2011 Lesson #6 - invent new creative structures to enable deep and passionate learning

I am constantly challenged to consider what we need to throw out from our assumed daily practices as teachers. If we come to the topic through the lens of making choices that maximize deep and passionate learning for students, then I have come to the conclusion that there is very little that will survive from the industrial model.

I’ll provide an anecdote to highlight this point. A couple of years ago I observed a lesson in progress on photosynthesis. I learnt a great deal and I have thought about this on mnay an occasion since. The context was in a school in a very deprived area of a large east African country. The school operated very much on a ‘hand-me-down’ colonial model where the assumption was that the teacher was the fount of knowledge, students were there to soak up what they could and spend the rest of the time either copying notes from the blackboard or a textbook. There were about 60 students in the one class, they were seated in rows facing a blackboard and the teacher had minimal training (possibly none). It was a Year 5 class. They had been rote learning the (mis)spelling of photosynthesis for about 20 minutes. They were moving on to a definition to be copied into the exercise books. When I looked out through the door, the classroom was adjacent to a school yard that had not one blade of green grass or any plants – despite the wide region being quite fertile. What was abundantly clear was that there was zilch context for understanding the concept.

What might have been the outcome if the energies and passion of the restless crew of 60 was unleashed via authentic learning: tilling the soil, planting the yard out and then observing photosynthesis in action over the coming weeks.

‘Just do it’

At NBCS/SCIL (www.nbcs.nsw.edu.au; www.scil.com.au) we have been progressively ‘throwing out’ the old. Three years ago we decided that we would get rid of the bell from the start of the new school year. On that particular idea, I was the driver and happy to lead the way. We did it ‘cold turkey’ – no warning, no strategy, just resolve. It has worked well. It wasn’t without its teething problems and for many weeks staff complained that they were not getting to class on time because of the lack of bells. The answer was easy – take individual ownership, create your own strategy and simply plan to turn up on time. I suspect there would be incessant complaints if we were to reintroduce this vestige of industrial factory practice. (We do play music for the youngest students in our K – 12 school, so that there is no anxiety for school beginners to know when they should be looking to go to class.)

In a second ‘overnight’ move in 2011, I removed the use of the very menstrual word ‘period’ from being the describer of different components of the day – and moved to the term ‘learning session’. Students now engage in four learning sessions each day.

We have had ‘Grade Learning Managers’ and ‘Learning Area Managers’ for a few years – but I know we should get rid of the word ‘manager’. It is a reductionist term and doesn’t imply creative scope in leadership. Stay tuned on that one, because we’ll find a new term.  

The next big challenge is to gradually reshape the daily landscape away from ‘timetables’. The optimum would be for students to engage in deep learning, focused around areas of passion. I know this will take some time to achieve and while we still have to keep the mandatory endpoint state assessment systems in mind, we do not need to lock ourselves into factory mode thinking as the only approach to achieve the required outcomes.

An example

In 2011 we trialed an elective class in Year 9 & 10 where the students (teacher or self nominated) had to create their own curriculum. (Read more via the blog of SCIL learning activist, @steve_collis http://www.happysteve.com/blog/gat-project-google-20-rule-in-school.html).

Students needed to frame a challenge – a passion project, create a timeframe for achieving it and determine who might best support them on the journey. We allocated one teacher for the group which met three learning sessions a fortnight and beyond that the students were responsible for their progress. Again, the experience was remarkably successful:

·       Students choose topics and production formats that far exceeded normal expectations

·       Students collaborated very well with the mentor teacher

·       Students created natural sub groups and in some cases worked jointly on a task

·       Students gained a lot of insight from professional mentors, practitioners from related fields

·       Students suddenly became film producers, novelists, scriptwriters, robot creators – a myriad of outstanding creators


We have generated further challenges – how do we allow for this depth of engagement to not be squashed in the more routine classes of Years 11 & 12? How might we transition an entire grade to have the capacity to do this in order that we might start collapsing the timetable on certain days and create ‘deep days’ on a more basis. How do we tie this in with the existing curriculum expectations?

An outstanding example from the UK

In October 2011, I visited the Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury, Kent, UK. We were specifically visiting Dr Becky Parker and her work with the Langton Star Centre. (@langtonstar; http://www.thelangtonstarcentre.org/ - and via this YouTube link, Dr Becky Parker invites you to join the SpaceLab project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Bup2kCsTYc).

