Ignite the Learning in Your Classroom by Leading the Way #Digital15

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Blurb for my session at Leading a Digital School Conference:

Often we talk about changing our classrooms, putting students at the centre, connecting with authentic audiences and flipping instruction. However, the first thing that often needs to change is the role of the educator. Instead of focusing on being a teacher, the focus needs to be on becoming a learner. From using social bookmarking to connect with a community to using a blog in order to share with the world, Aaron will explore the different possibilities and potentials for lifelong learning and why teachers need genius hour too.



When we talk about flipping the classroom, the focus is often in regards to instruction. However, something that also needs to be flipped is the role of the teacher. We need to move from being the sage on the stage to what Erica McWilliams calls “a meddler in the middle”. That is, “a re-positioning of teacher and student as co-directors and co-editors of their social world.” This re-positioning starts by re-focusing on learning. As David Culberhouse suggests, “The best fuel to feed the fires of our creative and innovative core is learning. New learning, learning that stretches us.” The question then is how might we create conditions which support teachers as leaders in the learning, not just of the learning.

In his recent book, From Master Teacher to Master Learner, Will Richardson provides nine different learning qualities: model, unlearner, co-learner, curator, open sharer, connector, maker, digitally literate and champion of diversity. Whatever qualities are shown, what matters most is that teachers are first and foremost learners. As he states, “The world has changed. Knowledge is everywhere. Teachers must become master learners instead of master knowers” The question though is what such learning might mean.

The role of learner can take on many guises. Sometimes it is co-creating the learning experience with students, other times it is simply learning something new and going through that process themselves. As George Couros wonders, “Can you imagine when a teacher gets really excited about their learning, the difference that makes on their students?” It always comes back to the learning.

In relation to co-creating, there are a range of models that can be used to support this process. The most obvious seems to be the many different iterations of the ‘Inquiry’ model, where students help guide their own learning. The reality is that inquiry means many different things to many different people. You just need to place some of the different models next to each other to see this. Another model of learning is Disciplined Collaboration. Developed by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, it focuses on teachers working through a cycle of collaboration, innovation and reflection. Although not traditional co-creation, the focus on student, through data and evidence, rather than being dictated by the curriculum. Another model that empowers teachers as learners is the Modern Learning Canvas. Developed by Richard Olsen, it provides a collective space to talk learning and identify areas for change and innovation.

One of the problems with many inquiry based models is that they begin with a question and work towards a solution. However, as Peter Skillen argues, sometimes what is important is tinkering and engaging in playful learning. Chris Wejr shares how he provided time for his teachers to tinker and innovate, while John Spencer talks about having a personal genius hour to follow up passions outside of teaching.

A common model used to aid explorations beyond curriculum is Design Thinking. A process that focuses on immersion, definition, ideation, prototyping and testing. One of the things that makes it different to other inquiry models is the cyclic nature of the process. Although it focuses on an authentic end goal, as other forms of inquiry do, it incorporates an element of ongoing refinement that is sometimes lost within other processes. Tom Barrett sums this prototyping disposition as a case of perpetual beta, where, “Learning is all about continuous improvement with an emphasis on engineering as many opportunities for feedback as we can.”

In her adaptation of the Design Thinking model, Jackie Gerstein talks about the importance of not only understanding the learning process, but clearly articulating and demonstrating this. A part of this is celebrating the iterative process of learning. As she suggests, “the educator as a lead learner normalizes, embraces, models, and reinforces the iterative process of learning.” This involves a cycle of prototyping, testing, failing, tweaking.

Technology plays an important part within all of this. Whether it be developing a PLN, sharing ideas, finding inspiration, openly sharing the learning or making stuff worth stealing, much of this is enabled through the use of various tools and applications. Our task, as David Weinberger suggests, is to, “build networks that make us smarter”.

Some examples of my learning experiences include:

What is significant about each example of learning is the shared experience. Learning is never in isolation and it is so important to remember this. Also, if it is then we are at a time of interconnectedness when it is easy to gain feedback. 

So what about you? What learning have you been a part of that has stretched you? What qualities did you show? How did you go about it? What challenges did you face? How did you share it?

