Posts Tagged ‘learning’

“If I wanted to become a better carpenter, I’d go find a good carpenter, and I’ll work with this carpenter on doing carpentry or making things. And that’s how I’ll get to be a better carpenter. So if I want to be a better learner, I’ll go find somebody who’s a good learner and with this person do some learning.”

Seymour Papert


Last year I was asked to create a presentation unpacking metacognition for a school. Given that I had been talking around and about this topic in one way or another for several years I thought I had a fair idea of what I wanted to talk about. However I decided to dig a little deeper and expand my understanding of the topic.

My usual research routine when I am deepening my understanding about particular concepts is to gather information from a range of sources into one folder on my computer and then to read through and extract the key ideas and concepts. My goal during this phase is to gain a clear enough picture of the ideas and concepts so I can build a narrative for teachers that they can easily grasp the concept. This strategy of reading broadly and narrowing down ideas and concepts until I have clarity was something I found worked at high school and its value was reinforced at university due to the amount of reading we had to do.

As I read and gathered the ideas and concepts I had one of those “Ah ha” moments that transformed the way I thought about learning and teaching. Let me take you through a quick summary of some of what I put together for the presentation



Metacognition is broadly defined as “thinking about thinking” and includes activities such as:

  • Learning about how people learn
  • Developing an awareness of one’s own learning processes
  • Monitoring one’s learning strategies and assessing their effectiveness
  • Consciously managing one’s own motivation and attitudes toward learning
  • Making adjustments to one’s learning strategies when appropriate

Attribution Theory research indicated that high academic achievers had particular beliefs and habits. They were clear that it was the application of strategies and effort that lead to success, that failure was the result of the incorrect application of a strategy or lack of effort, and high achievers formally used many strategies. Low academic achievers on the other hand attributed success to luck and failure to lack of ability (fixed mindset), and either were quite informal or didn’t use any specific learning strategies.

This led me to explore what were the habits of effective self-regulated learners.


Two strengths of Self-Regulated Learners

Two of the habitual strengths of self-regulated learners are that that are able to self-monitor and self-modify their behaviour to achieve their goals.

Self-Monitoring Learners know what they are trying to achieve (they are clear what they are working on), they have identified a strategy they are going to use to achieve that goal (and can transfer these strategies across learning areas), and they monitor their progression towards that goal.

Self-Monitoring learners ask themselves questions such as:

  • “Am I making my points clear and understandable?”
  • “Am I getting closer to a solution or farther away?”
  • “Have I convinced my reader?”
  • “Does this solution make sense?”
  • “How can I keep track of what I know?”
  • “How do I decide which paths to go down?”
  • “How long should I try this approach?”
  • “When should I switch to another strategy?”
  • “What should I try next?”

Self-Modifying Learners:

  • Monitor their progression towards a goal
  • Use self, peer and teacher feedback to adjust their strategies to more effectively progress towards their goal
  • Self-modification behaviours can be taught in minimal class time (literally a matter of minutes over the course of a semester) and can improve students’ performance in the short term and long term
  • Once the behaviours are internalized, students continue to use them but focus their attention on the content they are learning.


What this means

What my reading of the research implied to me is that we can teach meta-cognition and develop all our students’ capacity to be effective learners. My “ah ha” moment actually was that this is exactly what WE SHOULD BE DOING in every class. My thought was …

Where else in your life do you learn to be an effective learner if not at school?


What teachers can do in their classes to develop meta-cognitive, effective learners includes:

  • Clearly articulate the student learning goals and success criteria (and support students to set their own personal goals and success criteria)
  • Support students to identify their fundamental beliefs about learning (growth versus fixed mindset) and shift their beliefs
  • Discuss and highlight to students the range of strategies to achieve those goals, and
  • Provide students with sufficient opportunities to monitor their progress, receive feedback and, modify their strategies

If a school took on the above aspects in a consistent, coherent and progressive way, rather than hope the students gain these skills by osmosis or do it naturally (as they high academic achievers mostly do anyway) then the overall learning performance of the learners (students and teachers) within the school will improve.

Other worthwhile articles to read (and videos to watch) include:

Recently I wrote an article about the importance of failure in developing what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Being able to see failure as a step to success is one of those perceptions or dispositions we could / should develop in ourselves as well as our students. The more we can be with the meanings we attach to failure and not make it something personal about ourselves (like we are not good enough or talented enough, etc)  the more we can learn to see failure as an opportunity to learn.

But how do we do this? It is easy to say that is what should be done but what actions would lead this disposition to be developed?

One possible approach clicked for me over the recent school break as I watched (and listened) to my teen son play one of his Xbox games. On a number of occasions he was so close to beating the bad guys (I think it was actually bad dogs on this occasion) in his game that he was willing to go back to the start of that mission to retry and retry until he learnt what he needed to learn to overcome the situation. I have noticed this myself when I play those games – that failure was OK when I saw I was close to winning. Widening this thinking further – in my life I have always been driven to keep striving and growing and learning because I often had “near wins”. These days I play the game of life to win although I know that I won’t always win and there is something to learn each and every time.