I do not want to move into a ‘grammar school or no grammar school’ debate – rather simply draw from their decision as a school to create new structures to allow what is very obvious deep and passionate engagement. The following is my take on the visit. The school was a school that was touted as a ‘failing’ school a decade ago – but rather than going down the track of focusing heavily on assessment and outcomes, they seemed to have taken a ‘what if’ approach - and with outstanding and inspirational outcomes. They adopted the 20/80 approach – allow teachers to devote a minimum 20% of their time teaching to their own areas of passion, not necessarily curriculum related. The supposition was that the lost time would be more than compensated by an increase in student engagement via passion. And they got it right. I have never seen a school with more passionate students.

The Langton Star Centre (Physics unit) had students differentiating cosmic rays and were busy anticipating the implications for data analysis once their cosmic ray detector has been launched as an attachment to a NASA satellite. As a non-physicist, I learnt more in a few minutes about the different cosmic rays that co-exist in the same spaces as me! Two 16 year old students had written a journal article on the topic and submitted it to a peer reviewed academic publication. It was published as a leading article – without the university even knowing initially that it was written by two school-aged students. The power of passionate engagement!

We were invited to visit the new observatory located in the school grounds – but we weren’t taken there by teachers, rather two students who had been responsible for constructing the telescope, parts of which had been shipped from Australia. One of the students was contacting the solar panel company in Australia to get greater clarity on the positioning of the panels. The power of passionate engagement!

We were invited to learn more about the school’s human genome project where under the direction of a teacher who was also a researcher-in-residence, over 100 students were conducting experiments on the human genome to help decode the essence of multiple sclerosis and contribute actively to advancing understanding and possible future treatments. The power of passionate engagement!

We listened to students who had formed their own society to advance their higher order thinking capacities – ready to take on the best at university level. One of the group was aware that the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer lived close by and after persistent requests got him to come and talk to their small lunchtime group about possible strategies to steer the global economies through the current GFC. The power of passionate engagement!

What was very clear at Simon Langton Grammar School was that when the focus was moved away from a relentless focus on state assessments and outcomes, then far deeper learning was possible. But the school leaders had to take the brave step of taking a risk, based on strong intuition and then creating new structures that could facilitate the approach. And wow – does it work!

Rewriting the script for Years 3 – 8 at NBCS/SCIL

Our major work in this area has been within our upper primary and middle years programs. Over the last few years we have created strong teacher teams who have created collaborative programs for Years 3 & 4, Years 5 & 6, Year 7 and Year 8 respectively. The programs look slightly different at each stage – but in essence allow for a deep focus on literacy and numeracy skills, personalized to each student’s stage of learning, while also freeing up a quarter to half of most days for work on integrated units. 

I love the fact that the teachers are demonstrating the capacity for far higher-order teaching competencies as the program progresses. No longer are the teachers simply classroom managers and curriculum deliverers, now they are mentors, guides, learning leaders and coaches. They are also moving into areas of their own professional passion as leading learners and practitioners. What I really love is when teachers become the creative directors of curriculum modules that involve layers of learning and experience: drawing curriculum frameworks from a range of sources such as Bloom’s higher order thinking skills, Gardner’s diverse intelligences, ‘habits of mind’ strategies and then placing an entire simulated game experience over the top of the unit. I am awaiting this year’s ideas from the different teams eagerly.

What is needed?

This all requires team effort, operating on intuition far more than we have, running with an idea, taking risks, finding new structures, removing blockers, thinking differently, different spaces, team training: in essence a new mode of transport, not a reworked version of an old model. Focus on passion, not the ‘spoon-fed’ curriculum delivery strategies where there will undoubtedly be some short-term successes, but also the high risk of self-learning flounder once the student leaves that environment and has to take responsibility for their own learning. Therein lies the challenge!

Other exemplar

Three other immediate examples that come to mind, which I have visited, include the Kunskapsskolan schools -scattered across Sweden and now in the UK and New York (www.kunskapsskolan.com/), the High Tech High schools in San Diego (www.hightechhigh.org) and the new Anastasis Academy in Denver (www.anastasisacademy.com/). All these schools have taken up the challenge of creating new structures for next paradigm learning – and in so doing, have created levels of engaged learning that certainly stand out.

I’d love to hear your stories of the power of deep engagement and the new structures that you have created or of which you are aware.