ISTE in Philly 2015

I attended the annual International Society for Technology and Education conference, held in Philadelphia this year and participated in some excellent workshops. Tim Kaegi presented Documenting Student Agency, explaining how he utilises media to capture the process of learning. He encouraged moving beyond snapshot documentation like Twitter and using a more comprehensive approach such as timelapse video. He recommended KidCam, putting a GoPro on a student’s head or chest, suggesting that visual media is more effective than words. The examples from his classroom are simply outstanding. I will try to stay in touch with Tim as his work fits nicely with a paper I am working on with some academics and the Project Zero Reggio-inspired approach.

I also attended an excellent workshop on Self-Organised Learning Environments. Sugata Mitra’s approach was explained and then we were put through a mini-SOLE answering the question: “What is the most influential design movement?” I teamed up with two other participants and after we sat nonplussed about where to start, we began googling and talking about our thinking. Our conversation began with IDEO and design thinking, moved to modernism and constructivism, and then started to unpack early cave paintings and the design thinking needed to organise the first human communities. It gave us a great insight into the practices and possibilities of the SOLE approach and reinforced my determination to explore this pedagogy more thoroughly.

I presented a 5 minute Ignite talk to an audience of about 500. My presentation was on Mindfulness to Thrive Online, inspired by Howard Rheingold. The audience played along and I received positive feedback afterwards. I also worked as a volunteer, helping people with directions on the final morning, which was fun. The strangest questions I was asked were: “Is there a dog entrance to the Expo Hall?” and “Will it be raining this afternoon?” I spent the entire time talking to people and laughing. Thanks Todd Kennedy for the inspiration to volunteer.

NB. I will add links to this post upon my return to Australia in a few weeks.

PBL World 2015

Last week I completed the Buck Institute for Education’s Advanced PBL Coaching Academy at PBL World in Napa, California. The Academy began with the Question Formulation Technique, which I have blogged about before. This process ensures that students have input into the design of driving questions. We then dissected Jim Knight’s partnership principles, which underpin the instructional coaching program at my school. We used many protocols during the academy and this was reaffirming, and I took part in a Harkness discussion and a Socratic Circle.

The keynotes at PBL World were outstanding. John Mergendoller introduced us to the new Gold Standard PBL, a revised version of the 8 Essentials model. Steve Ritz from the South Bronx gave one of the best presentations I have ever heard, attempting to describe it would be an injustice, just watch him here. Ramsay Musallam presented a highly engaging and quite brilliant explanation of how constructivism and cognitive load work together. He showed a gob-smacking clip of John Sweller explaining the limitations of cognitive load theory, which I really must get hold of. Ramsay’s three teaching principles are:

Is lecture happening later?
Are the products public?
Is feedback anonymous?

He showed how filmmakers withhold information to build motivation, citing the mentorship of Yoda in Star Wars and Mr Miagi in the Karate Kid, and showing how delaying the mentoring makes transformative learning possible. If you don’t know anything it’s easy to be curious. If you are given the information, there is nothing to be curious about. The key is withholding just the right amount of information as this is what creates active processing in the brain. He compared the hero’s journey in films with the processes of PBL. The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure, in PBL the driving question is the call to adventure. Then he cited A.Kleon, “If it’s not public it doesn’t exist.” Kids know the value of a public audience, motivation comes from public product. He uses blogging to have students publicly produce work, and described blogging as a medium that can change the world. When he switched from using Google docs to blogs it enabled students to personalise their products. He also uses Google forms for students to provide anonymous feedback on his teaching.

There were some other workshops on the following days and I didn’t find these as useful, ending up wishing I had also completed the Advanced PBL Leadership Academy which received positive reviews from participants. Next time.

Finally, Suzie Boss interviewed me for a Buck Institute of Education Google Hangout and we had fish tacos for dinner at the Oxbow Market. It was inspiring having an extended one on one conversation with one of the world experts in PBL and innovation in education.

Key takeaways:

The Coaching Academy greatly affirmed our current professional learning strategy of coaching, CFGs, and instructional rounds. The readings will be useful to share and I’m hoping that some of the speakers will be willing to Skype in to our Professional Learning Forum. Ramsay helped me align my thinking on Constructivism and Cognitive Load Theory, and he reminded me of the importance of an inspiring entry event. I was introduced to an EduCreations unit on Mining Personal Histories which looks useful and I was also reminded of my long-standing intent to complete a Taking IT Global online professional development course.

I have largely pushed PBL in grades K-10. I’m now wondering if I could design a PBL unit around beating the high-stakes HSC?

