Archive for Education

Curating a classroom for a culture of thinking.

Over the last six months I have been reading Ron Ritchart’s ‘Creating a Culture of Thinking.’ This book has transformed my approach to both leading and teaching in a classroom. One aspect I have been experimenting with is leaving out equipment to generate students thinking and questions.

This is my first attempt,  with the thought of creating a hands on ‘museum’ display that could be left set up for any student in any class to use and explore.


Which beach has the best sand?

Four microscopes were left set up each with a sample of one of four different local beach sands in labeled and sealed petri-dishes. A pile of post-it notes and pens where made available under the heading ‘Which beach has the best sand?’


Viewing the different beach sand.

I have seen a variety of students across the high school and primary school take time out of their normal learning to investigate and  converse about the different sand. Not all the questions, thoughts or statements generated have been captured by the post-it notes, but what has been is encouraging.
Often to get students to record their thinking has required my intervention. When I have heard a good question or observation I have stated ‘how valuable a students thought was,’ this has then enabled students to value their idea enough to record it.


Post-it note observations, ideas and questions.

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researchEd Sydney 2015: A day of reflecting on research in education

 Is evidence based educational research a fad? Isn’t teaching more a craft than a science?

These were the questions  asked early in the day at researchEd Sydney that challenged and framed my thinking for the rest of the day. researchEd was started by Tom Bennett @tombennett71 in the UK as a vehicle to promote the need to better evaluate the educational silver bullets and/or claims along with masses of educational research that is accumulating.researchED-logo

After listening and taking part in a lot of discussion,  I came to see the value of both; educators need to be aware of educational research and it’s application to the classroom and they need to be artful practitioners of the craft of teaching. This is nothing new and a lot of the preaching that occurred was to the converted.  What follows are my reflections to date on what I heard and learnt.

Teachers as researchers

One discussion that has changed the way I think relates to peer reflection and research.  There are a range of ‘research practices’ that teachers undertake that are helpful for evaluating what is and isn’t working but generally they are undervalued from a academic ‘peer reviewed’ research level.  An excellent example was provided by Michaela Pinkerton @kaiako_nz from Albany Senior High School NZ. It would be interesting to work with universities or other educational research organisations to formalise this reflection so it can be considered valid at a peer review level, but also kept the level of reflection achievable for the classroom teacher.

Research Leader

I love the idea of a Research Leader role in a school proposed by Tom Bennett and reportedly gaining traction in the UK. A Research Leader is someone who:

  • reads and shares ideas within an educational institution
  • critically challenges school leaders using research
  • runs training and seeks answers to school based questions
  • coordinates action research in collaboration with a teaching team
  • organises a Journal Club where educational research is discussed and implemented and reflected on by a group of peers

The Journal Club is something that I had already been organising at my school and it is the 30mins of PD a week that truly helps me reflect and change what I do in the classroom and has involved some of the best conversations I have had in the educational context. I came away from researchEd inspired to continue in 2015 and to increase its influence if possible.

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

One valuable educational research tool was introduced by John Bush @bushjb from Social Ventures Australia (SVA). The Teaching and Learning Tool kit allows you to search through summaries of educational research on intervention or practices and quickly see their educational benefit, cost of implementation and the validity of current research in one glance. It then allows you to dig deeper into the actual research. It will be invaluable in testing some of the claims I heard on the day such as:

  • engagement and activity are a means to an end…not the end themselves
  • giving students control over learning has a low effect size
  • worksheets need scaffolding
  • discovery learning not as effective as guided discovery
  • learning is not fixed, this is where you are, now know the ‘what next’

Innovation in learning? What if there is no research?

Another question raised was how do you innovate if you need to be evidenced based?  I think the answer here is straightforward: if you try something new, you must reflect and gather some evidence of its effectiveness. Of course many innovations have been tried before, the whole open classroom revolution occurring at present has been tried in the past. Have we learnt anything from previous implementations?Have we gone back and asked questions about why it did not succeed in the past and what we will do differently to produce better results in the current implementation? Are we reflecting on what does and does not work and documenting this in a way others can gain from it? This is what I feel is true innovation.

Humans as learners

I think one message I heard on the day that needs to be sent a little louder to the ‘innovators’ is the question “Has learning really changed?” Humans as learners have not gone through any radical reinvention in recent history, the fact is our biology and the way we learn has not changed at all. We are getting better at understanding how we learn which means we can refine our teaching practises to improve learning but it’s an evolution rather than a revolution.

