduced to following directions?

STEAM projects, like all good inquiry learning, need to be driven by excellent, open ended questions. Questions that require the learner to think like a scientist as they interpret the world, make observations and conduct experiments. Where the relationships between numbers, quantities and shapes are explored with the mindset of a mathematician. Questions in which an artistic response demands more thought than ‘what colour shall I paint the wheels’ and where the intersection of engineering and technology brings new ways of doing things. Good STEAM projects will demand learning contexts that generate novel solutions made possible only through the collaboration of each discipline and whenever possible should be driven by the questions students discover.

For schools this creates a significant challenge. How do we plan for this sort of project? How do we account for the resources such open ended inquiries will demand? How do we establish the conditions where STEAM thinking may thrive? How do we break down the barriers between the disciplines while preserving their unique characteristics? In many respects the history of modern education stands against these goals. Once the educated were diversely educated and easily shifted their thinking from project to project acquiring and applying the skills required of each as needed. Leonardo da Vinci stands as the archetype of this imagining of the educated individual with skills across disciplines. Specialisation and fragmentation of disciplines has robbed us of this persona and yet it is this style of thinking we now need as we endeavour to bring together multiple modalities of thought in the solving of complex interconnected problems.

Of the five disciplines represented in the STEAM acronym, one is notable for its linguistic properties, that is to say only Engineering is a verb. One approach to bringing the disciplines together is to emphasise this as units of learning are planned. Engineering is that which the learner does and in doing so the knowledge, dispositions and values of the other four letters are utilised in a foundational sense. Complex engineering projects require a multitude of knowledge, approaches to understanding, aesthetic evaluations and applications and demand mathematical thinking. Engineering is also the field least present in traditional school models and as such may be that field which brings the others together as it has less to lose and most to gain in such a recombination of disciplines.

Engineering as the glue of a STEAM programme offers an attractive simplicity in a complex endeavour. Engineering problems could be seen as the catalyst for student inquiry and situated in the real world would bring purpose to the student’s endeavours. Somehow though such a solution seems too easy. If STEAM is dominated by Engineering problems where are the opportunities for science to be the servant of art, or for technology to be the doorway to new scientific discoveries. Such is the complexity of the problem and only direct participation and collaboration by passionate experts who see the strength of both STEAM and its component parts is likely to produce learning opportunities that are truly innovative.

Such collaborations are emerging in industry where the problems and opportunities created by rapid changes are best served by a cross pollination of ideas. Software engineers have a long history of relying on the ‘pattern language’ of architect and designer Christopher Alexander. In attempting to understand complex problems Alexander utilised a ‘pattern language’ to assess the ‘fit’ of a solution (ensemble or form) to its context (field). While Alexander’s work was originally aimed at assisting in understanding the fit between architecture or urban design and the needs of home owners and city dwellers, his approach to understanding complex systems has been useful in the field of ‘user experience’ design in computing. Other examples abound and the results of such collaborations are evident in the products and services we use every day.  As industry seeks to create new markets and better products, understanding what is possible and what best fits the needs of the users and the environment, demands cross disciplinary thinking.

Outside of schools such collaborative efforts are a natural consequence of the problems faced not an artificial drive for integration. Only in schools are the disciplines so clearly defined and divided. What had once served us a practical division of labour now stand in the way of connected patterns of thought where the solution to the problem dictates the best pathway. Finding the right problems and asking the right questions, those which can only be solved with the combined strength of the disciplines of a STEAM programme is the surest way to success.

By Nigel Coutts

Making the most of opportunities for thinking

What should our goal for student thinking be? How do we scaffold student thinking in ways that are meaningful while developing autonomy and encouraging students to think effectively when we are not there? What would success with thinking strategies look like? These were the challenging questions that Mark Church presented to teachers at the most recent 'Cultures of Thinking Teach Meet’ hosted by Masada College.

To teachers experienced with Making Thinking Visible, Mark is well known and highly respected. As one of the authors of the book ‘Making Thinking Visible’ and a part of Harvard’s Project Zero team Mark has had a far reaching influence on education. His writing with and alongside Ron Ritchhart and Karin Morrison has created great interest in the use of routines to support student thinking and building cultures of thinking. In this session Mark encouraged the teachers present to look again at how they are using the Making Thinking Visible routines and ask important questions about what they hope to achieve with them.

The Making Thinking Visible routines are powerful tools to guide and structure student thinking. They are seen as a speedy antidote to what David Perkins identifies as the ‘impoverished models for thinking’ which most of us make do with. The routines are easy to implement and in addition to sharpening the results of thinking attained from a standard lesson, the routines allow the results of the student thinking to be captured and shared. They range from simple, yet powerful tools such as asking students ‘What makes you say that?’ when they offer a response without evidence to elaborate routines such as ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ where students imagine the stories that might exist around a picture or event and how that may change depending upon where in the story the picture occurred. The great variety of routines and their flexibility means that a solution to any thinking problem can be found. This brings us to the critical point that Mark made and it results in an important, even if subtle shift, in how we think about the routines.

‘Don't ask, what thinking routine should I use? but what type of thinking do I wish to make routine?’ When we start the process of planning a lesson with the aim of identifying what type of thinking will best serve our learning goals we deepen our understanding of what our students will need for successful learning. If I want them to ‘Reason with Evidence' I will seek out opportunities for this to occur, if the goal is ‘Uncovering complexity’ a different set of opportunities will be explored. With clarity about the type of thinking I desire and which will most benefit my students I can move to asking which routine will support that best within the context of our teaching/learning programme.

With any good routine ask - What kind of opportunities might I harness to help establish rich patterns of thinking behaviour?  And What kinds of interactions might I promote to make the most of these opportunities?

