The third teacher

The Reggio Emilia approach highlighted the importance of the physical environment on learning and teaching.  The incorporation of the physical environment (in Reggio Emilia) to enhance early childhood experiences is seen as the child’s ‘third teacher’.

Stephen Heppell has been working for two decades on raising the status of the ‘third teacher’ within the K-12 sector.

As we move towards greater personalised learning contexts, we also have to think about creating more personalised physical environments.

As Stephen points out, students are integral to the whole design process where users become the designers. Strong student and community voice has been one of the guiding principles underpinning the design of the massive Lindfield ‘School of the Future‘ project in NSW.

The rise of learner-led design is starting to take off.

What’s really interesting is that there is growing research (including Stephen’s) showing how simple improvements to air temperature and light quality etc can make learning better.  Warm classroom temperatures have a negative impact on working memory and short-term maths performance!

Research and best practice illustrates that we can no longer evaluate student learning in isolation of evaluating the impact of the third teacher (physical environment).




When we talk about classrooms being connected, we really are at the tip of the iceberg.  Within the next 3-5 years, the Internet of Things (IoT) will have already transformed sectors like health, transport and retail.  These sectors have begun using sensor networks to collect and transmit real-time data to improve quality of care and efficiency.

Last month, our Chief Information Officer attended a summit on the Internet of Things hosted by Intel Asia. Although there are very few ‘real world examples’ at the moment of its application in education, this will almost certainly ‘disrupt’ schooling.

One of the biggest impacts of these networks of things embedded into software and sensors etc will be reducing the administrative load on schools – anything from school attendance to school security.  However, the biggest potential will be the impact IoT will have on personalised learning and teaching.

Reflecting on the potential of IoT in education, Dr Michelle Selinger believes that we “will be able to connect the right people together to accelerate learning as well as collecting and interpreting data on learners’ behaviours and activity. Used well, this will make learning more personalised and targeted to individuals’ learning needs, their learning styles and preferences, and their aspirations.”

Video analytics used well in learning spaces could immediately alert teachers (through body movement and facial recognition)  of students who are disengaged from their learning. The argument may be that good teachers already do this but as Michelle says we are notoriously bad at capturing and analysing data. IoT is a shift from living in a world where we react to living in one which will help us predict.  That has to be good for education.

Today’s connected classroom is the process of connecting people to people. The connected classroom of the future will be the process of using intelligent information to create more highly personalised learning experiences for all students.



No teacher left behind

I’ve often written that Twitter has been an invaluable professional learning tool for me. We have at our fingertips as Will Richardson says the ability to connect with two billion teachers and that presents unlimited opportunities for collaborative learning.

Educators like George Couros and Gary Stager also reflect that it isn’t the tool per se but how teachers use the tool to build, connect, learn, inspire, change etc.  For many teachers and leaders, social media is a brave new world and I believe that if teachers and leaders aren’t operating in this space, they will be left behind.

The danger is though that we make several assumptions about the professional use of social media: teachers have the skills to use social media and they actually see the benefit of using it.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills says that in order to build a great education system, teachers need not only to have access to the tools to develop 21st century skills but they must also recognise the importance of these skills.

The one thing we cannot do is assume that we don’t need to invest resources to up skill all teachers to use the tools effectively.

Certainly there is growing evidence of the positive impact social media use is having on teacher and student learning.  In 2011, Julie McCulloch, Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett authored a report called Tweeting for teachers: how can social media support teacher professional development?  The report identified a number of research studies linking the impact of professional social media use on teachers’ practice, attitudes and beliefs to improved student learning.

CEDP social media surveyA recent survey of 755 educators in the US revealed how they were connecting online.  We asked the same question recently of our staff to find out how and what social media tools they were using professionally.  The 650 responses provide us with a good snapshot of which tools and the frequency of use.

Three themes emerged from the feedback that needs to be addressed at a system level. These were training, culture/privacy and network access.  Perhaps these are universal challenges for many education systems.

The point to be made is that if we are serious about ensuring no child is left behind, we need to be just as serious about ensuring no teacher is left behind in a hyper-connected world.





Saving language

A decade ago Don Watson wrote the definitive book on management speak called ‘Weasel Words‘. It illustrates the way in which bureaucrats and politicians’ highly crafted messages obfuscate meaning and hide the truth. As Watson wrote “this dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life.”

The marketing guru Seth Godin recently asked the question on his blog ‘does vocabulary matter?’  He highlighted Randall Munroe’s concise and clear explanation of how the Saturn V rocket works using only a thousand commonly used words.

As Godin remarked:

It’s not about knowing needlessly fancy words (but it’s often hard to know if the fancy word is needless until after you learn it). Your vocabulary reflects the way you think (and vice versa). It’s tempting to read and write at the eighth-grade level, but there’s a lot more leverage when you are able to use the right word in the right moment.

Professor John Hattie once commented at a conference that ‘metacognition’ was just a fancy way of referring to thinking about learning.  He preferred to use the latter.

Education has fallen into the jargon web, which is ironic because as leaders/teachers we are entrusted to do daily what Randall Munroe has done – simplify the complex not complexify the simple.

The list is in no way exhaustive but here are some ‘weasel words’ proffered by some of my colleagues:

  • anything strategic (e.g focus, pillars, alignment, teaching)
  • building teacher capacity
  • deprivatising teacher practice
  • empowered/self-regulated learners
  • rigorous learning
  • guided thoughtfulness

Of all professions, we have a special responsibility to ensure we don’t take a reductionist approach and to consider whether some of these terms detract from describing the depth and richness of our work.  That work is to bring the world alive by bringing language alive. The goal, as Watson expresses in his book is to save language for future generations.


