One. Giant. Leap.

This post is an edited version of  the short presentation given at Teachmeet Melbourne on Saturday 30 November 2013:

I find myself at an interesting transition in life, one where I am trying to look at systems with fresh eyes. What my work-life will look like is too early to say, but at present I am supporting an exciting new project which I believe will make a significant impact on the national discussion on learning. God knows it’s desperately needed.

This week I was lucky enough to be invited along to Creative Innovation 2013, a conference which brings together business, industry, community, government, amongst others. While the ticket price might exclude many people, it did feature quite a number of sessions on education. Stephen Heppell was back again, and as always, made sure he disrupted the thinking of the people in the room about the potential of young people; when they’re trusted. Stephen reiterated that many schools can be (and have been) transformed in learning and culture simply by having better toilets, better chairs, and a shake up of more classroom spaces.

However out of all the interesting sessions and speakers, one comment that has stuck with me was from Steve Vamos, who is the Founding President, Society for Knowledge Economics, Non Executive Director Telstra, Medibank and David Jones, and Former Vice President of Microsoft. He took the floor during a Q&A and lamented that the Australian cultural mindset won’t be shifted until we stop believing that the only way to succeed is to Be in control, don’t stuff up, and know the answer”. I believe this statement also rings true in the education mindset.

So taking into account the incredible work you all do as educators to influence schools, teachers, or students to change, how do we do that at scale? How do we take one giant leap? Actually I think it’s not a case of asking ‘how’, but ‘when’. So – [I have re-written this into a rhyme, which came to me after the Teachmeet, and has since proven a pretty tricky thing to craft]

When does change become enough to change the way school is organized and structured?
When do we fix the way schools are funded?
When will more schools share programs and resources they’ve created?
When will sorting kids by age become outdated?
When will subjects not be the substitute for schooling?
When did winning mean more learning than losing?
When will maths be just a subset of numeracy?
When did English come to mean the same as literacy?
When will mindfulness and well-being be a priority for schools?
When do we agree not to have rules?
When will we bring others to Teachmeet to help us network?
When will we bring a principal, a parent, an entrepreneur?
When will PD be designed as messy and fun?
When will we have a Kidmeet Melbourne?
When will assessment of learning be more than numbers and dots?
When will teachers be treated not as robots?
When is school driven by learning and not the timetable?
When will we start seeing that every child is able?
When will schools get rid of the bells?
When will teachers show and not just tell?
When did extrinsic factors for learning become the operation?
When will we organise more for intrinsic motivation?
When will exams matter less and examining real life matter more?
When will students not be judged by their grade and their score?
When will we discuss what school reputation means?
When do we be wary of learning through screens?
When will teachers be valued for their role in children’s lives?
When will we interpret curriculum not as a set of rules but as a guide?
When will the school of the future stop being so grey?
When will we just teach the best of today?
When does BYOD or blended learning become features we keep?
When do all these school steps become just one. Giant. Leap?

When? How about now? Because I would wager most of you can validate these questions now. If you can’t, you’re asking the wrong questions.

Consumption mentality is mental delusion

Sculpture: OMG LOL / Eyebeam Art + Technology Center Open Studio


At what point does human kind stop consuming? Food. Land. Raw materials. Flora and fauna. Water. We have an insatiable appetite for all of them. It has driven colonization, exploitation, invention, and confrontation. No matter how much we have, enough is never enough. We are feeding the beast of growth, and it is only when faced with disaster, obsolescence, or extinction we correct our ways and try and to make amends.

Perhaps then it is no wonder that with all these heavy thoughts I have been thinking about the role of information in this mix of consumption. Human kind has been creating information in many forms for thousands of years, and because of its relative scarcity in the past (pre-20th century) it was easier to archive, read, and consume. In this century we are seeing billions of pieces of information being produced, and re-produced. Primarily we produce this information so it can be quickly consumed by others. All of us are contributing to this sweet social junk food of information, while also finding the bigger meatier chunks of information harder to digest and more complex to store and consume. I guess you get my analogy; I am going to liken my thinking with information to the theme of food.

The consumption of information mentality is something I liken to the obesity epidemics of many countries. Our public libraries, and those at schools and universities, swell with physical and digital information, sometimes shedding the burden of physical weight in favour of more digital fare.  I know why we collect all this information, so we can consume it later, but it seems to underpin so much of the routine of our lives that I feel many have lost the ability to have an imagination. The other aspect to this analogy is consumption of information from starvation, and it also creates incredible dangers whereby people desperate for any kind of information or communication technology will happily consume pretty much any kind of crap. It’s as if our brains are being fed on all kinds of mindless and pointless information, to the point of slowing us down, making us lazy, complacent, and narrow-minded.  But is it no wonder? Since the emergence of tools and spaces to store and archive information centuries ago, we are now trying to house within the Internet the entire memory of the human race, no matter how trivial, while at the same time expecting that because it exists there, then we must know about it, watch it, listen to it, and acknowledge it.

In many instances information is force fed into young people and called education. It is again no wonder that as time beats on, more information is deemed worthy to add to an obese curriculum, more data must be memorized and regurgitated. We have become dominated by the process that consumption of information equals learning. It’s as if students are treated as birds, little chicks learning to fly, waiting for the teacher to regurgitate information into them because they cannot eat it by themselves. Perhaps this is as innate (or inane) as it gets. Education has been serving the same ‘portioned and segmented meals’ for too long  – ‘eat it because we say it’s good for you’. In many instances this is also implicit in conferences and professional learning seminars. I know these are horrible over-simplifications, but from one perspective I feel that we have created institutions and systems based solely on the consumption of more and more information without any real transformation. This is as opposed to systems and environments which develop skills and discernment with information. Good schools and good teachers know the difference; as too do good libraries.

