Category Archives: Professional development

Resources and writings about professional development

Coaching for what

Done! Just finished coaching my first cohort of early career teachers (ECT). I have done so as part of the Graduate Teacher Induction, a trailblazing programme (in its ninth year mind you) by the Department of Education of Western Australia supporting ECT in government schools. When I talk to people, nationally and internationally, about this program and the support our graduates get through it, the not uncommon response is a dropped jaw and ‘how come we/our school/jurisdiction/system we didn’t know about this’. Well, here is the link, let us know if you want to know more… 

Coaching is a part of this programme and what type of coaching this is (and isn’t) was perhaps best summed up in a sentence by one of my ‘grads’, unsolicited and explicitly permitted to share like the rest of the anecdotes here: 

“All these conversations, observations and reflections [coaching] are not showing me how to teach but helping me feel and realise I am actually a confident and a competent teacher.”

Those of you who coach and/or ‘get’ coaching will probably nod at this. My colleagues and I don’t show the ropes, how to teach, but listen for, tease out, challenge and support ECT as colleagues to improve their practice, (and with it the corollaries of confidence, wellbeing, self-efficacy) “not because they are not good enough but because they can do even better” (Dylan William). Perhaps more on what (education) coaching is and isn’t next time, plenty of material and good people to engage with around if interested, just ask. 

This, my first semester, I travelled our enormous state and spent well over a hundred sessions on the phone with ECTs in a range of settings, from kindy to senior high school, metro to regional. I worked with a frazzled primary special needs teacher who has realised the importance of music to him and students and is underway to run a school choir and possibly train further as a music teacher, energised by his new found purpose. I worked with a teacher in a tough high school who wanted to transform her euphemistically called ‘development’ class (aka the class that no one really wants to teach) with the too common trifecta of low literacy – low trust – behaviour issues. On the surface, all she did was install a ‘wonder wall’ (one of her coaching goals) where students, usually too scared to look dumb or weak by asking a question, could put up their question safely. Under the surface, she and her students realised the importance of trust, effort, safety and so much more. Students now walk out and thank her for her lessons. 

I worked with a teacher whose goal was to extend the success criteria of his lessons to include three different levels of achievement and allowing all students in his class to walk out having accomplished them. Sounds easy until you realise what a sophisticated exercise that is. Another has gone from dreading even asking unruly students to line up walking into classroom to the same students busting to get started on their individual goals in a calm, relaxed but working class atmosphere. 

I worked with a teacher on the edge of breakdown who came to this realisation at the end of our coaching cycle: 

“My first year was all about me being good enough with curriculum, meeting standards, expectations and that. It’s the stuff you get pumped up at uni and trying to be doing all and doing it perfect is very stressful! I made this year about the kids. I stress less, students and me are doing much better, well enough in environment where perfection is a myth. And if I got audited last year, I’d fall in a heap, stressed out. This year, I’m able to justify, defend myself and my decisions with confidence in what I do.”

And more …  

Among the many things that struck me in this work was how skilful most of these ECT were in navigating their contexts. While they all work within the affordances and constraints of the systems they are part of, these teachers were strategic, judicious in using, adjusting and at times deliberately ditching the various ‘what works’ models. They showed great skill and judgement as professionals, not merely as skilled technicians and faithful applicators of some teaching approach and/or policy devised outside and often far, far away from their context. What they showed, many of them in spades, was their [teacher] agency, to the benefit of them and, importantly, the students in their care.

Teacher agency, and coaching for it, is the topic of one of my favourite chapters in Flip The System Australia, a book I had been honoured to contribute a chapter to myself last year. Chris Munro, whom I had been delighted to meet in person recently, and my old friend Jon Andrews wrote how coaching can be a great way to help teachers to eke out, (re)claim the spaces foreclosed at a time where “pursuit of secure relationship between input and output seemingly dominates the educational debate, teachers’s thinking and work is at risk of being reduced to applying ‘interventions’ and treatments’ and extracting any deviation from ‘what works”. More on that double whammy of teachers given ‘free hands’ to meet narrowly defined standards of output and (standardised) ways of teaching next time perhaps but coaching, and coaching for agency imagined as ecological growth not mechanistic performance offers and delivers so much to resist this double whammy. 

The term ‘ecological growth’ used by Munro and Andrews comes from the work of Priestley, Biesta and Robinson, who themselves use the Emirbayer and Mische’s initial imagining teacher agency as (part of) an ecology. In this view, teacher agency is not merely ‘an ability to act’ and something you ‘have’. It is something you achieve to varying degrees, depending on the context, ecology you work in. Emirbayer & Mische describe it as ‘temporally constructed engagement with different structural environments’. It spans across three iterative, repeating temporal domains – the past, the future and the present. I attempt to ever so briefly outline the key idea(s) here but encourage anyone to explore this further (I know I will…). 

