Educators as Agents for Educational Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

The Eight Cultural Forces - The lens & the lever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

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

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

A pedagogy for Cultural Understanding & Human Empathy

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

- Noam Chomsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nigel Coutts

For those about to make a resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source -  The Oatmeal

Source - The Oatmeal


By Nigel Coutts

Holiday Reading - Christmas 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CallingAllMinds_TempleGrandin.jpeg

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