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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Reflections on ACEL2012

At the start of October I had the privilege of attending and presenting (about Experiential Narrative Learning) at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders annual conference (ACEL2012). I am not sure what I was expecting, but I came away thinking that it was better than expected. In fact I came away with my concepts about my role as a teacher and educational leader challenged and in some ways transformed.

Some thoughts on the conference as a whole.

I really appreciated the attempts at interactivity, including feedback from the twitter stream.  There were times I had thought ‘if not for twitter I would be bored out of my brain.’ Hearing the thoughts questions and feedback of collages brings an interactive dimension to a conference that deepens thinking and learning. The conference rooms themselves were a barrier to better interaction. Rows and rows of chairs is so ‘industrial age’ and does not promote the collaborative learning we are attempting to demonstrate and implement.  There is a place for rows in a keynote, but a workshop should be set up with some kind of natural grouping structure.  How do you get conference presenters to be better at interaction, well it’s probably the same as for in the classroom, model it.  Finding good workshops was hit and miss, but finding the best ones was heavily influenced by the tweets of others.

So what did I learn?

The first two keynote speakers did not tell me anything I had not heard or read before.  Education needs to change from an industrial model to something more engaging. Unfortunately I did not hear what that was from the keynotes. One message I did take away from Dan Pink was we don’t need to be looking overseas for best practice “The best examples of change in schools (for the conceptual/creative age) is happening right here in Australia and NZ.”  We need to look at connecting and collaborating with schools within our own context and culture. The answers we seek are probable happening in the school down the road. This was observable in many of the workshops I attended. The best of the workshops were from practising teachers that are seeking to implement student focused learning that strives to get their students motivated and thinking deeply about their learning.

The message that transformed my thinking as a teacher/leader was from the third keynote by Tim Costello.   I have been teaching globalisation to year 8 students in an integrated science/ geography unit called Quest, for the last three years.  But I now know I did not fully understand the concept or its implications until it was unpack by Tim Costello in his skilful use of telling stories. We are preparing students for a global community, but must help them to develop and nurture their own local communities. Thinking globally but acting locally has taken on new meaning for me. I will strive to get kids to think about their actions on a global scale but ensure they learn to act and connect within their own communities/ families.  I will be striving to get my students to connect and collaborate in classroom activities in a more meaningful way, encouraging all connections within local communities and the wider world. And finally Tim Costello reinforced for me the power of teaching/leading with the use of story. I will be striving to use thick and not thin stories from now on.

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A walk in the bush, provoking kids to think!

It’s Friday afternoon, it’s warm and it’s the last lesson of the day, and I have a restless year 9 Science class. Another teacher and I decide to take our two classes out to teach some ecology using a story. The story is a traditional dreaming story from the D’harawal people from the south of present day Sydney. It tells the story of three beautiful sisters, with golden hair and green eyes and the warrior who thought he was a ‘clever man’ who wanted to marry one of sisters. The sisters were very similar in appearance and to marry one all the warrior had to do was to find a way to tell them apart. After years of careful observation he fails, the sisters grow old and die and are rewarded for their faithful service to their people by being transformed into three different wattles which continue to provide for the people. The warrior has it revealed to him that the only difference in the three sisters was the shade of green that coloured their eyes, if only he had been more observant!   I have told this story before, with other groups, but usually I  tell the story while scratching aboriginal symbols in the dirt or sand on a bush trail, to represent the different characters of the story, and I pick leaves from different wattles as I walk and place them on my dirt picture to represent the different eyes. Today was different, the students were obviously suffering Friday afternoon, restlessness and we did a long walk to a shady spot on a rocky outcrop in the National Park, to help reduce the restlessness. With no dirt patches I resorted to getting students to act out the story as I told it.  The immediate result were the same as previous telling’s of the story; students were able to point out a number of learning outcomes for the story such as the importance of careful observation required to survive in the Australian bush, the complexity of bush land ecology and there is always a wise female student to point out the arrogance of the warrior and his need for humility. The thing that stood out on this occasion was not the different approaches to recounting the story, but the reaction of some students on the walk back to school. Having walked out further than we normally do, we had a longer walk back.  This allowed time for those students that wanted to know more to ask. I walked back with a large number of students wanting me to point out what there was to observe in the different plant communities along the track and to add as much information as I could. The questions and reflections of the students surprised me, the activity had produced far greater reflective thought than you achieve on most Friday afternoons. Months later students can still recount that afternoon, and often ask if we can get out and go for a walk, now all I need are some good stories that help explain atomic theory.

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Learning using Narrative: Collaborative reflection, group feedback and individual records

This post describes the second part of an introductory lesson to our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. A description of the first part of this lesson is found here and an overview of the inspiration for using narrative teaching is found here.

In this learning session, students took part in three activities;

  • small group collaborative recount of the story,
  • retelling of the story to the whole class by each collaborative group and finally
  • personal reflection and recording.

In small groups students discussed the journey into the National Park; each member was able to build on the memories and reflections of others to help construct the whole narrative. As I wondered around the groups I was amazed at the level of recall that was present, including details I had not noticed.

The groups where then asked to present their recount to the whole class. But rather than doing this verbally they were ask to create a recount using only symbols. Some traditional symbols from aboriginal storytelling and explanations for them were given. Examples included animal tracks left behind in the dirt, the symbol for a human is also often a representation of the impression their bottom and tools would leave where they had sat on the ground, waterholes and campsites. Students were also encouraged to develop their own symbols using similar thinking process, but no words were allowed.  Each group then presented their narrative recount to the whole class.

Finally students were given time to reflect on the purpose of the narrative and record it how they saw fit in their workbooks or in a document on their digital devices.  In this case many students took digital pictures of the narrative they had produced with the symbols.

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