Tag Archives: teaching

Which students should I care about less?

I read and resonate with Dr Linda Graham’s post ‘Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies’ and I can see how it can be a red rag to thousands of my teaching colleagues, parents and pundits. Naughty corners, time outs, behaviour peg ladders, smiley faces/sad faces for behaviour, various points systems etc ‘in breach on International Convention on the Rights of Children’? “Come on, you are joking, right?” I read and hear the calls: “Where are the rights of the teachers? Kids who do the right thing?”

No, I really do hear them. In every class of teens I teach, there are those whose presence is a persistent disruption. Unlike violence and aggression in some other places I had taught, this is mostly low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour, identified in another, related piece of research as ‘the main problem in our classrooms‘. But what should I do? What do I do?

‘Engage all students with well-designed learning activities’ goes the de rigeur, ‘teaching standards’ answer. Sounds nice doesn’t it. It IS nice and it happens sometimes, expectedly and unexpectedly. But in a microcosm of personalities, experiences, abilities, learning preferences, teaching preferences, curriculum demands that exists in every lesson, this is a rare educational nirvana I aim for and strike sometimes. For most of the time, it simply ain’t that way. Some students will and do resist, disengage, disrupt, sabotage and more. The question remains: What should I do?

The ‘standard’ responses, wrapped in nice sounding pseudo-Skinnerian speak (‘Positive Behaviour Support’ anyone?), Dr Graham points out are as standard as they are useless beyond perhaps the immediate triage. And triage is what you do when you have limited resources, need an immediate response under less then ideal circumstances. You treat the immediate symptoms, hardly ever the underlying cause. We devote considerable resources to build entire systems of tracking and improving these triage efforts (apparently our school needs a better, expensive computer tracking system to reduce the rate of kids wagging [Australian term for ‘skipping school’, absenteeism]). These systems generate terrific amounts of data that admin get to analyse and devise solutions for the busy teachers. Results? Well, the rates of disruptive behaviour and disengagement haven’t exactly dropped have they. So, ‘better triage’ doesn’t seem to be a great answer to my question: What should I do?

Here is a little of what I do …

In a particularly challenging Year 8 class, there is chasm between ‘achievers’ and ‘strugglers’ (I hate labels…). I try to use activities that involve all and include as much as possible. However, a chair flying across the class, two kids disrupting class next door (let alone ours!) by shouting and kicking, an erupting argument over a stolen phone, withdrawn kid or two who refuse to do anything etc all at the SAME TIME calls for a wiser moves than simply the triage send off or two. The send offs might preserve a bit of peace and sanity and allow at least ten other kids who, at the SAME TIME, want to get on with the lesson and engage in the learning activity I had planned, spent my time creating too.

Very soon after realising what sort of group this is, I said to all of them: “Amongst you there are students who want to get on with it and those who don’t. I understand that. The question I ask you: Which students should I care less about, spend less time and effort with?”

Let’s just say we had an interesting conversation. Now, we are slowly building an understanding that I or rather we simply won’t ignore or exclude people in here but the price of that may be that sometimes the achievers, sometimes the strugglers will not have all their needs met. Like many teachers I try to listen, find a little bit about the kid, provide alternatives, conduct one-to-one, eye-to-eye meetings followed by hands shakes (very powerful with boys!) and making ‘deals’ rooted in trust and not breaking promises. Some of these strategies push the boundaries of the school behaviour code, some colleagues may feel undermined as I am ‘the soft that allows them to have what they don’t allow’ (we’re talking minor stuff here). Many of these strategies don’t work straight away, many never do. It is bloody frustrating, exhausting, emotionally draining work.

Yet…many colleagues are coming up to me saying ‘you are doing great work with these kids, what do you do?’ Well, I give them time, ear and trust. That’s all. Again, don’t get rosy eyed – this is hard graft. I get let down, disappointed many times by teens, get unkind looks by my colleagues. Burnout material and a way to an earl(ier) ‘teaching grave’. I know it. But if my underlying message is one of trust, responsibility and care I am happy to absorb the blows until the student(s) realise it. There is no database to store that one either.

