Innovating without the tools

How many teachers make movies for Youtube, run a Facebook page, blog, Twitter account, Instagram account, etc for a cause, and/or collaborate through Skype or social media, and/or have their own web page, weebly, wiki, etc?

It’s been more than ten years since Sir Ken Robinson reminded us that schools could be doing a bit more than funnelling young people through to universities. As well, a lot of work has been done on what education should look like this century, and governments are getting on board the creativity/innovation bandwagon.

In New South Wales, a reminder about the importance of 21st century skills was quickly followed by criticism of some of those skills in beginning teachers. Between them, these articles point us towards the real “blockers” of creativity and/or innovation education – governments, often aided and abetted by school administrators and, in too many cases, teachers themselves.

The “4 C’s” of 21st century education, i.e.: creativity, critical reflection, collaboration and communication, cannot happen in classrooms in which syllabuses are rigidly followed, teachers control what is learned and students answer questions but rarely pose them. However, even in classrooms in which there is the best will in the world to adopt pedagogy that inspires innovation, strictures from above make it almost impossible for the teachers.

Three of the 4 C’s, creativity, collaboration and communication are greatly facilitated by digital technology. Students can use devices and apps to make movies, blogs, podcasts, web pages, etc. They have the tools to collaborate with their immediate friends and anyone, anywhere on the planet. They have the ability to communicate with audiences of millions.


The problem is that the majority of students are hamstrung by adults who have little knowledge and skills in using technology but who have all the decision-making power to ban  some of the most effective tools for creating, collaborating and communicating. For example, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in many, many schools around the globe by adults who do not use them themselves, and fear the harm that they have heard might be done to students.

A major aspect of teaching young people the 4th C of critical thinking is to teach them how to use technology, including the internet, ethically and responsibly. If teachers (all teachers) can also use technology ethically and responsibly then they are able to guide and supervise young people, and help them recover from any problems that arise.

History demonstrates that banning anything is futile. In the case of banning tools that are perceived to be “harmful”, but are essential for learning creativity and innovation, there are two serious issues:

  • young people will want to test the limits of anything that is banned, and, if they have not been taught to use such things wisely, the chances of them being harmed when, not if, they use them is maximised
  • politicians and administrators who ban “harmful” internet applications are deluding themselves – any teenager can simply “hot spot” their laptop to a phone in their pocket, and only teachers who knows how to do this themselves will pick it up.

If we really want young people to be creative and innovative, let them make movies for Youtube and get feedback about them, make and follow Facebook pages and Instagram and Twitter accounts to communicate and find out things and collaborate through Twitter, Skype and Facebook.

It is often said, derisively and erroneously, by those who do not appreciate the dedication and skills of teachers, that “those who can’t, teach”. In the case of teaching for creativity and innovation, “those who teach, must” if we really want young people to learn the 4 C’s.

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Changing practice takes time

If only we could “fix” teachers!

This seems to be the paradigm of almost every politician and many media commentators – the perceived failings of school education systems are because of poor teaching.  Consequently, their logical conclusion is to raise entry standards to teaching (which, often, bear little relationship to the qualities/skills needed by great teachers), improve pre-service education and/or require practising teachers to give up their own time to “upskill”.

Teacher education provided by schools and school systems tend to be “one offs” and do not often lead to changes in many teachers’ practices. Engaging professional development sessions can pique the interest of teachers, and some teachers will even make some changes in their practice, but, overall, professional development days are seen, particularly by teachers, as a waste of time and money.

However, enough research1 has been done on teacher education to establish a few basic principles for increasing its effectiveness.

In a nut shell, effective teacher education should be on-site, ongoing and just in time. Teachers need time and support to trial and practise new strategies to facilitate effective learning. The professional development must be relevant to the teacher’s work, and delivered when and where needed, by the teacher. Therefore, teacher education must be individualised2.

The other essential aspect of “effectivising” professional development is the school leadership. A principal who models professional learning, including learning from things that do not go to plan, and makes it explicit that the whole school community is one of life-long learners would be expected to encourage more teachers to take risks with their professional leaning.

1. For example, in Promoting technology integration through collaborative apprenticeship, Evan Glazer, Michael J. Hannafin and Liyan Song, Educational Technology Research and Development, December 2005, Volume 53
2. Just as it makes no sense for a class of children to be taken through the same material at the same time, it seems illogical to gather teachers together in the one room doing the same thing at the same time and expect that they will all leave the venue inspired to improve their practice.

