Posts Tagged ‘pedagogy’

 “Change is the point. It’s what we seek to do to the world around us.
Change, actual change, is hard work. And changing our own minds is the most difficult place to start.
It’s also the only place to start”,
Seth Godin

Put up with end up with


I have been working across 10 secondary colleges recently as part of some work we are doing. The position is essentially being a critical friend as teams from each of these schools enact curriculum and pedagogical change projects. The schools cover the span of the metropolitan area and also have students from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds.

It has been a learning journey for me as well as for each of the teams. I feel I could almost write a book on managing change within schools from the lessons I have learnt for being part of this project. However today I want to focus on one small aspect that was uncovered during one critical friend meeting that has a MAJOR impact in schools.

In one school the project team has been working on enacting diagnostic testing and embedding formative assessment techniques into the planning and teaching of Mathematics and English courses at two year levels. As part of their research the team triangulated data to assess the current “level” of their students. The triangulation data involved NAPLAN, PAT scores, Common Assessment Tasks and classroom observation (on-balance judgement). The on-balance judgement had the participating teachers writing down the relative levels for each student using a progression grid the team produced with support from Narelle Wood (one of the Intuyu Consulting team).

What the team found was that in the cohort of students there were 2 students below standard by 1-2 years, 9 students 1-2 years ahead of standard, and the remainder were a mixture of at-standard and just above standard. Yet, the whole cohort of students (except for one student) received at-standard on their end of year reports the previous year. The one student who did not receive at-standard was reported as being 6 months above standard.

When I asked why there was a discrepancy the teachers told me that it was school policy that teachers had to justify giving students grades above or below standard. In other words, if you as a teacher wanted to put a below-standard or above-standard grade on a student report then you had to provide evidence. On the other hand giving a student an “at standard” grade did not require any evidence. I then began inquiring across a wide range of schools that we work with and found this policy or practice was quite common across most (if not all) secondary schools.

I think this is a cane toad of a policy and schools have not explored the impact this common policy / practice has had on hindering effective curriculum and pedagogical change within secondary schools.


Let’s unpack some of the potential consequences that such a policy / practice can have within a school:

Why should a teacher expend any effort to rigorously track the “level” their students achieve if they are not held accountable for it? Since they are held accountable for justifying above or below standard grades why give anyone those grades? It would appear to teachers that it would be time consuming to track each and every student and justify the level the students achieved so why bother?

How could they identify the actual level of the student anyway? They would need to have de-constructed the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for the subject area. That’s a lot of effort for an individual teacher and the school does not have it so why bother?

How would we measure that anyway? Our assessment is not designed to measure student progression against the Australian Curriculum (AusVELS, etc.) and we haven’t structured our teaching and learning based on progressing students from their current level so why bother?

This blanket “at standard” practice also intrinsically leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, skills and understandings because teachers have not expended the effort to identify and come to an agreement of what “at-standard” looks like (let alone below or above standard).

Teachers don’t actually know if their teaching actually makes a difference to the learning progression of each and every student because they don’t have an articulated “what it looks like” for being below, above, or at-standard.

Even worse, why would teachers expend a lot of effort to differentiate for student point of need if they can give a blanket “at standard” at the end? They teach to the middle and hope that it is enough. Teaching equals learning doesn’t it?

Students performing above and below standard will also be impacted. If a student came into the school as an academic high achiever, over time they will stop putting in the effort to do better because the best they can get is “at standard”. Equally for students with gaps in their understanding and knowledge they will still get “at standard”. Is it surprising that an area of challenge for most schools is supporting the progression of academic high achievers?

Finally, why should a teacher change their practices if there are no accurate measures of the impact of their teaching?

I have no doubt that when a school really explores this there will also be a cascade of other impacts they could identify (e.g. perhaps teachers mis-attributing the source of why students are not progressing with their teaching?)

The Way Forward

What would I do to shift this? I would begin by making it policy that in one year’s time teachers have to justify the level they have assigned to each student. Then over the next year I would resource the teachers to:

de-construct the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for each subject area

develop teachers ability to use formative assessment practices to elicit evidence of progression and become data informed

support the teachers in redeveloping both formative and summative assessments

develop the capacity of teachers to backward plan

change the reports

tell parents this is what you are doing and why

Unless this policy / practice is changed, all the great evidence based practice suggested by educational researchers such as John Hattie (What Works Best in Education) won’t stick.

