• A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

    Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself)  Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt […]

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  • Do You Need To Change Anything?

    Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone. Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of […]

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  • Becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day!

    Yesterday, after some careful planning and logistical tap-dancing, our full faculty enjoyed a home-grown professional learning day focused on passions. Teachers were invited to offer presentations on something they were passionate about to their colleagues. Here’s the list of what we had to choose from: iMovie Basics Planning and Integrated Inquiry Unit Sharing gratitude Maximizing SmartBoard […]

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  • How Hard Is It? Really.

    As an international educator, there is one phrase more than all others that invokes fear. “Recruiting!” Those of us who have run the gamut a few times remember with fondness the excitement of the first job fair. The thrill of donning a suit and tie, tucking your CV’s under your arm and lining up at […]

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  • Are we teaching the “love of” the the, or just the “the”?

    In my office, on a small desk covered with Star Wars minifigures, a rubics cube and some Hot Wheels cars you will also find my 4th grade class photo. I’m the smallish blonde boy in the middle row, fourth from the left. At the other end of the row is Mrs Paterson. She is the […]

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Lego, IKEA and problem finding!

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Einstein-formal_portrait-35.jpg

“The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”
― Albert Einstein

It would be fair to suggest that we have all heard of problem solving! It is lauded as an essential 21st century skill. We ask each other if we are asking our students to “problem solve”. While this is not unimportant, Einstein’s 20th century quote above might be putting a new spin on this 21st century skill that we have not considered – that finding the problem might be more important that solving it!

Somewhere in my past I remember listening to a speaker (maybe it was a TED Talk) whose main idea was that we should be spending a LOT more time working with students on FINDING the problems, and then solving them. If I remember rightly, he was suggesting that handing a student a page full of “problems” and asking them to “solve” them was missing the point somewhat.

Maybe it is like an IKEA dining table you bring home.

Here are all the parts you need, and the tools you will need to use with the parts, and a book that gives you the step by step instructions for putting the table together, and a picture of what each step should look like, and a picture of the finished product, and a helpline number to call if you mess things up. Or, if that’s too hard, here is the number for a couple of guys who can come to your house and solve your building problem for you (for a small fee of course!).

Imagine what would happen if the IKEA table came with five extra pieces, no tools, no picture and no helpline! (Oops, someone just fainted!)

If you have ever watched a child receive a Lego set as a present, there is that short period of “building the IKEA table” where the booklet is opened, the steps are followed and the “thing” is built. It is played with for a short period. The car zooms. But then… the car crashes and the pieces come apart and the car merges with the house and the boat to become become a hovercraft with a time travelling switch and a laser cannon and next thing the room, and everyone in it, is being blasted by lasers and transported into the future.

I wonder what would happen if you started playing lego with all your different pieces of IKEA furniture???

I digress!

As you continually challenge your students to solve problems, how can you challenge them to FIND the problems and then solve them? How can you make those problems you are posing embedded in the REAL world, rather than the SCHOOL world?

How can the problems you challenge your students to find and solve REALLY help them with the problems they are going to encounter and attempt to solve this afternoon as they walk/cycle/bus/train home from school?

And apologies if you are still having shivers from the “five extra pieces” IKEA thought!


Your lightbulb in your classroom?

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. – C. William Pollard

(Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/innovation.html)

There is a danger that when we think of innovation we imagine devices that can turn salt water into drinking water, or self-driving cars, or mouldy bread that can charge a phone battery (yes, it does exist!). While these do fit the definition of innovation, to most of us, these types of new ideas are well beyond our scope. Innovation, as portrayed by the media, is usually big and life changing and sensational.
But innovation can be something you do every day!
When you consider that innovation is defined as “a new method, idea, product, etc”, then your own scope for innovation suddenly widens. And innovation can be a personal thing! What is innovative for you doesn’t need to be innovative for someone else. If what you are doing is new for you – a new method, a new approach, a new idea – then you are being innovative.

