Author Archives: Derek Wenmoth

The conflict continues…

Mail Online - chalk and talk

It had to happen… after decades of pursuing 'modern learning practices' in developed nations, the pendulum appears to be swinging (in the UK at least) back to adopting the age-old approach of 'chalk and talk' as the pedagogical approach of choice. And the reason – that this is the approach found in China where the students are achieving on average at a higher rate than their western counterparts. 

It all seems a quite straight forward argument really – particularly when eminent educational researchers are quoted thus..,

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "English education was overtaken with progressive ideas in recent decades, which held it was better for children to learn by themselves and at their own pace. This was clearly madness, and it has taken 40 years to realise this."

So that's it then – let's sit back and watch the pendulum swing. With politicians and university professors professing it to be so it must be correct – right?

Wrong. Let's put a bit of perspective on things shall we.

Fact – many schools in the UK (and NZ?) have struggled to fully realise the promise of the 'personalised' approaches to education that have been promoted in recent decades, due to a combination of factors including parental expectations, lack of professional development and the impact of standards-based assessment regimes.

Fact – the Chinese (Shanghai and Beijing that is) have outscored pretty much everyone in the recent PISA results.

Fact – a predominantly 'chalk and talk' pedagogy is only a part of the picture in terms of what contributes to the education of their young as highlighted in this article from the Brookings Institute…

Shanghai parents will annually spend on average of 6,000 yuan on English and math tutors and 9,600 yuan on weekend activities, such as tennis and piano. During the high school years, annual tutoring costs shoot up to 30,000 yuan and the cost of activities doubles to 19,200 yuan.

Before we get too carried away with simplistic 'cause-effect' arguments about what makes for an effective education system, we need to wrestle more profoundly with some of the deeper and more fundamental aspects of our education system – which, as it happens, have been the focus of some of my recent blog posts. 

Consider the question "What is the purpose of education" an the opposing philosophies that I outlined in that post. Could not the move to enforce a 'chalk and talk' model of education reflect much of what is suggested in philosophy A, where the system is perceived as broken, but can be fixed fast – and teachers also!

Or consider the question of "What defines success?" in our system – is it purely examination results (based largely on the regurgitation of memorised,  transitted knowledge)? The PISA results provide some useful international comparisons of achievement that is measured using a particular metric – but should our overall assessment of a country's success be attributed to that?

And what about the idea that individualised programmes are a fad of just the last couple of decades? I'm sure the significant educational theories who've influenced our thinking and system design with constructivist and social constructivist theories would have something to say here. Key theorists who started this thinking (Dewey and Vygotsky) were actively researching and presenting the case for more participatory, authentic and personalised approaches to learning a century ago. 

At the end of the day decisions such as the announcement yesterday from the UK will be driven not by the theorists or educational philosophers – or even teachers and principals in schools, but by politicians and bureacrats, looking for the 'quick fix' solutions. As a profession we need to be ready with a response that is formed out of our professional discourse, backed up with evidence from our practice. In the absence of those things, we're destined to being subject to the whims of whatever the next 'big idea' is that happens to emerge. 

Defining success

SuccessI was working with the staff of a local secondary school yesterday, and in the context of our discussion we shared our thinking around the question of 'what is success?' in relation to the purpose of school and schooling, and the focus on assessment that currently dominates much of the thinking in our school system and drives most of our curriculum design and delivery.

We were specifically thinking about the issues raised in the NZCER publication, "Swimming out of our depth" where the authors suggest…

"We need to think differently about what schools are for, about what students should learn in them and about how we should measure the “success” of all this. (p.4)"

The definitions of 'success' and 'being successful' lie at the heart of the design of our schooling system, and drive the activity of everyone in it – from the policy makers through to the students in classrooms. From a current analysis of what we see happening in the NZ school system it wouldn't be difficult to conclude that what we regard as success is intimately tied to academic achievement, and the relentless pursuit of excellence and results measured in terms of standards at a national level and our comparative rankings at an international level. 

Now as an educator I'm not going to argue that academic achievement shouldn't be a key focus for schools – but we do need to consider whether there's more to it than simply that? If we aspire to engage with and grow young people and see them develop as citizens into the future, ought we not be thinking about more than simply academic success as measured by (in the most part) summative examination scores?

While many may argue that the curriculum and educational discourse here in NZ has moved past this narrow thinking of success, the evidence I see when visiting schools and talking with students (particularly at this time of year when exams are the focus) would suggest that academic success is definitely the high priority for most. 

