Writing to Learn

I have been exploring some of the writing-based pedagogical strategies advocated by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in New York.

Free-writing is a technique where students and the teacher (this is important), write for a set period, usually around five minutes. A period of private free-writing, where you write about whatever comes to mind, clears the mind for more focused thinking.

Here are some of the guidelines for free-writing:

  • Write as fast as you can, without thinking.
  • If your flow stops, leave a space and immediately begin again
  • Write for the full 5 minutes
  • Write past the point where you feel you have nothing to say
  • Find something interesting to explore
  • No mistakes are possible; the only mistake you can make is not to write
  • Keep your hand moving
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar
  • Lists are OK
  • Think of it as play
  • Messy is good
  • Sentences are overrated

A focused free-write can then follow with students responding to a specific prompt (perhaps subject-based). Once finished they can share publicly aloud in the classroom. It is this sharing of the work that starts to signal to students. They begin to think more deeply about their own writing, language, and how to develop.

When students publicly share their work by reading aloud, a useful teaching technique is “pointing”. This involves having other students write down anything that really resonates with them as their peers are sharing, and then collaboratively sharing these ideas, best described as “verbal jazz”.

I’m also interested in the concept of process writing, when students respond to prompts like, “What do I notice about myself as a writer?” or “I am the writer who…”


Further writing to learn techniques, including loop writing, collaborative learning questions, and dialectical notebooks (examples above) are described in Writing-Based Teaching by Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang. I now use free-writing at the start of most lessons and a number of other techniques which enable me to use writing to help my students learn.


An Everyone Culture

When was the last time you were asked to talk about your progress towards your personal improvement goals or to undergo a formal review in front of colleagues? In An Everyone Culture Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey describe organisations that are convinced that they will thrive only when every one of their employees does. After reading the book I resolved to try a practice suggested on page 235. At the conclusion of a recent Heads of Department meeting I asked everyone to write an anonymous response to the following question:

“As someone who knows me and wants to help me keep growing, what do you observe that I could be doing differently that might make me more effective?”

I became very nervous as everyone in the room began silently writing. However, my concerns were misplaced as all of the responses were thoughtful, helpful and considered. Many were overwhelmingly positive, like these three:

I’d like to see you trying to find more ways to decrease the influence of HSC results and parental power on the teaching and learning at Shore.  Of course, I know you are already doing as much as humanly possible to facilitate what might be called a more enlightened curriculum, so thanks for all of that and good luck!

To continue to push the envelope in regards to the best practices for teaching and learning

Personally I believe you are doing an exceptional job exposing us to new media and introducing the staff to innovative ideas.

My key takeaway was that Heads of Department are keen for more one-on-one time with me and keen for more opportunities to share what they are doing with their teams.

I found the exercise affirming and beneficial and it has consolidated my trust in my colleagues.

Why don’t you approach three people who you trust at work and ask them:

“As someone who knows me and wants to help me keep growing, what do you observe that I could be doing differently that might make me more effective?”

ISTE 2016

My #iste2016 highlight was Ruha Benjamin’s exceptional keynote, which made me much more aware of the embedded social biases in my teaching. She spoke about the role of empowered educators to incubate a better world, build an active citizenry, and make classrooms laboratories of social change. She asked us not to devalue the arts over science because of market value and profit. We make shiny products rather than tackle underlying causes of collective problems. Why are we so impressed with growing cells in a lab but not for growing empathy for other human beings?

She did not avoid tough issues, with powerful analyses of rape culture, code switching, and design and algorithmic discrimination – outdoor benches designed to discourage the homeless, and googling “3 black boys” provides photos of mugshots, while “3 white boys” are more like stock model photos. She spoke about expecting those who monopolise power to not inadvertently discriminate, “Where are the zero tolerance policies for Congress! A deep-seated hypocrisy exists in our nation.” Whose voices are missing? Rather than ask kids to turn off their culture in school, we should value that culture in the classroom, and she gave a shoutout to @chrisemdin’s powerful hip hop education work. 