So, as you consider your teaching today, what are you doing today that you have not done before? Where are those moments where you are challenging yourself with a new teaching idea, or a new assessment practice or a new approach to planning. If you have always taught a certain book or a certain unit a certain way, or have always taught from a content perspective, or have always set a final exam, how can you innovate? Can you take the big ideas of the book and allow students to choose their own books that address those ideas? Can you reconsider the content from a conceptual standpoint and teach from that new angle? Can you develop a rubric that covers all the elements of the final exam and give students the opportunity to choose how to demonstrate those understandings via a project?

Innovation carries with it a certain amount of risk. Will the conceptual unit be as good as the usual content approach? How will I assess students if they are all reading different books? Will a final project be as rigorous as a final exam?
Risk taking in teaching is critical. Not everything is going to be fantastic first time around. It won’t be the end of the world. You will be able to try again.
So today, how will you innovate in your classroom? How will you innovate in your teaching? How will you allow your students to innovate?


Student Choice

As I work through the “8 things to look for in Today’s Classroom” from George Couros, “Choice” is one of those that we might immediately consider more difficult than some of the others – especially if we are teaching a prescribed curriculum, or an prescribed course, with a text book, a time schedule and an external exam on a given date in May! I’m not going to say it’s easy, or that I know how to suddenly infuse your course with CHOICEs – that’s for you to consider. What I do understand however is the fact that when students have choices they are more engaged, and when they are engaged, learning becomes more effective. I did originally write “learning becomes easier” here, but many times it doesn’t.

Engagement doesn’t make learning EASIER! From a personal perspective, when I am engaged I’m prepared to struggle with my learning for a lot longer than when I’m not. I tend to persevere more. Through this willingness to persevere I learn more. The learning isn’t any easier. In fact, because I am prepared to persevere more it would be fair to say that in some respects the learning is harder, or at least there’s more struggle.

So coming back to Choice…

From an institutional perspective, some schools do a better job of allowing Student Choice to permeate their school culture than others. Some schools allow students to choose their high school courses, to fit into a set schedule. Others have flexibility in scheduling and can allow some degree of student choice in timing of when they take those classes throughout the day. Some schools opt for a “no uniform” policy and allow students to choose what they wear to school. Others don’t. Some larger schools allow students to choose which teacher they want when there are multiple sections of a course. And then there are graduation requirements that guide student choices for extra-curricular, sporting, cultural, service and other activities. While these institutional level choices are important, the more critical arena for student choice is the classroom.

If you work in a classroom (note I didn’t say “Are in charge of a classroom”), here are some questions to ponder:

  • If you drew up a pie chart titled “Teacher Choice – Student Choice”, how would the two sections of the pie compare in size? Have you thought about how you might be able to make the Student Choice slice bigger?
  • When you are designing an assessment task, how do students get to choose?
  • When you are planning a unit of instruction and are considering learning activities, how is student choice built into the planning?
  • When students take notes in your class, do they get to choose how they take their notes?
  • When an assessment task is finally assessed/marked/graded, do your students get to choose their result/grade/mark (self assess)?

Alfie Kohn, in his September 1993 article, “Choices for Children – Why and How to let Students Decide” put it pretty bluntly when he wrote,

“Much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behaviour may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.”

If you have some time to read through the whole Alfie Kohn article it is well worth the time! If not, at least begin to consider how you might be able to introduce more student choice into your classroom. Alfie Kohn suggests possible starting places when he writes, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn” and goes on to expand upon these ideas.

The FacultyFocus.com article titled, “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment” takes the idea of “how” and “how well” and challenges the idea of prescribed assessment tasks, suggesting,

“rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.”

While I am not advocating every teacher suddenly creates an assessment buffet for students to help themselves from, it does help us to rethink something that possibly has been considered un-rethink-able. Again, the whole article is well worth a read (and is a bit shorter than the Alfie Kohn article).

