Posts Tagged ‘students’

If you haven’t been living under a dragon, you’ll know that the beloved Harry Potter film franchise draws to a close this week with the release of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.’ The author of the book series, J.K. Rowling noted in her speech at the film’s premiere that “ story lives unless someone wants to listen.’ And listen, a generation of young people did. But they weren’t the only ones. In schools around the world, teachers were listening to and seeing the impact of the Harry Potter books on young people firsthand. They could hardly avoid it. At one stage early in my teaching career, I can remember asking the class to open their wide reading books, only to find that of the 24 students in the class, nineteen were reading one of the Harry Potter stories.

Individual teachers and whole school communities found creative ways to include Rowling’s endearing fantasy series into their programs. From the humble book review (an easy sell once you suggested that the student could deconstruct a ‘Potter’ book) to discussions at staff meetings of using a house system similar to that of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy and projects too varied to describe, across all subject areas. School libraries became havens for lovers of all that was magical with enthusiastic staff directing thousands of listless kids towards the series, holding Potter- themed events and running extra-curricular activities, often resplendent in their own ‘Gryffindor’ gear.

I vividly recall watching one of the documentaries that came out when the final book in the series was released, way back in July of 2007. A small boy was asked by an interviewer who he thought would win the final, extravagant showdown between Harry and the tyrannical Lord Voldemort. His face literally glowing as he gazed back at the presenter with the conviction that only a child can possess, he emphatically replied: “Harry Potter.” Aside from a love of the story itself, this suggests an optimism that is the core ingredient in Rowling’s famous work. It is an optimism that teachers can continue to draw upon as they journey with students down the winding path of education in the new paradigm. Like Harry himself, this boy was small, dishevelled and bespectacled but his sense of infinite possibility represented the fire in this generation that schools must feed and nurture, in order to retain the idealism, imagination and innovative abilities so inherent in children. As Sir Ken Robinson, another visionary Brit, states: ‘Creativity is as important as literacy.’ Harry Potter has been so loved by so many millions, I think, because of the escapism it provides through the merged imaginative abilities of author and reader. It is this extraordinary relationship that educators must now look to for answers in this era of fundamental educational change.

In the end, the Harry Potter stories, which symbolise and make manifest the experiences and values of Jo Rowling herself, are about empathy, courage, leadership and resilience. They also act as a powerful argument for developing an unfettered imagination. These are the attributes that educators across the globe are now trying to bring to the centre of the twenty-first century classroom, in more explicit terms than ever before. Papers are written on them, think-tanks brainstorm ways to develop them in students and schools invest heavily in building them into their learning and teaching communities. I hope that I will always walk into a classroom and be able to find a copy of a Harry Potter book at a table, in a school-bag or on an e-reader. Kids (and many adults) love these stories because they recognise the value of the qualities listed. They want to be like Harry, Ron and Hermione. They understand intrinsically that the possession and development of these qualities can solve the challenges of the twenty-first century. This is, I believe, why the series resonates with young people as no series has before it. Jo Rowling’s difficult life experiences led her to reflect on finding a way though and ultimately, in the face of great societal challenges such as social inequality, climate change and the technological tidal wave, this is what young people must do. Looking for a ‘how to’ book on navigating the twenty-first century world and empowering kids to do so with a sense of wonder and hope? In case you weren’t sure, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’* is the first in the series.

Thank you, JK Rowling.

*The US edition is entitled: ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’


I promised a week ago to point to a range of useful websites that one of the keynote speakers recommended and here it is!

At the NSW Conference on Engaging Learners Through Innovative Practice one of the keynote speakers was Dr Curtis Bonk (you can follow his blog here He spoke about the wide range of internet resources that are now available to motivate and engage learners.

Curtis generously sent me his new book The World is Open which expands on his talk about how the web is revolutionising education.

The main thrust of the book and Curtis’s talk is that technology and the availability of information and resources is now at the point that

“Anyone can now learn anything from anyone at anytime”

Let me quote some sections from the text”

“… Thomas Friedman argued that our world had been flattened by many technologies, most significant of which is the Internet, with its ability to find nearly any piece of information we might seek in the exact moment of need. As he showed, the commerce-related implications of this premise are enormous”

“In the twenty-first century, education trumps the economy as the key card to participation in the world. It is education, after all, from which robust economies are built.”

“We are living in a time period of the most monumental changes and challenges to arise in education since Plato held his first classes at his famed academy, Hekademeia, later known as Akademeia. Even in those days, learning in different locations and times was facilitated by technology as teachers and learners were shifted from exclusive reliance on oral traditions to instruction that included the written word. This, of course, was a historic transformation for the people of the planet because learning could now take place beyond a singular geographic location and moment in time.”