Finally, I felt that some of the research on how we learn could have been better applied at the researchEd Conference.  I was in cognitive overload shortly after lunch and I would say there was definitely too many workshop sessions and not enough stop, reflect and debrief times. While I informally met and made many new connections it would be great to have built this more formally into the day somehow.

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First steps in SOLO Taxonomy

The SOLO Taxonomy’s power is in its simplicity.  After 6months of implementing it into what we do in Quest (Year 8 integrated Science and Geography) I had a conversation with two year 12 Biology students about how they could improve their written response to HSC questions and released that I was seamlessly describing how they had connected ideas, but they had not extended as the question had ask.  I was explaining this with the simple hand gestures that describe SOLO and realised I had assimilated SOLO into the way I was thinking to the point it was flowing naturally out of me, and what surprised me most was the students grasped what I was saying instantly.

When I first started exploring SOLO Taxonomy I was confused by the terminology and I came to it with the mindset of the complexity of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I have been a Bloom’s devotee, I believe much of what we have had students doing for so long was low level and not challenging.  Blooms gave some structure to help improve the depth of tasks but I have found Blooms relies on a deep understanding of the verbs used and that often leeds to confusion.  Blooms lacks an underlying framework of what happens when we think and learn.  SOLO on the other hand in its very nature of looking for observably thinking provides the framework that the learning verbs attach to.

Yr_8_Quest__How_has_penicillin_changed_the_world__A_Case_Study_My first steps in introducing SOLO into the lesson preparation for Quest was to describe the SOLO Taxonomy to the team of teachers I work with and create a template using the SOLO symbols that we expected all tasks to aline to (see the image for an example of how it was implemented). We started by only using the last three levels of SOLO (Multistructural, Connected and Extended abstract) in our scaffold and allowed teachers the flexibility of not including all levels if they felt the task could not be pushed into the higher thinking levels. We made extensive use of Pam Hook’s HookED site and the useful tools she makes available. It was stressed that we really wanted the extended tasks to push the students thinking and that they could be seen as ‘extension’ tasks for the brighter students.  In practice I have found that treating these tasks as optional for students or telling capable students to start with the extended tasks has been a helpful differentiation tool for a mix ability class.

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What should learning look like?

I currently have responsibility for a team of teachers implementing an integrated (science & geography) year 8 course.  A large part of the learning that occurs in this course occurs in an open learning space with up to five classes being present at any one time. Our school has a bring your own device policy (BYOD) and all of the learning tasks are available via the online learning portal.

Two question that I have been contemplating as we reprogram this year are what is “the role of the teacher?” and “what should learning tasks look like?” These two questions are interrelated, both effect the other. Neither can be properly answered without a clear idea about what learning should look like.

The role of the teacher in one sense has never changed, that is the teacher is the guide for the learner. Expert teachers have always been a guide, but many have also acted as the font of knowledge that was poured into empty minds.  But students don’t come with empty minds and they lose attention after 7 to 10 minutes of teacher talk. Having all our learning online allowed some teachers to go too far in another direction, allowing students to just get on with it and stepping so far back that they became absent in the minds of some students. This is not new either, it’s just the teacher who set work in a text and left the room.

Good teachers are active in the learning of their students. To be active they need to know ‘the what next’ for each learner. To know the what next, teachers need to have obtained feedback from the learner about what they already know, what is their current understanding or misunderstanding and how big a next step the learner is capable of taking. Teachers need to be good at building relationships with students to build the trust that allows for the honest feedback from student to teacher to occur.

How then do you build tasks that help facilitate teachers to be active participants learning?

One answer that I have found useful is one in which a common language of learning is developed around obtaining a deep understanding of a concept.

SOLO Taxonomy is a common language for learning.

SOLO Taxonomy helps both students and teachers identify ‘the what next.‘ It is based on the science of how we actually learn and is simple enough that it does not get in the way of learning. SOLO is about understanding, connecting and then extending ideas.  It  allows both teacher and student to quickly assess what stage they are at and identify what the next step is.

SOLO Taxonomy

SOLO Taxonomy via

Not heard of SOLO?

SOLO stands for Structured of Observed Learning Outcomes and was proposed by Australians Biggs and Collis (1982).  I will not go over what it is here but will direct you elsewhere. The best source of information on SOLO and its implementation is Pam Hook @arti_choke  via her books and website HookED. I have also benefited from reading about the experiences of others including Chris Keipert @keipertc and his blog Chemisty Chris.  Finally checkout GlobalSOLO @globalsolo for some great ideas about how SOLO is being implemented.

Biggs, J.B., and Collis, K.F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of  Learning-the SOLO Taxonomy (1st ed) New York: Academic Press.