In summary, engagement is critical for deep learning, and giving students choices in the what, the how, the how well and the why of learning can only serve to increase engagement.


George Couros. “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.The Principal of Change. 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Alfie Kohn. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide (*) – Alfie Kohn.Alfie Kohn. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, Sept. 1993. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment? – Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. 2011. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.


Want to improve your grades? Sleep more!

With Semester 1 just ended and students now focussing on working through a successful second semester, I (and many of you) have been talking to students and parents about changes they can make to see greater improvement in their learning. Usually that conversation starts with studying more, but recent research suggests that sleeping more is just as important.

The study titled “Sacrificing sleep to study can lead to academic problems”, showed that “across the years of high school, the trade-off between daily study time and sleep becomes increasingly associated with academic problems” (pp. 139). The study also found “that the reduced sleep that tends to occur on nights of extra studying is what accounts for the increase in academic problems that occurs the next day.”

This is not to say that students should not study! The research also acknowledges that there is a link between high achievement and more study, but caution that the extra study should not be at the expense of sleep.

9 hours of sleep per night is the recommendation for adolescents. In an ongoing survey I have been conducting, after 75 responses, 5.7 hours per night is the average for high school students at the school I lead.

So, if students want to improve their learning, and then as a consequence, their grades, help them to consider the following… develop a routine that allows you to sleep 9 hours each night. Spread your study out across all nights of the week, and if you need to put in some extra hours of study, don’t sacrifice your sleep – instead, give up something else that is not as important.

As this study suggests (and other studies confirm), “sleep is a key restorative process during which consolidation of learning takes place.”


Society for Research in Child Development. “Sacrificing sleep to study can lead to academic problems.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 August 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120821094350.htm>.


“Copy this down…” or don’t. It’s up to you!

From an interesting article about the Primary Years Program… Click here for the full blog post.

If we truly value thinking and creativity, then why would there be a need for students to copy something down. Whether it’s a definition, a list of attributes, or instructions for how to do something, doesn’t the act of expecting students to copy down whatever it is we are looking for steal their thinking? If learning is all about making meaning, aren’t we missing an opportunity to have students construct their own meaning if we are expecting them to copy down someone else’s meaning?

Out of the whole post, this short paragraph has been clunking around in my head more loudly than the other ideas shared within. I’ve been asking myself, “Should teachers be telling students to copy this down?”

When I taught for a year at TongJi Medical University in Wuhan, China (after having taught elementary for four and a half years in Australia) I was introduced to a “copying” culture in my students. Whatever I wrote on the blackboard (with chalk!) was diligently copied into all 45 journals in the room. I didn’t need to say, “Copy this down.” The presumption was that whatever I wrote on the board was important, without necessarily understanding what it was important for. That year made me rethink what I used the blackboard for!

Fast forward twenty years and now we have LCD projectors and interactive whiteboards (not a stick of chalk anywhere!) and the ability to bombard our students with a “blackboard” full of Google or Powerpoint slide after slide after slide after slide of “important” information. My Chinese university students would be most dismayed because they would not possibly be able to copy it all down. And maybe because of that they would begin to ask which information was important to copy, which makes me wonder about why students should take notes at all. Why anyone takes notes at all!

Well, from my personal perspective, I take notes every day. Notes of every meeting I attend. I write down who is there, the date on which it takes place, the time of day and the main things we speak about. If I need to complete a task as a follow-up to the meeting I note that down. But in all of that, the most important element is why. Why I note those things down!

I note those things because I know that in the future I will need those pieces of information for something else I will need to do. Those are the things that are important to remember in order for me to do a good job of being the Principal.

From a student perspective, the WHY should be similarly important. WHY a student is taking notes should drive what notes they are taking. This demands that students actually KNOW what they need their notes for, be it an exam at the end of the week or semester, for a project they are developing or for an essay they might be writing. They must KNOW the criteria around which that task will be assessed. Only then can they determine if what is being presented to them on the “blackboard” is worth copying down.

