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My school has entered into a Cultures of Thinking Rounds partnership with Mark Church and Ron Ritchhart (authors of Making Thinking Visible and connected to Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education). This is a hybrid profesional learning model based on the Cultures of Thinking work and Instructional Rounds.

The aim is to strengthen our efforts to create a school-wide culture of thinking, specifically by providing a structured way to receive feedback from critical friends, and our school has been paired up with Pymble Ladies College for this purpose.

Our school team is drawn from three departments and these three teams have been considering their targets of advancement (puzzles that they have about the development of thinking in their students). Their three puzzles that have emerged are as follows:

Prep – If we modelled how to pose probing questions and provided opportunities for groups to work towards a common goal, would our students move beyond surface learning and engage in deeper thinking?

Science – If we adjust the types of questions we ask, would deep thinking/thoughts be encouraged in our students along with student discussion of ideas?

Maths – If we give students opportunities to get stuck, model how to get unstuck and make potential pitfalls explicit, will students develop greater independence when solving problems in Mathematics?

The next steps are for us to visit PLC and observe their teaching through the Rounds process, helping them document and progress towards solutions for their own puzzles. The PLC teachers will then come to our school and reciprocate.

I think this might be the best professional learning model I have seen. Teachers from my school are collaboratively working in teams to identify problems with their practice, we are working in partnership with another school, and it is ongoing throughout the year.

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I attend lots of meetings. Most of them waste my time. I sit through animated discussions about the sorts of shoes students should be allowed to wear, about administrative procedures, and about things that don’t involve or affect me. Most of the time I listen to someone else talking.

On our staff days I no longer use the word ‘meeting’, instead calling it staff learning time.

Stephen Harris has blogged about the high cost of meetings.

Many find it incredibly difficult to move beyond the top-down agenda to run a meeting. I believe that every time we think it is important enough for educators to come together, we should be coming together to learn, and our time together needs to be clearly designed for this.

Effective methods I have found to achieve this include:

The use of protocols
The use of thinking routines
Gallery walks
Design thinking
Unconference approaches like TeachMeets
I also like walking meetings. Everytime I host a guest at our school we walk around the school and talk as we are going.

There are some simple things to look for to determine the effectiveness of team learning time. How many people speak? Who dominates? Who doesn’t speak? Who leads the conversation? Does this change? What is being discussed? What sort of questions are asked and what happens to these questions? How are students discussed? What artefacts are produced?

Sometimes I will attend subject department ‘meetings’ and take a transcript of the meeting, which I use for a later coaching conversation with the Head of Department.

I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas to improve team learning time.

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Sick and tired of hearing colleagues tell me that they can’t do this or can’t do that in their teaching because of NSW Board of Studies-imposed requirements, yesterday I phoned our Liaison Officer and asked what the reality is.

She made three very interesting comments:

“The Board of Studies does not require a number to be used (in relation to assessment) until Year 12.”

“School protocols squash the reality of what the Board requires out of sight.”

“Grading is an end of course judgement.”

Now, how do I communciate this to my colleagues?

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“Our current system does not reward creativity or cater to the diversity of skills and abilities. What it does reward are formulaic learners.” (Year 12 student, SMH, October 2009)

Five years ago our annual Year 10 Film Festival was born. Adopting the principles of project-based learning, in small groups, over the course of a school week, students produce a short digital story. The content focus for the project is creativity, communication, collaboration, and independence. The aim is to provide a significant interdisciplinary culminating task to Year 10 and to develop students’ independence. The trust the school places in students for this week is significant and is an essential element of the week. The film festival has become a rite of passage between Year 10 and the senior years of school.

Early in Term Four, students are asked to mind-map some ideas in response to the topic. Past topics have included: ‘a future-focused challenge’, ‘building good men’, but we have found most success with a broad, generic topic that appeals to Year 10 students and allows them considerable scope to exercise creativity. In recent years we have used ‘What Matters?’ and ‘Who Cares?’ Some students get frustrated with the open nature of the question, but most appreciate the scope to choose to respond in any way they want. We also always have a small object which we ask students to somehow include in their films as well, just for fun, similar to Tropfest, such as: a dot, a rock, a feather, a key, a paperclip.

The festival is officially opened by an inspirational guest, such as Bruce Davey (the Oscar winning producer of Braveheart, Apocalyto, and The Passion of the Christ), or a parent, such as documentary producer Stephen Van Mil, or Paul Friedman producer of Caught Inside. Following the official opening, students are briefed on how to design a good digital story, and individual and team responsibilities are outlined for the week. Jason Ohler’s Digital Storytelling in the Classroom (2007) is a particularly useful resource. Teachers run workshops on script-writing, digital storytelling, and camera work for students to attend. These workshops are reconsidered annually and adjusted based on feedback from the students.