Near wins – overcoming failure


Then I read this wonderful article from the recent ASCD conference of a talk by Sarah Lewis on the importance of near wins in reaching for mastery. I then found that Lewis has also presented a TED talk in 2014. Lewis found that the greatest artists and innovators in history thrived on near wins – “the gap between where they are and where they want to go”. Lewis encourages teachers to

Give students a “private domain”—a safe space to play and explore. ”Make no question foolish,” implored Lewis, and always integrate time for innovation, creativity, and play. “Play is what allows us to maintain a sense of wonder [and] sustain the journey required for mastery.”

So in this coming term have a go at creating an environment where the students can play and have near wins. Perhaps for those students who just missed out on getting the next grade in an assignment – have them re-submit and go for the higher grade. Perhaps you could gamify your classroom somewhat and have your students see learning as a game. Perhaps you give your students time to play around with ideas – concepts – understandings rather than rushing through content. Whatever you try reflect on the near wins in your teaching as you go and see what arises.

In A key to transforming practice – spiral vs linear learning Part I I proposed that the way teachers think about learning influences the way they teach. By observing the actions of teachers in day to day practice and how they structure and discuss learning within their lessons, units, and across the year we can achieve an insight into their thinking. From my observations of the learning in many schools, and the challenges that teachers identify with their students, I inferred that many teachers are engendering a linear way of thinking about learning with our students – and this would need to shift to allow the enactment of many of the core evidence-based educational research.

In Part II I will explore a more powerful context for teachers to think and operate from and point to some of the recent research and articles that give some guidance as to HOW you can start to shift the context with yourself and within your school.

A Spiral Thinking ApproachScreenHunter_25 Nov. 28 11.43

Why I am suggesting a spiral approach is because most curricula or standards are organised in a spiral progression of knowledge, understandings and skills. Knowledge, as well as skill development and understanding, is often organised as a progression because it allows for the “pieces of the jigsaw” puzzle to be connected in a way that gives access and understanding to most learners in the fastest way possible. It wasn’t necessarily how the knowledge was first gained (e.g. the German chemist Kekule’s dream that led to identifying the cyclic benzene structure) but it provides a logical process by which knowledge, skills and understandings can be built.

If you explore the processes of scientific inquiry, historical inquiry, design thinking all of them are diagrammatically shown as cyclical processes. In reality, whilst the processes are cyclical, the learning that is achieved are spirals (or helical) in nature because at the end of an inquiry one doesn’t end up in the same place in one’s knowledge, understanding or skill. We learn from the mistakes as much as we learn from the successes. This naturally leads to a growth mindset because a “failure” is weighted equally to a “success”.


HOW to embed it

Ok – so this is a nice idea but how do you embed this thinking with the students?

Well this comes down to the habitual practices and scaffolding you as a teacher embeds in your classes. If you are intending to have the students become life-long learners and transfer their thinking, skills and understandings across subjects as I have suggested, then you will need to provide a framework and language which is used across all the classes and learning you want the students to do. You have to embed a way of thinking about learning, and in particular their learning, that naturally enables the students to think from the framework.

This is already done to some extent when schools use frameworks like De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, or Art Costa’s Habits of the Mind, however notice how these frameworks are often isolated to just be about critical thinking or specific uses. The frameworks I am talking about in this case is how the entire subject area or domain of learning is viewed through. For example, all of science can be viewed through the lens or framework of the science inquiry process. That is how scientists think. History can be viewed through the historical inquiry process – that’s how historians think. The Design Thinking process is how engineers, artists, marketers, and virtually any creative person thinks.

ScreenHunter_25 Nov. 28 11.44
Some examples of habits and practice one could include:

  • Having visual diagrams (like the design process, science inquiry process, etc) constantly present and referred to within every lesson
  • Using formative rubrics across all subjects – for example rubrics on aspects of literacy across every subject the student is in. One could even use a rubric based on the scientific / historical inquiry process across all subjects
  • Having consistent agreed upon language used across all subjects
  • Developing student meta-cognition about how they and their brains learn best
  • Teachers using the spiral learning process to develop themselves as teachers – essentially being experimentalists themselves

Fundamentally, unless we have an articulated and structured approach by the teachers and the school which defines the framework or lens through which we want the student to grapple with their learning then we will always be struggling with transfer of learning and linear thinking in oru schools.