NB. I will add links when I return to Australia. At the moment I’m restricted by my iPad.

Year 9 End of Semester Reflections

“I really enjoyed learning in a different way than in other subjects.” (Hugh)

“I wish I hadn’t been ignorant in thinking History would be boring this year. I came in with a negative mindset. I was disproved.” (Josh)

“I liked the fact that we did a lot of practical stuff which made lessons very enjoyable and a better environment to learn in.” (Charlie)

“I liked being shown that history can be viewed from different perspectives.” (Eddie)

“I have come to realise that we commemorate Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli alot differently to other events in Australian history.”

“I liked how in history there were a lot more group discussions and interactive work, where it was not spoon-fed information. By doing this it helped me to get a better understanding of the topic.” (Ryan)


Reconciling Tensions and Radical Openness

A few years ago I returned to fulltime study for a year in the US. My favourite classes were with Tina Blythe and Eleanor Duckworth. Both banned technology from their classes, preferring face to face interactions, and I experienced my most powerful learning experiences in their classes.

I also took a class with Chris Dede, who was fresh from having written the National Education Technology Plan for President Obama. His class was a dizzying array of top US educational technology experts and we were encouraged to use our devices in class. While I sat spell-bound, some of my peers would surf Facebook and this made me question the benefits of technology in relation to learning. I now oscillate between believing that the deepest learning experiences I can design in my classes are face to face conversations, and simultaneously arguing that technology should be ubiquitous and invisible. One of the ways I am reconciling this tension is by explicitly teaching students mindfulness in order to cope with continuous partial attention and our always-on lifestyle.

I have often argued that pedagogy should be the driver, and technology should merely act in support. Project-Based Learning is a pedagogy that works well with technology. My students produce audio e-books for young children, make films, and design social media campaigns for rights and freedoms. We also take part in global learning projects and conduct Skype learning calls.

I know that I need to improve the documentation of the learning in my classes. While I’m a fan of post-it notes and speech bubbles, we also have a class Twitter handle which tweets out photos of our learning, and, when students work in teams, one of them sometimes has my Go-Pro on a headband for real-time KidCam.

Next year I am planning to explore Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised Learning Environments, I want to get my students blogging, and I’m thinking of using Snapchat to run a short project for students to share photos of local war memorials and commemoration activities. We have a student voice team who attend our Heads of Department meetings and I am curious about what would happen if we adopted the radical transparency of broadcasting these meetings via Periscope. Also, I am in awe of the work being produced by students at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and I want to learn how to do this myself.

Finally, George Couros now has me wondering whether pedagogy really should always be the driver? This video of Lachlan getting his hearing aid shows how technology can be transformational. Could transformational learning become the norm, rather than the exception?

There is a fragile tension here because, despite the wonderful affordances, in most of my classes computers and tablets are off and we still talk to each other in face to face conversations.

NB. Cross-posted on the NSWICTE website.

Mindfulness to Thrive Online



This is warrior training. The Bulls and the Lakers know that simple exercises can increase attentional agility. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of how we direct our attention. It improves attention, decision-making, happiness, and relationships. Our breath links our mind, our brain, and our body – and paying attention to our breath helps cultivate mindfulness. By intentionally practicing mindfulness we ultimately change the architecture of our brain through neuroplasticity.


We have information overload and continuous partial attention. Howard Rheingold believes that mindfulness is the most important practice for anyone trying to swim through the infostream. It is the power tool that all the other literacies depend upon. Attention to intention is how the mind shapes the brain. We used to manage our time. Now we need to learn how to manage our attention. We can notice when our attention wanders and gently bring it back – like training a puppy.

slow food

Just as the slow food movement preserves traditional cuisine and local produce as an antidote to the fast food movement, slow education is a response to content-heavy curriculum and standardised testing. Slow learning encourages close looking. Pico Iyer claims that in an age of speed, nothing is more invigorating than going slow, and in an age of distraction, nothing is more luxurious than paying attention.

How are you directing your attention?

And how are you helping your students direct their attention?