Curtis goes on to not only point to how we are now at a similar transformational period in human history but gives a range of examples. Here are some resources for you!

1. is an international ‘online learning community’ offering an alternative to traditional education for young people who are unable to engage with school or other complementary provisions such as home tutoring or specialist units.

2. CALM Chemistry: a free web tool to assist learning chemistry

3. Jing: A simple way to add visuals to your online conversations. Teachers can use it to explain processes online.

4. WolframAlpha: a computational knowledge engine that is quite remarkable! It gives you access to an extraorindary range of facts about anything in the world.

5. Geothentic: Geospatial technologies plus Authentic Learning. Geothentic provides an online environment for teachers and students to solve complex geography circumstances. Brilliant!

6. Nautilus Live: Follow along as Dr. Robert Ballard and his team undertake an exciting expedition on the E/V Nautilus to map the sea floor and study underwater volcanoes. Be there in real time.

7. Virtual Tours of the Louvre: go for a tour through the museum (many museum sites have these functions now!)

8. Turning the Pages: turn the pages of historical documents in the British Museum

9. ARCHAVE: the ARCHAVE system is an immersive virtual reality environment for archaeological research.

and many more. Check out more by downloading Curtis’s presentation here sydneykeynote – curtis bonk.

Two items I want to end on:

1. While the technology and resources are here to make classrooms more engaging and have the students drive their own learning, few teachers take it on. This article shows some research into this (Research-dispels-common-ed-tech-myths).

2. Third world countries are becoming the source of innovation that will drive the future. Don’t believe me? India has come up with a $35 tablet computer that they hope will be used throughout their school system. (India unveils $35 tablet computer) And we complain about getting netbooks in schools and politicians are trying to end the computer in schools program!

What great websites for learning do you know of and would like me to speak about?

Recently in preparing to talk at the NSW Department of Education and Training Conference I thought about what would be necessary to think about if we are preparing young people for the 21st Century.

One of the topics that came up for me was school architecture. I visited Rowellyn Park Primary recently and had a walkthrough of their new school building with the principal and teachers. One of the conversations that came up was about thinking about using the new space. What a number of the teachers had discovered upon visiting other schools with open learning spaces, was that some teachers had begun to block off areas to limit the space. It brought up the point that we really need to rethink how we use space and how we develop students to respect and be responsibile for the way the space is used.

Given this and further discussions I have discover an article which i thought I would share with you from on design recommendations that American Architects are making to school designers and school districts. This article si 4 years old but highlights the importance of thinking about school design and use!

Here is the article in full:

Here are eight key principles for effective school design in the 21st century.

The National Summit on School Design, convened by the American Architectural Foundation and Knowledge-Works Foundation, recently brought more than 200 participants from around the country to Washington, D.C. After discussing several school-design topics, summit participants agreed on eight key principles for effective school design in the 21st century. These are:

1. Design schools to support a variety of learning styles. Not all students learn the same way, studies show. In designing new schools, stakeholders should reexamine the idea of the traditional classroom setting and focus instead on new kinds of environments that can support student achievement. This requires greater flexibility to accommodate a range of learning scenarios, both inside and outside of school.

2. Enhance learning by integrating technology. Besides the use of technology tools in classrooms, recent advances also allow schools to better control heating, cooling, air flow, and noise and to improve communications with stakeholders. Consult students about what kinds of learning technologies they’d like to use in school, summit participants recommended–and don’t forget to train educators in their use.

3. Foster a “small school” culture. Though the size of a new school should be determined within the framework of a community’s needs, vision, academic goals, traditions, and economics, there are important benefits to developing a “small school” culture that fosters close relationships, participants said.

4. Support neighborhood schools. Look for ways to preserve neighborhood schools whenever possible, participants urged. Neighborhood schools allow many students to walk to school; strong neighborhood schools boost property values for nearby homeowners; and preserving neighborhood schools reinforces the link between the school and its community.

5. Create schools as “centers of community.” Many school districts are building schools that serve as the hub, or central resource, of the entire community. In these cases, the facility is used not only as a school but as a location for other community services, such as recreational centers or performing-arts spaces–fostering greater public support and playing an important role in the community’s health. If you choose this route, however, make sure you consider policies and design elements that will ensure the safety of students.

6. Engage the public in the planning process. This process should start early, participants said, allowing for community feedback long before final decisions are made. The process should include all school and community stakeholders, recognizing minority opinions as well. It might help to start with a “visioning process,” in which stakeholders agree what the school’s role in educating students and serving the community should be.