If you are interested in reading more about this including examples of thinking by other teachers here are some articles:

Spiral Learning

Design Thinking for Educators

Teaching Metacognition: Insight Into How Your Students Think Is Key To High Achievement In All Domains

Why you should give yourself permission to screw up

How Looking at Student Work Keeps Teachers and Kids on Track

Engaging students in learning, not just schooling

35 Psychological Tricks To Help You Learn Better

25 Things Skilled Learners Do Differently

From Science Teacher to Science Facilitator

In Part I I argued that we can’t actually measure learning, the best we can do is infer learning from behaviour demonstrated over time. I pointed out that most of the measurement approaches I have seen used by teachers and schools are poor quality or are based on anecdotal observation that does not allow students to be CLEAR about what is being measured and thus not be responsible for their learning (they become passive rather than active learners).

If we are to develop students to be active learners then our systems and processes should be designed to encourage and empower a learner centred or learner driven approach. As pointed out at learning looks different at different stages from teacher centred to learner centred to learner driven. Active learners take responsibility for their own learners and are able to become highly skilled in what is now known as 21st century skills.

In this blog I want to focus on using rubrics as one tool to assist in formative assessment and developing learner centred learning.

If we are to move students to a learner centred mindset then a rubric becomes a formative tool first and foremost (and can be used as a summative tool by the teacher). The purpose of the rubric is to distinguish a skill / concept or product so that it becomes distinct for the learner.

Distinct (adj): “recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type”

So what makes something recognizably different from something else?

You need to be able to articulate what it looks like as well what it is NOT like.

Human beings do this all the time unconsciously as we grow up. It is part of how we come to understand language. This is a chair. This is not a chair but a couch. This is the colour blue. This is not the colour blue – we call that red.

What something looks like or NOT like also grows in depth as you develop your capacity and gain mastery to make something distinct.  This colour is not blue but sky blue, or aqua or royal blue. This is foot stool that can be used as a chair.

Finally, to be able to make something distinct for someone you need to be able to communicate the nature of the distinction in language they would understand and is appropriate to their level of knowledge and understanding. You wouldn’t start talking about colours as master artists would to children with little or no background knowledge of colour. So the language one would use is always appropriate to the people you are communicating with.


What this means in designing rubrics and formative assessment

Given the above discussion let’s make formative rubrics and formative assessment distinct.

  1. A strong formative rubric progressively unpacks and makes distinct what the skill, concept or product looks like to the learner

I have found that teachers know anecdotally and from personal experience of interacting with learners what the different levels of a skill, concept or product look like – it is in many respects how they come up with a marking schema. In the rubric on questioning below I worked with teachers from Foundation through to year 3 to come up with a rubric that would capture – as concretely as possible – what they identify as the progressive stages of development in their learners ability to ask questions. This rubric is by no means complete but you can quickly see that the statements are all concrete aspects that one can hear or see happening as learning is occurring.


Aspects of Questioning Beginning 1 2 3 4 5
RelevancyQuestion or notOpen or ClosedFat or Thin

Ability to respond to questions



Can make comments with teacher prompting Is able to form a question but sometimes may not be relevantMakes relevant comments with teacher prompting  Asks relevant questionsUses questions to get more information 

Makes relevant comments and concrete suggestions

Asks open-ended questionsUses prior knowledge in asking a new question  Uses vocabulary of topicUses questions to clarify understanding 



Asks fat questionsAsks questions that expand the conversation 



  1. A rubric by itself is insufficient – it must be supported by discussions and examples which model the different levels

A strong rubric is supported by examples which model the different levels and continue to make the skill, concept or product distinction. In the above rubric a teacher would need to define what an open (and closed) question is, what makes a comment or question relevant,  what is a fat or thin question, how to ask questions that clarify understanding, etc. If the learners are producing a magazine then you would need to have a range of different magazines available and shown to the learners to discuss how the rubric relates to different aspects of the magazine. .

In the process of identifying what, in reality, the skill – concept – product would look like or NOT look like the teachers would be articulating the possible approaches and strategies they would be using to progressively develop the learners.

For example, some of the ways identified by the teachers I worked with on the above rubric were:

  • Encourage learner questions that begin with – who, what, when, where, why?
  • Highlight different and interesting questions asked by learners
  • Prompt questions – what do you want to know?
  • The learners only get to ask 2 questions in a session (so need to think about them)
  • 5 Whys
  • Use a Wonder-wall
  • Saying the information you have heard as forming next question
  • Explicit teaching of open ended questions
  • Reference the rubric in class as learners ask questions


  1. A rubric is a tool to enable students to drive their learning and develop their capacity and mindsets such that they see learning as a progression towards mastery

Notice how the rubric above is written in positive language applicable to the age group. Rubrics develop the mindset that learners think from. I am interested in developing learners to be meta-cognitive and intrinsically motivated not extrinsically motivated by marks. We want to develop a personal best culture, or in other words, a learning culture that encourages students to put in effort and “compete against themselves” to develop and grow.

As Jim Knight pointed out:

“The trouble with deep learning is that it messes with our identity. In their book, Difficult Conversations (Penguin, 1999), Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen define identity as “the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the future holds for us” (p. 112). It’s a lot to ask to change the story we tell ourselves about who we are. That kind of learning is often painful, and frankly, we’d usually rather avoid it.”