Now, we, teachers, do triage not because we don’t give a damn about the kid. However, the systemic memories and barriers of the past and present are simply too great sometimes for us do each students’ needs justice or at least give them a hearing: “Sorry kiddo, I gotta run, get through this, attend to that, need help with…here is detention!” Hearing, understanding even the needs of a particular student but being unable to cater for them with the limited resources is THE frustrating part. It is also part of the ire teachers so often direct at researchers or anyone else not directly immersed (bruised, battered, frustrated by…) in the daily realities of classroom teaching. ‘Walk in our shoes’ teachers say ‘then judge!’ Or as Dr Sullivan ends:

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

Sure, but a similar question begs: What did the teacher began as? Non-caring, ego tripping control freak who loves the behaviour charts or someone who wants to awaken, inspire, challenge, create, ‘make a difference’? My work with hundreds of preservice teachers strongly suggests the latter. Why this massive dis-connect between the wishes and lived realities?

‘Sparing a thought about students’ earlier experiences’ is surely better than no thought or insight. However, it is incredibly corrosive where there is little you can do about to hear those out fully, resources to adjust things to allow the kid to blossom. It is this sense of powerlessness that teachers so often complain about that ultimately boils over in the staffrooms, comment sections, kitchen tables and elsewhere.

“If I can’t care for all equally, which students should I care about less?” The answer to that lies in the answer to the broader question: “What is education for?” And it is this seemingly naive but powerful question we don’t ask nowhere near enough.

I write the tutes that make girls cry

You’ll have to blame Tony Loughland and Barry Manilow for that awfully punsy, a touch sexist and inappropriate title. But there is a little bit in it. The crying part.

As a PhD student scraping for every dollar I am one of the tutors in a unit called Understanding Teachers’ Work here at my alma mater Murdoch University. I run workshops for the first year pre-service teachers. Intro-to-teaching 101. The range of topic is great, understandably, and the idea of the unit is for students to recognise the complexity of this great profession of ours. Today, the topic was, roughly, understanding the diversity, dealing with parents/communities and issues of equity and social justice. Much to pack into two hours huh? To top it all off – I was running late on my prep so I demonstrated the time-honoured skill of winging it a bit.

The mantra in this unit has been: Ask questions! Of yourself, peers and beyond. And boy oh boy – we had a cracker!

I don’t want to bore you with the finer mechanics of activities but a few key links and rough outline will help.

First, we came up with a massive cloud of diversity and challenges students, teachers, parents and entire communities operate with daily. We listened to a story of the newly opened Jarjum College for Indigenous kids in Redfern (I heard it on the way to uni, half an hour before workshop kickoff … teachable moment 🙂 )


Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern
Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern

One student asked: But how is that fair to have a school JUST for Aboriginal kids? I’m sure they want to be integrated not separated from the society?

There goes 10 minutes of heated and quite thoughtful discussion, suggesting a bunch of work in unpacking the context and histories of the area and the Australian Indigenous cultures.

We sailed into ‘safe, white waters’ and I thought I’d flash this oft shown picture and quote.

We all chuckle in approval but ...
We all chuckle in approval but …

“OK, we all chuckle and nod in approval but … why? And just what are the alternatives? What would a different exam for everyone look like? Feasible? Practical? Desirable? Are we just used to our idea of ‘an exam’? …” and so on. Gold!

It was time to pull appart equality and equity. The two are often stuck together with such massive implications. So we did ‘the shoes‘, as described here by Lara David so well.

It's a beauty!

Short and sweet. Pennies dropped. I sensed many.

“And we want all to participate, right. Is that enough? What do you make of this?”


“OK, folks. You and me go into this thing called education to make a difference. I overheard it your discussions and we talked a bit about what that means and the differences in understanding among people last week. That’s great! We are here to make a difference. But do we? At what level? Consider this…” (flashed a few key quotes from Trevor Gale’s speech)

trevor gale

“So does the school system reproduce or re-construct society?” Another curvy one there. Much to talk about, think about, reflect on in students (graded, yes) journals for the unit.

Conversations, debates, voices, gestures as I walk around the room and eavesdrop and poke here and there.

“OK, so we want justice and equity. How do we do that? How do we get them? How do we get people to understand say … prejudice in the first place? Really understand it?”

Here is one possible way. Please do not do exactly this at home…

Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes – Intro by P. Zimbardo

5 minutes left … “There’s another video that shows Jane Elliot more in depth with the kids. Goes for about 15 minutes. Show it?” Nods, nods, nods

And the tears? There were a few during and at the end of the workshop. I was honoured to see them, without pointing them out.

