“Back to Basics” – Our education minister doesn’t disappoint. But what really matters?

We were all waiting for it. 

In the light of Australia’s PISA results, we knew that our politicians wouldn’t let us down and the headline confirmed it: Education Minister pushes for ‘back to basics’ approach in schools

Australian’s Minister for Education is quoted as saying “schools need to renew their focus on literacy and numeracy as the foundations for student success”.

What does this mean?

I honestly don’t know any educators in Australia, or anywhere in the world for that matter, who wouldn’t agree that strong foundations are essential for student success. Is the back-to-basics cry purely to reassure parents that the government is serious?

I have travelled to Finland a number of times since this small nation was hailed as an educational triumph. Eight years ago, in a session at the Finnish National Board of Education, they named the countries that were beating a path to their door. The same counties that have mostly overtaken Finland in PISA now. However, none of these countries make the top ten on the World Happiness Index.


We need to measure what matters. The results annual school leaving certificate, the Higher School Certificate, for my state will be out this week. A media report shows,

An analysis of almost two decades of Higher School Certificate data contradicts the declining results among NSW’s top students in global reading, maths and science tests, showing more students are achieving top results in similar HSC subjects.

Between 2001 and 2018, more students achieved band six – the highest result – in chemistry, mathematics and advanced English, according to an analysis of NSW Education Standards Authority data by Sydney University psychometrician James Tognolini.


When it comes to the crunch, for their final exams, not an international test for 14-15 year olds, our students appear to be doing well.

Basics matter. Great teachers dedicate their efforts to establishing essential foundations. The back-to-basics cry is not helpful.

Instead, as a nation, we need to invest in our teachers. We need more science and mathematics teachers, who are educated and passionate scientists and mathematicians. At present many teachers are required to teach these subjects, without the foundational knowledge, due to staffing shortages. 

How do we inspire our current school graduates, those who are passionate about their subjects to become teachers, to help them to see that this is a wonderful vocation.

I’d rather see Australia higher in the World Happiness Index. Asking why have we moved out of the top ten? What are those pesky Scandinavian countries, those small European nations, and our commonwealth siblings, Canada and New Zealand, doing that make their people so happy?

What are the ‘happiness basics’?


Evolution of learning culture: Why are we here?

“The evolution of learning culture is the most critical work educators need to do inside schools today”

Timeless Learning – How Imagination, Observation and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools by Ira Socol, Pam Moran and Chad Ratliff (p.24)

My work is around ‘culture’ and every school, organisation, business and family, has its own culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as Peter Ducker famously wrote. Culture lives in people, is seen in behaviour, and is shaped by space, as my friend Steve Collis less famously said. 

How do we know what is the acceptable behaviour when we walk into a particular space – a museum, a pub,  a cathedral or a training room (head to the back of the room)? We have inbuilt conventions that instinctively directs our behaviour. That’s why an adult shouting in a cathedral just seems wrong to those of us familiar with the applicable convention. Culture is often instinctive.

The learning culture, then, has its own conventions, and I’m suggesting that it is different from a content-driven culture. The former, sees the learner and the particular needs of the individual as the focus, while the latter puts the requirements of the curriculum, standards and collective achievement ahead of the individual. One is an empathic approach, the other puts organisational considerations first. That is why, in my consulting workshops I begin with unpacking the human factors, particularly students and then the staff.

“The only way to change culture is to constantly create situations in which people respond to the question, ‘Why are we here?’”  

(p. 24).

The first chapter of Timeless Learning, is ‘All Means All: Cherishing Children”. When my friends outside education look at me with suspicion regarding the ‘hippy’ views about school, they ask ‘why change?’. To them, the prevailing educational culture seems sacrosanct. As a nation, our standing is declining on international benchmarks, so they ask don’t we just need more drills, more practice, more tests? 

I explain, that this common school experience may help a segment of students, gain success, those who are suited to that way of learning. But if all means all, can’t  all have the opportunity to succeed?

One of the case studies I present in workshops undertook at seven year transformation of the learning culture, and their starting point was people. They asked the staff, 

‘Why do you come to work everyday?’

They sought a genuine response, ‘for the kids’. In Timeless Learning, Socal, Moran and Ratliff believe that finding empathy for the learners, through ‘reaching deep’ within is essential.

