Question-Centred Classrooms

In Seymour Saracen’s 1970s book, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (pp. 105-106), he noted:

  1. Teachers ask between 45-120 questions per half-hour.
    2. The same teachers estimate that they ask between 12-20 questions per half-hour.
    3. Between 67 to 95% of all teacher questions require straight recall from the student.
    4. Every half an hour two questions are typically asked by children in the class.
    5. The greater the tendency for a teacher to ask straight recall questions, the fewer the questions initiated by children.
    6. The more a teacher asks personally relevant questions, the more questions students ask in class.
    7. These results do not vary across IQ level or social class.

Yet Scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi claims that his mother made him a scientist without ever intending to. When every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: “So? Did you learn anything today?” His mother would ask, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” Asking good questions made him become a scientist.

Fast-forward to today and in Ewan McIntosh’s TED talk he speaks about developing problem finders rather than problem-solvers, and now Project Zero’s Ron Ritchhart asks, “What if the culture of the classroom was question-centred?”

The Question Formulation Technique

Inviting questions in class is not the same as intentionally teaching the skill of designing good questions. The Question Formulation Technique offers a considered way to help students foster this essential learning skill. Teaching question design can help successful students to go deeper in their thinking and encourage struggling students to develop new enthusiasm for learning.

I usually introduce the Question Formulation Technique in one of the first lessons of the year. By introducing it early, I’m trying to make a statement that questions are more important than answers in my class and that it is OK to ask questions that we might not know the answers to. It is about fostering the disposition of curiosity and acknowledging that different people bring different questions to the table.

The second step is to improve the questions. Instead of open and closed questions, I find it helpful to talk about fat and skinny questions, kids get this, and I always pause here to have a classroom discussion about what a good question looks like and what is involved in producing a good question. I’m continually amazed at their depth of thinking and insights.

The third step is to prioritise the questions. I get them to choose the best two questions on their tables of four students, but before I do this I ask them to stop and consider the process of working together – ensuring that everyone contributes and nobody dominates.

Finally I get them to graffiti their best questions on the windows using liquid chalk. They love the sense of anti-authoritarianism in this. We then step back and look at their questions and talk about each of them.

Over the course of the coming term we try to answer each of the questions in some depth. Our students’ questions have much to teach us, and through the QFT process we have set a platform that we can keep looping back to as the year unfolds.

From Ping-Pong to Basketball Questions

Questions are one of the prime ways teachers interact with students in classrooms. The ability to design an unGoogleable, engaging, open-ended driving question for a project-based learning unit is rapidly becoming a core skill for teachers. Ron Ritchhart claims that, “Our questioning helps to define our classrooms, to give it its feel and energy – or lack thereof. Questions are culture-builders, linking students, teachers and content together.” (Ritchhart, 2015, p. 221) As teachers, we all want to ask good questions, the kind that can drive learning and elicit deep thinking. Ron Ritchhart identifies five main types of questions teachers ask.










(Image credit: Project Zero)

When teachers start to focus on developing a culture of thinking, their questioning tends to swing away from procedural and review questions towards facilitative questions that push student thinking and make thinking visible. Taking his lead from Dylan Wiliam, Ewan McIntosh pleads with teachers to stop ping-pong questioning and try basketball questioning instead: “Pose a question, pause, ask another kid to evaluate the answer child one gave, and ask a third for an explanation of how and why that’s right or wrong.” Ritchhart also supports the basketball approach, “It begins to feel more like a basketball game in which we have lots of players taking turns with the ball, rather than a simple back-and-forth with the teacher.” (Ritchhart, 2015, p. 104) and “the ball (question) is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another, as the ball is moved down the court.” (Ritchhart, 2015, p. 213)

From Pop-corning to Ice-creaming

Project Zero’s Daniel Wilson (class, 2010), studied group learning in adventure racing teams for his doctoral thesis and he found that the most successful teams were far more likely to use conditional language when they were lost than the teams that were not so successful. “We might be here” rather than “This is where we are.” Teams that use conditional language are better at pulling together, pooling ideas, and harnessing group knowledge. In contrast, when absolute language is used, it seems defensive and assertive. When teachers use conditional language, students quickly catch on that they are looking for collective meaning-making and building on others’ thinking, rather than trying to guess correct answers. Wilson’s research also found that the successful teams that were using conditional language were more likely to ask each other questions and more likely to build on each other’s ideas.