Her keynote built on an interesting panel presentation on social justice I had attended the previous day. @KatharinehHale asked how we can use edtech to help our students have a louder voice? @KristinZiemke spoke about creating conditions where students know their voice matters and she differentiated between practice and projects – projects have an expiration date, practices make up who we are. @cinehead explained that through telling stories we can start to build empathy. He has produced this resource and he closed with this powerful quote from Arundhati Roy.


Second day with Silvia Tolisano

On the second day of our staff conference, Silvia introduced us to sketch-noting, emphasising ideas, not art, and encouraging even the most timid drawer to have a go. 


Luke (above) has been sketch-noting for a while and Sarah produced this simple, effective example below.


Then we had the chance to observe some creative pitches and lots of interesting blog posts. Geography produced this clever clip, and two particularly evocative blogposts were Burst My Bubble and Exploring Multiple Literacies Using the Flipped Classroom. Another couple of posts demonstrated the cognitive wrestling taking place: Network Literacy and Do I Want That Tweeting Facebooker in my Classroom? Here is the full Shore Professional Learning blog.

The Headmaster tweeted about the need for the school to support the risk-takers, noting the dynamic traditions of the school. While some of our staff felt that the conference was enabling us to play catch up with other schools, others felt that by promoting the use of the Internet and social media, civilisation was ending. The conference amplified conversations about basic, information, citizenship, media, global, and network literacies. We will have further opportunities to learn with Silvia and I’m also going to try to get our Northbridge Early Learning Centre and K-2 staff to upskill the rest of us about how they approach documentation through a Reggio lens.

Learning with Silvia Tolisano

This week we have had the pleasure of hosting Silvia Tolisano to work with our staff on documenting for learning and global connections. Yesterday was the first day of our two-day biennial staff conference. Silvia created a wiki for our staff and she taught a team of volunteers prior to the conference to document the staff learning during the conference.

In her framing of the conference yesterday Silvia spoke about the urgency of change and new notions of literacy asking, are traditional notions of literacy sufficient for a 22nd century education? Do we have a global audience in mind when teaching? And why are schools having such a difficult time adapting to the rate of change in the world? She spoke about documenting for student learning, teacher learning, and institutional memory in order to make learning visible and to demonstrate and capture growth. She has designed a helpful routine for the documentation workflow – Look, Capture, Reflect, Share, Amplify. 


Describing  and interpreting the learning on photographs as @BrettKreidemann has done above is a simple method of documentation.

Silvia talked about pushing us out of our comfort zone and into our learning zone, but hopefully not into our panic zone, stressing the importance of putting ourselves into our challenge zone for our students. She used the example of this little girl doing this ski jump for the first time and this little girl mastering the dubstep dance.

Karin tweeted: “This is my first ever tweet. How can I teach NOW Literacies to students if I don’t know how to use them myself. Moving forward 

Everyone smiled in delight when Frank, a 40-year veteran tweeted: “I’m now on Twitter for the first time, inspired by Silvia Tolisano, presenting at Shore for professional development.

Staff were set a challenge to complete. Adam put together an interesting Powtoon and here is the TAS team mapping out global literacy. Image credit: @geoffstewart15



To conclude the day, four students from the Student Think Tank volunteered to present their thoughts on how they use social media. Mitch spoke about some ideas for using Snapchat in schools to engage community and support school spirit, and using Instagram to follow your areas of interest by following accounts from around the world. Lachie talked about how students are more often on Facebook than the school communication platform. Zane explained how YouTube is one of the largest platforms as a search engine. It was fantastic to hear the thoughts of students on social media and their responses to some curly questions from staff were impressive. Image credit: @langwitches


The backchannel conversation continued and David blogged about why teachers struggle to change. Educators joined the conversation on Twitter from around the world. Even a Shore parent contributed, “great to see you pushing beyond your comfort zones! Your students value you connecting with their world.” 

Yesterday I was impressed with how many of my colleagues threw themselves into the challenge task and dealt with the uncomfortable disorienting feeling of being out of one’s depth. It is wonderful to work with so many open-minded colleagues. Now we are about to head into Day 2 and I’m looking forward to seeing the way everyone approached the challenges and documented their learning.

