Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The Importance of Learning Slowly


Earlier this year I came across a review by Gary Woodwill of a book about learning, thinking and acting. It was the title that grabbed my attention "The Importance of Learning Slowly". The book is by Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting.One of the comments Woodwill makes about the book is that:

While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience ... and according to Spitzer "It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.” (p. 53)

We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical metaphors of his day. In the 19th century, Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, coined the term “the average man” based on the pendulum (Piaget’s “equilibrium”), while Herbert Spencer wrote a psychology of adaptation using the newly created thermostat as his model (Piaget’s “adaptation and assimilation” within set limits).
As Foucault taught us in Discipline and Punish, much of the psychology of the twentieth century is based on disciplinary practices derived from factories and prisons, giving us such learning technologies as classrooms, regular rows of seats, raising of hands, incremental rewards, recess, time periods, and the power of the teacher’s gaze.
In the second half of the twentieth century, two models of computing competed for dominance. One model was artificial intelligence, based on a model of inputs, storage, processing, and outputs - in other words, a factory metaphor. The other model was that of neural networks, modeled on what was then known about the functioning of brains in humans and other animals. In the 1950s, AI became the darling of computer science, leaving neural network development far behind in terms of funding and attention.
After more than 50 years of development, the hopes of those developing traditional artificial intelligence have hit a brick wall. While powerful computers using brute force in the number of computations they can carry out have beaten grand masters at chess, the same computers cannot recognize anything for which they have not been specifically programmed. In other words, they can memorize a seemingly endless set of facts, but have no flexibility to be creative with what they “know”. On the other hand, new developments in brain research has stimulated renewed efforts in using neural networks to produce flexible learning processes in computers, and to help researchers understand learning in living organisms.
Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.
Like neural networks, the brain is based on vector algebra, rather than numerical computations. Vectors have strength and direction, and many vectors, representing multiple inputs, unite to form a result. The result in the brain is strengthening or weakening of a set of neural connections, a relatively slow process. While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience. Spitzer says that “… there exists a tension, a problem, for every learning organism. It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.” (p. 53) This conclusion challenges those who advocate extreme learning and other forms of speeding up the learning process. In fact, according to Spitzer, trying to learn to quickly can actually be detrimental:
“… the interactions of an organism with its environment can be generally conceived of as a sampling of data in order to predict the true (i.e., adaptively valid) values of parameters. As stated above, this task can only be accomplished if every single experience (every single input pattern) has only a very small impact on the changes in the network. If the changes are too large, estimates may oscillate around the true values rather than approximating them. Again: the system only works with learning happens slowly.” (p. 54)
Spitzer also believes that children can and need to learn more quickly than adults. Children need a rough and ready view of the world while adults want to increase their depth of understanding. Spitzer relates this to the pace of change in today’s society. “The old master violin building makes better violins than the young student of the trade. If, however, all of a sudden the customers want music synthesizers, student will adapt to change more readily.”
The importance of feedback is apparent in both brains and neural networks. Neural networks have a technique called backpropagation of errors that simulates feedback loops in the brain that slowly change the hidden layers between input and output. This means that learning is much more to do with practice and observation than being told what to do. “Children learn from examples,” says Spitzer. The brain stores its learning in “self organizing feature maps.”
Spitzer is a psychiatrist in Germany, so it is not surprising that he has a chapter entitled “The Disordered Mind” in which he discusses autism and oppression. Most of his conclusions are on the best way to raise children, making this book less applicable to the adult learning. However, there are so many insights going through it that I highly recommend it to everyone in education and training. Spitzer’s newest book is on learning and will be translated into English by the end of the year. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Chess Tournament in Castlemaine's Old Gaol


Yesterday one hundred and sixty kids from Castlemaine area primary schools walked and travelled by bus to Castlemaine's Old Gaol for the 2nd Chess Tournament. This is the culmination of two terms of chess learning and playing in primary schools as one of the numeracy lessons.

What struck visitors was the enthusiasm of the students. We had kids from grade 2 to grade 6 competing.
Each student played 7 games beginning at 9:30am and finishing at 2:pm.

Watching the kids play a game and then run outside, jump around and talk excitedly, Randall, the manager of the gaol said, I don't know how you teachers can do it."
The enthusiasm of the kids was tiring.

The winning team was grade 4 boys from Castlemaine Primary School.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Wind Turbine at Cults Primary School

The reason I visited Cults Primary School in Aberdeen was to check out their wind turbine, which I heard about in Australia. Susan Clark who I mentined in the previous post took me on a guided tour of the school and gave me some details about the turbine.

Cults Primary School in Aberdeen is the first school in Scotland to harness the wind to generate its own power. The wind turbine at Cults school will provide energy for the school and awareness of renewable energy among pupils, other schools and the wider community.

The 5-kilowatt Iskra turbine is powerful enough to provide enough energy to run most of the school’s catering operation. The cost has been covered by the Scottish Energy Saving Trust (£13,326), Aberdeen City Council (£9,500), the school’s Parent-Teacher Association (£1,000) and Cults Community Council (£1,000).

The turbine should deliver an approximate saving of £650 per annum at current electricity prices and will contribute to reducing the school’s reliance on fossil fuels. The school expects to cut its CO2 emissions by 5,633kg per year--and by 112,660kg over the lifetime of the turbine.

A 32-inch LCD screen has been installed indoors, allowing pupils and staff to monitor wind speed and direction, power output, and the tonnage of carbon dioxide which would otherwise have been pumped into the environment if the school were using conventional power sources. The school has installed the equipment to let the pupils make a real contribution to renewable energy generation and learn about enterprise, citizenship and working with others. While I talked with Susan in the school's corridor, students stopped in front of the monitor to read the information.