Discussing this with classes can have a dramatic impact on the way that they talk and learn as a group. Several years ago one of my classes developed the metaphor of building on each other’s ideas like ice-cream scoops, instead of pop-corning their own individual thoughts. They even went as far as self-assessing themselves at the end of a class, “We did too much pop-corning today and not enough ice-creaming.”

Finally, it must be pointed out, that question-centred classrooms are unlikely to eventuate for students until we have more question-centred professional learning for educators. Coaching models, collaborative inquiry groups, action inquiry projects, and instructional rounds are the future of adult learning in schools.


Network Leadership

In 2011 I heard Professor Richard Elmore state,

“The future of schools lies in networks rather than hierarchies, in lateral rather than vertical organisations. Networks cannot be managed the same way that hierarchies are managed. Social networking is a different way of organising.”

George Siemens has been writing about moving from hierarchies to networks for a long time, and when Matt Esterman and I wrote about Teacher-Led Conferences for Learning Forward, we reported,

Brafman & Beckstrom (2007) contrast traditional “spider” organizations which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish” organizations which depend on the power of peer to peer relationships. Their metaphor is that if you chop off a spider’s leg, it will be permanently crippled. However, if you chop off a starfish’s leg it will grow another one and the old leg can grow into a completely new starfish.”

I have recently come across this article on Hierarchy and Network which asserts that a hierarchy opposes change and that,

“The successful organization of the future will have two organizational structures: a Hierarchy, and a more teaming, egalitarian, and adaptive Network….My idea of the Network is a system of teams with representatives from all divisions and all levels, who leave formal titles at the door to participate in a decidedly  anti-hierarchical forum….With this Network, potential opportunities and changes are identified, urgency around tomorrow’s possibilities is fostered and maintained, strategies for organization-wide changes are formed, barriers identified and addressed, and change is achieved.”

I am fascinated by the concept of network leadership in schools and would like to explore this further.

Future Protocol

Inspired by a presentation by Dr Paul Browning on Future planning that I recently attended, yesterday I facilitated a learning and teaching visioning/strategic planning meeting using the Future Protocol. Nine staff with key roles in leading learning and teaching volunteered to attend a two-hour after-school meeting.

The protocol essentially uses three stages. The first stage asks participants to project into the future and describe what it looks, sounds, and feels like. We chose to project six years into the future, as this is a school lifetime for our students. The second stage of the protocol is to look back from the projected future and describe how it looked when we started. The third stage of the protocol is to connect the projected future to the past by explicitly answering how we moved our school from the past to the projected future. Then we identified the challenges and obstacles that had to be overcome to move from the present to our projected future. Finally we began to prioritise and consider our next steps. It was the first time I had used the protocol and it was perfect for gathering some initial thoughts around visioning/strategic planning for learning and teaching.

The key themes to emerge were:

  • The way we measure success needs to be broader than the HSC
  • There needs to be more focus on learning and less on marks, grades, and ranking students for an order of merit
  • We need to encourage more deep thinking/learning and risk-taking
  • Students should be encouraged to pursue their loves, interests, and strengths, to challenge themselves, and to make their own choices
  • Students need greater empathy, humility, and a service mentality that persists long after school finishes
  • We need to ensure that staff and students are balanced (wellness, stillness, mindfulness, brain health, teaming, learn to unlearn)
  • We need to ensure that we do not create more work for staff/prevent possible staff burn-out
  • The school should become a learning and entrepreneurial hub for the community (its own, Sydney, Australia) 24 hours, where student ideas are facilitated and developed by staff, parents, and others
  • We should form bonds with tertiary institutions, industry, and government
  • Increase transparency, and open, consultative solutions-focused communication with staff


Unlearning How to Teach

In 2010, Erica McWilliam keynoted the National History Teachers’ Association conference. Having been an admirer of her work for many years, I  presented a workshop at the conference based on her thinking. I recently dug up the following summary I wrote based on her ideas which helped to structure my workshop.

