Category: 1. Know Students

The world is not vanilla!

“Colorful Bubble” via Pic Jumbo

This past week Pauline Hanson’s comments about young people with autism in schools have provoked a range of responses. Once again her perspective is derived from a lack of understanding and fuels divisive and fearful rhetoric in our community when we should be looking for holistic and inclusive approaches to respond to the inequities in schools.

I feel that it would be iniquitous of me not to comment on the richness and value I have gained as an educator and a human for having worked with young people on the autism spectrum. So here are three of the lessons I have learned and the value I have gained from having young people with autism in my life.

The world is not vanilla!

The details in everyday objects can be overlooked by the ‘average’ person, but a young person with autism can help you to see the detail, the nuance and the magic of the simplest things. Whether it be the way it feels on your skin, how it sounds, how it tastes or the details in its pattern or colour.

Time is a construct

When you are truly in the moment, don’t splinter it to fit into a schedule. Be in that moment, because that’s when ‘vanilla’ turns to a rainbow tapestry.

Understanding is priceless

The moment a child with autism knows that you are committed to understanding what they are trying to say or express, stays with you. It made me realise that it is the most valuable gift we can give anyone. Taking time to understand another person is where caring cultivates. Being open to explore a different perspective can be the most valuable gift you can give to a young person, sometimes it just takes longer with some than others.

So if your life has been enriched by the inclusion of diversity, be sure to celebrate it openly in some way this week. If you are a teacher of young people with autism, please take the time this week to let that young person know they are wanted and valued or share a positive story with their parents. This week they need our solidarity to ensure that the words of an ill-informed Senator do not sit within them.




Needs-based funding is critical

Are your physical spaces responsive, dynamic and engaging?


Learning Flexibly via Flickr

Are our schools as responsive, dynamic and engaging as the world we live in? – Physical Spaces

At my school, we are working on a range of factors that foster pedagogy that is responsive to the learners we are working with. One of these elements is the disruption of the physical spaces to allow for more dynamic learning experiences for both staff and students (all learners). My own exploration of the power of space in supporting different pedagogies has been facilitated through the development of three large spaces in our school.  The first, The Learning Hub (LH), was instigated over five years ago, and whilst I didn’t have a direct role in managing the build, I along with other staff played a key role in utilising and re-imagining the space over time. This year, it is exciting to see the space once again transform under the leadership of my colleague Melissa Smith (nee Mulholland).


Wirreanda Secondary School Learning Hub – examples of flexible learning options

The second opportunity emerged as we developed our Senior Space which was completed in March of last year.  This space built upon the understandings developed over time using and reimagining the LH along with ongoing reading, collaboration, exploration and site visits.

The third, is by far the most extensive, with a makeover of our science and maths areas into a flexible, multipurpose interdisciplinary space, due to begin later this year.

In planning and leading out such a significant change, consideration must be given to the following:

  • How will the environment promote new pedagogies requiring a variety of spatial settings (e.g. inquiry learning, problem-based learning, interdisciplinary approaches, vertical grouping)?
  • How will learning be facilitated by multi-disciplinary teams of teachers who need agile and flexible spaces?
  • How will the space support and coerce collaboration between groups of staff and groups of students?
  • How can the environment and configuration generate creativity and curiosity over a focus on productivity?
  • How can the spaces foster ubiquitous learning, i.e. learners becoming more self-directed, collaborative and flexible in using a variety of spaces/settings?
  • How will the space support and enable teachers and students to develop digital literacies and competencies that enhance the use of space in a variety of ways to good pedagogical effect?
  • How will the environment utilise natural light and natural environments to incorporate light and air?
  • What PD will be required to support teachers to visualise and understand spatial possibilities – including modelling the use of such spaces?

Making over physical spaces can soak up a lot of time, energy and money. In the end, you can achieve “beautiful” results in the aesthetics, but if genuine collaborative consideration is not applied to the factors above, what will emerge is beautiful spaces with 20th century pedagogy staring back at you from comfortable chairs, behind tables on wheels!

