Learning to learn

How long’s it been since you’ve learned something? I mean really learned something. From scratch.

For me it’s been relatively recent and it’s made me reconsider the experience of students in my classes.

My wife has embarked on a new business venture and I volunteered to create the website for her. I did this thinking ‘how hard could it be’? I know computers and can use Microsoft Word pretty well. Oh, how wrong I was.  I’m a wanna-be tech head, but I was about to enter a world I knew nothing about.

So, here’s what I learnt about learning…

The Importance of trial and error (plenty of error) 

The good thing about working online is that you can always hit the undo button when you make an error. In the classroom however, there is no undo button. This is where the teacher plays such a powerful role. Because our students are so used to hitting undo it can feel mightily scary and frustrating to make an error in real life; we need to ensure that our students feel comfortable and supported to make these mistakes. We need to model making mistakes.

I constructed a flat-pack desk for my eldest daughter last week; complete with one part back to front and I didn’t notice until the end. I had to unscrew and re-screw countless times.  Yep, undo and fix is much easier online than in real-life.

Using others 

My dad, a keen golfer, always says: “There’s nothing you do on the golf course that hasn’t been done before.” This is meant to make me feel better for again missing the ball. However, I think it applies just as effectively to learning. When I wanted to do something with my site, I looked at other sites to see what they had done and how they had done it. Of course, our students need their learning modelled. They need to know that others have been there too and that they finally made their way through.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We rely on the internet as much as our kids do. Never have I realised this so much as for the past few weeks, Google and Squarespace Help have been my most frequented sites. Using this ‘other’ in the classroom has to be encouraged but also managed.

Problem solving, or waiting for the solution to come

There were times when I got so frustrated with the computer and the programs I was using that I had to stand up and walk away. Wait time.

When we talk about wait time as teachers we’re generally talking about waiting for the class to settle down. But, perhaps there needs to be a rethink of wait time. I’ve learnt that I needed space; to get away from the problem before I was able to solve it. Perhaps I need to build some wait time into my classes during the week, in order to allow my students to solve their problems and process what it is I’m asking them to do.

Talking it out

For me, I bored my wife senseless with hours of talking about how block content needed to be arranged in order for the code to be injected at the right spot so that the content aligned. She had no idea what I meant, but just allowing me to ‘talk it out’ helped me process what I was attempting to do and spot potential problems that I might not have identified without the talk.

I use collaborative work in my classes regularly, but I’m not sure I have explicitly built in time for students to talk through a solution to a problem. I will be now, it might make a difference for some students.

Time (hours of playing) 

This learning takes time. Lots of it. For mastery of skills and for deeper learning we can’t be rushing through content. If we are rushing then there’s too much; and this is the bane of a teacher’s life.

However, we know that good curriculum design focuses on necessary skills and is supplemented by content. I think this is a bit like building a website… On my site each separate page generally includes the same features. The repetition of these features allowed me to practice these skills and cement my knowledge of how they worked. However, the content on each page makes them look completely different. Perhaps this is a reminder to make explicit to the students that each new topic is using similar skills and building on the last, they just look so different because of the content. Something for me to think about.

None of these are groundbreaking, but it’s funny how I took on this web design to do something a bit different from the classroom and the whole time I was working on the site, all I could think of was the classroom.

If you’re interested in the final product (not just the process) then click HERE 





Modern Luddite?


Four days ago an article appeared in The Australian newspaper where, Dr John Vallance, Principal of Sydney Grammar School, outlined his school’s decision to ban students from bringing laptops into the classroom, in a bid to return to return to a more traditional classroom dialogue. (see full article here or a Daily Mail version here)

I have some problems with this argument.

In my mind the argument is actually a veiled attack on teachers who are, in Dr Vallance’s mind, abdicating their role to that of the computer.  Dr Vallance claims he’s made this decision in order to re-focus attention back on learning and teaching delivered from the front of the classroom, reinforcing the thinking that the teacher is the font of all knowledge. And of course, students should agree with them, or if not, be brave enough to take up the mantle to disagree with the ‘so-called expert’ in the classroom.

Of course technology won’t replace quality teaching, but it can certainly enhance quality teaching and learning. And this decision by Sydney Grammar removes a valuable tool from the hands of their teachers and students. Technology, provided in the classroom, is the great democratiser – the tool with which students are able to confidently ‘take on the teacher’ and develop their arguments to engage with the teacher, who in the twenty-first century, should no longer be seen as the expert, but rather the facilitator of their learning.