Creativity has become the economic engine of the 21st century and it is no longer a luxury for a few, but a necessity for all. Ken Robinson (2007) states that creativity is as important as literacy, Richard Florida (2002) writes about the rise of the creative class, and Dan Pink explains that,

“We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” (2005: 50)

If education is to prepare young people for a very different global environment, we simply must invest in students’ creative capacities. New combinations of creative abilities are increasingly in demand in a complex post-millennial world and what we know today is not as important as what we need to learn for tomorrow. Habits held too tightly become burdensome. As Leadbeater states, “What holds people back…is their ability to unlearn” (2000: 9). Learning is usually an incremental process, but when the environment suddenly changes the key is to dispense with past learning because old practices and routines will no longer work. This means challenging ingrained assumptions and people’s sense of identity.

The extent of this change is described by Bauman (Gane, 2004) when he considers the behaviourist ‘rat-in-the-maze’ experiments that paralleled the social shape of the world fifty years ago with its, “firmly fixed division of labour, career tracks, class distinctions, power hierarchies, marriages…(and) social skills…” (p.21). But Bauman proceeds to ask what would happen in a script-less and fluid social world,

“…if the maze were made of partitions on castors, if the walls changed their position as fast, perhaps faster than the rats could scurry in search of food, and if the tasty rewards were moved as well, and quickly, and if the targets of the search tended to lose their attraction well before the rats could reach them, while other, similarly short-lived allurements diverted their attention and drew away their desire?” (p.21)

Education is about more than accumulating large repertoires of facts and routines. However the demand for coverage unfortunately often results in a pedagogy of ‘teaching by mentioning’ that rewards formulaic learners. The challenge is to create a culture of teaching and learning that develops creative capacity. While teachers have always taught routine habits needed to solve routine problems, they now need to focus on the creative capacity building needed to solve more intractable problems. Profound pedagogical implications flow from this sort of thinking.

How do we encourage students to take risks with their learning?

We know that intelligence is not fixed. Students with fixed mindsets about their intelligence find challenges threatening and mistakes demoralising, while students with growth mindsets relish challenges and possess the stickability to persevere in the face of setbacks. To learn is to be confused, to fail frequently and to try again until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented and failure is a necessary building block for ultimate success. Students who come to depend on narrow, easy success will not learn.

If students are not encouraged to be creative and to take chances to be wrong, they will never come up with anything original. Thinking is difficult and doubt is the basis of all good thinking. When teachers make their own thinking visible to students by thinking aloud and letting students hear them puzzling their way through disciplinary problems, the insight can leave students spellbound.

We need a greater emphasis on an experimental culture of learning, rather than a culture in which curriculum and pedagogy is locked in. Teachers need to view their role as ‘chief disorganisers’ and curriculum needs to be conceptualised as content for meddling with rather than as content that is fixed. Stable programs and lesson plans are not the hallmark of good pedagogy. This flies in the face of a predictable, standardised National Curriculum.

The political nature of mandated curriculums tends to promote ‘safe’ topics at the expense of contentious content. However contentious, contested material helps to elicit unexpected responses and produce thinkers rather than memorisers. The aim is not to cover content, but to help learners become thoughtful about and productive with content. To develop the sort of learning dispositions that are required, teachers need to spend less time explaining through instruction and more time in what McWilliam describes as “experimental and error-welcoming modes of engagement” (2007: 5). This is supported by findings from neuroscience which show that failure is a natural part of learning (Willingham, 2009) and that the brain is changed through active experimentation, not by teacher-centred pedagogy (Zull, 2004).

What do we co-create with students?