Link to collaborative resource

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Genius Hour, My Genius Hour

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

There is nothing that bugs me more than the idea of ‘ICT’ as a subject. I understand the point of computer science. However, much of the time, ICT is created as the place for students to learn about technology. The problem is, we should not learn the technology, rather we should focus on what opportunities technology affords. Here I am reminded of George Couros’ remark that, “Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event.” I therefore decided to introduce Genius Hour in my ICT class to make the focus neither technology or content, but learning. My question was, how might we empower students to guide their own learning in order to explore the potentials of technology. In part, I was inspired by Dave Cormier’s discussion of learning’s first principle. After much reflection, Cormier came to the conclusion that learning comes down to a question of care. “When you ask the ‘care->don’t care’ question first all the time, it seems to have some interesting impacts on a discussion.” I wondered then whether giving students choice over what they learnt would result in a deeper focus on how and why we learn.

Only a few students had ever heard of Genius Hour or any of the other names it is known by, such as Passion Projects or 20% Time. No one though had ever completed such an assignment. I therefore started by showing Kevin Brookhouser’s video and got students to brainstorm what they thought.

Some of the suggestions were: an hour where geniuses think, making something that inspires you, a focus on what you want, about process not just product and an idea started with a question. Although I could have and maybe should have left it at this, I then showed Chris Kesler’s introduction to Genius Hour:

After reviewing their initial thoughts, we brainstormed questions they might be interested in and share with the rest of the class. Having planted the seed, I then outlined my expectations for the project. I adapted Anthony Speranza’s 10 principles of Genius Hour:

10 Principles of Genius Hour.

I however removed the last principle as this was the only thing that we were doing in ICT. One of the things that really confused them was asking questions that were ‘larger than Google‘, I think for some they felt Google could give them any answer. To somewhat clarify this and to explain the depth associated with the project, I used the planning templates I got from Eleni Kyritsis. To support this, we discussed impact using a graphic created by Speranza.


Often students will claim to be ‘done’ or ‘finished’ with a project or assignment. However, when they reflect on their work from the point of view of impact they have not ventured far from the centre. Although coming at this problem from the perspective of SAMR, Alan November points out that there are times when we redefine the classroom, only to discover that it was far from transformational. This is something that Speranza touched upon in his application video for GTASYD15:

In addition to the planning document, students were required to create a ‘How Might We’ question to guide them. This is something that I learnt while working with No Tosh at Google Teachers Academy last year. Why HMW is so important, Warren Berger explains, is that it “ensures that would-be innovators are asking the right questions and using the best wording.” To support this process of planning and questioning, I allowed students to browse through some of the past and present projects Speranza has shared from his school. All along I reiterated that I would be assessing how they work, whether it be the detail of their reflections or how collaborative they were, not their actual product.

I envisaged that once students were hooked into learning that they would be off. I could provide support and feedback where required, but they would manage things themselves. However, what became evident was that some student just weren’t hooked.

Although there were some who knew exactly what they wanted to do, whether it be exploring different techniques for drawing or creating a game, there were others who took a little more work. Some were caught on the whole googleable vs. non-googleable argument, while others just didn’t know what their passion was. In addition to this, I was chasing up permission forms, setting up Global2 blogs and organising Google Apps accounts. This meant that where I’d thought that I would meet with each group weekly, I was left to touch base more sporadically.

In regards to the presentations, students shared what they had done, while the rest of the class provided feedback about what they thought could be improved through a Google Form. After that, both of my classes reflected on my Genius Hour Project, which as I explained to them, was Genius Hour. Some of the suggestions that they had for next time was:

