Using design thinking to design a design thinking program…

In the middle of last year my co-teachers and I started looking at the possibility of implementing a personalisation model in our Primary Years learning area. There are a lot of positive reasons for us to do this, as we are a big learning area, with over 150 year 6/7 students in the one building. While this may sound like a disadvantage to some, the opposite has usually proven to be true. The opportunities for providing diverse, cross curricular programs, with multiple options and entry points for the wide ability ranges represented within the building, as well as the collaborative approach to planning provide us with the opportunities to try many innovative projects, and work together to share our discoveries as educators. The latest step is designed to address the difficulties surrounding the spread of ability over the Primary Years. (In some cohorts this ability range has spread from year 1 to year 10). Personalisation seems to be the best way of addressing this. Hopefully soon I will have written a post about our thinking and steps towards this process and when I do, I will put a link to it here… (NOTE: Until there is a link here, feel free to chide me endlessly in the comments until I write something. I need to be externally motivated sometimes.)

As described in previous blog posts, I had been inspired by Edutech presentations by Ian Jukes and Ewan Macintosh, as well as Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Haesler. I had experimented with ungooglable questions in the classroom in the latter half of 2014, and this process, while enlightening, had also thrown up some pretty big deficits in the class skill set. With the long term view of creating a personalised learning space across all five Primary years Classes, we quickly realised that these were a range of skills that all of our students would need if they were to be successful in a personalised environment.

Overwhelmingly, this new cohort of students (the new year six students at least) had also come from classes where much of the learning had been worked through together, where the focus was still mostly on personal individual capability and individual product. Taking risks and problem solving were not skills that they had even begun to develop.

As previously noted, the 21st century learning skills focus on Collaboration, Problem Solving and Critical Thinking. To make the most of these abilities, students also need to develop other skills such as time management, research capabilities and higher order thinking and questioning.

PictureHow do we teach that? The ideas of Ewan Mackintosh had been a great jumping off point in terms of higher order thinking and further research combined with some handy links from my line manager threw up the idea of design learning as a possible next direction. But the teaching of Higher Order thinking, while very, very important, wasn’t on it’s own going to cut it, especially at the start of the new year. Asking students to launch straight into unGoogleable questions and higher order questioning with no lead in was a big ask. So we rescheduled this for later in the year. Having trialled unGooglable questions in term three and four last year, it has become evident that before we can unpack higher order thinking, we need a solid basis in some other, more basic, skills to support us.

1 Observation & Understanding

Our middle years learning space already works in a collaborative way. We run activity sessions once a week, where students book into their choice of session. We run a kitchen and garden program that allows all students to work in groups and create dishes and grow fresh vegetables. We run a robotics program and trialled a TV studio. These options are accessible to all students, with each teacher designing the lessons. In 2014 we also trialled a Natural Maths program, running concurrently with three classes. Students work collaboratively across the learning space with extra support from SSO staff. (We have since expanded this model to all five classes.) It is fair to say that when combined with team planning, and shared resource development, we work well as a collaborative team.

So when I looked at Design Learning, I could see that we could become more explicit about the skills needed to realise the 21st century skillsets, whilst also covering the new Digital Technologies Curriculum processes and production skills, science content (particularly water & electricity) and elements of HASS.

DEsign & technology & digital linkingThe process and production skills in the digital technologies curriculum include Defining, Designing, Implementing, Evaluating, Collaborating and Managing. These are broadly similar skills to those advocated in the design learning process I had been researching.

Design learning also suits the needs and talents of the more ‘hands on’ and ‘verbal’ learners in our learning area. These traditionally overlooked and usually unsettled cohort of learners have an opportunity to model their skills to the more traditionally successful ‘sit and listen’ students. These students had been very successful in the kitchen and garden programs, and right from the beginning of the design process, different faces have came to the fore to lead their teams.

So design learning looked like the stepping-stone we needed between collaboration and personalisation. I set about trying to create a design learning program that would teach students how to work collaboratively, to solve problems, research their solutions and present their findings clearly and critically to the group.

2 Ideation20141119_154024


So as far as broad ideas went, I was brimming with choices. There were a wide range of differing approaches to be found, with slightly differing terminology and process steps to be found all over the internet. Some of the processes focussed on the ‘making and design’, some on thinking and research. There was, however, nothing that fit the cohort’s needs as a ready-made process. The question was, where to start.

I read as much material as I could from a range of websites. Macintosh and Sugata provided some great ideas with their processes.
Corporate websites that advocated design-thinking processes were also a valuable source of information and there were many links to University You Tubes and education specific models such as this very helpful one that eventually formed the basis for our program.

From this base of reading I started to better understand the process, and started to cobble together a plan. This understanding phase is critical, in that it frames the needs of the process, and sets the goal and success criteria for all that follows. It also gave me enough of an idea of the differing ways of using design process that I felt much more confident in adapting what I found instead of just using it.