Our deeply embedded notion that teachers should know more about their subject matter than their students is becoming less useful than it was in the past. Increasingly our best learners will be those who do not need the teacher’s script or template and have the resilience to, as Piaget neatly put it, “know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” If we accept that teachers do not have to be all-knowing, we can begin to view teaching as a form of value creation rather than knowledge transmission. This shifts our thinking from students as consumers to students as co-creators. Rather than teachers delivering information to be consumed by the student, co-creating value sees the teacher and students involved together in creating products, with the teacher experimenting, learning and failing alongside the students. As McWilliam (2005: 5) so eloquently explains, this frames the teacher as “neither sage on the stage nor as guide on the side but as meddler in the middle.”

While writing is still important, it needs to co-exist with the currently marginalised ‘non-text’ media of graphics, colour, lines, animation and sound. Every student should be taught how to produce a digital story. Yet, despite its importance, training in digital literacy remains rare in any discipline. The sort of training required is less about tools and technology and more about articulating the nature of quality, and thinking with visuals and sound.

Assessing this sort of co-created work remains challenging. While schools talk the talk about collaboration, assessment remains resolutely individualistic. The problem is what is regarded as credible examining. We need to learn to assess what we value rather than merely value what is easily assessed.

How do we encourage students to network?

If students and teachers work together as co-creators, then the traditional supply and demand chain of teaching and learning is usurped by a networking approach. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the way in which people are connected. We are moving from hierarchically arranged, densely knit groups to permeable, diverse social networks. Reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s learning webs (1971), knowledge is distributed across networks of connections and learning consists of immersing oneself in networks by creating and sharing. This networking ability is central to creative capability.
Students who make new connections beyond their immediate group or class demonstrate creative capacity building. These ‘border crossers’ who can access a diversity of networks are able to introduce new ideas and knowledge. Therefore effective teaching for creative capacity building will encourage students to actively network and build diverse connections.
Connective technologies such as Skype, Twitter, RSS feeds, wikis and YouTube offer enormous potential for teachers to introduce students to the concept of connected knowledge and networking. For instance, when students build their historical understanding of the Gallipoli campaign by communicating with students in Turkey it takes student learning into a whole different realm. My students were shocked when Turkish students told them of the severity of the food shortages and winter conditions for women and children on the Turkish home front in Constantinople. As the old saying goes, “when the peasants learned to read, the kings began to look stupid.” Our understanding of the relationship between networking abilities and creative capacity building mean that using these connective learning technologies is central to effective pedagogy.

To what extent do we allow students to play with ideas?

“Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value” (Kane, 2005)

Creativity is a crucial product of play and we need to start “taking play seriously as a pedagogical tool” (McWilliam, 2007: 8). The disposition to intellectually play with ideas – to hold large numbers of associations together in the mind, to enjoy crossing boundaries, to imagine possibilities that arise from making novel connections and to be comfortable living with tensions and complexity – is a key creative capacity.

Psychologist Teresa Amabile explains,

“It’s as if the mind is throwing a bunch of balls into the cognitive space, juggling them around until they collide in interesting ways. The process has a certain playful quality to it… If associations are made between concepts that are rarely combined – that is, if the balls that don’t normally come near each other collide – the ultimate novelty of the situation will be greater.” (2002: 53)

Powerful learning can emerge when alternative perspectives challenge conventional viewpoints, forcing students to become comfortable with complexity and to avoid being obsessed with finding the answer. Learners must learn to tolerate intellectual discomfort. As Schopenhauer famously stated, “The difficulty is to try and teach the multitude that something can be true and untrue at the same time.”


How worthwhile is teaching and testing for knowledge that can be obtained from a Google search? In a world where there has never been so much creative opportunity, students sit in standardised classrooms listening to teachers teach a standardised curriculum for high stakes standardised tests. It is almost Orwellian in the sense that students come to school to learn and leave as clones trained to jump through hoops. Today’s teenagers know how mass custody works, but they are not problems in need of institutionalisation. When engaged with a real world problem, they often astound with their passion and capacity to deliver. We disempower and devalue these creative, collaborative, globally-aware learners at our peril.

If writers like Robinson, Florida, Pink, Bauman, Leadbeater, Kane and McWilliam are correct, then top-down bureaucratic regimes of compliance and narrow notions of academic performance will not serve anyone well. If taking risks with one’s learning, co-creating products, networking with diverse connections, and intellectually playing with ideas are dispositions that build creative capacity, then these are dispositions that should be the centrepiece of our pedagogy. However, students will only ever learn to take risks with their work, co-create, network and play with ideas if their teachers have the vocational bravery to do the same.

