Holiday Reading - Christmas 2019

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

By Nigel Coutts

Teaching mathematicians shouldn't be like programming a computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

Letting how we choose to learn inform our teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

Towards a pedagogy for life-worthy learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then stands in the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

Schools are made of People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

How might we develop self-regulated learners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

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

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

The challenge and promise of learning organisations

"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)

There is a great deal that I like about this description of humanity at its best from Ryan & Deci. It is both a goal to be achieved and an indicator of conditions which are required for us to fulfil our potential. While the focus of this statement is on the actions of the individual we can see how society might act to deny individuals the opportunities to lead such an inspired and agentic life. I like to imagine what a school might be like if every individual who plays a part in its functioning strove to extend themselves, master new skills and apply their talents responsibly.

Maybe schools would be like the ‘learning organisations’ described by Peter Senge.

Underlying Senge’s writing are essential assumptions about people in organisations which parallel the description of people offered by Ryan & Deci. The most important assumption is revealed in the line ‘Learning organisations are possible because not only is it in our nature to learn but we love to learn’. His evidence for this is the learning that occurs for an infant as they learn to walk, talk and demonstrate intrinsic inquisitiveness. This love of learning that Senge identifies must be present for his learning organisations model to work. While a love of learning is an innate quality of young children it might be questioned that this persists as we age. It can be seen that for many and perhaps as a consequence of their experience of school, learning becomes synonymous with work. When learning becomes something we are coerced to do, when what we learn is controlled externally (by other people or by systems and policies) when our learning is regulated for us and motivation comes through extrinsic forces we lose the capacity to be agentic learners.

The second condition required for Senge’s learning organisation to thrive is that learning is a highly valued ideal of the teams which comprise the organisation. Senge states that ‘Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organisations.’ Lastly Senge describes learning organisations as ‘a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they change it.’ Taken on mass this is high rhetoric but Senge sees this as possible and achievable as ‘Material affluence for the majority has gradually shifted people’s orientation toward work - from what Daniel Yankelovich called an ‘instrumental’ view of work, where work was a means to an end, to a more ‘sacred’ view where people seek the ‘intrinsic’ benefits of work’. Where the majority of individuals are yet to embrace this sacred view of work, there is likely to be a great tension between those with high levels of intrinsic motivation to realise the vision and mission of the organisation and those who subscribe to an instrumental view.

Unpacking this Senge pins his theory on the belief that people will want to learn as part of a team to create a learning organisation with a shared vision and purpose because their material affluence and fundamental human nature allows them to rise above their lower aspirations for personal fulfilment. I have a hard time imagining that applying to all but a few organisations. After leaving school and while at university I worked in a hotel laundry. I worked as part of a team, we washed, we dried, we folded on odd occasions we had to learn a new fold, a new wash cycle, but in honesty, there was little learning to do. There was no opportunity to create a reality. Maybe the scale is too small and thinking of the Hotel as the organisation we had some knowledge to contribute to the overall health of the organisation, even so I do not imagine any of my colleagues seeing their work as anything other than an ‘instrumental’ means to an end. Maybe such jobs will soon be replaced by machines and Artificial Intelligence will remove the need for menial, repetitive cognitive labour. Maybe we are close to a time where we are all freed from being the ‘instruments' of the economy and work will become a ‘sacred’ force in all of our lives. Maybe we will all soon be living the life of the aerospace engineer with time to study philosophy and meditate while we await our next royalty cheque.

Senge states that 'This, then, is the basic meaning of a 'learning organisation’ - an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future'. But each organisation is made of individuals and while I agree we do possess an intrinsic drive to learn we have that drive to allow us as individuals to survive. Looked at possibly to the level of 'reductio ad absurdum', from organisations, to individuals, to individual genes as described in Dawkin’s model of the ’selfish gene’. It might be that our genes are encoded to learn but they are thusly encoded to learn for their individual survival and not the survival of the organisation that is us, nor the collective that we call humanity.

Yet in schools I at least want Senge to be correct, I want to work in that model of a learning community where everyone from the night janitor to the principal is committed to learning together to enhance the organisations quality. I want our students to be immersed in learning and to see the intrinsic value of becoming self-navigating life-long learners.

Returning to Ryan & Deci we notice two conditions which are crucial if we hope for a future populated by self-motivated individuals striving to learn and extend themselves; agency and inspiration. Firstly, individuals need to be agentic, meaning that they can act strategically to achieve their goals. For individuals to be truly agentic they require the capacity for self-directed action towards a goal and the social/cultural/organisational conditions which allow for this and they must have a desire to act with agency. Secondly, individuals need to be inspired; a requirement served by societal and organisational conditions which connect with what is of significance to the individual.