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Big History and the Future of Education Conference 2013

Big History

I have been fortunate to attend the inaugural Big History and the Future of Education Conference, organised by the Big History Institute at Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.  I knew a little of the Big History story and had been looking into the student course. If its new to you have a look at the Big History course ( Big History Project ) it’s free and be aware there is a school version and a general public version.

The Future of Education Conference

At my current school we teach an integrated year 8 Science and Geography unit called Quest. I attended the conference looking for ideas about how to better integrate learning from different KLAs and I was hoping for some insight into the pedagogy that had been applied in creating the course  as well as  the process of designing the online learning pages and activities. My questions were answered beyond  my expectations and I left with some key principles that can be applied universally in education. I also came away inspired to implement the Big History program within a school context and my head is spinning with ideas about how that might be achieved.

Principles for Integrated Learning

We need to see the “big picture” of what we are learning and as educators we can help our students by connecting learning with a narrative.  The Big History Project connects us to the narrative of the universe.  One person I meet at the conference who illuminated this point for me the most was a year 9 student I had morning tea with. She has been participating in the course at her school and her comment said it all “It gives me a reason to learn.”  The pedagogies applied need to focus on critical thinking, that is aiming beyond surface learning, evaluating evidence and making broader connections.  Learning needs to incorporate collective, collaborative learning, with students sharing and building ideas.  The Big History Project achieves many of these principles by having inquiry learning and project based learning built into the fabric of the course.  Learning needs to seek to be hands on, thought provoking, and question forming.  Here is what was outlined as the observable practices of a Big History student:

  • Frame Problems for investigations – regularly question at many scales, including the biggest.
    • Set many problems
    • Drive the learning forward with questions
  • Select and use evidence / sources 
    • Close, analytical and synoptical reading of a wide range of sources: contextualise, corroborate
    • Critical thinking “claim testing”
  • Produce accounts – use multiple large scales and big ideas from many disciplines to write;
    • Narratives
    • Casual explanation
    • Consequential explanations
    • Arguments

Principles for Designing Online Learning (Beautiful Online Learning)

The Big History course site is beautiful, but part of its beauty is that there are clear design principles at work.  The site is designed to be intuitive and easily navigated.  The site remembers that you need to see the big picture before diving into individual elements.  These principles  struck me as they were the same ideas that the team I work with at school had been discussing as we reshaped our year 8 integrated studies online learning pages.

  1. The launch pages show the big picture, it is simple and easy to navigate.
  2. There are clear learning modules, that include easily identified components, content, video, activity etc.
  3. There is a narrative that ties everything together and this is made implicit.
  4. Everything is driven forward (at every stage/level) by questions.
  5. Keeping things visually simple helps make them beautiful

Implementation of Big History in a school.

How should Big History be implemented? At this stage I will only be able to talk in ideals. Every school is different, with different cultures, daily routines, community support, personnel …. the list is endless. What is encouraging about what is present i the Big History course is the built-in flexibility and the ease with which learning can be modified for individual students.  Everything comes in a Word document that can be edited, it is designed to be adapted into different contexts and there is an active and growing community of educators contactable within the Big History course.

Ideally, I think Big History needs to be introduced as a core subject/course.  In Australia it covers a significant amount of the Australian Curriculum (in Science, History and Geography) and it would pain me if this was taught twice within the school.   As this is an integrated course, I think it should be taught collaboratively in a team teaching situation with specialist teachers from both Science and History. The best cases of implementation on display at the conference were from schools that took a collaborative teaching approach.  If we are going to break down the artificial walls that separate and compartmentalise learning into separate subjects why not take out some of the physical barriers too.  Ideally I would run this course in year 9, the outcomes currently addressed link to Stage 5 in NSW, Australia. As a solution to timetabling issues I see two classes and two teachers occupying the same (large) space.

Taking big chunks of curriculum from subjects will mean a need for reprogramming of what is left, and maybe an opportunity for some other integrated courses to be developed in the process.

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Play Predict Observe Explain (PPOE)

For a while the idea of allowing students time to play and explore with equipment or other experimental setups has been an informal part of the learning in my classrooms.  One place I have been doing this since I started teaching is with microscopes. The wonder of microscopes for me has always been seeing the amazing microscopic world around us.  Yet, there is nothing more boring than a prepared slide of cork cells. While a water sample from a nearby creek or pond can keep students exploring for hours, as they chase protozoa and other microbes around a slide and in the process gain the fluency of microscopy skills required to go deeper.