The eight cultural forces identified by Ron Ritchhart include ‘opportunities’ and ‘interactions’. Opportunities are the affordances of a lesson, the degree to which exploration is made possible and the chances presented for students to apply their thinking skills as they move beyond knowing towards understanding. Interactions occur whenever we learn in groups and include those between student and teacher and students interacting with students. Looked at in combination our goal should be to create rich and open ended opportunities which are supported and enhanced by the interactions that they allow for.

The power of creating the right type of opportunities and interactions was demonstrated by Mark through a seemingly simple game. Poison is a game played with thirteen coloured tiles. Two players take turns to take either one or two tiles from the pile. The player who takes the last tile is poisoned. The challenge is to develop and explain a guaranteed winning strategy. This is where the game becomes interesting and played with a group that includes an observer transforms it into a rich collaborative experience as possible strategies are tested, explained, critiqued and modified. The game itself is full of opportunities to learn and invites discussion of numerous mathematical concepts while being made richer as a result of the interactions between the collaborators.

After the routine comes the reflection. With the activity behind us and the routine applied the real learning that thinking routines make possible is found in the process of reflection. Taking time to consider how the thinking routine assisted our thinking and by unpacking the type of thinking it made possible allows us to identify how we may use a similar strategy in other situations. This takes us to what is perhaps our ultimate goal for our students' thinking. That the students adopt the task of answering the questions - What thinking do I need to use here and why? and What opportunities would other thinking moves bring? If our students are empowered to effectively and independently answer these two questions they will be well prepared for the challenges they face.

By Nigel Coutts

To explore how Making Thinking Visible can be combined with Habits of Mind visit :

Educating for the Unknown

What will tomorrow bring? What will life be like in 2028 as our youngest students of today exit school? What occupations will they enter and what challenges will they face? These are not new questions but with the rate of change in society and the pace at which technology evolves they are questions without clear answers. How then do schools prepare students for this uncertain tomorrow? What shall we teach our children today such that they are well prepared for the challenges and opportunities of their tomorrow?

The complexity of responding to these questions and the inaccuracy of most forecasts allows for never ending debate and there are as many perspectives on what the future may bring as there are people making predictions. Such forecasting is an unsteady platform on which to plan something as important as a child’s education. There is perhaps a better way and it takes us to a thought exercise proposed by French philosopher Rene Descartes in 1637. In this famous piece of philosophical thinking Descartes proposed a scenario in which every aspect of reality, every observation and sensation was torn away and the individual becomes an imaginary brain in a vat with stimulus being fed to it by a malicious demon. The more modern take on this is an individual wired into a computer with reality generated by the computer’s software. The challenge for Descartes was to work from this premise to an understanding of that which he could be certain of. The result is the philosophical statement ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’. Descartes ability to question his own existence was seen as proof that as the thinker of these thoughts, he must exist.

Let us imagine then a world in which nothing is certain. All that we know now has been in someway replaced. Perhaps we live in virtual worlds which emerge from present models of virtual and augmented reality. Perhaps automation has risen to new levels and human work has been replaced by machines which serve every rudimentary need. Maybe our colleagues are machines in robot form or online chat bots with whom we converse never knowing who is human and who is not. Such imaginings while fanciful and frightening are not too far removed from some of the predictions being made and are built on trends in technology already emerging. Our goal is however not to imagine the possible but to look for a broader response, one that is suitable for any scenario. As likely as these techno fantasies may be is a world where technology has imploded upon itself and we must resort to more fundamental skills. Or perhaps the future will be very much like the world we live in today. If nothing can be known of the future how shall we preparer for it?

A metaphor might help here. For your next holiday you plan to try something very different to the norm. Instead of a well planned itinerary you opt for a mystery flight. Knowing you have no way of knowing where you will end up you begin to ponder the challenge of packing. Clearly you can not take everything you might need for every possible location, climate and activity set so you resort to packing for flexibility. Every item that does into your bag must be able to serve you well in a variety of hugely differing scenarios. Even in this scenario there are some items you know you will need and this allows a modicum of planning but the specialist ‘single use’ items you might pack if you knew your destination are left in the cupboard.

This is the scenario we face as schools planning for our students tomorrows. What are the items we know they will need? What are the ones which are sufficiently flexible to serve their needs in many scenarios and which are the ones which must be left behind? As daunting as this task may be we seem to have already discovered the answer. Most models for a 21st century are built on a set of common elements even if the names are changed. We can be quite certain that our students will need to be creative, collaborative, effective in communication, critical thinkers and compassionate. These common elements are well understood and while we may struggle to develop these dispositions and skills we have little doubt that they play a key role in defining the purpose of education. Beyond these immensely flexible skills are the ones around which there needs to be more discussion. Mathematical thinking is a widely flexible disposition but it is not applicable to every scenario. In our mystery holiday scenario, it is more flexible than a set of skis but less so than a woolen jumper. There are many skills and dispositions which fall into this category, useful very often and reasonably adaptable but not required in every conceivable situation and even then perhaps not in its entirety. Much of the mathematics taught in schools falls into the very seldom used category even if the broader patterns of thought behind them are relevant.

The daunting prospect in this is what we may have to let go of. There are aspects of the current model of education which will not serve our students in this unknown tomorrow. Chestnuts of wisdom that we as teacher hang on to, obscure pieces of knowledge and ways of doing things that are heavily specialised and fit very few of the scenarios we encounter even today should not be carried forward in the minds and doings of every child. Such specialised wisdom has its place but that place is in the books and the archives of memory which we cherish but access as we need them.

So the world our students will inherit may be a great mystery but the challenge of preparing them for that rests in the broad dispositions we most cherish. That which makes us most human is that which will best serve us in this unknown future.

By Nigel Coutts

In Online Learning, Don’t Start with a Virtual “Syllabus Day”

Guest post by Lawrence G. Miller PhD - @lawrencegmiller 

Sadly, many students have come to expect that there will nothing of consequence addressed on the first day of an on-campus class. It’s often referred to as “Syllabus Day” because that is the only content of consequence presented by the instructor.