Yeah sure, we packed an ENORMOUS amount of stuff in here and covered a huge amount of ground very lightly. It borders irresponsible. But I do look forward to reading the students’ reflection journals. Today, the conversations, the questions (and the tears…) made me happy that we are about to send out another group of keen, thoughtful educators out there where stuff that matters hugely – happens.

Letting go – again

The Man Behind the Hand

This post has no expletives, unlike the much liked and first ‘Letting go‘. Maybe this is just a poor sequel, like in the movies. But just like the orginal, I write this with some emotion.

I write after a message from a friend in the USA. She is grieving over a tragic loss of two teens at her school. Violent loss of horrible kind, by the hand of someone they should never fear (sadly, only a few days ago, I too found out that a dear friend from former Yugoslavia died a gruesome, self-inflicted death a few months ago).

I write remembering my first ever lesson as a teacher 12 years ago. As part of ‘get to know’ you, I asked kids to write significant good and bad events in their lives. ‘My mum died and dad went to jail’ one 13 year old wrote and asked me not to read it aloud. Later, I found out that the father went to jail for murdering his wife in front of the kids.

I write remembering crashing the school toilet cubicle where a 15 year old girl lay drunk and unconscious in a pool of blood running from her slit wrists (she was saved).

I write remembering restraining a 13 year old schoolkid from suddenly jumping off the first floor balcony after being teased and bullied.

I write remembering the day when a young, 14 year old Indigenous student ran out of my class, only for me to physically try to stop him hanging himself a few minutes later. As we calmed down and walked towards the sick bay, his classmate hugged him and said: “It sucks when it doesn’t come off doesn’t it?”

I write after asking a class of a dozen teens to put their hand up if they know someone close and young who got killed or killed themselves – and a dozen hands went up.

I write knowing I could keep writing, sadly so.

I am not making this stuff up or embellishing it to extract some kind of sympathy or pity. None of these people wanted that either. All they probably wanted was empathy, someone to listen to them, understand them and maybe help them if needed.

We swim in anxieties and fears, seduced and accelerated by various ‘races to the top’. We are made increasingly anxious in accelerated societies obsessed with control, measurement, achievement, performance and ‘continuous improvement’. We blame the youth as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘immoral’ (what’s new…) but fail to acknowledge the surrounding rise in our collective seeing of relationships as calculations of their utility: what good is or could this person be to me?

In such environments, occasionally letting go of the fathomless striving, norms and expectations, just slowing down a little, listening and considering is a hard thing to do (and no, it can’t be measured). Before you think I’m romanticising, ‘letting go’ has its discomforts and pressures. From not being ‘part of the team’, potential material and symbolic losses to the extremes of ‘letting go’ in destructive ways mentioned above. These were people who had been ignored, pushed, brought to the edge by themselves or others. But safely letting go and seeing what is really, really important is vital. Literally.

Please, listen to the kids in your care. Laugh with them, challenge them, pull them by the bootstraps when needed, cut them some slack other times. Find the vents in them and yourself to ‘let go’ in a safe, but neither in a fakely sterile nor utterly destructive way.

Please – do not ignore them, no matter how rich or poor or dark or fat or young or blind or white or deaf or smart or troubled they are.

PS This one is for you Pam, the school community and the families of the kids lost. Thoughts with you all.

If you or any people you care about experience crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia). Other countries have a similar service too, please find out and share the number to call.

The beast of performativity


There is a very good chance that over the past decade or so you have experienced one or series of reviews,  performance management meetings, appraisals, inspections, key performance indicators, benchmarks, bonus rewards and a myriad of similar management technologies that measured your ‘outputs’ and outputs of those in your care (eg. students). These would been compared, often quite regularly, and subsequently published for internal or external comparison, even ranking. Through these ‘events’, you had to, implicitly or explicitly, display ‘quality’ of your work, promote an active, enterprising, ever improving self according to some neat, objective (sounding) criteria which reduced complex social relations to a number, scale, list, standard, box or range.

Yes? Nothing new?

Now please, checking that people are performing, doing their job, is probably as old as labour itself. Didn’t catch that fish your people counted on – you all went hungry. Didn’t row fast enough in a slave galley – got whipped. Dug up enough dirt – got extra potato. Won a gold medal – got a bonus. Botched too many operations – got sued. Endless, really.