In a conversation with Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic (2005), earlier this year he spoke of lion cubs playing on an African plain under the watchful gaze of their mother. As long as the cubs are out of danger they are free to play and learn, all the time under the protective eye of the lioness. This image of cubs taking risks through serious play is worth contemplating as we unlearn how to teach in this fluid and complex world.

Amabile, T., Hadley, C. & Kramer, S. (2002) “Creativity under the gun”, Harvard Business Review, 80 (8), 52-61.

Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books.

Gane, N. (2004) The Future of Social Theory, London: Continuum.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society, London: Marion Boyars.

Kane, P. (2005) The Play Ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living, London: Pan.

Leadbeater, C. (2000) The Weightless Society: Living in the New Economic Bubble, New York: Texere.

McWilliam, E. (2008a) The Creative Workforce: How to launch young people into high flying futures, Sydney: UNSW Press.

McWilliam, E., Dawson, S. & Tan, J. (2008b) “From Vaporousness to Visibility: What might evidence of creative capacity building actually look like?”, UNESCO Observatory, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne Refereed E-Journal, 1 December 2008, (Accessed 23 May 2010)

McWilliam, E. (2007) “Unlearning How to Teach”, Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education conference, Cardiff, 8-10 January, (Accessed 23 May 2010)

McWilliam, E. (2005) “Unlearning Pedagogy”, Journal of Learning Design, 1, (1), 1-11, (Accessed 23 May 2010)

Pink, D.H (2005) A Whole New Mind, New York: Penguin.

Robinson, K. (2007) “Do schools kill creativity?”, TED, YouTube, (Accessed 23 May 2010)

Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Zull, J.E. (2004) “The Art of Changing the Brain”, Educational Leadership, September 2004, 68-72.

New Thinking Routines

Thinking routines are an adjustable collection of practices to nurture thinking skills and help learners become more independent, active, enquiring, and engaged. The concept of thinking routines emanates from Harvard’s Project Zero. New routines are regularly developed and I have enjoyed incorporating some of these newer routines into my teaching practice.

Global thinking routines are patterns of thought that are used to facilitate the development of global competence. The 3 Ys is a global thinking routine which helps determine the significance of a topic or issue, keeping global and local connections in mind. It asks learners to move across the personal, local and global and uncover connections across different geographical spheres.

The 3 Ys

  1. Why might this [topic, question] matter to me?
  2. Why might it matter to people around me [family, friends, city, nation]?
  3. Why might it matter to the world?

I use the 3 Ys routine in my Year 9 History class when we conclude the Civil Rights and Freedoms unit. Students read the article White Privilege by Peggy McIntosh and then use it as the topic for their thinking. This year the ensuing discussion focused on: multiculturalism, that white privilege is something that white people don’t realise they have, hidden prejudices towards different races, the role of different times, different opinions, different values, and the potential of knowledge to lead to a worldwide solution.


I also enjoy using the Parts, Purposes and Complexities thinking routine coming out of the Agency by Design project to conclude a Year 11 unit on the causes of World War One. Agency by Design is a combination of design thinking, systems thinking, and the maker movement. This routine asks us to choose a system and ask:

What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?

What are its purposes? What are the purposes for each of these parts?

What are its complexities? How is it complicated in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways.

I find that by asking students to view the causes of World War One as a system they come to identify the complexities of the various parts and start to look beyond the impact of individual leaders and countries.

Flip the System


My favourite passage in Flip the System by Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber:

“…it is clear that the neoliberal shift in reform has led, in a more postmodern sense, to the death of the teacher (Biesta, 2013): the death of the very idea that a teacher has something to contribute, the very idea that the teacher has a meaningful voice in relation to his work, to what he wants to achieve through his work and by which means he achieves it. Although it is a common and oft-cited belief that the quality of a system is determined by the quality of its teachers, that particular belief is of no benefit to teachers. In the neoliberal perspective, the teacher is viewed as a trained monkey, and it is simply a question of finding the right stick to beat him with, or the right brand of peanuts, to make him do the desired dance in front of the audience. The teacher is no longer viewed as a professional, but as a labourer who simply has to follow evidence-based methods in order to secure externally determined goals.”


