Friday, 28 December 2012

Why School?

I've just finished reading Why School, by Will Richardson - another notch on the holiday reading list belt! 

The book makes a compelling case for why and how education needs to be revolutionised.

The Old [Existing... ] Way

"Our story about education has gone basically unrevised for 150 years. Time's up."

Sure, there have been some changes to the way we educate children over the course of time, but these have been of incremental, even glacial pace given the vast period of time that 'formal' education has existed for... 

A rough timeline of change in Education... 

Whilst there may be some give or take on the actual dates in the graphic above, it can be said with some safety that we, as a profession, are still using some the same methods and approaches that we were [gulp... ] 1000 + years ago!?!

Education has been / is slow to respond to the changing way that society is learning, communicating and recreating. A similarly slow response has been seen from Education to other trends of societal change, including Gamification and Social Media... 
Teenagers and Business are a couple of segments of society that have generally been much quicker to adapt to these changes than Education has been...  

No so much the old, but certainly the recent and current excessive focus on standardised testing and competition, has lead to an inevitable narrowing of focus - narrowing of curriculum content and skills that students are exposed to, as well narrowing methods of measuring how 'good' a student / teacher / school / country(!) is.

The pathway towards educational 'success'..?

This heightened state of urgency regarding testing, data and measurement of progress is all related to a philosophy of ongoing, incremental improvement... This is laudable, as we all [should] want to get better at what we do... 

The Case for Radical Change

Education no longer needs gradual 'tweaking'... We refine, polish and focus on minute improvements when we are near-perfection - our systems and methods were likely closer to this state when we were preparing students for an industrial society. A factory processing model was appropriate when students were likely to end up working in factories, or occupations that relied upon consistent and accurate application of fundamental skills and knowledge. In the future - even now, in the present - there will be far greater value placed upon creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and other much-quoted(!) '21st Century Skills'.
So we don't need improvement, we need significant, revolutionary change - we need to be "doing school 'differently', instead of simply 'better'".  

One of the most significant changes that has occured in society, which Richardson keeps coming back to, is the sheer abundance of information that is available to almost anyone nowadays - there is now unprecedented accessibility to knowledge and knowledgeable people. This information and expertise is only becoming increasingly accessible.

The New Way

"In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like - not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June." 

  • Students have increased autonomy about what they are learning - less sausage factory, more motivated learners.

  • Learners should have flexibility about where they seek assistance from - go to where the expertise is, rather than a central, nominated person who cannot possibly be expert in all areas...

  • Provision of opportunities and experiences for children to participate in and learn from digital environments - don't ignore these increasingly significant aspects of our lives. 

  • Discovery, rather than delivery - "move away from telling kids what to learn, and when and how to learn it."

  • More collaborating with other people and creating new products of learning, less consuming of content.

  • Teachers to be collaborating, communicating and sharing with fellow professionals beyond their own school - spread quality practice and ideas.

  • We [students and teachers] need to be good at learning, not simply knowing or remembering - knowledge is not only increasingly easy for people to access, it "is constantly changing and being updated", as well. 

  • Teachers need to adopt a mindset of being ongoing learners - "... the adults in the room need to be learners first and teachers second."

Is inspiring too strong a word..? The book was certainly motivating and left me hopeful that, despite the stodginess of Education systems and the burden of overcoming "the roots of 150 years of tradition around schooling", teachers can begin to join bottom-up reforms of how we teach and how we ask students to learn.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Brain Bugs

I recently finished reading a book by Dean Buonomano about the brain and some of its imperfections - Brain Bugs: How The Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives.

There were a series of fascinating insights into some of the dilemmas we face, as a result of the human brain's recent struggles to evolve at a rate that is consistent with the rate of change we are experiencing in modern society. There was also plenty of practical advice for how we can help our own brains [and those of others] overcome some of these biologically-stubborn 'flaws'... 

A complex device

"Your brain is a web made of approximately 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses - which in terms of elements and connections surpasses the World Wide Web, with its approximately 20 billion Web pages connected by a trillion links."

Human Brain vs the World Wide Web... 

