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Change, beliefs and the ‘F’ words


The annual uLearn conference is over for another year, and as the new term begins it’s worth taking a little time to reflect on the ‘big ideas’ we came away with — the overarching themes and messages that persisted through the various keynote, spotlight, and workshop presentations. I had the privilege of doing a quick summary at the end of this year’s conference, and want to share that in this blog post as an ‘aide memoire’ for those who are interested.

For me, there were three ‘big ideas’ that kept surfacing (four if you count my two “F” words) which are expanded on below:


“Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you, they were born for a different time.”
― Ali ibn Abi Talib

The theme of change was overwhelmingly present in all of the keynote presentations. And not just any change — we’re talking exponential change. Change of such unprecedented proportion that it is becoming impossible to predict the future with any certainty at all, and where our ability to cope is severely challenged. The message was clear, we need to do more to understand the significance of this exponential change for our schools, our learners, and our society. It is time to recognise that our linear ways of dealing with change in the past are simply inadequate when it comes to preparing our young people for their future.

As educational leaders, we are extremely well-versed in the linear approaches to change and change management. We settle in for months, and sometimes years, of sequential interventions designed to help us adapt to the latest change in curriculum, assessment, or pedagogical approach. The problem is that we’re constantly feeling like we’re ‘behind the eight ball’ and never achieving anything before the next wave of change is upon us. This is what happens when we attempt to respond to exponential change in a linear way.

If there was one key message from each of our presenters, it was that we need to set aside many of our traditional approaches to change, particularly if we see ourselves as leading the change, or worse, managing it (now there’s an oxymoron). Linear approaches to change are premised on the notion of certainty — that by doing x and y in sequence we’ll end up in the changed state of z. The problem is, the world of exponential change is characterised by uncertainty — and that is a state that is almost impossible to manage in the traditional sense.

Coping with uncertainty requires everyone involved to accept that they may not have the answers, and more importantly, to realise that the answer is more likely to reside with the collective rather than in the mind of a single individual (i.e., the leader).

As educators, we need to move beyond seeing ourselves as the ones who are passing on our knowledge to our students, or even, facilitating them to discover that knowledge for themselves. We don’t have all of the answers, and the uncertain future our learners will face will present them with challenges that only they will be in a position to solve. This requires a level of humility in our actions as educators, and a growing emphasis on the development of competencies as distinct from domains of knowledge. As one of our keynotes observed; “I want my students to stand on my shoulders, to solve problems I/we can’t yet solve”.


“Focus on changing beliefs – it’s the only thing that matters”
– Eric Mazur

Through the conference we were repeatedly reminded to ask the ‘why’ question — to examine the beliefs that lie behind our actions, be they the things we do as individual educators, or the systems, structures, and processes we adhere to and defend with such vigor.

Understanding how our beliefs shape behaviour is central to understanding how we can respond to change. We see the impact of change in practice without the change in belief all too frequently in our current system — be that the move from single-cell classrooms into open, flexible learning spaces, or the adoption of new forms of assessment. Unless they are underpinned by a fundamental change in belief on the part of the educators involved, the change to some of these things will, just as quickly, be followed by a change back — ending up in the proverbial ‘ping pong’ we see in so many situations – from the school level through to the political level.

Most importantly, we need to consider the notion of coherence — from our beliefs at the centre, the expression of these in terms of the values we espouse, to the practices that we engage in on a daily basis. If there is any inconsistency across these three ‘layers’, then we discover the fragility of any initiative we might engage in – however well intentioned it may be. This is where asking the ‘why’ question becomes so important. We need to be constantly reflecting on the beliefs that underpin our actions, as this is the only way we will build a unified view of the purpose and value of what we are seeking to achieve in our schools, our Kāhui Ako, and our system.


“Fail Fast, Fix Fast, Learn Fast’ is a leadership maxim I advocate”
— Kevin Roberts

If there’s one thing our education system isn’t easily disposed to embracing, it’s the notion of failure. We simply don’t have time for it. Having to deal with failure will simply hold us back from ‘covering’ everything we need to get through, or cause too big a gap to emerge between those who can and those who can’t.