One of the consequences of this for our learners is the stress it creates – particularly at exam time – but also through the year when the relentless pressure (external and internal) to achieve consumes so many – spurring them to pursue goals beyond what is reasonable or expected in many cases (consider the students who asprite to achieving excellence in 120 credits!)

An article in yesterday's Toronto Star highlights how this should be a concern for all educators – from policy makers to teachers, and parents as well. Titled "Student Stress Must Be Addressed" it begins..

“Schools are first and foremost social-emotional institutions,” says York University professor Stuart Shanker, adding that failure to address issues leads to “early dropouts and lots of disorder.”

Professor Shankar's research is part of a broader move, launched by People for Education, to have schools actually measure how well they foster social-emotional skills, citizenship, physical health, creativity and a positive school climate overall — beyond the 3 Rs.

Such concerns would resonnate with the group I worked with yesterday, where student welfare ranked towards the top of every group's list when we were considering the priorities for the design of new approaches to learning in the school. 

Perhaps we need to reflect more seriously on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and consider how, in the frentic busy-ness of our lives in and out of school, we make time to embrace the significance of these measures of success for ourselves and our learners.




Future focused schools

Here are the slides from my presentation at the CORE Education breakfast session in Auckland this morning. Key questions I addressed were:

  1. How can schooling change to meet meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century?
  2. How can we prepare students to address "future-focused" issues such as sustainability, globalisation, citizenship, and enterprise?
  3. How can education prepare students for living in the 21st century?

Digital learning report

keeping paceWe've seen a significant uptake of digital learning in all forms and guises in schools over the past few years, driven by a number of things, including the desire to 'keep up' with what other schools, a sense that this is important for our young people and their digital future, or to replace traditional approaches of using text books with something more relevant and engaging. 

But how do we know our use of digital technologies is actually contributing to powerful learning? The Evergreen Group have recenty published their annual review of policy and practice titled "Keepng pace with K12 digital learning" in which they present the findings of their research into what is happening with digital learning across schools in the US. 

The report authors found that, overall, more students than ever before have access to digital learning opportunities (no surprises there), including online and blended learning, but indentified that state policies and other factors often limit digital learning’s availability. Most school districts in the US use digital learning tools and resources, but the extent, type, and goal of that use vary widely. Different grades use digital content and tools differently, too, according to the report:

The report identifies four reasons schools are increasingly incorporating digital learning opportunities into teaching and learning:

  • Improving student access to a variety of schooling options
  • Ensuring that students reach their maximum achievement levels
  • Increasing technology skills, which parents, teachers, and stakeholders believe to be essential for college- and career-ready students
  • Reducing costs

The report also identifies varying patterns of use between school types:

  • High schools tend to offer fully online courses and many forms of digital content.
  • Elementary schools tend to offer self-paced interactive activities that are topic-focused and collaborative
  • Middle schools are a hybrid of high schools and elementary schools, in which younger middle school students are more likely to use interactive and skill-based lessons
  • Older middle school students use other forms of digital content and begin venturing into online learning opportunities

Some ineresting reading here for those interested in trends and patterns of use re digital learning.

Computing our future…

SchoolNet_programming To code or not to code – that is the question that has been debated hotly for more than two decades now in many countries around the world – including New Zealand. 

Like many other countries, New Zealand put all of its eggs into the 'ICT and digital literacy for all" basket from 1990, when the first MoE-funded professional devleopment programmes began. That philosophy has underpinned all of the ICT-PD strategies and spending to the current day – the argument being that ICTs (or digital technologies as they're now being referred to) are a part of everyone's experience, not simply those who are programmers.

This strategy has been reasonably successful in gaining a system-wide acceptance of ICTs within the educaiton sector (although I still come across teachers and schools who see ICTs as one of those 'optional' things for them to focus on!)

As we are now in the fourth decade of having computers in our schools, there's a growing awareness that, as the tide of digital literacy has risen, and we're seeing ICTs used routinely by students in schools across a wide range of contexts to support their learning, simply teaching learners to be users (or consumers) of the technology, without teaching them fundamental skils of creating or constructing with these tools is tantamount to teaching kids to read, but not to write, to listen but not to speak, or teaching them to appreciate art, but not to draw etc.