“Educators must work to ensure every child knows their voice matters, they have agency in making choices and decisions and they can be responsible for their own learning” (p.26)


This is how the learning culture is transformed. Seeing the individual learner and giving them voice. 

But where do we begin? 

Observe: Pick a couple of learners you know who are struggling in your school. Observe them in class, hallways and the cafeteria or on the playground. Record what you notice about the learners.

Ask: Reach out to talk with each of them. What questions might get a sense of their struggle? How might you invite them to ask their own questions of you? How can you use this information to inform your own understanding of what it means for all learners to be cherished? (p.36)

This is empathy in action, it’s not assuming we know, but being curious.. It is where change and innovation, the evolution of a learning culture must begin. 

All means all.

From “masterpiece” to “chaos” in one year: What can we learn about designing for people-first?


This is the story of a library in Long Island, from its opening to a little over a year later. Landmark projects carry a lot of responsibility. Visually, aesthetically they make a mark, but still need to work for the people.

“I’m sure that they didn’t have kids, because as a parent, you know these things.”


This cautionary tale contrasts The New York Times article about a “$41.5 million masterpiece” in September 2018, to a later one describing the user experience as “chaos” in November 2019. A $41.5 million dollar project. You think they’d get it right?

Once upon a time…

The New York Times, September 18 2019

The descriptions were enchanting:

On dark days and evenings, its enormous, eccentric windows will act like inviting beacons of light, attracting eyes and feet. They carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a cool, silvered-concrete facade.

From the lobby I climbed the zigzagging stairs that trace the funny, lively, meandering incision cut into the library’s west wall by the huge central window overlooking Manhattan, the stairs ascending past stepped tiers of desks and upper floors that seem to float as if in midair. 

From: Why Can’t New York City Build More Gems Like This Queens Library?

The children’s wing is among the nicest and most artful spaces I have seen in any new library building. 

From: Why Can’t New York City Build More Gems Like This Queens Library?

Then this happened…

(The New York Times, November 5, 2019)

You remember the “the zigzagging stairs that trace the funny, lively, meandering incision cut into the library’s west wall”? They have become, “a circuitous route around the library, up and down flights of stairs.”

The terraces are “inaccessible to people who cannot climb to them”. The staff offered to retrieve the books for patrons with limited mobility, however,

“Part of what universal design is about is allowing everyone to independently enjoy spaces. Having to ask someone else to help you is, at worst, demeaning, and at best, a limiting experience.”

So then,

“The disputed shelves are now bare; the library, responding to the criticism, has moved the 2,900 adult fiction books to an accessible area on the second floor, and is now figuring out how to use the vacated space.”

From: New Library Is a $41.5 Million Masterpiece. But About Those Stairs.

And finally, what about the children’s wing, described as “among the nicest and most artful spaces I have seen in any new library building”?

“A staircase and bleacher seating in the children’s section, judged too risky for small children, has been closed off.”

“It’s crazy right now,” said… one of three children’s librarians, as she tried to navigate a crush of strollers around the second floor elevator last Wednesday, when dozens of strollers descended on the building… It’s chaos.”

From: New Library Is a $41.5 Million Masterpiece. But About Those Stairs.

People, people, people.
Who are the users and what are their needs?

Search “Hunters Point Community Library” and you’ll find it featured in the pages of Archdaily, Dezeen, DesignBoom, ArchitectMagazine. But, dear friends, this project isn’t about the architect, it’s for the people of Hunter’s Point.

What do the people of Hunter’s Point need?

  • A place to come and enjoy their community
  • A place to bring their kids
  • A place to find books
  • A place with universal access
  • A place to be proud of

This needs to be the starting place.


Leading change and innovation by design: Who’s on your mini-bus?

Last week someone asked me,
“How would you describe what you do?”

You might think professional traveller, designer, speaker, facilitator, and there probably is plenty of reason for thinking that, and I do those things. But I’m a ‘gut instinct’ kind of person and the first thought was…

transform culture

I think about, live, breathe and I’m motivated by creating positive culture. Culture is defined as a “set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution or organisation” (Merriam-Webster). We can create amazing spaces for work and learning, but unless we address the people-factor, the big vision will merely be a mist in time that quickly evaporates. 