Have you ever had an “ah-ha” moment?

Archimedes did, apparently, when he stepped into his bath and noticed that the bath level rose by the volume displaced by the volume of his body. Archimedes yelled “??????!” (or Eureka which is Greek for “I have found it!”) before he went running through the streets half-naked excited about his discovery!

Insights come to us seemingly only at certain times and the process doesn’t seem to be reproducible. But insights is what is at the core of our learning and the learning of all human beings. What if we could make it reproducible?

David Rock in his recent book, Quiet Leadership, has given us an insight into insights.

David discusses recent neuroscience research that suggests that there are four stages to insights. The following is my paraphrasing from David Rock’s book and other researchers.

The First Stage: Awareness

Consider that the brain forms mental maps that gathers the information it has stored into some cohesive whole. As a way of accessing the information and ordering it has organised the information and patterns it has discerned into some map and then uses these maps to interpret and relate to the world.

In this first stage the brain is immersed in new information. It could be new perspectives about something we are examining in a class or heard on TV or are currently reading in a book. New information is essentially being processed and the brain is attempting to fit these ideas, thoughts and concepts into its current mental maps. As the brain attempts to integrate the new knowledge it begins to see that there is a dilemma because the new knowledge is creating a different mental map than the one that currently exists but the brain has not yet worked out how to reconcile this conflict by creating a new metamap or by reconfiguring the existing maps.

The Second Stage: Reflection

If one is to develop a consistent process of having insights and thus more productively then there needs to be more second stage “reflection” time in our days.

MRI scans show that people’s brains give off alpha-band waves just before they come up with an insight. Alpha waves correlate with people shutting down inputs from their external senses and focusing on internal stimuli. When we perform tasks that engage the conscious, logical mind we decrease the alpha-band waves. So reflection is NOT helped by asking your students to reflect by writing down their reflections (which is what many teachers do). The writing process should occur after true reflection.

Studies have shown that during reflection we are not thinking logically or analysing data; we’re engaging a part of our brain used for making links across the whole brain. We are thinking in an unusual way, tapping into more intelligence than the three to five pieces of information we can hold in our working memory. We are allowing the brain to think across the whole dataset of ideas, images, thoughts, knowledge to connect and reconfigure its mental maps without any new input from the conscious or working memory.

A simple process to reflect is to sit still and close your eyes (this removes about 70% of external stimuli) and focus on your breathing. Listen to the way you inhale and then exhale for about 60 seconds. Then open your eyes just a fraction and close them again. This sends you deeper into the alpha-band state. Listen to the way you inhale and then exhale for another 30 seconds and then open your eyes and write down your reflections. During this period you don’t think about anything logically just focus on your breathing.

By the way, we have all experienced this process naturally. Quite often we have insights when we are lying in bed before we go to sleep or when we wake up. It is in the quiet “non-logical”, “non-thinking” times that we suddenly go … “ah-ha”!

Third Stage: Insight

At the moment of insight our mental maps have been reconfigured or a new mental map has suddenly snapped into existence. In this moment the body releases various neurotransmitters like adrenaline as well as possibly serotonin and dopamine. This is why there is a sudden excitement and a rush throughout the body.

At the very moment an insight occurs, the brain gives off strong gamma-band waves. Gamma-band waves are the only frequency found in all parts of the brain and are seen when the brain simultaneously processes information across different regions. Gamma-band brain waves signify various parts of the brain forming a new map.

Fourth Stage: Action

The intense motivation from having an insight is short term. If you can get people to take tangible actions while the insight is close at hand, even just to commit to doing something later, this will be a big help to ensuring new ideas become reality. If you don’t take some action then and there the insight and new mental map is not reinforced and the insight is lost.

What I invite you to look at today and in your teaching (or working environment) is how are you setting up a reflective and insightful environment for yourself and others?
Any feedback?

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday whilst I was at Rowellyn Park Primary coaching Grade 5 and 6 teachers in developing inquiry based units.

Janette Lewellyn, the school principal, had invited Mike Scadden from Brain Stems ( to work with the teachers the following day and Mike happened to be in the room as I worked with the teachers. Mike is an ex-principal based in New Zealand and has a Masters Degree from the University of Tasmania specialising in brain compatible and accelerated learning.