Students are shown a wide range of short films to get them thinking about the importance of a good story. Popular exemplar films include: “Where the hell is Matt?”, “Mankind is no island”, and “Mr W.” Students also view the winning films from previous years. Equipment, such as cameras, is available from the school for students to borrow, however most end up using their own equipment from home.

Attendance at school is then voluntary for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, although the school library and computer labs are reserved and supervised for any groups to use as they like. Students often find school an easy location to meet, and they take advantage of the equipment available and the expertise of various library and ICT staff. All of the decisions about how they work and what they create are up to them. Some groups choose to work intensely on Monday and Tuesday so they can have free time on Wednesday and Thursday. Other groups have to work around sporting, service and co-curricular commitments. Some groups find all of the time in the week is needed to prepare their film. It is essential to the success of the week that students are able to make their own choices about how they utilise their time and the sort of film that they want to produce.

For the past two years I have required all groups to have a check-in on Wednesday. This year we used the Tuning protocol to give them some feedback on their film idea. While getting the groups together at school on Wednesday does tend to improve the overall quality of the end products, the students resent this check-in, arguing that it interrupts their filming time, and the feedback comes too late to make a difference. Next year I might try a gallery walk of their initial ideas on Monday afternoon and just set them free from Tuesday to Thursday.

The hardest aspect is ensuring that each group works together. I allocate groups of five students, based on common themes that appear in their mind-maps. The students are not aware of this so the allocation appears quite random to them. I also place the students who seem anti the entire film festival concept in the same group, and interestingly, they typically produce one of the best films. Student feedback always suggests that group composition is an issue for them and they would much rather choose who to work with. I have been hesitant as I worry that groups of friends will find more excuses to goof off, but given the strong and regular feedback about this from students, next year I will allow students to have some say in who they work with.

Some form of team-building exercise seems essential on the first day, but I have not found the best way to do this yet. Last year I had every group attempt the marshmallow challenge on the first day on the school oval as a team-building exercise. While I thought it worked effectively, the students did not like doing it and reported that it was a waste of time. Feedback from students also indicates that they feel that teams of four would be more effective. They argue that in teams of five, one person seems to end up not doing much. I will try teams of four next year, although my concern is that if one person is away, a team of three is insufficient, and this means 50 films to view rather than 40!

On Friday, all students, many teachers, and some parents come together in an auditorium to watch the 40 or so films and the awarding of the prizes. A panel of three judges assesses each film using a rubric based on creativity and communication. There are always a couple of Year 10 students on the panel, often with considerable digital skills. A teacher is on the panel, and parents with film industry experience have sometimes been available as well. The Headmaster awards prizes (iTunes vouchers) for the top three films. There is also a people’s choice award and a creativity award.

The atmosphere in the auditorium at the close of school on the Friday, on the last day of term before work experience and camp week, is always uplifting. The students take great pleasure in viewing each other’s work and the top films are replayed at the conclusion. The top three films are placed on the school Clickview video system and replayed regularly in Tutor groups and Housemeetings. Endless discussions ensue about which films were the best. Top films have included stories about: homelessness, courage, the environment, the impact on a soldier returning from war, and a humorous send-up of ‘Bondi Rescue’. In the past we have allowed students to use popular music as a soundtrack and even cut and paste short clips from YouTube as long as they acknowledge the sources. However, this use of others’ work does make it difficult for us to promote the best films to a wider audience and it might be time for us to consider asking students to produce entirely original films.

The week finishes with students writing brief reflections. Typically the students love the freedom to work outside normal school hours, the fun, creative vibe to the whole week, the trust and responsibility they are granted, and the opportunity to build teamwork and develop their leadership skills with their peers.

“I learned that the school trusts us to make our own choices.” (Christian)

“I liked the atmosphere. It was always positive and it made it enjoyable.” (Will)

“I liked the freedom that we were granted during the week: it meant we could be more creative without restrictions.” (Lucas)

“I liked how we actually did something for the whole week rather than sit in class doing nothing.” (Lincoln)

“I wish we could do this every year.” (Ollie)

“We had a lot of freedom. Nothing felt like we had to do it, more like we wanted to.” (Harry)

The reaction from parents is always interesting. In the first year one parent insisted that we should make attendance compulsory and that we should give the films a mark out of ten to make the students take it seriously. More recently one or two parents have expressed concern early in the week that their son doesn’t seem to be doing much. By and large, however, by the end of the week, most parents appreciate the value when they observe how much their son has enjoyed the process.