So, if you say “We want a culture of collaboration”,
What are you doing to transform this from a nice idea to reality? 

Start with the right people on the mini-bus.

Created from: Sahin, I (2006), Detailed review of Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory and educational technology-related studies based on Rogers’ theory,
Turkish Online Journal of Educational technology, Vol 5., Issue 2.

The theory of ‘diffusion of innovations’ was developed by Everitt Rogers in 1962. It is one of the oldest social science theories, explaining how people respond to change, and aiming to increase the rate of adoption, while reducing uncertainty. 

Cast vision as wide as possible, of course, but the actual work of transformation requires, as Collins wrote in Good to Great, the right people on the bus, in the right seats. But I believe it’s actually a minibus with key people on board to get the journey started, to ideate, prototype and test the ideas.

Diffusion of Innovation first developed by Rogers, 1962

Rogers outline five key people groups in any organisation, innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

To effectively increase the rate of adoption of an innovation, gather the ‘earlies’ – early adopters and some of the early majority. They possess the positive outlook to see possibilities and bring ideas to life. The innovators, the brave souls who champion change, need the early adopters who can see and realise possibilities. The late majority watch for confirmation for the early majority before taking the leap. The laggards, with white knuckles, hold tightly to the status quo, look to the past and gather a posse of like-minded people.

Laggards have the traditional view and they are more skeptical about innovations and change agents…their interpersonal networks mainly consist of other members of the social system from the same category.

(Sahin, 2006, p.20)

You may be tempted to bring the laggards in early, get them on working groups, steering committees, but don’t. In my experience, depending on how ‘laggardish’ they are, these people can use this as an opportunity to sabotage efforts for change. I learnt this the hard way. As I spoke to a whole staff, and then facilitated a workshop, a very vocal laggard (a mature teacher) behaved in a way that he would not accept from his own students and set back the school’s efforts to innovate.

An aspirational empathy map

Who is on your mini-bus, heading off on a reconnaissance mission to chart paths unknown? 

I use empathy mapping in design thinking workshops to gain insight into the user experience – staff, student or client. This kind of empathy mapping starts where we are, understanding who we are working with.

But what about who we seek to be? I’ve asked leadership teams to think about the ‘Aspirational Empathy Map’. Then we can identify those closest to the description, your ‘earlies’. Of course, you know them anyway. They are always the ones excited by new opportunities and suggesting crazy ideas.

Design for the long haul

When I think about design, I think about people. Getting the right people on board the minibus in the early stages is essential. In his research, developing the school climate model, Gislason (2010) writes, “School design should be viewed as part of the network of elements that shape together the learning environment”.

The physical environment alone cannot support transformation. It starts with people.

First things first.

Imagining the outside environment: For learning, social connection, health, wellbeing… and FUN!

What are your memories of the playground from school?

I remember dust bowls and knee-grazing asphalt (with the scars to prove it). I can speak from experience, as I went to three primary schools and two high schools. One school playground stood out above the others, Gymea North Public School in southern Sydney. 

Source: https://www.gymeanorthps.com.au/

I was only there a couple of years and the school was relatively new. It’s known as ‘the school among the trees’. The vast playground of tall gum trees extended widely and broadly to the boundary along a main road. We didn’t have pristine grass and paving, back then, it was quite rugged and rustic.

Every recess and lunch break we would race to ‘our tree’. Each group of friends would create a ‘cubbie’ – bark, leaves, sticks, whatever we could find. It was very hard to drag us back when the bell rang, as we undertook our construction projects. I can only imagine how dirty we must have been when we returned to class. I’m sure this play would have never passed the risk assessment today. I’m regularly in the area (my elderly father lives nearby) and when I drive past, I recall happy memories.

My high school experience created less positive memories. Recently watching a UK/Aus ‘dramedy’ Frayed, I was sure that I saw the playground at the high school from my youth – a desolate space, quadrangles dissected by covered walkways. Shade? This was not a consideration. As I recall, the grassed spaces were only domain of those who played football, you ventured there at your own risk (or during those semi-regular bomb scares of the 70s).

Outdoor spaces – More than just class breaks and sport

Creating fun, imaginative, calming and natural outside spaces is important in the school design revolution, becoming more than the place where students are tipped-out between classes.

