Re-imagining Learning Spaces

This post contains a copy of the slideshow my wonderful colleague at Cooks Hill Campus, Lizzy Carter, and I presented at the recent ProjectNEST UnConference held at the Crowne Plaza in Newcastle.

The idea of the presentation was to not only present the learning spaces we’ve crafted at CHC, but to do so within the broader frame of using the Design Thinking process developed by IDEO. The idea was to be very unconference-y and actually have participants start to ideate and prototype learning spaces – however, time was not our friend and so the full effect of the presentation wasn’t felt, though I sincerely hope that those who attended our sessions were inspired and took away the following:

  1. Re-imagining learning spaces is best done when you follow a structured approach that incorporates the needs of all stakeholders: students, staff, administrators.
  2. Re-imagining learning spaces needs to go hand-in-hand with a re-imagined pedagogy.
  3. Bravery and persistence are needed when challenging what is accepted as the status quo.
  4. Re-imagining learning spaces is easy, implementing the change is hard – but definitely worth it when students and teachers are more engaged in meaningful learning in responsive, flexible learning spaces (whatever and wherever that space happens to be either in or outside of the classroom).

It’s not going to be easy, but someone once said something along the lines of “nothing that is worth getting comes without effort”. I salute all the brave educators who will take what they learned at ProjectNEST and make positive changes in their schools for the benefits of our future citizens.

Mindfulness and the self-fulfilling prophecy

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of re-learning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible. The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties – something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves and our fellows.
– Alain De Botton, “Ten Things I Believe”. Smith Journal. Issue 1

I really liked this article by Alain De Botton, as I have any book of his I have read. My favourite point was the above as it spoke to that part of me that appreciates the value of mindfulness and concentration, particularly in the ‘always on’ culture that pervades our lives. I have written before of the health benefits of mindfulness meditation but what I would like to blog about today is the educational benefits of the practice.

Hattie’s research contained in Visible Teaching puts students’ self-grade as the greatest influence on learning. What I am positing is that mindfulness practice would have an effect on students’ perceptions of themselves as capable learners (self-grade) and, consequently, their learning.

How? Mindfulness practice centres around the meditator consciously paying repeated attention to an object, usually the breath. If the mind wanders, they take note of what they are thinking about then calmly return their attention to the breath. This concentrated meditation continues for as long as needed. Over time, the meditator develops greater concentrative powers as well as an increased awareness of what their mind thinks about. This increased awareness allows greater objectivity to develop in regards to the meditator’s emotions and thoughts and the fleeting nature of these. When we come to realise how changeable our thoughts and emotions are, then we aren’t so caught up in them and we have the meta cognitive space to question our assumptions about ourselves.

If students are able to question their perception of themselves then they are able to redefine themselves as capable learners, creating a new self-fulfilling prophecy where they are ABLE to learn.

Infographic courtesy of

Innovation in the Hunter Region – Part 1

Last year, in fact over the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to observe classrooms where innovation is taking place and students are being effectively engaged in the learning process.

It started back in 2011 when a fellow English teacher I admire, Bianca Hewes, posted on a her blog about a videoconference she did with someone in my region, a certain Neil Fara, head teacher HSIE at Irrawang HS who was doing some interesting things centred around student engagement. (You can check out his blog here to follow the Project REAL journey). Neil kindly offered me the chance to come and visit his classroom.

It was a wonderful experience to say the least. Here was someone doing what I wanted to be doing, and it was working! Now, being the person I am, I couldn’t just sit back and observe so I walked around the room (actually two classrooms with the dividing wall removed – a great metaphor for change in education if I ever saw one) engaging students in conversations about what they were learning. There was a relaxed, yet busy vibe to the room that was inspiring.

Neil’s approach has been to “flip” (not just in the now trendy flipped classroom sense) the way the environment and learning is structured. His students have all the work for the semester loaded onto their laptops and make their way through the content at their own, personalised, pace. What was particularly interesting for me was where this change in pedagogy had come from- the students themselves. Neil and his staff had surveyed the students to find out what they disliked about the subject and about teaching, and their voices were heard. Student voice in action!

What I was also able to witness was their differentiated model of assessment where students were allowed to demonstrate their learning and mastery of the subject in diverse ways. A year 10 girl learning about the Vietnam war and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder had composed a song about a Vietnam veteran’s experience. The video is on the Project REAL website, well worth the look. Also included are several other examples of authentic, engaging assessment tasks.

I remember driving home from the experience so enthused about the possibilities of student engagement and student voice, and that one visit continues as an inspiration to me to help remind me of what is possible when change seems far off.

As Molly would say, “do yourself a favour” and head on over to the Project REAL website to find out more.


Project Illustrate: Completion

After much hard work by the students, the picture books were complete. The project deadline was negotiated with the students and all managed to ‘ship’ the product on the due date. I also got them to reflect on their project in the written and verbal form. The feedback I got was that they found the whole process hard work and you should have heard them when I said that I was glad they had ‘struggled’ with it all!