But there has been a shift in the educational landscape and beyond over the last fifteen or so years and the shift is intensifying. What counts as educative, valuable, effective, satisfactory performance and what measures of teacher and student achievement are considered valid has increasingly been determined remotely, outside the relational space of eg. teacher’s class of kids, school, community according to a set of distant, hyper-rational, objective-looking system that employs a stream of seductively neat, business-like judgements, criteria, standards, categories and benchmarks.

There’s an increasingly dynamic, ever-changing and incessant flow of changing demands, expectations, indications making teachers and students continually accountable and recorded, measured. Educators’ primary tasks (curriculum, care for students, engagement, research) have increased in volume but so have the second-order tasks of monitoring, reporting, documenting, and, put crudely, ‘putting the best foot forward’. In many cases, the secondary tasks of ‘performing’ has assumed the primacy. To make things worse, it’s not always clear what is expected.

And the most corrosive aspect? What is expected is inconsistent with teachers’ own best ethical and professional judgement. Teachers are increasingly made to value things that ‘count’ but know they don’t matter over things they think matter but don’t ‘count’.

Lyotard called it a system of ‘performative terror’. You are stuck, not sure what you do, question yourself, wonder which is ‘the right thing’ … and more.

Some of the main effects, observed and reported widely in USA, UK and Australia? Increased stress, and pressure, increased pace and intensity of work, change in social relationships and (eroded) collegiality among teachers, rising superficiality of measures, initiatives and changes, more paperwork  and maintenance, more surveillance, rising gap in perspectives, values and purposes between budget-allocating, managerial senior staff or higher and those below, on the ground dealing with students, and more …

By way of a couple of vignettes via Stephen Ball:

What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?

I was a primary school teacher for 22 years but left because I was not prepared to sacrifice the children for the glory of politicians and their business plans for education.

It’s as though children are mere nuts and bolts on some distant production line, and it angers me to see them treated so clinically in their most sensitive and formative years.

I have a sprinkling right through this site too, this story perhaps the most notable one.

This is just a glance at the phenomenon, the technology described producing these effects. It’s called performativity.

Know it? Got stories? Let me know. It is one of the central concepts I am looking at in my PhD project. Thanks.

References (if interested… not even a scratch here, rich field of research exists, check Stephen Ball in particular):

Ball, S. J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of  Education Policy, 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 215-228.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, vol. 10. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fascinating places

I didn’t think I’d feel the need to write and reflect after the first day of term but now I feel like having a stiff drink to go with it. Last time I wrote in this state was my (in)famous goosebump story years ago in a different school.

This morning, I got punched in the face by a student, a teen. This one. Not the first time I got hit in my work but never before in the face. An expletive or two and a fake swipe that actually connected with my chin was enough to cross the line. A big line.

Reactions of kids were a study into themselves. They ranged from “No man, you don’t hit Tomaz!” to “What are you complaining about, he didn’t even hit you hard, you were leaning a bit anwyay. You are not going to report him for that are you?”. The former is a result of some desirable moral compass mixed with trust we built over the year, the latter a result of the world of violence, abuse, eye-for-an-eye and bullying of all kinds that many of these kids live in daily. Not ideal, not desirable but it just is. I filed an incident report, police were called in since this does constitute an assault on a public officer and the kid is going to be expelled on School Directors request. Where to for the kid? I fear to ask.

Kids and colleagues came up to me to check, had to calm everyone down and state that I am OK and I am happy to stay for the day, business as usual. Not a good start to the term I thought …

Watching the teens (mostly) increasingly restless with out new school drive towards vocational courses and going down the traditional school pathway they escaped from in mainstream school (more on that another time), I wondered what are we going to do after lunch. The often dreaded 90 minutes before leaving for home.

What we need is a challenge!

Colleague and I went loosely by the idea of the ‘Scrapheap Challenge‘ TV show (two teams using whatever they find to complete the task). The first challenge to the two teams of about six teens was to “get the ball as far as you can from the starting line without your body directly throwing or kicking it.” My group mulled between a hit with a steel pipe, a rigid, lever catapult and a slingshot only for the pipe and hit to win. Neat, simple solution that looked like a teeball. The other group went for a slingshot with a chair on rollers.