The more we take away the conversations of good vs bad, better vs worse, and right vs wrong and focus on learners demonstrating their progress in a skill, concept or understanding the more we will build the growth mindsets that Carol Dweck and others identify as critical to developing life-long learners and performers.

The next two steps along the path of mastery are to co-construct rubrics with the learners and finally have the learners construct the rubrics themselves. These are demonstrations of the learners reflecting on what constitutes progression of skills and how they could demonstrate evidence of progression.

With regard to progressive formative assessment, the rubric can become a tool which the learners use to see how they are progressing and they can now self-assess and reflect more effectively. Teachers can use the rubric as part of learner observations. If the teachers have a class list with the specific skill statements across the page they can tick off each time they see a student demonstrate the skill. This approach stems from – we can only get an indication that learning has occurred if the behaviours are demonstrated over time.

For other interesting reading:

How do we know that a learner has learnt something?

Is it from one off tests? Is it from their performance in rich learning tasks? Is it from reflection at the end of term as you do your reports? Is it from keep a track of what your students submit?

How do YOU measure if learning has occurred?

In most school systems reporting processes require teachers to assign grades or some number measure to indicate children have reached particular knowledge, understandings, or skill standards.

But does it REALLY indicate that the learner has understood the concepts, has the skills, or even can use the knowledge they have gained?

My opinion is that you can’t actually measure whether or not learning has occurred. Not until we have the technology to measure the changes in the pattern of neurons and their linkage to one another in each and every individual can we have any definitive idea of whether learning has occurred – and it still may not represent the learning WE want them to learn!

In reality, we are guessing whether or not a learner has “learnt” something. Some teachers may better than others at guessing. Some teachers and schools have more rigorous approaches to guessing and some don’t. The best we can do is, as an indicator that learning has occurred, is if the student demonstrates a particular behaviour OVER TIME. We then can say that that behaviour indicates they have reached a particular stage of development in that skill or understanding of the material that was covered. This assigning of an interpretation to particular demonstrable behaviour is the BEST we can do at assessing learning.

This is consistent with what Jim Knight in a recent ASCD post pointed out:

“We can experience learning in two ways: as surface learning or deep learning. When we experience surface learning, we make minor adjustments or try something out for a while, but we don’t take significant steps forward. Deep learning, on the other hand, is learning that changes our assumptions about how we do what we do. Deep learning gets to the core of who we are, and because deep learning leads to profound change, it really does make a difference.”

But let’s get real here … are you as a teacher or your school set up to work out whether a student has demonstrated a particular behaviour over time? I have found in working across 300 schools around Australia that very few schools are even thinking from that place – let alone have organised their systems and processes to be able to measure learner behaviour over time. Fewer still have the unpacked what particular behaviour around the attainment of specific learning goals could look like at progressive stages.

I am writing this to challenge an underlying assumption I have seen held in many schools and by many teachers about what their assessment is telling them. I am NOT saying that you are doing it all wrong – but it is worth exploring the underlying assumptions we hold as educators and educational organisations about what and why we assess. In many ways this line of thought has been sparked by a recent discussion that Dylan Wiliams and David Didau have been having about Formative Assessment. You can read more here, here and here about what they have been debating. It is worth reading just to start thinking.

You may notice that I am having a little rant in the process of writing – part of this stems from several discussions I have had with different teachers at different schools recently and in the past (Why do we have Grades).

In my view, if we are to assess for learning we first need to have a clear articulation of what that skill, knowledge or understanding would look like when the learner demonstrates it. In many cases teachers have a fair idea of what it looks like anecdotally. The more experienced and expert a teacher the more they know – by seeing it. Yet I don’t find that this ‘anecdotal knowing’ is converted into clear statements that are available to other learners (whether they are teachers or students).

What I do find mostly are summative rubrics with generalized broad statements being used as “formative rubrics” with the hope that the students (and any on lookers) will understand what is meant. For example this aspect of a rubric a teacher created to assess a magazine produced by Grade 3-4 students:


Needs Improvement Good Excellent
Labelled and Formatted images were included in each section Appropriate, labelled and formatted images were included in each section. Appropriate, well-labelled and well-formatted images were included in each section.

If I was a student looking at those rubric statements above I would be confused as to what would be “appropriate”, “well-labelled” and “well-formatted” images. What is written does not make anything distinct for me.

I spent a little time with the teacher who wrote the above statements to actually get clear about what she saw – physically on the page – in the magazines her students created that would have her rate the student at the level of  needs improvement, good and excellent. The revised rubric now looks like:


Needs Improvement Good Excellent
Labelled and Formatted images were included in each section Plus/

  • Chosen images are appropriate to the material in each section

  • Labels on image described the image and elaborate on a point in the text of that section
  • Image is formatted on the page in a way that makes the page esthetically pleasing.