Next, I created a draft process that I could use in my own class, to trial the process and to see what I could learn. My class this year is one of a lower literacy and research skill level, and so I designed initially a process and a program that involved solving a problem in the school garden, namely, keeping it alive over summer. It involved group activities, brainstorming, and design research. The overall scaffolding worked pretty well, but the researching and mind mapping skills were too advanced for the class and I had made many, many assumptions about the capabilities of the group. Not all of these sessions met with success, but there were many elements that worked well, elements that underpinned the ideas of working collaboratively and sharing what we discovered. I surveyed the class to get some feedback on this, and started to make adjustments for the new year.

3 Stick a voteScreenshot_2015-02-11-17-52-28

So I played a bit of pick and choose between those elements that worked and those that needed to change. Between those that needed more scaffolding to improve the success rate of students and those that worked well from the outset. I created a process and explanation of the steps as I envisioned them coming about and proposed a series of test lessons that we could use in the first part of this year in order to share the process with colleagues, and to refine what I had learned so far. I chose the most effective elements and removed or significantly altered many others. I started to create a program that could be easily picked up by colleagues and run with.

4 Prototype Plan
The second run through the process was set for term one this year. There were already many changes in this modified run, not the least being the goal: in this run through, the end result had a focus on creating a physical model of the solution to the problem at hand, rather than a real world solution to be hopefully implemented within the school. Although it is pretty clear from research (link) that real world problems are great motivators, at this point the chance of the school going ahead with a real life garden redesign were slim. The kids knew this and so there was a sense of ‘what’s the point?’ Students were clear in their feedback that in the end, if we weren’t going to actually build the garden solution, we were wasting their time. My attempts at selling this first garden problem as a thought experiment rightly fell on deaf ears. In the second round, the financial restraints are still the same, but by making the end product a plan and model that can be proposed to the principal, the students have a concrete goal that won’t kill the budget. There is a more tangible end product, and this seems to suit the process better than an abstract outcome. In the next round, a real world outcome of manageable proportions will be the goal. As a side benefit, the model making elements of this task help meet the criterion of design and technology in the digital design curriculum. As a downside, this area needed a lot more scaffolding and materials, both for students, and for myself.

The second major change was that I knew that I would be sharing the results of this current run through with my colleagues. I was keen for them to take a few lessons themselves and introduce the lab to their own classes. I had created a pretty serviceable framework and working space, but the biggest stumbling block so far had been that much of the process was still stuck exclusively in my head. I had also noticed some potential trouble spots, and some areas where, although I knew what I was doing, I knew I would need more detail and resources created in order to hand over to other teachers and have them be successful.

So I started researching again. I looked for specific lessons to support the skills of each lesson, to plug the gaps and assumptions I had made about my students and the lesson steps. It was at this point that I found the going slowest, and noticed that I was second guessing all the ideas I’d used, and wondering if I had misinterpreted, if I was ‘doing it wrong’.

6 Critique CirclesPicture5
The solution was obvious: use the process itself. I realised at some point that I was essentially trying to create a ‘finished product’ for my
colleagues. The Irony of doing this for a design learning process was not lost on me. So instead of presenting to colleagues a finished product, I decided to get them into the lab and run through with them how the process works right now. And within fifteen minutes of walking into the lab they were questioning, suggesting and working on modifying it too. It’s early days, but one single session of sitting in the space and discussing the process with colleagues has already thrown up some excellent changes.

Like I say: Obvious.

When I was working on my own, the pace was glacial. I second-guessed and dithered a lot. As soon as I reviewed the first run with students, decisions started to happen. When I brought in my colleagues, things changed even more quickly. After that one meeting I’m already looking at changes for the next process and most importantly, so are they.

It’s moving quicker, and it is happening with more confidence now because I’ve got more brains working on the problem. That’s why more brains are better than one…

We’re using design thinking to think about designing effective design thinking.

5 Test



And so now I get to put this all into practice. I’ve created rubrics and mini lessons and curated useful links and videos and more. I’ve got my colleagues on board to start their first design lessons in the next week or so. They will provide me with a lot of feedback, because they are that kind of people and I will go away and make changes. They will go away and make changes. Then we will run it all again. And then we will make more changes.

We will keep the original brief in mind: To develop the skills of our students in Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Problem solving so that later down the track when we personalise their learning space, they have the 21st century skills they need to make it in that space. Because if we can do that in here, they can take those skills out into the real world and endlessly adapt them to whatever is put in front of them.

Big things afoot. Finding time for innovation



It’s early morning. The weather is lovely. I’m two little coffees down, sitting out on the back porch trying to write a blog post about teaching because I haven’t done one for ages and I know it’s a good thing for me to do. It helps me order my own thinking.

And ordering my thinking is important, because the holidays ended last week.

And as I sit here making an attempt at typing profound and important things, my son has been bringing me old clothes pegs to examine and asking me to play. The dog is nudging a truly disgusting tennis ball against my left leg, and my son, realising that this is getting some of my attention while he gets none, makes the obvious link and starts making dog noises and running around my chair. He’s already asked to play footy when I’m done. I say yes, but I feel guilty. I might never be done at this rate. After a holiday of almost limitless access and attention, my son is no doubt confused by my focus being on something else.