Business failing education?

urbansprawlA recent survey of small to medium businesses said the education system isn’t providing the skills students need to be ‘entrepreneurial and innovative‘.  Is education failing business or is business failing education?

I attended the Western Sydney Business Connection State of the Region Address by the Hon. Mike Baird MP, Premier of NSW this week.

Around 600 local businesses and organisations were there to hear the Premier outline the government’s bold new initiatives around infrastructure.  It is a massive investment and undertaking which will impact significantly on western Sydney.

The key message is that local business is the driver of innovation and growth.  What I didn’t hear was the role of education in this work.  We are in the business of schooling 42,000 students across western Sydney along with the Department of Education’s schools. Collectively, we are the biggest business in western Sydney but don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to planning for the future.

I saw the plans for the provision of new government schools in western Sydney. Sadly they look like modern versions of the factory school. Where is the innovation and growth and the support from the business sector to develop new models?   We could easily argue that business is failing education.

The best outcome would be for both sectors (school and business) to work collaboratively but this can only happen when education is seen as an important stakeholder in the planning and design process.

Local schools serve local communities and it’s time the education sector were seen as a key player. We have a lot to contribute especially if we want the state of this region to be state of the art.


A level playing field

There are calls for fundamental changes to be made to the funding and regulation of Vocational and Educational Training (VET) in Australia.  In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Federal Education Minister said he wants to boost the status of VET  so ‘students don’t feel they have to go to university to have a good career.’

It reflects the need to radically rethink VET in a knowledge age and the importance of sectors working together to ensure a consistent approach and coherent framework for providing students with optimal opportunities.

It’s interesting that the new Education Minister calls VET the ‘forgotten’ education sector.  The established view is that VET is somehow less rigorous than an academic pathway to learning.  VET is a balance between the demands of work and study as well as integrating theory with practice.  Students learn the work by doing the work. VET actually provides for a level of personalised and independent learning not always evident in traditional subjects.

We have seen VET as the alternative to an academic pathway and while there are multiple pathways to learning (made more evident by technology), there is still one external credential (Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW).  This has been the gateway into university and for many, the path to a more rewarding and successful working life.

The view that university is the only option can’t be sustained in a knowledge age.  It is something the new Federal Minister wants to challenge.  It needs to be challenged at  policy level as well as at university and school sector level.

The vocational choices of students should be influenced by passion not process.  The challenge for schools is how we can, as Yong Zhao says entirely personalise not nationally or globally standardise education.  We need to level the playing field by allowing students the opportunity to draw from diverse areas of knowledge and skills.  It means allowing students to map their own curriculum based on individual interests and passions.

South Korea has effectively de-skilled a generation because of a cultural drive for students to be university educated.  While graduates compete for limited jobs, there is a growing gap for trades that have to be filled by overseas workers.

The knowledge age has created an even greater need for a level playing field in education.

Edward de Bono describes the current model of schooling like a pyramid where the bottom 80% are taught so that the top 20% can go onto university.  His view is that traditional subjects and universities may have very little to do with real life.  Interestingly, he asks why there are no exams in schools in ‘practical thinking’ and ‘value creation’?

de Bono argues that every student be taught what he calls ‘life skills’ such as critical thinking etc. The more academically inclined students take additional subjects that prepare them for university while the more practical and entrepreneurial minded students take additional subjects preparing them for work.

de Bono says this would be ‘the equivalent to teaching everyone to walk and then giving special coaching to those who showed an ability to run.  This is different from the current system of coaching everyone to run and then neglecting those who are not good at running.’ 

Not every student wants to be a runner nor should they be.  The biggest hurdle for schools and learners is the way
in which assessment is currently mandated and reported.  Meaning, we are still preparing all students to run the marathon by sitting the HSC.

As Professor Patrick Griffin from the University of Melbourne said recently, we will never get away from comparative measures (how good is my child compared to their class, state etc) but the focus has to be on where students are going (year after year) not on where they have been.

The most effective forms of assessments are those that support learning and inform teaching not control learning and narrow the curriculum.  Until we get on with the task of re-thinking assessment based on personalising the learning, we continue to neglect those who don’t want to be runners.





Collaborative competition

We live in societies where the culture of competition exists everywhere and it is no more evident than in education. Schooling has become big business and learning is competitive.  At an international level, we rank education systems and encourage them to ‘beat the best’.  At a local level, there is a growing demand for coaching and tutoring clinics.

Competition is not a 21st century skill.  Collaboration is.  So how long do we allow ourselves and others to define schooling as a ‘race to the top’; as a means of separating winners from losers; where measurable achievement is the most valid measure of a student’s work and their worth?

Black and Wiliam reflected that the practice of assessment had as its primary purpose competition rather than personal improvement.  This was highlighted recently by former federal Labor leader Mark Latham when he called the decision to replace exams with tasks at selective high school, Hurlstone Agricultural as ‘crazy and a soft-approach’.  This view still dominates public opinion and it plays a significant part in undermining confidence in teachers.  It also diminishes the value of collaboration in the process of learning.

The competitive nature of schooling only ever guarantees success for some not success for all.  Successful change today has to as Michael Fullan says come about through ‘collaborative competition’.  Notice that collaboration comes before competition.

Michael describes this as the ‘moral version’ of the Olympics where doing your best isn’t about surpassing others but spurring others to do their best. When teachers learn, students learn and when school communities learn, systems learn and so on.  It is the flywheel in motion.

Samsung has captured the spirit of collaborative competition with their latest ad campaign – We are greater than I. 




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