As I travel to schools in Australia, New Zealand and across the world, the outdoor areas and ‘spaces between’ are considered part of the overall learning environment, providing for social connection, wellbeing, supporting both active and passive engagement, with shade, greenery, biophyllic design and the aesthetic seen as essential. 

In her book, Contextual Wellbeing, Dr Helen Street argues that ‘nature deficit disorder’ has an impact on wellbeing,

Spending time in nature, at any level of interaction, enhances our wellbeing, and great benefits occur when students have the opportunity to interact with the natural world around them as part of their educational journey.

Street, H. (2018) Contextual Wellbeing: Creating positive schools from the inside out (p.127)

And not just early learning and primary schools, “just being outdoors benefits all students” (p.127). This means high school as well.

What have I seen?

Take your class to an outdoor space, accessible for all students with power and data built in.
(the boat area is currently ‘under-construction’ and will be positioned in the ground)
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK
Beyond the classroom… just step outside.
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK

It’s wild, messy, productive, “We’ve worked out the best mud-mixture for the mud slide”
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Maker space with attitude!
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Diverse play options, including a dry creek bed, with rocks!
St Anthony of Padua, Austral, NSW
Farm animals – geese, sheep and a donkey
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
…But you need to be able to store the equipment for the farming.
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
Beautiful wild play with literary themes
Hartsholme Academy, UK
Active outdoor with an amazing waterplay area
Hartsholme Academy, UK
The vast and diverse play area is shared with the local community
Hyllievangs Skole, Malmo Sweden
Creating outdoor areas when space is a premium
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
On the canal, no fences, water play
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
Blend of concrete and green, indoors-outdoors
With shade and a cooling mist system
Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney NSW
We have so much to learn from early childhood learning environments!
Tyneside Nursery, Edinburgh UK
As they say in Nordic countries: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” Viherkallio Kuolo, Finland


Libraries: How might we describe them today? A living room, a bedroom, a study, a playground, an office, a friendly place.

I recently attended a GLEAM forum hosted by Hayball, short talks about galleries, libraries, education, the arts or museums, as the acronym suggests. This particular one was titled A Community Living Room: The evolving role of libraries. The speakers were Kim Sherwin from the City of Sydney Libraries and Joy Suliman, from the City of Canada Bay Libraries. The session was hosted by Andrew Fong from Hayball.

Andy, Joy and Kim
Photo: Hayball

As a young teacher, my first job was a primary school teacher librarian. Not actually what I was prepared for, but I can be methodical (cards, catalogues and borrowing procedures), I loved creating visual displays and I loved reading to kids, so I muddled my way through for a few years, before I acquired a class teaching role. This photo, which I have used before, shows me undertaking a critical role of the time, “Who hasn’t returned their library book?”

A recent report by the ABC, here in Australia, proclaimed the headline School libraries hit by the loss of a dying breed as teacher librarians enter ‘survival mode’. The piece refers to research from Edith Cowan University regarding the alarming loss of qualified teacher librarians (which I was not, by the way) and the insecurity many teacher-librarians now feel. Schools are more likely to look for more cost-efficient personnel, to manage systems and collections, “They said the library was often the first place principals looked when they needed to cut costs”.

As we develop and disrupt as a society, we often need to ask the overarching question, ‘Why?’

  • Why do libraries need to exist?
  • What purpose do they fulfil?
  • Who are they serving?

These questions don’t seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but realign purpose to ensure that we aren’t just doing the same things the same way, because that what we’ve always done. I think schools can learn from the ‘other’ libraries.
In her talk, Kim identified the four key roles of libraries, to provide:

  • Place
  • Space
  • Community
  • Connection 
  • Experience

She also made the point that libraries exist in a wide range of places, not just educational institutions and local communities, but they play an important role in corporate and civic organisations.

Kim had previously worked at Arup, a global multi-disciplinary engineering and design consultancy, setting up the library in the corporate space, a winner of an ALIA award.

Arup Library (Australasia), is part of Arup University, an internal university, whose aim is to promote and achieve technical excellence through the development of its staff. The Library team comprises of 6 highly skilled librarians, capable of carrying out in-depth research that supports the business with winning work, complete project work and help keeps
the region up-to-date with clients, technology, industry and more. 