Late last year I started a process of modernizing my teaching practice for 21c learners. By the time we’d hit that last celebratory staff meeting of the year, I’d exposed myself to Ian Jukes, Ewan Makintosh, Dan Haesler and Sugata Mitra. I’d set up classroom like Lisa Burman and made passing glances at Ann Baker and Sheena Cameron as well. I’d done a lot of reading and trialing and testing and thinking, (and as in this case, quite a bit of namedropping). I’d had discussions with team teachers and the school leadership. I’d spoken to like minded tweeps and done endless reams of little mind maps and colour coded lists, which I love, because they make the hours fly by. I had grand and amazing visions of major projects that would spring fully formed from the lazy afternoons of a six week Christmas break. I plotted my return to the classroom in term one as if I were some form of chrysalid, planning a big shiny, fully formed butterfly transformation.

I’m now being slapped lightly on the head by a small swimmers kickboard, attached to a small swimmer. This is an indication that yet again I’m being boring and grown up and I should just stop it. The item is duly confiscated.

And it’s not like I’m alone in this butterfly transformation project. I have teaching partners, thankfully, that are well and truly keen to take risks. We’ve been working as a unit for several years. We have a leadership that is keen for us to trial and innovate. we have release time and more. We are, in my opinion, extremely well setup for innovative and team thinking to flourish. It’s an opportunity that needs grabbing.

We run five Primary years classes (6/7) in one big unit in an Adelaide inner west school, and have been team planning activities including film, design learning, robotics, a kitchen garden (with kitchen) as well as new shared programs around Ann Baker maths that this year will form a unit wide maths program. This is a busy space, made possible by a group of teachers who are all on board and a leadership who supports us financially, with endless tedtalk links and boundless moral support. And yet I still found it hard to find the time to do it justice when holidays came around.

So am I being lazy? With all this amazing potential before us, am I squibbing it? Shouldn’t I be flat out creating this amazing new butterfly of learning? All holidays it bugged me. My ambitions for this year demanded I get on and work non stop. My family suggested the beach. Guess what won?

And inbetween bike rides and laundry and coffee shops and book shops and bike rides and scooter rides and bike rides, the worry that I wasn’t making progress just stuck there like a poppy seed in my teeth. I started to think about what it is that all those self propelled super achievers have on twitter that I seemed to be missing. You know the ones. Blogging non stop, maintaining their PLC’s. Curating useful links to evernote and prompting each other to greater heights. I have to assume they have families and classrooms as well. What was their secret?

Mr six has just tried to talk to me about something. I am using tactical ignoring. After a moment he says “I’ll just get back to my drawing then” and I’m sure there’s sarcasm in it. I’m running out of time to get this down.

Because it’s easy to see the end result. It’s easy to see the glorious Butterfly transformation of your classroom in your mind’s eye, but sometimes it’s hard to stomach all the tedious eating and cocoon building you need to do first.

We can see all of these potential changes in our building clearly. I can see all the potential, the possible future of a learning space that covers design learning and personalisation and digital curriculums and collaborative learning. A space that uses targeted intervention and effect sizes and moderation amongst five teachers who are all on the same page. I can see team planning and moodle classrooms and democratic student voice set in a learning space that is flexible and collaborative and independent.

But I’ve know that seeing it is the easy part. The perfect learning space. I bet we all have one.

Now, in an effort at solving both of their problems, Mr six is currently trying to throw the ball for the dog, who unsurprisingly won’t give it. So he’s decided to stop shouting at her and ride his scooter instead. Could I get it out of the car? “In a minute… ” I say.

After four seconds and with a verbal eye roll, he lumbers off mutterring “I’ll ask mum.”

You see, often the best innovators within our business don’t just demonstrate to others that their ideas have merit, they don’t just demonstrate their passion for a topic, (their perfect classroom), they’re also honest about the fact that what they are advocating as part of the process is harder work. More time. More reflection. More refining. But they rarely outline how they balance that with daily life. So I started to look around.

The most helpful talk I found was on the topic of the ‘slow hunch’ by Steven Johnson. The (link) is here,

I particularly like the idea that Eureka moments have historically been overplayed, and that most good innovative thinking happens as part of a network or team. This is good news. We have a good team. The example (from the presentation link above) of scientific research into innovatons in a science lab, (with most innovations coming not from the lab but from the weekly office meeting), is a great one. It demonstrates the value of teams working together in an environment where clashing ideas is a safe activity (gratuitous Tfel namedrop – safe conditions for learning). It also happens to be a great argument for not trying to fashion the perfect 21st century classroom on your own in the holidays. Two weeks into this term and I’ve already gone so far off the reservation in terms of my ideas from December that I’m pretty glad now that I ‘wasted’ my holidays in the way that I did.

The second message from this talk was that great ideas don’t arrive as new shiny things (like my fully formed classroom butterfly), they are almost always cobbled together from old, existing parts we are already using. A combinaton of ideas and perspectives stitched together to be tested, repaired and rerun. For example: I had been trying in the last few months of 2014, to set up a design learning lab in my building. I’d done reading, interpreted and modified other’s ideas and I had come up with something that in the end I was pretty happy with. I implemented my ideas and I changed a few things as I tested them out on last years classes and ironed out the kinks.