The big issue here is that we live in a time where innovation is being celebrated as something we need more of in our education system – we’re constantly being told how we need to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs in our schools, and yet, for these people, the one thing they have in common is failure. More than that, they have learned through failure. They understand how to confront failure and to learn from their mistakes.

The secret is to heed the advice of ex-Saachi and Saachi CEO, Kevin Roberts, whose maxim is to ‘fail fast, fix fast, and learn fast’. In other words, don’t despair when things go wrong — use the opportunity to find a solution, and to ensure you learn from that so that you can avoid the same mistake in the future. If we are to succeed in coping with change in this exponential future, we need to make sure that our teachers and our learners are given permission to fail, and from that failure come to a position when they gain both success and insight as they turn their failure into an opportunity for learning.

Finally – one more “F” word that was prevalent in our conference – FUN!! As educators, we can become overly serious at times – to the point of being morose, at times. Amid the excitement, the learning, the challenges of the conference, it was good to see people simply having fun! This is something we do well to recall as we return to the work we do on a day-to-day basis in whatever context we come from. If we lose the sense of fun, we lose an important ingredient in what motivates us to do what we do, and what attracts others to work and learn alongside us.

Networked Leadership


This week's announcement of funding to support the establishment of a new Centre for Educational Leadership in NZ heralds a significant change for the way we think about the leadership of our schools and educational institutions into the future. The press release states:

The centre will be established by the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand, the newly formed professional body for teachers, and will be partially funded by the Ministry of Education which is contributing $250,000 to its set-up costs. Its initial focus will be the principals who have been selected to lead the new Communities of Learning established to foster systematic collaboration across the education system.

The Teacher's Council has been preparing their thinking about future focused leadership, and have just published their paper on Leadership for Communities of Learning (pdf download) which has been authored by Robyn Baker on behalf of the Council. This paper is a synthesis of the five "Think Piece" papers (pdf download) that were commissioned by the Council from five educational leaders in NZ.

I was the author of one of the papers – on Networked leadership. My perspective is that as we embrace the thinking and activity of the Communities of Schools we must avoid thinking of them as simply another structural or organisational change in our schooling system, but rather a fundamental shift towards operating as a networked culture and as networked organisations. Leadership in this environment must be thought of and enacted quite differently from what we've experienced in the past. It will require considerably different mindset, based on deep collaboration at all levels, and the sense of being connected to something bigger than oneself and ones own (local) institution. It will require a fine balance of three perspectives, leadership of the organisation, leadership in the organisation and leadership as the organisation. 

This is going to require leadership that

  • is network literate, understanding the way networks operate and how to work effectively within them,
  • collaborative instead of competitive, moving beyond the self-interest of the local organisation,
  • moves from hierarchy and heterachy to holarchy, understanding that the conventional 'power-oriented approaches to leaderhsip no longer apply.

My hope is that this new centre will embrace this thinking (along with the key ideas presented by the other four authors) to create and promote a truly future focused view of leadership for our schools – not simply a regurgitation of all of the leadership thinking and theorising that has shaped our past thinking. Of course, there is much value in a lot of that thinking – but as we bring it forward to the present, it needs to be located within the paradigm of the networked organisation in the networked age. And that's something we're all going to have to imagine and co-create as we move forward. 

Robots as teachers?

Robot teacher

Robots are becoming increasingly used to replace human activity in many areas of modern society. They've  been used for decades in various forms of manufacturing such as car assembly, in medicine and and are even used now in the dairy industry in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Tasks that were once considered too sophisticated and something that humans only could do are now being taken up by the use of robots

Education has long been considered sacred in this regard, with the catch cry "robots will never replace teachers" oft repeated. But consider how the repetitive and routine aspects of a teacher's job are already being replicated in the online world with software that provides adaptive learning experiences for learners, with increasing use of artificial intelligence behind it. In recent years, robots have crept onto the education scene, popping up in American classrooms as toy-like teaching assistants and in Japan as remote-controlled novelties.

