Trying to be hands-off for creative tasks


To finish the year, I have my Year Eight students working in teams to engage with the ‘now what’ question that flowed quite naturally from the work we have been doing on social justice, third world countries and aid agencies. Effectively, I have given them free reign to complete a task of their choosing. This is not ‘academic’ work but it is definitely making use of higher-order thinking skills. This is not life-like learning. This is real-life, make-it-happen, dirt-under-the-fingernails learning.

It is challenging! Both for the students and for me. There is no planning I can do. There are no defined outcomes I can aim for. All of it is in the hands of the students. And it is stretching us all.

I have kids who want to use social media to promote a cause. Others are wanting to visit the local hospital to hand out toys to kids. Others are creating social justice themed art work. Still others want to tattoo symbols on wrists. (Seriously!)

Now, I tend to be a fairly hands-on teacher with clear plans and goals. You could see how this is definitely outside my comfort zone and why I’m feeling a degree of being out of control. (OK… I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to learning in my classroom…)

Basically, I need to be prepared for my students to (potentially) fail. But, as I’ve said many times, it is in those times and scenarios that the kids will learn. It’s a tightrope to walk for a teacher… How much do I input to ensure success, and how much do I let things run a natural course recognising the risk of failure. Is success needed? How do we define success anyway? How do I determine busy noise from distracted noise in the classroom? And does it matter? Does every kid need to demonstrate they are involved or, again, does that not really matter? Is the process seen as being as important as an end-result?

These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind, lesson by lesson, as we work through this process. I’m not sure I have too many of the answers at this time but I’m hoping I do in a week or so once we are finished.

But that’s just like life, isn’t it?

Hopefully, sometime soon, you’ll see some links on this blog to the work the kids are doing…


A New (for me) Classroom Setup


Having spent some time considering the sort of content my students will be covering this year and what style of learning environment will best suit that, I’ve decided to do something a bit radical (for me, at least) with my classroom setup in preparation for my students next week.

I’m not a desks-in-rows sort of teacher nor do I assign seats.  Usually I change the desks around from time to time during the year, always in groups, and I allow the kids to pick and choose where they sit on a lesson by lesson basis.  I have my boundaries, of course, and the students know I’ll move someone if I need to.  But that tends to be rare and the kids appreciate the ‘freedom’ they have.

Anyway, I’ve gone a step further for the start of this year and placed all the desks around the outside of the room with the chairs semi-randomly placed in the middle.  I am wanting the flexibility of the kids just using chairs for instruction and chatting, and then moving them to the desks when and if they need or want to.

Here is what I’ve come up with (click photo for larger version):



You’ll see my freebie lounge against the wall.

I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of response I’ll get from the students and how long the setup lasts…  Stay tuned for an update…

So, what do you think?  Ideas?  Feedback?

How have you experimented with classroom design to create positive learning outcomes?


If these walls could talk 2.0


I got a bit carried away last week as I started writing on this topic.  Let me try again…


The end of the academic year is racing toward me at break-neck speed.  There is so much to do and so little time to do it and I know I shall be saying goodbye to my current crop of kids before I know it.  And this year it will be a bit different to many in the past because, with a role change next year, I will have less opportunity to join in the journey my students will continue through the Middle Years.

I was reflecting on the year and asking myself, “What would the walls of my classroom say about the past year?”.

If you have read any of my blog, you will know that I’m pretty passionate about the Middle Years, working with young adolescents, and engaging them in real, relational teaching as a foundation for learning.  And that means that, at times, what goes on in the classroom is rather left-of-centre from what might be considered ‘normal teaching’ (whatever that might be).

So now that we’re almost at the end of the academic year, what would my classroom report card look like (or sound like, from the classroom walls’ perspective)?

  • I would hope to get an A for laughter and tangents, as well as for learning and content connections.
  • I’d expect to do well in eye contact and listening and reflective questioning and empathy.
  • I’d be hoping to get a good mark for (appropriate) toilet humour in my boys’ class and for (seemingly) irrelevant chatter in my girls’ class.
  • I pretty sure I’d get good marks for my ability to get content stuck in brains but I trust I’d get a better mark for getting content stuck in hearts.
  • I hope I’d fail at ‘discipline’ but get a solid pass at relationships and respect.
  • I would expect to pass at mistake-making and get credit for mistake-learning.
  • And I would hope my students would report positively on their personal growth as much as their intellectual growth, and that they would report on who I am as much as what I taught.