Good idea too
Good idea too

The next challenge was “launch a piece of paper (and nothing else) from the balcony as far away as you can.” Paper aeroplanes (great way to search the internet *winks*), weird looking tubes, slingshots with all kinds of paper projectiles, paper balls. Winner? Our opponents this time, who cleverly scrunched the paper, wet it and made it into an almost solid, rock like object that was easy to throw very far.

You should have seen the kids go for it! ‘Learning outcomes’ anyone? We had science, social skills, maths, communication skills, problem solving, humour, persistence, engagement … the list of desirables goes on. It was simply awesome and done by kids who’d otherwise be hanging off the rafters or rolling their eyes in boredom, largely baulking at the stuff ‘curriculum’ throws at them.

We’ll do it again!

Now, this is not (all) about successful classroom strategies or science or discovery, even ‘learning’. It is about how schools, these strangely fascinating places, inscribe and code people to become in different ways. Teachers as controlling, ‘knowledge-holders’ and students as complying, ‘knowledge seekers’. How we become through what we learn. Not just how we store ‘being punched’ and ‘working it out with mates’ but what do those things do to us. And just how do we disrupt, re-code, re-purpose, subvert and negotiate.

It’s a fascination that will hopefully last and sustain me on my PhD journey over the next three years from July onwards (barring a major obstacle). Yes, I am leaving the classroom at the end of this term after just over a decade of teaching. It’s not (just) that I don’t want to be punched in the face anymore – I want to dig deeper.

And yes, I will have that beer now thanks.

Technologies of delight

Yesterday, I took our two boys (aged 6 and 3) to a place where they could be their best. Not the only such place but a great one nevertheless. The place is called Naturescape, free and right in the heart of Perth’s Kings Park. It is an impressive place with a particularly impressive (if not obvious) feature – its design was based on extensive survey of kids. What did the kids want? Dirt, water, sticks, rocks, stuff to climb, stuff to build, to craft and move.

Our boys dreamt up games, challenges and scenarios. They hung on and drew their breath while crossing creeks on tricky logs, climbing tall ladders, hanging off ropes or waiting if the structure they built with sticks is going to hold out. They built a dam, a bark boat, a ‘rock harbour’, read the map to find the way around, pretended to be Lorax standing on a chopped trunk (spot them on the pics below :-), spotted different rocks, plants and bushes, ran around a maze, fell off ropes, got wet, sandy, dirty, tired … a great few hours spent. It has also triggered a stack of stories and (no doubt) upcoming pictures, annotated cartoons, Lego creations on the theme and more.

As stated in the opening sentence – they were at their creative, acting, learning best.

When our 6 year old goes back to school this week, he will be expected to sit in a chair pretty still and ‘behave’ from 8.45am to 3pm. His teacher will be expected to ‘show progress’ with our kiddo on some pretty narrow parameters that dominate newspapers and societal DNA on ‘what schools should do’.

Likely results? Mr 6 will not be bouncy, creative self as much for sure and his teacher might feel guilty for not bringing the best out of him. Do I feel sorry for both of them? I do. Because a chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day are not necessarily the things, the spaces, no wait … the technologies (!) that bring out the best in people. Every day I watch ‘at risk’ teenagers who turn into zombies when they walk through the school gate but they are brilliant mechanics, traders (just don’t ask what they trade…), bike riders, carers, navigators, budding chefs and lawyers (judging by their ability to argue finer points :-)) out there.

A chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day (with a teacher who ‘knows’ and students who ‘don’t’) are simply historical accidents that we have found comforting to fund and support.

Now please, I would not just ‘get rid of schools’ but I would like us all in a society to think deeply and carefully about the lessons we can learn from watching the kids in places like Naturescape. And don’t for one minute think adults are hugely different and don’t want to play and learn.

Change by delight, not by fright. An old line we could heed a bit more.

And as I got home I came across this post by an old friend…

The no good Noongar kid

Meet ‘Ricky’. He is Aboriginal, Noongar his people. He’d be a poster boy for many of the statistics and labels entrenched in public psyche about this group of people, particularly when young – low literacy, poor school attendance, lazy, the only good thing he can do is kick a footy, use hands, drawing and art … want more? You want to hear his life story and reasons why he is currently in DCP care and protection? You don’t.