7. Provide healthy, comfortable, and flexible learning spaces. Summit participants overwhelmingly agreed that school leaders should strive to improve the quality, attractiveness, and health of their buildings. Research and experience have shown the impact of spatial configurations, color, lighting, ventilation, acoustics, and other design elements on student achievement. Far from luxuries, these elements can affect students’ ability to focus, process information, and learn.

8. Consider non-traditional options for school facilities and classrooms. Explore options for employing underused civic, retail, and other adaptable, non-school spaces, participants urged. Many cities have community assets such as museums, colleges, research labs, and other institutions that offer the potential for experiential learning and real-life applications of lessons.

In last week’s blog we begun a discussion about developing leadership whilst student’s are learning. This week we explore, what John Maxwell calls “the quickest way to developing leadership“.

F.F. Fourneis, in his wonderful exposition Coaching for Improved Work Performance, CoachingImprovedWorkdiscussed four common reasons why people do not perform the way they should:

  1. They do not know WHAT they are supposed to do
  2. They do not know HOW to do it
  3. They do not know WHY they do it
  4. There are obstacles beyond their control

Despite that this was originally written about work circumstances it is apparent that this can also be said about students in a school situation.

The first two reasons are normally dealt with reasonably well within a classroom environment. We provide excellent explicit teaching on the WHAT and the HOW of doing specific tasks. Having well designed assessment rubrics go a long way to providing students with what they need to show that they have develop knowledge as well as skills and capacities.

Reason three, the WHY, is sometimes not addressed well in classes but can be developed with well designed “tuning in” sessions and linking to the students’ understanding in other areas. A strong WHY will have the students engaged, passionate and enabling strong transference of skills AND knowledge.

Reason four, however, is poorly dealt with by many schools, and in fact most people rarely develop the wherewithal to overcome the obstacles that life throws at them unless their survival is at risk!

[Interestingly, a social psychologist at a conference once shared with me how in a survey he performed of his clients he discovered that 6% changed their unproductive habits from advertising, 17% from an emergency (e.g. heart attack, cancer) while over 70% because a close friend or family member nagged them until they changed!].

One can consider that one major aspect of leadership is the ability to overcome obstacles to achieve the goals you set out to achieve. You look at any successful individual and you will find that they failed many times before they succeeded and what made them successful and leaders in their areas was that they learnt how to overcome or get around obstacles (the youtube video below gives some examples of this).

John C Maxwell in his book Developing the Leader Within You suggests that there are only two things that allow for powerful problem solving and leadership: the right attitude and the right action plan.

Given the importance of attitude to being a leader, next weeks blog will go in depth about the right attitude. At this point I just want you to consider that in a content focussed curriculum and school environment the right attitude of students is to give what the teachers want and what the assessments ask for that will give them the best marks. This does not naturally develop leadership.DevelopingLdrWithin

With respect to the right action plan John Maxwell outlined the following process to develop the problem solving approach that will give people the ability to tackle the obstacles they face

  1. Identify the problem – quite often we attack the symptoms not the cause. Identify the real issues that lie beneath the symptoms
  2. Prioritise the problem – quite often we become stopped because we seem to have too many problems or things to deal with. Being able to list the issues and them prioritise them will allow students to grapple with the reality of the situation and learn how to deal with what is most important first
  3. Define the problem – defining what is the problem you will tackle (e.g. a critical question the students will tackle in an inquiry learning project) gives direction to the solution process. Maxwell discusses 4 steps to this aspect
    1. Ask the right questions
    2. Talk to the right people
    3. Get the hard facts
    4. Get involved in the process
  4. Select people to help you in the process – I have observed that many people try to solve problems on their own and get stuck. What I have found is that the answers always lie in community. Consulting as widely as possible will allow for solutions that you, as an individual, have never thought of.
  5. Collect problem causes
  6. Collect possible solutions
  7. Prioritise and select the best solutions
  8. Implement the best solution
  9. Reflect on and Evaluate the solution

You have probably noticed by now that this process IS the process of project-based inquiry learning. Pure inquiry learning, where the students choose a critical question to research and then go about in a discovery approach to answer their question, requires the skills and capacities I have just outlined.

What I ask you to reflect on is … how are you developing your students in the above process EXPLICITLY? Do you have rubrics that the students fill out to train them? Do you have particular practices you use in the class to do this? Do you have specific templates where the students can ritualise this process?

Feel free to comment on the blog!

Next week .. developing the right attitude!

OneMinManIt is interesting when you start reading out of your field how many interesting ideas one discovers that are applicable to education.