This then is the challenge for schools, to create conditions which inspire individuals to act with agency such that they become the architects of their learning. In framing such a goal the complexity of this challenge becomes apparent as one plays with the words to capture a condition in which the school is able to inspire the individual and accommodate individual agency, such that the individual is inherently inspired. How do we envision the role that the school or organisation plays in shaping the conditions within which the individual is able to shape their context to align with their inspired actions? How we manage the apparent paradox that agency can be taken from the individual but cannot be given? That all of this occurs in a climate where micromanagement of schools, teachers and teaching is the norm, where external forces increasingly shape what is taught and how, only further complicates matters. And still the words of Ryan & Deci hang there longing to be made real.

By Nigel Coutts

The Trouble with Change Management in Schools

With the new Science and Technology Curriculum in New South Wales, teachers have been asked to teach students Systems Thinking. This in itself brings challenges but it also invites teachers to investigate their school as a system and to then consider what perspectives this lens invites. What becomes clear quite quickly is that schools are inherently complex systems. Imagine creating a systems map of just the people involved in a school and you see that there is great complexity emerging. To this web of the schools immediate human connections one then needs to add layers for curriculum, finance, physical resources, community connections, political factors, historical influences, pedagogies, government authorities, climate factors, technology, infrastructure etc. etc. etc. 

It becomes clear that typical systems thinking when applied to whole school efforts related to culture are going to require a theoretical approach capable of explaining this level of complexity. Thinking and reading about complexity theory opens a number of questions for me. The degree of complexity or organisational scale required for applicability of the theory within a system seems to make it relevant to change at a whole school level (Mason, 2008) and particularly to cultural change. 

Complexity theory points towards the importance of exploring the interactions between the intentions and effects of agents within organisations and reveals that the exponential scaling of these connections brings greater degrees of complexity than may be managed or readily understood. The question is at which point does the level of complexity within an organisation produce relevant degrees of unpredictability? or at what point does the level of complexity become too great to predict reliably the outcome of any change effort. Evaluating this is made more complex as the number of agents and constituent elements within an organisation also seem to defy simple measures. It is unlikely that each agent (human or other such as a mandated curriculum or piece of infrastructure) acts with true independence. Collectives of individuals and closely connected elements (a curriculum that requires a particular pedagogy) may be best seen as single actors within a network with effect sizes not always directly related to the number of component parts. The total number of actors and influencers within even complex systems may be significantly less than what a simple calculation estimates and yet the net effect of all of these factors remains difficult to predict.

Taken simplistically there could be a feeling that due to the complexity of large systems change becomes an uncontrollable beast with a mind of its own. 

If change can only occur where every element of the organisation is continually shaped through ‘massive interventions at all levels’ (Mason, 2008 p43) and even with intense effort the inertial momentum of the organisation means change is hard achieved, how can we hope to negotiate times which require ongoing, rapid change? This then seems to be the challenge confronting schools as the societies in which they exist appear to be racing towards ever greater levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, change becomes the norm and yet change management seems to be increasingly ruled by chaotic drivers. . 

Mason does offer some hope:

‘despite complexity theory’s relative inability to predict the direction or nature of change, by implementing at each constituent level changes whose outcome we can predict with reasonable confidence, we are at least influencing change in the appropriate direction’ (Mason, 2008 p46)

This is perhaps why most change management strategists choose to keep to a more technical rationalist perspective at least early in the change process. The plan put forward by most change analysts centres on placing faith in the establishment of conditions which are conducive to change. By approaching both the small details and the bigger picture thinking of vision and purpose with rational thought and a well-informed plan the hope is that the initial momentum moves the organisation at least somewhat in the desired direction. As the process moves forward it becomes feasible to allow ideas to emerge from within At this stage it is hoped that continuous gentle steering of the change in the desired direction will produce the desired effect. This requires organisations to be open to embracing or tolerating a degree of chaos along the way and being open to unpredictable elements and acts. If it all goes well the organisation will be able to navigate towards a desired goal and be ready for the next challenging change. It is also likely that the whole effort can be derailed by a combination of factors which could not have been predicted or planned for. 