The simple truth is that while we all marvel at what these new tecnologies can do – someone has had to design, create, build, program and test them. So it makes sense that somewhere in our system we're creating opportunities for our young people to learn skills that are foundational to an ever growing need in our future workforce. 

The UK Department of Education has been working on this for awhile, since deciding to scrap its traditional ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) curriculum almost two years ago. Earlier this year  they announced the coding requirement for schools, and in September they introduced the new national curriculum for computing for all children from five upwards. This is being given a boost with a half million pound initiative known as the “Year of Code.”

Of course, skills for employment are only one part of the reason for introducing such an initiative. This recent report from European SchoolNet emphasises the wider significance of teaching coding and computer science within our curriculum. The report states..

Coding is becoming increasingly a key competence which will have to be acquired by all young students and increasingly by workers in a wide range of industries and professions. Coding is part of logical reasoning and represents one of the key skills which are part of what is now called "21st Century Skills". 

The report outlines responses from 20 countries to a survey where their Ministries of Education gave an overview of their current initiatives and plans. Across this sample of countries it is evident that they see a wider range of benefits accruing from including coding and computer science programmes in schools, including fostering logical thinking skills, coding and programing skills, problem-solving skills, skills for employment, as well as fostering other key competencies.

Papert quoteI was a part of the generation who grew up introducing computers into my classroom under the influence of Seymour Papert, being fascinated with what could be achieved using Logo, and later with Scratch, as well as learning the fundamentals of Basic and later HTML. Finding out what made the computer work the way it did intrigued me, and so discovering that I could create instructions that would get the response I desired seemed a natural thing to do. 

Of course, that's fine for someone like me who has a natural interest in such things. But introducing a curriculum requirement for all schools to include coding in their curriculum begs a simple question, "who will teach it?". In an already crowded curriculum, and with change being naturally resisted by many, this is an extraordinarily big challenge. I noted with interest that even England's 'year of code' initiative has attracted cynical responses when the director of the programme herself revealed that she doesn't know how to code.

I see these issues becoming a big challenge for New Zealand into the future. We are a small country, 10,000 km from our markets, with an economy reliant on the export of primary produce products. Into the future we'll need to put more emphasis on the development of knowledge economy skills, because (a) of the impact of much of our primary produce production on our local environment, and (b) the fact that our traditional export markets are now establishing their own means of supply negating the expense of long distance exports. If we're to heed the challenges of the late Sir Paul Callaghan and others, we need to find ways of appropriately incorporating more coding opportunities within our school curriculum across all age groups. 

As a parent and as a grandparent, I am increasingly concerned that we act now to ensure my kids and grandkids are equipped with the skills, competencies and dispositions they will require to enable them to function effectively in an increasingly digital world – and exposure to the delights of coding and computer science must certainly be considered here. 

The purpose of education


I presented a talk on leading change in a networked world to the School Leaders Network in Christchurch yesterday afternoon, focusing on the importance of understanding the emerging paradigm of the networked world and the implications for schools and school leaders. 

As a timely introduction to my talk I referred to an article in the latest copy of the NZEI magazine, Educaiton Aotearoa, written by Professor Ivan Snook titled "The Purpose of Education" in which he compares two rival models of education and how these different ideologies shape our thinking and approach as educators. A key point he emphasises, around which his article is based can be summed up in one of his statements:

Education is not centrally about test scores but about preparation for life in its broadest sense.

Having recently been through an election here in New Zealand the presence of competing ideologies (or philosophies) of education became evident as different parties (and politicians) endeavoured to promote their education policies. I've often used the table below to illustrate how these different perspectives play out in our world…

Competing philosophies

As education leaders we need to…

  1. be aware of these competing philosophies and how they play out in the political directives we face, the expectations of parents, and the underpinning behaviours of teachers.
  2. understand that they are simply competing ideologies, and that we need to intentionally and intelligently reflect on our own ideas and understandings to identify our personal beliefs and where this positions us in the various continua.
  3. seek ways to lead those in our school communities to estbalish and articulate the shared beliefs that will underpin what we do.
  4. work with our teams to explicitly link our practices with these  beliefs, to ensure our coherence between our espoused theory and our theory in practice.

My key message to the APs and DPs at the meeting was to ensure that their thinking and planning is anchored in a 'Future Focused' mindset – not simply replicating what we've done in the past. This is where the emphasis on considering education as a 'networked' endeavour comes into focus – challenging our existing assumptions about the stand-alone school, competitive mind-sets and 'patch protection' among other things.