This text from the award submission recognises the importance of the role of the librarians to the commercial success of the business.

Photos: https://www.alia.org.au/arup-library-winner

Next, Joy spoke about The Learning Space, a place for people to come, belong, connect and learn. Actually, there are no books, but there is a lot of tech and places for human connection. Joy reinforced the human factor, that staff greet each person with a smile and this culture was evident in community feedback. The space is owned and loved by the local, and managing its popularity and success is its greatest challenge.

As I travelled home that evening and reflected, the resounding message, was that libraries are about people. Libraries exist for the community they serve, their needs and expectations. The expertise of the staff matches this need, whether it is for research, physical/material elements (including wifi, power and furniture), a place to be, or even books.

When I take study tours, we often visit libraries as learning spaces. Here are some libraries in Denmark, Finland and Netherlands…

Anyone interested in a library study tour?


Designing for Purpose: Clarity around the ‘WHY’ with serious fun!

Like me, you have probably been in workshops and think-tank sessions designed to bring fresh ideas to the surface. Yet, the same-old processes are used and the same-old people take the floor and the same-old solutions are implemented. Senge calls this the problem-fix loop and to uncover fresh ideas this cycle requires deliberate disruption.

How might flatten the strategic process and bring out the gold, especially from the quieter group members?

Earlier this year I participated in a workshop to hone my skills, learning to implement suite of tools called Liberating Structures, developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, and facilitated by Keith, in Australia from the USA.

Liberating Structures make it easy to transform how people interact and work together. . . they are designed to include and engage everybody. . . They “liberate”, so to speak, everybody’s contribution to the group’s success.

(Lipmanowicz & McCandless, http://www.liberatingstructures.com )

As I facilitate workshops in corporate, social and education sectors, I employ these tools. They are designed to include and unleash everyone, as participants engage in seriously playful curiosity.

For clarity around your ‘why’ one particular workshop, Purpose to Practice, facilitates a process that empowers people to shape core elements:

PurposeWhy is this work important?
What are our core values?
PrinciplesWhat norms must we observe in the pursuit of our purpose and values?
ParticipantsWho must be included to achieve this?
What do they need to succeed?
StructureHow will we organise to support agency and encourage active participation?
PracticesWhat are we actually going to do?

There is a lot of hard work and serious fun as team members grapple with what matters to them and to the big picture. Curiosity is amplified by the unfolding visual representation, a tangible artefact that I create as part of the workshop, becoming reminder of why they do what they do and where to from here.

Do you need clarity?
Do you need a way to unleash all voices?
Are you stuck in the problem-fix loop?

I can help you.


6 Principles to support longevity and health in co-teaching teams: Reflecting on my own experience

I commenced my teaching career unconventionally, as a teacher-librarian. ‘Literature and library skills’, that was about the extent of the briefing for the job.  

Me, circa 1982, taking a ‘Library Lesson’ whatever that was?

A few years later, I faced my very first class of Year 1 students. Who in their right mind would leave me in charge of their education for an entire year? This comment reflected the degree of induction and support young teacher had back then (late 1980s). It was tough, as I felt I was muddling through.

The K-2 section of that school was accommodated in two most unsuited former residences. Little had been done to convert them into workable teaching spaces. My first classroom was known affectionately as ‘the goldfish bowl’, probably once a small reception room on the ground floor of the old house. The doors were glass, so I left them open anyway and we regularly spilled out beyond the doorway, I guess we’d call it a ‘break-out’ space today, back then it was just the area at the foot of the stairs that made it difficult for others to get through. 

The following year, I moved to the other building to teach Kindergarten. Over time, the teachers in the K-2 section had formed a close bond of collegiality and friendship. These connections led to each of us working closely with our grade partners. The Kindergarten classes shared a large common area, probably the living room, that separated the two classes, most likely bedrooms. The other Kindergarten teacher, Sue, and I naturally developed as a co-teaching-team over time. We shared lessons and utilised each other’s interests and strengths. We knew the students across the two classes, as if they were our own. Back then, we didn’t read anything about what makes great co-teachers, we just grew into our professional relationship. Sue had come from a special education background, sharing space and practice with other teachers was normalised. I learn so much from her.