For a variety of evolutionary reasons, our brains are naturally-inclined to be good at making approximations, recognising patterns and making connections. This points to the importance of students learning about knowledge / skills / concepts in an interrelated manner and being taught to make conceptual connections, rather than being taught knowledge and skills in an isolated, 'stand-alone' fashion - our minds work best by storing knowledge "in an associative manner: related concepts... are linked to each other."

On the other hand, human brains perennially struggle with mathematical calculations - we will "never be able to match the numerical prowess of digital computers". Despite our ability to carry out highly-complex tasks ["... virtually every human brain on the planet can master a language... "], we have to think hard in order to solve relatively simple mental calculations... 
Our brains are also quite poor storage devices - there are limits to how much information we can store and how accurately we can recall that information. Fortunately, technology is fast alleviating this issue for us - there is an ever-lessening need to ask the brain to store information, as we now have Google, YouTube, Internet-connected mobile devices, electronic calendars, etc. to perform these tasks for us.
In schools, we no longer need to be focusing on 'filling up' students with knowledge and content - knowledge is increasingly accessible in the age of the Internet and it is biologically inefficient!

Manipulating behaviour and motivating people

It seems we may be 'hard wired' to seek immediate gratification - particularly for activities that are related to the limbic section of the brain, responsible for some of our more basic functions. 
The term temporal discounting has been coined to describe how "the perceived value of a reward decreases with time." i.e. We become progressively less interested in a potential reward the longer that we have to wait to receive it... 
So we need to provide frequent positive feedback about progress to students [and teachers... ], to ensure that they engage with the journey towards the long-term outcomes - show them the steps along the way, not just the final destination. Gamification, with its focus on short cycles of feedback about the performance of 'players', does this well.

"... our brain is rigged to favor immediate gratification" - people need short cycles of feedback to maximise motivation.

Irrational Fears

We excessively fear many things because it made biological sense to fear such things 100,000 years ago... eg: We have an "innate uneasiness and distrust of outsiders... [because] competition and aggression between neighboring groups was constant throughout human evolution... " This 'innate', but often irrational fear, is routinely exploited by politicians ["amygdala politics"] and others, in order to strengthen their followings.
These outdated fear circuits reflect our genetic encoding, which "can only be reprogrammed on a slow evolutionary timescale". Skunks are a good example of "the consequences of running an outdated operating system". The cocky skunks will nonchalantly turn around and spray a potential enemy with their powerful odor - a tactic that serves them well against most species they encounter, but not against speeding cars... 
These outdated fears also commonly lead to excessive conservatism and reliance upon traditional ways. Partly, this is due to our memories having "no convenient way to delete information" - even proven bad information can be hard to eradicate... 

So how do we overcome conservative and outdated - but tightly-held - views that exist in our schools..? How do we expediate necessary change?

Overcoming our 'brain bugs'

In order to effectively tackle the inherent flaws of our brains, we need to develop our awareness of how the brain works.

The term, asymmetric paternalism [George Loewenstein] refers to the concept of enacting laws and regulations that "take our propensity to make irrational decisions into account." Without restricting our freedom or available choices, such laws "should nudge us toward the decisions that are in our own and society's best interests"... 

  • If we had greater collective awareness of the brain's workings and its potential flaws, would schools be able to put some structures and processes in place to protect against irrational conservatism, or fear of difference..?

Another approach is to use the brain's propensity to value the behaviour of the group - "studies suggest that one of the most important determinants of people's behaviour is what they believe others are doing... ".

  • Do schools need to work harder at promoting and celebrating people who are demonstrating the behaviours and actions we are hoping to 'spread'..?

Anyway, that's enough for now, my brain hurts... 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Dangers of Efficiency

To work efficiently is to minimise waste - the wasting of time, the wasting of effort, the wasting of money, etc.
Operating efficiently is a vital component of successful workplaces, as it ensures that resources [financial, human, physical] are used in productive ways, with minimal waste and misuse. Errors, 'fat' and ineffectiveness are removed from processes and structures, in order to refine our work, consistently-implement 'best-practice', as well as ensure 'quality-control'...