We all know what pigging out on information feels like. We have studied and crammed for exams and essays, only to have it dissipate from our heads in the near future like sugar from our system. The information was not nourishing, but we were told to consume it so we could develop our palette. However when we absorb information that really stimulates and challenges us, it changes us in the same way we build muscle; it is memorable and empowering. Herein lies the real problem: there is so much ‘sugar-filled’ information out there that we’re lacking the skills to find and focus on what really matters, we don’t know what healthy consumption of information looks like, and we most certainly have not developed enough imagination, problem-solving, invention, and creation in our lives and in the lives of young people that grounds us in the present.

The antidote to consumption is play: physically and mentally. We have stripped many of our institutions of play as we became heavier with the burden of information to pass on. It is inevitable. But play is not what happens at ‘recess’ or ‘lunch’. Play is not mindless, in the same way not all information is mindless. Compelling information coupled with playful experimentation, helps us create meaning and improve processes. The digital age has a great deal it can prove that this is the case. The Internet is one of the mirrors in which we can look at ourselves and be happy with what we see. However with it comes obesity and starvation of information as two extremes that can corrupt our perspectives on this, requiring a deeper degree of discernment to know the difference, and how to take action: something I think will be another of the great challenges of human kind.

Disconnected learning

If you could have a day off tomorrow to learn anything you wanted, what would it be? Have a think now…

There could be so many things you or I could learn in a day, probably the vastness of choices would make it so hard to decide. It might be connected to other people. It might be working with experts. It be making something, or finally learning to finish something. Imagine the pathways that one day of learning might open up for us? OK, now back to reality. Sorry.

Today across parts of Australia, children undertook testing for NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy, to help the Government work out how well our children spell, write, add, subtract, etc. A lot of anxiety happens around NAPLAN. Schools become dominated by it. There’s the idea that a lot is riding on how well the students do, because it reflects how well the teachers do, leading to how effective the school is. Sure, I get it. I can understand the pressure. What I can’t fathom is the learning.

I hear that some schools let primary school students watch a movie after their NAPLAN test was over. I hear some schools are giving students the Friday off from school after all the testing they’ve endured over the week. Are these meant to be rewards? Are they an acknowledgment that testing is hard work? The preparation, the testing, the recovery – all this for what are otherwise incredibly disconnected experiences from real learning.

You know what hard work is? Changing the system of education. If you’re reading this then you probably have a very good idea of what challenges this kind of change brings. Seeing education evolve isn’t going to happen with NAPLAN. It keeps us firmly planted in the traditional mindset that testing, scores, and buckets of testing data is going to give us insights into how to help education be better, be more effective; be better funded? Today I came across this video about the ’10 Expectations’ of school from the people at Leaving to Learn. The video does a very good job of defining the things that make school work, giving teachers and students a sense of purpose and engagement. The irony is that these ten expectations are more like ten challenges – because schools don’t work this way. These expectations would scare many schools.

As the video explains: these are imperatives. And to think that schools might evaluate themselves by these? Now there’s a test I’d like to see implemented. These imperatives suggest that current schooling is full of disconnected learning: we give kids the pieces, in the form of lots of separate lessons, hoping that somehow they will figure out how to make a whole. What it ends up creating are lots of ‘holes’ – ones that I’m sure existed for all our school experiences as well.

This thinking leads nicely into another piece of the puzzle: the content king. Education is dominated by content. It is saturated by it, driven by it, and confused by it. And in the world of the internet, content has multiplied millions and millions of times, in all its forms, from catalogues to cat videos, from testimonials to tweets. What we’ve gained in the technology though, is the ability to finally make connections with our learning, in real time to real places and people, really, really fast. The web scares schools too – because, just like the big bad world outside the walls of the school, the internet is waiting to chew up our attention, making us mindless, thoughtless, and selfish victims. Or so Nicholas Carr would have us believe.

Something about this logic seems all wrong. Just like the logic of NAPLAN tests. It makes sense at first, but the more you consider how the web is empowering nations of people who haven’t had the chance to learn what they really wanted, to help innovators and inventors iterate faster than ever, then you have to wonder whether Carr has simply watched too many cat videos. If you only go by the numbers then we all think Gangnam Style is the world’s greatest ever music video. The long tail of the web should make us think twice. ‘Disconnected learning’ in this context, can also relate to those moments when we are absorbed in thinking and learning deeply through the web on a key topic, a key talk, a moment of inspiration. If we need to make time to refocus, think deeply, meditate away from all the distractions of this world, then education is still not making the grade.

As a final footnote, last night I played Commander Chris Hadfield’s now famous video cover of ‘Space Oddity‘ to my two little kids. They were amazed. The questions came thick and fast. We went to his Google+ page to have a look at his other exploits and commentary while he was at the space station. More questions. More wonder. More opportunities to learn. I found it quite amazing to see these two little children discover there was another world in space, where the laws of science weren’t quite the same as on Earth. It gave them new perspectives, and a reason to connect with their learning.