Ricky has just finished his first ever Big Picture exhibition (a presentation of student’s work over a term). He is pretty shy and I didn’t want to put him on the spot to ‘talk to an audience’ for half an hour. So we dropped ‘the standard model’ and did it together. I listed, introduced things he had accomplished this term, he explained them, answered questions, expanded, showed. Nobody stood up, we just sat around the table with another staff member who was our audience. It was a conversation with, around and about Ricky.

He explained in detail about his bricklaying ‘Try A Trade’ course (he did brilliantly there!) and his use of tools, principles of physics, maths, spatial awareness, precision, motivation, all in conversational manner.

We moved to his first website he started creating with me. It’s about dirtbikes – first picking the images (stage at now), then descriptions, followed by comparisons and reasons (all coming up next term). Through the conversation about bikes it emerged that he regularly gets spare parts off other bikes and puts them on his bike to fix it. Just like that, ‘no big deal’.

Then came a guided demo of of a couple of online games he plays – problem solving, maths, economics in action, right there on screen but without the fancy terminology and lingo to describe it exactly. But skill and knowledge of principles? Easy!

It also turned out that he has probably achieved the highest sporting achievement at the school this term by playing (well!) for Peel Thunder in the 2012 Nicky Winmar Cup (football tournament for Aboriginal youth with top metro, country, even interstate teams).

We talked about his care about getting the right spelling when writing his two journal entries and a couple of weekly reflections this term. Nobody in class writes slower out of care for getting things right.

We talked about his trampolining prowess, his ability to get along with students and staff, his calm and cheeky ways, the respect he gives and takes and which is miles from when he started coming to our school last year. He does not have any enemies here, truly.

At the end, he wrote down his strengths and weaknesses (pictured above). And we talked about them. He was really honest, he didn’t shirk back from saying he is lazy sometimes and wants to go and get more things done.

We laughed, shook hands to congratulate on a job well done. His exhibition took 55 minutes, more than any other in my room!

Not bad for a ‘no good’ kid who, on paper, has ‘low IQ’, ‘low aspiration’ and a bagful of other ‘low’ descriptors much like many of his brothers, sisters and cousins.

I have goosebumps as I write this, the colleague who sat in with us welled up with tears afterwards.

Low? Bullshit.

Go Ricky, you got my back any time mate!

Mad or what?

The heart of it all. Questions !
The heart of it all. Questions, glorious questions !

This isn’t a ‘flipped classroom’. This isn’t ‘disruptive’ pedagogy or ‘disruptive technology’. This isn’t (just) about what is often understood as ‘critical thinking skills’.

I had tinkered with it and applied it in pieces in a mainstream school. Only in dosaged pieces because at the heart of it, this thing goes against the purpose embedded in the very (classroomed, corridored, square) building, let alone the way a ‘school’ is organised and thought of by most people who come in contact with. And this time, I’m going for it full throttle at our awesome … school.

About 45 years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an eloquently genial and provocative book about it. Even that cranky old Greek called Socrates would probably like it (he just wouldn’t like it for being written down, for fear of de-personalising and de-contextualising).

After such a bombastic opening you are probably expecting to read about something terribly clever, innovative, creative and so on. But it isn’t, it is so damn simple and quite old really but with a contemporary e-twist.

This is what we are up to, a factual account.

At our first individual, in-person meeting for the term, the student (six so far, half my group), myself and often another person (a colleague, friend, support staff, parent, carer …) sit around the table with a big sheet of paper. In the middle of the paper sits the topic of student’s interest with words What? Where? Who? Why? When? How? What if? as visual reminders under it.

Together, we come up with as many questions about the topic as we can. We go for about 30 – 40 minutes and we are only interested in questions, answers not permitted. We ensure that the student contributes a healthy chunk of questions (least we’ve had is about a third, most about 80%, usually around 60%). The student can veto ANY generated question at any time but has to explain the reasons for the veto.

When done, the student is given options on the format they would like to use to work on these questions, keep them organised, interact with others and so on. So far, all of them have chosen a website over other formats (eg. portolfio, folder, poster …) for this purpose. A unique Google Site takes about a minute to set up with all the capacity needed to gather, curate and interact.

