Meeting Your Target: Just Cancel The Train

Literacy Matters

How do we improve literacy?

Now when I use the word “we”, I know that it’s meaning isn’t clear. I could mean, “How do we, the teaching profession, go about improving literacy?” or I could mean, “What do we, the literacy coaches at Wellington Secondary College, go about improving literacy?” These are not the only two interpretations of that simple sentence, but you, as an experienced reader, will be able to put the ambiguities to one side, content in the knowledge that the meaning will become clearer as you read further. An inexperienced or reluctant reader, however, will quickly grow confused if they don’t grasp the meaning straight away. 

Reading, as Dan Willingham, points out in The Reading Mindcan create a virtuous circle. If you read well, you’re more likely to enjoy reading, so you have a better attitude toward reading, which means that you’re more likely to read…

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Red Teaming For Schools

victorian professional development

The definition of “red teaming” varies depending on the organization doing it, but basically it consists of forming a group to find holes in the strategy or plan that’s under discussion. The idea comes from military strategies that involve thinking like the enemy and trying to work out a way to defeat one’s own army. Some companies have adopted red teaming strategies in an attempt to gain a competive advantage. Over recent years, the idea has spread to business where a group will take on the persona of a competitor and investigate ways in which the orgnanization is likely to lose customers.

So how does this apply to schools? After all, it’s not a case of schools competing against each other. Or at least, that isn’t their main driving force. Ideas from business often translate poorly to an educational environment where the language of profit and customers can alienate many…

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Two Quotes from The Godfather:

Bonasera: Let them suffer then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?

Don Corleone: [shakes his head ruefully] Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

Bonasera: Be my friend. Godfather.

[The Don shrugs, Bonasera bows toward the Don and kisses the Don’s hand.]

Don Corleone: Good. Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

Bonasera: Grazie, Godfather.

* * *

Michael: Sonny …

Sonny: You’re taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very personal.

Michael: Where does it say that you can’t kill a cop?

Tom Hagen: C’mon, Mikey!

Michael: I’m talking about a cop that’s mixed up in drugs. I’m talking about a dishonest cop…a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That’s a terrific story. And we’ve got newspaper people on the payroll, right, Tom? They might like a story like that.

Tom Hagen: They might, they just might.

Michael: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

* * *

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1

You’re at a party. You announce your intention to ring a taxi. You than ring. It arrives and takes you to you destination, where the driver asks you for the fare. It’s  approximately $26 which is fifty cents more than the last time you took a taxi from the same house.

Scenario 2

You’re at the same party. You announce your intention to ring a taxi. One of the guests you know hears you and says that he’s going soon and he’ll be happy to drive you. You arrive at your destination and the person driving you says, “That’ll be $15”.

Which scenario makes you more annoyed?

Chances are that it’s the second scenario which you find more disturbing because while you were expecting a financial transaction in the first, the second takes you by surprise. In the first case the extra money is mildly annoying, but in the second case, because you were expecting to pay nothing, you’re likely to find it outrageous even though you’re at least ten dollars better off than if you’d taken the taxi.

In “Predictably Irrational”, Dan Ariely talks about social norms and market norms. In social situations, we’re often prepared to help our and do things for no immediate payback. If you ask someone to help you carry something to your car, you’re unlikely to offer them payment or – The Godfather, notwithstanding – expect them to tell you that you now owe them a favour which they’ll one day collect. However, when a someone who runs a removalist business asks you to help him shift boxes and furniture, you’d normally expect payment.

Now, imagine an employee – let’s call him Trevor – approaches the boss and tells them that  he needs to leave early because his daughter’s school has just phoned  and informed him that she’s sick. The boss tells him that’s fine but he’ll have to put it in as sick leave. Is the boss being fair?

Let’s imagine that Trevor is a teacher. Would your expectation change if Trevor tells the principal that he won’t be able to attend the staff meeting because his child has suddenly been taken ill? To take it one step further, what if he announces that he’s missing the staff meeting because his partner is unavailable and he needs to miss the last twenty minutes of his class in order to pick up his children from school at 3-15 pm? Or what if someone announced that they won’t be able to attend any after school meetings or make morning briefing due to their need to pick up their children?

While some of you may consider it reasonable to dock Trevor’s pay in each situation, I suspect that  some people would have thought it wrong to penalise Trevor for missing a staff meeting when an emergency came up, but very few would consider it reasonable for him to miss all meetings in order to pick up the children or to miss his class without it being taken off his leave entitlements.