Notice that we have unpacked what the higher levels of labelled and formatted means in a more accessible way. Appropriate now refers to the subject of the material in each section. The teacher would still have to distinguish particular words used in the rubric, she would still have to model and have examples of what each stage would look like during her classes but the rubric is developmental and much clearer to someone who is not that particular teacher.

As a piece of homework for you …questioning is one of the critical thinking skills that is key to the development of 21st century learners (or independent learners). If you are a primary / elementary teacher I invite you to unpack what questioning would look like at different levels from Foundation (Prep) through to Grade 6. If you are a high school or secondary teacher unpack what Questioning looks like from Year 7 to 12.

In the next  blog I will get more into how good formative rubrics can be used as one tool in the process of supporting student learning as well as how teachers can unpack what a skill or understanding looks like for the purpose of formative assessment (or assessment for learning) – I will use Questioning as an example for this.

Further readings:

A student’s performance is mostly impacted by three communitiesSchool Students Parents

  1. The School Learning Environment
  2. The Student’s Peer Community and their own beliefs about learning
  3. The Parental / Family Community

Schools tend to spend most of their time, money and energy working on the School-Student leg. Most of the professional development done in schools is based on pedagogy, curriculum or elements of student well-being and engagement. This is understandable as the people who are employed within the school need to be within a professional learning community that has a major focus on developing their capacity to do their job.

However there is a high leverage aspect leg of a student learning community that I believe that schools don’t do enough to empower and develop – the parental / family community. As a parent of two school aged children – one at primary school and one at high school – and an educational consultant who works with schools to improve their planning and learning environments, I find myself quite challenged by the way that parents are related to by schools. I find that there is, quite often, very little guidance from the school to be able to support my children in their learning.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – the organisers of the PISA tests used to compare education across countries – performed in-depth research on the factors underlying student performance within each country. What they found was the power of parental involvement in a child’s achievement.

“even when comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, those students whose parents regularly read books to them when they were in the first year of primary school score 14 points higher, on average, than students whose parents did not.”

As Franklin Schargel, a noted educator and expert in the area of school engagement, pointed out … it is the little things that parents do that makes a difference to student achievement. For example:

  • Parents reading to and with their children
  • Parents asking their child how their school day was and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring
  • Parents telling stories to their children (not from books but from the life of the parent)
  • Parents sharing about their day
  • Monitoring homework
  • Making sure children get to school
  • Rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to university

As Franklin reports, the OECD study found that “getting parents involved with their children’s learning at home is a more powerful driver of achievement than parents attending school board meetings, volunteering in classrooms, participating in fund-raising, and showing up at back-to-school nights. “

As teachers have shared with me, their experience shows that the mindset that a child has to learning is driven by the parents. If a parent had a poor experience of school as they grew up then it is likely they will pass on that mindset to their children. If the parents’ value education as a tool for learning and development then it is likely the norm that the child will come to develop will value education. It isn’t surprising that the higher the educational level the parents have attained the greater they value education.


So how can you support and encourage parental involvement in their child’s learning at home? Perhaps asking yourself that question as a teacher community within your school is the first stage. If you are aware of each child’s stage of development then there might be suggestions you can make to the parents on how they can support their child best. Perhaps:

  • When / if you send homework home with the child you put a short couple of paragraphs to the parent on how they can support their child best to achieve the goals of the homework.
  • Recommend that the parents not do the homework themselves (helicopter parents tend to do this) but what could be the factors and suggestions that might make the biggest difference to the child moving forward and grappling with the learning themselves.
  • Provide clear learning intentions, success criteria and formative rubrics in work sent home for the child to do
  • In the school newsletters continually provide short informative articles or guides for parents about learning. The default understanding about schools and learning for most parents is what they experienced. The more you can provide something for parents to read and grow as learners themselves the more it will make a difference.
  • Invite parents to their child’s culminating events for rich learning tasks within the school
  • Organise experts to come and talk to parents about aspects of child development or even recommend to parents to subscribe to the newsletters of people like Michael Grose (positive parenting), Barry McDonald (mentoring boys), Kathy Walker (play based and personalised learning), or even Intuyu Consulting amongst the many other educational providers.
  • I have seen one school in a low socioeconomic area even organise sponsorship from a large book provider (e.g. Scholastic) so that they can send books home with children that they can keep and build up a library at home.

For more reading and research on this topic:

I know that it is unlikely that the majority of parents have a similar attitude to learning as we do but I believe it is worth schools paying attention to how they can support parents better to be their own children’s learning partners. The more that schools build strong, learning partner relationships with parents the more they become involved. If we are to create a society that values life-long learning and encourages human beings who connect, and grow, and adapt to an every changing world, then we do need to spend the effort and time to empower everyone involved.


One of the sports I reintroduced myself to when I first began university was track and field. I was a reasonable athlete as a junior, nothing special, but I wanted to get involved in something that would challenge me personally. I had played team sports for years, and still did at the time, but I wanted an activity where I could compete against myself and challenge my personal bests.