So I start the year with a pretty serviceable lab, but I know I can improve on it. And the big thing is, now that I’m at the point of sharing this room and its principles with my co teachers, I’ve started to have qualms, as if the design lab I’ve created isn’t like the other ones, or perhaps I’ve misinterpreted the idea or missed the point or gone off on a tangent. I was looking at it all again and again, trying to see how I might justify it to my colleagues, looking for flaws.

And that’s a waste of time.

Because now I’m sure that this cobbling together and testing is exactly what I should be doing. My next step isn’t presenting my shiny new machine for design learning and a manual for its use to my colleagues. Rather, it’s an invitation to the whole team to come in and start tinkering as well, to help out. This will not only make it a better program, but it takes all the pressure out of it too.

So now I can spend a bit of time trying to launch jr. into orbit on the trampoline, instead of reworking the lesson plan again.

The final learning I took from Steven Johnson is that connections outside my network matter. Exposing myself to other fields and other practices and other people in other networks really matters. And so again, I can look back on my holidays and see the hours on politics blogs, conversations with my engineer brother and trips to the beach with a six year old as valuable cross pollination.

This guy really gets me off the holiday hook .

And it also means that I come back into the room ready to take incremental, tinkering steps towards that ultimate classroom, walking around the problem with a group of peers, instead of trying to launch the perfect butterfly when I should be relaxing.

I start to plan a walk to the park, comfortable in the knowledge that I didnt really waste my holidays at all. It was all slow hunch time. And it works.

Answering the UnGooglable – Building wings on the way down

If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” RAY BRADBURY
It’s been a fair while since I last posted on Ungooglable questions, (or indeed, on anything). Theres a really good reason for that. We’ve been battling a rather drawn out campaign against our chosen questions, all the while making our own tools and plans as we went – building our wings on the way down. The process has been pretty hectic, but the lessons learned will make the next set of projects better planned and better scaffolded. In the end the results have at least been encouraging enough to support the idea that we were right to change from our business as usual report writing and try something new.
As a class, we had managed to create some great questions that would result in more than just fact gathering exercises. This was heartening, and it felt for a while like most of the heavy lifting on our projects had been done. We managed to breeze our way though the questioning phase with some ease once we understood that the goal was to create questions that couldn’t be answered by simple, low level thinking. The class came up with a wide variety of questions that required  a lot more thought than simple fact gathering and rehashing ‘in their own words’ could provide. This in itself was an idea that many students baulked at. – ‘Why does it have to be my own words? these words are better and I think I understand them pretty well‘ – is an actual quote from miss 13-going-on-19.
It’s a valid question to ask really, (though perhaps without the head-moving-side-to-side thing students often do at that age when displeased.) What is the learning intention behind simply rewording facts from the internet? It’s pretty low level stuff for a kid on the fast track to high school, and it rewards the neat methodical kids who can draw a good mindmap, and ironically, it disadvantages those same kids to like to argue with you day in, day out. As a result, these arguers dont ever really buy into information reports, because regurgitation is expected, and regurgitation is boring. They phone it in, and they are probably right to, because the new Digital Technologies curriculum calls this consuming technology, and it’s pretty low on the list of desired skills.
This second phase – actually answering the questions we’d made – posed the major problem of the Ungooglable Egypt task. In essence, the question that challenged us for quite some time had been “If Google can’t answer it and you’ve never taught us how to do that explicitly for ourselves, how are we going to get this done?” The answer to that was for us to spend a lot more time on it than I’d originally planned,  because I’d never explicitly taught this way either. We did a lot more research and a lot more planning and  created more mindmaps than we had ever done before, and after all this, we still needed to actually draft our reports. This extra workload didn’t go down well, but there needed to be time for students to shift  mindsets and get better explicit skills for analysing facts, instead of just telling them back to the teacher in different words or ways. It’s the difference between creating content and consuming content, between ‘tweeting’ and ‘retweeting’, if you like, and developing the skills to do that was never going to be a quick process, especially with no real evidence for students that it was worth the effort. The response to these fears from their teacher (essentially ‘trust me on this‘) didn’t allay fears of middle years students with a keen eye for wasted time. My hope is that in the next project, we can look back and see more clearly what it is we are aiming at by working in this way.
For year six and seven students of a very broad skill range, the sudden shift from doing something like reporting back, (an idea that they are finally getting their heads around by middle school,) and actually creating content through opinion and analysis, (something they are too rarely asked to do), has been a steep curve full of frustrations but I think there have also been new discoveries. For example, it’s led to a simple discovery that students retelling facts in a report can, and indeed have been, quite easily hiding some pretty shallow researching skills. Students have been surprised, and no doubt appalled by the increased amount of information they need to uncover to effectively answer their questions, and it’s revealed to me that the critical researching skills of these ‘digital natives’ are, in many cases, quite poor. This has informed my literacy goals, as vocabulary has often been the limiting factor in a student’s ability to phrase searches in multiple forms and find information that lies just past the first few obvious search terms. We will need to work on this, too.
On the plus side –  we’ve come to realise a really valuable truth about facts. When we broaden our questions and follow our own trails, we tend to stray into each others territory as we gather them. One of the greater sucesses of this project in the class has been the use of Edmodo as a message board for students to post useful links to each other. Many a frantic request for assistance has been met not by the teacher, (although I did throw in the odd link,) but by peers working on other questions who either stumbled upon or used  a relevant link. Students were genuinely surprised about this crossover, thinking usually of historical facts as self contained. It helped a lot with context, as kids started to fot their questions together. It’s highlighted a need to share end products as well.
Some of this might sound a bit hard and sloggy, but the point is, a research information report or powerpoint, (of which these middle years students must now have done hundreds,) has been rendered essentially new and strange by being shifting our focus onto opinion and evidence instead of ordered facts. As a result, it has become a great platform for teaching thinking and justifying, as well as teaching questioning.
But it’s taken a lot of explaining to get even this far.