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A computer is an aid(e), not a teacher

Technology provides us with some wonderful tools to enhance learning. As a result, there has been a very strong movement to have us believe that technology can almost take over education. Hence, we have the rise of the Khan Academy and its clones, as well as MOOC’s, webinars and the like.

These technology-based forms of learning can only replace a didactic  form of teaching. They are often an excellent way of front loading, or providing knowledge, and are a (usually) more engaging version of the “sage on the stage” in the classroom.

Where technology currently falls over is assessment – we are not quite yet at the stage at which a computer can evaluate open-ended responses to questions. Consequently, the overwhelming bulk of assessment of online courses is by multiple-choice tests, which is all that most software applications can handle. This tends to reduce such courses, regardless of their other content, to a glitzy method of “chalk and talk”. Assessment of more open responses requires a substantial human commitment behind the software, which possibly defeats the purpose.

At the moment, the optimum use of technology might be giving students some provocative questions, some suggestions of applications and resources and then getting out of the way.



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Too high, too soon

A recent dinner party conversation set me thinking about when education changed. In many systems, schools and classrooms around the world, education has been synonymous with “success in life”, even if most of those places seemed to be failing many young people. When I was a student, many of my friends hated school and left early. However, for them, there were other educational opportunities, as well as almost full employment, and most have done well for themselves during their lives. So, even though teachers and parents tried to make school high stakes from about year 8 onwards, for most young people, it wasn’t.

I was fortunate enough to have begun teaching in a country town, just out of Melbourne, at a time when educators had a say in what was going on in schools. However, my school seemed to be untouched by the wonderful ideas about learning floating about at the time, but I still loved teaching science.

Way back then, it was possible to actually educate* young folk up until the end of year 10. There was a curriculum to follow, of course, and it was pretty much “chalk and talk” with some experiments thrown in, but there were so many opportunities for following up on students’ questions and interests. The “serious” stuff of preparing students for exams was left until the final two years of secondary school.

That all changed sometime after I moved to my second school. This was a school in which colleagues talked about student welfare, learning styles and interdisciplinary learning, all alien concepts at my previous school. It was a fabulous learning experience.

However, out in other schools, there seemed to be an emerging opinion that students were “not ready” for years 11 and 12. This often seemed to come from teachers who only taught the senior years, and felt that their colleagues who taught year 10 and below were somehow letting them and the students down. The inevitable consequence of this notion taking hold was that year 10 became “serious” – schools even began to teach the year 11 curriculum in the second half of year 10, putting pressure on year 9 and downwards. Gradually, year 10 became high stakes.

The flaw in the idea that students are often deemed to be “not ready” for the next stage of schooling is to ask the question “What is the purpose of that next stage of schooling?”. Surely, it is for young people to acquire the attitudes, skills and knowledge expected for that stage? Strategies for reliably determining prior knowledge should provide better starting points for teaching and learning than page 1 of the textbook. However, finding out what students already know and can do is a waste of time when teaching and learning involves all students ploughing through “the curriculum” at the same time, via textbooks.

The trend of moving curriculum back a level has been aided and abetted, albeit unknowingly, by politicians, parents and many teachers who still cling to the myth that high exam marks bring success in life and that, therefore, education is about high academic achievement.** In New South Wales, for example, there is a growing trend of secondary schools becoming “selective” based on the dubious proposition that a student’s academic achievement will be best in a school with only “good” students. So, for many children, grade 6 is now high stakes.

In Australia, with the introduction of NAPLAN, the national literacy and numeracy tests, grade 3 has now become high stakes for some children, because many schools are using it for the unintended use of sorting children.

Then, there is the push, in many parts of the world, for children as young as two years old to begin “school”. These pre-kindergartens are often not places in which children simply learn to explore through play and socialise with others – they do “serious” learning. Unfortunately, in many kindergartens and pre-kindergartens around the world there is a push for students to learn to read and write or learn a language before they actually begin primary school. There are institutions in which 4 year olds are streamed! There is no time for play-based learning, because education is already high stakes at this age.


Mercifully, there are schools and school systems that view education as an opportunity for young people to learn the attitudes, skills and knowledge (in that order) needed to become useful world citizens. Children learn to think, appreciate and take action in these schools, and, as a consequence, still perform at their best when faced with the artificial academic challenges that conventional education systems throw at them. Educators in these places know that success on an exam is a very poor indicator of success beyond school (whatever “success” means). Teaching students to think, to create and communicate are recognised as the essential skills in today’s societies. As well, many stakeholders in education somehow  fail to recognise that resources for learning are no longer confined to schools and libraries. In a world in which we seem to be, increasingly, pulling the wagons into a circle, it is to be hoped that a focus on authentic, individualised student learning will create a love of learning and not a fear of failure and loathing of schools.