So when we say, “Copy this down” we are missing the most important part of the whole note-taking process – the CRITICAL THINKING that demands the worth of the information be COMPARED to the demands of the task, to result in a CONSCIOUS DECISION to copy or not to copy.

So when the inevitable student question “Do we need to copy this?” comes up (as we all know it will), try answering with a question instead… “Why might you need to remember this information?”

If the student can’t answer that question then you (or the student) might have bigger problems, but it WILL prompt critical thinking.

Note-taking, as the original blog post mentioned, should be about students making their own meaning from information presented to them. Don’t ask students to “Copy this down”, ask students to be critical about what they think is important* and let them choose!


*But make sure you are VERY clear with course goals, expected learning outcomes, assessment criteria and assessment details!


Be surprised!

Over the Thanksgiving break my family and I visited Jeju Island, South Korea and explored its coastline, its many museums and its other unexpected treats. And of the unexpected variety, there were many!

Hallasan SnowThe tomato wine from the World Liquor Museum, while unexpected, couldn’t really be considered a treat (imagine watered down tomato paste), but finding ourselves in 30cm of snow atop Hallasan on our way across the island to the airport definately was! It was completely unexpected, and my absolute highlight (being the deepest snow I have EVER encountered!) of the long weekend. It changed my perception of Jeju completely!

Admittedly, I really didn’t do much research before we travelled. I had heard a lot about the island from others and thought I had a fairly good impression of what to expect. It was a smallish island, had a couple of international schools, apparently not much to do there, but would be warmer than Seoul so a good place to spend a couple of days. I was largely ignorant.

And it occurred to me my trip to Jeju was similar to how we treat our students.

We think we know who they are based on the conversations we have with other teachers, the lunchroom table chatter and the letters in their gradebook. We don’t take the time to learn about who our students are – what they love to do, what they dislike, what makes them smile, where they have lived, what their parents do, if they have a pet, how long they have lived in this country, what other countries they have lived in, how long they spend on a bus each day just to get to school, etc, etc, etc!

I discovered the snow on Jeju half an hour before I left. Spend some time today finding out about who your students really are – maybe there are some undiscovered highlights that will change your perception of who your students really are!


Who are your “Smileys”?

Miley and Dad

Today is Miley Cyrus’ birthday. She turns 23 today. Interestingly, her birth certificate reads Destiny Hope Cyrus, with “Miley” coming from her dad calling her “Smiley” because she smiled a lot as a little ‘un. Dolly Parton is her Godmother! As she grew up, she attended Heritage Elementary School, in Williamson County, Tennessee, USA. I took a moment to look up their website and find out a little more about the Heritage Elementary School.

As a third grader at Heritage Elementary School, Miley had a music teacher who had a variety of standards he/she was compelled to lead her through. They included the following two…

3.MU.1.1.3 Sing a melody with accurate rhythm, pitch (solfege and/or lyrics), dynamics and tempo. 
3.MU.7.2.3 Demonstrate appropriate audience behaviour in a formal performance setting (live or recorded)

If you were up late for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (or awake for the following week or two), then you would appreciate that maybe there should have been a standard in the third grade curriculum relating to appropriate behaviour of performers! Regardless, like we all have/had, there is a “Miley Cyrus’ Dad” (that’s him in the photo above, playing guitar for Miley). He just happens to be another somewhat familiar name – Billy Ray Cyrus – famous for his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart”, for his mullet hairstyle and for the worldwide uptake of line dancing. Yes even Australia noticed, and in 1994 I taught my class of third graders to line dance – an episode of my teaching career I would rather forget!

