Category: 2. Know the Content

20% is Not Enough


This week I have watched the ACEC conference twitter stream from the sideline with more interest than any other with several students from my school attending as part of a Digital Leaders group. A great opportunity to listen to presentations, tweet thoughts and questions and interact with teachers and keynotes.

They have done a brilliant job of pushing ideas and reflecting genuine student voice and  have also been excited by the various learning opportunities showcased at the event.

For the first time for many of these students, they heard the concept of Googles 20% time (also adapted and referred to as Genius Hour or Passion Projects in schools).


After hearing about this idea over 2 years ago, I developed Passion Project time in my own teaching and had our faculty run the projects with students over a term. This year as part of a different team we have implemented this concept into a “Big Idea” project with our entire year 8 cohort.

The concept remains the same, students can work independently or in groups on a project of their choice. There are expectations to develop a proposal and present/share findings or experiences upon completion.

Whilst I treasure and value these opportunities for students, I also wonder: how long can we keep adding this into our week as an extra though? How can we justify to students that this learning is different to their classroom learning? How much does that devalue what they are doing in each subject?

“Ok in this ‘special’ time you can learn about things that interest you and are meaningful to you, in any way you like, but the rest of the time, it’s just stuff you have to do!”

My argument here is not that we ditch these projects. I found it was a great stepping stone in my own experiences of supporting students to complete very different projects but on a similar time frame. I have learnt a great deal in this time including how to scaffold and lead discoveries and push students to ask and develop their own questions.

I am suggesting that instead of keeping these projects or times separate from our everyday school experiences, it should just be part of our everyday learning in classes. Why can’t kids be involved in ‘real’ and meaningful learning experiences in all their subjects?

Instead of adding another subject/lesson into the timetable, shouldn’t we be looking at what is already happening in classes and working on how we can make that more meaningful?

Shouldn’t this kind of learning be more like 80% not 20%?

Consume – Create – Curate – Connect


made using

I have acknowledged before that ideas are not original and it’s a no brainer that we need to consume, whether that be watch, read or listen to make sense of ideas, thoughts or to develop more questions.

Consumption is certainly not new to schools, reading text has been an elemental part of learning since compulsion arose in the late 19th century. What we need to consider now, is how young people are consuming information today and how we can tap into this consumption. Video and visual media are increasingly the modes by which we access information. How can we as teachers utilise these formats more?  Are we teaching our students to note take effectively, to research responsibly, to annotate or to listen and identify key ideas as essential parts of accessing these modes?

Once our students have consumed, do we get them to create? What does this creation look like? Is it still written? Are we allowing them to demonstrate their emerging understanding in different ways? Do we encourage them to express their ideas on the basis of developing thoughts, rather than concluding answers? Can they record, build, animate or film these ideas?

Do we provide opportunity to curate these ideas? Do we allow students to organise and connect their collection of thoughts, so they can make links and deepen their understanding? Do we ensure they have a way of organising their work and recording it so they can look back a refer to their developing works and see how they build upon each other? How can digital records support the “tagging” and “categorising” of this learning?

How are we making this learning purposeful by providing an audience? Are we allowing them to connect? Do we give them a platform, physical or virtual where they can share their creations and seek feedback on their emerging ideas?  So often we finalise the learning by creating a product (essay/presentation/performance), but is that where the learning ends? How can we facilitate the power of the crowd to suggest, to comment and to review works for ongoing improvement and allow our students to respond to these?

Just some things currently on my mind and conscious to be working towards being better at!





To Skill and Drill or Not?

Skill and Drill

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Rhoni McFarlane

I am a strong advocate for personalised learning and thus promote ways for students to engage in real world problem solving and experiences. Developing and designing curriculum that promotes students to connect with each other and the world is a passion. I guess that because I speak of these things and promote these ideas, people can often assume it is the only way students learn in my class, but this is not the case.

I was recently asked how kids can possibly learn if we don’t provide them skill and drill opportunities.  I have in the past expressed concern with students being forced to complete monotonous handwriting and timetables drills. That is not to say that I don’t see value in students practicing skills to master or develop sound strategies.

A musician certainly does not improve if they do not spend hours rehearsing their execution.

A writer does not develop their craft if they do not practice writing.

An athlete needs to practice technique, rehearse strategy and build fitness through regular training.

An artist doesn’t pick up a paintbrush and create a masterpiece without time to develop technique.

I will use a personal example, as I played basketball for many years.