Schools, like other organisations, value and aspire towards making productive use of their time and resources - after all, teachers are very busy and we all want to 'get the most out of' our students and the time we are investing in our work.
In schools, this view is related to the value we place on having ultimate consistency between classrooms and teachers, regarding the programs, approaches and schedules that we use. There is a lot of good research that identifies why it is important to have consistency of practice within schools, to eliminate the poor / less effective practice, remove examples of time / resource wastage, etc.

Is there a side effect of schools aspiring towards uniformity and efficiency of operations..?

The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different from the present. It is not simply this acknowledgement of inevitable change that is significant, but the exponential rate of change that society is experiencing since the dawn of the Internet...

The way children learn, the way teachers work and the way schools operate, will also all change as a result of our changing society - the variation will be in how responsive schools and teachers are to the changing needs of our students. i.e. Are you going to:

  • ride the crest of the wave, or 
  • miss it, have to wait for the next one and fall behind..?

If we [within schools] are uniform in our approaches...

  • Yes, we are consistent
  • Yes, we are efficient, through refining and scaling of processes;
  • But we leave little room for experimenting, for trialing, for innovating... 
  • If we do the same things in the same way, we remove the ability to investigate new ways and ideas and reduce our capacity to adapt and respond to inevitable change.

How can schools structure to better-accommodate change..?

Instead of aiming for and valuing uniformity, we need to 'tinker' more... An efficiency-mindset seeks to remove all errors, but if we stigmatise errors and mistakes, we won't be trialing and experimenting with new ideas and initiatives, because an inevitable [essential?!?] aspect of trials and experiments is the errors and mistakes we make and the learning that comes from these errors.

Seeking perfection of output and ultimate efficiency of process makes sense on a factory floor, or even when the role of schools was to produce workers for such contexts...

But this is no longer the role of schools - we are now preparing students for a future that is far different and less-known than that for which schools have traditionally served.

In schools we need to structure for and value the trialing of new ideas and experimenting with new approaches. We need to acknowledge and accept that some of these will end up being inefficient [i.e. not particularly successful] uses of time and resources, but value the learning that occurs from 'finding out' and investigating, as well as the successful new ideas that we can spread and scale.

The time and resources we spend investigating and tinkering with new ideas, projects, strategies, etc. shouldn't be seen as inefficient, but rather an investment in our ability to adapt and respond to change and, ultimately, to be relevant to our students and the communities that we serve.  

Friday, 7 December 2012

How do we make it equal?


Is it ensuring that everybody is treated equally..? That we are all treated in the same fashion and those that work the hardest, those that 'want it' the most and those who are the most effective will reap the greatest rewards..?
Or is it focusing on equality of outcomes..? i.e. providing extra assistance to those that need it most and reducing assistance for those that are already advantaged..?

It often seems like a natural reaction to treat everybody in a consistent manner. As children, we are taught to 'share'... And by 'share' they (parents, teachers, et al... ) don't mean, "give your younger brother more than what you are keeping for yourself... "
It is natural for us to want the same treatment as other people, as well as to question why other people get 'better' treatment than ourselves...

Unfortunately, the 'survival of the fittest' mentality of treating people equally, is destined to result in unequal outcomes. Darwinism might make sense in the field of evolution, but when we have control over the outcomes, we can do better at 'spreading' the opportunity to succeed.

If choosing equality of outcomes over equal treatment, we need to direct and focus resources where they are needed most and reduce the level of support provided to people and groups of people that already have a high level of opportunity to succeed.
Why give people more than they need..?
Why leave people short of the opportunities that they need..?


A recent development that has occurred in most modern democracies is the increasing rate of income inequality (Fisher and Hout 2006). Such income inequality "undermines societies: the more inequality, the more health problems, social tensions, and the lower social mobility, trust, life expectancy." [Durante, Fiske, Kervyn & Cuddy]

An OECD study identified Australia as part of a group with some other English-speaking countries, each of whom had above-average inequality in labour earnings, with the significant factors driving this earnings disparity being a wide wage dispersion range and a relatively low rate of full-time employment. 
i.e. Our top earners are doing very well for themselves... and we have lots of people without full-time employment... 

At the other end of the spectrum were a group of Nordic countries [and Switzerland], each of whom had below-average inequality in labour earnings, due largely to a narrower range of wage dispersion and a high employment rate.
i.e. There is a smaller 'gap' between high and low income earners... and a higher rate of people are working full-time. 