(Images: Paul Vera-Broadbent;; Colfe’s History Department)

Skype and the Anzac legend


This term I have been teaching my Year 9 History class about the ANZAC legend and the commemoration of war. I have always enjoyed teaching these topics, though this time as we neared the end of the unit, I started to feel uneasy. My students seemed to be describing things in simplistic black and white terms. While they had read and discussed differing views, and connected with New Zealand students to discuss the significance of Anzac 100 years on, I began to realise that I had not done a very good job of enabling them to see the complexities of the topic. I stewed on my failure, and then went back to the readings I had provided my students and started googling the authors’ names. I found three of them on Twitter and five email addresses, so I sent out eight invitations to Skype with my class. Five replied. Of these, two couldn’t connect with us (one of them was in Turkey). I set up three Skype calls. The first postponed and then failed to respond at the appointed time, that’s just part and parcel of dealing with busy professionals and these sorts of learning opportunities. Two did connect with us.

Dr Craig Barrett is a historian and built heritage specialist, with a PhD focusing on the return of Australian POWs.  He spoke about how the legend itself hasn’t been manipulated much, but the way that war is commemorated has changed. He related how aspects of the Anzac legend were formed in the bush in the 19th century and the key aspect of mateship has been stable over time. He spoke about how the Australian tourism trickle to Gallipoli in the 1980s became a flood in the 2000s and about how Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film changed attitudes toward Anzac Day and the legend. He also spoke about the disconnect between the legend and what really happened.

The following lesson was with Professor Joan Beaumont from ANU. She explained how the legend is not a historical account of what happened in the war, it is about identity and nationalism, and it tells us what we value today. A myth is how we want to remember the past because it is about what we consider to be important. There were a number of reasons that the Anzac legend took off, both the British and Australian governments wanted more people to join up and it helped grieving families find solace in the fact that their children had died for a reason. She was critical of the recent inappropriate commercialisation of Anzac Day by Woolworths and the AFL.

(With thanks to Charlie for his notes which were used to produce the above two paragraphs).

For each Skype learning call, a student volunteer introduced the class and thanked our guest at the end, three students took notes for the rest of the class to access later, and one student researched the background of the speaker during the call. For everyone else, their job was to listen and think of good questions to ask. They were keen to know the guest’s thoughts on: commemoration, the role of the media, the glorification of Anzac, how the Anzac legend has changed over time, and whether the Anzac legend has been manipulated to suit the morals and values of contemporary Australian society. I was also delighted that they were interested in finding out about what is involved in being a professional historian.

I am amazed at the goodwill of these busy professionals to spend time with a Year 9 class, I am astounded by the learning experiences technology enables for our students today, and I am proud of my students for their great questions and their deep thinking about these topics.  They will be writing about it next week and I am really interested to see what sense they are making of it all now.


From Ping-Pong to Basketball Questions


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.”

In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron 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.” (p. 104)

“the ball (question) is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another, as the ball is moved down the court.” (p. 213)

I have coached basketball for years. Now I’m playing it in class.


The Language of Group Learning


Language is powerful and words matter. When I first began coaching basketball I caught myself referring to the team as “you” when the team lost and “we” when the team won. It was a subconscious way of excluding myself from responsibility for losing, which profoundly embarrassed me when I realised what I was doing. Ever since, I have used “we” whether we win or lose, the inclusive language of team.  In a classroom, inclusive language helps students view learning as a cooperative rather than a competitive endeavour and it helps students take more responsibility for the conduct of the class, sharing power with the teacher and co-learning together.

Project Zero’s Daniel Wilson, 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.”


My Playlist


The neuroscience is pretty clear about the role of emotions in learning. It makes sense that people learn better when they are happy. Whenever I can, I play a song as students are entering class. I knew I was on a winner when two older students walked past my room one morning as the music was blaring out and one nudged the other and said. “I told you we should have done Modern History.” I have a different song for each unit I teach:

Australians in WWI – Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Australians in WWII – Hoodoo Guru’s Tojo

Rights and Freedoms – Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow

Alexander the Great – The Theme from Grease

US Civil Rights – U2’s Pride

Tiananmen Square – David Bowie’s China Girl

The World in 1900 – Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World

World War I – REM’s It’s the End of the World and We Know It

Nazi Germany – Nena’s 99 Luftballons

Ho Chi Minh – Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting

Vietnam War – Credence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son

Cambodia – The Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia

Extension History – Split Enz’s History Never Repeats

I also have songs I play for certain times of the year:

Mondays – The Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays

Fridays – The Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind

Start of term – Theme from Welcome Back Kotter

End of term – Madonna’s Holiday

End of the year – Fall Out Boy’s Thnks fr th Mmrs

When I teach students the acronym SEXC for writing paragraphs I always have Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy playing

If I taught Science I would use Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science

If I taught Maths I would use The Swingers’ Counting the Beat

What song’s do you use? What songs could you use?

And yes, I’m a child of the 80s.