The principal Ian Smithers (the one with hair), said the monitor keeps the students interested in what energy the turbine is creating and saving. It has to work at a certain speed to be generate enough energy to save electricity and money.

I wonder what schools in Mount Alexander Cluster can do? Challenge 2 Change is moving in this direction.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Cults Primary School is an Eco-School

Today I visited Cults Primary School to find out more about their wind turbine and eco-school status. TheHead of School, Ian Smithers introduced me to Susan Clark ,the key person behind the project, who is team leader for the Pupil Support Assistants and the school's Information Technology among other things. I was impressed by the involvement of students in the decision process in the designated areas a school needs to cover to be awarded a green flag.

The school has been awarded two green flags which doesn't mean much to an Australian but is very significant in Scotland.

Susan showed me the documentation that has to be kept to demonstrate the involvement of children and she added that when the committee came to evaluate the school, they spoke at length to students. Obviously if the pupils weren't really involved it would be very obvious.

We walked around the school past the sensory garden which was designed by pupils in collaboration with parents, including a garden designer. The garden is for special needs kids and involves touch, smell, visual and other senses.
You can see the raised beds for kids in wheelchairs, the water fountain is powered by solar power. It does switch off in Scotland. I said our problem in Australia is not the solar power but the water as we are experiencing drought conditions.

There were numerous other areas of great interest which I'll report in another blog.
But it's wonderful to see the results of commitment by a school in giving the kids real responsibility.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Is there a chess connection with Glenfiddich?

Well it's a shame that after the Chess Conference we had to do a bit of touring. As you can see here Steve Tobias, Steve Carroll and myself took a break from our demanding cognitive work, to relfect on our experience. The sign had nothing to do with visiting Glenfiddich and nothing to do with having a wee dram. Steve Carroll was thinking hard, as you can see by his frown, about the chess and mathematics connections with visiting a whisky distillery.

Today we dropped Chess-squared initiator Steve Carroll at the airport with his 5 suitcases of presents for his wife Megan, kids Darcy, Jack and Gracie and numerous others he felt needed something from Scotland. By the time we loaded the suitcases into the boot of the car and Steve into the back seat the front wheels were airborne. We had to move Steve to the front seat so I could get the wheels on the road to enhance our steering capabilities.

However while we sat in a lounge with a cappuccino - don't get me started on the appalling coffee here - we began working out the future directions of our chess initiative in schools. One area to follow up is more focused interviews with students about what is going on in their heads when playing chess. What makes chess interesting for them and what makes mathematics interesting and boring?

Lots of ideas to follow up.

Steve Tobias has contact with one of the professors from Turin University who is keen to cooperate with the research the team is doing and to publish a joint paper in italian and English.

This afternoon we are visiting two researchers in Education at Aberdeen University to explore possible networking with schools in Mount Alexander Cluster and Aberdeen on energy conservation.

And I'm going to write to Tourism Scotland advising they need to train barristas. Maybe Edmund from Coffee Basics in Castlemaine, could be flown over.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Susan Polgar supports Chess-Squared

Susan Polgar, the world's first woman chess grandmaster is shown here supporting our cluster schools by writing a message on an autographed photo, for all schools in our cluster. Steve Carroll organised the photos and signing. This is an entry from her blog.


These are our friends from Castlemaine program in Australia. They are here at the International Chess Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland. Talk about commitment to chess and education to fly half way around the globe to attend! A numeracy initiative of the Mt. Alexander cluster of schools funded by Innovations and Excellence. A partnership supported by Castlemaine Chess Club, Castlemaine Community House, School Focused Youth Service, and James Cook University- School of Education- Queensland


Mount Alexander Cluster of Schools Chess paper




Yesterday the team - Steve Carroll, Steve Tobias and myself delivered our paper to the conference and we ran out of time. But we got our message across about the good things happening in our schools with our Chess-Squared initiative.

Steve Carroll outlined the background to the project and explained how the idea hatched from his fertile brain and that the key person for us in getting the tutoring going so successfully is Harry Poulton who as I said, "Is the only one of our group who can really play chess."


I spoke about the key partnerships with principals and teachers and that their commitment is real.

Steve Tobias talked about the research background and the notion of performance versus mastery learning. Our work is based in mastery learning that intelligence is not fixed at birth.


Feedback to our presentation was really positive. People liked the team presentation which demonstrated that we worked as a team and there is interest from Aberdeen and Turin Universities in doing some follow-up work with us.






Friday, 31 August 2007

Aberdeen chess conference begins



Well we finally made it to Aberdeen for the Chess in Schools and Community Conference. Steve Carroll, Steve Tobias and myself are presenting a paper tomorrow and are enjoying the conference presentations so far. they are focused on getting chess into schools for the benefit of the whole child, to use a cliche, but it's an important distinction to just focusing on finding champions. According to Susan Polgar "Chess should be fun." Our preparations have been finalised so I hope it all goes well tomorrow. This is the first academic conference like this I've presented.
Tonight we attend a civic reception hosted by Aberdeen City Council.

Monday, 13 August 2007

You need to listen to learn

During a meeting last week I began a conversation with a colleague, asked questions, listened and began explaining my thoughts when I realised that his attention was focused on what another person was saying. I was annoyed but realised that not listening carefully is something I do all too frequently. Improving my listening skills has been a goal for a long time. Then on the weekend I read this:

To learn from people, you have to listen to them with respect. [It is] not as easy as you might imagine. ... The trouble with listening for many of us is that while we're supposedly doing it, we're actually busy composing what we're going to say next. ... [During] your next personal encounter, try to employ the tactics we've outlined here:

* Listen.