Past – The greater the range of experiences (teacher’s skills, knowledge, beliefs, values) the greater the repertoire to draw upon to enact agency in a particular environment. This is not to just refashion ‘the old and true’ in a new context but instead manouvering and managing expectations in dynamic environment(s).

Future – the more expansive the future trajectories, aspirations the greater the possibility for teacher agency. This is not to forget that the (range of) aspirations can clash at times – from, ideally I believe, ‘best for students’ to the more instrumental, immediate concerns of ‘not rocking the boat’, perhaps ‘playing the (performative) game’, and ‘survival’ that particularly ECT would be very familiar with. But the broader one can imagine, the greater the chance of agency.

Present – the greater the capacity of teachers to make judgements in the face of current challenges, dilemmas, demands, ambiguities the greater the chance of achieving agency in a given context, ecology.  This means accessing and deploying the available resources – material, cognitive, relational, and managing the ‘shoulds’ of self, system and student in the moment of contact with students and colleagues.

Implications of this? Let us not disregard but instead pay attention to (the importance of) the ecology of teachers’ work. Teachers may come to a situation with substantial capacity (skills, knowledge), strong educational aspiration but innovation (to what they believe and value to be worthy) is simply too difficult or too risky to enact. It is often misleading to talk about ‘capacity building’ (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson) of teachers as it presumes the key to teachers agency lies with teachers personal capacity, rather than the “interplay between what the teacher ‘brings’ to the situation and what the situation ‘brings’ to the teacher.” 

What these authors so eloquently capture is an insight I had realised often during my 20 years of teaching and which the coaching work reinforced, even if just after my first semester of it. It also provided an enormous source of professional satisfaction and focus for growth for both myself and my coachees, experts in our respective ecologies but equals as teachers. We have all seen, felt, reflected on the seductive promises and illusions of ‘the best practice’ and the existence of a presumed linear, efficient path to it. Instead of the anxiety and deficit thinking this can generate, a more reflexive approach to professional practice afforded by coaching has the potential to enable more productive and satisfying teaching career, and, let’s not forget, better educational experiences of and for our students along the way.

Making fellow teachers self-aware of and responsible for their own growth is coaching. Recognising their role in their ecology and building their ability to act within it is coaching for agency.  

Love my job.

Andrews, J. & Munro, C. (2018). Coaching for agency: The power of professionally respectful dialogue. In: D.M.Netolicky, J.Andrews, & C.Paterson(Eds). Flip the system Australia: What matters in education. Abingdon: Routledge. 

Biesta, G, Priestley, M & Robinson, S. (2015) Teacher agency: an ecological approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic 

Priestley, M. (2015) Teacher agency – what is it and why does it matter? BERA Blog, accessed at

Collaborative professionalism – thoughts on Hargreaves and O’Connor

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting phrase on the grand serendipitor Twitter – “collaborative professionalism”. What made it even more interesting was the book of that name that bore the names of Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor . I have used Hargreaves’ work before, one of his seminal papers  is on the list of my all time go to papers I would invite any educator to read and chew through (maybe a post about that next time). I have also been passionate about teacher agency for a long time and recently I was delighted and honoured to have written a chapter for the upcoming Flip The System Australia. In short, reading Hargreaves & O’Connor’s Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All  fell on some pretty fertile soil and I couldn’t resist a Twitter invitation from Andy and Michael to let them know what I think of the book.

‘Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All’ is a book about educational leadership. Now, I am not exactly a leader (or perhaps am in that fluid and contest[able] sense of the word Jon Andrews spoke about at the recent ACEL conference ). I am ‘just’ a teacher. But reading the book reveals very quickly that this is a text for the leaders as much as the teachers. It speaks to us all in education.

Collaboration, of course, is nothing new in teaching. Quite the opposite it seems, as we are encouraged to collaborate in our work even more these days. There is no dispute whether we should collaborate, only really about the purpose, format, scale and frequency of it. But not all collaboration is of course the same. It can often be a soft sell of how-to-get-staff-buy-into-our-idea-while-appearing-they-had-a-say, ragtag of episodic, contrived conversations that are superficial, weak in effect, usually added on to teaching, polite, uncomfortable for the fear of sticking one’s neck out to avoid appearing as either boisterous or bashful type, or they quickly descend into the useless trad v prog loops. If you have never seen this you either a) don’t work in a school or b) you do work in a school but are incredibly lucky not to have seen, felt it.       

Hargreaves & O’Connor posit that effective collaboration is a ‘mixture of pride and humility’ (xv). Pride in one’s capacity that diminishes us all if withheld, humility in acceptance that no one knows everything. Or as they put it:

“Admitting that, at first, we don’t know what the issue might be is part of our professionalism. Inquiring together and acting upon is the essence of collaborative professionalism. “

They helpfully point out the obvious, so often hidden in plain sight, that “no profession can serve people effectively if its members do not share and exchange knowledge about their expertise or about the clients, patients or students they have in common.” This is the essence of professionalism and co-labor-ating (co-working).

