Category Archives: Education

How’s Your Appetite for Risk?

The Pacific from the other side – overlooking Stinson Beach CA 2014

The white knuckle experience of driving on a Californian freeway is not something I will quickly forget. Having grown up in a small country town where I learnt to drive on a farm, and now living in a big country town where peak hour finishes when the traffic lights change (sorry, Canberra, but it’s true), this was definitely an ‘out of my comfort zone’ experience. I do have to say, it was a deliberate choice to place myself in that car on that day and I probably need to explain why.

I’ve always played it safe… never applied for a job I didn’t think I’d get, never took a course I feared I’d fail, never took a dare I couldn’t win. The classic high achiever, all my ‘risks’ were calculated and summarily dismissed should there be any chance of me coming out the other side less than perfectly composed. In reality, they weren’t risks at all.

When I decided to travel to San Francisco to visit my sister in January, driving while there was not high on my agenda. When I learned that getting around might be problematic without a car, my mouth overstepped… in a flurry of sisterly affection and excitement, I misspoke.

“No worries,” my mouth enthused, “I’ll just hire a car.” Then my brain caught up.

“You’ll WHAT?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?! They drive on the wrong side of the road! Remember the freeways Bugs Bunny drove on in Looney Tunes? You’ll get on and starve to death before you ever find your way off and you’ll NEVER see your family again!”

It was too late.

“Great,” came the equally excited and affectionate voice down the phone, “I’ll go ahead and book.”… and then the ring tone.


In the weeks that followed, the conversations inside my head ranged from deranged to farcical as I tried to wangle my way out of this. In the end, some sane voice spoke from the distant recesses of my left cerebral hemisphere; “Oh for goodness sake! Grow up! You ask kids in your class to do things that make them uncomfortable every day.”

And that was the wakeup call.

I realised that in my teaching when I  nonchalantly declared we would make a film or design an infographic, create a vodcast, enact a play, write a blog, deliver a speech, make a presentation… I rarely thought about the impact this might have on my students. I was in the habit of every day asking my students to take risks with their learning with no consideration of what kinds of internal conversations that creates in their heads. I felt abashed.

At that point I made the decision that I jolly well would drive on a freeway in California and that in fact, every time I felt afraid to take a risk while I was away, I would do the very thing my brain was trying to convince me not to do (now bear in mind, given my personality this would not involve dangerous risk taking of the sky diving kind… oh…gasp again!). I really wanted to feel what it was like to step outside my comfort zone, to get a glimpse of how my students sometimes feel and to understand what they might need in those moments of stress, blind terror or, perhaps, extreme excitement.

Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach CA 2014

So, when my sister suggested a trip to Stinson Beach, I volunteered to drive. After 2 hours of driving through what my brother-in-law described as ‘it doesn’t get any worse than that traffic’ (there was a football game on) and winding down a narrow cliff-side road absent of guard rails on what I considered the wrong side of the road, I was rewarded with a view of the Pacific from the other side. It was a gorgeous winter afternoon and as I waved across at Australia, though exhausted, I felt exhilarated. This was how I wanted my students to feel when they finished something that was really hard and I determined then to be the steady voice guiding them round the hair pin turns, speaking courage into their fears and resisting the temptation to apply the imaginary brake foot.

Mt Diablo Road
The road up Mt Diablo

I took several other risks while away (all of them legal), including driving up Mt Diablo on a road, also without guard rails, that was crumbling away in places. I remember staring out at the Delta from the top and forcing myself to appreciate the view instead of focusing on the dreaded drive back down. It’s amazing how sometimes knowing what lies ahead can be scarier than not knowing and I wondered how often my students feel this too.

Safely back in the Land of Oz, I know this experience is impacting my teaching and the learning of my students in positive ways. Our class lives by the one rule that ours is a room in which it is safe to take a risk with learning. All daring. No put downs. We’re taking the time to appreciate the view – our study of Wordsworth involved a most ridiculous enactment of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and a punny game of “What’s a Wordsworth’s word worth?”. When we finish we intend to reflect on the journey and to celebrate our challenges and triumphs. I’m hoping it will be reminiscent of breathing in the Pacific sea air with the afternoon sun on my face and the knowledge in my heart that the risk was worth the taking.

How Revolutionary Are We?


Picture, if you will, a 7-12 high school, with approximately 100 students per year group. It does not run to a traditional timetable, introduces indigenous language studies, does not use bells and operates within an open plan learning environment where students work independently through units of work and project based tasks. Teachers operate as co-learners and learning coaches. There’s an absence of technology but that can be forgiven, because after all, it’s 1979, I am in Year 7 and we’re just about to watch our teacher boot up an Apple II computer for the very first time.