  • Clarify Confusion: Although I provided explanation at the start, I really needed to do more in regards to non-Googleable questions, because as one students explained, “every question is googleable”
  • More Structure: Although I provided an assessment rubric, as well as a planning sheet in which to maintain ongoing reflections, I really need to place more emphasis on this. Whether it be doing more gallery walks or sharing reflections through a Google Doc, I need to add more structure to the process.
  • Provide Authentic Examples: Although I provided students with a link to various examples, I did not actually show students any real products which showed what was possible. For example, Bill Ferriter recently reflected on his students blog focusing on the impact of sugar. It is a great example of an authentic product made by students.
  • Pairs Only: With the focus being on the idea, I gave students the option of working with whoever they wanted in groups of all sizes. I simply asked them to justify why they chose what they did. The feedback I got was that groups should be limited to two only, as some slacked off, and maybe the focus needs to be working with different people.
  • Allow Fall Back Options: Even though the purpose was to allow students to follow their passions, for some this was just too much. The suggestion was made that there be some fall back options for those who are unsure.

It is interesting looking back at my first iteration of Genius Hour. A part of me is wary of Audrey Watters’ warning that fiddling with just an hour misses the need to re-evaluate 100% of time in order to make school more student-centred. However, such ‘re-evaluation’ and revolution comes in time, one change at a time. To bring the learners up too quick risks a case of the bends. Will Richardson talks about making things different 10% at a time. Although not the answer, I think that Genius Hour is still a movement in the right direction.

For a great introduction into Genius Hour, I recommend Anthony Speranza’s 2015 Edu On Air presentation. So what are you doing to make learning more student-centred?

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Electives, What is Your Choice?

creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/16593420862

In every school that I have taught, there has been some form of electives in place. From photography to robotics to zoology to outdoor education, the idea is to provide an element of choice and agency. However, this choice is continually contradicted by an essentialist ‘core’ curriculum, where what is taught is decided long before the students arrive. This creates the circumstance where students enter electives feeling that they don’t really matter, for if it did then everyone would be doing it.

Another problem with electives is that they are often decided by looking at the core curriculum and trying to fill in the gaps. The issue with this is that the supposed offer of choice is undermined by the fact that students choose from a predefined list, but often have little say in what actually makes up that list. Although this can be answered by asking the students what they want to learn or are passion about once they are in the subject, there are often expectations already set about what such subjects mean through subject descriptions and historical hand me downs.

I was interested in reading Greg Miller’s post on how his school conducted an enquiry into their elective initiative. Through this process they sort to reinvigorate the various courses to make sure that they were delivering the best learning opportunity possible. As Miller described, the purpose was threefold:

  1. CLARIFY that is, to….. “Make clear or plain” the intent of the Year 9 Interest  Elective Initiative.

  2. DISTINGUISH that is, to…..“Recognise or note/indicate as being distinct or different from; to note differences between” current BOS approved/mandated courses and the  new courses.

  3. INVESTIGATE that is, to….. “Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about” the best way to deliver Year 9 Interest Electives in 2015.

What stood out was that instead of back filling the subject areas, the focus was placed on the areas of: inquiry, self-directed learning, collaboration and connectivity.  Such innovative practises got me wondering about whether there were any other points of improvement that could be made to the age old elective programs?

One question that came to mind was what if all the electives worked together in a collaborative manner, each addressing a different area, but working towards a common goal? A few years ago, as a part of my Digital Publishing elective, we worked with the Photography, to take pictures of all the students for the school yearbook. However, that was only two classes. Imagine if you had six classes working towards a common goal, at what could be achieved? In conversation, Jon Andrews told me about the Big History Project run out of Macquarie University. Aimed at Year 9 and 10, it is about gaining a deeper understanding of “the cosmos, earth, life and humanity.” As is stated in the introduction, it “offers us the possibility to understand our universe, our world, and our humanity in a new way.”

Going beyond the Big History Project, broadly speaking, Project-Based Learning offers a model to work in a fluid and agile manner. In her work with Learning Futures, Valerie Hannon talks about the power of Project-Based Learning. One of the things that stands out are the many entry points available, whether it be a whole week or a few hours. For example, many schools are using Genius Hour as a means for introducing Project-Based Learning. I wonder if Genius Hour could work in the place of electives? Where instead of teachers taking set subjects, their role is to support students with whatever it is that they are doing.