And now a school in Columbus Ohio has introduced a new robo-teacher into its classrooms to allow staff in other parts of the country to teach their pupils. The 1.2 metre tall robot features a screen that broadcasts a video of the teacher's face and a camera allows the teacher to see what is going on in the classroom. In some ways this is not robots replacing teachers in the conventional sense, rather, robots enhancing the teacher presence by allowing a teacher in one location to be present with learners in another.

The headline in The Mail Online article reads "Is This the Future of School?" and goes on to describe how ROBOT lets teachers take lessons, check work and talk to students from thousands of miles away. The article lists the following features of the robot teacher:

  • A screen displays a video of their face while a camera allows them to see
  • Pupils say the robot felt weird at first but it made lessons more personal
  • The teacher can see the class and their work using the robot's camera

While the idea if a 'robot teacher' in a classroom conjures up images from sci-fi novels, the concept here is really only a step further from the traditional video conferencing approaches that have been used in education for more than a decade. Rather than crowding into a space to interact with the remote teacher on a screen, the remote teacher can now have a 'presence' in the physical classroom, with tools that allow her or him to act more like the traditional teacher might in the physical space. 

Of course, this is where the intrique reduces for me – as the fundamental premise of the robot as presented in this scenario is simply about replacing the physical teacher – not about changing or adpating the pedagogy in any way. So the robot takes on the role of the traditional instructor, with the one to many pedagogy of the traditional classroom – rather like the images from the jetsons some decades ago! while I can see some potential for this sort of thinking in cases where the persistent presence of a teacher may be required, say with learners with special needs, the concept of am instructionally oriented teacher being replaced by a robot like this doesn't exactly excite me – it's rather like replacing the traditional paper based exam with an online equivalent and calling it an advance in assessment. The arguments for and against the use of technology like this in education has long provoked reaction from a wide range of perspectives, as a recent article by Stephen Heppell in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates (read in particular the responses at the bottom). We need to beware of the seduction of technology, yet critically aware of the ways in which it is incrementally permeating our lives, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. Education won't be immune. 

Jetsons robot teacher

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

(Wait for a few seconds for the new article to begin once you've pressed play)

For those who may have noticed, I've taken a break from my regular blogging for the past couple of months as the new year has proved to be particularly demanding on my time and energies. I'm prompted to start again now having spent time this week with Michael Fullan at a number of events, in particular, the launch of an exciting project involving a cluster of seven schools in Christchurch as part of an international collaboration under the banner of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is an international innovation partnership involving students, teachers, school leaders, families and education communities working together to address a key education challenge: how to design teaching and learning that leads to more successful lives for all students. The project is based on the work of Michael Fullan's paper A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies find Deep Learning (PDF download). The Christchurch cluster will be working in close collaboration with around 80 schools in Victoria and another 20 in Tasmania, Australia, which in turn are a part of a larger group involving over 300 schools in nine countries so far.

The following quote from the New Pedagogies website sums up why this project has been established:

There is a growing sense among education leaders, educators, students and parents that traditional approaches are not delivering the necessary outcomes for all students to flourish in the increasingly complex world in which they live. Education is at a major turning point with a powerful push-pull dynamic at play. Push being that traditional school is too often boring leaving students disengaged and pull that the digital world is exciting and ubiquitous. All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

Over the next 2-3 years the Christchurch schools are going to be exploring together how they can create far richer, relevant and engaging programmes of learning for their students, involving new approaches to using technology to support learning, new approaches to planning, learning and assessment, and now approaches to leadership across the cluster at all levels to support what is happening. I'm looking forward to an exciting time working with them. 

Thinking about engagement…

engaged learners

It's official… excellent teachers, supported by gifted and visionary school leaders, keep students engaged in the learning process and hopeful about their future. These are two of the crucial outcomes the recent Gallup Student Poll measures.

I was speaking with a school principal yesterday who is working to develop his school's strategic focus for next year. Placing student achievement as the overarching priority for the school, his focus moved to student engagement as the critical success factor for the cohort in his school.

Our discussion then moved to what the indicators of engagement might be that he and his staff could agree should be the focus of their efforts in 2015. The criteria used in the development of this Gallup Poll could be a useful starting point – they ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school.