*  As in, teach them to think about things that were of interest to them and relevant to their present and future lives, and, sometimes, to even deviate from the curriculum to do this.
**Go here for one perspective on the pursuit of academic excellence.


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Home Investigations

Two recent news articles about homework reminded us that the “homework question” has been settled in too few schools. Homework, the so-called “flipped classroom”, cooperative learning and constructivist pedagogy can come together in a blindingly simple, effective way that is win-win-win for teachers, parents and students.

When the classroom is orientated towards students answering substantial questions about “big ideas”, then homework becomes the vehicle for finding out things, for gathering “the facts”. The classroom is then the space in which students collaborate to answer the important questions and to extend their thinking to higher levels by analysing, predicting, hypothesising and exploring further, in an environment in which the teacher facilitates investigation. For example, instead of learning about World Wars, the larger idea of “conflict” (or, perhaps, better, “peace”) can be addressed from multiple perspectives. A question such as “Is it possible for us to live in peace” can be asked, and students can be given a range of tasks to perform at home. For example, with appropriate scaffolding, they could

  • research a particular conflict
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about significant conflicts they know about
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about their thoughts about conflict and peace
  • watch the evening news, read a newspaper (including digital editions), etc.
  • find and watch videos on the internet
  • , depending on the focus of the class

Good scaffolding would consist of one or two questions that enable students to explore the issue. Some questions might be factual, but others might be about larger issues and/or opinions. And, not all students need have the same task/topic. Back in class, the information discovered at home can be shared by students with each other and the teacher.

With an integrated approach to teaching, learning and homework, students benefit from doing interesting, relevant tasks both at home and school. Parents can be more actively involved, stress free, in working with their children at home. The teacher does not have to grade tasks than cannot be verified as the student’s own work[1] and do not have to be tied up with making videos, constructing resources, etc – the teacher’s role is primarily designing good questions and creatively finding resources.

[1] Note that tasks that count towards a student’s graded achievement should only ever be done in class, so that the teacher can verify their authenticity.

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Asking the right question

In our work with educators and schools to improve teaching and learning, we find that many struggle with the transition from the traditional “sage on the stage” method of teaching to inquiry-based classrooms. One of the most common “blockers” is “What will the parents think?” Many parents, although they want the best education possible for their children, still see education the way the media portrays it, and the way they were taught, themselves – the teacher at the front of the class encouraging/exhorting/ inspiring/threatening/etc the students into learning. Although they want their children’s school to be better than the one down the road, they get nervous when their school does something different. They are not always comfortable with change.

So, any good school, in the process of educational improvement, invites the parents to be partners in the journey, informing them along the way and listening to their concerns.

We used to ask parents “What do you want for your child?” This was useful in persuading them that student-centred learning led to more positive, sustainable outcomes. However, we realised that we could have actually been reinforcing, in many minds, that what they still wanted was the traditional high marks, leading to a good university, good job, success in life, etc – the model which facilitates disengagement of young people world wide.

The question we now ask is “What sort of world do you want your child to live in?” This opens up the dialogue about the important things being discussed by educators nowadays, such as higher-order thinking, grit, mindset, passion, authentic learning, etc. It suddenly becomes much easier for parents and teachers to realise that young global citizens will, as they grow as learners, achieve their best, academically, as a matter of course. They will also be far more likely to develop the requisite attitudes, skills and knowledge to make a positive difference to their families, communities, countries and planet.

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Using what we know

We know that we all learn in different ways. We also know that we all have different abilities at different things. We know that, with appropriate practice and commitment we can get better at most things.

If we apply this knowledge to schools, then some things become self evident:

– young people need opportunities to learn by different methods, at different rates

– young people begin at different starting points, so it makes sense to find out what/where these are and plan lessons accordingly

– young people need motivation and support to learn in their own way, and coaching to learn in new ways

So, planning for effective learning entails knowledge of the learning styles, abilities and personalities of the young people in our care, and developing programs that allow for as much individualisation as possible.

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Dare to be different

We have a crisis of leadership on our planet, but no-where more so than in education. Governments all over the world appoint non-educators as their ministers for education, and often these people want to “improve” education by going back to a halcyon time in education that, for most “victims” of schools, never existed.