Student Voice 2016

Last year I wrote about our student voice initiatives. A highlight for the group this year was presenting a two-hour interactive workshop at the Project Zero Sydney conference. While they largely operate independently, yesterday I had my termly pizza lunch with them. It is hard not to be humbled and impressed by their ideas and actions. This term they have allocated pairs of students to particular subjects to consider how they/we might encourage more involvement and commitment from students. They call it ‘student democracy’. Yes, I know, warning bells start ringing when I think that educators are about to be told how to do their job by students, yet their sensitivity and realistic awareness of appropriate boundaries never ceases to astound me.

Yesterday they presented the results of their in-school research:

  • They queried selecting the students who always put their hands up in classes as others are often too nervous
  • They enjoy the choice involved in matrix activities.
  • They really value it when teachers/departments provide them with feedback forms
  • They have enjoyed giving feedback on assignments and helping design them for future years
  • They love it when they have teachers who ask questions along the lines of “Can you see a better way of us doing this?”
  • They are enjoying the PBL focus across the school and feel that it entices students to continue with certain subjects (“lots of teachers are really on board with it”)
  • They are keen to explore further ways of providing students choice and voice, especially in Years 7 and 8
  • They really value being involved in departmental Monday Morning Team Learning Time.

It strikes me that this is a pretty impressive list of methods to increase student involvement and commitment. Now we need to determine what to do with these suggestions.

Working with this group is inspiring and invigorating, though we are still learning how to work together, step by step.

Network Leadership

The basis of this post is a statement that I heard Harvard Professor Richard Elmore make in 2011. He claimed that

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.”

Social_Network_Analysis_VisualizationThe What and Why of Networks

Alcoholics Anonymous is a network, Get Up is a network, the Men’s Shed is a network, ISIS is a network, TeachMeets are a network, even trees have social networks. Networks are not just about technology, they are about connecting and collaborating.

A paradigm shift is occurring in the way in which people are connected, moving from hierarchically arranged groups to diverse social networks. As global interconnections and complexities increase, hierarchies are being supplanted by more lateral interactions. Hierarchies require unity and coordination, whereas networks require diversity and autonomy.

Many of today’s biggest challenges come from complex ‘wicked problems’ that are ill-defined and sometimes impossible to solve. Complicated problems require a hierarchy, whereas complex problems need a more networked response. For example, when a fire crew arrives at a house fire and they are faced with a standard fire, they use standard good practice, but when they arrive at a house fire and face a fire behaving unpredictably, in a manner they have not witnessed before, a more networked response is required. Complicated problems are solved with good practice, complex problems are solved with emergent practices (Wilson, 2016).

Today’s fast and exponentially growing information currents “are like electronic grains of sand, eroding the pillars” of rigid hierarchies and top-down leadership. New connections distribute information and power, violating organisational borders and confines. Successful organisations of the future are likely to have a more adaptive, teaming network, which depends on the power of peer to peer relationships. While there is still a need for “stability, predictability and order, organisations now also need the flexibility, adaptability and innovative culture to prepare for uncertain and unpredictable futures”. More nimble, network-like structures are the key to succeeding in the face of today’s fast-moving, volatile environment and helping schools move on from the linearity of education’s outdated practices and processes. When success increasingly depends on responsiveness, what sort of design is needed to turn schools into more effective networks that can rapidly mobilise and bring new learning to action?

How Do You Lead Networks in Education?

Find the time to work on dialogue. We have much to learn from the principles of successful social organising. Network leadership is more on the ground street action than relaxed virtual action. You don’t lead by sitting in front of a computer and leadership cannot be tweeted into existence.

Foster connections. Effective network leadership encourages active networking and building diverse connections. People who link or bridge otherwise distinct groups and those who possess “the capacity to initiate and maintain ‘boundary-spanning relationships’”, have richer access to information, resources, and greater creative capability than those with a more insular network structure. These ‘border crossers’ who can access a diversity of networks are able to introduce new ideas, knowledge, and practices that can lead broad-based change. Howard Gardner refers to searchlight intelligence. That is, the capacity to connect dots between people and ideas, where others see no conceivable link. Project Zero researcher Flossie Chua talks about the need for people who are ‘hyperlinks’, linked in with many areas, not just focused on one.