Institutionalising Student Voice

Several years ago I noticed a tweet stating that a Finnish school sends two students to every faculty meeting. I now have a different two members of the Student Think Tank attend each of my learning meetings with Heads of Department. The students do the same reading in preparation for the meeting and engage in the discussion as equals with the teachers. The first time this occurred several of the adults in the room were slightly uncomfortable. The assigned reading was on feedback and during the discussion one of the students commented, “You know when you give us those surveys about your teaching? It’s really nice to be asked, but we fill in the forms and then notice that nothing in your teaching really changes. You know, what we would prefer is just to have a conversation with you about our learning and your teaching.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the room after he said this, and each of the twenty adults was leaning in to hear every word the student had to say. It was the turning point in institutionalising student voice at our school. As a school we are now regularly seeking avenues for student voice and increasing teachers’ capacity to learn from students. The aim is to grow students’ responsibility for their learning and for teachers to gain new insights that help refine teaching programmes, pedagogy, and assessments, and inform future learning.

Pedro Noguera writes about, “…ways to include students, on a regular basis, in discussions about their school experiences. Such discussions can occur in formal settings, such as on established committees or decision-making bodies, and they can occur informally at classroom level. The main thing is that they occur regularly and that adults respond respectfully to what they hear. Students can tell if adults are genuinely interested in their opinions, and if they discern that no one is listening when they share their perspectives they will quickly lose interest in a meaningless exercise.”

Guest post by Year 11 Student

The following post was written by a Year 11 student, Ted, for our school newsletter. It is published here with his permission:


The keys to successful project based learning.

You are a 1, you are a 2, you are 3…; Alright class break up into groups of 3; Or even better, we are going to 8406.

These are all tell-tale signs of project based learning and innovative teaching within our school.  And from my experience students eyes light up when they are given a project based task, not because they make them think deeper, but because they see it as an easy lesson.

As a student, we have been subject to various teaching strategies which have been implemented in order to make us think deeper.  However, are these project based tasks actually achieving this goal? Or are we just seeing them as an easy lesson where we don’t have to do anything at all and eventually create a mediocre piece of work.

Recently a speaker from High Tech High in San Diego came to talk to a group of students and teachers about the effectiveness of the project focused learning in their school.  She presented a school model focused around an interactive classroom where students guide their own learning and teachers act as mentors.  The students are given a task which incorporates mathematics, science, technology, history, and many other aspects of essential schoolwork knowledge and are given a period of time to complete this task.

So how is this schooling model effective?  The culture and leadership is key to the success of the project based learning in High Tech High.  Students are encouraged to try new things and not be afraid of failure, which often occurs.  Students are given input into how they want to learn the required information, thus allowing them to sustain interest in a project over a long period of time.  Teachers act as mentors and their role is focused on being a mentor who does not restrict the learning of the students but encourages them to push the boundaries and try new things. Schooling departments work together to enable projects to teach a wide variety of skills which is not restricted to one subject.  Time is given in class to complete the project so students can collaborate and are not forced to complete the project outside of school time.  A sense of pride is instilled in the students’ work which encourages students to present the best project possible at the end of the time frame.

These key aspects of the project based learning at High Tech High are lacking in Sydney’s schools, primarily due to the conservative restrictions of our schooling system.  Teachers don’t have the required class time to undertake long period projects to teach the curriculum.  Different departments often do not have the correct relationships in place to ensure collaborative learning across a variety of schooling disciplines.  Students are not given input into their learning and often do not have the required interest in order to ensure self-driven learning which will reap the most positive outcomes.

I am not suggesting a total overhaul of the Australian schooling system, by removing lessons and teachers and allowing students to teach themselves.  However I think that undertaking project based tasks across two to three different departments occasionally throughout the year would enable deeper thinking and allow students to have a sense of pride in the work they have undertaken during their class time.