At lunch time we were discussing brain training and developing brain compatible learning in primary school children. At one point he walked to the whiteboard I had been using and drew the following word diagram on the board …

Abstract – Symbolic – Concrete – Transfer

and then asked me in which domain did I see children working. I though for a moment and said .. “children really work in the concrete given they like to be very hands on and see things in front of them”. Mike then pointed out that one of the pitfalls that some schools fall in to is that they try to have the children learn from an abstract or symbolic representation before they are ready for it. So while a child may have a rote learn understanding of the abstract or symbolic representation it doesn’t transfer into their actual learning and ability to apply what they have learnt into different situations.

The small diagram that Mike drew represents a cognitive outline of how we can learn concepts such that they allow for a transfer of knowledge (i.e. able to apply it to other situations and circumstances). Children live very much in the now and their world is very much what they can see, feel, touch, etc. Thus, when I am coaching teachers, I coach them to develop projects that are real, practical and involve community. My intention is that the students start to relate their learning to the concrete world around them.

One thing to note about the diagram is that there aren’t arrows pointing in any direction. In fact the process is not linear. One can go back and forth using abstract, symbolic or concrete representations to cause the transfer of knowledge. I have found, particularly at high schools, that they tend to focus too much on the abstract and the symbolic and thus tend to lose the relationship of the student applying it to their world. Given my background as an engineer and a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering, I really became clear that just knowing and understanding the abstract concepts or the symbolic representations of the concept does not cause the true understanding of the physical situation and thus the transfer of knowledge.

I believe that one must use all aspects of abstract, symbolic and concrete in ones teaching but the percentage one uses it depends on the age group you are teaching. In primary schools you definitely would focus more on the concrete and introduce the symbolic and abstract more and more from Grade 2/3 onwards. Grade 5 / 6 would still be mostly concrete because that is the world of the children still. As the child grows in their cognitive undertsanding of the world around them then the greater the percentage of abstract and symbolic representations.

For more information check out


Welcome to 2010 and the start of a whole new year of learning and discovery!

Over the summer I have been involved in doing some research for Dr David Zyngier at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. David and I first met when I took over the ruMAD? program at the Education Foundation and I began to redesign it to be more applicable in schools. Since then David has asked me back each year, no matter what I am up to, to talk to his first year and final year pre-service teachers about inquiry learning and applying it in schools.

Out of the 2009 lecture on Connectedness I asked David if there was some work i could do for him (and that way I can build my knowledge base and continue to develop what i deliver to schools from the latest research). So for the past month I have been reviewing the research literature on after-school programs, on how community-school partnerships can support children who are culturally, linguistically and economically challenged, and how schools can support parents in supporting the learnign of their children.

I was just reading an article about what interventions schools and parents can make for their children when a particular paragraph struck me as vitally important for us all …

“During the early school years children develop perceptions of their own academic competence. Research suggests that these perceptions are established in response to children’s perceptions of their own abilities in school, and become relatively stable by third or fourth grade (Chapman et al., 2000). These self-perceptions appear to determine whether children pursue or avoid opportunities to acquire and refine the academic skills and strategies characteristics of proficient learners, expend effort and persist in the face of difficult challenges (Chapman et al., 2000; Helmke & van Aken, 1995). This suggests that if an early childhood intervention succeeds at boosting children’s academic skills, even if only in the short-term, it may lead children to have more positive perceptions of their own abilities. If instilling positive academic self-concepts increases the likelihood that students seek out learning opportunities and remain engaged in school, then it may result in long-term benefits to human capital.”
Duncan, G. and K. Magnuson (2004). “Individual and parent-based intervention strategies for promoting human capital and positive behavior.” Human development across lives and generations: The potential for change: 209-235.

What this paragraph implies is that we have a critical focus in primary schools and parenting … ensuring that our children’s perception of themselves, their ability to learn, and “who they are for themselves”  are empowered ones.

I have been especially noticing the perceptions of my children to themselves over the past year. Ty is 9 years old and going into Grade 4 this year and Chiara is 6 years old and going into Grade 1. I have been picking up the underlying perceptions in what my children say and their actions, and I have taken on to have them think about who they are and what they say as they tackle tasks and communicate with each other.