More recently I have been trying to be more deliberate in designing learning that involves this element of playful experimentation.  One way I have found helps with the planning is to add an extra P (play) to the POE (predict, observe, explain) lesson sequence.


An example of such a lesson is the comparative reaction of  sand from Sydney beaches to that of sand from Sydney sandstone with acid (HCl). The beach sand reacts producing bubbles, while the sandstone sand doesn’t.  I gave the necessary equipment (sand and acid ) to my year 9 science class and with some basic instruction asked them to first predict what would happen and then explore with the reactions of the different sands and acid.  I then gave them microscopes to have a closer look at the sand and asked them to explain the obvious difference in reactions.  It was not until some of the students decided to carry out the reaction under the microscope that they spotted the difference between the sands.  There are obvious particles present in the beach sand that react  while there are others obviously not reacting. And at this point, with the curiosity of the students at its highest,  I stepped in with some explicit teaching of reactions between acid and carbonates (shell bits) and the lack of carbonates in Sydney sandstone.  We were studying some geology and the learning outcome  was about what we can infer about the history and formation of rocks and past environments and not so much the chemistry involved. The hands on problem solving lead to students producing a much better explanation of the differences and a much deeper understanding of the geology involved.

A final reflection is that the playing, predicting and observation do not have to be sequential and that in fact they can occur simultaneously or even in reverse order as observations can lead to new predictions and new play.

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Describe a lesson that demonstrates deep learning of your students

Recently I was asked to describe a lesson that demonstrated deep learning of my students. The first thing that jumped into my mind was my Year 9 class that is full of students that ask lots of questions.questionmark

In this class the learning is often driven by the students questions, they come thick and fast and each question demonstrates plenty about what stu

dents already understand and what they want to know next. Follow up questions are often produced that take the discussion deeper into the learning.

In reflection this is my favourite part of teaching, helping students engage with their own curiosity and the production of questions that can drive learning.

I have a number of students that ask questions to the point I can no longer answer, we have to resort to looking it up, deferring to a real expert, or file it away for research projects when they are completing PhDs

What makes good questions possible in a classroom? It comes back to developing good relations with the students. You need to feel ‘safe’ to ask questions, you need to know you will not be ridiculed for asking any question. All questions need to be valued. And if the teacher knows his/her students it’s easy to provide a stimulus that is of interest to the students that provokes them to start asking questions.

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Helmet Heads a PBL experience

An article, ‘Summer of hard knocks puts teens at risk‘ in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH, 2013)  reports on the increase of injuries due to the skateboard and scooter accidents and the need to wear helmets.  The article suggests that the best way to get teens to wear helmets is for them to educate each other of the importance. The article had me reflecting on a recently completed unit on physics with my year 9 students. This unit followed on from a unit spending time developing student questions about the brain, its development and teenage decision processes.  The physics unit includes Newtons laws of motion which screams out to be understood in the light of current enthusiasm for skateboarding, scooter riding, BMX, mountain biking and stunt riding.  All of which have the potential for brain injuries. Thus in this unit (an inquiry / project based learning investigation) students were asked to apply Newtons laws of motion to helmet design and answer the question, how does a helmet protect your head?  They were guided through the running of an investigation to test a helmet they had designed.

The InvestigationHelmet Hd 2012

To model the human brain we used water filled balloons. Adding some validity other questions posed to students included: How can you make your model of the human brain as realistic as possible? What is the mass of an average human brain? How much water would need to be in the balloon?

After setting the scene with some videos on the need for helmets and the issues related to brain injuries as well as conducting an initial test dropping an unprotected water filled balloon at 1m(bounced and survived) and 2m(burst on impact) I was mostly hands off, taking on the role of co-learner. I did incorporate some direct teaching of Newtons laws as the need for them arose.  We had a couple of lessons on research and design, students had to choice building materials from a limited school supplied list (egg cartons, cotton wool, bubble wrap and ice-cream containers) or they were free to source and supply their own alternatives. The students took several different approaches to designing their helmets and we tested them in drop tests of 1m, 2m, 4m and 8m. Only a couple of ‘balloon brains’ survived 8m in their helmets.

 Some thoughts for next time.

What worked well was giving students independence to come up with their own solutions. The construction and testing were highly motivational. One issues that we did not fully resolve was how to fill the balloon to exactly the same amount in a controlled way. Also I filmed the helmet-balloon drops with the thought of analysing the motion and forces, but ran out of time to find a software solution for students to use, something I hoped to resolve over my summer vacation.