Ken Blanchard is one of the world leading experts on management and leadership. He is the author of a series of books called the “One Minute Manager”. He, and his team, have sold millions of books and empowered managers and leaders in a range of industries worldwide in simple and effective approaches to developing leadership and managing their organisations.

In “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” I discovered an interesting table (see Figure 1 below) where the One Minute Manager discusses “Situational Leadership”. The principal behind the approach reminded me greatly of how inquiry–learning, project-based learning can be designed to empower and develop skills in young people. It actually reflects the essence of what Bertram Bruce from the University of Illinois pointed out about the stages that teachers must go through to develop skills in leading inquiry learning (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The table outlines the relationship between four developmental levels and the four leadership styles that a manager / leader would use with the person in that developmental level.

  1. Directing – for people who lack competence but are enthusiastic and committed. They need direction and frequent feedback to get them started.
  2. Coaching – for people who have some competence but lack commitment. They need direction and feedback because they are relatively inexperienced. They also need support and praise to build their self-esteem, and involvement in decision making to restore their commitment.
  3. Supporting – for people who have competence but lack confidence or motivation. They don’t need much direction because of their skills, but support is necessary to bolster their confidence and motivation.
  4. Delegating – for people who have both competence and commitment. They are able and willing to work on a project by themselves with little supervision or support.

So if one was going to develop independent learners who are responsible for their own learning teachers would need to use a variety of leadership styles. Teachers would also need to ensure that the students develop competencies and skills. They need to have the basic knowledge as well as the skills to use that knowledge.

Figure 2

Figure 2

However, how many teachers become stuck using one leadership style? Some are all about directing. Some are all about supporting or coaching. If a teacher does not use the appropriate leadership style to the student (and it gets even more complicated because students can be in different developmental levels for different subjects … and the One Minute Manager actually shares a story about this) then we can actually be counter-productive to learning.

What do you see? Tell us in the comments section of the blog.

Next week we will discuss another aspect of leadership … how do you actually set up your teaching to develop leadership.

I have had an interesting time this week as I went and visited a range of schools to observe teachers teaching (or should that be … provide a space for learning to occur?). I was able to sit in on a range of teachers and the variety of approaches they use to promote learning.

Before I get into the topic of teacher practices I think I must start by saying that good inquiry learning requires elements of explicit teaching, practicing, skill development, and inquiry. It is a mistake to think that you do not have explicit teaching or rote learning as part of the process. Why? Well … if you examine how the brain builds knowledge .. repetition is critical (look at anyone trying to learn a new sport). Explicit teaching is critical … you cannot develop critical thinking skills without having a knowledge base.

So let’s discuss practices …

The context where inquiry learning works best is one where the students (and teachers) are developing certain capacities and skills whilst learning about something. In a content focussed curriculum there is no focus on skills apart from that which has content understood.

They are two different paradigms and lead to two different outcomes.Kids Hands

In the paradigm of developing skills and capacities in our students … everything you or the students do is an opportunity to develop the skills and capacities. Let me give you some examples.

Example A

Two teachers were team teaching and while one led an inquiry into a particular topic the other teacher listened in and occasionally added reinforcement to what was said or added to the inquiry to help the students. It was excellent as I watched to see how the two teachers interacted with each other and with the students. The inquiry was engaging and had the students thinking and interacting. It was led purely by asking questions and the students responding.  There was even one point where the teacher had one of the students come to the front and share about a practice they had in the class (around literacy) for the other students. One practice I suggested afterwards … to support the learning of the students and to develop a capacity … was for the second teacher to write notes on the whiteboard of the inquiry as the inquiry runs. That way the students see a role model on how to take notes. If the teachers practiced this all the time and then later in the term / semester had the students taking notes as the teacher modelled it .. then they learn note taking skills much quicker (and improve literacy).

Example B

A teacher was running a game (called 10 seconds I beleive) where a person had to walk across the room and do it in exactly 10 seconds but without any watches apart from the timer the teacher held. The students then had to guest what time it was done in and the aim was for the walkers to get as close as possible to 10 seconds. This game was a great maths exercise as the students needed to work out “closeness” as well as strategies for thinking about marking time, etc. The teacher used her interactive whiteboard to put the numbers in a grid and had each student fill in their own grid before she filled in the group grid. It was a very rich exercise and I was really pleased about the range of practices and scafolding she had in the session. The one practice I suggested (again to continue to developing particular skills in the students) was to get up a second window on the Interactive Whiteboard and automatically graph the tries so the visually oriented students can see how it their tries are getting closer to the magical 10 second mark.