Looking to a hybridized model of complexity theory, humanist approaches and technical rationalist perspectives the appeal of design thinking approaches comes to the fore. In its flexibility and structure founded on a desire to understand the human factors within change it seems to offer a workable solution that can scale. I like that it is a process driven by questions and accepting of failure through rapid prototyping and that it is a cycle with no beginning and no end. It includes scope for input from multiple sources and indicates the importance of feedback and reflection on both the results and process. It also has sufficient flexibility to include elements of systems analysis of an organisation where the interactions between agents are included in the response. 

Daniel Wilson of Harvard’s Project Zero speaking in Melbourne noted that designers achieve greater success with complex problems than others. Designers have a capacity due to their thinking dispositions to cope with complexity and to adapt solutions as needed while working towards a vision or shared goal. Daniel indicates that complex situations, such as those which schools increasingly confront as a result of rapid change and previously unencountered challenges, require emergence as a path to solutions. A bubbling forth of ideas which may be transformed into plans and drivers of change from all areas of an organisation is seen as the best approach to change where the answers do not exist and cannot be passed down from above. 

By Nigel Coutts

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

Why might we want to learn Digital Technologies?

 Understanding the “Why” of any initiative should be a key step prior to implementation. Without a clear understanding of our “Why” how are we to judge the success of what we are implementing. How will we know which steps take us in the right direction if we have no concept of why we are journeying. In our implementation of ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) and now Digital Technologies, a lack of clarity on the matter of “Why" has often been the most significant challenge to success. 

While it is an unavoidable reality that technology has changed our society, is continuing to bring transformation to all aspects of our lives and our workplaces and that this is a pattern unlikely to change, the place that education should play in education continues as a somewhat grey area. To dabble on the fringes of the false-dichotomy, the use of ICT is to either facilitate learning or it is content, skills and tools that students must master. 

Hammond outlines the perceived benefits of ICT integration to schools as being linked to positive impact on standards, vocational relevance and as a catalyst for curriculum change. In each instance Hammond argues that research does not indicate that ICT has met these goals. Perhaps the most interesting observation is found in the statement, 'In particular, the use of ICT has been unquestioned, policy has focused on adoption rather than pedagogy, and beliefs about ICT are characterised by determinism’. The unquestioned adoption of technology fueled by those who are passionate about its use has led to forced integration of technology and an expanding educational technology marketplace with little real thought given to its purposes. 

Educational technology for much of its short history seems to have been stuck between the two dominant models of education with a foot in the content delivery camp and one in the constructivist, student centered one. Technologies such as Interactive Whiteboards and Learning Management Systems (LMS) may bring new affordances, but if their use remains consistent with traditional pedagogical models of the teacher delivering content then their ultimate value is limited. For many the use of ICT has centered around its use in ways that are designed to bring learners and the curriculum's prescribed content together with perhaps some option for online discussion. LMS options and online courses presented in parallel to face to face learning scenarios offer little real differentiation and the value add of the technology can be minimal. 

There are some significant forces changing the landscape of teaching with technology and this is reflected in a bifurcation of the curriculum into two strands. Information & Communication Technologies continue to play their part as a tool for learning and for communication. Alongside this there is an increasing understanding that mainstream curriculums need to provide learners with the capacity to be producers of digital solutions. 

In the traditional areas of technology use, what has traditionally been labelled as ICT, the maturity of present day operating systems and devices has removed most of the barriers to use that existed previously and today we have systems that allow the technology to move to the background. The modern learner expects technology to just work and to be designed in ways that allow the user to quickly master its interface. In the modern world of low cost Apps, if you design a product that requires a manual or that has a steep learning curve you are bound to fail in the market. The evolution of technology from ‘geek toy’ to mainstream consumer device has allowed teachers to focus on the learning enabled by the devices rather than devoting significant time to learning the technology. 

This does not mean that the use of ICT is without challenges. With the ease of use has come the challenge of how we manage the potential of modern devices to distract us from other tasks. Educators face the challenge of teaching students to take control of their technology use, to manage screen time and to avoid the lure of social media and gaming. New dangers have emerged as a result of our connectedness and the social world of our young people has been transformed. Our young people need to learn how to manage their online profile and avoid the very real threat of being exploited by adults. In the pre-digital world, the social blunders we made were mostly contained to a small circle of possible connections. Today we learn the norms of society in a very public setting and our mistakes linger on as our ever-present digital footprint. 

At the other end of the spectrum we see an increased understanding that the solutions we create, to solve the problems we encounter will demand knowledge of the possibilities of digital technologies. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, physical computing using Arduino and other system on a chip models merge with cultures of making and small scale manufacturing processes to bring new affordances that shift learning beyond content transfer. This is not technology as a tool for learning content or skills that were traditionally taught by a teacher but technology as the product of our problem solving.