Because of all of that, I actually am not so sure I would want my classroom walls to talk because somehow I don’t think everybody would think I’ve met the benchmarks ‘education’ likes to impose on me…


What would your classroom walls say about you?

 CC Image:


Ski lessons


I can’t ski.

There… I’ve bared my soul by exposing a long-held secret.

In 2005 my wife, kids and I packed out bags and headed off to live and work in Canada for six months. It was one of the best personal, professional and family development times I have ever had. We made some awesome friends and experienced more of life than we thought could ever be packed into such a short timeframe.

During this time, just before Christmas, we headed to some ski fields to learn to ski. Now, I say ‘ski fields’ but the reality is less impressive than I’m sure you are imagining. Anyway, there was snow, there were not hoards of people, and we signed up for ski lessons.

None of us had skied before, primarily because the sum total of snow that falls in my state of Australia is measured in nanometres.

My two older kids were 10 and 12. They had one lesson and were off hitting the mildly sloping terrain with abandon. My youngest was in kinder-ski (she was six) and giggled her way through a few hours of hurtling into inflated animals because turning was not in her skill set yet. She was very cute. She became the darling of the (primarily Australian) ski teachers.

My wife and I, along with two other adults (I told you there were few people there) headed off to our lessons. We got the boots and skis on. We looked the part. We imagined ourselves heading for the triple black diamond run. We were pumped!

Then reality set in.

By lunch time, I managed to slide in a straight line without falling down. And I’d managed that… once. (Don’t ask about how incredibly difficult it is to ride those things that dragged you back up the slope or how much they hurt when they smack you in the back of the head when you’ve fallen down!)

I returned for the afternoon lessons hopeful that I’d master The Turn. I didn’t. I did, however, manage to justify in my mind the inherent value of skiing in a straight line (there’s much less wear and tear on one ski over the other).

The following day, because of the small number of skiers and despite my protestations that I just can’t ski, I ended up having an individual lesson.

By lunch time my instructor agreed with me. I can’t ski!

We all have strengths and weaknesses. There are those things that we struggle to achieve in.  And our students are just the same, especially during the early adolescent years when the complexities of hormonal changes and peer importance come into play.

Their beliefs about their failures are real (in their mind).  Their justification for failure becomes more engrained with every disappointment.

But I never want to be like my ski instructor.  I want to persevere and encourage and continue to find new instruction techniques that engage with my students so they can experience success.

I trust I am a better, more understanding, compassionate teacher in the light of my skiing experiences. I certainly understand the frustration of trying and failing.


It’s An Increasingly Changing World (Guest Post)


Here is guest post number two for the week, this time from UK teacher Albert Roberts.  Albert provides us with some valuable insights and commentary on the possible future of education.  I believe this is a great follow-on from the earlier guest post by my friend Kris Naiker…


It’s An Increasingly Changing World (Are We Really Preparing Our Kids For the World That Waits?)


The future world that today’s students will live in is difficult to predict. While it’s likely that the global economy will recover and employment levels rise, the kinds of jobs and the skills needed by our kids could be markedly different to what we currently understand. What is probable, though, is that technological growth within schools will continue, from using the internet as a teaching tool, to allowing personal devices like tablets and smartphones within the classroom. With this in mind, what challenges and opportunities will be experienced by future educators and parents?


Future Challenges for Schools

The broader role of education in schools will likely continue to combine the need for academic subjects to be taught alongside more specialized courses, with students encouraged to make use of the internet to widen their knowledge from school subjects. Given that Middle Schoolers are now growing up with personal technology as an essential part of their daily lives, the ongoing challenge will be to adjust schooling and encourage transferable skills from personal activities and social media into their learning.

Speaking as part of a recent Big Think initiative, Bill Nye suggests that the future classroom won’t be radically different, in the sense of students coming together in communities and experiencing structured learning, but that the scope for accessing information will be much greater – future students will likely spend more time publishing work online, and will be encouraged to pursue projects that can feed back into their school assignments.

One way in which parents and schools can anticipate this future involves encouraging not only rote learning, but critical thinking and an awareness of digital citizenship; this means education in schools and at home on how children can responsibly contribute to online discussions, and how they can participate in voting, fund-raising, and international projects.