* Don't interrupt.

* Don't finish the other person's sentences.

* Don't say 'I knew that.'

* Don't even agree with the other person (even if he praises you, just say, 'Thank you')

* Don't use the words 'no,' 'but,' and 'however.'

* Don't be distracted. Don't let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere while the other person is talking.

* Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking questions that (a) show you are paying attention, (b) move the dialogue forward, or (c) require the other person to talk(while you listen).

* Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are. ... [You will learn, and as an ancillary benefit] you'll uncover a glaring paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine [and truly listen], the more you will shine in the other person's eyes."



Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, Hyperion, Copyright 2007 by Marshall Goldsmith, pp. 148-156.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Ingmar Bergman writer



Ingmar Bergman is dead. I remember the first Bergman film I saw "Wild Strawberries' when I was about 18. I was a country boy who grew up on Tarzan 'King of the Apes' and Disneyland and had just moved to the big city and Wild Strawberries grabbed me although I really didn't know what to make of it. I think I somehow knew it was arty and I was trying to be arty. But Bergman was also a great writer. Icame across this post in a blog on writing that I read regularly Poynter Online by Roy Peter Clark. This is great to read as you can visualise the scene so well.


It's the opening to "The Seventh Seal," a story about a medieval knight in the days of the Black Plague:

The night had brought little relief from the heat, and at dawn a hot gust of wind blows across the colorless sea.

The knight, Antonius Block, lies prostrate on some spruce branches spread over the fine sand. His eyes are wide-open and bloodshot from lack of sleep. Nearby his squire Jons is snoring loudly. He has fallen asleep where he collapsed, at the edge of the forest among the wind-gnarled fir trees. His open mouth gapes toward the dawn, and unearthly sounds come from his throat.

At the sudden gust of wind the horses stir, stretching their parched muzzles toward the sea. They are thin and worn as their masters.

The knight has risen and waded into the shallow water, where he rinses his sunburned face and blistered lips.

Jons rolls over to face the forest and the darkness. He moans in his sleep and vigorously scratches the stubbled hair on his head. A scar stretches diagonally across his scalp, as white as lightning against the grime.

The knight returns to the beach and falls on his knees. With his eyes closed and brow furrowed, he says his morning prayers. His hands are clenched together and his lips form the words silently. His face is sad and bitter. He opens his eyes and stares directly into the morning sun which wallows up from the misty sea like some bloated, dying fish. The sky is gray and immobile, a dome of lead. A cloud hangs mute and dark over the western horizon. High up, barely visible, a sea gull floats on motionless
wings. Its cry is weird and restless.

The knight's large gray horse lifts its head and whinnies. Antonius Block turns around. Behind him stands a man in black. His face is very pale and he keeps his hands hidden in the wide folds of his cloak.

The man, of course, is Death, but we'll meet him in a minute. Notice how, through his words, Bergman offers us a wide shot, where we can see sky, the gulls, and the horizon; and the close-up, where we can see the parched lips of the knight and the scar on the squire's forehead.Because there will be sound in the movie, Bergman writes with sound: the snores of the squire, the whinny of the horses, the cry of the seabirds. And, of course, we overhear the dialogue:

Knight: Who are you?

Death: I am Death.

Knight: Have you come for me?

Death: I have been walking by your side for a long time.

Knight: That I know.Death: Are you prepared?

Knight: My body is frightened, but I am not.

Death: Well, there is no shame in that.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Footballers who moved to Freemantle

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to the footy broadcast of West Cast Eagles vs Freemantle and the commentators were discussing two players who transferred to Freemantle at the end of last year - Chris Tarrant and Dean Solomon - when one commentator said:
"I was a bit cynical when Solomon came to Freemantle with Tarrant. I thought they got the two shoes without the suit."

Don't you love it when you hear someone say something like this you haven't heard before!

Writing a paper on our chess initiative

"The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better." Stephen King

Steve Carroll, Steve Tobias and I are co-presenting a paper at an international conference on chess and the community in Scotland later this month. As part of this paper, I am writing a section dealing with the introduction of the chess-squared project in our cluster of schools, which includes a brief story of the initiative, comments on the key role of the principals, the teachers and the tutors, a description of our distributed leadership and a number of vignettes from classrooms.

Earlier today I was discussing with a teacher the difficulty of kids not getting their work completed on time and how difficult it is to develop this responsibility in kids. I mentioned that I always told my students that I'm a deadline person unlike my wife, Pat, who when given a task just gets it done. I begin the task and for some reason that I can't figure out, I leave it unfinished until pressure mounts as the deadline approaches, and then I go flat out and complete the task. I'm wondering were many teachers conscientious students who got their work done early and always on time?

Well, today I felt good because I sat down and wrote about 900 words for the paper.

I began this post with a quote about writing from Stephen King and I thought I'd end with one from Hemingway that sums up my feelings about the first draft:

"The first draft of anything is shit." Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Lesson Study at Castlemaine Secondary College

This term I have begun working with a group of teachers at Castlemaine Secondary College using Lesson Study as a professional learning strategy. We have two groups of three teachers involved in a cycle
  • one hour planning,
  • one hour teaching and observing
  • one hour debriefing and evaluating.
Each cycle will take 3 weeks for each round making 9 weeks in total for three teachers. A big commitment, which we might have to adjust.

Research demonstrates that the teacher makes the big difference to students and the most effective professional learning comes when a teacher works with his or her students in her classroom.

