Re-imagining engagement

This week I attended a workshop meeting looking at student engagement, organised by AITSL under the Learning Frontiers banner and the headline: ‘Imagine a world where kids are as eager to learn throughout school as they were when they arrived.’

The session was opened by David Jackson (innovation unit, UK) who argued for spaces where principals, schools and teachers had  ‘a licence to do different’.

He made the case for change and the problem: many students are disengaged, and many more are un-engaged. I think the latter is most true in my experience. And he gave some facts that claimed that the further students go through school the lower engagement levels are in terms of:

  •  Participation
  • Belonging
  • Attendance
  • Cognitive engagement

Significantly, and the reason for this was not explored, the lower the SES, the lower the levels of engagement, although it wasn’t clear what ‘engagement’ actually meant either. I think it was in terms of the first three dot-points above, which are blunt measurement instruments to me. However, this issue does seem to matter; engagement influences prospects of success 20 years later according to Australian research, but then you also think – ‘chicken or egg’?

One fact was blunt and quite shocking: 1.2 million American students drop out of school each year  Over ninety per cent said they wanted more ‘real life’ experiences.

So, What is engagement?

 It’s clearly more than attendance, conformity, behaviour and IS about energy and enthusiasm for learning, beyond school, including taking responsibility. One way of seeing engagement learning is the 4P model below:

4P Learning is engaging

  • Purposeful
  • Placed
  • Pervasive
  • Passion-led

I really liked Jackson’s image of ‘school is the base-camp for learning – where you get charged up, and extend from’.

AITSL intend moving beyond a community of practice, to a community of engagement, and beyond that, a community of interest. They are creating ‘Lab sites’ and ‘Developer Sites’ (we used to call these schools, and I have reservations about the idea of school as an experimental lab). AITSL’s aim in this project:  to increase the proportion of Australian students who are deeply engaged in their learning, through the development of teaching and learning practices that promote engagement, beginning with professional practices.

I was concerned that in the new ‘hubs’ and ‘labs’ they intend creating that AITSL seems very much in favour of ‘new players in education’, ‘inside and outside the system’.  That raises alarm bells named ‘Pearson’ et. al.  for me, and I asked them about that over coffee. I was told that they were aware of some these reservations and were working on framing some appropriate boundaries around the commercialization of education in this space.


Much of the thinking AITSL were presenting on engagement was based on work from the Innovation Unit, presented in Re-Designing Education Systems.though interestingly they have moved away from the key elements of ‘collaboration’ and ‘technology in that work, arguing that those elements should be universal and implicit. The four elements they agreed on were:

 Co-created – adults and students as powerful resources for design of learning

Connected – real world contexts, contemporary

Personal –  build from student passions and capabilities, personalised

Integrated – Integration of subjects, students and contexts

We then spent some times in groups, plotting out imaginary sample networks and hubs that might develop out of this project. A really interesting morning and it will be fascinating to see where this goes, and whether they do avoid the sharks that are circling around education.

Schools involved in 2014 will be announced before Christmas. You can follow the conversation on the Twittisphere at #learningfrontiers

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Face to face or online learning? The case for blended learning?

ABSTRACT: What is the picture of a student’s intellectual future? How is online learning transforming learners and the ways in which learner’s learn? There is no turning back, to the pre-internet world of learning and inquiry. Our minds are changing as we interact with the tools of learning, and as the structure of our brain changes, so do our thoughts and experiences.  What do we stand to lose by constant connectivity, instant and unlimited information? For a talent lost or diminished there will be another one that is gained. As educators continue to nurture student’s minds, they need to tread carefully and perhaps adopt the evolving ‘ Blended learning’ model of education, the combination of traditional bricks and mortar and online delivery. This presentation will cover the impact of the Internet and its tools on learners, the different approaches and models of Blended learning, how the IB is leaning towards a blended learning environment and practical insights into what makes it work

This session opened with a disturbing metaphor: ‘the internet the invading our world’.  It didn’t improve much when we then went into the ‘what is the internet doing to our brains’ and then showed a whole lot of pictures of young people texting. However, she twisted the narrative by then showing a picture of the conference from the day before; a whole lot of educators on their ipads and computers (and iPads are everywhere here)

Unfortunately, it was then back to neuroscientists and ‘What the internet is doing to our brains’ and the Nicholas Carr book, ‘The Shallows’. Our brains are changing apparently, being constantly rewired and neural pathways and synapses are working all the time. We used to call this ‘learning’ by the way.

This presentation argued that there is no turning back, but then went back to what we might lose by constant connectivity. So far, so negative. It was nice to see some of the participants questioning back: ‘how is this different from the way the brain is rewired when you learn French?’ Yuzzah. You go you. The session threatened to get feisty when one man said that the way he had to deal with 150 emails a day and didn’t read the same anymore, and that was because of this (gesturing at the screen with the word ‘internet’) And there was a bit of back and forth. Nice to see.