We focussed recently on  the fact that after the facts were gathered and sorted, there was still another step to make before drafting if we wanted to be sure of answering our higher order questions. This was met with some consternation, particularly by the students who’d mastered simple regurgitation and two-source bibliographies. Proudly they had come to me to show their research facts and stated with confidence that they were ready to write a draft. They were a touch crestfallen to realise that I’d added another step, “before writing your facts in a draft, you need to first relate them to your main question and then make your own conclusions about them.”

Its hard to make that leap – I had one of my most capable students trying to link the society and daily life of Egypt to the rituals of Egyptian beliefs –
“I have facts on rituals and I have daily life facts, but I cant find any sites that link them..” she said.
” YOU make the information in the middle.  Its your opinion that links them ” I replied.
“But my opinions aren’t facts” she replied, “I need facts…” as if she wasn’t qualified to comment. It’s not a surprise she thinks that way of course, because our previous reports haven’t given her the chance to voice proper opinions.
There was also the case of one student who just wouldn’t stop researching – from one fact, leading to the next, dragging her further and further from her original question. Attempts to redirect her back to the questions were met with variations on the idea that “they need to understand this in order to understand the last bit. All of this stuff is relevant. I get it now.” Thats a valuable bit of learning right there, regardless how much more time it takes, but it also highlights a need for teaching how to make editorial decisions when the number of facts starts to balloon. It’s another skill in framing your opinion. what to leave out.

But the best bit so far was miss high achiever who had set herself the tough question of explaining how to spot the difference between real and fake artefacts. She’d gone very deep into websites on radio carbon dating and was being utterly defeated by the language. Thinking I was helping, I gave her a pretty clear weblink and suggested she add this to her report, (time was running out). Her response underlined why all the time spent so far is perhaps worth it in the long run. “I can’t use it until I know what it means.” She had to understand it in order to make an argument with it. In a report, evidently, she could have more easily faked that understanding. I think many middle years teachers will agree, a proven understanding of the content is often missing in student information reports on Egypt, with countless children proudly stating information to which they have not yet fully understood, because they rarely need to justify it or back it up. – e.g: “only kings were mummified. – Our website relies on your contributions to continue its work.” (an actual note in Ms unnamed’s Egypt report notes…)

And so I think we are getting somewhere now, even though the time it’s taken and quotient of eye-rolls we have used up is remarkably high. It’s also worth acknowledging that in my particular context, the process will take longer with some of the class, with literacy levels spanning years 3 to 9, a spread that means we usually move forward in 30 separate directions at 30 seperate speeds. I still see in even the most struggling students a willingness at least to analyse their information more carefully and collect a larger pile of facts to include in their reports. For this cohort, it is a good start. In the past, Ms Unnamed’s quote above would have slipped through into the final draft, more often than not.

And I think that next time, (there will definitely be a next time) some simple tweaks like improved access to basic information in the initial steps of the projects and a more thorough foregrounding and scene setting of the material, (which I somewhat  neglected in my rush to get going this time round), will certainly move the bar higher again. But the proof will be in the eating, and the Egypt reports are due this coming week. (Last week actually, but I’m soft like that) and I’m looking forward to comparing this term’s information reports to the last set, side by side. I’ll include that in the next post.

Setting students ungooglable questions, then, has turned out to be the easy part. The battle has been in rewiring a class to look deeper at the answers they give, and to contribute their own opinons and reasoning into the mix. It’s this that has proven to be the real pitched battle, but at the same time, it’s proven, simply by how hard the battle has been, that it’s a pretty worthwhile battle to have.

And worth every dramatic eye-roll along the way…

Short term pain – Long term gain?

This week has been a difficult one in many ways for teaching unGooglable questions, but there are also plenty of indications of success to keep me thinking positive towards the end of term. Trying something new is a risk, it takes your teaching time, and eats into your curriculum, and often the end result is not ensured. In the end this week, it was one question on a post it note that tells me we’re getting somewhere.