A couple of quotes sums this up:
Professional development should be “grounded in inquiry and reflection, participant driven and collaborative, involving a sharing of knowledge among teachers within communities of practice, sustained, ongoing, and intensive and connected to and derived from teachers ongoing work with their students.”
The International Reading Association (2006)

The problem is that there is almost no opportunity for teachers to engage in continuous and sustained learning about their practice in the setting in which they actually work, observing and being observed by their colleagues in their own classrooms and classrooms of other teachers in schools confronting similar problems of practice. (Richard Elmore, (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance p.127)

So far we’ve had 4 sessions for each sub-school providing background to Lesson Study as a form of professional learning, working through the schedule, supporting teachers filling out the PoLT (Principles of learning & Teaching) component mapping, conducting PoLT student surveys, presenting the Release of Responsibility model, deciding on what teachers will say to their class when explaining why three other teachers are sitting in, analysing lesson plans, deciding on a lesson format and collaboratively planning a lesson which one of the group will teach while the others observe.

Next week we begin our first teaching and observing lesson.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Jargon usage is a problem we need to be across

One of the things that bugs me is the education/corporate speak. I include corporate here because it seems to me terms and buzz words used in the corporate world drift into education.

One of the most popular terms at the moment is "going forward" (as opposed to going backwards"), others include "on the same page", "paradigm shift", ""ballpark", "toolboxes", "tool kit","touch base", "empower", "capacity building," "brainstorming", "shared goals", and so on.

The principal of a local primary school said the phrase that currently annoyed her is "across". You can no longer be aware of a situation you must be "across" it. You are no longer up to date with your workload or comprehend a situation ... you are "across" them.

Jargon is everywhere and in education circles I suppose we call is "eduspeak". Jargon can be humorous but also dangerous. Jargon is often used to show the difference between insiders and outsiders, those in the know of the current jargon and those who don't. George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language, said the aim of jargon was to mislead.

He wrote, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

The other problem, he said, was that jargon stopped people thinking. "Every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one's brain," Orwell said.

Thinking and walking

I'm a reasonably sociable person who also likes solitude so this quote in Presentation Zen appealed:

In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.
--Rollo May

Walking and thinking for me somehow gets things flowing in my mind and I'm able to work out ideas. Often when I'm trying to figure out how a difficult situation or problem should be handled I'll go for a walk and talk to myself.

One of the areas I'm working on with a group of teachers at the moment is an adaption of the professional learning strategy Lesson Study. This involves a group of teachers planning a lesson, observing while one teaches the lesson and the evaluating how it went and planning for the next lesson and so on. This is taking up a chunk of my current solitude looking for ways to make this successful for the teachers involved.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Hardworking, deeply committed teachers

It's about time that public school teachers were defended. This morning I was discussing the continual negativity towards teachers by politicians and took great pleasure in the comments by Diane Ravitch in The New York Sun .

Recently, I attended yet another one of those conferences where leaders of American industry, commerce, and government get together to decide what to do about our schools.

The meeting proceeded through the now-familiar litany of bad news: American students perform poorly on international tests as compared to their peers in Europe and Asia.

American graduate programs in science and engineering have relatively few American-born students and lots of foreign students. India and China are grabbing more and more of the world's technical jobs because their students are better educated and, I might add, lower paid.

We are losing the brain race to our economic competitors.

We have heard all of this before, for at least the past 25 years.When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on.

So, once again, out come the usual solutions to our nation's education problems: Incentivize teaching. End tenure. Adopt schemes for merit pay, performance pay, bonus pay. Pay teachers according to the test scores of their students. If student test scores go up, their teachers get more money. If student test scores don't go up, their teachers get extra professional development, and if need be, are fired.


After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.


I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

This is a tangled skein of causation, to be sure, but I have a radical idea. Next time there is a conference about the state of American education — or the problems found in each and every school district — why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we investigate the influence of the role models of "success" that surround our children in the press?Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?

It's time to stop beating up on teachers and ask why so many of our children arrive in school with poor attitudes toward learning. If the students aren't willing to work hard, if they aren't hungry to succeed, then even the best teachers in the world — laden with merit pay, bonuses, and other perks — are not going to make them learn.

Every article and book about successful education systems in other nations say that their students are "hungry" for education, "hungry" for the learning that will propel them and their families to a better life. Our children — with too few exceptions — don't have that hunger. It's not the fault of their teachers.

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of Education at New York University. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Storytelling and narrative medicine

Last weekend I was staying in Smythesdale with friends Anne and Jeff Langdon. Anne is an artist and teacher and head of Ballarat High School's Art Department. Anne and I were discussing the state of world affairs, our kids, and teaching, when she asked me if I had anything useful on creativity, as she and her Art Faculty colleagues are preparing a paper on the importance of art and creativity in the curriculum.

As it happened I had just been reading chapter 3 in Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind and mentioned that Yale Medical students were studying art and Columbia University Medical School are being trained in narrative medicine. The relevant extract can be found on page 52:
Today the curriculum at American medical schools is undergoing its greatest change in a generation. Students at Columbia University Medical School and elsewhere are being trained in "narrative medicine," because research has revealed that despite the power of computer diagnostics, an important part of a diagnosis is contained in a patient's story. At the Yale School of Medicine, students are honing their powers of observation at the Yale Center for British Art, because students who study paintings excel at noticing subtle details about a patient's condition... UCLA Medical School has established a Hospital Overnight Program, in which second-year students are admitted to the hospital overnight with fictitious ailments. The purpose of this playacting? "To develop medical students' empathy for patients," says the school.

Further on in the chapter Pink quotes Bob Lutz the head of General Motors:
Bob Lutz is not exactly a touchy-feely, artsy-fartsy kind of guy. He's a craggy, white haired white man in his seventies....when Lutz took over his post at GM, and the New York Times asked him how his approach would differ from that of his predecessors, here's how he responded: "It's more right brain.... I see us being in the art business. Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation." ... General Motors says it's in the art business.