But I was glad and proud of them because not only did they engage with a wider audience than just completing the book for their teacher, they had a REAL audience to write for. I was also proud of the way they laboured through the process of ideation and experimentation and completed a high quality product.


They talked about their frustration with things not being right, or needing to do a page over because they hadn’t considered one element or another. One even talked about being reduced to tears and working on hers every night for two weeks!

To celebrate the completion of the books we held a book launch on the last day of term which involved lots of what my 4 year old would call ‘sometimes’ food and everybody reading each others’ books – what a great way to end the term.

All that is left now is to revisit the primary school audience to share their picture books with and I hope to organise for the primary school kids to pick their favourites and then I’ll award extra prizes for those students.

All in all it was a great foray into project based learning. Reflecting back on the project I think of how excited I was going to this class everyday and seeing what they were creating, PBL has freed me up from being the ‘sage on the stage’ and has allowed the students more freedom to express themselves and to learn some vital skills in creativity, task completion, working with others and self-assessment of progress. I really liked how we were able to structure the ‘teacher talk’ around what they needed to know rather than just filling them up with knowledge and then setting them to the task. Doing things this way makes each thing learnt relevant to what needs to be done. Having said all that, next time I do this project I intend to include a bit more structure in terms of what students need to know as the feedback from students indicated they wanted this. My role as a teacher in PBL is so much more exciting than being the font of all knowledge that teachers are traditionally expected to be – it certainly allowed me to engage 1:1 with students far more often than if I was lecturing the class every lesson.

Part and parcel of this new pedagogy has been the use of round tables to promote collaboration and while the students were a bit thrown by the round tables in the beginning ( creatures of habit) they have adapted to the change really well. The big thing for me next term is to continue to encourage collaboration through what we are learning.

Project Illustrate: Engaging the Audience

Interview with Year 1
Interview with Year 1
Interview with Year 1
Interview with Year 1

 The next step in the process was to meet our audience to survey them on what they liked in picture books. After a nice stroll down to the local primary school, we had a fun time interviewing a range of students from Years 1 & 2 on their reading habits, what characters they liked, etc.

Interviewing Year 2
Interviewing Year 2

It was great for me to see my students working closely alongside students from our feeder primary school. In fact the majority of my students once went to this school. They also enjoyed dropping in on some of the old teachers (sorry for the disruption) but part of my reasoning for engaging with their audience was to re-establish those connections and the connection to themselves at that age, and being able to harness that for the future.

Interview with Year 1
Interview with Year 1

After the event, back in our own classroom we moved onto the next step in the PBL/Design Thinking Process which was INTERPRETATION.

There was much discussion about what the primary students liked (and what WE thought they’d like) and what implications this has for the end product. We gathered all the data from the surveys so that all the students could share in it and utilise it in the next phase IDEATION.

One comment that I thought was rather cute, was when my students talked about how uninhibited the kids were, the way they physically grabbed onto them and made that connection with them. It showed to me the excitement and wonder that is possible when we push the edges of education and allow deeper understanding of each other to occur.

Interview with Year 1
Interview with Year 1

Project Illustrate Day Two

So the students are all excited about engaging with primary school students to find out what they like about picture books. We’ve decided to create surveys that groups will use to find out more about what the target age group like (characters, plots, etc).

In groups they developed their questions and the hardest thing for me was to step back and let them wrestle with it. I had to stop myself from suggesting, though I did help when I was asked by the students. Not trying to be in charge was unusual, but also exciting for me as it means I am encouraging them to be active participants in their learning.

What’s next? To get the results of the surveys and interpret the data collected. Then we can begin working on the books themselves. Of course, as we move through this process I’ll need to supply them with information about elements of picture books to develop their knowledge. But what is important here is that the project comes first, getting that initial engagement, finding out what they already know (no busy work here thanks) and then filling in the gaps in their knowledge as we go. I am going to encourage the learners to give me feedback on areas they need to know more about, but I am making that conscious decision to move from the front and centre of the room to a facilitating role.

Project Illustrate

    Day One

This time of the year I get sick of doing things the same old way and I get off my butt and try something different.

Today I introduced my year 8 English class to Project-based Learning. They have an assessment task due in a few weeks and rather than teaching them all about picture books (the topic) and then constructing the end product, I decided to dip my toe back into the PBL pond (see previous posts for my last foray into PBL) which I’d been longing to do. I clearly explained to students the difference between assessment of learning and assessment for learning and how our needs in completing the product would drive the learning that will take place. Just as before, I also want them to develop 21st century skills of collaboration (the project can be completed in pairs), communication and connection.