Firstly, lets look at the difficulties:

Number one: I’m asking kids to work in an entirely new way, which is more difficult, has a less apparent purpose and is taking up a whole lot more time than usual. By now, most of the students want to do a diorama or a papier-mache sphinx with labels on it and get it over with. These kids are nearly teenagers, by the way, so they know how to express these doubts in just the right way…

Number two: I’m doing so much more ‘support’ teaching and more detailed pre-planing that I even catch myself looking wistfully back at the last project, so full of self directed time, well understood expectations and support for only the true strugglers in the room. Because what I’ve essentially done this week is to make almost everyone into a struggler, even myself, and the attendant increase on my attentions is creating not only frustration for the class, but actual queues. And all of this is fine, because in my head I know where I’m going with this and I’m pretty sure the end result will be better, but I’m also having to do a fair bit of PR to keep the students on board. I’m also out of my own comfort zone which is good, but also time consuming.

Number three: I’m learning as I go. I’ve already started to create a fairly long list of modifications to the way I might teach this process in the future. I’m relearning that the level of general knowledge needed to create great high order questions needs to be instilled first, and having to play catch up on this has not made things easier.

Overall, I’m really happy with the questions that have resulted, but some of them are the kind of questions where you just know that you’ll be working on them for a long time to come.

Now let’s look at the positives.

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions my students came up with about Egypt this week:

  • How do we know the artefacts are real and not fakes?
  • How did the burial rituals shape the everyday life of Egyptians?
  • What would you change about the way slaves lived?
  • Would modern day Egypt be famous today (for tourists) without the Pyramids?
  • Compare the purpose and construction of the Pyramids and the World Trade Centre?
  • What would have happened to Egypt without trade?
  • Compare the difference between the historical evidence for Ancient Egypt and Aboriginal Australia.

These are just the questions that stick in my mind tonight, but there were many more, just as complex and with just as many layers needed to get to the bottom of them.

This of course leads to the most uncomfortable question of all for this particular educator. How do I go about teaching kids to answer them?

I spent a lot of time this week playing catch up on content. A few discovery channel videos, some texts, and even a trip to the Museum worked as solid background information. Throughout this I kept my pockets full of pencils and post-it notes and encouraged kids to scribble questions down at every opportunity. We would return at the end of lessons and try to place the questions on the question wall, using Blooms to rank the ‘Googlability’ of each. We quickly built up a huge repository of difficult, high order questions.

And because there were some students who delivered many questions and some who delivered a few, and in service to the idea that it was the process rather than the question which mattered, I decided to pull the questions out of a hat.  There was some ‘debate’ about this, as you can imagine. Some students asked to do one of their own questions on grounds of personal interest, and others didn’t care what question they got.  I allowed some students to pick their own, and the rest of the class took pot luck.

I also spent the week introducing a range of mind maps, noting scaffolds, and alternative ways for students to break their complex question down into more manageable, or directed secondary questions. There were two reasons for introducing a wide range of materials. Firstly, not every student works the same, so a range of options helps them choose their most effective method, and secondly, I was unsure myself which of these methods was best. (see ‘learning as you go.’) The idea was that students would use the time to break their question down until they had an appropriate list of Googlable questions that would inform their decisions about how they would answer their main question.

This took, and continues to take, some explaining…

But one of the most important things to combat this week was the student’s feeling that they should be ‘getting on’ with it. So many of them still feel that this section of the Egypt project is unimportant or time wasting. It’s one of the hardest perceptions to combat so far, and probably one of the most important.

One of the ways I’ve done this is to restrict this week and next into ‘research and planning weeks’, time spent purely nutting out the best secondary questions to ask, and deciding where the answers fit in the bigger question. Students are not allowed to begin actually research until the coming week, and they cannot start to draft until after the holidays. I’m really aware that if students slip through this next phase with weak plans or bad questions, they’ll really struggle. At the same time, spending the extra time should create better results and better information reports. That’s the idea anyway.

I’ve also found that the process involves a lot of back and forward, and kids (as well as teachers) will need to adapt to that. The point of generating a really hard question by making it ungooglable, followed by a process of breaking it down into lots of little questions that are googleable, followed by a process of incorporating all those answers back into a coherent response to the original question is one that students will doubtless be frustrated by. I’m sure hoping that the end result of a truly investigative report, as well as the idea that the process they just used can be transferred to any topic, will be enough of a reward for them.

And, hopefully, enough of a reward for me as well, seeing as I’m gambling so much learning time on it.

The Highlight of the week, however, comes from the question posed by one of my students at the museum, the kind of question that had me scrambling for post it note and pen. It was the kind of question that set me off on designing a whole new side project, designed purely because someone asked this question of me.


For me this question was my reward for the week. This student was no longer thinking about how you mummify someone or how many cats you were allowed to take into a tomb with you, someone was applying knowledge of ancient Egypt to the modern world.

She was nowhere near as impressed with the news that her excellent question was the basis of a whole new task we will start next term. Neither were her classmates, as it happened, but it sure was the signal I needed to see that some students were starting to get it, and to keep me moving forward.

UnGoogleable Questions in the classroom. A first step.

One of the major challenges I’m facing at the moment with my Middle years class is the fact that they’re still learning how to research properly. After attending a recent conference presentation by Ewan Macintosh, I decided to make UnGoogle-able questions a focus in my class, as a way of accessing not only Higher Order Thinking, but as a way of extending the complexity of my student’s projects, honing their questioning skills and attacking the problem of answering more complex questions in detail at the same time.