No amount of consultation with those who have tread the road of disrupting spaces is adequate.  I am particularly thankful to the wisdom and generosity of Stephen Harris, Anne Knock and the team at SCIL in addition to Stephen Heppell, Matt Esterman and a range of other online eduadventurers who have been open either online and/or in person sharing their wisdom, experience, successes and mistakes.



A small sample of research utilised in planning for and designing learning spaces:

Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., Aranda, G., 2011. Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes. [Accessed 30 January 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Rethinking the Classroom” 2017. Rethinking the Classroom [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Adaptable Spaces and Their Impact on Learning” 2017. [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Wolff, Susan J., “Design Features for Project-Based Learning, February 2002,

Who has voice?

Photo credit: HowardLake via DIYlovin / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: HowardLake via DIYlovin / CC BY-SA

This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.

It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)

Student panel

Student panel with Dan Haesler

Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.

Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.

Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools.  Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.

 What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.



It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?

So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.

Check out the Storify from the day.

Influencing Early Years Teaching


“facepalm-picard_riker_double” via Flickr from darkuncle


Each year that I teach pre-service teachers as part of their undergraduate teaching degree at Flinders University,  I am both inspired and filled with hope and pained by some of their confessions.

The final assessment piece for the course I teach requires students to evaluate the teaching they observed in their placement schools, remark on their conversations with staff and mentors and reflect upon their own teaching experiences.  I believe this is the most beneficial of all the assessments required of our students as I am of the belief that the most valuable skill we can develop to transform our practice is the ability to discuss and reflect upon our own teaching and that of others and develop intentions based on this as to how to improve.

For each reflection I read, I am encouraged by the aspirations of these young people to continue to grow and it is encouraging to read about so many learning environments instilling the importance of a growth mindset in both students and teachers.

Amongst the wonderful inspiring reflections are also moments of disappointment. Over a semester, I get to know these students quite well, their honesty and enthusiasm for learning and their thirst for any guidance from teachers and mentors is heartening. However, when I read that “mentor” teachers tell their pre-service teachers that their lessons and courses cannot be differentiated, or is too hard to adjust for students, a little part of me aches.

I have no delusion that each and every one of these student teachers will have a practicum experience with perfect expertise (no such thing) but still, without fail, each year I read a few statements that make me want to scratch my eyes out.

Throughout our course I remind them that that ultimately they will develop their own beliefs, their own values and should surround themselves with people that will support and encourage them to achieve these.  I can only hope that “too hard” doesn’t stick and that they see the inherent value in the things that will ultimately impact on their students growth.

Oh and P.S EVERY course, at ANY year level can be differentiated. Just like EVERY child and how they experience learning is personal and different.  Differentiation is not about providing individual programs, it is about knowing your students needs and responding and planning to meet them.

20% is Not Enough


This week I have watched the ACEC conference twitter stream from the sideline with more interest than any other with several students from my school attending as part of a Digital Leaders group. A great opportunity to listen to presentations, tweet thoughts and questions and interact with teachers and keynotes.

They have done a brilliant job of pushing ideas and reflecting genuine student voice and  have also been excited by the various learning opportunities showcased at the event.

For the first time for many of these students, they heard the concept of Googles 20% time (also adapted and referred to as Genius Hour or Passion Projects in schools).


After hearing about this idea over 2 years ago, I developed Passion Project time in my own teaching and had our faculty run the projects with students over a term. This year as part of a different team we have implemented this concept into a “Big Idea” project with our entire year 8 cohort.

The concept remains the same, students can work independently or in groups on a project of their choice. There are expectations to develop a proposal and present/share findings or experiences upon completion.

Whilst I treasure and value these opportunities for students, I also wonder: how long can we keep adding this into our week as an extra though? How can we justify to students that this learning is different to their classroom learning? How much does that devalue what they are doing in each subject?

“Ok in this ‘special’ time you can learn about things that interest you and are meaningful to you, in any way you like, but the rest of the time, it’s just stuff you have to do!”