In looking at research and best practice into co-teaching, much of the literature comes from the special education sector. Often cited is the work of Marilyn Friend (1993), she writes:

“Co-teaching in special education is an instructional delivery approach in which a classroom teacher and a special education teacher share responsibility for planning, delivering and evaluating instruction for a group of students”. Friend recognises that co-teaching is gaining popularity among general education teachers, suggesting the rationale as:

  1. To provide students with a more individualised and diversified learning experience.
  2. To enable teachers to complement each other’s expertise while providing a mutual professional support system.

These two points match our evolved co-teaching experience precisely. 

Launching into co-teaching today, is something that requires strategic consideration. The design and provision of shared learning spaces is increasingly common, however, I suspect the commensurate work in preparing teachers for this, is less so. 

There is no magic bullet to reaching team-nirvana. Main and Bryer reference the 1960s model by Tuckman – Stages of Team Development: forming, storming, norming and performing. They suggest that “these stages may not be sequential, may overlap, and may fluctuate back and forth. Stages may be omitted completely” (p.201). Teams can get stuck in the politeness of the forming stage, or shift into the storming stage and, without the development of requisite interpersonal skills, an unworkable culture may develop.

A perusal of literature (Friend, 1993; Main and Bryer, 2005; Murawski and Bernhardt, 2015; Stivers, 2008 ) suggests common threads to support longevity and health in co-teaching teams:

  1. Block time for planning
  2. Understanding and implementing models of co-teaching 
  3. Attending to the environment – the layout, furniture and resources 
  4. Gaining shared understanding and expectations from co-teaching team members
  5. Proactively dealing with interpersonal ‘issues’
  6. Participating in PD as a team

Finally, Stivers (2008) notes:

“Remember: It is not a marriage… your co-teacher may not be someone with whom you would choose to have a close personal relationship, but you can still build an effective professional relationship” (p.124).

I was fortunate to experience the organic development of a co-teacher relationship within an adaptive, if not unconventional, learning environment. As with any human endeavour, attention to the quality of the relationships between/amongst team members is critical to enhance the learning experience for students and for teachers to be professionally engaged. 



Friend, M (1993) Co-teaching: An overview of the past, a glimpse at the present, and considerations for the future, Preventing School Failure, Vol.37, Issue 4

Main, K. & Bryer, F. (2005), What does a “good” teaching team look like in a middle school classroom? Conference proceedings: Griffith University

Murawski, W. and Bernhardt, P (2015), An administrator’s guide to co-teaching, Educational Leadership, Vol. 73, No. 4.

Stivers, J (2008), Strengthen your co-teaching relationship, Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol. 44, No. 2

The learning debate is nothing new, it goes way back: Dismbodied Universals vs Contextualised Particulars

In 1896, John and Mary Dewey opened their laboratory school,

Dewey wished to ensure that learning was grounded in real-world contexts and activities rather than abstract ideas and rote learning… the educational process should mimic normal social behaviour, as opposed to the regimented kind of work he witnessed in traditional schools. 

Gislason, N (2009) Building Paradigms: Major Transformations in School Architecture (1798-2009) The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol.55 No.2 Summer 2009, 230-248

The Deweys wanted to create a learning paradigm which was “intrinsically motivated, authentic and context rich” as Gislason describes it.

However, 1896 is more like last week, when we look at the origins of this thinking – it goes back to Aristotle and Plato in the 4th century BC. My interest was piqued went I down a reading rabbit hole. Starting with a Twitter link to Forbes article We’ve Got It Backwards: Starting With Content Rather Than Learners Doesn’t Work by Tom Vander Ark 

Why are high school students so bored? How could we engage them to learn the required content? How can we nudge, support and coerce college learners to graduation?  What if we”’re asking the wrong questions? What if memorizing content and procedures wasn’t the point?

Vander Ark (2019)

In answering these questions, Tom referenced a short paper, Aristotle and Learning as Engagement in Particulars by Sasha Barab. In 350BC Aristotle warned:

Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience”. Whereas, the Platonic ideal is focused on, transmitting abstracted universals into a learner’s disembodied mind. (p.1)

Barab, S. (2019) Aristotle and Learning as Engagement in Particulars, Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

These ‘particulars’ and ‘universals are at the heart of the debate – not merely ‘knowing about’ with a focus on content, but ‘knowing for’, uniting the person and context with the content.