Kevin Gannon, the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and also Professor of History at Grand View University. Gannon also bills himself as the “Tattooed Professor.” Recently he penned an op-ed piece for Vitae, the online career service from the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester. It is a well-crafted argument for expecting more of students and for giving them more than a ten- minute overview of the syllabus. Gannon states:

We dedicate so much time to designing our courses, planning our activities, reading up on our content, and constructing our syllabi. We ought to ensure that time was well- spent by planning a first day of class that encourages students to become engaged participants in every aspect of the course.

He goes on to suggest that the first day of class encompass these points

  1.  Give the students a taste of everything they’ll be expected to do during the semester. For example, lead a discussion session if that is a central learning strategy for the class. Or, if group-work is important, break them into groups for a simple exercise. In other words, give students the opportunity to experience your teaching routine and model your expectations and feedback for them. Give students an immediate opportunity to do to be active learners.
  2. Show passion for the course content. The first day is a great time for an instructor to share “the exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial parts of the course material.”
  3. Of course the syllabus itself is a critical element of any class. Discuss the document by directing students to the information they’ll need throughout the term. After, check for understanding and memory using a syllabus quiz. This first quiz will encourage students to read the syllabus thoroughly. But it can also provide an example of the quiz format that will be used throughout the term. Of course, a quiz on the syllabus is a relatively low-stakes assessment that allows students to build some early confidence.

I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts of the Tattooed Professor. He also recommends making an effort from that first day to learn the students by name. (I actually create a video using my iPhone with each student telling the camera their name, their college goals, and one memorable thing that will distinguish them from other students.)

Kevin Gannon summarizes his view of the first day on campus as:
Opening day presents a unique opportunity in our courses. Our students haven’t experienced anything yet, so there’s a default level of interest which we can leverage with engaged teaching and a welcoming atmosphere. The tone we choose to set and the structure of activities we design can impart a positive first impression, and might also preempt some of the more common frustrations that pop up later in the term. Sure, some students will lament the passing of Syllabus Day, but the dividends from a more substantial and engaging first day will more than offset that disappointment.

These are truly important concepts and similar to strategies that I have used when I teach on campus. Yet, I believe his thinking works just as well for online learning. Just because we teach online does not mean that instructors are missing similar opportunities to connect with their students, to set expectations, and to create a sense of curiosity and interest for the course topic.
Here are four suggestions for incorporating Gannon’s thinking in online learning.

  1. Create a learning experience around the syllabus. In addition to the benefits mentioned from Gannon, informing students and measuring via a simple quiz means that the students can legitimately be considered “active students.” This is significant as the students who receive Federal financial aid such as a Pell Grant must be documented as active in each class. For years, I have created a one-question syllabus quiz. That question is a yes or no response to: “I have read and understand the syllabus for this class and agree to be an active student.” Of course it is possible to use a more extensive quiz if desired.
  2. Use the flipped class approach and create a killer introductory video featuring you in which you talk about the importance of the subject. You could also talk about your own pathway to teaching this class. Express your passion for teaching, for the subject and for students, especially the ones in this particular class.
  3. You may also need to create or discover videos that will train the students in the use of the college’s Learning Management System (LMS). Don’t assume that students know how to use discussions, journals, or turn in their homework. I create the first discussion be asking each student to provide a little biographical thumbnail. This semester, I will be asking them to submit a short video that will be shared with all students in my section. I believe that this will create some sense of a group and put names with faces.
  4. You could also divide the class into groups if this is something that you commit to. Group learning is powerful, and most LMS platforms will make it fairly simple to do. The groups can work together on projects throughout the term.

One final consideration is that the first week or so of a term may be a time of exploration for many students. They use the first week as a time to “shop around” for classes. That makes it especially important to give them a clear and engaging introduction to the course that reflects your overall teaching style and the course’s material.

Yes, in a sense there really is not a first day like you would have on campus. Online learning would be more like the first week. But, you definitely can create the positive first impression, set expectations for the students, and allay fears about the technology immediately using many of the same principles that produce engaged learning in a traditional classroom.


The rewards of highly collaborative teams

Not that long ago I was a writer of interesting and engaging educational programmes. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. The programmes that I wrote and shared with a team of teachers were generally well accepted and the feedback offered was always politely positive. I enjoyed writing these programmes but in recent times I have enjoyed even more stepping away from this process and in doing so empowering the team of teachers that I learn with. The programmes that this team produces far exceed the quality I could ever have hoped to produce but more importantly the students are benefiting from their experience of highly engaged and thus engaging teachers.

Such is the power of collaborative teams. Individuals have strengths and can achieve much but a team that is in sync, has clear goals and clarity of purpose will always do more. Strong collaborative teams are ones where each individual is able to achieve at their maximum level. These teams regularly create moments of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to as ‘Flow’. This feeling that grows out of strong collaborations and is enhanced through social cohesion within teams encourages heightened levels of personal commitment to the team’s goals.

The great challenge is to develop teams that are truly collaborative. This is not a natural state and to assume that because a group of people have been identified as a team that they will function as one is flawed thinking. Collaborative teams do not occur by accident and nor may they be constructed by the traditional methods and philosophies of management. While a a group of loosely affiliated individuals may achieve an acceptable level of ‘group work’ together in which individuals fulfil a function within the group towards a common goal this model falls far short of the ideal.

In seeking to construct teams that are highly collaborative the ability of those charged with leading the team to compellingly communicate the teams purpose is often important but not always essential. Empowering teams to collectively generate a vision of their purpose can be a powerful step in forming cohesive collaborations but is a part of the process not always accessible. How that purpose is achieved however, is always a process best constructed through collaboration. The process of empowering teams in some respects reflects the laws of conservation of energy in physics. The power that is transferred to the team comes from the power that those in positions of leadership surrender.