My argument here is not that we ditch these projects. I found it was a great stepping stone in my own experiences of supporting students to complete very different projects but on a similar time frame. I have learnt a great deal in this time including how to scaffold and lead discoveries and push students to ask and develop their own questions.

I am suggesting that instead of keeping these projects or times separate from our everyday school experiences, it should just be part of our everyday learning in classes. Why can’t kids be involved in ‘real’ and meaningful learning experiences in all their subjects?

Instead of adding another subject/lesson into the timetable, shouldn’t we be looking at what is already happening in classes and working on how we can make that more meaningful?

Shouldn’t this kind of learning be more like 80% not 20%?

Don’t Wait to be an Expert!

My Creations (14)

We no longer need to know as much “stuff” as we did in the past when a device in our pocket can provide the answer ultimately in under 10 seconds.  Mobile technology is no longer a thing of the future, it is here and we need to harness it.

One of the students from our school who attended the national ACEC conference here in Adelaide as a Digital Leader wrote on his blog.

“At school, I want to be able to learn in the same ways that I do in real life.”

Me too! (You can see his post here)

With access to reliable internet and multiple devices, what our students need are skills to navigate what is useful and reliable information.  Beyond that we want them to access and use tools to produce meaningful materials or products for an audience with purpose.

This is where we hit some barriers for both staff and students.

Staff remain apprehensive because they don’t feel confident using a technology or process and students become risk averse, not willing to try something new for fear it won’t gain them the grade they need or want.

Approaching my final workshop with 3rd and final year Education students at Flinders University, I began to think about what message I wanted them to take away. I always endeavour to provide  as many practical tools and examples for managing their first years in the profession, and have previously left them with the final advice of always being a learner and developing a network of support.  This time I decided to leave them with…

“Don’t wait to be an expert, just give it a go!”

I hope that they dive in!

Consume – Create – Curate – Connect


made using

I have acknowledged before that ideas are not original and it’s a no brainer that we need to consume, whether that be watch, read or listen to make sense of ideas, thoughts or to develop more questions.

Consumption is certainly not new to schools, reading text has been an elemental part of learning since compulsion arose in the late 19th century. What we need to consider now, is how young people are consuming information today and how we can tap into this consumption. Video and visual media are increasingly the modes by which we access information. How can we as teachers utilise these formats more?  Are we teaching our students to note take effectively, to research responsibly, to annotate or to listen and identify key ideas as essential parts of accessing these modes?

Once our students have consumed, do we get them to create? What does this creation look like? Is it still written? Are we allowing them to demonstrate their emerging understanding in different ways? Do we encourage them to express their ideas on the basis of developing thoughts, rather than concluding answers? Can they record, build, animate or film these ideas?

Do we provide opportunity to curate these ideas? Do we allow students to organise and connect their collection of thoughts, so they can make links and deepen their understanding? Do we ensure they have a way of organising their work and recording it so they can look back a refer to their developing works and see how they build upon each other? How can digital records support the “tagging” and “categorising” of this learning?

How are we making this learning purposeful by providing an audience? Are we allowing them to connect? Do we give them a platform, physical or virtual where they can share their creations and seek feedback on their emerging ideas?  So often we finalise the learning by creating a product (essay/presentation/performance), but is that where the learning ends? How can we facilitate the power of the crowd to suggest, to comment and to review works for ongoing improvement and allow our students to respond to these?

Just some things currently on my mind and conscious to be working towards being better at!





Grit or Groan?

Grit London cc Flickr danxoneil

Grit London cc Flickr danxoneil

A “buzz word” in education of recent times has been the characteristic of “grit”. It’s the perseverance to keep going even when things don’t seem to be coming together the way we had envisaged. Defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit” 

I recently read Paul Tough’s  How Children Succeed where he sets out to illustrate the notion that non-cognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than pure brainpower to achieving success.

Personally when I think of this characteristic it reminds me of my approach as a basketball player, “never giving in” even when the clock was running down and we were double digits behind. In my studies it was persisting when I thought it seemed like it was never going to come together. In family it was sticking to my guns in those moments with the kids when it would have been easier to cave and give them what they wanted to stop the tantrum! At work it is, my determined efforts to give my students opportunities that aren’t a “given” despite the obstacles in the way.