At present, many of my students see projects as simple fact finding missions. Hit google, find some facts and arrange them into useful headings, follow this up by a quick rearrangement of sentences and ideas to avoid the dreaded plagiarism, and hand me a selection of facts I could have found for myself on Google. These are essentially lower order projects, and as highlighted by Ian Jukes recently, these skills aren’t going to cut it in the real world of their future.

I’m aware that this is not their fault. I’ve not taught these skills explicitly enough, and it’s something I’ve struggled with year in and year out for a while now. How do you move these projects to the next level?

The ideas Ewan talked about fit nicely with this challenge, and that of my parallel focus of teaching students employable life skills, teaching processes for success and using content as the delivery system. The idea I’m shooting for is that these higher order skills become transferrable to any topic and they become the basis from which students tackle any problems or tasks they face in high school and beyond.

So for most of last week, the discussion in my classroom has gone something like this…

ME: What is it we’re learning about this week?
ME: Wrong. We’re learning about how to make and answer better questions, remember? We’re just using Egypt as an example when we do it.
EVERYONE: *Nervous shufflings.* Can’t we just do a project like last term?

I wanted to start up slowly, and so I’ve focussed more on the questioning than the topic so far, but even this toe-in-the-water start has made some students decidedly uncomfortable. I was asked today, mid-discussion on what it is that makes a question ungooglable, “Can we start now?” ( “I’ll leave you to imagine the tone in which this was delivered.)

I’d made a powerpoint to lead the discussion, one that outlined how quickly Google gets stumped by questions as they move up the Higher Order Thinking Skills ladder. I demonstrated to the class that once the questions got hard, Google just started throwing words searches together in the hope of swinging an answer that I would find acceptable. The best example of the day was the question “Was the Sphinx a waste of money?”, Google smartly searched ‘Pyramids‘ and ‘Money‘, and helpfully delivered a wide range of tourism packages to a bemused student group. It was the first inkling they had that Google might be fallible, I think…

Talking about why that happened switched on a few lightbulbs as well.

What we also discovered today was that most of our projects this year have hardly ever strayed past, understanding and summary. There were four more levels for us to explore. For those kids at the leading edge of the learning curve, this was great news. For those working hard to keep up, it was a bit deflating. I’m going to need a lot of scaffolding and support for these students, but in my opinion, this will force me to be detailed about how I teach the questioning skills. Not to mention the next step. Answering them.

The initial challenge is to create ungoogleable questions for our classmates to research in a few weeks time. The quality of the questions is the focus. “What kind of question will help someone demonstrate how much they’ve learned, rather than how many facts they’ve collected?” I asked them.


We broke up the Blooms questioning matrix and looked at the format of the questions in each. Then we had a go at making an Egypt-based question of our own that fit the format. So far we have only worked through FACTS, ANALYSIS and APPLICATION. The questions they have come up with were put on the wall to be used for the next part of the task.

There were a range of good questions that came out of this process. More than I thought, if I’m honest. Many of them will get us past the ‘Summary’ and ‘Understanding’ roadblock we’re having, and once we finish the other three Question types, we will have more than enough high order questions for students to choose from. This is encouraging, but it also brought home to me how much scaffolding and support it will need for these students to keep thinking  about Higher-order questions.


I’ll need to be doing a lot of work to make sure that I’m ahead of them in this, because quite a lot of these pre-teen kids are skeptical of anything new as it is. If I’m not ready with solutions to the inevitable difficulties they face in actually answering these questions, then there goes the ball game.

I’ve already had some discussions about the direction this next phase should take. Ideas on how I might scaffold kids in the process of picking apart and answering higher order questions. PBL is a possibility, and I’m interested in the way the research project teaches skills over content. Both of these need some consideration, but I’m also keen on finding out what ideas other teachers are using  as well. I’d be interested in hearing how others are scaffolding the research skills needed to answer broader, Higher Order thinking questions in their classrooms.

As a first step, I’m encouraged by what we came up with, but I’m now more aware than ever that there is a lot of structure needed if this idea is to take off in my class.  I’m keen to discover what there is out there that might help me move this forward.

Put up your Jukes. How Ian challenged my smugness at Edutech

I’m a pretty standard early career teacher, I think. As Edutech2014 loomed a few weeks ago, I, like many other educators, set myself a few goals and challenges for while I was in Brisbane. I wanted to restart my rather stalled twitter connections and professional reading; I wanted to investigate further ways to use the technology in my classroom to better differentiate my teaching. I wanted to continue my thinking about feedback mechanisms for teachers to students. I wanted to use the conference as a way of furthering the directions I’d already identified in my site and my class, to reinforce the positive things I was doing and take them further.

All very admirable.

