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…


Making my world bigger

14 weeks is a heck of a long time, but it has been that long since I last sat at my desk at school and, today, I am back here trying to get my thoughts together in preparation for the onslaught of the semester ahead. And it has been a mixed bag of success.

During my time of leave I travelled overseas for four weeks and then renovated large swathes of our house. In the middle of it all there was the death of my father-in-law and the process of grief for all of my immediate family. While I had been checking my school emails and kept a small part of my brain linked in on school stuff, I have had a wonderful time of doing something completely different.

What did I learn? I guess the most significant thing was that there is a lot of life we rarely have the opportunity to experience and that, for teachers especially, the routines of education can become a rut which might run so deep that we lose sight of other, equally valuable and interesting aspects of life. And this is an important thing to remember (or be reminded of). I am a firm believer in education providing as broad a scope for student learning as possible and so teachers must maintain their own life-exploration in order to ‘be the world’ to their students.

To annotate just one aspect of this… I have had several weeks of project managing trades workers. I have a better appreciation of their levels of skill and knowledge and their ability to do a job (which was taking me quite some time) effectively with the right technique and tools. I especially enjoyed working with my sparkie who took it upon himself to become my electrical mentor, passing off jobs to me instead of simply doing them himself, saying, “Why pay my boss $100 an hour for me to do something I reckon you could do yourself”. Not only did I learn about wiring and installing lights and powerpoints and switches, but I have the satisfaction of bragging that, “I hooked up those lights all by myself!” (Don’t worry; he did check my work before we switched the power back on.)

Does that make me a better teacher? Of course it does. My world is bigger. I have more I can draw upon when teaching my kids. I have increased appreciations and understandings.



The Ripple Effect


Do you ever get that end-of-semester, the-assessment-is-finished, what-do-we-do-with-the-kids-now feeling?

I have to admit that, for many teachers, the last few days of a semester can be a challenge.  Kids are disinterested and teachers are exhausted.

A few of our wonderful staff led us into wonderfully uncharted territory at the end of last semester in a whole-secondary event called The Ripple Effect.

Over three days (Monday, Tuesday and Friday) the students worked in house teams to create ‘something’.  The intention was to model and encourage higher order thinking skills within a non-structured, student-directed, creative environment.  And the results were amazing!

The students met in their house groups (Middle and Senior separately) to design a structure or event that upholds God and our College’s Honour Code while contributing to the community – be that the College community, our suburb or the wider city.  The focus was on making a difference with every day actions, skills and giftings.

Students needed to

  • complete a feasibility report,
  • show aspects of design,
  • cost the event/structure
  • consider how it might be funded
  • consider workplace health and safety
  • and present an event management proposal.

The students had access to the various skill sets of the staff as well as any other support structures they though necessary.

They were provided with thinking tools such as PCQs, SWOTs, decision-making matrixes and elimination draws.  Teachers supported, encouraged and challenged individuals and groups.

Ultimately, the groups had to present their proposal in a 10-minute presentation on the Friday to a judging panel, which included staff from our city council (it was a house competition after all!).

The work the students completed and the quality of their ideas and presentations was far beyond what was expected.  Perhaps more exciting, the ideas they generated were genuinely impressive and valuable, often demonstrating their collective compassion for others.  These ideas ranged from printing positive messages on coffee cups to counter the growing levels of depression in our society to running an encouragement afternoon tea for girls at a neighbouring state school and establishing a fun-day for the local community (these were from the Middle Years kids).

As I said, the results were far beyond what we expected and, while the amount of work needed to make this event happen was huge, we now have an established process that we will definitely use again.

And there was no evidence of boredom or disengagement.  A real win-win.

Feel free to contact me if you would like some more details.


What do you do in your school to counteract potentially wasted end-of-semester days?

Please leave a comment to share your experiences.


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.



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.

Richard Turere (age 13): My invention that outsmarted lions

Here is another TED talk I’d encourage you to watch.  Richard Turere is a young man from Nairobi who, while woking on his father’s farm caring for the cattle, came up with an invention to keep the lions away.  As he says, a way to ‘protect the lions and protect the cattle’.

This is an incredible story well worth watching from the introductory documentary to the TED interview with Richard.  I’m sure you will be inspired by what can be achieved by passionate young adolescents.

Will you view your students differently now you have watched this?


More on Mistakes

Tess Pajaron, who works at OpenColleges, made contact recetly asking for my opinion on an article by Miriam Clifford on the value of making mistakes.  I’m humbled to be asked.  While I won’t reprint the article here, let me encourage you to take the link and go and read it.

What follows are my comments and opinions on this article.

Ms Clifford makes the following statements:

Allowing age-appropriate mistakes can increase confidence and problem solving  skills.  Mistakes are the basis of application.  They allow for  experimentation.  If we see knowledge as just enough to “pass a course” then we miss the point of  learning.