If all I did was layups, Cincinatti, 3 man weaves and Tennessee drills for an hour and a half twice a week for practice I probably would have lasted a month. I would have lost all interest in a sport which had potential to have a huge impact on my life. Of course that was not the case and by providing authentic opportunities in practice through scrimmages (game like matches) and then of course playing an actual match against real opposition on a weekly basis meant I valued the practice as ways to improve. I saw that by practising my shooting, dribbling and fitness outside of training I would increase my chances of success in the real match.  I knew there was definite purpose in doing these things.

So for sure, students need to develop skills, strategies and processes to develop their understanding and abilities, but if your classroom is all skill and drill and no scrimmage or game, your students will quit the game of learning.

Our students need to see the purpose of developing their skills because there is an authentic reason to do so.

If you’re teaching letter writing form, then be sure your students get an opportunity to write to a real person of interest; an author, a pop-star whomever they choose.

If you’re developing argumentative or persuasive writing, be sure your kids have a real cause and can use their skills by giving them a platform and an audience. Write to your local politician, the Prime Minister, the UN!

If you are developing procedural skills, be sure you give kids the opportunity to put it into practice. Record a “how to” for YouTube, be sure that they get feedback on whether the instructions were clear because “real” people followed their instructions.

There are so many examples of people doing great things with kids to ensure they get these opportunities. I get (steal) loads of examples and ideas from the amazing twitter PLC, great colleagues, friends and my YouTube subscriptions!

Engaging = Entertaining?

Many classroom and school improvement strategies encourage or promote the importance of student engagement! But what is this “engagement” they speak of?

It seems there are many different ideas of what student engagement is.  I have written previously about the role of ‘fun’ in building relationships (see “Do I have to be a Clown?”), but I see engagement as something else.

So I asked myself…

Can I be engaged without being entertained?

Am I entertained without being engaged?

My answer to both of these questions was YES!

So then, what is my understanding of engagement? If others believe engagement relies on being entertained or enjoyment, then their definition must be different, surely.

In an article in Forbes Kevin Kruse explores employee engagement. He identifies what it’s not….

Employee engagement does not mean employee happiness. Someone might be happy at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working hard, productively on behalf of the organization. While company game rooms, free massages and Friday keg parties are fun–and may be beneficial for other reasons–making employees happy is different from making them engaged.

Employee engagement doesn’t mean employee satisfaction. Many companies have “employee satisfaction” surveys and executives talk about “employee satisfaction”, but the bar is set too low. A satisfied employee might show up for her daily 9-to-5 without complaint. But that same “satisfied” employee might not go the extra effort on her own, and she’ll probably take the headhunter’s call luring her away with a 10% bump in pay. Satisfied isn’t enough.

So if we apply this to student engagement, then it infers that students can be happy in class but not engaged in their learning and satisfied with their teacher/class/subject but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer to be learning somewhere else.

I take this further with this query, why is it, that a parent will take their “perfectly satisfied, happy” child out of their local school and send them to an independent school 200m down the road?

I believe it has to do with challenge. If we promote a culture, an atmosphere where students are challenged, this is where engagement is fostered. The challenge mustn’t be beyond our reach nor should it be too easily attained, but I believe this is where the learning is most rich.

The majority of my own learning is developed void of any entertainment. I have experienced several professional development sessions where I was thoroughly entertained yet I didn’t take any new learning away. I have also spent many hours reading dull lengthy studies which actually provided me with a rich source of information and a new perspective to take forward.


I asked my son (aged 10) a few questions to gauge his experience of challenge (I often ask him questions because he is completely honest about his classroom).  This is how our conversation went:

“What has been something you found hard to learn?”

“This year or last year?”

“Any time.”


“Why was division hard?”

“I couldn’t figure out what it really meant, whether it meant add or subtract.”

“What helped you understand?”

“We did lots of problems, where we had to figure out whether it was sharing or getting more. Then we used short division to figure out the answer.”

“What helped you keep going even when it was hard?”

“I knew it was important to understand it so I could figure out the problems.”

“Do you think you understand division now?”


“How did it make you feel when you figured it out?”

“It felt good, I felt relieved. Do I have to answer any more questions now?”

“Be off with you!”

So what I get from this brief conversation is:

1. He was learning something he couldn’t already do (challenge)

2. He knew it was important to learn it (purpose)

3. He was given real problems to solve to develop his understanding (relevant)

4. He was able to develop his understanding (learning)

This is what I think engagement is!

When engagement is defined as paying attention by looking at the teacher/presenter, then you already discount every child/person on the Autism Spectrum who find difficulty in face to face or those who prefer or focus better with hearing as opposed to seeing.  If you define it as contributing to discussion, then you cancel out all the introverts who may be uncomfortable in group participation. When you suggest that engagement is students taking notes, it would be interesting to see if these notes have any actual “meaning” to that student afterwards.