The big difference in how you perceive the situation will probably depend on whether you see the school as operating as part of a social norm or a market norm. While it’s obvious that a teacher is being paid, and is therefore expected to be present as part of the market norm, there are many occasions when social norms operate within a school. Apart from things like running classes out of scheduled times or volunteering to help out on various activities, teachers form social relationships with their colleagues and help each other out, not because of their salary, but because they see themselves as part of a group or sub-group within the school. When the chairs need to be stacked, some people will offer to help out. When going to get a coffee, some will ask if anyone else wants one. When the sets need to be painted for a school production, some will offer to help. They’ll be helpful, not because they see it something they’re paid to do, but because it’s part of the social norms of the school.

Of course, it’s when the line gets blurry that the trouble arises. While few people would think that a principal should just ignore someone missing their classes to pick up a sick child, many teachers would see missing the staff meeting as different because it doesn’t require extra work from anyone else and they can always read the minutes later. Yes, it’s part of the working week, but did the principal really have to be such a tight-arse as to take an hour off Trevor’s sick leave. After all, wasn’t Trevor here all day Saturday helping out with the working bee? It’s just not fair. I don’t see why we should do anything that’s not in our contract, if the administration is going to be like that!

It can be argued that the sick child situation is relatively clear: Trevor is expected to attend staff meetings and unless the expectation is that anyone is allowed to simply apologise and miss them, then he’s missing part of the school day.  However, there are a number of situations where the teachers are fluctuating between the two norms.

Consider the following and think about how you’d deal with each of the situations:

Jim steps over the line with his jokes during a Maths meeting, and you object. Later someone says to you “Hey, we don’t want to be all politically correct about it, do we, because, well, Jim’s a really good bloke and there’s no need to make a formal complaint, I’ll have a word to him, ok?”

Tina loses her temper in the English meeting and swears at you because you said that the work that Tina prepared on the text was too complicated and you won’t be using it in your class. Tina later tells everyone that she just can’t work with you and she won’t attend any meetings if you’re there.

You thank Sarah in the staff meeting for her help with a recent event and you present her with a bottle of wine. You’re later told that Natalie, who also helped with the project, feels unappreciated and ignored. 

Danny, who’s recently had a relationship breakup, has been arriving late and looking like he’s slept in his clothes. As you have the office near his first class, some days you’ve been covering his class till he arrives. 

Hayley has asked you to stay behind and supervise the deb ball practice. It’s fairly easy because a group of people come in and run the whole thing. You take the chance to do some marking. Two weeks later, she asks you to do it again. You say yes. Then somebody tells you that she gets a payment for organising the deb ball. 

Think about how you responded to each case. Did you respond according to a social norm or a market norm? Did this vary depending on the situation? Consider how it would have been different if you’d used the other one.

Do you think you would have responded differently depending on whether you were a teacher on contract, a teacher with a position of responsibility, or a member of the principal team?

Of course, different members of the school community will see the circumstances in which they work differently and this has the potential to cause irresolvable conflict, because the different participants aren’t operating from the same assumptions.

For teachers and administrators who see the school as primarily something that exists through a social norm, the subtext goes something like: “We give you payment so that you have the opportunity to come here and do what you love, but we all know that the salary is just incidental”. However, for those who see it primarily through a market norm, then there’s a core set of expectations and, while it’s inevitable that they’ll occasionally be caught up by social norms, their subtext revolves around, “Hang on, I didn’t sign up for this and it’s not in my job description!”

This is not to disparage the second group. In the real world, people will often fluctuate between the two mindsets, depending on who’s asking and what’s being expected. Indeed, if teachers don’t occasionally pull back and embrace the attitude of the second group from time to time, then they run the risk of being totally exploited. The point, however, is to recognise the different mindsets and to ask if the problem isn’t really a clash of norms rather than something more complicated.

Obviously, ideas such as performance pay for teachers belongs with people who think of schools as operating under market norms, yet anyone who’s read most of the research on motivation will know that money as an incentive is only effective in a limited number of circumstances. Performance pay is like asking people to help you weed your garden for free, while the person next to them is being paid.

The best schools will be the ones where positive social expectations dictate people’s behaviour, so the difficult question is how to ensure these without making members of staff feel exploited. It’s a difficult question, but one worth asking.

We Talk About 21st Century Learning While Looking In The Rearview Mirror!

Schools have always been under-rated! Politicians and some media outlets like to concentrate on the problems while ignoring the fact that they’ve educated vast numbers of people. Yes, there is room for improvement, and no, the occasional spelling mistake does not make that person (and an entire generation) “functionally illiterate” !

So, in a profession where one is constantly given harsh feedback – forget the media, think Year 8s on a Friday afternoon – it’s only natural that when teachers are presented with the “new, improved” model of education called 21st Century learning that there’s a certain amount of cynicism. Of course, some teachers will point to the distractions of technology and suggest that it’s just being pushed by people who love their toys and gadgets, while others will complain that they don’t have the capacity to embrace it due to poor resourcing and Internet access. When concepts such as “20% time”* are suggested, some educators often react as though “100% time” has been suggested for student projects.