It is right to question the validity of teaching all students this new Digital Technology. The automobile transformed society but we did not teach all students to be mechanics. Why should all students learn to code or be taught to solve problems through computational thinking? Perhaps the answer lies in the breath of change that comes with Digital Technology. Every aspect of our modern life is set to be disrupted in some way by the continued expansion of technology. In particular, it will become increasingly normal for technology to be blended into our working lives and a future where our workmates include machines is predicted to be the norm. Our infrastructure (electrical supplies, traffic networks, financial systems etc.) is largely built on now outdated technology and the systems which control it are increasingly susceptible to malfeasance and this will require new thinking if the chaos of disrupted systems is to be avoided. It is also very much the case that the next evolution of the products and systems we rely on will involve a shift to digital systems and those who are able to design these systems will be able to reap the rewards. 

Perhaps the logic for understanding at least a little of how digital technology functions is that it will exist increasingly in the background.  Our world view is already largely shaped by the algorithms which function behind the scenes to control what platforms like Facebook and all the large online media platforms put in front of our eyeballs. That the potential to alter the outcomes of an election through the manipulation of algorithms which modify the news cycle and shape public opinion is a reality points to the importance of understanding how digital technologies function.

 By Nigel Coutts

Hammond, M. (2014), Introducing ICT in schools in England: Rationale and consequences. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45: 191–201. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12033

Debating false dichotomies: a new front in the education wars

Sometimes, it seems everyone who ever went to school is an expert on education and has a plan to make it better. Actual teaching experience, years of professional learning and formal training are all easily swept aside. The result is an ongoing dialog around what schools should do, what teachers need to do more of or less of and how the academic success of the nation is linked to strategy x or y. In search of an easy sell, our illustrious media machine is more than happy to run with whatever story seems to fit the current mood of their readership. The one criteria is a catchy headline and an easy scapegoat. A quick sound bite from an ‘expert’, a brief extract from the latest report by whichever industry group has most recently discovered education and you’re done. No need to actually visit a classroom, talk to a teacher or confuse your readers with the subtle complexity that surrounds every issue within education.  

In the eyes of the media any issue can be depicted as a battle between two competing points of view. Little seems to have changed in media land since the invention of the good versus evil plot line. In any field that strives to meet the needs of real people and real communities such a simplistic view will always fall well short of capturing the truth. In education, the false dichotomies created by the media and perpetuated by those who are unwilling or unable to take a deeper look, do nothing but harm. 

The Sydney Morning Herald has contained numerous examples of articles which present education as a contested field where sides are taken and lines are drawn. The most recent version carries the headline 'Hard facts v soft skills: a new front in the education wars’. Sorry, but the last time I was in a school there was no war going on. Indeed, even when you fill a room full of teachers from diverse backgrounds, nationalities and contexts, there is now ‘war’.  

The article depicts and dramatises a debate that does occur in education. Should teachers focus on skills and dispositions or should they focus on knowledge? There is a tension here that articles such as this perpetuate through fear mongering and oversimplification. There are those who believe that there is a trend away from teaching students knowledge, a shift away from content based curriculums. There are also those who believe that there is a trend away from teaching skills and dispositions such as creativity, critical thinking and communication. That this debate exists at all and that it has been allowed to continue does nothing to help our students.  

The supposed war between hard facts and soft skills is a dramatic oversimplification of a conversation that needs to occur in schools, with educational leaders, between curriculum writers and with politicians. Approached with an appreciation of the possibility of a response that lies neither at the poles of this supposed debate nor neatly in the middle allows for a conversation that has genuine merit. A conversation that reflects more closely how teachers have dealt with this tension and in doing so serve the needs of their learners. 

Our students require now, as perhaps they have for a long time, skills and dispositions which will allow them to find and solve problems, deal with complexity and ambiguity and communicate their ideas with clarity. Knowledge may not have the value and power that it once did in times before Google, but being devoid of knowledge is a state of being no-one would argue for. Skills or knowledge alone have little real world value. Intelligence is being able to use what you know in new ways and to solve new problems.  