I think the measurement of engagement is the learning.  Are you learning anything new, are you developing your understanding, or changing your perception? Do you see purpose or reason and keep going even when it is challenging? If you do, I think you are engaged.

I believe if we want to engage our students we have to:

Increase resilience in challenge, so they gain satisfaction by overcoming difficult problems (intrinsic motivation not extrinsic reward based satisfaction).

Provide real and relevant learning opportunities, so they see meaning and purpose to keep going when it is hard.

Then recognise the learning that has occurred and provide opportunities to demonstrate or acknowledge it.

I would love to hear from others as to how you see engagement and ways you would “measure” it in yourself and/or your students.

If I Were a Teacher….

Driving home with my 10 year old son in the car, radio humming and windows down, he suddenly announced “If I were a teacher and I wanted my students to like me, I would be nice and be fun”.

This made me smile.  Isn’t it so simple?

Relationships, relationships, relationships!

I asked him what else he would do, and he started rattling off all the things he would do and I said “hang on, I want to write some of this down!” When we arrived home a few minutes later we sat down and here’s how it went…

On the first day I would have a quiz, just random, hardly any would be maths or spelling questions (shaking his head)  just fun questions and brain teasers.  If someone gets it right they would … I would have one of those…. you know…. baskets of Haigh’s freckle chocolates, and they would get to choose one.

I would do that every two weeks.


Just making sure that they are keeping up with their learning and are having fun.

Just the most delicious chocolate in the world! South Australians know this to be true!

Just the most delicious chocolate in the world! South Australians know this to be true!


Each week when we have fitness, I would let kids decide what they want to do. They could make up games and then they could make a book of the games. They could choose or vote from the games in the book.


I would make sure I was keeping the class fun. 


By doing lots of fun activities. I would read Andy Griffiths books to the whole class, if they were in year 3 or below and if they were in year 4 and above I would read Skulduggery Pleasant to them.

Favourites of many in Junior Primary kids Australia. My son still reads them and laughs.

Favourites of many Junior Primary kids in Australia. My son still reads them and laughs.


Fitness, drama, free play, reading every day, science experiments, clay animations, movie making, making wikis but not too many worksheets.




No, but you kinda have to don’t you? You would get fired wouldn’t you?

But it would be better.  I would give a challenge everyday. And the next day I would ask “Who did it?” It would be something like …. carry 5 marbles with chopsticks (and I would give them chopsticks and marbles – but I would ask who has marbles because some might have them) then they would have to carry each marble from one bowl to another with the chopsticks and they would time themselves or I would set a time like a minute. It wouldn’t matter it they were the fastest because there wouldn’t be a prize or anything.  And if they couldn’t do it, the next day I would set them a different challenge and say “maybe that’s not your cup of tea, how about try your luck on this one?” or if they did do it I would make the challenge harder by increasing the distance or number of marbles. If they didn’t like it and found it boring, they could just tell me and I would find another challenge or if they had an idea they could tell me.

To tell you the truth, I was expecting him to say something like “I would let them play minecraft” or “everyone would have an iPad” or “I would never make them go to assembly”!  Instead, he has actually connected with things he has experienced at school that he has found fun. My eyes may have rolled when he said “free time”, but honestly if I actually watched what he did during that free time, I bet he would be huddled with a group of his peers constructing things from lego or playing board games.  This “free time” could easily be substituted with a concept like genius hour.

Most of the things he suggests include challenge.  If you have ever done claymation, or made an iMovie, or contributed to a wiki, you would know that it takes patience, collaboration and plenty of resilience (or is that just me?).  He gives examples of how he would enable choice, student input and feedback!  If he came home with a chopstick challenge, I would be over joyed! No doubt the whole family would get involved in that challenge (not something he has done at school, but read about in one of several Guinness Book of Records he owns).

This classroom DOES sound like fun and lots of learning. I think I would like him as a teacher too, sign me up! Children are experts at fun, so if we want to vamp our classrooms to be more engaging, why wouldn’t we get their input? Last year I wrote about getting input from our whole student cohort (see here), again they were filled with ideas of what makes a good teacher.

My son is also new to blogging, you can check out his blog here.

To Report or To Reflect….

With my first year at Wirreanda High School complete and a few days to take a breath, I now take the opportunity to reflect.

As a teacher of students with disabilities, report writing tends to be a frustrating time for me. Ticking boxing and giving numbers or letters to students for whom the most minor improvements are actually great gains is difficult to say the least. In previous years I have handed the report to parents with an apologetic shrug, knowing that it by no means reflects how I would like to indicate their learning.  Report time for parents of students with disabilities are often just reminders of the things their child cannot do, what they haven’t achieved and for many, no different from last years report! Horrible. I always try to imagine what it must be like to be reminded each day that you have a child with needs you never expected, the challenges and the impact this has on every ‘today’.