I think she has managed to distill some very wise thought here that it is worthy of exploration.  I agree with the need for age-appropriate mistake making.  However, especially during the teenage years, how age-appropriateness is determined can make or break a student’s ability to build resilience in learning.  Sadly we are often working with students who tie their self-worth up in their ability to succeed.  Any why wouldn’t they?  Popular culture expects perfection.  Parents expect schools to teach for accuracy (and let’s not get into the discussion about how parents define ‘teaching’ here).  Teachers expect correct answers on test papers based on a time-poor delivery of a prescriptive curriculum.  A great deal of sensitivity, wisdom and experience is needed on the part of the teacher to determine the correct approach for each student when exploring their learning mistakes.  This does not mean, however (and in no way am I advocating) that teachers should leave mistakes to die in the wasteland of missed opportunities.

Differentiation is part of the solution but there is much more that must be considered and carefully scaffolded by teachers.  How we speak about errors has the power to build or destroy.  Clifford acknowledges that “Taking time to engage in mistakes… [is] costly in  terms of time.”  I agree.  But the investment in the lives of the student is imperative.

I tend to be a dripping tap in my classroom, stating again and again that ‘the only bad mistake is the one we do not learn from’.  I want my students, especially my Maths students, to understand that a fear of mistakes breeds a fear of learning.  I remind them that, despite how much they are growing and developing, they do not, and are not expected to, know everything. I try to point out my mistakes with honesty and I encourage my students to talk openly with me and their peers about their own mistakes as part of the process of learning.

Elsewhere in the article, Clifford states, “If we don’t allow students to fail in the classroom we are setting them up for failure in the real world.”  I’m not sure I fully subscribe to that opinion but only because it could indicate that teachers should be providing opportunities for failure (though I acknowledge she goes on to explain that ‘pass-the-course’ knowledge’ misses the point of learning).  Contrived circumstances in learning will never provide the same level of learning and understanding as that which is acquired through natural exploration.  Students must be encouraged to work toward success in every situation. Part of the process is to use errors as rungs upon which we climb the ladder of learning.

I value what Clifford postulates as the reasons why teachers avoid mistakes.  While I won’t repeat the statements here, let me give a summary of my personal opinion.  We, as teachers, avoid the exploration of mistakes by students (and potentially by / in ourselves) because of fear.  We fear the reactions of the students, we fear the repercussions from our academic superiors, we fear the scrutiny of parents, we fear our own inadequacies.  And in some of us, this fear is deeply rooted in our own school experiences (based, as they typically are, on the delivery of a curriculum that existed in a flawed education system).

We also avoid mistakes because of time.  I know that the ‘busyness of the classroom’ can be seen as an oft-touted excuse, but it is true.  Our curriculum has become an over-stuffed comfortable chair that we have sunk into and become surrounded by.  But perhaps it has become so stuffed and so comfortable that we no longer see that is it faded and worn and that the stitching is separating at the seams.  Remember, even the most comfortable chair will become hard and ineffective if you just keep stuffing more into it.  And maybe comfortable is not necessarily the best thing for us or our students.

Are mistakes valuable?  Most certainly so.  I try to embrace them and I work hard to help my students embrace them too.

Thank you, Tess and Miriam, for challenging me to continue my exploration and hone my thoughts on this topic.

 May I encourage others to buy into the discussion?  You comments are always welcome.

You might also be interested in an earlier post from me on mistakes:



Unfathomable Adolescent Thinking that makes us smile


Anyone who works in the Middle Years of Education will know that you can never predict the thought processes that happen in the mind of an adolescent.  Often their creativity exceeds out expectations (though not always in the way we expect).

Here’s proof…

and my absolute favourite…


Do you have any fun, creative student responses you could share?  As always, I’d love to hear from you!



Wrong Answers or Wrong Questions?


“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.”    

 Antony Jay,       

British writer, broadcaster, director and actor


I came across this quote recently and it resonated well with me.  I believe in the power of mistakes and I encourage my students to learn through them.  As a Maths teacher, this is a particularly powerful way of students discovering where they have gone wrong in their calculation processes. It is always interesting, however, to watch students struggle with this concept.  Middle Years students are travelling through a time in life when change is the constant and self-identity is all consuming.  Mistakes can be taken very hard within this context.

But my mantra to my students has long been, ‘the only bad mistake is the one you do not learn from’.  And I am pleased to say that, seven months into this academic year, my current group of students are much more confident to talk to me about their errors, even in front of their peers.

This sort of self evaluation is very important.

But, back to the quote.  What I love about it is the challenge to not just seek the errors in our learning (and life) but to be be skilled in asking the right questions before, during and after the ‘mistake’ process.  Good questions focus on evaluation, on moving forward, on deep levels of self-understanding.  It is all about higher-order thinking.

So I think there is a challenge for me to not only encourage my students to learn from their mistakes, but gain in the ability to ask the right questions in order to develop a more creative mind.

How do you encourage your students to ask the right questions in response to their mistakes?

As usual, I’d love you to leave your musings below…