The other thing I'd like to pick up on here is the "narrative medicine" training that medical students at Columbia Medical School are undergoing. Last week in The Age Business section there was an article on storytelling by Gabrielle Dolan which referred research by Human Synergistics International that highlighted:
... organisational storytelling as an effective tool in the success of these critical factors. Organisational storytelling is storytelling with a business purpose. Business leaders such as Jack Welch have always understood the power of story. When asked what his greatest attribute was, Welch replied: "That I am Irish and I know how to tell stories." ...

Stories allow people to personalise the organisation's mission and translate it into human terms.


... story becomes a critical tool. While logic and data can engage people's minds, stories engage their hearts. ...Essentially, change management is replacing existing stories in people's heads with new stories about the future. Narrative and story imagery are powerful ways to paint this vision of the future.


That's something I'll pass on to Anne. If any of you have other connections to creativity I'd be delighted to read about them and pass them onto Anne.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

Yesterday I was discussing literacy with a couple of primary teachers and asked about their impressions of secondary school English classrooms. We got around to talking about the ubiquitous practice of reading a class novel aloud for a whole period. First of all the students are bored; secondly there is often very little explicit teaching including giving the reason for reading the novel; third, the learning intentions for that period aren't stated; fourth, students are expected to be passive receivers of information with the occasional response to a question about the text. Engaged the students aren't.

Today I came across a blog post by Maish R Nichani of http://www.elearningpost.com/ which referred to a survey about adult learning. The first preference was learning by doing and I wonder how much of this is the situation in our classrooms. If students are to write how much writing do they actually do as compared with listening to their teacher talk about writing.

According to a survey from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), UK workers have an overwhelming preference for less formal ways of learning to improve job performance.

For the survey (Practice Makes Perfect), a sample of 2,076 workers in the UK were asked which of ten ways of learning were helpful in learning to do the job better.

Learning by doing the job on a regular basis was the favourite method - overall, 82% found this quite or very helpful. This was followed by being shown how to do things by others (62%), and watching and listening to others (56%). Just 54% felt that taking a course paid for by the employer or the worker was helpful, followed closely by reflecting on your own performance (53%). Reading books and manuals (39%), using trial and error (38%) and using the internet (29%) were the least favourite methods.

I wonder what our students would rate as their preferred way to learn?

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Cowshed line


I drove to Zack and Tracy's (our son and daughter in law) house last Sunday and on the way took a few photographs focusing on line. I'm fascinated by line in natural and made objects and above is an interesting mix of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines with a derelict cow shed.
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Is school reform impossible?

My head starts to spin with all of the information you can come across in the blogosphere. I keep telling myself that slow learning is savouring learning not rushing from blog to blog. Recently I came across mention of the pedagogy of slowness in a blog titled Artichoke.

I am loving listening to The Knowledge Tree E Journal issue featuring Geetha Narayanan’s take on just this idea and its real time and space result - Project Vision

So what is the dangerous idea I have been exploring and why do many people across the world consider it powerful? The dangerous idea is that school reform, in India in particular, but across the world too, is impossible.

Changing education, at the systemic level or at the institutional or school level, or educating teachers and school leaders in change can be classified as largely first order change - that of school improvement, which involves doing more of the same but doing it better (where the focus is on efficiency) and that of school re-structuring, which involves re-organising components and responsibilities (where the focus is on effectiveness).

The power behind the dangerous idea is the realisation that if one cannot reform education by improving the system or by re-structuring the schools, then the way forward must be through design. The need seemed to be to re-envision and to design a new system - one that supports both personal and social transformation creating 21st century learning.

Geetha’s thought experiment in challenging hidden assumptions about how we do school resulted in something very practical and grounded - Project Vision – a slow pedagogy created from shop front type learning experiences for marginalised children in the “rapidly growing slums” of Bangladore, India.

Project vision is not about creating small sized schools – it is about fragmenting theone place one space school into “four distinct, distributed, interactive and inter-related components that work in coordination with one another.”

I'm still grappling with the ideas Geetha Narayanan articulated in her blog, including this paragraph on slowness:
The concept of Slow emerged from the Slow Food and Slow Design movement in Europe and the United States and builds and develops on ideas of sustainable living as a desirable future. Slowness as a pedagogy allows students to learn not at the metronome of the school day or the school bell, but at the metronome of nature, giving them time to absorb, to introspect and contemplate, to argue and rebut and to enjoy.

Increase creativity - raise the roof

Are you an abstract, creative thinker or a more detail concrete, detail-oriented thinker? Currently there is a lot of thought given to school planning, especially open plan classrooms but one thing I haven't heard discussed is ceiling heights. Artist Robert Genn in his blog The Painters Keys writes about research into ceiling heights.