Mistakes, Failures and Disasters with PBL

I presented a workshop on PBL at the NSW ICT Educators’ Conference earlier this year. About 30 minutes into my presentation one of the attendees asked why I was just talking about the successes of implementing PBL? He wanted to know what mistakes I had made along the way. This was a light-bulb moment for me. I work with a colleague who whenever he hears another school advocating some sort of successful program, will always ask, “OK, but where are the warts?”

So yesterday I spoke at TeachMeet Mint about some of the mistakes, failures and disasters I have experienced with PBL. I have been experimenting with PBL approaches for the past three years. My first serious attempt was with a weak Year 9 History class. I was determined to get them writing, and enjoying it. In pairs they wrote chapters for an historical fiction book about an Australian soldier fighting at Gallipoli. It didn’t work very well. The story-line changed from chapter to chapter, with different names for key protagonists and no real thread holding the work together.

The following year my class wrote stories about World War One for a kindergarten class in the Northern Territory, who then illustrated the stories and we made it up into an audio e-book. However, this time my students obsessed over the stories for the 6 year-olds and lost sight of the history, and some of the stories were too bloodthirsty for 6 year-olds.

This year I simplified it and we wrote historical stories for the Grade 3 class across the road and they illustrated the stories for an e-book. Three years in, the project has become more manageable and more successful.

At the end of last year my class provided me with warm and cool post-it note feedback on each of the four projects I ran. In Year 9 I have established a pattern where I teach an overview of the course for about 7 weeks and then for the last 3 weeks of term they go into depth on an area in a PBL assignment. One of the key pieces of feedback from the students was that the first PBL task that they do in the year needs to be simple, so they understand how to learn this way. Three years ago my driving question was the ambitious “Is it best we forget?”. Now it is simply, “How can we write a story that will teach World War One to 9 year-olds?”

Three years ago I also designed a task which asked my class to design viral videos about an aspect of World War II. It was an unmitigated disaster. No amount of critique or feedback was going to salvage this operation. After cringing through bleating goats, images from the film Frozen, and boys engaging in mock fights on the oval, the task has now simply become “How can we design an awesome World War II documentary?” It is simple and it works.

Last year I ran a project for my class to design and implement a social media campaign for rights and freedoms. The students didn’t know where to start. This year it became an advertising campaign for rights and freedoms, which seems much more achievable.

One task that has not required much modification is a task on popular culture, framed around the driving question, “How cool were your grandparents?” Students interview their grandparents, or someone similar, about their memories of music, film, radio, TV, sport and fashion, and then write it up into a short report with a photo for an e-book. This year I am going to send the finished e-book to the grandparents and ask students to come to class wearing one fashion item from their grandparents on the day that it is due.

I’m now thinking for next year that I might move the PBL task to the start of each topic, rather than at the end. I have been considering a teaching principle I heard mentioned in a keynote earlier this year, ensure that “lecture comes later”, starting with inquiry and piquing the students’ interest before delivering the content.

Everything that I have typed above is anecdotal. It is from my memory. I tend to throw out what hasn’t worked and start again, so I no longer have the tasks that didn’t work so well, but that I learned so much from three years ago. Learning (and teaching) is an iterative process. My key message is that I need to start doing a better job of documenting my own learning.

The Project Zero Classroom

PZ faculty

PZC faculty – Image credit: @JimReesePZ

Last week I worked as faculty at the Project Zero Classroom at Harvard Graduate School of EducationProject Zero studies human learning and knowledge, and pushes thinking further with a focus on arts and creativity. Here is a short animation What is PZ? that gives some more information.

Howard Gardner opened PZC claiming that the US has too much influence on world education through excessive testing and ranking, and Project Zero is ready to help people have a broader view of learning and ethics. Daniel Wilson then claimed that Project Zero has a very provocative view of learning, suggesting that education has not come far since Jean Marc Cote’s 1899 vision of education in the Year 2000, and he pleaded with participants to not be seduced by the transmission model.