While much of what people call “21st Century learning” is just what good teachers have always done in one form or another, but repackaged and rebranded, the phrase itself suggests massive change and disruption. And while most people find too much change stressful and threatening, we now live in the twenty-first century and the world around schools will change no matter how much individuals want to cling to the “way we do it here”.

Some of you will have heard the term “disruptive innovation”,  which describes how many companies continue with their old business model and ignore the threat of new ideas or inventions because it doesn’t seem a threat to them. By the time they understand, it’s too late! Think old large computing firms ignoring the PC; think Kodak ignoring digital cameras. For schools, the innovations in the world around them can either by “disruptive” or  made “sustaining” by adopting and adapting them to suit the needs of education. At first, some maths teachers wanted to ban the calculator, but it’s become a compulsory item. Similarly, many teachers have embraced word processing in order to allow students to draft and improve their work. These innovations have sustained and supported what teachers do.

However, the main problem with the way schools are looking at learning in the current century is that they’re looking at what WAS, rather than what IS, and very few educators see at as their role to help shape what WILL BE. Schools often merely take textbooks and put them online, rather than embracing the potential of the technology.

For example, just forget education for a moment. Let’s look at life in the twenty-first century: many people have a fitbit or smart phone which tracks all sorts of things from the steps you take to sleeping patterns. Google and Facebook are  constantly recording the sites you go to, your preferences, your habits. We live in a world where all sorts of things are tracked. Yet, apart from a few standardised tests, most teachers would find it hard to access information about what Johnny did last week, let alone last year.

Historically, being able to access what a student has done in the past would have had two concerns: Privacy, and workload for teachers recording the data. But while protocols and safeguards around privacy would need to be addressed, how much information could we be collecting now about where students are having difficulty and falling through the cracks by simply using existing technologies in an education setting? And when the technology that allows us to see when a person looking at a screen is losing focus or concentration, should schools embrace it or not?

Oh wait, technology like that is already here. Just not widely available.

Yes, as William Gibson said, “The future is here, just not evenly distributed”!

Whatever your views on software that can track kids progress, whether you think that Big Brother is coming or whether you think it really is a brave, new world, these are the sorts of conversations we need to have now.

What is the potential of the technologies that will be here before we know it and, just as importantly, what are the ethics of the coming technologies?

*In simple terms, giving students free rein to work on any project of their choice. Based on Google’s one day a week to work on projects.


Choice Architecture 


Nudging Your Students Toward Success

“You want to nudge people into socially desirable behaviour, do not, by any means, let them know that their current actions are better than the social norm.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness  by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

“Today, as you go through your day, notice how many times people have tweaked the environment to shape your behavior. Traffic engineers wanted you to drive in a predictable, orderly way, so they painted lane markers on the roads and installed stoplights and road signs. Grocery store managers wanted you to spend more time in their store, so they positioned the milk coolers all the way at the back. Your boss’s boss wanted to encourage more collaboration among employees, so she approved an “open floor plan” layout with no cubicles or dividers. The bank was tired of your leaving your ATM card in the machine, so now the machine forces you to remove it before you can claim your cash.”

Switch  by Dan and Chip Heath

“Students get the message about what adults want. When 4th graders in a variety of classrooms were asked what their teachers most wanted them to do, they didn’t say, “Ask thoughtful questions” or “Make responsible decisions” or Help others.” They said, “Be quiet, don’t fool around, and get our work done on time.”

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

Let’s imagine that you’re a principal and you have a problem at your school with boys peeing on the floor near the urinal. What do you do? Before you read on, stop and have a think and let me know if you didn’t choose one of the following options.

  • You ask the male staff members to be more vigilant and attempt to catch culprits.
  • You call an assembly of the boys and tell them that it’s becoming a problem and ask them to try and aim straighter.
  • You send a letter home to the parents asking them to “have a word to their child” about the need for better habits in the bathroom.
  • You call an assembly and warn them that there will be consequences if this doesn’t stop!
  • You ignore the problem and hope that it’ll go away.
  • You delegate the problem to someone else.

Of course, some of you may have used choice architecture to solve the problem.

Choice architecture is about structuring the world so that people are encouraged to make good choices. Thaler refers to it as “libertarian paternalism”. I suspect that this is mainly to satisfy the many Americans for whom any attempt to influence people’s decision is viewed as an infringement of their rights, or an attempt to create a “nanny state”.