Raise the roof! May 8, 2007 Dear Artist, Now it seems that researchers at the Universities of British Columbia and Minnesota have found a relationship between creativity and the height of ceilings. Rui Zhu and Joan Meyers-Levy tested various volunteer groups in rooms of eight- and ten-foot ceilings. "When a person is in a high-ceiling environment, they are going to process information in a more abstract, creative fashion," said Zhu. "Those in a room with relatively lower ceilings will process in a much more concrete, detail-oriented fashion." These researchers feel people under high ceilings are "primed" to think broadly because of the sense of freedom associated withManchester Cathedral, UKThe soaring architecture of Gothic Cathedrals may have contributed to the lofty thoughts of the Renaissance" src="http://clicks.robertgenn.com/images/artists/robert_genn/051107_cathedral_sm.jpg"> Manchester
Cathedral, UKThe soaring architecture of Gothic Cathedrals may have contributed to the lofty thoughts of the Renaissance the space, while the containment of a lower ceiling encourages people to think small and focused. There may be something in this. Artists have traditionally demanded high ceilings, not only so they can run up their easels and facilitate high light but also to give themselves creative headroom. My studio, for example, is divided into two areas, one with a 9-foot ceiling, the other with a pitch that goes up to 14 feet. I've noticed I feel different in the two areas, and bringing work-in-progress from one area to the other demands different moves. On the other hand, working outside under an infinite ceiling can evoke a kind of conservative stagnation. In my case, this perverse reaction may be due to the intimidation that the great outdoors has always given me and may not be typical of all plein air enthusiasts. On the other hand, the studio in general is a sanctuary where I may safely vacillate between exploratory creativity and my personal bag of tricks. Apart from the feng-shui of high ceilings and their invitation to power and expansive thinking, other benefitsBig Mark Rothko in the Metropolitan Museum, NY include the dissipation of toxins and more oxygen. And when you think about it, the availability of empty warehouses and lofts on Manhattan has contributed greatly to the New York "paint big" school. Paris has always had some big places too. "Give me the venue and I will fill it up," said Picasso. While larger, higher studios may invite larger, higher work, they might also invite larger, higher ideals. Incidentally, these researchers ought to try to find out if shorter persons are more creative than taller ones because they have more space above their heads. Best regards, Robert PS: "Higher ceilings prime the feeling of freedom that in turn facilitates the relational processing of multiple data." (Rui Zhu) Esoterica: Contrarily, I'd like to draw your attention to the possible value of confinement. Tight little areas such as bird blinds, cars and motorhomes work well for many. It has something to do with the absence
of clutter and the opportunity to focus. Curiously, I've pulled off more than a few reasonable paintings in the economy seat of a crowded aircraft. I feel there's something smugly brilliant about keeping my elbows to myself. In any case, when building the studio of your dreams, you need to think about bumping your head.

That is the sort of nonsense up with I will not put

A blog I came across recently is delancyplace.com. the blog contains excerpts or quotes that the editors think interesting.

I've signed on to receive daily emails and the first one I received is pasted below - an extract about prepositions. As teachers in the local schools begin report writing and grappling with making sure their reports are grammatical correct, the excerpt seems apposite. Worth a look.

"[O]ne of the all-time great grammatical shibboleths [is] that when writing a sentence or a clause, you must not ... make a preposition the last word you put in. This notion apparently originated with the poet John Dryden, who in a 1672 work quoted Ben Jonson's line 'The bodies that these souls were frighted from' and commented 'The Preposition at the end of a sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.' Probably, Dryden based his stand on two foundations. First, prepositions in Latin never appear at the end of a sentence, not surprising since praepositio is Latin for something that 'comes before.' Second, a principle of composition that's as valid in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth holds that, whenever possible, sentences should end strongly--and prepositions, as necessary as they undeniably are, are usually more of a whimper than a bang."

Whatever its origin, the ban found favor with prescriptivists through the centuries, including Edward Gibbon; John Ruskin, who in an entire book (Seven Lamps) concluded a sentence with a preposition precisely one time; Lily Tomlin's officious Ernestine the telephone operator, who asked, 'Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'; and my mother-in-law, Marge Simeone, who is prone to saying things like 'In which car are we going?'... [B]ut [this rule] was always a bit suspect. It was blown out of the water by [Henry] Fowler, who wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 'Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.' Fowler then gave twenty-four examples of the 'rule' being broken by such writers as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pepys, Swift, Defoe, Burke, Kipling, and the authors of the King James Bible. ... When the preposition occurs in a phrasal verb, the transposition task can be close to impossible. To 'fix' a phrasal-verb-concluding sentence like 'I'm turning in,' you'd have to come up with something like 'Turning in I am,' which not even Yoda from Star Wars could say with a straight face. "To anyone still unconvinced, I offer two small anecdotes, in reverse order of familiarity."

1. Winston Churchill, when corrected for violating this rule, supposedly replied, 'That is the sort of nonsense up with I will not put.'"

2. A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?' "

Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, Broadway Books, 2007, pp. 163-165.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Helvetica is fifty and everywhere

Typography and graphic design grabs my attention. My wife, Pat, tells me that she notices that when I'm feeling a bit stressed I often spend hours redisigning some unit of work I am to present. I lose myself in the small details and problem solving. I came across a piece with a slide show by Mia Fineman "The Helvetica Hegemony: How an unassuming font took over the world" in Slate magazine. To take a grab from the first slide:

This year is the 50th anniversary of Helvetica, the ubiquitous sans-serif font that some have called the official typeface of the 20th century. Even if you don't know its name, you'll probably recognize its face. Helvetica is everywhere. It's been used in countless corporate logos, including those of American Airlines, Sears, Target, Toyota, BMW, Tupperware, Nestlé, ConEd, Verizon, North Face, Staples, Panasonic, Evian, Crate and Barrel, and the Gap. You can spot it on billboards, album covers, and directional signs, including all the signage in the New York City subway system. Even the IRS uses Helvetica for its income tax forms. ...


Now, the typeface is the subject of a small exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art centering around an original set of Helvetica lead type donated to the museum by Lars Müller, designer and publisher of the 2005 book Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface.



Worthwhile reading the text with the slides. Have a look.

Monday, 21 May 2007

The mathematics of executive salaries

Last Saturday's Business Age contained an interesting article by Leon Gettler on executive salaries. The gist of the piece was about the disparity between the obscene amounts of money some chief executives earn and what ordinary wage earners earn.