And for the first day and a half, everything went to plan. My self-satisfaction rating soared as I retweeted the sage statements of a range of speakers who were at the cutting edge of technology, education, pedagogy and creativity back to the school blog. I made connections with teachers on twitter and in the trade hall. I even managed to get onto the wifi. The reinforcement I got from Sugata  Mitra, Sir Ken  Robinson and Dan Haesler in particular made me feel good, as I could nod along and agree wholeheartedly and say to myself that I as an educator and more broadly, we as a site, were already discussing, sometimes even implementing the positions these edu-rockstars were advocating. The smugness I was feeling was pretty warming. Self-affirmation was at an all time high.

Then I went and listened to Ian Jukes…

And to be honest, at first I had trouble with this guy shouting and raving and generally acting like there was a hurricane on the way.  It was real duck & cover stuff.

If you’ve got the time (and if not you should make it) the basic ideas of this version of his presentation are almost exactly the same as the talk I sat through in Brisbane.

Jukes suggested to us that as educators we were not necessarily as in touch with the real world as we might first assume. The nerve of the guy. The idea that career teachers were not in touch with the latest trends of commerce was one that made sense, but made me sit up a bit nonetheless. The next suggestion that teachers we were in danger of becoming obsolete in a rapidly changing world was one that severely challenged my smugness bubble.

But it took me a few days to sink in, if I’m honest. I went home and had a lot of good conversations with colleagues about the inspirational speakers and the latest ideas, and for a few days I kind of placed Ian’s talk in a box labelled “alarmism” and left it there. It was only a few days later that I started to really appreciate the scope of what I’d heard.

Jukes argues that the Education system as it currently stands no longer serves the needs of students. The current ways of working were originally designed to feed an industrial society with workers doing low level cognitive work with low creativity. Those jobs are being outsourced at an alarming rate, and the result is that educators are now generating learners who “have never been more prepared for the industrial revolution.” (I’m paraphrasing, because Ian talks real fast…)

Disruptive innovation is a huge part of the modern world, and I’ll admit that the idea that adaptation is needed in education was one that wasn’t too big a stretch. However the idea that global changes are disrupting our traditional teaching role and making it more likely to be obsolete was a bigger idea to swallow, and it took time. Our student retention results are dropping across the western world according to Jukes, and students are walking away from education at a rate that if represented in the corporate world would “indicate a defective product.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Jukes argues that if we don’t change our product, we face an uphill battle to equip our students with usable skills when they move into the market.

All of this is confronting, powerful stuff, and it suggests a tension that needs resolving in my job, Namely, CONTENT, vs. SKILLS. I’m going to look at how I resolve the tensions that are arising between the requirement to teach content through national curriculum, and the need to create learners who are capable of being flexible, collaborative, team-oriented members of society who can find the research they need, consume content quickly, and solve complex problems together. In short, I need to teach creativity and problem solving whilst still teaching content in an already crowded middle years curriculum.

That needs a real shift in focus.

At the moment, I tend to look at how I can get my kids out of Primary school and make sure they enter high school in the best possible shape. However, that kind of focus misses the longer-term picture. As an educator I need to focus on the end result of my students’ education just as much as a year 12 teacher does.

The kids I teach need to be ready to get a job. This is not the only focus, but it is a very important part of education. Getting a job is about five to six years away for my year six and seven students. Jukes has already demonstrated how fast things can change in even that time. There’s no way I can know what that job might be for any of my students. It probably won’t require them to know the date of William Janz’s discovery of Australia off by heart though.  (Google it if you don’t know.)

What I need to teach them instead is how to find what information they need, be critical of it and to use it creatively and collaboratively to solve problems in a timely way. I have a responsibility to look at doing those things better, not for the end of year result, but for the start of career result.

What this means for me in my classroom

At the moment, I feel like my classroom teaches CONTENT with only a side order of life skills. Where perhaps what we need to do is to focus on SKILLS with a side of content instead. How can I maximise the environment, the learning and the scaffolding of life-skills in students to create learners with flexible, transferrable skillsets that they can use as the ‘lenses’ through which they interpret different content?

Content should be the servant of the skills, in  my opinion, because once the skills are learned, the content is interchangeable. This is where I want to move my learners. I’ve already started with a few ideas to add simple challenges to my class, and the result has been modest but encouraging. It makes me want to investigate this idea in a lot more detail.

The First step
Example: My students have been doing a project that is essentially a traditional maths-based design task. Students with a limited budget design and build a structure capable of holding a specific weight for a specific time. The project is designed to make that outcome possible, with just enough materials and budget to give success to the teams who manage the maths and their time properly. It traditionally assesses 3D shapes, measurement, design and budgeting skills.

After Edutech, I decided to try something out. On Thursday, I went to every table group and removed ten of their popsticks. I told them they would still need to meet the requirements without them.

This instantly added a team problem solving layer to the task, and the next half an hour of learning convinced me that not only are these skills vital to my students, but that I wasn’t currently teaching those skills anywhere near well enough. They were almost completely flummoxed by the change.

The next step.
I’m now looking to engage in professional discussions about the scaffolds and explicit teaching needed for teaching collaboration, questioning, problem solving, creativity and flexibility. I’ve got a few leads and a lot of reading to do. I’m going to share what I find out in this new blog (Which I had no intention of starting before I went to edutech). I hope others will share their learning and links in this area too. Please feel free to add comments, links and suggestions below.