Of course, most schools have no problem with imposing a “nanny state” and most schools are more than happy to make all sorts of decisions on behalf of their students. Naturally, this often leads to conflict, and I very much doubt if many teachers in this country haven’t heard a sentence starting with: “Yes, but why can’t we…” And I’m also sure that nearly as many teachers have at some point replied with: “Look, I don’t make the rules, I just make sure people follow them.”

So let’s think about the potential for choice architecture to solve the problem. Those of you who’ve read “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein will be familiar with this approach, but for those who haven’t, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the image of a black housefly was drawn on each urinal. Without any prompting, this simple act reduced spillage by about 80%. Having something to aim at increased the men’s attention, which increased their aim.

At another urinal, a good aim made a “poster” appear, advertising a coming event.

An approach like this has a greater chance of being effective than most of the strategies that your average school would apply.

As with behavioural economics, even if people know what’s good for them, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll always do it. In explaining choice architecture, one person suggested that while most of us belief that we think as rationally as Mr Spock, in reality, we’re more likely to behave like Homer Simpson, because, apart from not having enough willpower, we’re also likely to be subject to a number of the following biases.

Potential Biases

Anchoring bias

We often use the first piece of information as an “anchor” when making decisions.

A number of years ago, I was looking at the wine list in a restaurant. On the first page, the cheapest bottle of wine was in the seventy dollar range. On the second and third pages, there were wines costing three and four times that. On page five, when I saw a bottle for a mere forty dollars, I was happy to purchase it. At the time, I would have considered spending thirty dollars on a wine excessive, but the other wines had given me a more expensive “anchor”.

Try this for yourselves. Ask a group of people to estimate how much the most expensive Rolls Royce costs. Ask another group of people how much their first car cost (if they’ve never owned one the answer should be zero). Then ask both groups to guess how much a new model family car from any known company will cost. There’s a very high likelihood that the first group will guess significantly higher than the second group.

Availability bias 

This is a person’s propensity to give a greater weight to recent occurrences when evaluating a topic or concept.

For example, someone tells you  that today’s students waste too much time on social media. You immediately recall the fact that over the past few days you’ve caught three students on Facebook in the past week. Yes, that’s right you decide, without seeking any independent studies or data.

Representativeness bias 

We tend to make judgements based on limited information, and we often make assumptions based on the idea that if a person has one characteristic of a group then they’ll share all the characteristics of that group. For example, “nerds” are portrayed as unathletic and “jocks” are portrayed as bone-headed in a lot of fiction. If you’re told that Eugene is hopeless at sports, you may incorrectly presume that he’s clever, or, if you’re told that Fred has just been given a science scholarship, you may jump to the conclusion that he isn’t also a gun basketball player.

If you ask a group of people the following two questions, then obviously the odds of the first is much, much higher. What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will have above a science student?

What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will be a male physics students who needs glasses?

There are a limited number of science students, but the number of people who are above average and also wear glasses is significantly less than this. So, to find someone who fits all three criteria is going to be harder than finding someone who’s only described by the first. However, because of the stereotype of science students, a number of people will incorrectly suggest a higher likelihood to the second category.

Confirmation bias

When we already “know” something, we notice evidence that confirms it.

  • If Liz believers that students at her school are lazy, she’ll notice the two kids reluctant to work and ignore the fact that all the others have happily commenced and are working as hard as possible.
  • If Tony believes that women are illogical, then the fact that one of them argues with him, just proves it, because his ideas are based on evidence that he’s found on the internet, whereas hers are based on what she read somewhere.
  • If one politician is caught lying, well, what can one expect? Let’s not talk about the ten politicians that told truth so that the lie was discovered.
  • If it’s a cold morning, then that proves that there’s no such thing as “global warming”.
  • And, just to be fair about this, if there’s a very, very hot day, then that’s proof that climate change exists.

Status quo bias

The tendency to stick with what is.

You remember that magazine subscription that you could cancel at any time that you still remember each month when it’s delivered and you think, “I’m must cancel that before the next delivery”?

You know how you can now move your superannuation? Done anything about it yet?

Your remember how you’d decided that you were going to look for a new job because it’s about time you moved on?

As Thaler suggests in Nudge:

“First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

We’ll come back to some of these in more detail in looking at the features of choice architecture.


Choice architecture helps to push us in the right direction.Who determines what that actually is? Sometimes, it’ll be the person themselves; other times it may be a government or employer or school which wants us to make what it believers are the “right” choices.

“Nudge” uses the mnemonic


Understand mapping


Give Feedback

Expect Error

So what does these actually mean, and how can they be applied to education?


The first is pretty straightforward and using incentives is hardly a new idea for teachers. An incentive is something that motivates or encourages someone to do something, and most classroom teachers apply “carrot and stick” consequences for behaviours. From the elephants stamps to the “If you don’t complete up to question nine, you need to stay behind” most schools are familiar with the reward and punishment strategy as incentives.