I invite you to read how Hargreaves and O’Connor distinguish between professional collaboration and collaborative professionalism (CP). The former takes forms of talking, sharing and reflecting together as teachers. We have been doing professional collaboration, with varying degrees of success and impact on our students and ourselves. We have also done it often to satisfy some distantly-derived rubric (xyz ‘hours of approved PD’, myriad of local and national teaching standards etc) or apply some well-intentioned school-based initiative ‘from the top’. Professional collaboration is descriptive (and sometimes pre-scriptive) as it delineates what should teachers do.

Collaborative professionalism is normative. It proposes, then seeks to critique in order to optimise the positive impact on students as a COLLECTIVE, not as individuals, in a given context.  The lexicon of collaborative professionalism is one of unceasing inquiry and open critique, matched and supported by solidarity, care and trust. Collaborative professionalism extends beyond mere meeting, sharing, reflecting … and then going back doing our own individual thing. It is de-privatising individual teaching practice – we’re all in it, no exceptions. In it, failures and successes are not attributable to a specific individual but to the collective. This “shields professional learning and failure from the possibility of personal shame and blame” (p. 39) as teachers bear “collective responsibility for other [teachers’] impact”. In collaborative professionalism, teachers’ work is not about my students but all about our students.1

Collective professionalism however is not some nameless, de-personalised drudgery inside a common system. Quite the opposite in fact. Individuals are valued as part of the collective. Diversity and disagreement of individual perspectives is essential (see previous point about the mixture of pride and humility) – but always open to critique along the collectively agreed standards of feedback, behaviour and protocol. To use a sporting parlance, you as a teacher are as good as you help your team improve, not as good as your individual score. What matters is the collective, rather than individual, efficacy – belief of teachers in their deliberate attempts to make a positive influence on students TOGETHER.  While often disputed (links forthcoming), research by Hattie (2018, 2012) indicates that giving teachers feedback on their work and collective teacher efficacy have a very significant impact on student learning.

Collective efficacy is just one of the ten tenets of collaborative professionalism identified by Hargreaves and O’Connor. Many of them would (and do) truly rock the boat of the existing systems. For example [collective autonomy]:

“Collective autonomy means that educators have more independence from top-down bureaucratic authority but less independence of each other. Collective autonomy values teachers’ professional judgement that is informed by a range of evidence rather than marginalising that judgement in favour of the data alone. But collective autonomy is not individual autonomy. Teachers are not individually inscrutable or infallible. The egg crate has emptied; the sanctuary has gone. Instead, teachers’ work is open – and open to each other – for feedback, inspiration and assistance.”  (p.109)

Imagine having this sort of agency next time some other ‘what works’ is dropped in from somewhere else to be copied in applied as the solution to (y)our problems with no consent, critique, and depending on a small number of evangelists who may leave at any time.    

And herein lies the trouble you say …   

Apart from the obvious enthusiasm for collaboration, the authors helpfully point out a few cons, threats of collaboration. Collaboration can lead to groupthink and culling of tall poppies, hiding in the crowd, suppression of critical judgement, bending to the will of the tyrants, passivity and compliance in the form of conflict avoidance and more. Collaboration can also be very weak, while giving the appearance of vitality. 

You and I would not be the first people to recognise that the shifts and nuances of power flows in any knowledge sharing/power sharing designs (Monsieur Foucault is smiling in his grave…) can easily undermine the best intentions. These would need to be seriously attended to because CP would seriously bruise egos and wobble many a career path. Collaborative professionalism is NOT easy. The challenging conversations, one of the cornerstones of the model, could be “oppressive” (p. 95) too, (un)intentionally so.

To establish healthy CP, the authors point the importance of recognising the four Bs – before, betwixt, beside, beyond. The recognition of what was there before (CP) is crucial in recognising the longer trends of applying innovation and collaboration in a given context. Recognition of the broader culture into which CP lies alongside with, or rather is entangled betwixt with, is crucial in avoiding ineffective, and possibly foreign, unwelcome carbon-copies and transplants of models of CP across the world. Recognising what is provided beside CP in the form of support is crucial in providing and sustaining resources to implement CP. Finally, it is important to consider what connections doing CP has beyond the given context. Connections and learning not just from but with others beyond the confines of a given school or area is important for the longevity and quality of CP.

Paying attention to these four Bs demonstrates the importance of paying attention to local cultural practices and their history, reasons for the need to collaborate, and resources available for this to happen. The diversity of these factors are a caveat to anyone thinking of parachuting a copy of something done well in Hong Kong or rural USA will work automatically in Western Australia, something the authors are at pains to point out throughout the book.