Finally after reading the newspaper article I realised that we missed an important step of any project based learning activity, that of reporting to an authentic audience. In this case their peers.

‘The only way that you can get teenagers to wear helmets is if other teenagers say it’s a good idea,” (Associate Professor Owler, quoted in SMH, 2013)


The Sydney Morning Herald (2013) Summer of hard knocks puts teens at risk. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 Jan 2013].

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Sustainable Homes (project based learning)

This post describes a module of the Connections to the Land unit. A project based learning approach (PBL) was used as a way of bridging the students growing understanding of our ecological connection to the land together with our real everyday existence. Students were asked to design and build model homes and were  informed the homes would be tested by three measures of sustainability.

1 Water: how much water could the house catch and retain. This was tested by poring one litre of water over the house using a shower hose, water was directed from the roof to measuring cylinders via the student designed guttering system. Also ensuring the home was waterproof helped maintain the structural integrity of the home in the final test.

2 Temperature: does insulation help reduce energy use? Could a home be kept cooler by better design? Data-loggers and temperatures probes were deployed and temperature verses time graphs produced.

3 Structural integrity: the homes were lined up on the oval and using a leaf blower we carried out wind tests… none were quite up to the test.

The students were given a price list of materials and 100 credits to purchase what they required. Most opted to use prefabricated cardboard houses sourced from (See an outline of the information provided to student  here.) Some students loved the ‘shopping’ element of the task and spent considerable time deciding what they would ‘purchase’ while others spent more time ‘tinkering’ with different solutions to the three problems that had been presented.

Overall students thinking was pushed deeper by trying to design solutions to complex real world problems. Problems they will all need to face as our society learns to live in a sustainable way. The groups that produced better, more sustainable homes, spent more time thinking, planning, tinkering, testing, redesign and rebuilding. Good design is often not the first solution you try.

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A driving question is the most important element of a PBL unit

Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) outline 8 factors of good project based learning (PBL):

  1. Significant content
  2. A Need to Know
  3. A Driving Question
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. 21st Century Skills
  6. Inquiry and Innovation
  7. Feedback and Revision
  8. Publicly Presented Product

While I agree all are important, I feel the most important factor in good PBL is a great driving question. If you find the right questions then most of the other factors identified are covered automatically. How do you generate a great question and who is the right person to generate that question?

The answer to who should generate the question to me is obvious? If you want students to have a voice and to have choice as well as developing a need to know about some area of content, then they should be generating their own questions. How do we help students generate a question they care about and that covers the content we as educator would like them to learn in a deep and meaningful way?

Here the answer has not always been so obvious but thanks to the work of the Right Question Institute(RQI) and their Question Formation Technique (QFT), the answer is incredibly simple and yet powerful at the same time. So far in my experience it has not failed to generate open-ended questions that cannot be answered by a simple Google search. Outlined here is how question generation was embedded at the heart of a PBL unit.

TeenBrain is a science unit aimed at year 9 students that focused on the content of the traditional control and coordination topic. The unit was divided into four parts; provocation, guiding question development, research and project creation.

The provocation was a series of short videos demonstrating how the teen brain develops from the age of approximately 12 to 25, and how the research presented explains why teenagers often make decisions without fully accounting for risk and long-term consequences. The majority of time during this unit was spent on the research and creation of an information campaign, based on a student generated guiding question.

The most important part of the process in my mind was the generation of a meaningful guiding question. To do this we guided students through the Question Formation Technique from the RQI. The QFT process takes approximately one learning session and is best done in small collaborative groups. Questions generated for research were based on the provocation and a focus question why do teens make stupid choices? As the questions generated for this task were generated by the students themselves they found them intrinsically motivating. Examples of student generated questions include; why do our brains need sleep, is there a best diet for your brain, what can you do to improve memory/learning and how does marijuana effect you brain?

Many of the ‘research’ tasks that formed the third part of this unit were traditional science lesson/experiences, that involved both student centred activities and some direct teaching of concepts, all supported by the on-line learning portal. At the end of every lesson students were ask to reflect on their own groups question and to add a couple of summary sentences relevant to their question in a shared google document. This document became students main resource when they came to designing and creating their information campaign.

Students were instructed to use the information they had collected to produce an information campaign that would influence their peers to make better decisions. Their choice in presentation media was completely open, with some of the following offered as suggestions: a video, info-graphic, poster, magazine article, ios or android app, web-page, comic-strip.  Students worked collaboratively on producing their final product and their focus was maintained by the intrinsic motivation produced from developing their own questions.

John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller, 2012, 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning, , retrieved from,  Nov 2012

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