There is a significant difference that emerges when we genuinely place the learner at the centre of our thinking – considering all of the factors that impact on their learning, including where they learning, what they learn, how they learn – and why they are learning. Much of our previous thinking about how we might reform/transform education has been structurally focused, i.e. the placement and construction of physical schools, the governance and management of the schools, class size and teacher workload etc. While these things are all important in the overall milieu, they don't define the purpose of educaiton – that is clearly around the learner, and equipping them as citizens of the future (or future workforce units, depending on your ideological position ;-)

Food for thought – lots to ponder here….

Connected Educator Month – half way through!

NZ teachers appear to have really gotten behind the first Connected Educator Month here! The info-graphic below illustrates how it is looking as we hit the half way mark for the month:


The numbers will all be larger as you read this – and the month’s events aren’t over yet!

Overcoming adversity


Many of the children in the city today cannot remember a world before the earthquakes. The presenters in this TVNZ documentary ask how this has affected their wellbeing by visiting South New Brighton School in the heart of the most affected suburbs.

As someone who has visited this school, and knows the principal and some staff, I found this a very poignant and informing piece – so am sharing it here to inform and inspire others. It reveals..

  • the resiliance of the young people – but also their fragility.
  • the importance of schools as a focus of community, and a place where there needs to be opportunity to attend to the things that are important in the lives of the children and their families – in addition to the focus on learning.
  • the enormous responsibility placed on the shoulders of school leaders to cope with all of this – on top of them having their own families, homes and personal health to consider.
  • the restorative effect of a team of dedicated teachers committed to meeting the needs of learners – supported by other professionals with complementary skills. 

It will be some years before the 'new' Christchurch is fully established, and in the meantime I pay full credit to the dozens of school leaders, staff and their communities who are working constructively and collaboratively to provide the sorts of support and opportunities portrayed in this clip. 


ULearn14 Keynotes’ challenges


The ULearn14 conference has ended for another year, with around 2000 people gathered at the Rotorua Events centre for four days (incuding pre-conference workshops) of professional stimulation, challenge and connecting. The #Ulearn14 Twitter stream was trending high through the conference and provides a great insight into the multi-faceted event. Many teachers have been active since the conference, providing their personal reflections on the conference, such as this blog from AnneMarie Hyde, or this storify from Vanessa Cancon.

For a  number of years at this conference I have heard comments to the effect that "it's all about the pedagogy, not the technology" as people pass through that point in their own awareness and understanding – moving beyond simply focusing on the tools, and instead thinking about the way in which these can be used to support, enable and inspire deep learning. This year I felt, for the first time, that this level of awareness and understanding is a part of the system thinking, rather than simply the experience of indviduals. The level of engagement in pedagogical discourse was raised to a new level in the workshops, the reseach strand and the keynotes – exciting stuff!

From day one the keynote speakers certainly inspired us to think this way. Their presentations created a level of cognitive dissonnance that forced us to wrestle with the ideas presented, challenging our assumptions and 'comfort' with existing practice – and while the response to these messages was rather polarised (as Steve Mouldey reflects), the overall impact was to add a depth and dimension to the conference that we haven't seen before. 

Here's my summary of the keynote messages..


Yoram Harpaz – described three ideologies that underpin the work of educators and define what happens in a school or school system – then created a cognitive dissonance in challenging us to make the tragic choice! Whether we found ourselves agreeing or disagreeing with having to make such a choice, no-one could escape the challenge he created in confronting how these ideologies shape our personal and collective view of teaching and learning. 

See the collaborative document of notes from his presentation. 


Adam Lefstein – challenged us to think more critically about the professional conversations we have, and understand how this discourse shapes what we see happening in our classrooms and the lives of our learners. We learned from him that professional discourse is not a bragging race on your students or colleagues – it’s about getting better from learning!

See the collaborative document and a Storify collection of notes from Adam's presentation.


Katie Novak – introduced us to the fascinating world of Universal Design for Learning, equipping us with a systematic way of ensuring that the needs of every learning is planned for before the lesson. She capably demonstrated how this worked both what she shared and how she shared it. 

See the collaborative document of notes from Katie's presentation.


Quinn Norton – tantalized us by the description of her studies of emergent feral network collectives. She challenged many of our pre-dispositions about the internet and those who use it, about hackers and hacker spaces, and about how we accommodate and engage the learners in our classrooms who are likely to be a part of these communities. 