In some ways it wasn’t a good time to be in the Athletics team when we went to the Australian University Games. The team happened to have quite a number of Commonwealth Games Athletes and future Olympians and I couldn’t compare to them in any event apart from the 5 km walk (which no one wanted to do)! So I learnt to race walk and in the meantime trained for a range of other events.

Over the years, as I kept training and getting better I started to be able to compete relatively well at a few events. I ended up finding that I could be a decent competitor in the Decathlon … and that is what I did during my university years (12 years including the PhD and post-doctorate). I had a number of top six finishes in the Australian University Games and was even able to compete in A Grade competition in the Discus. In the meantime I won academic awards, made it to a State Training squad for Mixed Netball, competed in indoor cricket at a decent level, won a Sport Award at my university, and so on.

In reflecting back on my sporting career, and its links to my academic and job career, one of the facets I noticed is somewhere along the line I realised that I would always be learning and developing. Not because there was something wrong, but because I enjoyed developing mastery over myself. It isn’t surprising that I became involved in a personal development program for a number of years. I wanted to know myself better so I could be more effective at making the difference I was passionate about.

Mastery is not an end point but a journey and a mindset. It never ends.

When we don’t challenge ourselves we don’t grow. It is in overcoming our struggles and challenges that we can expand our capacity. That has always been the case in our lives. In fact, it is how are brains are wired.

If we want to develop life-long learners then the way our schools are structured, the pedagogy, the learning environment, the habitual practices all need to be aligned to develop each student to have the mindset and practices to become masterful. As Daniel Pink pointed out in Drive, mastery is one of the big three intrinsic motivators for human beings.

There are many hindrances in schools, including (and not limited to):

  • Teacher mindset – we need to be on the journey of mastery,  continually developing and reflecting upon our skills and capacities to support ALL our students to journey towards mastery
  • A lack of a scope and sequence progression of skills, attitudes, understandings and knowledge across the year levels. How can we continually challenge students to grow and develop if we aren’t clear about the developmental stages of learning ourselves?
  • A lack of a spiral curriculum that allows for the building and transfer of learning across many years. Often there is variance within a year level let alone the progressive building of skills, knowledge and understanding through the years.
  • Poor assessment practices that don’t reward the development of mastery (quite often grades don’t reflect that a student has developed competency in something but it is used to rank them)
  • Not allowing students to grapple with and struggle with learning whilst encouraging them to persist.
  • Using extrinsic rewards to motivate students rather supporting them to develop intrinsic motivation
  • Timetables that limit learning
  • Teacher centred learning

What mastery learning requires is for learning to be personalised to meet the points of need for each individual, in the same way that we as educators need to have our professional learning addressing our points of need to become more masterful in our profession. It also requires that a school pay attention to the mindset and norms that it is developing within its students, teachers and parental community.

Both of these elements do take time (many years) to develop and grow within a school. To kick start the thinking about the possibilities, practicalities and discussions of mastery learning I have linked a range of articles about mastery learning.

The Case for Mastery Learning

The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery

Knowing your Learning Target

Five Musts for Mastery

Combining Intrinsic Motivation and Student Autonomy for Sustained Success

Creating Flow-Friendly Learning Environments

Beyond the Comfort Zone: 6 Ways to Build Independent Thinking

What are the seven mind frames of learning?

A Day in a Mastery-Centred Classroom

Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility

If you want to find out more about how Intuyu Consulting could possibly support your school on its journey check out the Scope of Works documents on our website or feel free to contact us at

Welcome back to the start of the school year and we are hoping you are feeling refreshed and fired up ready to go!

A little over two years ago I sat down with two primary school teachers to have a conversation with them to discover what had them be so successful with developing their students to learn. It was one of those conversations that connected certain ‘dots’ for me about what I had been reading about the findings of neuroscience and setting up powerful learning environments.


Habits are the key

One of the critical keys to their success that made such a difference to setting up a powerful learning environment for their students was that the two teachers, both of them relatively recent graduates, were the habitual practices they had unconsciously embedded at the start of the year. Over the previous 2-3 years that these two teachers had worked together, occasionally team teaching but mostly teaching independently, they had tried and tested a range of structures, routines and procedures that they found made a difference for their students to become independent learners. A learning coach had suggested some additional new structures and these built upon the foundation that these two had laid earlier in the year. What the two teachers discovered was that by the middle of the year (Term 3) the students started to take learning into their own hands and be much more self-sufficient and self-guided. This allowed the teachers to then focus on being learning partners to the students rather than always driving the learning.

A Mathematics and Science teacher in a secondary school in Queensland discovered the exact same shift in learning culture when he implemented a range of structures and habits that allowed his students to develop their capacity to be independent learners. He found that rather than spending all of his time teaching and managing behaviour in his classes, the students knew what there was to do, how to support one another, and he had the opportunity to work with students who were struggling with particular concepts.


What do they build?