Of course, sometimes the activity itself acts as an incentive. Students who are expected to perform a play in public rarely ask, “How many of my lines do I need to learn to pass?”

When considering incentives for students, it’s always worth asking:

  1. Does the student have a real short-term incentive to complete the work to the best of his or her ability, or will just dashing something off to satisfy the teacher work just as well?
  2. Can the learning activity have a real life purpose?
  3. What incentives do you use unconsciously?
  4. Do you ever think of new ones?
  5. Can the learning activity be linked to the individual student’s area of interest?
  6. If the activity needs external incentives – like fear of punishment – is it worth doing in the first place? (I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just suggesting that the question needs to be asked)
  7. Can the incentive be embedded in the work itself? (See the next chapter on Progress and Video Games)
  8. And most importantly, how well do your incentives work?

Of course, many of these work if you’re in a leadership position as well. As a leader, when was the last time you asked yourself if your “incentives” were working for everyone, or whether, for example, there was a real short-term incentive to have a survey completed by Friday?


When I sign up for a different way of accessing my cable TV, the person assures me that it’s really simple to install.

The box needs to be plugged into the antenna as well as the Internet. These are on opposite sides of the room. I ring back.

I need a power-line adaptor, so I order one.

Three days later, it arrives. After setting it up, I have a new problem. It needs to connect to the modem, but that means that I can’t connect my wireless to the modem.

So, I go and purchase a device which enables me to connect more than one thing to the modem.

When I get home, I discover that I now need another ethernet cable, so after another journey out, I’m all connected. Simple really.

Except that it took two weeks to do. Why?

Well, my choices weren’t made clear to me at the time of sign up. It’d be quite simple to have a series of questions for the salesperson to ask. Or even a survey for me to fill in before I spoke to anyone. That way, the person could have explained exactly what I needed, so that I could have made an informed choice at the time of signing up. Perhaps the logic was that, if I’d known how complicated it was, I wouldn’t have agreed, so hide it all until after. Except that it was far more complicated than it needed to be.

“Mapping” – What does this actually mean?

Well, basically, it means laying out the choices so that we know exactly what they mean. If there had been something that explained that I’d need an extra couple of devices as well as another ethernet cable the whole process would have been less stressful.

While firms may wish to hide any extra costs in the hope of making a sale, in this case the extra cost wouldn’t have been the issue, and, if I’d had some easy way of pulling the plug on the deal halfway through, I would have, because it just seemed too complicated.

Another example of “mapping” of where better mapping would be the purchase of a mobile phone. While many people wouldn’t understand exactly what they need, the shop is likely to be advertising extra power or data, but do you really know what phone will best suit your needs? Are you aware of how much data are you likely to use? Or whether you need 64 or 16gb? Do you even know what the gb is? A series of questions could help you “map” what you need and lead you to a better choice.

So how do students make choices at school? Are choices largely made for them?


The “status quo bias” means that any default option will end up with large numbers. The difference between an “opt-in” and an “opt-out” is extremely significant. A number of Australian primary schools have religious instruction classes where parents have the option to opt out. Compare the number of students taking these at primary school compared to the number of those attending church or Sunday School.

Schools have many other default options. In many cases, they’re almost invisible because the very nature of them means that nobody ever “opts out” or even questions them. In fact, your local school is itself a default — it’s where you go when you don’t make a conscious decision to go somewhere else.

Electronic roll-marking systems are often set up so they default to present, meaning that the teacher has to make a conscious decision to mark a student absent.

Another example of a default is the subjects which a student does. For many subjects, this is not even considered something that anyone has a choice about, and it’s only when schools are dealing with an atypical student that they may consider that he or she may be given extra help in a particular area instead of doing one of the normal “core” subjects.

But defaults don’t simply have to be about things that already exist. Does your school have any areas where you’d benefit from creating a default?


“Learning is most likely if people get immediate, clear feedback after each try.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Yep, I know. You spend most of your time “correcting things” or “marking”, don’t you? So you’ve got this one covered. We get feedback when we receive information about what we’ve done and it works best when it’s immediate. Teachers often receive immediate feedback from their class, and I don’t just mean when the students complain. Body language will usually tell you whether the students are engaged or uninterested, understanding or confused. You can adjust a lesson according to the feedback you’re given. However, not everything in education is so immediate. When you actually look at the sort of work you’re correcting and the sort of feedback you’re giving, you may start to question whether it’s worth the time you’re spending on it. Giving effective feedback is important, but how much of your time is being wasted by reading student work with the sole aim of checking that they’ve actually done it? Are the demands placed on you, leading you to be more concerned with auditing student work than improving it? How much of the work you’re taking away from the students tells you much about their capabilities? To what extent does your feedback improve their future work? Do they read it avidly or are they more concerned with what “mark” they received?