But we cannot blame the politicians. We know that excellent schools tend to be student-centred (with an inquiry-style, holistic, real-world approach to teaching and learning) and have clear visions and/or missions to produce graduates who will make a positive difference to their communities, countries and planet. Not everyone will agree, but it is highly probable that our present global issues (environmental and economic) have been contributed to, in part, by the pursuit of individual academic achievement at the expense of personal character development. It seems logical that, if you can transmit good attitudes to young people, they will do their best and achieve success in a range of areas, including academic. The converse is, too often, not true.

Around the world there are countless thousands of school leaders who are working very hard to make their schools good. However, as someone once said (Steven Covey?) it’s all very well to be leading your followers through the jungle, as long as you are in the right jungle.

An effective leader is someone who challenges the status quo, not maintains it. In many school systems and schools the status quo must be challenged, because it is damaging our societies – the industrial model of education is not appropriate for many of today’s young people (if it ever was), and contributes to the alienation expressed, negatively, by young people all over the world. They need to know that they are valued and respected, so that schools that “expect” obedience to antiquated systems and traditions in which students “know their place” need to “get a grip”.

Unless he/she is very fortunate, a prospective school leader who has a history of doing something “out of the box” and challenging paradigms is either going to put a lid on those tendencies or expect to remain in the lower ranks – are there job descriptions for school principals that ask for skills such as “the ability to challenge orthodox educational paradigms” or “demonstrated ability to implement rapid educational change” or “challenge the Board of Governors in the interests of student learning”?

Someone once said (and we would be grateful if someone can let us know who) something along the lines that if you set out to create as many barriers to learning as possible, you would end up with the modern secondary school. So, as Sir Ken Robinson preaches, we should not be tinkering with the “accepted” model of schooling, but replacing it with something else altogether. We need many more courageous, visionary educational leaders, so that education does not continue to slip further behind the needs of its students.

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Traditional Values?

We love working with teachers to improve the ways in which they plan for their students to learn. There is so much we now know about learning for us to use so that almost all young people can achieve success at school that carries through into their lives.

In this instance, “success” does not mean the traditional view that good grades lead to good tertiary institutions that lead to good jobs – this approach, in our view, is a contributing factor to many of our global problems. If young people, and their teachers, are caught up in the pursuit of personal excellence to the exclusion of anything else, then when and where do they learn to look after other people and their planet? Some learn this, but the evidence is clearly there that many don’t.

Success means having the attitudes/values that enable young people to do their best at school, but also have an awareness of others and the world around them. Success means having the skills and knowledge to take action to improve people’s lives. A person who has strong values about working hard, paying attention to themselves and the world around them, caring for other people and nature and taking effective action when needed will, of course, achieve their optimum exam results. Those who strive for only personal achievement are unlikely to share those values.

There are many schools which have the admirable aim of “teaching” character/values to their students. There are only three ways in which teachers can encourage their charges to share their values: model, model and model.

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Not lesson plans as we understand them Jim

There is a plethora of sites on the internet offering lesson plans to teachers in need of a bit of inspiration and/or assistance. Because there are so many, is seems reasonable that there is a need for them.

The question that arises is “Are there so many things worth learning that can be fitted into one 40 to 60 minute block of time?”

In the “Google Age”, facts and formulae are easily accessed through an almost-infinite range of apps and web pages (for example, The teacher’s task is to help students make connections and think critically about what they learn. The average student is more likely to retain and understand something taught if it is part of a sustained unit of learning, over time, that involves a variety of learning modes and feedback and reflection. “One-off” lessons based around cultural/religious celebrations or fortuitous current events may entertain and motivate students, but, unless they are skilfully crafted with student learning in mind, the enduring learning is probably superficial.

Unit plans that span several weeks and employ a range of activities selected for their learning potential and allied with immediate feedback and on-going reflection facilitate student learning of skills attitudes and knowledge that will sustain them through their lives. When students have the opportunity to collaborate and inquire deeply into important concepts and questions, then the learning is deeper and longer-lasting.

Teachers still need a “sketch” of lessons to assist with time management and organisation. However, the need for the teacher to address the whole class at the beginning and end of lessons (and during) is minimised in student-centred classrooms – Once a unit is underway, students usually know what they have to do, leaving the teacher free to move about the room and monitor and support individual groups, who may well be doing different things or the same thing at different levels and rates. This is very difficult to put down on an A-4 sheet of paper.

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