This is not my blue sky dream for education so much as my very real education experience. It occurred at O’Connor Catholic High School in Armidale in the New England region of New South Wales between 1979 & 1984. I first experienced this kind of learning in 1976 in a public school classroom at Walcha Central School under the tutelage if the inimitable Mr Barnes (who goes down in history as THE best teacher ever). Radically for the day, Mr Barnes and Mrs Potter took down the wall between the two Year 4 classrooms. They rearranged the furniture and built desks that were more like work stations with tools attached to backboards. They brought the library into our classroom and Mr Barnes built a stage on which we gathered from time to time each day to share our learning. I still remember two significant projects I worked on that year; one about bee hierarchy in the hive and the other about imagery in poetry. I was 9 years old.

So here’s the question… if a generation of children was learning this way close to 40 years ago, how revolutionary are we in 2013 and is it only access to digital technology that defines our learning environments as 21st century?

Many of us have listened to or taken part in discussions with colleagues about ‘removing the disconnect between life and school’ (my passion), ‘authentic, student-centred learning’ and about using ‘real-world’ scenarios in our teaching. These are often inspiring but presently they leave me wondering whether this was also how our educational predecessors thought. Because of that I wonder whether these wonderful approaches are not necessarily the things that make what’s currently happening in our schools ‘revolutionary’.

Imagine if you were the person who had tutored Robert Stevenson (engineer who built the Bell Rock Lighthouse) or mentored Washington Roebling (took over construction of the Brooklyn Bridge) or taught Jørn Utzon (architect of the Sydney Opera House). Imagine if you were the one who had taught Sojourner Truth to read people well or introduced Marie Curie the concepts of Chemistry or ignited the passion of Dr Fiona Wood.  I suspect you might say your pupil was engaged in authentic learning with real world application… that they were encouraged to pursue their creativity and imagination… that their learning had a strong connection to life and that this was going to impact the world in unimagined ways. I think you would probably also burst with pride.

Fret not! I am not calling for a return to the good old days or to ‘chalk and talk’ (oh dear!). I believe we live and teach in the good ‘now days’, that we have access to far more sophisticated technology than chalk and many more voices than our own. I also know somebody is currently teaching Malala Yousafzai (when she is not teaching us), and that is an extraordinary thing.

In truth, the challenge for education systems, as it has always been, is to be contemporary and contextual. The ‘sausage factory’ model of teaching and learning that was the 19th century education system performed this task brilliantly. It produced what the industrial age required. While we talk in educational circles about moving away from this (which is absolutely necessary) and while we talk about our innovative, revolutionary approaches to learning, the uptake of digital technology to connect globally and redesigning our learning spaces, the dominant discourse must be about pedagogy; the art of teaching in the way that children learn and for what children need. It’s a contextual issue. Should I take my 20th century experience of pedagogy into the 21st century context of the learners in my classroom, it would be fraught. My students don’t need that.

More and more I am interested to hear and to see what is happening in schools. I am more interested to watch a child impact a global audience assisted by digital technology than to hear that they have it. I care less about a learning space than the freedom students have to learn within it. The question is not really about how revolutionary the learning is but what the learning is for.

Photo Credit blakespot via Compfight cc


Finding Tenzing Norgay In Your Classroom


I really wish I could say it was my idea but it wasn’t. In 2012 my Principal and I attended the Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, BLC12. Apart from feeling incredibly affirmed about the digital direction we were taking at our school back in Australia, we were struck by one remarkable teacher and his team of ‘Tech Sherpas’. Kern Kelley was at BLC12, and was again there in 2013 as a Google Certified teacher hosting sessions on using Google apps in education. Apart from being one of the most engaging speakers at the conference, he had with him a team of students; his Tech Sherpas.

The Sherpas were at the conference to support the digitally challenged amongst us… to help us with our tech issues, to teach us how to use some things and to guide us as we climb the Everest that is teaching in a digital age. Apart from being entirely affable, they were a joy to learn from and to learn beside. Imagine my awe when the young 15 year old who was giving me a hands on tour of my then newly acquired iPad started telling me about the apps… yes, more than one… that he had invented and was now selling. The impact of being taught by such students was so profound we both went back to Australia determined this would become a part of our school culture. I am blessed to work with a Principal who made it happen.

We now have a team of Tech Sherpas ranging in age from 11 to 17. (There is one girl amongst a sea of boys but we’re working on that!). Two of the Sherpas are employed by the school and work with the IT staff after school and during the holidays. They are paid to do this. I have one in my English class who makes me look good every day. What I love about the Sherpas is their fearlessness, their curiosity and their ingenuity. They are completely reliable.

So what exactly do the Sherpas do?