Devolve decision-making to the frontline. Teachers need to be released from Stockholm syndrome. Google is saying that if you want to be managed you are unemployable. The military now uses the term “Strategic Corporal” which is the notion that leadership in complex, rapidly evolving environments devolves lower and lower down the chain of command to more effectively incorporate the latest on the ground data into decision-making. It is now time for Strategic Teachers. Design thinking is an increasingly popular problem-solving process in schools that empowers frontline teachers.

Teach people to work in teams. Collaboration is fundamental to getting things done. The strongest influence on teacher professional practice is advice from colleagues, and teachers get better by working in teams on teaching issues. However, norms of autonomy and privacy are entrenched among teachers, and the isolation of cellular classrooms discourages professional interdependence. Teachers cannot become better teachers in isolation from each other. Deeply embedded structures have to be challenged and teaching must become infused with a genuinely collegial, collaborative ethos. Amy Edmondson emphasises speaking up, listening intensely, integrating different facts and points of view, experimenting iteratively, and reflecting on ideas and actions. One of her key points is about the importance of psychological safety. Team members feel more comfortable suggesting alternatives when their leader has previously modelled that it is OK to make mistakes. A team leader’s role is to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking and allows teachers to question the status quo.

Become more intentional about informal learning. 80% of learning is informal and it is often left to chance. Recognise the degree of dependence on informal networks.

“Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know (Cross, 2007).

Design for flexibility and responsiveness. Schools were not constructed to be fast and agile, and they were not designed for an environment where change has become the norm. Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter advocates introducing a second, more organic, agile, network-like structure that operates in concert with the hierarchy (which is still needed for reliability and efficiency) to create what he calls a “dual operating system.”

 “The successful organization of the future will have two organizational structures: a Hierarchy, and a more teaming, egalitarian, and adaptive Network” (Kotter, 2014).

 This new network structure is dynamic: initiatives merge and disperse as required with contributions from all parts of the organisation, liberating information from silos and the hierarchy.

 Scenario plan. In an interconnected and fast-paced world, linear cause-and-effect strategic planning is rapidly losing its value. Scenario planning, which focuses on creating flexible long-term plans, is a more useful tool for responding to ongoing uncertainty. It involves people in creating stories about what might happen and then choosing from possibilities based on a preferred future. For example, St Paul’s School has completed a scenario planning project, imagining what the world will be like in 2028 when its currently youngest students will reach their final year of school. Around thirty global leaders contributed to the crafting of four scenarios, including: Tim Costello, Andy Hargreaves, Mark McCrindle, David Price, Pasi Sahlberg, and Yong Zhao.

Provide cyclical disruption of entrained thinking. Perspective shift is enabled by taking experts in one field (education) and connecting them with experts in a completely different field, in order to challenge their assumptions. This sort of disruption is best managed as “a ritual and expected process”.


Education is moving from a narrow pipeline metaphor to an incredibly diverse web of outside networks and knowledge is becoming literally inseparable from the network that enables it. Reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s learning webs, knowledge is now distributed across networks of connections, and learning consists of immersing oneself in networks by creating and sharing. The future of learning lies in networks, and networks require a new form of leadership, prioritising peer to peer relationships to build creative capacity.



Wilson, D. (2016) Leadership and Learning: Past, Present, Future, Project Zero Perspectives: Leading Learning & Thinking, Melbourne.

Project Zero Sydney

Young people are connected to one another around the globe in ways unimaginable just 20 years ago. How we as educators respond will influence the level of civic engagement, the ethics and the intellectual curiosity of an entire generation. Among the choices presented to us is this pressing question: 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?