For feedback to be most effective, it needs to be as close to immediate as possible

How do you help students to improve with timely feedback, when you have several classes each with a large number of students?

Of course, not everything relies on detailed feedback from a third party. If shoot an arrow at a target and miss, you receive immediate feedback, and you adjust your aim accordingly for the next shot. When it comes to your classes it’s worth asking:

  1. Could you be using technology to speed up the feedback? Some tests and quizzes can be done on computer and the results calculated immediately, While this won’t work for every activity, it’s worth considering if there’s technology that can save you time and effort.
  2. Can the feedback be embedded into the activity itself? Just as with the bow and arrow example, some tasks will have the learning embedded into it, and the student knows immediately that what they’re doing isn’t succeeding.
  3. Can you use peer feedback in any way? Placing students in pairs, for example, and asking each student to give written feedback on each other’s work before you even look at it, can be a help to both, as well as the teacher. This can structured with specific questions to help students to know what to look out for.


If I wasn’t paying attention, it was easy to leave the headlights on in my first car. Result – a flat battery. A few years after that, I bought a car where I’d hear a buzzing if I turned off the ignition and the headlights were still on. Then my next car simply turned off the headlights when I turned off the ignition. The designers of this car really understood that people make errors, because the petrol cap was attached by a short chain so it was impossible to drive off and leave it on the roof or the petrol bowser.

Basically good choice architecture understands that people aren’t perfect and works toward overcoming their shortcomings. Think about the birth control pill as example. Why is there a pill for every day of the month when there’s only a need to take them for three weeks out of four? While it’s still possible for people to forget, it’s a lot less likely when it’s part of a daily habit.

How does your school plan for error? One school rewrote its Internet Usage Policy and sent forms home for students to have their parents sign and return. A few weeks later, any student who hadn’t returned the form was cut off from the internet, including their school email account and their access to various learning tasks and resources that had been posted on the school’s website. This was about thirty percent of the school. Needless to say, if the aim of the person in charge was to discourage teachers from ever using technology again, then they were very successful, because a number of students still took their time returning the form as it was a great excuse not to do any work. In circumstances like that one, it’s only realistic to expect that a large number of students won’t have returned the form, so would there have been a better way to have encouraged students to return the forms?

Many teachers are in the habit of taking extra resources into class, because they expect that some students will have forgotten or lost theirs. While supplying a student with a pen may not be teaching self-reliance, it’s a good example of the “expect error” concept. Similarly, having a back-up plan for when the overhead projector doesn’t work, or the sound won’t play on a film is something that most teachers do.

So where could  you or your school improve in this area? Are there “errors” that constantly happen, and each time, it’s as though nobody expected it. For example, do you leave space near the entrance when running an assembly so that any latecomers can enter quickly without creating a distraction? Does your electronic roll marking system fail to work one morning in ten, and paper rolls aren’t readily available? Does the system for late passes break down when Person X is away, because nobody is ever assigned to replace them? Do students have clear instructions for what to do if a teacher fails to show for a lesson (or do they all believe the urban myth that after fifteen minutes they’re allowed to go)?

Creative Commons (Ok, It’s Not Clickbait, but if you don’t know what it is, you probably should read this!)


Widespread adoption of the share-friendly copyright license known as Creative Commons encourages people to legally allow their own images, text, or music to be used and improved by others without the need for additional permission. In other words, sharing and sampling content is the new default. There were more than one billion instances of Creative Commons permissions in use in 2015.”

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

Basically, Creative Commons is a way for students to access things like music or images for use with their projects without breaching anyone’s copyright.

While schools are permitted to use certain things in relation to education, the rules surrounding copyright aren’t always clear and the subtleties aren’t always easy for a student (0r a teacher) to understand.

As the website tells us:

“Creative Commons helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. We unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of development, growth and productivity.

“With a network of staff, board, and affiliates around the world, Creative Commons provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work–on conditions of your choice.

Another website worth bringing to the attention of kids is the Australian one

The websites themselves explain about the licences. Depending on the level you’re using this with, you may use these sites to develop students understanding of such things as copyright and plagiarism. (It’s not as someone once said, “Copy from one source and it’s plagiarism; copy from many sources and it’s research.”)

And let’s not forget the whole thrust toward colloboration that many schools are embracing. Colloboration is not simply putting kids in groups and trying to ensure that Jason doesn’t let Jade do all the  research work, while he operates the slides when they present. In the future, colloboration will include working with people you’ve never met face to face.