“One of the most powerful tools in education is conversation,’’ Dr Vallance states. Yet, it would seem that he’s happy to remove the world from his classrooms and limit the conversation to a one-way didactic voice. Dr Vallance argues that technology in the classroom is “making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things — the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.’’ In the greatest of ironies, please take a moment to look at the comments written under the initial article for evidence of a digital conversation; one that crosses borders, nations and time zones, not inhibiting conversation, but actually extending it and certainly questioning things. You see, when used correctly, technology will actually enhance a conversation rather than limit it.

However, I’m a realist. There is no denying that at times technology can be misused but so too can a pen or pencil. Again, it comes back to the teacher. If there is a specific reason for using the technology, surely the professional in the room should be able to call on all resources at their disposal? And, perhaps it is because I’m a realist that I have concerns with this decision –the boys of Sydney Grammar, like boys and girls around the world, exist in a world of technology. Surely learning to use it, live with it and exploiting it is more important than retreating from it and burying our heads in the sand?

Teachers are professionals who make judgment calls every lesson of every day to determine the most effective method to spark creativity, analysis, critical thinking and empathy. Banning technology from the classroom simply treats teachers as misbehaving students; students who are unable to make decisions for themselves, or perhaps students who are making decisions that some people simply don’t like. This shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition and of most concern to me is that the decision has seemingly been made for the staff and students rather than by them.



The challenge of new school leadership.


Startup Stock Photos


So, is it just because I’ve started at a new school that everywhere I look I see others in the same boat? My newsfeeds in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are full of people excitedly talking about their new adventures and how much their heads are spinning from all the new information.

It is exciting. But let’s not forget that it’s also really hard work. New colleagues, new processes, new students (and families), new curriculum structures, new reporting style-guides and new politics in the staff lunch-room (where to sit and where to leave the coffee mug).

All the above is amplified if you are also a new leader at a new school. People are looking at you and wondering; they’re waiting for you to speak in order to determine if you are full of edu-jargon or if you are actually able to string a sentence together without using the words ‘pedagogy’ and ‘lifelong learning’. They are wanting to know your plans; your vision. And that’s where I come unstuck. You see, at the moment, one week into a new school year, I’m not yet prepared to publicly share my vision. I mean, I know what I value in education, I know what I prefer and I know what makes a difference to students in the classroom. But, my natural inclination is to initially sit back and watch. Who am I to come into a new school with all guns blazing declaring that the processes and practices, so familiar to staff and students, could do with some tweaking? To me, finding my feet, observing and learning about the culture of my new school and building relationships with staff, students and community is more important.

So, you can imagine my joy to discover that my natural inclination is supported by research. My principal has allocated some developmental reading for the leadership team (Dr Paul Browning’s Compelling Leadership – The Importance of Trust and how to get it) and in it, Browning argues that without vision and trust nothing else matters – and the most important of these is trust. Browning picks up Thomas Sergiovanni’s (2005) line that ‘it is vital to firstly build trust before anything else, even before a leader develops a vision.’

But how to do that?

Browning’s research identified 10 key practices that engender trust between a leader and their staff. They are as follows:

  1. Admit mistakes
  2. Offer trust to staff members
  3. Actively listen
  4. Provide affirmation
  5. Make informed and consultative decisions
  6. Be visible around the organisation
  7. Remain calm and level-headed
  8. Mentor and coach staff
  9. Care for staff members
  10. Keep confidences

They seem like common sense practices, but I think at the beginning of a school year and especially as a leader in a new school, they act as a timely reminder.

What I found especially interesting about the research into trust and leadership is the impact it has on student outcomes. Bryk and Schneider (2002) discovered that schools with positive relational trust levels were three times more likely to be categorised as improving in reading and mathematics than those with very weak levels. Of course, it makes sense – set the bar high relationally; build trust amongst the community and then the community will be receptive to feedback, confident in holding each other to account and keen to support each other along the way. This is the kind of workplace we’re all striving for.

So, I’m going to follow my natural instincts. I’m going to spend some quality time working on getting to know my colleagues. I’ll ensure I’m listening carefully, I’ll be seen around the school, I’ll acknowledge when I get it wrong and importantly I’ll just be me.



Browning, P., (2015) Compelling Leadership – The Importance of Trust and how to get it. 

Byrk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in Schools. New York: Russell Sage.

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.