Last week I bolted to Project Zero Melbourne for 24 hours to see what was coming our way the next weekend. It was an amazing event and set the bar high. My highlight was hearing Daniel Wilson’s plenary on Leadership and Learning where he spoke about disrupting and reimagining power relationships between students and teachers. He described leadership as, “The process of social interaction of influence of direction and action, not a characteristic of an individual.” He stated that reimagining education is not just complicated, it’s complex, and it’s OK to not know. Complicated problems are solved with good practices, while complex problems are solved with emergent practices. It is all about developing the skills to experiment, being prepared to make mistakes, prototyping, and stimulating. He also noted that research is not speaking to curiosity, it speaks to standardised tests, and there is a need to change outcomes to lead learning that matters. It was one of those plenaries that still has me constantly revisiting the ideas and led nicely into Project Zero Sydney six days later.

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After almost two years in the planning, Project Zero Sydney arrived last Sunday. David Perkins spoke about reimagining education for a changing world, asking “What’s worth learning for children growing up today?”, and noting the gravity of tradition where niche understandings limit lifeworthy learning. He also spoke about the tensions between achievement and relevance, information and explanation, and expertise and expert amateurism. His question, “What will speak loudly to the lives learners live?” set the conference up powerfully and formed the basis of much conversation and learning for the next two days.









Image: @chiaoyinanita

With a fast-paced backchannel adding to the conversation at the conference, Shari Tishman then slowed us down, taking the time to notice more than meets the eye at first glance and providing structures for lingering.  Complexity is highlighted when we consider who we are in relation to what we are looking at. Slow looking challenges teachers to re-frame ourselves as something other than imparters of knowledge.









Image: @HaywoodNellie

Carrie James presented on what good online digital participation looks like.  She spoke about how youth express their civic voices online and how we can leverage social media in ways that promote good intercultural exchanges. The Out of Eden Learn Dialogue Toolkit is a wonderful resource for good digital participation and it was interesting to hear Carrie refer to #blacklivesmatter, #letthemstay, and this great 4th grade Lorax activism video.










A large number of interactive courses were presented by participants. I was proud of the number of my colleagues who presented, particularly the student-led course on Student Voice. A number of students also learned alongside teachers in the plenaries and interactive courses.

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A Project Zero conference really walks the talk, allowing participants to think and have conversations. The Project Zero team is incredibly generous and inclusive. It was such a privilege to host the conference and, in many respects, it was the pinnacle in terms of leading learning and teaching in a school, but now I’m wondering what next? In closing I encouraged attendees to stay in touch and work together to build a PZ movement in Australia. The vibe of the community was palpable and my adrenalin is still coursing as Project Zero Sydney wraps up. Feeling very lucky.

Adam summary









Adam PZ









Both images: @AdamLarby

Agile and Adaptable

Speech to the Australian College of Educators, Friday 4th March 2016:

(click here for the slides that accompanied my talk).

Autumn I am delighted to speak to you about the inspiring time I spent in 2011 studying Learning and Teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I thrived in classes with leading educational thinkers, people we usually only see on a bookshelf, and they significantly influenced the way that I view education.

Responding to an internal Harvard job advertisement I had the added good fortune of being appointed to work in the Harvard teacher education program. I taught a group of interns (prac teachers), and spent one day a week mentoring my interns and their supervising teachers in Boston public schools.  I loved working with committed young educators facing confronting issues of poverty and race, whilst all the time feeling like I was on a Hollywood set. The red brick façade of Boston Latin made me pinch myself every time I arrived.

It is impossible to capture what I learned in a year in a quick elevator pitch, but I can say that due to the time spent diving into the nexus between policy, research, and practice, I have significantly shifted the dial from ‘how do I cover the content’ to ‘what sort of learners am I trying to produce’? My three key points this evening are:

  • Engaging students with ideas instead of delivering information
  • Teacher capacity building, not compliance
  • And learning how to organise as a network rather than a hierarchy

I was most strongly influenced by ideas from Project Zero. Project Zero is a research branch connected to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a strong research agenda in the arts, the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural thinking, and ethics. PZ researchers are critical of excessive testing and ranking, and advocate a broader view of learning and ethics. It is a message that resonates with me. We still tend to view education as a process of sorting, sifting, and ranking. Even Board inspectors tell our school that we do too much testing and we need to focus more on learning objectives and less on covering content, yet we persist in doing school as it was done to us.