Here’s the video from the Creative Commons website:

Chaucer Or Chips

There are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide everything into two categories and those who don’t. Personally, I’ve always found it rather useful to remember the words of George E. P. Box who said: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  So I’m going to ask you to think about schools for a moment and do a massive oversimplification.

Take a particular subject or topic and categorise it according to the following question: Is it focused on the past or the future?

Yes, I’m sure that in some cases it’s possible to argue either way, but what’s the main thrust of the learning? In learning about scientific discoveries, for example, is it looking at them as a piece of history or is it about their importance going forward? Is science presented as a neat collection of what we already know, or is it shown to be a messy, inefficient process of trial and error where failures contribute to our knowledge?

Are we looking at Chaucer as part of our cultural heritage or as an example of the evolution of language? Yes, I suspect that most schools aren’t looking at Chaucer at all and that’s part of the point. How much of what we are asking people to learn has no relevance to the future?

Now I’m not saying that we should eliminate all attempts to enable students to have some sense of how our society developed, but I am suggesting that we may have to do some trimming to allow more time to consider where we’re heading and, importantly, where we want to head.

Whether you’re a teacher or a student, try the past/future categorisation for a few days.

Metadata, Class Sizes and the Need For Some Slow Thinking!

“Worse, in the twenty-first century the massive technological changes that have vastly changed our society have had little effect on our schools; in too many places, the technology is merely being used as the next, best filmstrip, or worse, a better way to quiz and test our students, rather than as a way to open up our classroom windows and doors so that students can learn what they need to, create what they want, and expand the reach of their ideas to almost limitless bounds.”

Building Schools 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase

Every time someone releases figures about how Australia is performing in the education stakes, someone from the Coalition government uses it to justify their stance on education. So recently when the OECD’s snapshot of 46 countries came out recently it showed a number of things, but prinicipally it told us that Australia proportionally spends more on education than most developed nations. It also suggested that Australia went backwards on a number of indicators.

Now while going backwards may not necessarily be as disastrous as the media would have you think  or an indication of a complete failure, I’d certainly agree that we need to make sure that money going into education is well spent. However, it’s the idea that you can draw valid conclusions from looking at metadata that I find most frustrating. Metadata may indicate what you need to look at in more detail but one can’t draw definitive conclusions from metadata.

If we take class sizes as an example, then even if the metadata suggests that class sizes make no difference to outcomes, we can’t make that conclusion by looking at the respective performances of the various countries because we have more than one variable. Even my Year 10 Psychology students know that you can only test one variable at a time. If you want to make any accurate conclusions, you’d need to get classes from the same school and create a control group of the usual class size and compare to classes with significantly less and/or significantly more students.

If we really want to determine whether class sizes make no difference, then maybe we should organise an experiment where a school puts one group of students in a class of fifteen at the beginning of their school career and another group of students in a class of thirty and then tests them at the end of each year. While parents may be reluctant to put their child in the class of thirty, surely there’d be enough advocates of the idea that class size makes no difference who’d be happy to place their offspring in such a class.

To compare the results of students in different countries tells us nothing because there’ll be a whole range of possible reasons for superior performance on particular tests including attitudes to education, the number of non-native speakers in the population and whether the difference in class sizes has made any difference to the way schools structure the learning.

Part of the trouble with looking at metadata is best explained by looking at the work of Daniel Kahneman. As he points out in Thinking Fast and Slow, humans are often quick to reach a conclusion and then they use their rational brains to justify that conclusion, rather than questioning their original conclusion. So if politicians have been looking to cut education funding, then any suggestion that increased spending hasn’t led to amazing improvements in education is immediately confirmation of their idea that it’s “quality teaching that counts”, rather than a more detailed examination of whether there are areas where increased expenditure has improved outcomes.

Until metadata is broken down with some “slow thinking” it tells you nothing. For example, we can increase average income of everyone in a group and conclude that money doesn’t improve work satisfaction at all based on the results of a survey telling us that people were even less happy than they were the year before. It’s only when you dig deeper and discover that the average income was increased by giving a massive bonus to two people, while everyone else worked for less that we can begin to surmise that this may have led to the rise in dissatisfaction.

Another point being raised is that Australia’s increase in spending on technology hasn’t made a “significant”  difference to literacy and numeracy. While I suspect that a large part of the reason for that is that many teachers have only used the technology to do what they’ve always done – reading a text off a screen instead of on the page  is no more likely to increase literacy than moving from chalk to whiteboards – I’ve never thought that the reason that schools need to use technology is to improve the literacy and numeracy rates. Schools need to use technology because society uses technology. While I’m not advocating that schools’ role is to prepare for the workforce, we certainly don’t want a situation where a school-leaver walks into a job asking, “What’s Excel?” More than that, however, we need to be building student awareness of both the potential and drawbacks of technology.