“Reform is like ripe fruit: It rarely travels well. Designs for collaborative professionalism are the same. But designs coming from afar can work if people actively figure out the relationship with their own culture.” (p 131)

The proposed ten tenets of collaborative professionalism and the four Bs to serve as a lens to see them through are an incredibly useful starting point in starting, or perhaps continuing, a path towards collaborative professionalism.

The book explores five highly functioning examples of collaborative professionalism: a high-performing state high school in Hong Kong; network of rural teachers across the north-western USA; primary school in affluent, stable Norway; professional learning communities in schools in a low socio-economic areas with high percentage of Indigenous students in Canada; and a truly transformational network of hundreds of school across the decentralised educational landscape in Colombia. The examples almost could not be further apart but the authors’ choice was deliberate. They simply wanted to show how the design of CP thrives in these wildly different contexts. They do so not to position CP as a universal, cookie-cutter (quick) ‘fix’, but as a provocation of what is possible when a genuine purpose meets thoughtful, contextualised application of the model.

Importantly, the purpose for CP is also very different in these contexts and depends highly on their needs. While in all of them teachers collaborate, in varying degrees, on pedagogy (ways of teaching), some of them spend more time on the matters of curriculum while others spend more time in collaborating on evaluation. Similarly, the PLCs of Canada and Escuela Nueva seek to transform the broader society they operate in while the Hong Kong, Norway and USA cases transform the school they work in. These differences clearly demonstrate the need for a very clear and precise purpose CP is established for in a given context.    

Throughout the book there seemed to be another dimension, or rather reason for CP that is perhaps less explicit but crucial and ever present – establishment, maintenance and modelling of good, functioning, healthy, culturally responsive relationships between students, staff, school leaders and the communities they serve. In other words, teachers collaborate not only to improve pedagogy, curriculum and/or evaluation to improve either whole society or a single school more narrowly. They collaborate to enact, benefit from and ultimately model good relationships which sustain CP. This ‘relational’ extension stems from a particular view of teaching process (PCRK model) my wife, a counselling psychologist, and I have been exploring lately. It is no surprise that the model was inspired by the seminal work on the importance of emotions and relationships in education by, you guessed it, Andy Hargreaves.

The final chapter suggesting what we should stop doing, continue doing and start doing (sounding similar to “The Russian Brothers” Ridoff, Moreoff and Startoff we jovially refer to in our school sometimes) is a provocation to action. I for one would love to connect with educators in these schools and jurisdictions to pick their brain as I have picked this book for articulating something I have long felt and sought. Thank you Andy and Michael for giving these thoughts a name, shape and examples to stimulate and lead.

Now go and read the book!


1 Incidentally, collaborative professionalism design reminds me of the practice of workers self-management in a country I grew up in and does not longer exist. Anyone living in the former Yugoslavia post World War 2 will remember the word samoupravljanje. Collaborative professionalism shares many idea(l)s with this practice which delivered great results for decades but eventually cracked under the collective weight of economic, political, social instability and aspirational turbo-capitalism in the region.    


Why do teachers grumble



workshop tally
A clear contract

I run workshops for pre-service teachers as part of the Understanding Teachers Work unit here at Murdoch University.

During one of many great conversations in our workshop yesterday, a student remarked:

“Teachers are always complaining about something. They talk about how wonderful teaching can be but then they spend hours going on about how terrible things really are.”

So, we are a profession of compulsory whingers, right? This was too good an opportunity not to scratch the surface of the statement.

Just this week, we were looking at the (lack of) systemic changes in education over the years. How things were, how they are and … how they are likely to be. As a stimulus to the conversation about the future, we used a useful and well publicised OECD study on six possible scenarios of Schooling for Tomorrow. Although a little dated (2004), the study offers some excellent food for thought.

In short (if you can’t be bothered going to the link), the report identifies six main scenarios that may (continue to) play out with regards to mainstream schooling.

1. Schools in ‘back to the future’

This scenario shows schools in powerful, bureaucratic, systems that are resistant to change. Schools continue mostly with ‘business as usual’, defined by isolated units – schools, classes, teachers – in top-down administrations. The system reacts little to the wider environment, and operates to its own conventions and regulations.

2. Schools as focused learning organisations

In this scenario, schools function as focal learning organisations, revitalised around a knowledge agenda in cultures of experimentation, diversity, and innovation. The system enjoys substantial investment, especially to benefit disadvantaged communities and maintain high teacher working conditions.

3. Schools as core social centres

In this scenario, the walls around schools come down but they remain strong, sharing responsibilities with other community bodies. Non-formal learning, collective tasks and intergenerational activities are strongly emphasised. High public support ensures quality environments, and teachers enjoy high esteem.

4. The extended market model

This scenario depicts a wide extension of market approaches in who provides education, how it is delivered, how choices are made, and resources distributed. Governments withdraw from running schools, pushed by dissatisfaction of “consumers.” This future might bring innovation and dynamism, and it might foster exclusion and inequality.