Let me qualify here. This is NOT about expecting kids to stick through days of irrelevant, dull content because they need to learn how to push through to achieve an end result. This is also not about “FAIL” first attempt in learning and all the other “failure” obsessions that seem to have evolved in education.  There are times when giving up is actually the best and most responsible option. There are times when we need to step back and make judgements as to whether it is actually worthwhile to persist with a challenge.

Paul Tough shares some key considerations as too does Angela Duckworth in her Tedtalk identifying characteristics of children and adults who succeed.  There is no doubt that success comes from being determined to complete challenges and persisting when things are difficult.  I think we must also acknowledge that to be committed, to see it through, it must be something we truly value. At the same time, not allowing that drive to blind us from making strategic and rational decisions will increase our chances of success and happiness….surely.


What You Do Matters

These two videos are powerful reminders that our actions are reproduced by our children (or our students). The first one came via twitter (thanks @JasonElsom) this evening and it was the first time I had seen it. The second I have seen several times, but it remains extremely gut wrenching to watch.

It’s not difficult to watch these clips and feel disgusted or saddened at the least. At the same time we can feel secure in knowing that “we” don’t behave this way, so we can somewhat remove ourselves from the responsibility that modelling behaviour impacts kids.

I think this is a bit of a cop out and being obsequious will not suffice. If we want our kids to be thoughtful, caring, generous (insert other desirable qualities here), then we need to model these exact behaviours.

I just love this Thai advertisement which expresses the same message as the ones above; that our actions will be reproduced by the young people we impact, but the modelling is positive.

“Pay it forward” wouldn’t actually be that hard if random acts of kindness were not so random. So do something today for your kids/students, with your kids/students, or in front of your kids/students that you would want them to do for/to someone else.

Awards vs Recognition


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Patrick

Today is the day our year 12 students results come out and it has me reflecting on the value of grades and awards. Some of our students will be ecstatic, some relieved, others disappointed maybe even somewhat devastated. It is easy for me to say that it’s just a number or a letter and it doesn’t reflect who you are or how far you have come, but I know that for the next period of their lives these numbers may have an impact on their choices, their opportunities and how their peers and family respond to them.

Our school will celebrate the top scores and reflect on how the moderation impacted the end results. My thoughts are with the kids who put in great effort and focussed on their work despite the demands and challenges of life beyond the school walls. I hope these kids feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride in themselves. Perhaps they could have done better in different circumstances but meeting their challenges head-on and persisting will provide them with life skills that will hold them in great stead.

I know that certificates and awards can be meaningless, often demeaning, devaluing and destructive and rarely motivational. I was guilty of giving certificates and ticking off students to make sure they had all received one in my early years, even though it never sat comfortably.  I have never rejoiced my own children getting certificates at assembly or felt that it reflected their performance or effort.

At the same time, there is no doubt that a champion holds up a trophy, a medal or a flag and the accumulation of hard work and effort is realised in that moment or often later in reflection when staring at that symbol. I love watching a medal ceremony, a championship team celebrating their win, a graduation ceremony or a student who has presented their work and received a rousing applause! Watching anyone who has put in their heart and soul to achieving something, realising their efforts have been rewarded, is magic.

I am all for recognising hard work and promoting a growth mindset by acknowledging the effort and persistence shown in any challenge our kids face.  I do not support blanket certificate/award giving across the school and I know that any selection process regardless of it’s merits is rife with judgement and bias. This is something I will continue to try and find a balance with and in the meantime, though I choose not to nominate my students for whole school certificates, I will continue to showcase their work, provide continual feedback on their learnings and actions and celebrate their successes in meaningful ways.

As for our graduates and their results? I hope that they know, that the score they receive today will not be how they are remembered, that what counts is how we treat each other and whatever we choose to do, if we always work for ‘great’ it will lead to success.