But then it was back to us losing the skills of ‘concentration, contemplation and reflection’. And (no irony at all) an argument that we should go back to the blackboard. I’m not joking.

We eventually got on to ‘blended learning’  – ‘a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, pace etc.’ For schools, surely this is the future I think; the mix of ‘brick and mortar’ and online learning model. She argued for a ‘self-blend’ model for IB where students take an online course in their regular school schedule and students work with a site based coordinator.

Blended learning provides a nice convergence of online and face to face. She gave some good tips including the importance of the dedicated site coordinator, sharing student weekly progress using Google Docs, setting up collaborative student teams, making tutorial or help sessions available, student counselling in and out of the program, limit of one subject per student, the importance of educating parents and students, providing hard copy text books and doing regular surveys of student opinions and interests.

On the other hand this was pretty much the only session I’d seen so far where the presenter demonstrated good design skills with some good images, and very little text. And she handled what I would probably have regarded as challenges, really well.

Below, a key diagram from the presentation, which argued for the self-blend model.

Rules of Engagement

This week I’ve attended a couple of functions with Ron Ritchhart of Project Zero (Harvard Graduate School of Education) talking about some of his most recent thinking on thinking, teaching and learning.

Ron has been working with some of the teachers at my school, and others, for several years now and always seems to connect with teachers on some level. Tonight, I was at a joint-schools meeting which opened up with a ‘see-think-wonder’ routine around a painting of children’s games, which generated good discussion and opened up his discussion about the ‘rules of engagement’ and what we might learn from games in terms of accessibility, ownership and purpose.


He talked about accessibility in terms of ‘inviting the students to the learning’, about making complex ideas accessible. He questioned whether the concept of ‘wonder’ was prevalent enough in our learning opportunities; ‘when, where and how are students invited to pose questions, puzzles and ponderings about the topic?’ and asked whether the entry points were appropriate: ‘how can students enter into the topic?’.  Finally, he talked about where is the ‘edge’, the controversy or urgency in the topic?

We watched a video of a teacher opening up a study of the text, Good Night Mister Tom  using narrative and physical action and drama as well as interpersonal skills involving interactive collaboration. These are entry points that Gardner as developed, along with others such as numerical/logical, the aesthetic and existential/foundational entry points.  He emphasised that Gardner did not develop his theory of intelligences as a guide to ‘teaching’ although many have tried to use them in this way.


This is about to what extent we allow students to shape and direct their own learning; how much meaningful choice they do actually have about things that shape their learning? When and where do students experience the power of their own ideas and thinking in their learning?  When and where do students act as assessors and evaluators of their own learning? He summed up these as ‘choice, power and reflection’.  The video we saw here showed a teacher using virtual reality games (in this case the Myst series) to generate an immersive, inspiring environment for creative writing which seemed to work well although I had some questions as to how much student ownership there actually was, with the teacher’s hand pretty firmly on the mouse.


This was to do with how learning is contextualised and connected to the students’ lives and how authentic is it in the sense that does the activity of students mirror what is done in the real world and within that discipline? It’s what David Perkins calls the ‘junior version’ of what people do in the real world. He also talked about the audience and asked what is the audience for students’ learning? Where and when is the learning shared?

The feedback from  other teachers there was very positive. As someone said a while ago, ‘It’s not rocket science: it’s more complex than that’. And more important.

Teach for Australia

Two letters from the AGE today that epitomize what I think about ‘Teach for Australia’ initiatives that offer six-week instant teaching course for graduates to instantly fill positions that have been difficult to fill in traditional ways.  Effective teaching is not a six week training course.  Repeat until sleep: ‘Teaching is NOT a low skill job’.

It doesn’t add up

LET me get this straight. Teach for Australia will put graduates of accounting, law and science through a six-week summer school where they will learn to teach, before sending them to work in the most disadvantaged schools. After two years (if stress hasn’t killed them), these underqualified “teachers” will have two options. The first is to accept a job with a prestigious firm that sponsors the program. The second is to remain in their tough, underfunded, under-resourced, presumably lowly league-table-ranked school and continue to earn about $50,000 a year. Who has gone crazy? Me or the Government? Help.

Glenn Fowler, Australian Education Union, Barton, ACT

Lemme at it

FORGET Teach for Australia. Bring on “Perform Brain Surgery for Australia”. I’ve always wanted to have a crack at it. I’ve got my own knife and I’ve got six free weeks over summer.

Unrelated picture ‘Victory Farm Volunteers’ from Oregon State Archives

Reframing Schooling for Today’s World (Greg Whitby)

‘It’s all about the cloud: anytime, anywhere’

Whitby was the first keynote of the AAIBS 2009 Conference. After a brief attempt at getting his audience to do the chicken dance, he began by talking about something of the bad press that education gets; that we somehow need a ‘revolution’ to make schools right. (Or politicians need one to get elected?)