5. Learning networks replacing schools

This scenario imagines the disappearance of schools per se, replaced by learning networks operating within a highly developed “network society.” Networks based on diverse cultural, religious and community interests lead to a multitude of diverse formal, non-formal, and informal learning settings, with intensive use of ICTs.

6. Teacher exodus and crisis

This scenario depicts a meltdown of the school system. It results mainly from a major shortage of teachers triggered by retirement, unsatisfactory working conditions, more attractive job opportunities elsewhere.

Students then got to choose the one or max two scenarios which they think our broad schooling system in this country is at now and one or two scenarios they wish were in place in the future, especially as they head out in a couple of years as qualified teachers.

The picture above shows the voting results from the two groups (Monday & Tuesday):

The difference is striking. They mostly identified (and rightly so) we are at  scenarios 1 (‘Back to the future’), 4 (Extended market model) and 6 (Exodus and crisis). What they wish for are largely 2 (Focused learning organisations), 3 (Core social centres) and some 5 (Learning networks replacing schools).

“And you want to become a teacher? Look at it! Oh you dummies … why?” I said, in jest.

I continued: “There lies the heart of some of the deepest teacher grumbles. They may be expressed in references to day-to-day and seemingly petty things but the disconnect between what most educators came into the game for and what happens so often is telling. What is more, brochures, websites, press releases, mission statements, policies and similar texts are full of rhetoric couched in terms of scenarios 2, 3 and even 5. Teachers recognise, connect with the aspirational voice in them but realise they mostly pay lip service to the ‘real world’ of scenarios 1, 4 and 6.”

Why am I telling this to future teachers? Am I not just about condemning our profession and discouraging them to continue their study, do something else other teaching?

Perhaps – yes. But I know I am also helping to send out resilient practitioners who are not going to crumble under the first demand that pierces their bubble of ideal education nor will they fall for the shiny promises of the ‘new’, much of it mostly recycled (<- love this post, more goodness there from The Pedagogista). They may better ‘read’, understand the staffroom whinge, grasp the beers celebrating the end of term or the ‘hump’ week, and resist the temptation to become a superhero but instead be ‘good enough’ for the kids and colleagues they work with.

Because let’s face it – no matter what the future of schooling will look like, it is those good enough educators that will make it work. But there remains something about the examined life worth living…

What I learned in 2011

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

My big(gest) lessons and reminders of 2011:

The importance of doing what you love doing in your career.

I never have or will regret joining Moodle HQ but I never have or will regret leaving Moodle HQ this year either. Thank you Martin & Moodle HQ. I love Moodle and its community but I am really happy to be a Moodle volunteer again and get paid (less) to work with teens that I dare say majority of teaching colleagues would not want to see in their class.

The importance of expectations.

You don’t significantly change or disrupt status quo by doing more of the same (way) but harder. Changing expectations shifts things dramatically.

Picture the expectations of a kid (and his surrounds) who has been told, overtly and covertly by the system of mainstream schooling, that most he can aspire to be is a dumb poor loser with some dead-end job as his only option (like many in his family). Suddenly, he completes a great project in the field he is passionate about. He is told, for the first time in his life, that a local university is offering courses in that field, and that, on the basis of things shown and in all sincerety,  going to uni and/or getting a well paid, challenging job in the industry is a realistic option for him in a couple of years if he puts in the effort. I saw the reaction of this kid and his parents. And it gives me tingles as I write this.

The value of Big Picture.

Big Picture is not a panacea for all our educational ills. It also isn’t for every kid out there. It requires a special kind of educator to really ‘get it’ too. But from what I have seen, learned and experienced this year after working in a Big Picture school and seeing some great work of kids and colleagues in BP schools around the country and the world, it is an approach, a state of mind rather, that truly empowers.

‘School’ is deeply ingrained in our societal DNA

It is soooo damn hard to ‘forget’ what ‘school’ looks like and does. In a ‘school’ you learn to play the game (usually called ‘what does the teacher or test want me to say’) then pass … and largely forget. There is a teacher, the knower, and a bunch of students who need to be ‘taught’ stuff prescribed by often someone else and contextually remote. You need a grade to show how much you are worth. Above all – you don’t ask (tough) questions. Things like: ‘What are we doing this for?’ And if kids don’t learn, the teacher says ‘I taught them that but they didn’t learn it’ (akin to a realtor saying ‘I sold them the house but they didn’t buy it’ …).

No wonder it takes us a very long time at our school (yes, we are one, but a Big Picture one) for kids and parents to come to terms with statement/questions like: “What are you passionate about?”, “What is worth learning?”, “No, I am NOT going to tell you what to do next, but I am happy to figure it out WITH you.” “You (student) know more about this (topic) than me (teacher) already so I am going to learn with you.” Crazy stuff huh? Or is it? Ask yourself why (not).