See the collaborative document of notes from Quinn's presentation.

I'll be interested to read the reflections of other teachers who attended – if you have written any up please add them as a comment below ;-)

With this event now behind us, it's time to consider how to continue the professional learning that has inspired us. There are plenty of opportunties still taking place in the Connected Educator Month activity until the end of October – and then there's ULearn15 to look forward to, with planning for that event already well under way!



Learning through connections


This morning I had the privilege of joining a panel to present on the theme of modern learning practice in a connected world as a part of the Connected Educator Month here in NZ. Joining me on the panel was a very old friend from the UK, Stephen Heppell and colleagues from CORE, Mark Osborne, Janelle Riki and in the chair, Karen Melhuish Spencer. 

In this post I don't intent unpacking what was said or the ideas that were discussed – if you want to know that then the recording is available here and the thoughts of the participants are captured in a shared Google Doc here and on Twitter here on #cenz14. All has been captured in Storify by Marnel van der Spuy.

What this experience very powerfully demonstrated to me is the principle of learning in a connected world. With an hour together online, a handful of 'presenters' and a few dozen participants all active in the back-channels, there was an extraordinary level of communication and ideas generated through the questions asked and responses given etc. – a true knowledge building community emerging. In reflecting on this, there were three dimensions of the knowledge building experience that I observed that I think may be worth considering when designing and planning for the learning experiences we provide (online and face to face) for our students:

Capturing the soundbites

As the presenters were sharing their ideas in the session there was a constant stream of 'soundbites' being captured and shared via the chat facility in the Adobe Connect environment we were using. Each of these represented the key idea or important concept captured by an individual participant – and collectively, they represent the key messages of the experience, there for everyone to review and construct their own memory of the event from. 

Imagine if we had this sort of facility in our classrooms – where we were intentially capturing the ideas that are regarded as significant in the minds of each learner – and see them shared in this way so that what escaped the attention of one, is picked up by another etc. Seems to me there's something quite powerful in recognising and understanding the usefulness of this activity in the knowledge building process – recognising of course that it's a part of the process, and that there's a lot of revisiting, filtering and connecting of ideas that will need to occur  yet. But at least it is captured – and accessible in a way that previously we've missed out on in our classrooms. 

Co-constructing the knowledge base

The Google Doc provides a different level of engagement. Here we saw the knowledge base grow before our eyes during the presentation – and it continues to grow and develop afterwards as there are people active in it even as I am writing this post, editing and playing with the format etc. 

The level of engagement here goes beyond the simple soundbites (although these are recorded at the bottom of the document) – and makes lots of use of the links that were shared during the presentation to add substance and value to the soundbites used – offering opporutunities to dig deeper into the concepts and ideas. The Google Doc also remains as an archive of the event and the knowledge shared within it. 

This is a strategy that we're certainly seeing deployed in some schools – but there's room for far more of it! The ability of learners to use an online environment that is accessible from anywhere and at any time to share ideas and co-construct knowledge in this way must certainly come to feature as a 'must have' in the repertoire of any modern teacher. 

Challenging the ideas

I also saw the start of some thinking that represents the metacognitive engagement – where questions were being asked in response to something that was said by a presenter, or where such thoughts or 'sound bites' stimulated another level of thinking in a participant. The use of the backchannels to immediately enable people to deal with the questions they have or dilemmas in their thinking is extremely powerful to the learning process – particularly as they are able to be responded to by the community, and not wait in line for the presenter to respond. 

A counter to this is often cited from some who see this sort of activity as a distraction – preferring that everyone focuses on what the presenter/teacher is saying. I concur that it can be a distraction – but I also believe that dealing with distraction and making the right choices about when and when not to engage in such activity is a part of learning to manage self – an important skill for our modern learners and teachers. The fact is that for many, having the question buzzing around in your head as a result of something the presenter says can be a distraction in itself, and creates a 'block' to full engagement until it has been answered or responded to. 

So my point is that the CEM experience this morning has powerfully reinforced for me again the need for us to consider, plan for and embrace the multi-dimensional experience that learning can and should be in (and out of) our classrooms. 

If you aren't already connected – take a look at the variety of events and opportunities that are yet to come through the rest of October in Connected Educator Month.  if searching the calendar of events isn't your thing, you can sign up fo regular updates.