A similar example to the Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time or whatever you want to call it is the account given by Jon Andrews in the book Experiences in Self-Determined Learning of ‘Immersion Studies’. (You can also hear a presentation of this on the TER Podcast.)  Like an electives program, Immersion Studies Time was a designated time in Early Years designed for students to engage with the Arts. What is significant about this initiative is that it fits with school’s heutagogical philosophy. It is not an event, a one off, rather it is another cog all running together.

I have taught in an environment that ran inquiry-based programs in two hour blocks. Beyond the issue that if there was something on that week, such as sport or a public holiday, students simply miss out on their dose of inquiry. The bigger problem was that, as Kath Murdoch points out, “we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’.” If such pushes to innovate, to wonder, to be curious are not celebrated and perpetuated elsewhere, then there is a danger that they often go nowhere. This starts, Murdoch explains, long before planning. It is a way of teaching.

What about you then? What are your experiences of electives? Of Genius Hour? Of heutagogical learning? I would love to know. Comments welcome, as always.

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Tinkering, Passion and the Wildfire that is Learning

In a post I wrote a few months ago I spoke about what I called the ‘hidden professional development‘. That informal learning that occurs unplanned and on the fly, whether it be at lunchtime, while photocopying or even when swapping over on yard duty. Basically anywhere, anytime, simply where two or more passionate learners meet. The big question then and the question now is how do we encourage this? What structured opportunities do we provide for this?

Tinkering Teachers

In a fantastic discussion as a part of +Ed Tech Crew Episode 240 focusing on what it takes to be an IT co-ordinator, +Ashley Proud spoke about the demise in tinkering amongst students. Although +Mel Cashen and +Roland Gesthuizen mentioned about taking things a part, giving the conversation a more mechanical theme, I feel that tinkering is best understood as a wider curiosity into the way things work. 

I believe that one of the reasons for such a drop-off belongs with teachers. Although this criticism does not belong with all teachers, I think that there is a status quo out there who ask one thing from their students and model a different thing in their own day to day practise. Although teachers themselves have a large part to play in this, I also feel that one of the deeper issues lies with what opportunities teachers are provided with to actually be curious and creative, and I don’t simply mean curriculum planning. 

For example, the other day, I was asked to cover a yard duty for a colleague as her and her team wanted to get together at lunchtime to create a collaborative birthday video. I asked what they were going to use to film it and whether they wanted to borrow my iPad. The eventual product was not great, but it was a development on past productions. Most importantly though, it was a skill to take back into the classroom and share with students. What this whole scenario got me thinking was that, more than just opportunity, we do not provide enough encouragement for such activities.

Genius Hour … For Teachers

One initiative that has taken off in schools during the last year or so has been the idea of ‘Genius Hour’. Known by many names, such as 20 Percent Time or Passion Projects, Genius Hour is basically where students are given a license to develop a personal project of their choice. For a further explanation, I recommend +Anthony Speranza‘s post, ‘My Experience in Getting Started with Genius Hour‘. 

The background is that it comes from Google, where workers are (or were) provided one day a week to work on Google-related projects of their own choice. I think what needs to be understood is that, as +Ryan Tate suggested in his post for Wired, 20 Percent Time is not “a fully fleshed corporate program with its own written policy, detailed guidelines, and manager.” This is significant as what Tate is saying is that Genius Hour is not about a set of actual practises, as different companies have different notions of it, rather it is about the ethos behind it. This is why it has transferred so well into schools, with teachers creating their own twists on the whole affair, but still continuing to capture on essence of passion and innovation. However, one area that has been left untapped, as far as I can tell, has been the idea of teachers conducting their own ‘Genius Hour’, that is, teachers finding a passion of their own and running with it.
One of the failures with a lot of professional development is that it is dictated to staff with little choice, a stark contrast to what we ask of most teachers in the classroom. Fine there is a time where some information needs to be given or staff need to conduct certain work, but wouldn’t it be good if teachers were able to dabble in other things in a supported manner. As Tom Whitby put in a recent post ‘PD: Same Old, Same Old‘:
Professional Development needs to be more than an occasional workshop that can then be checked off of an Administrator’s list of things that need to be done for the year. PD must be prioritized and supported on an ongoing basis. It must be part of the workweek. In addition to providing access to new ideas, technology, and methodology, time must be afforded for educators to collaborate on what they have learned. Educators need time and support to put into practice what they need to learn.
What stands out to me in Whitby’s description is the focus of what teachers ‘need to learn’. I think that many teachers do not really know what they ‘need’. However, a starting point for this is to support teachers with what they want to learn and then go from there.