Dan Pink in his book ‘Drive’ identifies three forces which act to motivate us. Purpose, mastery, choice and not traditional awards are the key according to Pink’s research. Once base needs are taken care of individuals seek opportunities to master skills and concepts gaining tangible benefits from the feelings of success. They seek choice in how they perform their duties and a degree of autonomy in how they spend their time. Clarity of purpose allows them to see the value in what they do and when it is a purpose that connects them with something bigger than themselves, that matters they are more likely to commit. These motivating forces apply equally if not more so to teams.

An individual’s motivation may be imagined as the sum of the influence of the motivating forces acting upon them. Where a meaningful and engaging purpose exists alongside choice and with the possibility to achieve mastery through concerted effort the individual is likely to show high levels of motivation. Within teams the equation is somewhat complicated by the differing perception of the motivating forces that exist between team members. In teams that lack cohesion the differences in perception and the conversations sparked by this perception can influence both individual and collective motivation. The individual who is disengaged and despondent can have a disproportionate influence on team morale. How the team responds to individuals at either end of the motivational spectrum can influence the construction of a highly motivated team of collaborators or result in a group damaged by negativity and disunity.

In teams where collaborations are challenging and unity is lacking it is often the norm to identify those who are deemed to be underperforming or contributing to disunity. This model often fails as it highlights the problems within the team rather than highlighting its strengths. A better approach might be to build on what is positive within the team and seek to increase the occurrence of times where the team functions effectively. Avoiding a deficit model shifts the collective thinking of the team onto its positive attributes, encourages unity around these collective moments of success and shows the way for the group to move forward. This approach sits well with the often overlooked factor of mastery as a motivating force. If the team sees its potential to master the art of collaboration, individuals and the collective are more likely to strive towards this common goal. The danger of the deficit model is that it tells a story of failure over which most individuals have little control or in the case of those who are underperforming little desire to change.

Developed and nurtured with ongoing care and commitment collaborative teams can provide huge benefits. For individuals within them and for the organisations in which they exist the rewards are tangible. More importantly collaborations allow us be a part of something bigger than ourselves and through that to experience heightened levels of fulfilment. Truly collaborative teams are difficult to achieve and sustain but certainly worth the effort.

Written with thanks and appreciation of the team of teachers with which I learn. 

By Nigel Coutts

The little things that make a difference

In teaching it is often the little things we do on a daily basis that have the largest cumulative effect. While the events, festivals, camps and more spectacular lessons may stand out in our memories these moments have less overall impact across the time that our students spend in our company. Getting these little details right however is a complex business that demands we bring our best to every interaction, every lesson and every opportunity we have to shape the minds and dispositions of our learners. The result is that there are no easy lessons, no easy days.

Once perhaps things were different. In classrooms dominated by textbooks and where teaching was about the transfer of knowledge there were easy lessons. ‘Open your textbook to page 27 and complete the exercise’ is a lesson plan that requires very little input, minimal planning and thanks to the handy answer page ensured easy marking. This model of education continues to shape the perceptions of what school is like for many members of the community. Not only parents but professionals associated with the education industry imagine that students still spend large chunks of time copying information from the board as reflected in suggestions that students with learning difficulties are seated close to the imaginary locus of learning in the room. In these days teaching was almost a set and forget process. Start the students on a task from the board or the textbook and the learning would take place almost by magic, or such was the belief.

Happily, this model of teaching is disappearing. With a shift to a learner centric classroom where the students and teachers become collaborators in the construction of knowledge, who engage in an active process of problem finding and problem solving every lesson demands the highest levels of engagement. Expert teachers construct learning experiences with their students that promote high order thinking, encourage collaboration and demand creativity. None of this happens by accident or without the teacher playing an essential role in constructing a classroom environment and culture that allows for this style of learning.

Consider the language choices we make as a part of our daily routine. A question phrased the right way will encourage students to think creatively and expansively as they consider multiple possible answers. Phrased in alternate language a similar question can send a message to the students that there is but one correct answer and it is the one the teacher already knows. More than just a distinction between open and closed questions the choice of words we make can shift the ways students perceive learning in our classes. Ron Ritchhart in ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ describes the influence that ‘conditional’ language has on our students. Replacing the word ‘is’ with the word ‘might’ in our questions can encourage students to see our classes as a place that encourages dialogue and debate; a place where there is no single right answer. Making the right language moves in every lesson is a subtle distinction between high and average performing teachers and it is a distinction that occurs through deliberate attention to every decision that is made.

Our language choices send messages about what we value from our students. There is increased attention on the use of the word ‘work’ within schools. It is argued that referring to what students do while engaged in a task should always be referred to as learning, that the word work implies that they are getting stuff done and that there is one correct way to do it. 'In learning-oriented classrooms, mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, to grow, to rethink. In work-oriented classrooms, errors and mistakes are to be avoided because they indicate incompetence.’ (Ritchhart 2015 p45) It is a subtle change yet one that reveals what we value in our classroom culture. What we name and subsequently value within our classroom culture shapes our learners and their futures. If we value quiet classes we discourage collaboration and conversation, if we identify students for offering correct answers we discourage alternative responses and responses from students who are unsure of their response’s value. If we value thinking, effort, failure and risk taking we encourage every student to partake in the learning opportunities we make available.

Encouraging a growth mindset in our students is another goal that is well served by the subtle choices we make on a daily basis. Bringing about a genuine shift in an individual’s mindset demands consisted messaging about what results in success. Teachers who have this goal in mind will take care to link student success to the things that they have done which resulted in that success. This focus on the student’s actions, effort, risk taking and willingness to adopt feedback reveals a belief that ability is not a fixed attribute and that success results from what we do rather than what we are. Consistent messaging that leads to a shift in mindset requires teachers who are constantly switched on to the language choices they make. Teachers who seek to change student mindsets understand how easily their students will slip back into a fixed mindset as a result of praise that reinforces their desire for recognition of inherent ability.