Gettler used statistics to draw comparisons and this got me to thinking that teachers could get kids to investigate the figures and work out their own comparisons. For example, this paragraph about Macquarie Bank's chief executive Allan Moss:

On $33.5 million, Allan Moss is on a nice little earner, up 58 per cent on the previous year. As The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, he's worth 446 construction workers, 669 graduate teachers, 335 GPs, or 747 times the average Australian worker.


So there you go, I wonder how many teachers you could get for Allan Moss's salary?

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Chess-squared is a brilliant project


Steve Tobias is a Senior Lecturer at James Cook University in Queensland. He has taught at all levels of schooling. For the past two decades he worked in pre-service teacher education in the field of mathematics education. His recent research is in self regulation and building resilience and persistence in open ended and problem solving situations. He recently flew down to Castlemaine to meet the Chess-squared group.


I conducted an email interview with Steve about the chess initiative, CHESS-SQUARED, that began in a cluster of schools in Mount Alexander Shire, Central Victoria in 2006. The project is coordinated by Steve Carroll, Harry Poulton and Sam Grumont.


The chess -squared group have been invited to be keynote speakers at the Chess in the Schools and Communities International Conference At Aberdeen University. The main aims of the conference will be to explore the particular contribution of chess play within the school and home environment to the development of thinking skills, health and well being and the creative imagination of children and young people.


Sam What is your involvement in the project?


Steve I guess my main role is to support Steve, Harry and Sam with collecting research information about the students', teachers' and community's responses to the Chess program. It is a unique program and we would like to collect broad evidence that it has some positive effect on teaching and learning, particularly in mathematics. I am interested in students’ ability to self-regulate their learning, their ability to persist when the going is tough and their resilience when they lose a game. In a similar way I would like students to see that in learning mathematics - failure is actually okay and a starting place for developing a richer understanding of the task.


Sam What are your thoughts about how it's gone so far?


Steve This is a brilliant project. There are some facets that should be acknowledged. The main organisers are very passionate and committed to the project. It seems to more about bringing the community together through the schools. Playing games is important for developing logic, reasoning and strategizing skills. However, it also encourages 'play' with others including friends, mates, people you didn't know, parents, siblings, grand parents. I think the importance of the project is in the how the students build confidence through play and how this effects the relationship (learning opportunity) between students and teachers.




Steve It is being held in Aberdeen. The organisers of this conference invited the Castlemaine project as guest keynote speakers for their international conference. This is an honour and a tribute to the schools and organisers and huge indication that what is happening in the Castlemaine area is unique and very important for not only building skills but also community.


Sam Do you think the teaching and learning that is happening with Chess-squared is worthwhile?


Steve Absolutely. Without question their is a direct link between playing chess and teaching and learning. In this case students and teachers whether they be a chess tutor or fellow student - the teaching and learning will be intertwined. We would like to collect evidence about the richness of this interaction and the effects on student motivation. Hopefully the process will 'enable' students to learn for enjoyment and teach them something about persistence, resilience and the power of thinking through different strategies.

Monday, 30 April 2007

The Importance of Learning Slowly

Currently I'm working as a Teaching and Learning Coach and I know it takes me time to think things through if I am to get a deeper understanding, which is why I titled my blog 'Slow learning'. I'm always on the lookout for material about thinking and recently I came across a blog post by Gary Woodill titled The Importance of Learning Slowly , which is a review of Manfred Spitzer's book The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting. From Gary Woodill's review:

Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.

Like neural networks, the brain is based on vector algebra, rather than numerical computations. Vectors have strength and direction, and many vectors, representing multiple inputs, unite to form a result. The result in the brain is strengthening or weakening of a set of neural connections, a relatively slow process. While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience.

So there you go.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Learners shall inherit the earth

In times of change, learners inherits the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.'

--the late writer Eric Hoffer

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Asking the good question is key

Teachers in Victorian schools are coming to grips with formative and summative assessment which are now called:
  • assessment of learning (summative)
  • assessment for learning (formative)
  • assessment as learning (formative)
I recently read an ASCD brief blog by Marge Scherer on Dylan Wiliam co-author of Inside the Black Box , about a session he ran at a conference. It's all about formative assessment:

Some kinds of assessment raise achievement, and some merely measure it, Dylan Wiliam told the educators at his session, titled "Classroom Assessment: Minute by Minute and Day by Day."
The assessments that researchers have found most effective at raising achievement are those that teachers make minute by minute and day by day in the classroom and then use almost immediately to adjust their lessons. For example, teachers who walk the aisles to check on what the class needs to work on next are gathering more helpful data than they would if they used the same time to help two or three individuals with specific problems, he said.


Asking diagnostic questions is another way to find out what students do and don't know. A simple technique like an exit question (a question every student answers before leaving class) can help the teacher know how many students have grasped a basic concept or skill and whether to reteach the concept the next day.

Asking every student to choose one of several answers is another way to make sure students are engaged throughout the lesson. Teachers should not allow students to choose not to participate. Research shows that the more students think and talk in class, the more they learn. But questioning should not be scary, Wiliam reminded the group. If the student answers "I don't know," a good reply might be, "I know, but if you did know, what would you think?" The point is that no student should be able to "choose not to think."

To demonstrate some of his strategies with the audience, Wiliam had the group predict which of several answers were correct and then explain why they chose the answers they did. Such reflection and analysis are part of learning, he said.