Life-long Learning Can Happen at School Too

Too often the more ‘personal’ professional development is left for teacher’s own time. I have two problems in particular with this. Firstly, in leaving learning to chance means that some teachers never actually do it. Like the hidden professional development, personal learning is one of the first things to get crossed off the list when times get tough. Secondly, staff are not being properly supported in their forays into the great unknown. As Tom Whitby suggests: “Learning about technology and how to incorporate it into learning specific to one’s class may be a bridge too far for many educators.” We all talk about ‘getting connected’ as a way of overcoming this problem. However, that too involves technology. Instead, one possible way to bridge this gap is to provide teachers with a specific time and space during school in which they are able to explore their own interests, knowing that they have support all around them.
One of the greatest fears in opening up professional development to the whims of the staff is that to some this time either gets wasted or is underutilised. My school tried to introduce personal learning a few years ago where there were some random sessions offered, as well as the option for staff to choose their own professional development. Most people ended up passing on the offer of finding their own learning and stuck to one of the sessions on offer. This is not to say that the sessions on offer weren’t powerful or important, but I feel that one of the key reasons why staff did not take up the opportunity of finding their own professional learning was that there was a lot of confusion about what was required. Was it completely open or were there some things that were prohibited? Did you have to write a reflection? What the situation needed was a little bit of structure, a little bit of guidance about what was and was not acceptable. The problem is that there is often a lot of conjecture about what does and does not constitute professional development. I would argue that ALL learning can be deemed as professional. For just as +Alec Couros suggested in an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew that, “some of the best learning happens each day on Youtube whether it is meant to happen or not”. The big question is whether we actually recognise it. One way of doing so is to encourage it by making the often informal ad hoc learning more formal by adding a certain sense of structure and uniformity.


Providing teachers with the opportunity to identify an a passion, something that they may be interested in but ignored due to time and effort. Although this may not be an ‘hour’ each week, maybe every fortnight, it is a regular time to work either individually or collaboratively. A time to identify and touch base with other experts. A time when teachers know that they are both free and supported to take ownership over their own learning. 

Clearly with such ‘freedom’ also comes a certain sense of constraint. This learning needs to be explicit and needs a purpose, a question to drive the project. With this needs to come some goals, both short and long term, about what is trying to be achieved. Attached to these goals is an element of on-going reflection and accountability for what Bianca Hewes calls the ‘mushy middle‘. At the end, there needs to be an opportunity for sharing and celebration about what was achieved and what has been learnt. This could be sharing to your team, participating in a smorgasbord, as a part of a performance and development meeting, writing a blog post. It does not really matter what means it is, what is most important is that it happens.

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by C G-K: http://flickr.com/photos/cgk/3795790211

Helping the Wildfire Grow

Often the greatest joys come when space is provided for learning to happen naturally. A colleague, who is not always big on introducing technology into the classroom, told me about a situation where he gave his students a group task and they automatically created a Google Doc and shared it between themselves. I love this story as it highlights that not all learning is direct. We may introduce a skill with a limited response. However, staff and students may see some other benefit and use it in another situation. I have seen this happen with programs like Padlet and Edmodo, where given some amount of freedom, people have found their own purposes and contexts. To me, learning in this situation is like wildfire.  Given the right conditions, a fire that takes hold, is disruptive and very much uncontrollable in itself. As +George Siemens suggests while talking about connectivism as an answer for the digital age, “learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.” The role leaders and co-ordinators in this situation is to manage things, conducting back burning and creating fire breaks to contain learning rather than control it.

The question to consider then is whether you are creating an environment where learning can take flight – dry kindling, tall trees – or are you creating an environment where, with a lot of damp branches, there is a lot of smoke, but little fire?

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