The value of networks

You have no idea how grateful I am of my, well our, network. This goes particularly when I see you from around the planet interacting with kids at our school, kids who, in most cases, have barely left their suburb all their life. Things like comments to ‘John’s’ motorbike website or ‘Billy’s’ ‘World Of Drugs‘ wiki project (one I am hugely excited and hopeful about in 2012) are small but priceless.

Every comment here on Human, every @ reply on Twitter, every *Like* on Facebook, every email, Skype call, shared document or other interaction reinforces my liking for Stephen Heppel’s observation: Previous century was about making stuff FOR many people. This century is about helping people help each other.

and finally … drumroll …

Watching students flourish in front of my eyes in moments during the year and particularly during their Big Picture exhibitions reminds me why I want(ed) to work in education: not to be “the knower” in some field and bang on about it as if it were the most important thing in the world but watch and help others becoming knowers (of) themselves in the fields they chose and share.

PS. If I don’t post anything before Christmas/New Year it probably means I am playing with my own kids and enjoying a bit of holidays. But I do check in here and Twitter …

Have a peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Kiss your kids and loved ones and tell them you love them. Often. And mean it.

Overschooled and undereducated

Yesterday, I read and keenly tweeted a link of a(nother) excellent post by Ira Socol (@irasocol) called ‘Schools That Matter‘. It’s vintage, eloquent Ira. A few replies later, I noted a link shared by Geoff Alemand (@scratchie, thanks mate) that pointed to an absolute gem, shared below.

I borrow the post title from a book by John Abbot (@21learn) and Heather MacTaggart I am about to order. You can read more about the book and explore the excellent site of Born To Learn animation series and (of) its associated organisation 21st Century Learning Initiative.

I’ve seen many a 21st century call-to-arms but this one, for my 2 cents, stands above the pep-crowd with its simplicity, research support and an easy-to-grasp genealogy of current mainstream schooling. Bit of confirmation bias perhaps here but you know …

I am embedding the three clips here, in no particular order. They could be used in so many presentations, sessions, workshops and similar gathering to stimulate truly important conversations.

If I were showing these at a staff meeting, teacher education or similar, I would strategically pause the third clip (Class Reunion) at exactly 2.48 into the clip and ask the room for responses.

They may just frame the essence of the(ir) view, purpose and reasons to be(come) an educator.


Born to Learn from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

The Faustian Bargain (Trailer) from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Born to Learn: Class Reunion from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Thank you Geoff for sharing, thank you John and Heather for your work.

Ed-tech snake oil

snake oil

A re-read of an old gem (Postman’s speech ‘Informing Ourselves to Death) and a brief conversation with @pcoutas at our local Sunday morning markets prompted me to note a few questions that just scream to be asked every time people talk about ed-tech tools and their use.

  • What problem will use of [insert a tool] solve? (or asked differently ‘if [insert a tool] is the answer, what is/are the question(s)’?
  • Why is that (not) a problem to [you/others]? (or rather ‘who cares’, at this point refrain from ‘why should they care’, important to listen, not talk!)
  • How important is this problem to [you/others] ? (and how do/will you find out…)
  • What will be gained and what will be lost as a result of using [insert a tool] ? (technology giveth, technology taketh away…)

Be honest. If you don’t have or generate locally and contextually (no universals please!) sound answers and generate a bunch of questions as you go along – you are either selling or being sold snake oil.

Nobody asks

Last week, I was invited to a high school as an ‘expert’ on using Moodle in the classroom. I had a series of 45-minute sessions to, as my brief read, ‘inspire’ each group of teachers (average size of about 15-20) over two days of PD to use their nice local Moodle & Mahara setup in their teaching.

Yeah right.

I’ve never liked ‘gurus’ showing flashy wares and ideas, especially right at the start of school year with so many things to get ready before the kids arrive. I’ve never liked being considered one either.

So, I thought we’d use the 45 minutes for a guided chat about things we are kinda all good at – talking about our needs. Needs of teachers I spoke to and, importantly, the kids they teach. In the context, shoot a few Moodle ideas past them and see how use-full or use-less they may be. But it was about the hole, less about the drill.

Digigogy Images

I even flashed these sort of things as a visual reminder:

Great teachers

and …


EVERY group sat a little stunned at first. Believe it or not, the ideas did not flow very freely. The replies ranged from encouraging (‘enthusiasm’, ‘motivation’, ‘meaning’ …) to downright pathetic (‘textbook’, ‘ways to easily memorise a range of acronyms we use’). We’d eventually get about 5 – 10 needs on the board to work with.

And behold the question “Why DO you teach?” asked as the conversations began to flow. Many felt a little threatened even!

Or as one teacher put it: “Nobody really gets asked these questions.” Rarely, if ever, do teachers ask these themselves. It’s all assumed, we all know what happens at school and what the school and teachers are there for, we all ‘innovate’ but it basically changes bugger all while giving the impression of progress and change.