Jean MarcThe Project Zero Classroom has five throughlines. These are big, important questions to keep in mind and reflect on during the institute:


Image credit: @maryannesacco

My role was to co-lead a Study Group. Study Groups are like a home base for institute participants to synthesise and personalise information from the plenary sessions and mini-courses. Our role was to facilitate the learning process and let the participants’ interests and passions guide much of the session. This led to deep conversations about thinking dispositions, cultures of thinking, Reggio, active learning, and documentation.

study group

Two PZC highlights for me were listening to Daniel Wilson talk about Making Learning and Learners Visible and being invited to present during Tina Blythe’s mini-course on Protocols for Professional Conversations.

Daniel spoke about how underneath our practices are a particular set of beliefs. Powerful learning moments open up complex windows into seeing who learners are and what they come to know – windows of identity and windows of cognition. He cited John Seely Brown, saying it is not about stuff, it is about creating opportunities for students to become, and he showed this video: The Amazing Circus Act. Learners and learning remain largely invisible in most schools because of time, standardised assessments, ambiguity, and incoherent beliefs and practices. Daniel spoke about learning portraits – what beliefs about teaching and learning do you see in action in this classroom? Learning is…? People who make learning and learners visible believe learning is purposeful, social, representational, empowering, and emotional. He then went on to discuss key teacher moves in documentation: being curious about noticing, intentional inquiry, collecting artifacts for group memory, engaging in reflection that informs teaching and learning, making connections across classrooms, and creating public exhibitions.

Tina modelled the facilitation of professional conversations with protocols (structures for guiding a conversation). Protocols are tools for the work of supporting teacher and student learning. They create opportunities for conversations about teaching and learning and support interactions that enable us to develop our understanding of a variety of perspectives. I presented a dilemma for the group to analyse through a consultancy protocol.

While there are many thinkers cited during PZC, three quotes regularly rise above the others:

“Understanding is a consequence of thinking” (David Perkins).

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience” (John Dewey).

“Children grow into the intellectual life around them” (Lev Vygotsky).

PZC concluded with David Perkins advising participants how to create lasting change. A key message was to invite rather than advocate.

Project Zero Sydney 2016

Inspired by the success of Reggio spreading from Italy, Project Zero is now building up networks around the world and our school will be hosting the Project Zero Sydney conference on 13th and 14th March 2016. The event will be a magnet for educators from around Australia.


The focus is on the opportunities and challenges facing educators in the Digital Age. Young people are connected to one another around the globe in ways unimaginable just 20 years ago. How we respond will influence the level of civic engagement, the ethics and the intellectual curiosity of an entire generation. Do we continue on with a traditional curriculum, ignoring forces in the wider world, or do we meet the challenge head-on and shape it in ways that will be both rigorous and relevant? Using the theme “Global Connections in the Digital Age”, this two-day conference will feature keynote addresses by prominent Project Zero researchers who have been exploring questions such as:

  • How do we educate for the unknown?
  • With an abundance of knowledge now available to students at their fingertips via the internet, how do we shift teaching practices from a model of knowledge transmission to one of developing certain dispositions that transcend subject areas and other boundaries?
  • In our fast-paced world, how do we slow the learning down and focus on depth, not breadth?

In addition, renowned educators and educational researchers from around the world will lead interactive courses and special interest sessions on these topics and more, such as how to make learning and thinking visible, how to teach for understanding, and what school leadership looks like that supports deep learning.  These sessions will provide practical and relevant ways to help young people make important connections—to curriculum, to the world beyond the classroom walls, to their peers, and to their teachers. 

The Project Zero team includes leading researchers, writers and thinkers in the field of teaching and learning. Their interests include investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics and other essential aspects of human learning. The professional learning from Project Zero has proven to be transformative for teachers and has direct, practical and powerful application in the classroom.

Throughout this two-day conference, in major talks, interactive courses and special interest sessions, prominent Project Zero researchers–such as Carrie James, David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart, Shari Tishman and Daniel Wilson–and educators from around the world will examine the importance of the conference strands in the education of our students today and tomorrow.

PZ Sydney promises to be one of the best educational events Australia has ever witnessed.