The driving educational goal for the week is the attempt to make learning compulsory and attendance optional, and the principles of PBL are woven throughout the week with the inquiry process, the driving question, voice and choice, revision and reflection, and the public audience. Other thoughts for next year include getting some students to help plan the week and using the school portal or social media to enhance communication.

While I have always used elements of project-based learning in my teaching, the two elements that really stand out to me as being crucial are: opportunities for revision and reflection, and a public audience. Ron Berger’s work on developing a culture of critique is powerful and ‘Austin’s butterfly’ demonstrates this superbly. As a teacher I often forget the power of an authentic audience for my students, something I have been endeavouring to rectify lately. Last year my Year 9 history students wrote a historical novel, illustrated by Year 6 students, and I have developed global projects with classes in Turkey and the USA which provide my students with a global audience.

I have now found several colleagues who share an interest in PBL. Working collaboratively with a colleague in the History department has improved my own ideas, spread PBL to a wider audience, and developed interest amongst other teachers as well. The PBL Australia conference at Parramatta Marist was a catalyst for some of our staff, including my Headmaster. Next year our staff biennial conference will focus on PBL. I intend to formalise my adoption of PBL in my own teaching in my Year 9 History class, with a World War One unit titled ‘Best We Forget’, a World War Two unit which examines whether the Aussies were in fact any good at Kokoda, and a popular culture unit which examines protest and the counter-culture movement. I am also beginning to scheme how to use the new cross-curriculum priorities to develop school-wide week-long PBL units to wrap-up Years 7-9. All of Year 7 could spend a week on Asia, all of Year 8 could spend a week on sustainability, and all of Year 9 could spend a week on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

None of these ideas would have come to fruitition if it was not for my Twitter connection with Bianca Hewes. She has done more to promote PBL amongst educators than anyone and I conclude by expressing my appreciation for her intellectual commitment to PBL and her willing open and sharing approach with educators from around the globe. Thank you.


Ohler, J. (2007). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, and creativity. Hawker Brownlow.

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This week’s questions for #rhizo14:

How do we embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?

Uncertainty in learning is a wonderful opportunity for the teacher. Eleanor Duckworth (2006) uses the powerful metaphor of the construction of a tower. A tall tower can be built quickly, but one built on a broad base or with deep foundations takes longer to construct. Students who come to depend on narrow, easy success will struggle to learn. To learn is to be confused, to fail frequently and to try again until success occurs. Confusion and conflict are needed in order to learn, and failure is a necessary building block for ultimate success. Thinking is difficult and doubt is the basis of all good thinking. Exploring wrong ideas is always productive. A wrong idea corrected provides far more depth than if one never had a wrong idea to begin with. By considering alternatives and working through them, learners come to master the idea much more thoroughly.

“Teachers are often…impatient for their students to develop clear and adequate ideas. But putting ideas in relation to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for our confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that give significance to our knowledge.” (Duckworth, 2006, p. 81)

Duckworth, E. (2006). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Enforced Independence

Posted by: | January 24, 2014 | No Comment |

This week in #rhizo14 Dave Cormier asks more brilliant questions,

“How do we create a learning environment where people must be responsible? How do we assure ourselves that learners will self-assess and self-remediate?”

Dave presents an interesting attempt at achieving this in his own class, but much of his suggestion is not possible under the systemic structures many of us operate under.

Anything we can do to reduce the power of the teacher has to assist moving the locus towards learner independence. My attempts in this direction seem quite pathetic when I reflect on them.

Two quick examples I can think of are: I never put a mark/grade on student work unless I am directly required to by policy and students often act as scribes in class, writing their peers’ suggestions/responses on the whiteboard (this is an attempt to take the role of the teacher out of the equation).

Ideally I would like to achieve a culture where the students in my classes become autonomous and I make myself redundant. I’m very gradually getting better at this, but I’m still nowhere near succeeding.

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When is Cheating Learning?

Posted by: | January 20, 2014 | 2 Comments |

Dave Cormier has asked fascinating questions to open #rhizo14

When is cheating learning? How can you use cheating as a weapon?

Teachers all over the world have had to accept the compromise of focusing more on test-taking than learning. Students become obsessed with their marks and competition buries the sort of social interaction that is essential for the construction of knowledge. It is contradictory to expect students to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who all do as they are told. As Howard Zinn claimed, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.”