The student and I share the editing rights for the site. I am the tech hand, (s)he is the content manager and vice versa. We collaborate. I’m not a ‘sage on the stage’, nor a ‘guide on the side’ – I’m a ‘meddler in the middle’ (thank you Erica McWilliam for the phrase, seminal paper). We (will) involve others too as we go along, locally and (inter)nationally.

And the questions, some still in their raw, ungrouped, un-critiqued, un-pulled apart state are the term’s curriculum. That’s it! What is worth learning to this person, right there.

Here are a couple of examples about becoming a visual artist, joining the Navy, online gaming and an earlier effort about drugs. All are in their embryonic stage but with questions there.

If you look at the questions, some contain a dozen PhDs in them if explored to extraordinary lengths. And they can! They are there to trigger that wonderfully humbling paradox of learning: “the more you know the more you realise what you don’t know yet.”

As the advisor (umm, ‘teacher’) I question, praise, challenge, argue, poke and prod, interpret, scaffold if need be. I encourage the student to do the same. I educate in the sense of the original Latin word educare – drawing out the potential, the latent from a person. These kids are not passive ‘recipients’ of knowledge – they produce it. The job is not that easy as it may sound but I have not been this energised about my own profession for many, many years.

Now … where will we end up with all this? Frankly, I don’t really know (probably THE most frightening aspect to many of my colleagues in education and students too). But I DO know that these kids will have a much deeper, meaningful, contextualised understanding not just of the topic they are looking at but ways of learning, thinking, interacting, reflecting, and – acting!

Some of you reading this might see this as great for all sorts of reasons – pedagogical, technological, social and so on. Some of you may be indifferent: “Meh…” Some of you may be truly horrified and you may be right: “How can you track this to syllabus? How can you test this? How can you make sure they are covering areas other than just what they are interested in?” Valid questions. But if you ask them, go beyond the superficial and ‘common sense’, ask the odd ‘why so’ along the way then wrestle with it honestly.

Yes, students starting the term with about 50 of own questions rather than a set course in something their teacher is probably good at is probably an anathema to what society considers as ‘school’. But if I have the engagement of these ‘hard-to-engage-in-schooling’ young people after the first few days to go by – we are onto something.

These kids CAN question. They CAN lead. They CAN learn. They CAN see themselves in a light a school would rarely (or never!) have them before.

Mad, courageous, awful, irresponsible … ? You decide.

More than a game

Monopoly play small
Our very own !

I get to play at school. No, really. And so do our students.

This time, we gave birth to an idea of converting a couple of broken plastic desktops destined for the rubbish tip into a giant Monopoly set (not a new idea). And this was not going to be just an extraordinary set in size. The challenge was on and today – we played our first game!

The set is ‘ours’, based on our (school) surrounds and places, streets, stations, utilities where our students spend their lives. The custom Community Chest and Chance cards are a work of many suggestions from students and staff in person or via Moodle forum, full of lines some of which only we would fully appreciate and laugh or curse at. Cards were designed and worked on collaboratively by several people via Google Docs.

On the ‘physical’ side, the tables were cleaned, sanded, primed, painted, balanced, hinged and carefully detailed – again by many! Cards had to be printed, cut, laminated, shaped and collated, thanks to the work of a bunch of students over the week in a very relaxed working atmosphere.

But this was not just ‘anything goes’. In design, for example, everyone was encouraged to have a go at even the trickiest little detail. “Go on, have a go and don’t worry if you stuff up. But do know there are standards expected and you can just do it again if not ship shape.” (eg. all letters had to be stencilled, no free hand). Failure was no huge deal but willingness to (first, at least) have a go and improve WAS. Some kids contributed a little, some a lot, none of it compulsory, none of it forced.

There were kids who handled a power drill for the first time, done their first roller paint, first masking tape, those who learned the need for a washer under a nut, learned the difference between oil and water-based paints (made an interesting clean up time I tell you 😛 …). there were kids who gave up but came back to do a better job. There were kids who had done nothing all term but were now happy to spend a couple hours working on the cards, laminating, contributing card entries. There were kids who saw the ‘magic’ of a collaborative online doc via Google Docs for the first time and more …

And then there were questions! Last week, I tweeted a link to a document to encourage deeper questions about our lives that games like Monopoly can stimulate. And have we got some beauties there – thank you @7mrsjames @drb @scratchie @malynmawby @billgx for your contributions.