Barab concludes with, “Imagine if schools were laboratories for transforming particulars rather than factories for memorising predetermined structures”. (p.6) 

I’m with Aristotle.

Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; People become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.

Nicomachean Ethics Book 2


Destination Christchurch 2019: What I learnt about learning?

It’s the learners who matter, not the curriculum, not the teacher, not the timetable, the learners.

This past week Christchurch-based colleague, Cheryl Doig and I facilitated a week of professional learning for Sydney-based school leaders.

Sharing my reflections here:

We visited school working within the NZ system and simultaneously stretching boundaries of ‘what’s possible’. These schools reflect a growing shift, communities who are prepared to challenge convention.

Why? Because learner engagement matters, it becomes the driver. This is what is measured before achievement. Authentic student voice is sought. After all, happy, interested and curious learners want to come to school. Learners are asked:

“How challenging is the work for you?”

“Where do you think you will have success?”

As one principal said,

“Break every silo to implement change – not just tinker around the edges.”

Silos, the things schools normally ‘do’: subjects, timetables, staff meetings, age/grade groupings and teachers in control of their domain. Instead think, “Maths teachers needed to be literacy teachers as well”.

How did it work?

To unpack this question, Gislason’s School Climate Model, outlined by Cardellino and Woolner (2019) is very helpful,

the success of the learning environment can be understood in terms of alignment between the interdependent elements:



staff culture

student milieu

together define the environmental quality of the school. Should one of these elements be significantly out of joint…then a design may falter in its intended purpose”.

P. Cardellino & P. Woolner (2019) Designing for transformation – a case study of open learning spaces and educational change, Pedagogy, Culture &

Gislason, N. 2010, “Architectural design and the learning environment: A framework for school design research” Learning Environment Research, 13: 127-145

Each of the schools had new or refurbished school buildings and learning spaces, however, the provision of material elements (ecology) alone is, of course, insufficient to see the transformation.
(These points are aggregating a range of ideas)


Building design, technology and other material elements

  • Shared spaces, zoned areas and homebases
  • Teachers and classes in the open
  • Variety of furniture – purposefully considered
  • Attention to acoustics (emphasis deliberate)
  • Welcoming entry to the school, buzzing with activity and library as part of this space
  • Kitchen on each level, accessible for learners
  • Multi-level school, connected by broad stairs
  • No teacher’s desk in any learning space


Assumptions, values and patterns of thought and behaviour

  • Why, why, why do we do what we do?
  • Teachers observed engaged in a variety of ways: explicit teaching, small groups, one-on-one.
  • Equip teachers to effectively utilise 100 minute blocks
  • Know learners beyond academic
  • Recruit teachers in a group process
  • Learners first mindset
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Collaborative problem solving
From: Collaborative Design of Learning HCC Tuakana April 2019


Learning and motivation, social climate.

  • Choice in focus – PINs: Passion, Interests, [learning] Needs
  • Self-directed learning
  • Mentoring and pastoral care consistent with values
  • Autonomy and choice in learning focus
  • Strong links to family and culture
  • Uniform dependent on the culture of the school
  • Asking: “How challenging is the work for you?”
  • The hum of productive noise
‘Connect before correct’ –


Teaching, scheduling and curriculum

  • In each school – 3x 100 minute periods/learning sessions
  • Subjects were not siloed, but connected
  • Timetable changes every five weeks
  • Range of curriculum subjects synthesised into three strands: STEM, Humanities, Kinesiology
  • Learning supported by teachers through
    • Integrated curriculum courses
    • Passion and interest-based courses
  • SOLO taxonomy used for assessment and measurement of learning
  • Collaborative design of learning and timetabling
    • Teachers had freedom to develop courses
    • Teachers pitch ideas for courses to colleagues to decide what’s next
  • Timetable all classes for a year level at the same time

A huge thanks to Andy, Karyn, Brad, Hamish, Ian, Steve, Sean and all the amazing learners, educators and community members we met, from Haeata Community Campus, St Thomas of Canterbury, Ao Tawhiti, Rolleston College and Lemonwood Grove School.