The following clip embodies much of what I try to remember about my families when it comes to reporting on their child.

This year though a shining light.  I have been given the flexibility (thanks to a great supportive leadership – @CFishpool @LunnisTony) to report against each student’s individual goals in the manner I choose.  This allowed me to represent student growth in multiple ways.  A much more valuable reflection on the improvement each student has made and also an opportunity for students, families and myself to celebrate their learning.  Next year I hope to include audio and video as part of their learning record via student blogging which will provide even richer sources to showcase each student’s growth.

Along with each “Semester Reflection” – as opposed to “Report Card” I wrote a letter to each student.  I tried to reflect how they had each  impacted in the classroom, on their peers and on myself.  I expressed times where I thought they showed courage (generally through risk-taking/trying new things),  thoughtfulness and persistence – all things we encourage in class. Whilst I have always penned my students a Christmas card each with a paragraph or two about my year with them, I had never attempted a letter before.  As I wrote to each student I found myself connecting at a deeper level as I acknowledge the impact each has had.

The following include some of my writing:

I remember one of the first times we met way back when you were a year 7. It was upstairs in the Learning Centre when you came to visit from your primary school.  You helped me get the paints and tables ready and I knew right then we were going to be good friends. 

This year was hard for both of us at first, as we got to learn about our new school and where everything belongs.  We had to meet lots of new people and do things we had not done before. 

you have worked so hard on talking… more and more people can hear all you have to say.  You should be very proud of this (student name) and I know you will keep trying to improve even when it gets tough. (see this previous post)

it would be hard to pick even a handful of memories that stand out from your year because there have been so many times that you have done something new.  The big things like camp, rock climbing and bike riding are easy to choose as they were big events that left us on a high. I find myself smiling at the thought of you half way up the wall with Mr (teacher) yelling “go (student name)!” (he is so loud) and you squealing with delight as you sped around the carpark on the tricycle. The times I will remember always though, are our everyday times to have a chat and catch up as you always have “lots to say”.

Wow the year is already over and soon you will officially be a year 8 high school boy at Wirreanda! It was so wonderful you could come and join us in the Unit and I have had so much fun learning about you and your family.  You have taught me a lot about Holdens and I always enjoy hearing about Ninny and your Pop. 

Writing these letters gave me an opportunity to value all the things that each of these young adults brings to our school community. I truly believe that this process has made me a better teacher.  Even as I write this now I feel an excitement about starting the new year and being part of their learning once again.

The Missing Link…

After reading  ‘The “Why” of Writing’ by George Couros I was inspired to tell my own classroom story of how the “Why” of writing has impacted on one of my students in particular.  Teaching special education, especially students with speech and language difficulties means that communication can be a challenge. Imagine struggling for 14 years to be heard, understood or even have the opportunity to contribute.  Imagine people turning away because they can’t understand you, the frustration of wanting to tell, explain or ask but your ability to move your tongue means you cannot make the right sounds and your words become distorted and unclear.  Imagine struggling to write, sitting in a class where you practice basic sentences that are functional but not expressive or meaningful over and over again. See the student disengage with learning, with people, with ambition.

George stated..

If we really want to improve the literacy of our students, we need to look just as much (if not more) at the purpose, at why they are writing, as to simply the strategies and process.  I have seen the evidence within my own family, that the why of writing means more than anything.

I too have seen the powerful impact that purpose can have.

Enter a dynamic, resourced classroom with people who take time to listen, to figure out your language, who share experiences and take time to ask for help to understand.  The language barrier becomes their challenge to overcome not hers.  Enter the iPad and laptop.  Enter edmodo and email. Welcome to the world of immediate response! Welcome to the “why” for writing.

I have seen this young person blossom, become engaged with her world, make new friends and contact old ones.  She enters the classroom desperate to talk about our conversation on edmodo from the night before and never leaves before being reassured that I will check for a message or remind a colleague to check for theirs.  Within 5 minutes of entering the classroom, she can be “logged on” and sending messages to peers, to me, to other staff. She constructs meaningful sentences and is motivated to “get it right” because she is desperate to be understood. Responses and replies reinforce and motivate her to keep going.

Having the “why” has engaged her in literacy, increased her self confidence and enabled her voice to be heard.  It drives her learning and the improvement follows!  I am excited to see in the near future, how blogging will impact her and her peers as we start connecting with people all over the globe!

Aren’t we responsible to find the “why” for all our students?