Adjusting for a New Job Market

As Tina Barseghian points out, new generations of children will be facing a potentially very different job market and expectations for skills by the time they reach adulthood than what we currently have. Quoting the work of Cathy Davidson into adapting education for the future, Barseghian reflects on how ‘65 per cent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet’. This means equipping children with skills that might come in useful across a range of future areas. Cathy Davidson particularly recommends getting younger children and Middle Schoolers familiar with basic programming languages such as SCRATCH, which can enable them to build their own web sites and apps.


New Methods

Some schools are also exploring ways in which the entire experience of learning can be redirected to best suit the contemporary abilities and skills of children possessing deep familiarity with technology. For example, the Quest2Learn project in New York City involves a public school where video games are used as a teaching tool; subjects are taught through specially designed video games, which feature quests and challenges that reward student knowledge and team work. While the world of the next ten to fifteen years is hard to predict, by focusing on critical thinking skills and a creative approach to digital technology, schools and parents can arguably encourage children to develop initiative and an awareness of opportunities to access knowledge and collaborate with others.


Albert Roberts is a concerned secondary school teacher in the UK.  He hopes that forward thinking teachers fill the education jobs in London and inspire the next generation.  When he’s not teaching or marking work, Albert can be found blogging about the challenges teachers face today.



Active & Purposeful Learning – AMLE characteristic 2


The Association for Middle Level Education is considered by many to be a peak body for Middle Level education in the world. For me, their This We Believe statement, encompassing the 16 characteristics of successful schools, is something of a seminal work and I plan to explore each of these characteristics over the next few months

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning.
(Active Learning)

There is so much to be considered and explored in this characteristic.  Let’s explore just a few elements in brief…

  • Active learning must be strongly linked to learning styles.  As a whole, I don’t think educators do that great a job of catering for the kinaesthetic learners in the room, for example (and there probably more than we realise).  Nor do we always cater for the visual learners, though this is improving due to the use of technology.  How much do you move your students during a lesson, for example?
  • Active learning is also, obviously, about having the student involved in their learning.  How often do your students have the opportunity to select their learning pathway individually?  For me, this has not been a strong element of my teaching but it is something that I need to integrate more into my learning.  How do you do it in your classroom?  Feel free to teach me!
  • Active learning must be linked to maturation – concrete thinkers still exist in the Middle Years classroom yet our curriculum, infused with higher order thinking skills (which I highly value), can tend to leave these students behind.
  • Young adolescents, especially boys, need to have opportunities to manipulate with their hands.  My Head of English did a great activity with the staff, giving us some plasticine and asking us to create something which we subsequently used, in small groups, to create a story.  It was a great tactile activity that linked to a creative thinking task.
  • I believe there is a subtle difference between learning that is designed as purposeful and that which is purposeful.  The distinction is in who determines the purposefulness of an activity.  While I do believe that teachers have the wisdom to make natural and purposeful links to real-life experiences of young adolescents, I also believe that it must not stop there.  We need to allow students to manipulate tasks and learning to find personal and individual purpose and meaning.  Again, I’m not sure I do this particularly well but maybe you do.  Please leave a comment that can help us all.
  • The most important thing about purposeful learning is, however, the simple desire of the teacher to connect learning to life.  In the autobiographical writing my Year Eight English students do, I make a very strong point of them considering their unique ‘voice’.  They have lived experiences that others have not.  These experiences have helped to shape them as individuals.  The experiences have also given them an understanding or perspective that others will not necessarily have.  And all of this gives them the right to exercise their voice to instruct or encourage or challenge others.  I want my students to see that they are a person of purpose and that there is purpose in them writing about themselves.
  • Ultimately, purposeful learning is about adolescents taking  a role and understanding their responsibility for their learning.  While teachers still scaffold their learning we must ensure that we never place the responsibility for learning on us more than on them.  Students at this age can own their learning – indeed, must own their learning.  It is a process, I know, and we must manage their ability to be responsible carefully.  Sometimes that will look like planned failure for the sake of driving home a point.  At other times it will be planned success to provide an esteem boost.  I believe both are valuable (but not mutually exclusive).  How do you shift the responsibility for learning onto the shoulders of the students?


Are there other things that you do to bring this characteristic to your classroom?


Spaghetti brain verses Highway brain

I commented recently about the fact that I am teaching English with two separate-gender classes.