The framing of the headline of this article is likely to result in a string of arguments on the side; distractions which only confuse the matter and give credence to the imagined ‘war'. There are those who see the term ‘soft skills’ as a devaluing of what are otherwise described as essential skills, capabilities or capacities required for success. They are skills which are complex and take great effort to master. The term ‘hard knowledge’ implies some level of fundamental truth in the knowledge or an essential value in the particular knowledges involved. There is almost an implication that there is an agreed to body of knowledge that all people should possess despite the very obvious fact that we can only ever hope to encounter a tiny fraction of all that might be worth knowing to us as individuals let alone all that is known. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, we will always have more unknown unknowns than known knowns.  

The supposed debate dissolves when we understand that it is not only preferable to teach knowledge and skills/dispositions together but that it is an entirely achievable goal. When we use content as a vehicle for developing skills and dispositions we provide our students with opportunities to understand that content in ways not possible through rote memorisation. When we engage our students in critical and creative thinking with and about the knowledge we value we allow them to develop their dispositions while expanding their knowledge banks. By giving purpose and context to the knowledge we teach, when we expect our students to be able to use the knowledge they have in meaningful ways and we assess not just what they can remember but what they can do with it with we provide students with the rich and subtly nuanced education they deserve.  

What education needs is a new narrative. One with complex characters and subtle plot lines. A mature narrative written for an audience that understand that the hero can have a dark side and that the truth is always more than just a little bit messy. We need the media to try a little harder, to dig a little deeper and present a view of education more rooted in the truth of what happens in schools and reveals the many ways educators are meeting the needs of their students. As educators, we have a responsibility to let our voice be heard, to speak truth to power and advocate for a profession that is valued for its expertise in the field most important for our future.   

By Nigel Coutts

Bringing Computational Thinking into the Primary Classroom

Primary teachers in New South Wales (NSW) are this year and next integrating a new Science & Technology Curriculum. It brings with it a number of challenges and opportunities and while it has much in common with the existing curriculum, it will require some significant changes.

The new curriculum is a response to the launch of the Australian Curriculum’s Digital Technologies syllabus. While the use of technology in Primary Schools was once restricted to the use of consumer products by students as they research, engage with media in various forms, publish their learning and use basic spreadsheet functions, the times have changed. Students now require much from their technology learning. Being a consumer of technology, being able to use basic productivity software and even knowing how to create multimedia items is no longer sufficient. Today’s student needs to understand how technology can be leveraged to solve problems and create unique products and services. 

The result is a syllabus that embraces Digital Technologies and computational thinking. In NSW the K-6 setting embraces Digital Technologies as a content strand alongside studies of Earth & Space, Living, Material and Physical Worlds. It presents key ideas from computer science, information systems and software engineering along with the skills and ideas of project management. According to the syllabus:

The Digital Technologies strand provides students with opportunities to investigate existing technologies and create digital solutions. They explore the automation of repetitive tasks through developing their own software and by using existing software packages. Through knowledge and understanding of digital technologies, students are encouraged to become critical consumers of information and creative producers of digital solutions. (NESA. 2017)

Along with Digital Technology, students are asked to become computational thinkers. Students are required to engage in problem solving tasks while leveraging a computation thinking model where a task is broken down into parts, relevant data is analysed, patterns are found and step by step solutions are outlined. The syllabus defines this as:

Computational thinking is a process where a problem is analysed and solved so that a human, machine or computer can effectively implement the solution. It involves using strategies to organise data logically, break down problems into parts, interpret patterns and design and implement algorithms to solve problems. (NESA. 2017)

For teachers, this all brings some interesting challenges. The average teacher has little experience with this style of thinking. Indeed, many are still getting their heads around the sort of computer use required for the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) capability. it is worth exploring then what is meant by Computations Thinking and how it might be introduced. 
Perhaps the place to start is with an understanding that computational thinking does not require a computer, or computer code. As the definition from the syllabus states it is a “process where the problem is analysed and solved so that human, machine, or computer can effectively implement the solution”. It is fair to say that the average Kindergarten students spend much of their school day engaged in a form of computational thinking as they learn the many steps required to survive the day, a long string of “If. . . Then . . .” statements. If the bell rings, stop playing and line up for class. If the teacher sings "one, two, three, eyes on me” reply “one, two, eyes on you”. The list goes on. Indeed, when looked at as the method for clarifying the steps to be taken to complete a process in simple terms that even a machine can understand it becomes much easier to see how it might fit into our existing methods for problem solving.