Project Zero stalwart David Perkins asks,

“What’s worth learning?

Most of what we teach beyond basic literacies quickly gets forgotten. Instead of fixating on educating for the known, Perkins says that,

“We need a vision of educating for the unknown, for the kinds of thinking and understanding that foster nimble adaptive insight in a complex world.”

Sounds a bit like Malcom Turnbull doesn’t he? Perkins insists that most of what we teach students in school is a waste of time and that a huge information base may not be the right priority for our times.

Educational settings are often neat, organised, linear, predictable, structured, whereas life is often not. Perkins calls for lifeworthy learning and the development of flexpertise. This matches my own thinking. While teaching Year 12 is often seen as the pinnacle for teachers, when we have Year 9 classes connecting globally, blogging, and producing documentaries, the prospect of covering dot points for Googleable questions in a standardised test has become even less appealing to me than it used to be. Years 7-10 have become the playground. Shovelling a mass of content into students and drilling them to answer HSC-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Doing it the way the teacher wants is not a 21st century skill.

Howard Gardner talks about how today’s kids have less autonomy and are more risk-averse, whilst acknowledging that they are more connected and more tolerant than ever before. He speaks about nudging kids from dependence to enabling, suggesting that it’s all a question of agency. This leads him to conclusions about the value of direct instruction versus constructivism. For him there is no contest and he freely admits that he is rather taken with the concept of constructivism. He encourages us to allow kids to make mistakes and get lost sometimes. He refers to an interesting paper: The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy.

I now often ask myself how would I teach if the exam was in 20 years’ time?

Tina Grotzer taught me about the concept of transfer and kindled my interest in project-based learning. PBL is now evident across our school.

  • TAS students design and make wind turbines to power LED lighting and water pumps in response to the scenario that a catastrophic climate change disaster has wiped out the country’s energy grid.
  • PDHPE run a “Rethink Sugary Drink” project where students investigate the sugar content of common beverages and display posters around the school campus to educate others.
  • Our Year 10 film festival has become a rite of passage between Year 10 and the senior years of school. This is a one week collaborative project where 200 students produce 50 short films. Attendance at school is optional while the groups work on their films and the entire week is centred on Greg Whitby’s immortal line, “What would happen if we made learning compulsory and attendance optional?”

Students have reported back to me:

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

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

“I wish we could do this every year.”

As we gain confidence, we are branching out to more cross-curricular and global projects.

  • My students have produced audio e-books about history for kindergarten kids who live in the remote Northern Territory
  • My classes regularly engage in global projects with students in other countries:
    • piloting Project Zero’s Out of Eden Learn project
    • learning about civil rights and World War II with US schools
    • discussing World War One with Turkish students.

Some verbatim quotes from my students:

  • We have worked with people worldwide
  • We have seen different points of view
  • We have seen what other countries think about history
  • We have thought about stuff differently
  • We have found unseen truths
  • We have learned about both sides and views of wars
  • We have gone beyond the textbook
  • We have made global connections
  • We have looked at different perspectives
  • We have learned about how we glorify Australian soldiers
  • We have learned that we only study history from an Australian point of view

Students’ words. Not mine.

This supports Veronica Boix Mansilla’s work on global competence. Educating for global citizenship has become a pressing need and it is vitally important for us to engage with people who are very different from ourselves in order to become aware of the diversity of how people think, to help us discern our own cultural assumptions, and to learn how to work across cultures.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one language?


It’s an old joke that’s no longer funny.

Now I’m going to shift gears and make some comments about adult learning in schools.

We have largely moved on from the carwash model of professional development, spray and pray, where you blast it out en masse and hope that some of it sticks. Our professional learning culture is now centred on coaching, mentoring, collaborative inquiry, and instructional rounds, with educators identifying and working to solve their own problems of practice and have their thinking challenged by helpful colleagues – professional growth and capacity building, not compliance – lateral accountability, rather than vertical accountability. We are all gradually becoming better question-askers and better listeners.