But as a dad, he probably received a report card for his daughter, from the teachers of 3rd grade at Heritage Elementary School, about his daughter. I wonder what the music teacher wrote? How was that PTC? I wonder what the music teacher shares about that time now? And, who will we be telling stories about in 15 years time? And for what? Will they be singers lighting up the stage, or doctors discovering a cure for something, or business men or women successfully businessing? Will they win a golfing major or conduct a philharmonic orchestra or write a Nobel prize for literature winning novel or take a Pulitzer prize winning photograph?

We don’t know, just like the third grade teacher of Heritage Elementary School didn’t know when he/she pondered the report card of MS Cyrus, wavering between a “Meeting” or “Exceeding” when grading singing with accurate pitch!

We do know however, that today we have an opportunity to inspire our students to become any of those things I have listed above. So take a moment to day to do that! The encouragement we give students, the compliments, the high expectations, our belief in them, our support of them, our smiles, our laughter, our trust in their efforts – it all adds up!


Bluster, the currency of credibility!

So I sat and listened to his whole speech, being aware of the “taken out of context” escape clause. He opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks, mentioned one of the terrorists was from Syria and then mentioned Obama is considering bringing 250,000 refugees from Syria. Something about we all want to help, but… And then the piece that has been sitting in my head for the past couple of days. “If the people in that concert hall had been allowed to carry… it would have been a much, much different situation.”

A number of things about that comment have been bothering me, and I’m not sure which is bothering me more. The fact that a man who is putting his hand up to lead the most powerful country on the planet is saying this, or the cheering from the crowd of people who are lapping it up! Is the ignorance of the leader greater than the mass ignorance of the followers? Or does one prompt the other?

And then after talking about the beautiful “Trump Wall” he plans to build along the Mexican border, he brought onto the stage a group of people whose loved ones lives’ had been taken by “illegals”. These people stood and shared, in graphic detail, the details of how their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters were killed by “illegals”, most of them… by GUN violence! They all left the podium to cheers from the crowd as they thanked Mr Trump for being the only one who cares.

What the heck!

Things would have been “different” in Paris if they “had been allowed to carry” and THEN a stage full of American citizens sharing how their families had been destroyed by gun violence.

In a Facebook post responding to this same Trump rally I wrote:

Dear Mr Trump, in our school we teach our students to think before they speak. We have some spare seats in our AP Stats classes where you can come and practice. Oh, and while you are at it, we could help you understand some statistics – here they are! (http://www.nationmaster.com/…/United-St…/Crime/Violent-crime). Whatever you do, don’t cut funding to education – because if you are any example, we need all the money we can get!

I missed the point!

Only by watching the whole speech did I see where the real horror lies. Trump is not ignorant. He is extremely astute!

What I see is a man extremely adept at manipulating the emotions of his listeners. At this Texas rally he spoke about guns, illegal immigrants, oil, refugees, winning wars, war veterans, friends of his in the area, beards, Eisenhower, border walls, immigration, let’s make America great again, courts, lawyers, sarcasm, everyone’s gonna be happy, jobs, beating Japan, terminating ObamaCare, not caring about insurance companies, winning… and the list goes on.

He doesn’t care if what he says makes sense, is based on fact, is practical, can be substantiated, is possible or is financially viable – and he doesn’t need to! He tells people what they want to hear. He uses sarcastic humor. He is at the same time self-depreciating and self-agrandising. He is self-funded. And he is supremely confident! He is all bluster and no substance – and that is what is supremely concerning.

“Bluster” has become the currency of credibility. How are the presidential candidate debates judged? On who presents best. On who exudes the most confidence. On who has the best “bluster”.

There was a very big room full of people listening to this speech, hootin’ and hollerin’ as Trump delivered this “Trump is what you need” speech.

Trump is the King of Bluster, and Kings have been built on less!