Having taught this way for a while, it has become quite fascinating to see the differences in the way the girls and the boys process and complete tasks. Let me unpack…

I have decided that girls have spaghetti brains. When I give the girls’ group a task to complete, I find they will be planning and chatting before I have even finished explaining the task. They are deciding which colour pen they will use, who will do which task in the group, considering how the page of work will be decorated… they are tangential in their thinking, considering a multitude of interrelated facts and knowledge links.
They may take some time to start a task because of this process but, generally, once they start they produce a well-structured result.
It is like they have strands and strands of wire-connections all coming into play as they think and process.

The boys, on the other hand, seem to have highway brains. When they are given a task, they tend to do nothing until they are told to start. They will rip a page from the closest workbook, no matter what subject the book has been allocated to, will grab any pen, and they will start straight into the task. They seem less interested in who will do what (other than finger-pointing to anyone other than themself to be ‘the scribe’) and more interested in just getting it done. It seems they have heard me give the end results of the task and they are going to get to that point in as direct a route as possible. Spelling? It’s close. Grammar? Punctuation? Neatness? Ummm…
They may get into the task quickly but the end result, while potentially accurate, will often be rough around the edges and may lack depth.
It is like they have a fast-track connection straight to the end result. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. It’s done, so let’s move on!

Now, obviously there are generalities here, but the more I work with the separate gender groups, especially in early adolescence, the more it seems to be true. My challenge is to introduce a little of one group’s thinking processes to the other.

How do you see the differences between the genders?


Single Gender Class Groups

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need for male teachers in the educational lives of our young people. Another vital gender-element within school is the issue of single gender class groups.

This year, and not for the first time, we have separated the Year Eight boys and girls into single gender classes for Maths and English. I teach the English. This was made possible with some fairly simple timetabling that placed the two subject of the same line – they run at exactly the same time in neighbouring classrooms.

Why would we run single gender classes? There was one thing that became obvious as I started to look at the research into single gender groupings and that was that there appeared to be as much research that supported single gender groupings and there was that discouraged it. And some of it was, to be honest, quite self-serving and opinion justifying. So we dipped our toe into the experience by gender streaming just the two subjects. All others are homogenous groups.

I have a strong belief that boys and girls learn differently, especially during early adolescence when the hormonal journey reorganises the brain. This can significantly affect both boys and girls but the impact tends to be greater in boys. We also know that male and female brains are different for the most part. These things can and should be taken into account when teaching and I’m enjoying the gender differentiation I can do in the two separate gender classes.

Girls have spaghetti brains that take them on twisting and turning thought processes, linking seemingly random but relevant thoughts together. Boys have a highway brain that charges them to the end point, often with inadequate regard to the processes. Both bring their own challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps what I have discovered to be most significant (and there are no surprises here) is the potential that comes when the right teacher is working with the gender group. While I enjoy working with the girls and engaging them is discussive learning, I absolutely love working with the boys where there is more banter and, at times, directed learning.

I believe there is a powerful opportunity ahead of me as a male English teacher with a class of boys. English, with all its writing and spelling and grammar and textual dissection, is not very masculine (at least, not in the minds of the boys) but I am finding a real connection developing in the boys with my passion for the subject. I reckon we will be able to achieve some great outcomes together – just as I will be able to do with the girls in their group.

I’m excited about the opportunities the year will bring.

What is your opinion on single gender groupings?

What have been your successes and failures?


Building Blocks – a planning process

During the pupil-free days at the start of the year we explored the building blocks of behaviour management as constructed by Chris Sweeney. His formula of behavioural foundation blocks, supporting those blocks needed for success, and topped by blocks that are necessary tools, made a great deal of sense.

What followed, however, was a powerful exploration process as we took this basic building-blocks construct and use it to explore the how and why of other aspects of the education we provide in our school.

Let me encourage you to think through aspects of your teaching or your school or your leadership in a similar way. Consider, for example, what would be the building blocks that would engage all learners (as we did).
What would be the foundations? Perhaps relevant content, acceptance, humour, teacher passion and developmental understanding.
What might be required to prepare for student success? Maybe an understanding of multiple intelligences and an ability to interpret and Mozart the curriculum.
And what tools would be used? Habits of the mind, variety in content delivery and effective differentiation.

Can you see the power in breaking down learning processes using this construct? We found it a great way of distilling beliefs and processes and ordering them in a logical way.

What would you select as the building blocks for effective adolescent education? Or for your school’s educational philosophy? Or for your subject area?

I encourage you consider reading more about Sweeney’s building blocks of behaviour management, and to use the fundamentals of his building blocks to explore other aspects of the education you help to deliver to your students.