For a school to truly learn, norms of autonomy and professional isolation have to be challenged and teaching must become infused with a genuinely collegial, collaborative ethos, where teachers regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues about improving their practice. Cultural change at Shore has come about due to unwavering support from the Headmaster for the professional growth of staff, the strong relational trust amongst the teaching staff, the students and parent body, and an open willingness to experiment and fail forward to find what works best in our context.

We now have fewer staff development days and guest speakers expected to entertain us. Instead we have spread the time on Monday mornings with students arriving late in time for period 2. This ‘Team Learning Time’ is an opportunity for sustained, collaborative adult learning, with opportunities to innovate, plan high quality pedagogy, distribute leadership, and reflect. Each subject department co-constructs plans for the use of the time.

We have discovered the value of discussion protocols to guide professional conversations. Protocols enable educators to deeply examine student work and teacher tasks, and address problems of practice. They create a team learning structure which enhances clarity, safety, equity, and reflection.

We are gradually learning to outgrow the boxes we have created. We are currently wondering whether cross-curricular teams might operate more effectively than subject-specific teams, whether Heads of Department are the best people to lead adult learning, and how we can bring more students into the conversations we are having about their learning? Students now attend our Heads of Department meetings, they are increasingly involved in the review of programs, pedagogy, and assessments, and students participate alongside the teachers on our staff development days. Letting students in to secret teacher business allows for interesting insights. One commented to me:

“It has given me more faith in my teachers because I could see that everyone there was really interested, not just there because they had to be there.”

While increased agency is at the core of these changes, none of this has occurred without the readily apparent tensions of a shifting culture. I entered this career because I love teaching kids, but increasingly I am finding that my role is to teach adults. I am often too impatient, not a good trait for someone in my role. I need to be resilient and I usually am, but there have been very painful moments and lost friendships during the journey.

In class at Harvard, Richard Elmore noted that,

“The future of schools lies in networks rather than hierarchies, in lateral rather than vertical organisations. Most of the work gets done in networks, not hierarchies. The education system will essentially functionally be replaced by a series of networks. Networks cannot be managed the same way that hierarchies are managed. Social networking is a different way of organising.”

Education is moving from a narrow pipeline metaphor to an incredibly diverse web of outside networks. Knowledge is becoming inextricable from the network that enables it. When Matt Esterman and I wrote about Teacher-Led Conferences for Learning Forward, we contrasted traditional “spider” organisations which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish” organisations which depend on the power of peer to peer relationships. Agile, network-like structures are the key to succeeding in the face of today’s fast-moving, volatile environment and helping us move on from the linearity of education’s outdated practices and processes. What sort of design will be needed to turn schools into enhanced networks that can mobilise more quickly and effectively to bring new learning to light and action?

I am lucky to work in an environment where we can push some boundaries. Next week we host Project Zero Sydney, focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing educators in the Digital Age.

1437064498288PZP-Syd-Banner730x330Three of the questions that we are exploring at next week’s conference are:

  • How do we educate for the unknown?
  • 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?

And, in our fast-paced world,

  • How do we slow the learning down and focus on depth, not breadth?

In my final class with Richard Elmore, he warned that while there will always be a place like school for students to interact with teachers, the school education sector as we know it will soon be obsolete and our future is a future of dramatic transformations.

Last year I heard Richard Ford present a passionate, eloquent, deeply considered speech at this event in which he outlined how ACE might not just survive, but thrive into the future. There was talk about getting his speech published online for all members to read. It never was.

How is ACE becoming more transparent and creating structures that encourage many levels of participation? What role will teacher (or even student) voice play in the future of this organisation? How could ACE transition from being Australia’s peak association for educators to becoming Australia’s most powerful network of educators?

What it means to be educated, and the role schools play in this, is rapidly changing.

My sincere hope is that the Australian College of Educators is up for the challenge of playing a key role in helping us become more agile and adaptable in the face of these shifts.