If you want to check it out yourself, here it is…



Facebook posts for Summative Assessment tasks?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 6.56.48 AMAs a result of the sad events in Paris over the weekend, Facebook is on fire with people from all over the world responding in various ways. Many have begun posting images of themselves enjoying Paris in happier times. Many have decided to paint their profile picture the colors of the French flag. And many are writing. Writing their thoughts and responding to the thoughts of others. There is considerable emotion involved in this writing, and it is clear that some write with emotion much better than others.
Some posts get the emotion through very clearly with some very strong language, but struggle to hold their argument together under the weight of that emotion. One ends up with the sense that the writer is upset/angry/etc but is not really sure what about.
Occasionally there is a writer who gets the combination right. Strong language, strong ideas, well put together. When I read those posts, I find myself considering an opinion that might be different to my own, considering a change to my own opinion on the matter. These are the posts that I click “Like” for. I like being brought to that point where someone has forced me to consider a new perspective through the clarity of their emotion and ideas in their writing.
So how are we engaging our students today to this level? What would they choose to write passionately about? What is it that would cause a collision of strong language and strong ideas, and how would we teach them to get the balance right?
I wonder if there are any teachers out there who have used a Facebook post as a summative assessment piece? If we are serious about asking our students to compose real writing for a real audience, then we SHOULD be using Facebook!


Committed to Teaching or Committed to Students?

I am committed to teaching:

This is what I do as a teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. Student learning as defined by grades. THEREFORE. I am a good teacher.

I am committed to students:

I aim to be a good teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. This is what I do for my students. THEREFORE. Student grades as defined by learning.

I composed this dichotomy some time last year, left it in my drafts and found myself thinking about it again this week. The catalyst for bringing it back into my consciousness was two days of training with Dr Virginia Rojas, a leader in inclusive teaching and English language acquisition strategies for English language learners.

Over the course of those two days I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and observing a significant amount of teacher discussion around those topics and could see that significant growth was occurring in the room! And yet… there were pockets where these seeds of new ideas fell on rocky ground and did not take root. In fact, there was resistance and in some cases, outright disbelief that the strategies presented by Dr Rojas, and the need for those strategies, actually existed.

As I pondered this wide spectrum of readiness to accept these practices (shown through research to be effective) I wondered what was going on. And then this little piece I had penned popped back into my thoughts. Maybe it goes some distance towards explaining what is going on.

Those resistors I could loosely categorise as teachers “committed to teaching”. It is teaching that shapes their identity. Observing them at work you would see a classroom where order rules, the teacher talks and the students follow. The systems are running, the routines are set and observed and the teacher has a good sense they are doing a good job. When ideas are presented that will upset the system or routines, those ideas are explained away or minimised in their usefulness. Subtle (or not so subtle) challenges, often wrapped in the “in my experience” bludgeon, place the value and observations of personal experience over the educational research spanning thousands and thousands of different sample sets, and experts are gently asked to sit on the bench and watch the “real” game go on. No need to let any “new” ideas upset the systems or routines that are producing good results with my students! “My students already get good grades in my class, why should I change what I do?”

And then there are the teachers who are “committed to students” – the fertile ground! When an expert walks into the room they lean in, listening. And when those ideas start flying you hear these teachers say things like, “that might work with some boys in my class”, “Kelly would really respond to that sort of approach”, “I wonder if that would work with Suzy?”. There is no thought of routines, or systems or interruptions to “what I’ve already planned!”, there is just a mind clicking through all the students, working out what will help who. This teacher is thinking about what he or she can do for his or her students – to enhance the learning. Grades are a byproduct of the enhanced learning!

I’m not sure I’m at the point where I am ready to begin talking about how to make stony ground fertile, or even the best approach to trying to plant in the rocky places, but I acknowledge that these challenges present themselves. Maybe the starting point is for each and every teacher to recognise the readiness of their own soil. Maybe I can help with that! So…

I am committed to teaching, or I am committed to students… which one are you?

Thanks for stopping by to check out the blog! If you would like to receive an update each time there is a new post, just add your email in below. Thanks, Bruce.