I am NOT  bashing teachers here. Quite contrary, I understand so many of them, barraged by things to, often mindlessly, tick and do while lacking time, space, even increasingly a reason for these questions (other than stuff like ‘raise scores’ etc.).

A friend noted in reply to my email containing a few gems collected over two days: “I often reflect that all of these controlling, narrow and limiting views of education are expressed by people who once showed wonder, imagination, a sense of fun, and often got into teaching because they wanted to have a positive influence on the lives of young people. How is it that they are who they are today? Not easy to answer, but important to try nonetheless.”

While I did cover my brief and talked about Moodle and ‘technology’ over the two days, I was glad, while sad and often a little horrified, to talk about the ultimate technology and weapon for change – asking good questions and wrestling with them.

I wish all my Australian & New Zealand teaching colleagues and their students a great school year 2011 (first day today for most). Turn the crap detectors on and use them! Make it matter.

And if you think I can help you in some way in doing that, you know where to find me.

Moodle Wizard?

Today, I have been closely following the #mpos10 Twitter tag from the 2010 Moodleposium in Canberra. The next best thing to being there (but then again, I get to ‘go’ to many sessions simultaneously…)

This afternoon, I found an absolute gem that I just have to share – a course called ‘Translating Learning Outcomes in Moodle‘ by Srinivas Chemboli, Lauren Kane (@l_kane) and Lynette Johns-Boast from Australian National University in Canberra (presented and available as part of the 2010 Australian Moodlemoot I happened to miss 🙁 )

This resource speaks to the educator and Moodle fan/user/improver/researcher in me, particularly after the recent conversation(s) with Mark Drechsler (see the post, presentation & comments) about Moodle course design, key features of a ‘good Moodle course’ and a long standing distaste for ‘technocentric’ thinking (as Papert explains in his seminal paper). I have been banging on ‘people and learning first, technology last’ for, huh, some time now (strangely, I still have a job with a software maker 😉 ). This course/resource fits the bill very, very nicely.

I invite you to have a look and explore at the course yourself. In a nutshell, it starts with ‘what do we want to learn’ down to ‘what Moodle tool(s) to use’. A very nice, diagrammatic flow that would complement Joyce Seitzinger’s excellent Moodle Tool Guide for Teachers poster. But it is more than a flow in a sense that the user actually gets asked some questions along the way. And that’s the reason for the title of this post…

Imagine Moodle standard shipping out with a ‘wizard’ (for lack of better word…) that guides the teacher or whoever we choose in the course as a community to create activities, resources and other? A wizard based on the insights of Srinivas, Lauren, Lynette and their team at ANU that starts with a problem, idea, learning/teaching goal and ends up (!) in choosing the appropriate Moodle tool(s) for the job, in the very context where it is used.

Imagine the delight of ‘tech integrators’ in changing their role to ‘learn-with-tech integrators’ (which is what they really are most of time but titles often betray 😉 ). Imagine educators seeing Moodle not as a piece of software but a way to help and encourage meta-thinking about teaching and learning needs of people they work with. Or as Punya Mishra aptly states:

“Learning about technology is different from learning what to do with it”.

A word of caution!

Whatever the ‘wizard’ and its qualities, it will never, ever, ever, ever be a panacea, an all-fitting solution or perhaps even a substitute for great teaching. Or as another apt line, this time by Tony Bates, goes:

“Good teaching may overcome a poor choice of technology, but technology will never save bad teaching.’

Teaching and learning (the separation of these two terms is so superfluous sometimes…) has always been a bricolage, endless contextual adjustment of things, not an automated process because it is/they are essentially some of humanity’s biggest and oldest ‘wicked problems‘.

But sometimes we just need a little bit of helping hand to set us off on our exploring, moodling ways.

Thank you Shrinivas, Lauren and Lynette!

What makes a great Moodle course? Part 1 – What is a course?

What is a course?


Reading Wikipedia like Britannica sucks. Reading Wikipedia like Wikipedia is mind-opening.

Cory Doctorow (

What is mind opening about reading Wikipedia? Click ‘Discussion’ on a popular or contentious Wikipedia entry and you’ll see. The history, variety of views, contributions, changes, updates, the links, the enormity of effort across even one entry will (probably?) ‘hit’ you. It’s free, intellectually brawling, universal, instantaneous and pretty damn accurate (I won’t elaborate on ‘truth’ of either – more on that some other time, blame the French 😉 ).

To borrow Doctorow’s quip – reading Moodle like a textbook sucks. Reading Moodle like Moodle is mind-opening. But how do you read Moodle? How do you know a good Moodle site or course when you see it (beyond a pretty theme …)? What set of skills and understanding do you need to read it? Create it?