To make it even more engaging than just “you’ll make this picture book and a teacher will mark it” I told the students that we’d have to engage with our audience (7-9 year olds) and that to do this we’d have to visit a local primary school. We haven’t nutted out what the audience assessment will be yet, but it has certainly added that element of danger (?) to what we’re going to accomplish – that is, students will be accountable to a real audience.

Today we started by discussing (using Think:pair:share and a KWHL chart) what students already knew about picture books, why their favourites were their favourites, what they might need to know to complete the project and how to go about getting the skills and knowledge needed. There was a buzz in the room as these students were engaging with a different way of doing things, and I was certainly buzzing too. I had them first period and then again last period and I was so energised (and so were the students) that it didn’t seem like last period on a Friday at all.

This is only the beginning of the project and I know that the project will have its ups and downs, but right now I just want to share the excitement I feel at beginning to do something different.

What are my aims for this project? I want the students to learn how to make a great picture book, I want them to learn how to collaborate with others, I want them to engage with the world outside the classroom, I want them to experience frustration when things get tough and elation when it all comes together.

Most of all I want to see the proud looks on their faces as the present their books to a real audience.

ITL Research, ICT, Innovative Teaching & the moral imperative

I am currently reading the ITL Research findings report, paying particular attention to the section written by Michael Fullan where he discusses innovative teaching & learning (p33). One piece that struck home with me was his discussion of the 3rd driver of system reform which is that ‘pedagogy needs to drive technology‘ and that the ITL research shows that ‘when pedagogy ( innovative teaching practices) is clearly the focus a lot of other things fall into place, including strong use of ICT, and improving the learning of 21st century skills on the part of students.’

One complaint made by many teachers (and I am guilty of it myself) since the advent of 1:1 computers in the DER program is that technology becomes just another distraction from the learning that should be happening (and ‘used to happen back in my day’ etc.). It is all too easy to blame the laptops for distracting the students (playing flash games when they should be typing up the notes from the board). Technology is seen as the bane of a teacher’s existence, or at least an annoying consideration that we shouldn’t have to deal with, we’ve got to get tougher on these kids, etc. Ban the laptops, burn them (ok that was going a bit too far).

The point I am trying to make here is that rather than seeing laptop technology as an annoyance (or a curse) the REAL problem here, and the one we’d rather ignore, is that increased ICT access highlights the lack that is inherent in so much teaching and learning.

Lack of relevance
Lack of engagement
Lack of meaning

Rather than seeing increased ICT access as a negative, we should see it as an opportunity for us to reassess what we’re teaching and what the students are learning and to make the teaching/learning process more engaging, relevant & meaningful.

It means we’ll have to modify, alter or even throw out what we’ve been comfortably delivering for many years. We’ll have to begin to ask students what is relevant for them. We’ll have to find new ways to engage and challenge these young minds. This is our new moral imperative (or perhaps it has always been our imperative) and we must not turn our backs from the future to waste our/their time looking back at a sepia tone past.

Be Here Now

Recently I came across an article on the edutopia website regarding meditation and student engagement. Having an interest in both subjects I decided to read on.

It seems that a school that had a high incidence of violence and truancy has been able to turn their school culture around through time set aside at the beginning and end of each day, called Quiet Time, where students “permitted to read, sit with their own thoughts, or close their eyes and meditate — in which case most of them use a specific technique called Transcendental Meditation* that facilitates a state of deep relaxation. Although the meditation is optional, nearly all students have chosen, with their parents’ permission, to receive meditation training. Based on classroom reports, about 90 percent of students choose to meditate during QT.”

This article got me thinking about our ability and our students’ ability to focus in an always on, 24/7 world. I have blogged before about the need to “get off the grid” so to speak, and it is a subject that I have been thinking more about lately. With so much “out there” to keep our attention, how much time do we spend on our developing our attention to “in here”?

Now, don’t think I am suggesting that we all sit around navel gazing all the time, on the contrary what I am suggesting is that by taking time to develop our ability to focus on the internal, it will help us to make more sense of the external. In other words, meditation, far from taking us away from the world, will help us to better interact WITH the world.

How do I know? Apart from the testimony of far more experienced meditators than myself and several scientific studies into the physical, emotional and psychological benefits of meditation, my own stuttering attempts at meditation have yielded more focused mental states and an increased ability to filter out distractions, if only for small periods of time.

Even if you have never sat down on a cushion to do some breath meditation, or only know “Om” as a scientific term or the beginning of OMG!, I think anyone can benefit from a more focused, more aware state of mind. The truth is there is so much to distract us, so many things to multi-task, that now, more than ever before, we need an antidote to distraction that will help us to better function in our everyday lives. If you have ever “lost yourself” playing a computer game or listening to a piece of music, then you have experience in the intensity that comes from greater focus. Through concentration developed through meditation, we can enhance our capacity to engage effectively with our busy lives.

If you want to give it a try it is as simple as watching your breath. There are many wonderful breath watching/counting techniques out there, pick one and get started. Get to know your mind. Learn to be here now.