For example, one of the first words that come out of my children’s mouths when they are attempting something new (or they fail in doing something a number of times) is that it is “hard”. When something is “hard” it creates a perception of being immovable, impossible, overwhelming difficult. In fact one definition of “hard” is that it is “resistant to pressure, not readily penetrated“. But … if you are doing something for the first time (like playing putting a basketball through a hoop, or doing a maths problem or writing a word) then … you may not be successful until you have trained your muscles and your brain in doign what is necessary to be successful. However the word “hard” creates a mental barrier. What I have created for the kids is to replace “hard” with “challenging”. A challenge can be overcome. By definition a challenge is “A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking“.

We have also set up, as much as we could, an environment at home where the children read, there are limitations on TV watching, that they participate in homework clubs and other out-of-school activities, and we partner them in their learning as much as we can.

What difference has this made?

Ty, who at the end of Grade 2 was rated by his school as only being midway though Grade 2 in most of his learning areas jumped a year an one half in his ratings so as he begins Grade 4 his is rated as midway through Grade 4. Chiara is rated at midway through Grade 1 after a year of prep (and being in a Reggio Emilio inspired program).

Given the above highlighted research it then is critical for schools to also educate and empower the parents of their students … especially before Grade 4.

It is for this reason I have designed a new seminar for 2010 to be delivered to parents at primary school to begin to educate them on how they can partner their children in developing a positive self-perception of learning. Check out the seminar at the website

I have just been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “What the Dog Saw” (Allen Lane 2009) and one of the articles iwhat-the-dog-saw-and-other-adventuresn the book had me thinking [].

In this particular chapter of the book called “Open Secrets” Malcolm discusses a distinction made by a national security expert (Gregory Treverton) between puzzles and mysteries and the different skills involved.

Something is a puzzle when we have to figure something out from not having enough information. Finding Osama Bin Laden is a puzzle. As Gladwell points out ” The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source, bin Laden will remain at large”. Watergate was a puzzle where Woodward and Bernstein were search for a buried secret.

Something is a mystery when there is too much information and one is required to sift through the information and use one’s judgement and assessment to come to a conclusion. Gladwell used the cases of Enron and the British Intelligence prediction of the German V1 Rocket to show the distinction.

Now, while Gladwell is using his article to explore and examine the different skills required in the intelligence community given the nature of the world, it had me thinking about teaching and our schools.

Are we skilling our students to just solve puzzles or are we also preparing them for a information rich world where they also need the capacities to solve mysteries?

The actions of a puzzle solver would be to find more and more information that would shine a light on the puzzle one would wish to solve. When one is researching for a cure for cancer, or a new theory about physics, or why the beetles in a particular area of the bush are dying … then one would need to gain more information. Many thriller movies (e.g. The Davinci Code) and video games are based on puzzle solving. The blockers to resolving an issue would be factors like withheld information, lack of funding to do the research, etc. As Gladwell states “puzzles come to a satisfying conclusions”.

Mysteries, however, require another set of capacities because they are a lot “murkier”. It is like having a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle with an extra 500 pieces that look similar and could fit in the mix. Sometimes the information we have is inadequate or inconsistent. Sometimes having more information clouds up the issue. Sometimes the question asked itself cannot be answered (perhaps it is the wrong question or one that does not reveal what is actually being looked for). Mysteries require people with skills of analysis, of judging what is useful and consistent and what is not. Gladwell suggests, “it requires more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know …”.

Are we not in a world where information is plentiful and there are many more inconsistent and contradictory references? When a student, or a teacher for that matter, wants to know something what is the first thing they do? Probably use a search engine (e.g Google) or go to Wikipedia. But there are reams or information there to sift through. What is accurate, precise or even relevant?

My question to you, as someone reading this blog, is are you preparing your students (or in the case of parents … your children) to solve mysteries? To be people who challenge ideas and are skeptical about information until it can be validated and made consistent in its pattern. To be people who network and ask questions to fit the information into a coherent whole. One capacity of someone who is a mystery solver is someone who challenges the status-quo. Do we do that as teachers and parents?

I suspect that, for the most part, we are purely preparing our students’ and children to be puzzle solvers. And that is not preparing them for even now … let alone the future.

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