However, he argued that disengagement of students was the key factor in education today, and argued that educators need to ‘re-take the ground’ on the education debate.

He argued that young people were disengaging because the structures, processes, procedures schools put in place no longer matched the world they live in.

Governments want a silver bullet. Educators need to be creative and collaborative about solutions and resist such simplistic approaches

How do you scale innovation in a school? Ingenuity is a better world than discovery because it involves bringing expertise to the problems

He argued that the laptop computer was not liked by students (?: not my experience) because the computer was always right (?:huh?) and that the Iphone was a step to learners constructing the knowledge (?) moving away from the hierarchal to the conceptual.

He lost me through this bit but then ended by saying that by marching kids into computer labs once a week and calling it ‘technology’, while all along they all had more powerful computers in their pockets which were officially ‘banned’ by their schools, was somewhat silly.

He then went back to reaffirming it being about the learning, not the technology. Okay, I was back. He then said it was about learning for this century and talked of the recent OECD work which described learning having four components:

Customised: 1-1 learning

Knowledge sources: Cloud, anywhere, anytime learning

Collaboration: between teachers and students, students and students, and teachers and teachers (Called in the literature as ‘de-privatising practice‘) Learning is a ‘mediated practice’

Assessment: here, he emphasised ‘assessment for learning’.

Whitby has an almost aggressive style of delivery, striding the stage and declaiming that change was coming and that it was all going to get harder but in the end I liked, and agreed with, most of what he was saying.

It got more interesting when he began taking about what these things looked like in real life; what do we do in real life in our schools on Monday?

Whitby’s new schools would have a different framework, different learning spaces, no bells, individualised and based around a conceptual framework not an industrial framework

Such models are more complex (that’s why we don’t see many schools doing it) and require some background ‘grunt’ in knowledge management systems to deliver it.

He also talked about the work of John Hattie, who I’ve been looking a lot at lately, who argues that the two biggest influences on student learning are the teacher, and feedback.


Whitby argued that teacher learning, especially about pedagogy, was often hugely ignored, and yet it was critical. The best form of professional learning is a workspace approach, not a workshop approach, learning with colleagues n a school. The systems that are making the biggest difference are building time for reflection on practice.

When I got back to work I found this YouTube video from Whitby, which discusses some of the concepts he was exploring here.

Transforming Schools through Powerful Learning

I spent most of the day today at an ACER seminar with Professor Guy Claxton,  Co-director , Real World Learning, University of Winchester

He began with his depiction of the ‘holy grail’ of 21st Century learning and argued that ALL the things below were necessary and that this wasn’t a list you could choose from.

Education fit for the 21st C
• Rising standards
• Engaged students
• Enthusiastic teachers
• Wider skills, key competencies, essential ‘learnings’ for life

He then mainly talked about the last of these; the inter-disciplinary stuff from VELS and warned against wish-lists of attributes which in isolation look very odd (EG: ‘Students should be helped to ‘develop a sense of wonder and awe about the world’)

He warned us against a simple belief in policies. Student levels of engagement and achievement are raised not by what we’re doing, not by what we think we are doing, but by what students think we’re doing.

He was particularly critical of the ‘lifelong learning’ phrase that was at the center of mission statements in England, NZ and here in Australia and whether we all shared an understanding of what this actually means.

The question of lifelong learning raises issues about what sort of learning (real world  or just school?), for whom?, how it’s promoted (intentionally or naturally) and what’s involved (dispositions or just skills?)

Claxton argued that education had been a bit glib about all this and argued for a broad understanding of the term ‘lifelong learning’, which isn’t a new idea: ‘We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared’. (Seymour Papert, 1998)

He argued that raising levels of achievement was one thing, but we ‘need to have a wee think’ about whether we were doing this through ‘spoon feeding’ knowledge, creating passive, docile learners rather than active, engaged learners.

I wondered, in his concentration on the broader lifelong learning skills and his critique of ‘conventional good teaching’ and his rejection of a conventional pedagogy, how these things should be ‘addressed more directly’, particularly when he was cautious about how we might assess such attributes.

He talked a lot about he obstacles to lifelong learning and how progress has been patchy, slow and superficial across the world, including patchy implementation of VELS itself in Victoria.

Some of those obstacles were:

• Grandiose, vague and obscure terminology (a problem that Tasmania’s ‘Essential Learnings’ suffered from)
• Persistence of traditional forms of assessment (working out hot to measure what we value beyond academic achievement)
• Persistence of focus on teaching, not learning
• Presented as a new demand, not a reorientation of goals
• Treated as ‘tinsel’, a sprinkle of tips and sound bites
• Qualities treated as new knowledge content
• A thin language for talking about learning
• Ignoring the plight of the successful students
• Under-estimation of the process of habit change, for teachers, parents, and students themselves
• Our will – are we really serious about this? Are we concerned enough to do what it really takes to ‘help all young people to develop the confidence, capacity and appetite to face, select and pursue difficult things worth doing’ ie. To become powerful lifelong learners.

