Balancing Between Inspiration and Achievement in the Search for New Ideas


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

In his book, The Thinking Teacher, Oliver Quinlan questions the tendency of teachers to find inspiration in every new thing they come upon online. Whether it is be a TedTalk video or a resource picked up online, we need to be wary of taking on and trying everything we discover. As Quinlan states:

We all need a bit of good feeling in our work, but perhaps we should be aiming for achievement not inspiration.

The alternative to inspiration is being purposeful and working towards sustainable habits.

Quinlan’s concern regards inspiration verses achievement got me thinking about my own practise, both online and off. This is something that I am often challenged with as a connected educator. Why share? Why save links to Diigo? Why read endless books and blogs? Why write posts (like this one?) Are these examples of inspiration, achievement or something else altogether? This led me to reflect on my current ‘episode’ exploring documentation, visible thinking and all things Reggio Emilia.

The first question that we are confronted with is who is the judge as to whether something is purposeful or not? It would be easy on the outside to see my interest in Reggio as an example of short lived inspiration. Latest link picked up online, thrown into the classroom, but never properly ingrained. However, to see it as such misses its place within my own learning inquiry overtime into supporting students during the process of learning, not just at the end. Here then area few moments which have influenced how I got to now. Steps in the iterative process.

Starting out as a teacher all those years ago now, I remember manically trying to manage student workbooks. The big problem, as I saw it, was collecting and communicating with students in a timely manner. This was and is always difficult, especially if you only saw students once a week. This led me to explore the use of digital workbooks. Beginning with a simple Word document shared via the school share drive, I soon moved to a cloud solution using Google Apps. This meant I didn’t have to depend upon students placing a copy in the right folder and that I could respond at any time.

In 2013, I attended a keynote at ICTEV by Dan Donohoo who discussed the idea of the village. Amoungst other things, Donohoo made mention of Reggio Emilio. I had never really heard of Reggio Emilio, but his discussion of it piqued my interest and so it became something I became consicous of and looked out for in regards to listening to all voices in the classroom.

At the same time, I had the opportunity to work with an instructional coach. After some discussion, we identified taking notes and keeping evidence during the lesson as my goal. Although I did not necessarily achieve what I set out to accomplish (a simple solution for collecting notes), I did come to the realization that I was trying to own the learning and that maybe I needed to rethink the problem. Rather than how I could capture every moment, maybe I needed to think about how I could support students in sharing and celebrating their thinking and learning.

I have long followed the work of Cameron Paterson and Bianca Hewes are their use of project-based learning as an answer for student-centred learning, especially in the Secondary classroom. In particular, I have been influenced by Paterson and his work around all things Reggio Emilio. It has helped me begin to reimagine questioning, thinking and learning in the classroom.


I understand Quinlan’s warning about the tendency to dip in online for inspiration. However, failing to actively spend any time around the idea well, as David Culberhouse puts it, risks waiting for solutions to fall out of the sky. The challenge is to always be mindful of why we do it. Sometimes I feel that when we talk about achievement verses inspiratiion, the question that is not asked is whose achievement are we aspiring for and in denying inspiration, we are denying teachers a sense of agency? To be honest, I am really not sure, what about you? How do you find balance between inspiration and achievement? Balance between learning with intent, while at the same time allowing space for serendipity and perpetual beta? As always, comments welcome.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting schools with the integration of technology and pedagogical innovation. I have an interest in how together we can work to make a better world.

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3 thoughts on “Balancing Between Inspiration and Achievement in the Search for New Ideas”

  1. Hi Aaron, thanks again for the mention and your encouragement. Have you read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From? It’s about how we generate breakthroughs and the key patterns behind innovation. I think you would enjoy it.

    While Reggio helps us to “reimagine questioning, thinking, and learning in the classroom”, it also helps us to reimagine approaches to student assessment, teacher professional learning, and relationships in the classroom. “Listening must be the basis of the learning relationship that teachers seek to form with students” (Ritchhart et al, Making Thinking Visible.

  2. You seem to be suggesting here Aaron that balance might be a good thing? I’d definitely agree with that. I haven’t read Oliver’s book, so am wary of taking the quotation you’re presented out of context, but are inspiration and achievement mutually exclusive? Do we need to be seeking one without the other? Perhaps in some circumstances they might be contingent on one another?

    I certainly don’t see the “alternative” to inspiration being purposeful. In fact, in being inspired, aren’t we often spurred into purposeful action to achieving a meaningful outcome? Inspiration which is fleeting and withers on the vine perhaps wasn’t inspiration at all. If your interest in Reggio leads to a meaningful outcome, then you were indeed truly inspired. If it doesn’t, then perhaps that was just a fleeting interest … but no less valuable an experience nevertheless. There are two reasons I say that. Firstly I’d suggest that any good practitioner should scan the horizon for what others have found effective, experiment (with care!) in your own context, then analyse and reflect. Isn’t that part of what developing as a professional involves? Secondly, you just never legislate for all possible outcomes of a particular intervention. For example, if I came across a brilliant set of physics podcasts that I thought might help my 16yr olds better understand the principles of linear motion. I could add them to our departmental schemes of work as an optional resource. I could tweet them out to my physics students from my departmental Twitter account. I could bookmark them to my physics Diigo list, which I know a couple of my students follow. I could build one into a lesson and help my students see how they could use it and the others as learning resources. Or any combination of the above. Now to turn that inspiration into an achievement< i guess I need to know what the outcomes were for my students. That’s a tricky, though not impossible, piece of research. Something we might undertake as an action research or professional development project. But why bother? I know the outcome. Those podcasts would work for a few of the students and (probably) not for the majority. But *if* just a few students latch onto something that moves them forward, then I’ll take that as a legitimate achievement.

    I think you can and should cherry pick. Try stuff and see what sticks. See what works for you and what works for your students. Can’t “dipping in online” be a sustainable habit?

    1. Thanks Ian. I think that dipping in can be sustainable, but only if we admit that not every point of achievement is our own.

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