One subtle shift that shapes our classrooms and our teaching is demonstrated by how we answer the question ‘who owns the learning’ or ‘who does the thinking’. When we aim to give ownership of the learning and the thinking to our students we need to accept that the learning will be messy. It is difficult if not impossible to plan a lesson in full and complete detail if you are not in control of its delivery. Responsive teachers will know that the students are likely to take the learning in unexpected directions and will allow this to happen safe in the knowledge that this style of lesson serves their goals for constructivist learning. In this rich dynamic environment where questions and wonderings are pursued and celebrated students are actively engaging with the adaptive competencies they will require beyond their time at school. For the teacher these lessons require a different approach to planning, one that ensures the students are developing a variety of skills and dispositions or learning while engaging with the curriculum content from new perspectives.

The end result of these little things is a culture that values learning and personal growth. Through the little things we do every day in every lesson we encourage our students to approach their learning as an achievable challenge. We give them permission to make mistakes, to fall down and to get back up time and time again. We promote a love of learning and we show that we are prepared to join with our students in a journey towards increased understanding. Seeing the value in the little things we do encourages us to give them the attentions they deserve, to take time to reflect on the choices we make and to pursue strategies that will enhance the effectiveness of our every action.

By Nigel Coutts

Tinkering with Old Technology

As technology evolves and its inner workings increasingly disappear from view, replaced with solid-state parts hidden by glass, aluminium and plastic, our understanding of what makes the world operate is similarly impeded. When machinery from just a few decades ago is viewed a world of moving parts, linkages, cogs and levers is revealed. These mechanical objects contain an inherent beauty and inspire curiosity in ways that modern devices with their pristine surfaces and simplified design language do not. Opportunities to explore devices from the past open our eyes and lead us to new questions of how our devices function, how machines do the jobs we need them to do and how engineers solve problems.

I visited a museum of such devices recently. A small museum of carefully and lovingly curated items collected by a small group of engineers, now retired. It is an important collection that reveals how the technology from which our modern devices have evolved. It shows an evolutionary journey from typewriters to mainframe computers and on to devices that resemble the computers we use today. It includes examples of different engine types, milling equipment and pieces of equipment barely recognisable today that were once the very cutting edge. There are tools and instruments for measuring, samples of materials, sets of paper tape codes for early CNC (computer numerical control) machines and an array of storage mediums all of which have been eclipsed in capacity. Each item reveals its inner workings and inspires questions and inquiries as to what purpose it served and how it functioned. The beauty of each piece, its design aesthetic and the attention to detail shown in every part reveals an artistry and craftsmanship that seems to be lacking in modern items designed to be hidden from view. Hours if not days could be spent exploring and gathering questions.

Beyond the mechanisms are the people behind this collection; the human face of our technical history. These are the engineers who made the machines on display, who used them in their daily lives and kept them functioning. They have a collective wisdom that is of great value but above all else they are the living, breathing embodiment of the inquisitive minds we hope our students will aspire to be. They describe themselves as ‘problem solver’, as engineers and mathematicians. They use their knowledge of science to make sense of the challenges they face, they use mathematics as a tool and they collaboratively design new ways of solving problems. Now in their retirement years they continue to learn and as they do so they are keen to share their wisdom with a new generation.

Tinkering is in their nature but one has to wonder if today’s children have the same opportunities to tinker that generations past did. I remember fondly taking apart items of technology to see what was inside. My grandmother once allowed me to disassemble her old television. I learned many lessons from this including the need to be very clear in communicating that it is unlikely that the device will ever work again. I did the same with lawnmowers, music boxes, radios, out board motors and countless toys of varying forms. In some cases they went back together again, in other cases they donated their parts to new devices. I recall working with a group of friends to repair the school tractor.  The joy we shared when it started up for the first time combined with the sudden realisation that the noise it made could not be hidden from the teachers who had not given us permission for this lunchtime activity. Thinking back now I am almost certain they knew we were toiling away every lunchtime and were quite happy to pretend not to know; after all we did fix the tractor for free.

The opportunities we have to tinker today are perhaps less than they once were. Devices are designed to hide their parts. Car engines are a good case in point. Open the bonnet on any modern car and where you once saw a collection of pipes, belts, chains and linkages today you see a plastic cover hiding the real working from view. Electronics are held together with glue and tamper proof screws. Toys are tightly sealed to ensure small parts never get into the hands or mouths of young users. When the covers are stripped away and the insides laid bare, most of our technology is seen to be driven by ubiquitous and almost unfathomable green boards with tiny plastic moldings covering computer chips. The magic of a world of tiny parts moving in mechanical unison is lacking and so to is the curiosity that such movement inspires.

The maker movement has a great opportunity to reignite the sense of curiosity that children once had fuelled by their tinkering journeys. With making comes opportunities to look beyond the plastic covers, to use tools and machines to solve problems we seek and wish to solve. Connecting to the machines of the past and bringing these items into our MakerSpaces is one way to inspire curiosity. If our students can see how engineers once solved problems with mechanical devices, they can begin to build an understanding of how our modern devices solve similar problems in new ways. Beyond the tinkering and the making opportunities to explore technology that proudly refuses to hide its bits allows heightened levels of inquiry. Seeing the parts of a machine move and mesh together, seeing how a force is transferred from one object to another, from one form of energy to another is a catalyst for rich and meaningful exploration. If we want our students to develop inquisitive dispositions this is a great way to do it.

At the end of the visit time was given to allow the group of educators present to share their reflections with the engineers responsible for this amazing collection. We had all been inspired by the devices we had seen and our initial reflections were framed as responses to this. As we talked it became clear that the most valuable resource available were the people. This small group of passionate engineers who had devoted their lives to problem finding and solving had a wealth of experiences to share. Their experience with the processes of problem finding, ideation, prototyping, testing, modifying and finally arriving at a workable and viable solution is profoundly valuable beyond the lessons in history they can share. These men are the experts in the STEAM disciplines we need to connect with.