Traditional good teaching doesn’t do it (he repeated) but again saw traditional good teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’ which I’m not sure quite nails it.

He argued that even teaching skills like mind-mapping, thinking hats, etc didn’t meant it was translating into the real life action. The UK was obsessed with skills he argued.

The problem with the word skills is that skills are ‘things like welding and making a lump free white sauce’ are clearly prompted by the world you’re in. You know when you’re supposed to do these things, but the world doesn’t prompt you about ‘skills’ in thinking. David Perkins argues that 50% of performance can be attributed to an ‘intuitive understanding’ of when to apply relevant thinking skills; he argued for students to be ‘self-prodding’ about their approach to thinking and learning beyond the classroom.

‘If its not dispositional, we haven’t done the job’

‘For over twenty years it’s been known that students with more elaborated conceptions of learning perform better in exam situations.’ Young people who are able to be more articulate about their learning, are likely to do better.’ So, it’s not ‘either-or’; achievement or metacognition. Powerful creative learners investigate, experiment, imagine, reason, are curious, determined, resourceful, sociable, thoughtful and have presence. The cross-over to Ritchhart’s positive thinking dispositions is interesting. Claxton called it a 4-5-1 model of powerful learning, that looks like this

4 Ways of Learning
Investigating: researching, copying, assessing
Experimenting: tinkering, practising, drafting
Imagining: visualising, dreaming, feeling of rightness
Reasoning: liking, analysing and explaining

5 Dispositions
Curious: wondering, questioning, doubting
Determined: risking, persisting, patient
Resourceful: capitalizing, tool-making, collecting
Sociable: discussing, helping, accepting criticism
Thoughtful: taking stock, overriding, assumption-checking

1 Big Thing
Presence: bringing it all together in the learning moment.

Claxton argued for gradual, systematic culture change in the school; ‘nothing else will do’. Learning must permeate the culture and not in a rhetorical or cosmetic way, but deeply, as experienced by the students. His preferred strategy was ‘gentle pressure, relentlessly applied’.

He gave some practical examples of how this enculturation might begin; in terms of language (‘learning’ not ‘work’), example (learn an instrument ourselves) and talked about ‘coaching’ some things such as ‘group work’, ‘cooperation’ or ‘listening’. He talked about giving students responsibility, split-screen teaching, and the environment in terms of resources and displays (what the walls are saying)

One simple strategy was moving from ‘is’ language to ‘could’ language, which invites creative responses to the information, a for of language that affords other kinds of engagement: critical, creative, playful etc.

He kept talking about ‘which learning muscles do we want students to be using’; those to with memory and recall, or a richer, broader set of thinking like reasoning, collaborating, revising, reflecting, summarising etc.

Interestingly, he gave the thinking routines of Ron Ritchhart as a good example of getting started with moving beyond recall and passivity. Those thinking routines are things we’ve been exploring for a while now and they are gaining momentum with teaching staff.

He asked us to be ‘brave’, to not be mindful of pandering to a narrow set of parent expectations and kept asking us where we where, in listening to his ideas, on the ‘spectrum’ of three baskets: basket 1: this is obvious, basket 2: this is promising, basket 3: this is outlandish and out of my reach.

Claxton was critical of the way that technologies which ‘distribute’ our intelligence (watches, phones, computers, calculators, phones) are all put aside when we go to examine and assess students. So, my students will put away the tool that they’ve been planning and drafting and writing with all their life pretty much, and doing the year 12 exam on a piece of paper. VCAA don’t seem to have an answer to that.

In some ways it was a bit flat. He talked at us all day, with a PowerPoint presentation unadorned and with no apparent sense of design and a strong primary school focus I thought.  But he was interesting and smart and it was more than worthwhile all the same. I bought a copy of his book, What’s the Point of School, (OneWorld, 2008)

Oh, and to end on a technology note. It wasn’t the first time, in an age when every teacher in Victoria has been given a notebook computer, that, in a room of maybe 150 teachers, I was the only one using a computer to take my notes.

Politics and pedagoy

There’s a lot in this American video which is a fairly one sided ‘conversation’ with Henry Giroux, that is firmly immersed in the American political milieu, the ‘No child left behind’ policy and all that.

But I found some threads that connected too: on the dangers of confusing education and training, something I referred to a bit in a post called What is Good Work? last year, on the dangers of de-skilling teachers and the importance of reflective practice.

He got me when he said ‘we should never engage in a practice if we’re not going to be reflective of that practice’.

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