These questions will be the focus of the next few posts, a series loosely called ‘What makes a great Moodle course?’ The aim is to flesh out a few core questions to help Moodle users not just create and participate in courses but to support and enhance sharing of courses through Moodle 2.0 ‘s new feature called Community Hub. And please, this is only a ‘thinkaloud’ …

The first post will explore a (not ‘the’) definition of a ‘course’ and invite you to ponder a particular view, long held by Martin Dougiamas, the creator and lead developer of Moodle. The next post or two in the series will explore the convergence of technological, content and pedagogical expertise in a great Moodle course, then imagine a great Moodle course as primarily a communication and creation tool. Finally, we will bring it all together and suggest some ‘point format’ guidelines for developing, nurturing and appraising Moodle courses.

Now, this may seem like an individual effort but I would hate it to be so. I would love to hear what YOU think makes a great Moodle course and share it in probably the easiest way possible by contributing to our SynchIn pad (a version of the old beloved Etherpad) or, of course, in the comments below. Because “we” know a lot more than “me” on this one 😉

So … what is a course?

When asked this question, most people would probably answer something like “a course is a structured body of content and activities that students enrol in, complete tasks and get graded by the teacher to see how well they have done at the end of it.” Yes? No?

But what if you see a course essentially as a community (Martin’s remark that has lingered with me since my first few days at Moodle HQ). What if you even replace the word ‘course’ with the word ‘community’? A few things change …

Whether online, blended or offline, communities, particularly the most successful ones in terms of participation and engagement, have a lot in common:

  • They are not inert, linear, static, fully set and pre-determined things.
  • Roles of members are defined but flexible enough to cater for changes should the circumstances require so.
  • There are understood rules and consequences for breaching them in order for all to feel safe.
  • In a community (unlike a network, more on that perhaps another time…), one cannot just ‘(un)friend’ or ‘(dis)connect’ but learn to deal with, work things out.
  • Its members are responsible to each other in pursuing a common set of goals. Interdependence through contribution and participation is implicit and made explicit in its design.
  • There are multiple channels of communication, not just top-down announcements.
  • Participation and learning are active, done mostly through challenges, feedback and mastery not by passively going through the laid out material.
  • Changes, adjustments, improvements are essential and welcome at different levels and different areas – everyone improves, not just one type of members at one thing.

Sound like qualities of a good Moodle course? Well, sounds a lot like a party too… as Lee Lefeever of the CommonCraft fame explains the thing about online communities in his usually succinct way:

A blank Moodle course (well, an entire site really…) is essentially an incredibly versatile wiki, hence the Wikipedia reference at the start. By design, a wiki is a platform for a community. If imagined this way, the question then becomes not whether a (your?) course is a community or not, but rather how does a (your?) community cater for its members and their needs, passions, welfare and interests by using Moodle.

And when you see it like THAT, the imagination and mindset matter more than the technical skills. And so they should.

Serious fun in Water!

The world of water

The world of water:

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” (Chinese proverb)

At the start of this week, we opened Water! – a demo Moodle course designed to show not what Moodle can do but primarily what people can do with Moodle (while of course showing some Moodle features). Big difference between the two!

The response has been phenomenal! We got to ‘capacity crowd’ of 40 within 36 hours of me sending the first tweet about it. 40 people, mostly moodlers but not all, are happy to spend approximately two to four hours over the next few weeks and play students, most under fake names, to generate sample course data. And they seem to be really enjoying it (well, most of them at least…).

Water! is a very simple course about something that we all use and need – safe, clean, fresh drinking water. It does not require a great depth of content knowledge at all. It features just a few standard, out-of-the-box Moodle activities and it isn’t linear. Deliberately, NO knowledge of Moodle is necessary to participate – just a basic ability to click, link, upload and follow a few instructions. The only two things needed are an open mindset and imagination.

For now, Water! is there for us to gather sample data. Once we generate enough of it (posts, replies, answers, questions, attempts, submissions, comments, pictures, links etc…), we will then offer the course (together with sample data and explanation of every activity!) for free to anyone to enrol in and play in, even download for their own place of learning for people to get involved and have a play in this ready-made sandpit.

Because the Chinese proverb at the top is right on. Being a student in something first, where you get to see real examples, get to try and safely muck things up a little with others and just like others, but at the same time SEE and get ideas you could use in your own context is sorely needed in supporting our kids and educators. And not just in using Moodle either…

Now, this is the first taste of Moodle’s new educational demo site. The idea is to have courses like Water! in up to ten broad areas of learning (eg. Arts & Media, Maths, Language, Second Language, Natural Sciences etc). These courses will not go to great depth of content knowledge or technological knowledge (ie Moodle features), both of which often make things hard to understand, but to tickle that area that really makes it all go – sound pedagogical use.

I am passionate about Moodle but I am helluva lot more passionate about great teaching and learning with it.

PS. If you would like to give Moodle a try and actively participate as a ‘demo student’ in the upcoming courses similar to Water!, please head over to and create an account. I will register your email and send you a notice when the next course becomes open (as stated, Water! filled within 36 hours!) if you wish. NO Moodle experience necessary!