By Nigel Coutts

Professional Learning Communities for School Transformation

The role of the teacher is slowly but surely changing and with this come new challenges. Change becomes inevitable and processes for managing this and capitalising on the opportunities it brings becomes paramount within organisations. It is perhaps not surprising that educational institutions may evolve to become what are termed ‘Learning Organisations’ or ‘Professional Learning Communities’ within which there is a focus on the application of the principles of learning to manage change and explore new opportunities. The formation of 'Professional Learning Communities’ what they look like, how they function and the purposes that the best serve was the focus of the Hawker Brownlow conference in Melbourne.

The traditional model of a teacher in a classroom expertly meeting the needs of their students through a combination of personal passion and pedagogical craft is increasingly outdated and yet oddly persistent. It is a model that closes the individual off from the collaborative potential offered by a ‘Professional Learning Community’ (PLC). This isolationist view of education when faced with the rate of change presently resulting from technological evolution, societal change and a scientifically informed understanding of how we learn that emerges from improved brain science, leaves educators facing unassailable obstacles. A new model is required that allows the collective strength of the school to be brought to bear on the task of finding the most desirable solutions.

What a PLC offers is a way of understanding an organisation and an approach to problem solving within it. It identifies all of the individuals as learners and as such removes hierarchies of leadership structures. The goal within a PLC will be to learn together and in doing so solve the problems or maximise the opportunities that are found to exist. This brings about a new leadership model in which a vision is articulated but the specifics of how that vision is realised are allowed to be constructed through the learning journey of the PLC. Such a model brings a number of key advantages. It is highly motivational, giving individuals autonomy, purpose and opportunities to achieve mastery through learning and collaboration that traditional top down management strategies do not. (See Daniel Pink) It allows solutions to be built from the collective expertise of the organisation overcoming a reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of the senior leadership to solve the ‘Complex’ problems that organisations are increasingly likely to confront. It is a strategy that fits nicely with design thinking and encourages active engagement in a process of identifying problems or opportunities, imagining solutions, testing options and evaluating the results.

Through the conference I was struck by how the concept of a PLC fits with other ideas and models. Daniel Wilson’s research and suggestions for how organisations confront ‘Complex’ problems as opposed to the more regular day to day complicated problems particularly seemed to connect with the ideas presented across a number of sessions. Wilson describes three roles for leadership within organisations confronting ‘Complex’ problems, those where the very nature of the problem and its solution are unclear:

  1. Creating Vision - when dealing with complicated problems this involves defining and communicating the vision but when dealing with complex problems requires co-creation and for leadership to act as a change agent. Within a PLC this would be shaping the culture of the organisation so that the focus was on collaborative learning and problem finding/solving
  2. Developing People - when dealing with complicated problems this involves skill building and evaluation but when dealing with complex problems will require stimulating people towards growth and a culture that encourages experimentation. With this culture of experimentation must come a tolerance of failure. The PLC with its focus on learning would provide an ideal structure to support the development of people for the solution of 'Complex’ problems.
  3. Designing structures - when dealing with complicated problems involves establishing conditions for cooperative progress but when dealing with complex problems requires collaborative innovation. The PLC can be seen as ideal structure as it is focused on a learning process with known phases and elements. To this end a PLC could provide the sort of structure that according to Ewan Macintosh is offered by Design Thinking. In both ‘Design Thinking and PLC the ‘Complex’ problem with its inherent uncertainty and lack of definition is attacked by a structured approach which supports creativity. The idea is that the more uncertainty in the problem and as its solution demands ever greater levels of creativity the more structure is required to solve it.

The PLC model should fit effectively with organisational drives to become innovative and with that to experiment with new untested ideas. In the tech world of Facebook and Google innovation drives success and the willingness to ‘move fast and break things’ allows new ideas to be tried and just as quickly abandoned. It is a process of making mistakes and learning from those mistakes what works and what does not. Schools are less willing to engage in this process and in many respects are risk adverse. Despite this failure is unavoidable and organisations need to be able to learn from their failures. According to Cannon and Edmondson 'Most organizations do a poor job of learning from failures, whether large or small. In our research, we found that even companies that had invested significant money and effort into becoming ‘learning organizations’ (with the ability to learn from failure) struggled when it came to the day-to-day mindset and activities of learning from failure.’ (Cannon & Edmondson. 2005 p301) A culture that embodies a PLC should also embrace the notion of learning from failure and seek to address the three processes identified in 'Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail’ of 'identifying failure, analyzing failure, and deliberate experimentation.’ (Cannon & Edmondson. 2005 p300) That such an ideal fits so closely with the trend towards developing ‘Growth Mindsets’ within schools should speed its uptake.

This fits very well with Colin Sloper’s discussion of ‘Transformative Leadership in a PLC’. Colin calls for a relentless focus on developing the capacity of educators within schools as an essential goal for leadership. This focus on learning goes beyond the provision of traditional professional development experiences. Within a PLC the goal is to use a learning model to identify and collaboratively solve the problems confronting individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. Traditional professional development models assume the solution is known and that it is possible to transfer the method of solving the problem from one person to another. In a PLC an action research model is much more likely to be employed as the way towards capacity building. Learners actively engage with the process and with agency and ownership collaborative learning is empowered. Professional Development within a PLC is anchored in the daily practice of the school, is likely to be peer led and will be personally relevant to the environment it is targeted at and developed within.

Tonia Flanagan addressed the fine art to leading teacher learning in her session on Day Three. She outlined the seven qualities of high reliability leadership and it can be seen how this fits into a PLC model. High reliability leadership is defined as:

  • Having a purpose bigger than the individual leader
  • Possessing and articulating core beliefs
  • Engaging in critical conversations - provocative conversations
  • Remaining centred in crisis
  • Possesses the courage to act - to avoid decision paralysis when decisions bring unavoidable and challenging consequences
  • Developing a succession plan to ensure the organisation can continue to thrive after your time of leadership
  • Embodying the power of positivity

If a PLC is to genuinely thrive it requires high reliability leadership as these attributes are essential to creating a culture of collaborative learning within an organisation. It is a leadership style that establishes the broad vision for the organisation as one that desires to learn and that does so within a set of guiding beliefs. The manner in which leadership acts to establish the purpose and vision for the organisation is in itself a ‘Complex’ task as while it must be clear what the core purposes of the organisation are it must also be possible for elements of the organisations purpose to be influenced and constructed as a result of the actions of the members of its PLC.