Thank you.

Global Shadow a Student Challenge

Today I completed the Global Shadow a Student Challenge. I first shadowed a student for the day as professional development eight years ago. Then in 2010 when I worked in teacher education for a year, shadowing a student was my interns’ first assignment. I know how useful the shadowing can be for a teacher.

I was working with a group of staff in period 1, so I commenced shadowing in period 2. I wandered into the Year 11 English class and sat at the back, although the lesson was so active that I had to shift location twice as the students reformed themselves into various set-ups during the lesson. When I walked in, Ben was with another three students, presenting to the class about a poem. Then he worked with a partner and I observed them swapping ideas and working collaboratively. I was impressed with the level of student independence and motivation. The teacher was moving between groups in a coaching capacity, but many students were just getting on with their learning in pairs or independently. The most telling aspect for me in this first observation was the heat in the room. I was sweating and it made me wonder how the students managed to concentrate.

I then followed Ben to Assembly, where I stood at the back of the hall. The Deputy Headmaster read through some administrative announcements, the Headmaster read the sports reports and then delivered a message about gratitude and humility. Again, I found the heat, with 1200 students in the hall, quite oppressive and it was hard for me to prevent my attention wandering. To be honest, the most interesting part was when the three student “cheer” captains came on stage and sang “The Summer of 69” with lyrics about Year 12 students. It was light-hearted and everyone was laughing and enjoying their antics.

As I was wondering whether I should shadow Ben for Recess, I found him speaking to his Tutor outside the Common Room. He informed me that as he had an assessment task for Maths next he would be heading there early. The pressure of the assessment task was clearly weighing on many students and it formed much of the discussion I heard between the students throughout the day.

In period 3, during the Maths assessment task, Ben worked flat out, silently, individually for the whole period.

In period 4 he had Geography. When I arrived the teacher was explaining the format of an upcoming assessment task. Then the teacher launched into an entertaining patter and story about how surf develops, culminating with a chair being thrown onto the floor to simulate the surf breaking. The class was engaged and the point was well made. I noticed in this class that some students chose to use laptops while others were content with pen and paper. I wondered about the difference. Some students were attempting to write everything down, others were sitting listening. Again I noticed the stifling heat and also how small the classroom space was.

I took a break from shadowing at lunch but towards the end of the lunch break I went out and saw Ben sitting with his mates on a bench on the oval. I didn’t have a hat on and it was burningly hot, so I didn’t stay outdoors.

Period 5 was Studies of Religion. The teacher commenced with a check-in with students and spoke about the heat and mentioned his family holiday in winter. The personal touch was noticeable. For this lesson the desks formed one large table and the lesson proceeded through question and answer, a Connect-Extend-Challenge thinking routine, and a discussion about reading and writing and the impact of laptops.

I taught Ben in the final lesson of the day and I have to admit that my focus and attention was not really with him for the lesson as we moved to the library for some one on one feedback to students in preparation for tomorrow’s History assessment essay.

After school Ben had basketball training and his first question on volunteering to be shadowed had been whether I would be coming to his training. I did wander down to the gym and spent a while observing, before the pile of emails and phone messages waiting dragged me back to my desk.

Key takeaways:

  1. It was really hot in some areas of the school and the students’ learning must have been affected.
  2. When students have a high-stakes assessment task during the school day, it clearly has a significant impact on them in the lead-up and aftermath. It isn’t just a one period snapshot out of the day.
  3. When I shadowed a Year 9 student eight years ago I recalled much of the teaching being teacher-centred and, to be honest, I found myself bored sometimes. In contrast, today there was a constant energy. The English lesson was largely student run and the Studies of Religion lesson was based on the input from the students. Even the most teacher-directed lesson involved far more interaction than I recalled from eight years ago. Has the school teaching culture really changed that much?
  4. I was particularly proud that no students or teachers seemed to mind at all that I was present in the classes.
  5. I was exhausted following a student all day and I am left wondering how he will have the energy to do any homework when he finishes basketball training. When do they get down time?