None of this should come as a surprise because teachers always begin their school year with routines and procedures. But are they well thought out and intentional?

This is a conversation I often have with teachers in my workshops. What are your habitual practices and what do they build? Unless you are conscious about the habits you have then you can’t give them away nor can you test whether or not they are working or can be refined. As an occasional field coach for little athletics I am continually thinking about habits and how to give them away. What are the habitual actions a high performing discus thrower does to throw further? What practices can I teach the athletes to have them develop those actions?

In the same way you as a teacher or school leader can ask yourself two questions:

  1. What are the habitual practices I want my students / teachers to develop?
    Then list all the habits that you want the students to develop throughout the year.
  2. If I want my students to develop these particular habits what structures, routines, procedures can I put into place that will develop these habits over time?

It is even worth getting together as with your colleagues to collect that habits they have found works for them and then trying them out.

One primary school we are working with has created over-arching themes for each year level. For example, Foundation year is “Having a go and looking after each other”. The teaching team are now designing structures, routines, conversations and ways of interacting with the students that reinforces the idea of “having a go and looking after each other”. The intention is for the students to develop a growth mindset about learning and that it is about learning is about safety and community.


Possible Habits

I have attached links to a range of articles for you to access to give you some ideas about possible habits you can use. Doug Lemov’s book, Teach like a Champion, is a gem. One thing worth noting is that there may be some unconscious habits you want to stop doing in the process. One big one for some teachers is they talk too much! It is worth reading Charles Duhigg’s book called The Power of Habit where he gives a range of examples and coaching on how to change the routines we are stuck in.

5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick

25 Reading Strategies That Work In Every Content Area

Developing Student Centred Learning and Teaching

Hacking Habits: How To Make New Behaviors Last For Good

How Visual Thinking Improves Writing

Feedback Unlocks Reluctance

Why Teaching Helps Students Learn More Deeply

My Biggest Regret as a Teacher: Extrinsic Rewards


Rituals make us Value things more

You will find this post cross-posted at the Whole Child Education Blog and on my ASCD Express Blog

“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind

It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.”

Johnny Nash

 Phillip Barlow is well known in the art world for his out-of-focus oil paintings. The South African artist uses blurriness to hint at shapes, subjects and context. In a world which has become hooked on high definition his work highlights the importance of focus and clarity in our everyday life. Those of you who wear reading glasses know the importance of being able to focus and have clarity when you are reading. I invite you to consider that many schools, teachers and students operate within an environment of a lack of clarity.

Many schools are unclear about the professional or student learning culture they are building. They have an idea of what they want but a range of pushes and pulls from education systems, parents, day-to-day issues and even finances blurs the focus of the individuals who are responsible for keeping it on track. It shows up in the way strategic plans are created and then followed (or not), in the staff meetings (and their number and length), in what is considered important throughout the school year, and in the structures put in place to support the school vision and goals.

Teachers are often unclear about the actual outcomes and goals they require students to achieve inside of a whole school plan. They read the prescribed curriculum and then form an interpretation of what that means. Quite often the result is a surface interpretation as deeper understanding and coherency requires the time for significant discussion and unpacking by a team of teachers consistent with the school mission and goals.

Students are often asked to learn in an environment where they don’t why they are doing what they are doing, nor what skill they are actually building. Without structures such as learning intentions, success criteria, formative rubrics, and clarity about WHAT, HOW, WHY and how to deal with obstacles to their learning – they often progress slowly towards achieving learning outcomes and building required skills.

Clarity, by definition, is the quality of being clear, coherent and intelligible.

The more that we work with schools the more we discover that what they are actually asking us is to partner them in creating clear, coherent and intelligible approaches to achieving what they want to achieve. It is not that they don’t know what they want (necessarily) but that it is a bit fuzzy or maybe they are unclear about the path to achieve their goals.

We find that most schools, whether they are of the government, catholic or independent persuasion, often have not clearly articulated what their purpose and the overall goals that they are trying to achieve. Sure they have school values. Sure they have a strategic plan. However we when dig down into what those goals, visions, and plans we find a lot of uncertainty rather than rigor and dealing with the reality of achieving their goals.

When we look at most school strategic plans they are often planned in such a way that it is hopeful rather than based in the reality of what would work best for schools, staff and students. It is NOT that we are dealing with people who can’t plan. What we are dealing with is, quite often, a lack of clarity of WHAT they are actually trying to achieve and a lack of a clear path to HOW they will achieve those goals in ways that coherently creates a powerful learning culture whilst supporting all students, staff and parents.

The same can be said with teachers. When we support teachers in planning curriculum we spend an enormous amount of time having them become crystal clear about what the learning destination they are desire the students get to. What are the skills, understandings and knowledge they want the students to gain? What will it look like when the students get there? What scaffolding and learning activities could they then design that will have the students’ progress towards that learning destination?

The great thing we have found, time and time again, is that once the school, teacher, or student is clear about their destination – they are immensely able to do what needs to be done to get there.