There are lots of examples of practices that teachers can invent standing in .. “what capacity will I build in my students now?”. Rather than leaving the training of internet research skills just to the ICT lesson … what about doing it in class interactively with the interactive whiteboard and show them your thinking as you search for information (use google, wikipedia, and a range of resources). Discuss about how some information is useful and not (have them say) as you look at things online. Have them give you the keywords to look up and inquire about whether they give good results or not.

A great inquiry learning unit will have lots of embedded practices that teachers have consciously placed in their to develop particular skills.

What are your practices … share your ideas in the comments section!

For those of you interested … two great links with great ideas.

1. : A website about one-to-one learning and the teaching practices you can use to scaffold learning as we enter a more one to one environment with technology

2. An excellent resource about neuroscience and the brain. It is a general website but some of the articles are extraordinary (e.g. Is Working Memory a better predictor of academic success than IQ?: Dr. Tracy Alloway summarizes a recent landmark study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, which tracked children over a six-year period. Key finding: Working memory can be a more powerful predictor of academic success than IQ scores)

I like to write thought provoking blogs that create discussion and comments … much like the government puts out websites that only give some information and cause newspaper headlines.

I both like and don’t like the My School website ( At one level it allows parents to look at  their school NAPLAN results and give some idea of how their child’s school is performing on certain standardized tests.I think it is important as a TOOL for enabling parents to become responsible for their child’s learning and to kick up a stink at the GOVERNMENT (not the school) to have appropriate funding for the school.

However, there are several things I have issues with

  • NAPLAN results are standardized content knowledge tests … they DO NOT define a school’s ability to empower their kids to be leaders, to think, to be empathetic, to be caring individuals, .. pretty much everything that schools are there for. In the 21st century it isn’t just about knowing something … it is about knowing how to find it, discern what is useful, apply it in various circumstances, knowing how to use the information that is out there, and preparing children for a world that is changing exponentially. NAPLAN tests are very poor predictors of this.
  • The media, despite being warned that it wasn’t about ranking schools and creating league tables … come out immediately to create league tables of schools. I checked the website … you would have to spend hours pouring over the data one by one to extract that information. Talk about creating the drama when everybody who understands the idea behind the MySchool website has been saying that it isn’t about creating league tables.
  • Finally, and perhaps the most important, the “Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage” which is used to compare each school with similar schools is flawed. Imagine this, (this is an actual case) your school is in a relative wealthy area (based on house prices) but its feeder is the housing commission flats right near the school. Many of the children are refugees, recent immigrants and generally people who are currenlty living off government benefits. However, because it is a relative wealthy area your ICSEA is skewed and it is rated HIGHER than one of the best private schools in Australia! You are thus compared to schools with the same ICSEA and is rated as a poor performer. We then have the media telling the world they are a crap school via their league tables. The ICSEA doesn’t look at the enrollment data for each school it looks at the suburb data and uses that information … not very clever.

So lets get into the Freakonomics side of this blog and link it all together.

As a saying goes … there are statistics and then there are damn statistics. As you can understand when you provide statistics such as the My School website they are open to interpretation by many people who are not trained in interpreting the statistics and what they possibly mean. It is interesting to note that there is NO scientific studies yet performed where a schools performance is CORRELATED to the ICSEA.Freakonomics

So what is important for a parent to producing great NAPLAN results?

It isn’t what you may think.

Steven Levitt, a professor in economics at the University of Chicago and he co-wrote, with Stephen Dubner, a book examining the stats behind a range of wide-ranging questions … from why do drug dealers live at home, what do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common, etc. It is a fascinating and fun book which examines the underlying causes of why things happen. Check out the website ( where it has study guides and more!

In one chapter on “What makes a perfect parent” they discuss the statistics behind the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study that the US Department of Education undertook in the late 1990s. The study measured the progress of more than 20,000 children from kindergarten through to fifth grade. Rather than go into detail … you should read the book … here is what the data says is correlated with school test scores (e.g. NAPLAN):

  • The child has highly educated parents (positive correlation)
  • The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status (positive)
  • The child’s mother was thirty or older ath the time of her first child’s birth (positive)
  • The child has low birthweight (negative)
  • The child’s parents speak English in the home (positive)
  • The child is adopted (negative)
  • The child’s parents are involved in the parent teacher association (positive)
  • The child has many books at home (positive)

The authors then go into each and discuss the causality of each factor (e.g what does it mean that a child has many books at home and how could it be correlated to school performance).

Now … factors that were not correlated with the data:

  • The child’s family is intact
  • The child’s parents recently moved into a better neighbourhood
  • The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten
  • The child’s parents regularly take them to museums
  • The child is regularly spanked
  • The child frequently watches television
  • The child’s parents read to him/her nearly every day

What do you think? What do you think makes a difference?

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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