In the New Zealand context engagement is described in a variety of ways – in their Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Christensen, Rechly and Wylie point to the following:

  • Behavioural engagment – referring to student's actual participation at school and in learning
  • Emotional engagement – referring to a student's emotional response to teachers, peers, learning and school
  • Cognitive engagement – referring to investment in learning, seeking challenge and going beyond what is required 

Using these criteria as a guide provides a useful framework for developing a shared understanding of engagement and what it looks like in the classroom. Unfortunately, our system tends to stress the indicators of 'dis-engagement', drawn primarily from the Behavioural Engagement category – including stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions. And so the focus on engagement becomes more a case of "how can we mitigate these things occurring?" instead of "how can we increase the extent of engagement, behaviourally, emotionally and cognitively?"

According to the Gallup survey, and using their wide range of measures, 55% of American students scored high on engagement. That's a pretty disappointing score in anyone's book I feel. I wonder what the equivalent might be in NZ schools? Across the board? And in specific schools? I imagine we'd find a wide range of results – but the fact would remain that every child represented in the percentage of un-engaged, or dis-engaged is a child unlikely to achieve in his or her academic studies either. 

One of the key findings from the Gallup survey is that students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are more engaged than their peers who strongly disagreed with both statements. Again, no surprises, with clear messages there about taking a learner-centred approach, and promoting student agency – and for teachers, that their relationships with the learners, and their interest in and passion for what they are teaching is 'infectious'!

The contentious aspect of this logic is another finding in the Gallup research, which reveals that, unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which, according to the report, puts them on par with the workforce as a whole.

Now that's what's got me thinking about engagement…

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. 

What makes a learning environment modern?


The term modern learning environments (MLE) has gained currency in recent years as a way of referring to the new forms of school buildings that are being constructed in New Zealand and other places around the world. The term is synonomous with 21st Century Learning Envrionments, or Schools of the Future etc. 

As with any form of language there are those who support as well as those who oppose the use of the term or phrase. For me, reference to 21st Century Learning Environments had meaning at the end of last century, but is a term that loses currency every year we actually enter into the 21st century, and "schools for the future" draws you into the endless discussions about what the future might be, and whether we should be preparing our students for the future, or be considering what education might be like in the future. Both are valid questions, but difficult to ascribe meaning to in terms of school buildings.

Personally, I like the term 'modern learning environments'. I like it for two reasons, firstly because of the reference to learning environments rather than schools. This opens up the possibility for considering all sorts of dimensions to what a learning environment might be – from what we currently know and understand as schools with organised classrooms etc, to community learning spaces, homes and evern the virtual (online) dimension that now forms a significant part of most students' learning experience. 

Second, I like the use of the term 'modern'. I know that many people argue against the use of this term, based on the fact that buildings constructed back at the turn of last century may have been considered modern then, but are 'old hat' and no longer fit for purpose nowadays. Others argue that many of the buildings being constructed now aren't modern, but merely replicas of what we've had in the past. 

For me, however, it's the genesis of the term 'modern' that gives it meaning for me in the context of modern learning environments. 

Going back to Late Latin modernus, "modern," which is derived from Latin modo in the sense "just now," the English word modern (first recorded at the beginning of the 16th century) was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned.  (from

Understood like this, to be modern, any thing we're designing or building must be conceived of and developed for what we know and understand 'just now', drawing on our lessons from the past, and considering the demands of the future (whatever they may be) – but in essence, it must capture the essence of "just now" – which, in my view, necessarily means it cannot be then cast in stone and considered "finished", but must be continually refreshed and revisited in order that the design remain current and "just now" as the future unfolds. 

The principles of "open-ness", "flexibility" and "agility" that underpin so much of what is in the literature about modern learning environments underpins the significance of this for me.  While architects may plan and builders construct the sorts of buildings we will then occupy to teach and learn in, it is this very activity that will define them as learning environments, and as such, they need to be able to accommodate our need for change in practice as a result of changes in our mental models and the beliefs we hold and share about teaching and learning. 

Basically, I believe that to be 'modern' means, as its definition suggests, continually "just now", or "contemporary", and as such, means that we must always be in a state of openness to change and development. This is why it's really not possible to copy what someone else has done, or to template the design of a MLE (building) and replicate it in a number of contexts (despite the economic benefits of doing so). While we can certainly draw inspiration from what others have done, a truly modern learning environment will be "just now" for the community that will occupy and use it, reflecting their particular values and beliefs, and be flexible enough to accommodate these as they change and adapt into the future. 