The Government has a responsibility to provide an education for its young citizens and it is this provision of education that is oft-promoted as the the vehicle for long-term societal change, particularly for those that are facing disadvantage.
If this is to be more than lip service, then Governments need to use their education systems to take on some of the responsibility of addressing the many and varied instances of disadvantage that are existent in our society today.

  • Greater support for schools that are struggling.
  • Proportionally greater support for schools that service disadvantaged students.


Within schools, we are probably more clearly on the path towards equitable outcomes. Most teachers and school leaders know (and put into practice) that students in greater need deserve greater support.

  • Younger students are more dependent upon adult support and therefore need more of it. eg: Better teacher : student ratios in classes with younger students... 
  • Academically struggling students need greater support, so they can engage with age-appropriate content and not face 'dumbed down' learning expectations and curriculum content...  
  • Students with behavioural issues often need higher levels of time, attention and support than their peers, in order for them to close 'gaps' in their learning regarding appropriate behaviour - we accept that some students need extra assistance with reading [Maths, speech, fine motor skills, etc... ], but sometimes it is harder for people to accept that students are at different 'levels' regarding their skills and understandings about appropriate behaviour. It is no different to academic areas - we need to differentiate the support we provide so that all students have an equal opportunity to engage in and learn at school. 

So, if we are pursuing a more equal society as an outcome, we need to treat our individual students and schools differently, giving them what they need to ensure that they have equal opportunity to achieve success.

“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” 
― Rick RiordanThe Red Pyramid

Monday, 3 December 2012

Start With the Purpose

In his September 2009 TEDx talk, Simon Sinek identified the need for a re-think of traditional ways that leaders communicate:

Sinek identifies 'The Golden Circle', comprising three elements that need consideration when communicating significant decisions, initiatives or change:

Sinek states that most people communicate from the 'outside, in', focusing on the what - the results... what 'it' looks like in practical application... 
Instead, we need to be communicating important decisions and initiatives from the 'inside, out' and focusing on the why - identify, explain and clarify the purpose.

"People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it"

Daniel Pink is another who comprehensively states the importance of having people see the purpose of their work, identifying it as one of the crucial ingredients in maximising the intrinsic motivation of people.

Sinek defers to science in order to evidence why this 'inside, out' approach is a more effective form of communication, citing biology:
There are three main components of the human brain:
  • The neo cortex [the most-recently evolved part of the brain].
  • This is the rational, analytical part of the brain.
  • The part of the brain that consumes and interprets information. 
  • The limbic sections.
  • Responsible for the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain. 
  • It is these limbic parts of the brain that drive behaviour

Leaders, themselves, need to know and believe in the 'why' of their decisions / initiatives, if they are going to be able to effectively communicate this to their people.

The goal is "to hire people who believe what you believe".
It is not enough to hire people because of 'what' they can do - if they don't understand and identify with the 'why', then they will not be intrinsically motivated by their work.

"If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe."
We need to be more open and regular regarding 'what we believe' about the purpose of our work.

Regardless of how, or how well, we communicate, the 'law of diffusion of innovation' suggests that there will always be some people who 'buy in' to new ideas and innovations - the 'Innovators' and 'Early Adopters'... 

The challenge is to get over the 'chasm' and get the majority to buy in to the idea being communicated.  

A slight detour, but this popular video is a decent example of this concept of 'diffusion of innovation':
  • The Lone Nut = Innovator
  • The First Follower = Early Adopter
  • The Early Majority come in and a tipping point is reached... 

What does this mean for schools?

  • We should communicate our significant decisions and initiatives 'from the inside out', focusing on the 'why'.
  • Schools need to be clear about their beliefs about teaching and learning. They need to discuss these beliefs openly and regularly.
  • When making staffing decisions, schools need to explore the extent to which applicants identify with the important beliefs of the school, rather than zeroing in on 'what' skills and abilities candidates have - 'get the right people on the bus', rather than plugging perceived holes in skill sets of staff groups... 
  • As Simon Sinek states, the goal should be to work with people "who believe what you believe".