In parallel to this story of evolving Professional Learning Communities was a story of evolving technology and with that new challenges and opportunities for learning. Eric Sheninger shared how schools he has led utilised the affordance of evolving technology to facilitate change. Sheninger showed how the effective use of technology can shift the focus away from the teacher as the locus of control within education onto the student. What becomes clear is that the learner of today has at their disposal a diverse set of tools that enable, empower, connect and extend their learning capacity. This immense and growing diversity of options presents challenges to teachers who persist with traditional models of classroom management and pedagogy. The challenge seems to require a desire to become aware of the opportunities available and the capacity to evaluate the benefits of each while maintaining a focus on the essential learning that the students require. The message is clear that technology should not take control of education but should allow us to achieve our goals with greater efficiency. To this end a Professional Learning Community offers real advantages as it distributes the learning across many and allows the best tools to be discovered and shared. This is a collaborative endeavor that technology can itself empower as we become connected educators. Where technology will challenge teachers more so than other domains is that it is highly likely our students will possess high level of knowledge. When we understand that our Professional Learning Community encompasses our students the knowledge base of our students in all areas and particularly around the use of technology becomes and asset. Some of the tools shared by Eric are presented in this post - Tools for sharing thinking

It is interesting to note that while much of the language used with PLCs is highly relevant to a school environment it is an idea with broad applicability. As we shift towards an innovation economy in which nations measure their success against their capacity to innovate on and benefit from the affordances of new technology learning should become a national priority. Learning to learn from our mistakes and our failures is essential for growth but it is also a necessary condition for innovation that we experiment with ideas even without assurances of success. Deliberate experimentation that goes hand-in-hand with learning is an approach that should make sense across industries and education’s prior-knowledge and experience with the process should make teachers prized assets to any organisation or economy.

By Nigel Coutts

Tools for sharing thinking

Teachers and students have access to an impressive set of tools for sharing ideas and making thinking visible. The old model of calling out answers to questions has certain limitations and while it remains the mainstay of many classrooms new options allow for a mix of options. Some of our goals are to provide our students with appropriate wait time or think time and to ensure the voice of even our most introverted students is heard. It would also be nice to have a record of our students thinking and a way to easily see patterns of thinking across a group of students.

Fortunately there are a number of free tools that do these things and they are available for use on any technology platform as they require nothing more than access to the internet. Recently Eric Sheninger used a set of these tools to give his audience at the Hawker Brownlow Conference on Thinking and Learning in Melbourne a voice.

One of the simplest to use and set up is “Answer Garden”. This allows you to quickly pose a question online and it provides an easy to share web address that respondents use to enter their answers. Results are pooled and the result is a tag cloud or answers where the size of the answer reflects the frequency of the response. Answer garden works well with open ended questions and can be used to quickly identify issues, understandings and thought patterns of a group. It is so quick and easy to set up that it can be done on the fly and on demand.

Padlet is a well known tool for gathering responses to a question or issue together. It is a virtual inboard that allows users to post and share notes through an easy to use website. In many respects it is similar to the practice of using Post-It notes to record ideas and share them by sticking them onto a wall. Padlet is easy to set up and can be customised with coloured backgrounds, coloured notes and can handle images. Post-Its on Padlet can be randomly placed allowing similar ideas to be grouped together or it can be sorted in various ways automatically to create a neat grid.

Lino is in many respects similar to Padlet and could be used in exactly the same way. It adds the ability to comment on or reply to posts, a feature that encourages dialogue and could prove useful when more contentious issues are shared in this format. It allows multiple questions to be posted to a board with users replying to each, it would allow users to ask questions of each other and to post replies to ideas in a way that ensures relevant pieces stay together.

For linear conversations or back-channeling with media resources “Today’s Meet” remains an excellent choice. In some respects, it is like a temporary and task specific version of Twitter. A meet is created and link shared that allows users to post responses of up to 140 characters. Each post is added to the flow of ideas and the discussion evolves. It can become chaotic and it is at times difficult to link ideas together as multiple conversations emerge but it does provide a record of the thinking and conversation occurring within a group.

A tool with a definite wow factor is Plickers. This is a multiple choice response system with the benefit that it only requires a single device with the Plickers App and a set of response cards of the students. Each response card has a printed QR code and its alignment allows for four possible responses. The card is rotated such that the desired multiple choice letter or number is placed at the bottom. The App uses the devices camera to read the code and record the individual responses. As each QR code is unique individual responses are recorded and graph is produced showing how many responses resulted for each option. Plickers provides a cheap alternative to costly electronic ‘Clickers’ and its novelty factor and ease of use enhances engagement. As with any multiple choice style solution the quality of the questions or prompts will determine the quality of learning which results. Creative use and avoidance of entirely closed questions/responses will produce better results.

By Nigel Coutts

Collaborative Learning with Google Docs

Something is missing from my classroom lately and I am quite happy to have seen it disappear. It is the traditional line at the teacher’s desk formed by students awaiting feedback on a recently completed piece of writing. What has replaced this is our use of Google Docs and Slides as a tool for the collaborative development of ideas from initial thinking and strategising through to final editing and refinement. It has introduced a new workflow to the class that both streamlines the process of providing feedback, allows for greater detail and transforms the process into one that is richly collaborative.

 Students selected images that represent places described in a novel we are reading, Google Slides allows this to be shared and collaboratively analysed. 

Students selected images that represent places described in a novel we are reading, Google Slides allows this to be shared and collaboratively analysed. 