For Australia, nobody should be drawing answers from the OECD results. All metadata really does is help form the questions.


Why Laptops Should Be Banned… Along With Calculators and The Ballpoint Pen

There was an article about Sydney Grammar School banning laptops in the classroom, quoting the principal as saying. ‘I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.’

And a few weeks ago we were told by a speaker from the OECD that technology in schools was “doing more harm than good”. This was on the basis of an OECD report which found that some countries have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in results for reading, mathematics or science, in spite of investing large amounts into technology.

Now when I was in primary school, after Year 3, we used pen and ink. I’ve noticed that they now use biros. I wonder  – when schools made the switch from using inkwells – if there were any studies that told us that there was no “noticeable improvement” in reading and writing, and therefore, biros were a huge waste of money and a huge fraud.

To me, there’s one good reason to use technology in schools and it has nothing to do with improving test scores. We should use technology in schools because we use technology everywhere else.

Yes, I can see an argument that sometimes it’s good to get kids to switch off and slow down and get back to nature. I can even see that there are times in some subjects it may be part of the learning to do things in a particular way. On a case by case basis, you can persuade me that students may not need computers for this particular exercise, and that it’s forcing them to think differently by taking them off-line. Just as some Maths classes may ask that students don’t use a calculator, then it may be good sometimes to take away the technology and rough it.

But if we’re going to say that we should stop using them completely, then you probably don’t work in an environment that makes best use of them.

And when I read things like the Principal of Sydney Grammar School telling us, I have to wonder what on earth he’s thinking:

‘We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibit conversation — it’s distracting.

‘If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.’

Now, when I want students to discuss things with each other without being distracted by laptops, I tell them to put their laptops down. If they can’t do that without opening them two minutes later, then I tell them to put their laptops away. I don’t suddenly go, “It’s the laptops that stops them listening to our fascinating discussion”…   Just as I never concluded it was the pen and paper that had kids making spitballs and using the shell of their pen to launch them. I saw it as a classroom management issue. But it is good to know that elite private schools like Sydney Grammar seem to have the same issues with disengaged students that we all have!

Yes, I know…

Sometimes you’ll catch kids watching films or playing games when they’re meant to be working. Of course that’s the fault of the laptop and nothing to do with the sheer meaninglessness of the tasks that you’re asking them to perform.

And yes, I know…

Sometimes in life we all need to do things that are boring and meaningless. However, that’s no excuse for spending so much of the day doing  them in schools… Particularly when so many of them won’t actually improve the learning of the students.

Now, I could write heaps about how some educators are using technology in really exciting and engaging ways but there’s plenty of articles out there about that and if you’re not aware of it, I suspect that’s because you don’t want to know. If that’s a surprise to you and you do want to know, try googling (it is a word, don’t be ridiculous) people and sites like George Couros,Will Richardson, Jackie Gerstein, Edudemic, Fluency 21 and scores of others. At the very least, read “Disrupting Class” and understand that education is going through the same sort of disruptive innovation that closed Kodak.

The reason that laptops end up being a distraction is that kids would rather learn than be bored. Anyone playing a video game is learning, being challenged and getting lots of immediate feedback. If that’s not happening in their classes, then no wonder they’re playing games.

However, my main point is a lot more basic than that. If you think that students shouldn’t have laptops in school because they’re a distraction, then how do you expect them to cope once they leave the safe cocoon where they’re protected from such things?

That’s as absurd as the old idea that if one didn’t talk about sex, then the kids wouldn’t find out about it.


Book Review: “Smarter, Faster, Better ” by Charles Duhigg

  • “Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.” From Smarter, Faster, Better

Ok, for those in Australia, the title of Charles Duhigg’s latest book, “Smarter, Faster, Better” may remind them of the Liberal Party’s  slogan for the NBN, “Fast Affordable Sooner”, but don’t let that put you off.

Duhigg, who also wrote “The Power of Habit”, outlines several way that we can boost our productivity and one of the things I found more refreshing about the book is when he actually describes some of his own flaws and difficulties in managing his own projects, rather than presenting himself as the infallible person with “the answer”.

The book is divided into sections with such topics as Motivation, Teams, Goal Setting and Absorbing Data, with a useful appendix about putting these concepts into practice. (My kindle tried to tell me that I was finished when I reached the beginning of the Appendix and wanted me to rate the book then and there!)

While the term “boosting productivity” may make you think that it’s only relevant for the business world,  I’d recommend it to anyone, and particularly to people involved in education. It’s an interesting read and has plenty of ideas worth thinking about.