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in the face of today’s fast-moving, volatile environment and helping schools move on from the linearity of education’s outdated practices and processes.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?




48 hours in Hong Kong

I have just attended the 21st Century Learning International conference. The conference is focused on edtech and largely aimed at international schools based in Asia. While I visited Hong Kong several times in my youth, this was the first time I have been back in 16 years. The food is still great, the energy of the city is palpable through the constant building, and it is a gentle entree to Asia – sort of a cross between Shanghai and Singapore.


There were some exceptional keynotes. Mimi Ito spoke about connected learning, education moving from a narrow pipeline metaphor to an incredibly diverse web of outside networks, and teachers’ roles as connection builders becoming even more critical.

Michael Carr-Gregg presented on technology for emotional literacy and wellbeing, using new and emerging technologies to promote mental health. He provided a plethora of sites and apps to investigate.

In the closing keynote, Patrick Green implored us to stop asking Googleable questions. Students should publish to the world, craft a digital footprint that says “Here I am!”, and aim for autonomy, mastery, and purpose, despite standardised exams. He asked us to stop giving instructions and exemplars. “Doing it the way the teacher wants is not a 21st century skill.” Patrick’s shoulder shrug video is epic.

Two panel presentations were held, and I normally run a mile from panel presentations, but these were well facilitated. I enjoyed hearing Bernard Bull speak about leadership as being the Chief Possibility Officer, storytelling, and capacity/community building. The insightful Dana Watts spoke about student voice and choice, not doing everything in silos, the importance of having students at conferences, and she asked the eloquent question – “How do we give them choice and also help them to see what they don’t know?” She also spoke about creating a culture of sharing so teachers feel safe, transparent classrooms, and ePortfolios for students and teachers.

Throughout the conference it was refreshing to see presenters utilising interactive approaches in a very natural manner – from forming small teams to tweet out a response, to using for the audience to ask and rate each other’s questions.

I attended an interesting presentation on the changing professional learning culture at Ormiston College in Brisbane. Tamara and Brett spoke about the need to invest in people not just buildings, and the importance of skill sets and mindsets that will enable students to thrive into the future. They discussed their Learning Innovations Leadership Committee, Big Idea Projects, Genius Hour, how they have developed  a culture of innovation through their innovation grants, their community of practice cross-school collaborations, flipped staff PD through the use of online modules, and sharing and building networks within the global community. I will be visiting Ormiston College in May, so it was good to get a heads up about the great work taking place there.

My key takeaways – Get students blogging and publishing for authentic audiences. Self-directed learning is descending on us in force and I need to experiment with ways to incorporate Genius Hour-type learning in my own classes. Student voice is a global theme and this reinforces our current school-wide focus. The concept of a culture of sharing and transparent classrooms was also very reinforcing. I’m now wondering whether we would get more out of our annual staff fellowships if we rebranded them as ‘innovation fellowships’?

Many thanks to 21st Century Learning International and particularly Graeme Deuchars and Avinash Dadlani for an amazing time in Hong Kong. You are doing wonderful things for global education. I would also like to really thank Pearson, who are the Patron Sponsors for the Global Innovation Awards, for their generosity in sponsoring my attendance at the conference and supporting global innovation in education. When you put educators like this in the same room together and forge connections, great things can result, so thanks so much for seeing the value in what we are all doing. #teacherpower

Question-Centred Classrooms

In Seymour Sarason’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.