A typical writing task will begin with a prompt. This is designed to have the students thinking and identifying possibilities. Sometimes it is a provocative statement other times it is a series of sample pieces designed to act as models for the writing that will come. In the past week students read a set of poems about heroic freedom fighters. Each poem was placed into a Google Doc and the students were asked to read all three independently and then select the one which they felt was most compelling. They used the commenting feature in Google Docs to reflect on the poems and identify devices used by the poets to engage their audience and construct meaning. Having looked at the pieces of the poems they then selected a thinking routine from the website They used this thinking routine to analyse the poem as a whole and to reflect on its effectiveness.

The next step introduces two layers of collaboration. Firstly, they share their document with a number of classmates who now use comments to reflect on their peer’s analysis of the poem. They ask questions that probe for closer analysis and greater detail such as “What makes you say that?” and add ideas that might have been missed. through  this process the students share insights and gain a deeper understanding of how the poet has communicated their ideas and emotions with an audience. After some refinement and editing of the analysis this document is shared with me and I add my comments to the mix. Each student now has a collaboratively produced analysis of the poem they chose, one that they own and have played a part in developing at each step but one that is more detailed and of greater utility to them than the original produced independently.

The next step is to write a poem of their own using the poems they have read and the analysis they produced as a guide. Once again Google Docs is used and students begin drafting their poems in ways that make sense to them. Some choose to begin with lists of words, others start straight into drafting possible lines to later be assembled into stanzas. Once they have a draft they are reasonably happy with, they share that with me. I encourage them to share early in the process so that I may offer feedback before they are heavily committed to an idea and unwilling to make changes. I am able to add comments and make suggestions, they see these and adjust their writing or in some cases decide to stick with their idea. Comments appear alongside the document linked to a piece of text and can be more detailed than what may be scrawled in the margin of a student's  book. It is important that this is true collaboration and that they understand I am just adding my ideas. I would never want a student to think that their ideas are of less value than mine. As they continue to write they can choose to resolve the comments I have added or to reply where they feel some clarification is required. It becomes a very efficient conversation and they are able to deal with each piece of feedback in their time and without having to join a cue and wait for me.

One of the key advantages is that I see the process of writing. I can see which lines they are editing, the changes they make, the ideas they try and then abandon. The students benefit from my feedback but do not have a document covered in red ink. The final document is very much theirs. By the time they have finished and resolved each of the comments and suggestions they have a clean document ready to publish. At this point or often earlier in the process they can share their document with their peers and I can invite other teachers to read the piece as it evolves. My students are able to benefit from feedback from multiple sources and my colleagues are able to see how ideas have evolved within lessons that they will teach. Templates developed for a lesson can be quickly shared between classes and we can now see how students have made use of these templates and scaffolds as we share completed and partly completed samples.

Google Slides is becoming the go to platform for collaborations between groups of students. We are using this platform more for drafting ideas that incorporate text and images rather than as a tool for producing slideshows; a digital scrapbook. In many cases a rough outline is provided or alternatively a set of prompts may be offered. One recent lesson involved students identifying Mathematical concepts within a set of images. Each image was placed on a slide and groups of students were assigned to each image. Their task was to identify the mathematics present and add information to the slides that would make this visible. The conclusion of the lesson was to share what had been found back to the class. Another set of lessons asked students to locate images which they felt reflected places within a novel we have been reading. (See image at top of page) Each student produced a slide show of images and added their responses to the thinking routine “I see, I think, I wonder”. Once complete they shared their slideshow with a classmate who used comments to ask questions, offer feedback and add their voice to the analysis. In each instance the collaborative experience produced a richer learning experience.

The ultimate version of this style of collaboration are the “Coding Journals” the students are producing as they learn to programme robots to deepen and demonstrate their understanding of geometry. Each student is producing their “Coding Journal” using a Google Slides document as an initial template. Various slides have been created by their teachers to frame their initial thinking and provide some structure. Students add to this and make adjustments to suit their needs. Importantly each journal is shared with the teachers and with a set of peers who can all add feedback and also benefit from the shared learning. The “Coding Journals” are both evidence of learning and scaffold for future learning, a truly collaborative effort and the sort of tool that would be of benefit in real world settings beyond school.

All this online collaboration could be imagined as cold and impersonal compared to face to face discussions. The reality is that the conversations we do have are now much more focused and meaningful. I am more aware of what the students are up to, I can view their learning readily in advance of a conversation with no need for them to stop while I read their work. When they do stop to share work with a peer it has already been shared and read and they have had time to consider the feedback they will provide. The resulting conversations between students are focused and to the point.

The final piece of this collaborative effort is that as a group of teachers we have started using Google Docs for our programming and our annotations. We each use a single Google Document for this process and after each lesson add our reflections and observations. As we all have access to this constantly evolving document we can easily see how a lesson worked for a colleague. This information can then guide our delivery of lessons we are yet to teach, suggest new or additional resources and it provides opportunities to quickly and easily make adjustments to what will be our programmes for next year. The process is proving to be much more useful than the previous practice of annotating a printed programme and we are finding that the social nature of reflecting on our teaching to be most rewarding and even enjoyable.

As always I thank the team of teachers that I work and learn with. The ideas shared here are very much a product of our collaboration and I am continuously in awe of my colleagues capacity to deliver quality learning experiences.

By Nigel Coutts

The poem below was produced by a Year Six student using the collaborative process described here.

The Right to Fight
Malala Yousafzai

Basic rights
A definite no more
Fight for them
Fight for us

The day was new
When she spoke up
She fought for them
She fought for us

Inspired the world
A voice so small
She fought for them
She fought for us

Until that day
She could have died
We fought for her
She fought for us

The shot fired
The blood shed
She fought for them
She fought for us

Silence unknown
The world alive
We fought for her
She fought for us

Home she came
Glory bound
She fought again
She fought for us

We fight for her
She fights for us
We fight for them
She fights with us

By Sophie of 6C