True – we've had buildings constructed for schools in the past that were considered modern at the time – and are now considered 'out of date'. The reason – they lacked the ability to be used flexibly and creatively as the needs and aspirations of those using them changed and evolved. A MLE isn't about the amount of glass and concrete that is used, or about the lines, shapes and angles that are incorporated – it isn't even about the amount of technology that is crammed into every crevice of the structure – it's about the people who use it, and about how flexible, agile and adaptable it is to how it will be used, now and in the future. 

Further questions I then ask include,

  • 'is it a place learners where can feel safe?
  • 'does it support learners with different learning needs and styles?
  • 'what is the link/interface with learning at home and in other community contexts?'
  • 'how are community values, beliefs, activities etc incorporated into the design?'
  • 'does it promote collaboration between and among students? and teachers?'

Lots to ponder here – I'd be interested in what others think?


Shedding the corset.

A lot of my time and thinking over recent months has been spent working with some fabulous people here in Christchurch,  helping create a future vision for schools and schooling in the city following the devastating earthquakes. One of those people is Denis Pyatt, recently retired principal of Papanui High School, and now working in a variety of capacities with secondary schools in the city, supporting principals during the extraordinary post-earthquake environment. Some of my colleagues at CORE managed to sit him down for a while and capture him speaking about this work and his experiences. In the video interview Denis describes the situations faced by schools, outlines many of the issues school leaders are grappling with, and challenges education leaders to take this opportunity to create a model of educational excellence. It's a frank and honest reflection on the situation as it is, but with an optimistic tone, signalling some of the possible 'shifts' in thinking and  practice that are emerging. I love the phrase Denis uses in the interview when he refers to 'shedding the corset' – if you want to find out what he's referring to you'll have to watch the clip. (Also available on

Education change: a student perspective

I came across this RSA style video titled Why Education Needs to Change: A Student Perspective on Vimeo today. It was made by grade 8 students at the Calgary Science School as part of a “Renaissance for our Times” project, and was made in response to Ken Robison’s TED talk about shifting educational paradigms. It’s worth a view, as it provides a refreshingly ‘raw’ interpretation of the issues, with some challenging comments.

The video resonnated with me when I read yesterday morning’s post from the Daily Papert below:

“School is a place where students learn largely by working on projects that come from their own interests — their own visions of a place where they want to be, a thing they want to make or a subject they want to explore. The contribution of technology is that it makes possible projects that are both very difficult and very engaging.

It is a place where teachers do not provide information. The teacher helps the student find information and learn skills — including some that neither knew before. They are always learning together. The teacher brings wisdom, perspective and maturity to the learning. The student brings freshness and enthusiasm. All the time they are all meeting new ideas and building new skills that they need for their projects. Some of what they learn belongs to the disciplines school has always recognized: reading, writing, mathematics, science and history. Some belongs to new disciplines or cut across disciplines. Most importantly, students and teachers are learning the art and skill and discipline of pursuing a vision through the frustrating and hard times of struggle and the rewarding times of getting closer to the goal.”

Papert, S. & Caperton, G. (1999). Vision for Education: The Caperton-Papert Platform. Essay written for the 91st annual National Governors’ Association meeting held in St. Louis, Missouri in August of 1999.

All of this is churning around in my mind at a time when we are facing some serious challenges to the provision of schooling in Christchurch post earthquake, with many schools damaged severely, and others limited in what they can provide. I’ve been working with the GCSN locally, and with the MoE nationally to develop solutions to this problem.

So why is it that, when the opportunity for some serious change presents itself, we neglect to listen to what our learners have to say, or to the education philosophers who have so elequently described what the ‘desired’ state of school might be like? What concerns me is that, at this time of stress, we again return to the things we’re most familiar with – focusing on the square box classrooms, regimes of timetables and subject specialisation etc.

In saying that, I haven’t given up – and neither have a good many others around me. Watch this space 🙂