I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.

– Winston Churchill

“You cannot have performance breakthroughs without cognitive dissonance … in other words … challenging what you think you really know and believe is the truth.”

The more that I work with schools, the more I realise how important it is to coach teachers and school leaders in having personal performance breakthroughs as part of the journey to creating a high performance learning culture in a school. What I have been finding is that it is the unconscious limitations a person imposes on themselves and/or the individual’s ingrained habits and practices that can limit or slow down the building of an authentic learning culture.

In my coaching one of the first tools I use I gleaned from Steve Zaffron and David Logan’s book called “The Three Laws of Performance”.  The Three Laws are:

  1. How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them
  2. How a situation occurs arises in language
  3. Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people

So what influences how situations occur to people?Being Development

Let me delve a little into the neuroscience here. In the simplest description, our brains are pattern making machines that, through trial and error of experience and learning, create a template or mental model of how the world is so the individual can successfully interact with the world around it. As a short cut to operating in an increasingly complex environment, the brain creates unconscious habits and practices for those actions that are ritualised. For example, most of us don’t have to think about walking. We just walk. We put one step in front of the other not consciously recognising the extraordinary coordination required of our brain and body to have this happen. For those of us who drive to work, many of us drive home from our normal place of work mostly unconscious because our brain “knows” where it is going.

As we grow up there are there spans where we undergo large physiological and neurological changes. These include the period from being a baby / toddler to a child (gaining of language), a child to a teenager (puberty), a teenager to an adult (pre-frontal cortex and executive decision making). These neurological developmental changes are critical periods in our lives as it is at these times that we lay down certain foundational or fundamental ways of being (mental models or templates). Based on these templates we build our interpretation and reaction to the world around us.

My experience in coaching people over the past 15 years is that in areas where individuals lack performance they have not overcome the programming that originated when they were children. Have you ever experienced an adult who still throws tantrums like they were 6? Have you noticed that some people can’t seem to organise themselves and still act like they are teenagers in managing themselves and their time? Have you noticed the emotions and feelings that come up when you are confronted by conflict in the workplace (most teachers avoid constructive conflict like the plague)!

In those areas where you experience being challenged to develop yourself or you lack performance, your actions are logical and consistent with a childhood perspective or viewpoint of that situation. How a situation occurs to us is correlated to our fundamental way of being or mental model that originated when we were quite young.

Conversely, in those areas you do perform, at some point in your life you challenged your childhood mental model and “grew up” in that area. You went through a period of cognitive dissonance and challenged and re-circuited your hardwired habits and practices in that area.

Let me give you an example. I come from an Italian family and my viewpoint of my father when I was young was that he was not very communicative, he didn’t really show his love for me like my mother did, and that when I did something wrong (which being the middle boy of three boys we always got up to some mischief) he yelled at us and we occasionally got smacked. So I decided at quite a young age that I would “never be enough”. When you look at my behaviour over a long period of time it is not surprising that I am always out to prove myself and succeed in whatever I do. I have three degrees including a Ph.D. I taught Aerospace Engineering (including … yes … rocket science). I came second A LOT, in sport as well as academically, and it frustrated me no end. I know myself as someone who, no matter what I am given, will figure it out and become successful at it. Within this fundamental way of being I have developed particular habits and practices that enable me to learn and develop myself. It isn’t surprising that education is one of my fields of interest.

The problem with the Fundamental Way of Being is that until I became become conscious to how it was driving me in everything, and the cost it had to my well-being and just being able to be in relationship with people, I had no power to choose to behave in a different way. I was very hard on myself and overanalysed everything. My brain was always whirring and busy so I found that I was constantly exhausted to make up for NEVER being enough. I was quite often surrounded by “fools and idiots” and became frustrated with people when they didn’t understand me. I lacked empathy for others.

The Fundamental Way of Being is not a bad thing as it has you gain a certain success in life. But like any ritual habit it drives you to behave in particular ways in circumstances that other ways of behaving are more appropriate. You cannot begin to change a habit until you have become present to how it is driving you. Until then you are the passenger in the car that is your behaviour.

When I coach teachers and people in leadership positions I give them two pieces of homework involving reflective journaling.

  1. At least 2-3 times per week spend 5-10 minutes reflecting on their day and write down experiences from the day that they felt driven by their fundamental way of being. It will feel uncomfortable at times. The intention of the first piece of homework is to have them become self-aware of when their machinery, that is their ritual behavioural pattern, is operating.
  2. The second piece of homework is to write down, what they would do differently next time in each situation that arose that day. They could also acknowledge any victories where they took a different action from the one normally given by their mental model. The intention of this part of the homework is to start challenging the ingrained behavioural patterns so that they can create new patterns. In some ways this is about growing up to be an adult!

What I have found is that, over time, people start to produce remarkable results and shift their behaviour in those areas where they felt stuck or unable to develop and grow.

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