Wiliam's final message: Classroom instruction matters most in boosting achievement, and improving questioning and feedback techniques will improve the effectiveness of teachers.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Mindset a growth mentality

Tonight I came across comments on Bruce Hammond's Leading and Learning blog about recent research by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues , published in her book ,'Mindset: The New Psychology of Success', which recommends that students need to become aware of how their brains work. According to Bruce, Dweck suggests:

  • "That we teach our students to think of their brains as a muscle that strengthens with use forming new connections every time they learn.This certainly fits in with those who hold a constructivist view of learning.
  • That we teach students appropriate study skills and convey to them that by using these methods it will help their brains learn better.
  • That we should discourage using labels ( and streaming) that convey to students that their intelligence is fixed.
  • That we should encourage students to appreciate that there is wide range of ways of being intelligent - schools that are aware of Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences will be aware of this. Schools that focus on narrow literacy and numeracy targets will be giving students the wrong message.
  • Teachers ought to focus more on student's effort, strategies and progress rather than praising their talent or intelligence . Students need to see mistakes as positive rather that negative events - something to learn from and not to fear making
  • Most of all teachers need to give students relevant challenging work that students see as fun."

The blurb from Random House notes that Carol Dweck says that our mindset is not a minor personality quirk: it creates our whole mental world. It explains how we become optimistic or pessimistic. It shapes our goals, our attitude toward work and relationships, and how we raise our kids, ultimately predicting whether or not we will fulfill our potential. Dweck has found that everyone has one of two basic mindsets.If you have the fixed mindset, you believe that your talents and abilities are set in stone–either you have them or you don’t. You must prove yourself over and over, trying to look smart and talented at all costs. This is the path of stagnation. If you have a growth mindset, however, you know that talents can be developed and that great abilities are built over time. This is the path of opportunity–and success.Dweck demonstrates that mindset unfolds in childhood and adulthood and drives every aspect of our lives, from work to sports, from relationships to parenting. She reveals how creative geniuses in all fields–music, literature, science, sports, business–apply the growth mindset to achieve results. Perhaps even more important, she shows us how we can change our mindset at any stage of life to achieve true success and fulfillment. She looks across a broad range of applications and helps parents, teachers, coaches, and executives see how they can promote the growth mindset.

So, we need to work on developing the growth mindset of our students. Way to go!

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Too much talking by teachers

The last two days I've been at a professional development project called "Building Learning Capacity of Professional Learning Leaders". This is a 10 day program running over the next few months.

The building leaning capacity is from Guy Claxton and one of the readings we had was his keynote address for the British Educational Research Association last year. One of the key ideas Claxton discussed in his book 'Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less' is slow learning. We started the first session with a handout of 5 pages to be shared between two people and were expected to read and discuss it in ten minutes. I turned to my partner and asked, "What was your reaction to the task?"

She replied, "I like to have my own copy to read and write notes on."

Precisely my thoughts. I kept thinking that this was the opposite of slow learning, of slowing down, savouring the ideas, tossing them around before talking about them. But this seems to be the case of education everywhere - speed up, data, analyse, react, get it down quickly. At the end of the two days when we were asked to reflect a comment made at my table was that we talked too much. And this was coming from teachers. We all agreed we'd like more time to think; quiet time.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Interactive whiteboards may not improve learning

Technology is a great thing but we always need to ask has it made difference in learning? A number of schools in my cluster, have purchased interactive whiteboards with the goal of enhancing teaching and learning.

From some of the whiteboard sessions I've seen, students are engaged, kids can move things around the boards easily and the visuals are stimulating. However some teachers are concerned that the interactive capability of the boards are used fully and that they don't become glorified, expensive data projectors.

A recent UK study commissioned by the English Department of Education found that computerised whiteboards failed to boost student achievement.

I came across a report of the report in a BBC News item, "Doubts over hi-tech whiteboards".

The study group visited schools only a year after a government project introduced the boards. "Interactive whiteboards can even slow the pace of learning," and result in "relatively mundane activities being overvalued", the Institute of Educatiion study suggested.

Another finding was that "although the newness of the technology was initially welcomed by the pupils, any boost in motivation seemed short lived".

A crucial statement is that "when the use of the technological tools took precedence over a clear understanding of their purpose for teaching, IWBs were not used in way that could enhance learning," it said.

Does this apply to the use of weblogs in the classroom?

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Critics of teachers turn people away

Well it's been a while between posts and I must say a very enjoyable holiday at the beach in Airey's Inlet. I rarely thought of teaching at all but mid-January one article caught my attention.

During the past couple of years I noticed that there seems to be a prolonged systematic attack on the teaching profession by politicians and columnists, particularly in Rupert Murdoch's newspaper 'The Australian'. Every problem in society seems to be the fault of teachers and in the case of the Federal Education Minister, Julie Bishop, it's left-wing ideologues who have hijacked the curriculum with some themes "straight from Chairman Mao". We've heard it all before: a drug problem - introduce drug education; road accidents - introduce driver education; racism - get rid of multi-culturalism; rude behaviour - introduce values; and literacy and numeracy levels - get back to phonics. However for teachers one academic made a statement.

Professor Sue Willis, Dean of Education at Monash University and president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, rode to the rescue in an article in The Sunday Age which was reported in a related article 'Criticism endangers teaching.

"The capacity to attract our brightest and best young people into teaching, and to keep them in teaching is directly related to the way (the profession) is constructed both in the media and by politicians," Professor Willis said.

"It's absolutely clear that we have downturns in applicaton rates for university courses), and an increased loss of teachers from the professon, when they are constantly being slammed.


"Why would people want to go into a profession where they're treated like shit? Where they're treated as though no matter what they do, everything is their fault. If there's high unemployment, if kids are rioting at the beaches, schools are the problem.

"if we really want to attract the brightest and best into state schools, we've got to start talking them up - and the constant talking them down is actually causing the problem it's supposed to be pointing to."


As I remember some teaching colleagues saying out loud in New York, "go girl!"