Leading and Redefining Future Schools


I recently attended the World Educational Leadership Summit run by the International Association for Scholastic Excellence in Singapore. The conference focus was on leading and redefining schools. I was keen to see how the speakers’ thinking aligned, particularly in the Asian educational environment. I was surprised by how many Australians attended the conference and it was interesting to hear about the innovation occurring in international schools around the region.

Drummers opening Day 2

Stephen Murgatroyd outlined the challenges for the future of schools, arguing that we are currently in what he neatly described as “the in-between time”. He mentioned Roger’s curve which is a nice visual example of laggards versus early adopters. He argued that “schools innovate, systems don’t”, and that “collaboration is the DNA of the innovation economy.”


Simon Breakspear outlined a blueprint for deeper learning in schools by looking at what works for innovative global leaders and organisations. He spoke about identifying the most high leverage learning problem in a school, and then pursuing rapid prototyping cycles, starting small, learning fast, and failing well. He reinforced that transformation can only occur at the speed of trust between the most innovative educators and the rest of their colleagues.

Describing an innovation-driven economy, Tony Wagner insisted that “Isolation is the enemy of improvement and innovation”, and that schools should be teaching the skills of collaborative problem-solving. He claimed that educators have a responsibility to help both parents and students understand the need for change, “Being a good exam-taker is no longer a guarantee of employment or success.” Tony also promoted Looking at Student Work protocols and using digital portfolios formatively.

Sugata Mitra described his Hole in the Wall project, Self-Organised Learning Environments, and the School in the Cloud project. He claimed that children in these environments can competently search for answers to big questions, far ahead of what is expected of them in their school curriculum. “A SOLE is bringing a PhD down to a 9-year old.” Teachers should understand that they are managers of chaotic systems, and this chaos enables learning.  He also argued that schools should not be assessing individually, “Allowing the Internet into the examination hall will change the entire system.”

Pasi Sahlberg explained how Finland has succeeded in avoiding the global education reform movements prevalent in the USA, UK, and Australia. He spoke about the importance of encouraging failure in schools, “fail early and fail often.” The 13th of October is a national day to celebrate failure in Finland. Pasi stated that in the next ten years Finland is aiming to cut down instruction time by half. He explained the recently much heralded phenomenon-based teaching approach, which is essentially newly created curriculum space for schools to develop an integrated unit of study. Of most interest to me is that students will be involved in the planning and assessment of these new phenomenon-based units. Pasi also made the point that many high-performing systems speak two languages.

Yong Zhao spoke about how the knowledge and skills valued by schools today may not help children live a successful life in the future. There is currently a global youth unemployment problem – young, educated, unemployed. We have to assume there will be no jobs. Technology and globalisation are changing the value of knowledge and skills. Schools have lost the monopoly over knowledge and learning opportunities. A traditional assessment system tests what we teach, not what students have learned. Short-term instruction is affecting long-term outcomes. The pursuit of high test scores requires sacrifices. Cheating is the most effective way of passing the exam. Is what we are teaching important? Is what we measure important? “If you have no intrinsic motivation you get small cleverness, not big wisdom.” Everyone now needs a start-up mindset. Google is saying that if you want to be managed you are unemployable. Schools need to release their staff from Stockholm syndrome.

I also finally met the inspiring Jon Andrews, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at St Paul’s College in Brisbane. Check out some of the things his school is doing in terms of self-determined learning and innovative leadership roles.

My takeaways:

What should I keep doing?

The emphasis we are placing on staff collaboration, the use of protocols, and building trust to become a true learning organisation has been strongly reinforced, as have PBL and Reggio-inspired pedagogies. The work of our Student ThinkTank was also reinforced.

What should I start doing?

I’m thinking about using the Question Formulation Technique at the start of a unit and incorporating the student questions into the unit planning. Sugata Mitra’s SOLE framework appears worthy of investigation as a framework for teaching with technology. I am going to experiment with using Google Drive as a digital portfolio and I need to model this by putting my teaching units online. I’m wondering if I can steal the 13th of October as a day to celebrate failure at my school? I need to explain to parents and students why being a good exam-taker is no longer a path to success and employment. Also, it is time for me to collate my resources on group learning into a presentation.

What should I stop doing?

Tony Wagner spoke about taking staff to another school to learn from others. Years ago I took three Heads of Department to another school to explore learning spaces and innovative approaches. We had lunch in a restaurant before returning to school and those HODs have since described it as one of their most powerful professional learning moments. I’m wondering if I should do more of this and release HoDs from their presently mandated professional learning requirements.