  1. Their main brief is to support the staff in the use of Technology for learning – while they are fearless, some teachers are not. Fear prevents such teachers from engaging with technology. Rather than having these teachers left behind (a slippery slide to redundancy), the Sherpas are assigned to them to become their champions; to show them how to engage with technology, setting it up for them so it doesn’t fail and ironing out the ‘glitches’ they encounter. They act as human training wheels, keeping teachers upright until they are confident to ‘ride’ by themselves.
  2. They support other students. Where students once headed off to ask the IT staff to resolve their technical problems, they now talk to the Sherpas. Sometimes this occurs in class, at other times they visit the IT window. This window is manned by the Sherpas. A significant benefit of this, apart from the peer to peer learning, is that the IT staff are freed to work on other things.
  3. They are our roadies and gophers… they set up for events such as assemblies, open nights, presentation evenings etc. and ensure these run smoothly. They ask what is needed and they make it happen. The stress relief this provides cannot be overstated! It is such a joy to turn up to a microphone that works, a sound system free of feedback and a visual presentation that looks like it came out of Dreamworks studio!
  4. They teach each other. Because they are doing what they love, their curiosity drives them to learn, to discover and to share that learning with like-minded individuals. In this way, they are becoming regenerative, almost in charge of their own succession planning.

I am sure that as the role evolves, there’ll be plenty more that happens. This is really the very beginning of our journey and I hope the first of several posts which chronicle how this initiative unfolds in our school. If it’s something you are interested in implementing in your own school, you may want to check out where you can view Tech Sherpa shows hosted by Kern Kelley’s students. It’s quite inspiring!

Photo Credit: mckaysavage via Compfight cc

Are We All The Wizard Now?

Reflections on Living (& Tweeting) with Authenticity

Dorothy meets the Wizard.

‘Dorothy pulled back the curtain to reveal the Wizard…

Who are you?

Well, I… I…I am the great and powerful… Wizard of Oz.

You are?

Uhhh… yes…

I don’t believe you!’

I still remember this scene from the Wizard of Oz, probably because my shock at the ‘man behind the myth’ was as great as Dorothy’s. I didn’t believe him either and the impact that had on me as a child endures. I can’t say I am any more impressed by the Wizard after seeing him in Wicked some 30 years later. He’s a cad! A bounder! A fake!

So why write about him?

Something happened last week which reminded me of the Wizard. I got ‘unfollowed’ by someone on Twitter. Now I know this is not extraordinary in itself and the connection seems bizarre, but bear with me. Here’s the story.

It began when someone followed me on Twitter… someone claiming to be ‘passionate about failure’. A speaker, it seemed. Lots of photos of his book, pithy quotes & tweets extolling the benefits of allowing children to fail in order to learn. This is not an unusual thing to hear in education circles at the moment and I have to confess, my biggest life lessons have come from my own failures and mistakes. I subscribe to the much quoted ‘Fail: first attempt in learning.’ I watched for a while, deciding whether to follow back. Then he tweeted something that piqued my interest. I wanted to clarify whether I understood what he was saying. I wanted to explore what he had said. So, I asked a question. He answered it but I still felt I wanted to understand him more, so I asked another.

He immediately unfollowed me… and then BLOCKED me!

I know! Little old me, demoted to the ranks of Twitter Troll!

I was so shocked, I checked and double checked and wondered how to tweet that I thought there was something quite valuable in what he was saying. I guess my FAIL for the day was being curious. His fail, despite having 4,193 followers, was that he had absolutely nothing to say. I felt like Dorothy pulling back the green curtain to see the man behind the myth.

Now, I am hoping that said ‘speaker, passionate about failure’ is no Wizard and that he really does have things to say and really does enjoy intelligent debate with colleagues… and perhaps I should have included a smiley face or winky face (good heavens) to indicate my benign intent…. however, that is not the message his block sent to me and sadly (for him) because of that I won’t be buying his book. I have no reason to believe his message.

The whole incident has got me thinking again about our authenticity, both in our everyday relationships and in the world of social media. The call to authenticity, to being real, is so important, especially for those of us engaging everyday with the wonderful world of schooling. Children are particularly adept at smelling a rat. They know who amongst us is real and I think we owe it to them to model that.

Another Twitter friend commented this week that she ‘hates fakers’, that there’s nothing worse than finding out that someone is not what they have presented themselves to be. I felt sad that she had been let down by someone and while ‘hate’ is not a word I would choose, I can say I understand the passion behind it and that this kind of thing disappoints me also. My hope is that I will always be willing to walk my talk and to engage in the deeper conversations about learning, conversations that go beyond 140 characters, beyond the megaphone of opinion, beyond self-promotion.

Beyond that hope, there’s another; that I can meet those with whom I disagree, those who challenge or question me, in a place of mutual respect and a heart to hear. I love listening to such people because what they say drives me to a deep place of contemplation. It forces me to evaluate my values, my beliefs, my prejudices. Such people are a rich part of my learning, a rich part of my growth and I am as thankful for them as those who encourage, inspire and affirm me. I choose not to block them… and I sometimes buy their books 😉