I like the story of the Australian heart surgeon who became so frustrated at seeing the impact of smoking on the operating table that he subversively joined the graffiti group BUGAUP (Billboard Utilising Grafitti-ists Against Unhealthy Promotions) in his spare time, as he felt he would have more success preventing heart disease in this way: Billboard bandits

The Australian SAS have a policy of disciplining candidates caught cheating on their selection course, but lauding candidates who cheat and get away without being caught. A bit like the ancient Spartans, effective cheating is seen as an admirable skill to develop.

Maybe the best teachers cheat the system.

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Forging New Pedagogies

Posted by: | December 14, 2013 | 2 Comments |

“We are forging new pedagogies.” (Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds)

After completing a 12-week course that taught me how to flatten my classroom walls and design successful global collaborative projects, I am now a Flat Connections Global Educator (I think that’s the correct terminology?)!

In this course, I met a very supportive cohort of wonderful educators from around the world, as we were encouraged and cajoled by the inspirational Julie Lindsay. Julie is a wonderful teacher and she takes great delight in sharing her knowledge and helping others learn. She has adopted a mentoring role with me and she and I will be co-presenting on ‘global competence’ at ISTE14 in Atlanta.

In the course, I really enjoyed the focus on student voice and choice, digital citizenship, learning spaces, and the celebration of learning milestones. I found the co-created project for teachers challenging, as my competence with video is low, but it was sure worthwhile to see how my students might struggle with assigned tasks, and also how I could construct tasks more tightly.

My final project design idea was for a World War II History project. The aim is to record people’s memories of what it was like to live during World War II and to compare and contrast these memories across different countries. I am particularly keen to establish contacts with countries that Australia has a contested history with, like Japan or Vietnam.

My aims in undertaking the course were firstly for my own learning, but secondly to help prepare me for the 2014 Flat Connections Conference, which we are hosting at my school in Sydney. Educators and students will be coming together from across the globe to learn how to lower classroom walls and connect with the world. The theme of the conference is ‘What’s the other story?’ and it will explore alternative learning approaches, share stories that break stereotypes, and generate new thinking towards more interactive and collaborative approaches. We hope to see you and your students at the Flat Connections Conference 2014

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I learned the importance of getting different views of historical events, from both sides.

I liked the music at the start of every period because it hinted at and introduced what we would be doing that lesson, eg. “Turning Japanese”

I wish that classes were longer since they are so fun.

I wonder why we have exams?

Here are some of the words that appeared on their posters summarising key concepts for the year: thinking time, music, evidence, awesome, propaganda, fun, collaboration, teamwork, sharing, working together, peer review, feedback, global connections, groupwork, brainstorming, humour.

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Ideas and Innovation

Posted by: | November 23, 2013 | No Comment |

The staff at our school are reading one of four books over the summer holidays.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about generating breakthroughs and the patterns behind innovation. The keys are: developing slow hunches over time (as opposed to sudden Eureka moments), connected minds are smarter than lone thinkers, where you think is crucial, and the best ideas come from building on the ideas of others.

In Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner contends that the disruptive nature of innovation creates challenges to traditional authority, and teachers need to give up a measure of their authority and control. The authority that matters is not the authority that comes with a position or title and the word ‘coach’ describes this new kind of authority at its best.

“Can those of us who have positional authority develop this kind of earned and enabling authority? Can our institutions of learning and work recognize and promote a new kind of authority? Can we move from top-down, compliance-based systems of accountability in our schools to forms of accountability that are more face-to-face – reciprocal and relational? And, finally, are we prepared to not merely tolerate but to welcome and celebrate the kinds of questioning, disruption, and even disobedience that come with innovation?” (Tony Wagner)

In Educating Gen Wi-fi, Greg Whitby claims that there is no longer a wrong and right way to learn, and no longer a single model of teaching. He argues for portfolio learning, flexible learning spaces, and creating networks of teachers – teams who get together to plan, discuss and share.

In Bringing Innovation to School, Suzie Boss makes the case for design thinking, the use of physical space, gaming for learning, and using networks for innovation.

“When teachers are fine-tuning project plans, they can use rapid prototyping to invite feedback (from colleagues, outside experts, and students), make adjustments, and then see what happens during implementation. Projects will get better with each iteration if teachers make a habit of reflecting on what worked, what didn’t, and how they can improve on the plan next time around. When they approach curriculum design this way, they’re modelling what it means to think and work like an innovator.” (Suzie Boss)

Common themes that emerge from these four books are: the importance of connecting and building on the ideas of others; a leadership paradigm of coaching as opposed to a top-down compliance model; learning spaces for thinking; working in teams to plan, discuss, and share; and approaching curriculum design as an innovator.

These ideas frame the conversations that our staff will be having to kick-off 2014.

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