We have already asked the kids, casually as we were making the set, and more formally this morning in class, to reflect on some the questions asked. And, as expected, the occasion generated some gems of insight. So far, we have touched on themes of (I’ll list, so many there, statements are all students’ unless indicated otherwise):

  • poverty (“oh, but I live in Medina (lowest property on our board), that makes me a poor **** doesn’t it”),
  • economics (“if the bank just printed more money everything would just get more expensive, people wouldn’t actually have more of stuff … [inflation anyone?]),
  • equity (“yeah but if some ****** has everything to start with how harder is it for me then. That’s bullshit, not fair!…),
  • opportunity (“some players get behind but they can make up for it and get smart and start winning…”),
  • racism, prejudice of kinds (“if you had a special rule for one player and they couldn’t get shit unless they did what others asked them to do … that would suck, I wouldn’t want to be that.”),
  • importance of learning (“Monopoly is about half luck and half skill”. Me: So, you have no control over luck but you have control over skill. How do you get that? Student: You learn stuff and understand. Me: Bit like in real life? Student: Hmmm … yeah, it’s a bit like that yes.)
  • moral choices (“… but if you could just steal stuff and everyone else would steal yours and you want to then carry a shotgun around that wouldn’t be good in the end.”),
  • philosophy of happiness (“I don’t know what makes a successful person. In Monopoly you have to be rich I suppose, I real life you don’t always have to be but it’s boss if you are because you can buy shit and all that…”)

… and more!

All these are individual gems, many overheard by others in the chaos and teenage noise but they were like a razor cutting through to what I believe is the purpose of great education – learn how to ask and wrestle with questions, problems that matter to you and the people you share a community with.

Thank you to all question contributors, thank you for your supportive tweets all along (you know who you are 🙂 ). Most of all, a massive thank you to the 16 contributing students and 3 staff members at our school for making this happen and giving us a sense of being a part of something good, successful, enjoyable and maybe, just maybe, triggering a few lifelong reminders.

Now that you got through all these words … please do check out the photos 😉 (click on the image to see larger). Cheers!

Better place



This is ‘Billy’.  He is 15.  He allowed me to post this photo of him from a visit to the local animal centre yesterday.

This is one of my favourite photos. It means so much. A couple of months ago, Billy was in a bad, dark space where no young person (or adult for that matter) should be. Desperate, lashing out at things and people, horizons closed. Not all his problems have gone yet but things have turned …

Yesterday (Halloween), he got on to the dressing up act (yes, I too walked around the school and public with a fake knife and blood to my head), allowed his face to be painted, went in public with it, played with animals at the centre and relished the company of a little weero on his head and shoulders with a SMILE on his face. This term, we are deliberately working on strategies to express himself – writing, drawing, music … whatever! He’s in a better place, albeit precarious for many reasons. But he is beginning to flourish! Little by little.

Billy also saw a crocodile for the first time yesterday. A few other kids saw kangaroos (!!), eagles, snakes, lizards for the first time. In Australia for crying out loud – they are everywhere! But they are ‘everywhere’ if your world expands beyond your couch, your mate’s couch and local shopping centre. If you have been taken places by your family, shown, read, discussed, laughed about them. And they are the things we need to keep in mind and never assume.

Today, we did not assume that all our students would automatically know what Melbourne Cup is (for good and bad) in the fabric of the broader society, beyond the limited circles many move in. At the spur of the moment, we turned half the day into a Melbourne Cup day. Kids helped make the snacks and fruit punch (non-alcoholic …). We rigged up the big screen and watched the big race via live stream from Melbourne. A bunch of kids started making hats. Some cracked jokes about horses. Some came up with and others answered questions about horse racing. We sat around our big shed and watched the race.  Relaxed, spontaneous, caring, as a community, a family of a kind.

After the race, I got sprung by a bunch of kids and sprayed with foam streamers while they were singing Happy Birthday (to me, very important number now 😉 ). Priceless!


Yesterday, I was quizzed by a person filling out a funding application about kids’ progress.

Me: ‘They have hugely improved their social skills. Confidence and maturity have grown, communication has come along in leaps and bounds.”

Person: “OK that’s fine. What about learning outcomes?”

Enough to make anyone who knows what makes learning go and who has worked with young people (especially those ‘at risk’ ones …) blood boil. But I did reply politely 🙂

Or as my good friend Ira would say: Evaluate that!