We have been doing this sort of thinking for a long time and long before machines or computers got involved. By adding numerical data to the simple workflows that our kindergarten student use we add a degree of complexity but the task remains very manageable. The doorman at the average cinema does this when he/she counts people through the door and closes it when the theatre is full. It might look like this in CT language: If cinema is empty - open door. If 200 people enter cinema, close door.
Computational thinking takes this sort of step by step workflow and weaponises it as a tool for analysing and solving complex problems. 
There are commonly four essential thinking moves associated with computational thinking. Understanding the role that each plays in solving a problem begins to demystify the process. It is not some magical secret process understood only by geeks with a slide rule and an understanding of binary. The four elements are:

  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
  • Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
  • Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems

It might be useful to consider a set of questions to be used when engaging in computational thinking, something like this perhaps:

  • What do we know about what is going on here? - What data do we have/need?
  • What are the parts of the problems? What conditions emerge that we must respond to?
  • What patterns do we notice? What stands out to us?
  • What big idea might explain the patterns? Moving from parts to wholes
  • What steps might we take as we respond to each situation we encounter?

Computational thinking does not need to be made overly complicated. Once the basics are grasped then it becomes sensible to ask how our step by step process for solving a problem might be automated and that path might lead us to the inclusion of a machine or computer. As students become comfortable with designing clearly articulated and creatively imagined step by step solutions, they can begin to develop increasingly sophisticated and complex workflows using their developing skills for computational thinking. With an understanding of what computational thinking is, students can move to block coding systems as a substitute for their non-digital methods and in time move to developing solutions which might eventually be expressed in code.

By beginning with an understanding of what computational thinking is, what it looks like and how it is used by people to solve problems we ensure students are equipped with the foundational knowledge they need in what is increasingly a digital world. 

By Nigel Coutts

The learner's role in their search for learning

In ‘The Spirit of Professional Learning’, Tina Blythe utilises the metaphor of searching for driftwood on a beach to describe the process of connecting learning opportunities with our particular needs. The beach wanderer passes by many items which do not meet their needs. Only a few of the pieces of detritus will fit the wanderers needs, maybe fitting into a particular project or perhaps offering enough possibility to be collected for one yet to be imagined. For the professional learner, the journey is the same. They engage with many ideas, strategies and solutions, but only a few are implemented or saved for future use.

“Sometimes, I go to the beach and I know exactly what I’m looking for: sea glass of a certain color, shells of a particular shape or size. Sometimes, I see something that catches my eye, and I’ll pick it up and bring it home, even though I’m not sure at that moment what I’m going to do with it. - you never bring home the whole beach.”  
Tina Blythe

I particularly connect with this metaphor of searching for driftwood. It points to the role that the life-long learner plays in the process of learning. Rather than expecting to be immersed in learning that shines a light on the path forward the notion of searching for driftwood that suits the learner’s needs is very empowering. It requires an imagining of learning as a very active process where the learner is aware of their context, their current understanding and what they might need to move forward. It demands a conscious practice of reflection and a disposition towards taking charge of one’s learning. It is a very agentic view where learning is something that you do, not something that happens to you. 

It also connects very nicely with how I use Twitter. There is a small ocean of ideas available on Twitter and one could never hope to read, let alone embrace every good idea that passes by. A small number of the ideas that are encountered will seem to fit perfectly with what you need. Others might challenge your thinking and encourage you to look at something from a fresh perspective. Some posts and threads are best ignored; freedom of speech was never meant to come with a guaranteed audience. I like Twitter most when it hints at a question, when it leaves me wondering why and wanting to know more.

This metaphor of searching for driftwood extends my understanding of the role of the facilitator, particularly in professional learning. If the learner’s role is to search for and collect what they need then the facilitators role is to make that process possible. If as a facilitator I demand that the learner accepts what I offer, then I take away the possibility for them to find what they need. The facilitator's role is one of supporting the learner in their process of making meaning, finding what they need and valuing what they find. An effective facilitator relies on great questions that encourage reflection, not a pool of knowledge. Rethinking the role of the facilitator helps me see the value in a question like ‘What makes YOU say that?’; not as a test of understanding but as a way of helping the learner clarify how they arrived at the statement or belief that they have shared; a prompt for a very personal reflection on thinking and a question for the benefit of the learner.

What I find challenging in this, is how such a learner centered notion of facilitation and professional learning fits with how many people seem to view learning. If our only experience of learning is traditional teacher led learning, then it is very natural to expect all learning to be like this. This experience hard wires our thinking about the process of learning and shapes our expectations for what the learning experience will be like. If I expect the teacher to teach and me to thusly learn, how will I ever become a self-navigating life-long learner.

The challenge is how might we shift the learner’s mindset from a view of learning as a consequence of the actions of another, to a process that we are in charge of.

by Nigel Coutts