We are living in an increasingly digital world requiring a increasingly complex matrix of digital literacy. Our media-saturated, online, mobile world has developed quickly – as must the ways people access and navigate it. Developments are rapid, iterations are constant, and traditional mediums have faced (and will face) tremendous change.

Music is a standup example: vinyl evolved to tape evolved to CD evolved to Minidisc (for a few months) evolved to 320kbps lossless FLAC. Literature, too, has set off on a similar journey and just like with music, there will be pros and cons for each iteration of the medium; people hold a multiplicity of viewpoints based on personal connection, context, and nostalgia, not just the technical specifications. There will be feelings of loss as new forms arise. There will be mourning. There will be bafflement and scorn from generations raised on the previous iteration. Developments might not be well understood or utilised, except, perhaps, by a few. And the kids, of course. Always the kids.

In many cases, students are receiving a great education… in the kinds of literacies required for the world of the teacher, rather than for this new and rapidly developing world – the here and the now. And while there are teachers out there contending with digital media and related digital literacy practises steeped in the real lives of students, I think it’s fair to say it’s not quite so widespread yet.

Why is this? Perhaps because we mostly teach how we were taught. Perhaps it’s too complex. Perhaps because the digital world moves so fast. Perhaps because it’s not assessed. Perhaps because digital media and associated reading practises are considered not the “gritty” stuff, ripe to be studied, explored, and better comprehended. Who knows.

Consider though, the complex kinds of digital literacy and reading practises people employ today in a context where the written word is but one piece of the puzzle:

– Navigating hyperlinks, click-bait, social and participative commenting, non-linear pathways
– Text-language, fleeting messages, micro-blogging
– Visual elements: images, infographics etc. comprising a growing amount of site real-estate
– The utilities around reading (snipping, copying, pasting, CTRL+F, simplifying)
– Reader choice, patience, and profiling, and how this shapes content
– Author intention when anyone can be an author. Some want to tell a ripping good story, some want to entertain, some want to vent, some are subtly political, most try to sell you things
– Interactive reading, augmented with music, haptic feedback, activities and other content

This is interesting stuff, to be explored in combination with our traditional reading education. It is ripe to be studied: to learn how to read better online, to appreciate and explore the narrative of a great digital game, to analyse a tweet, to see through the glare of everywhere-advertising. To be literate in this world – i.e., comprehend communication, see through it’s veneer, understand it’s purpose… and ultimately to be awake and aware in a world that wants you to not think too much, means you need the comprehension skills and tools in order to do so.

Students need to have the opportunity to “closely read” a wide variety of texts, for a wide range of purposes. They need to enjoy some, disagree with some, and tear apart some. This “wide variety” needs to be a vastly wide variety of mediums and messages. From traditional printed text, to digital literature, to digital games, to movies, to SnapChats, to Instagrams, to Skypes, to YouTube tutorials, to images, to advertisements, to forums, to wikis, to letters, to emails, to emojis, to body language. And this is only just scratching the surface.

Any battleground where meaning is crafted and communicated needs to be studied and explored and ripped into at school. We can’t have a legion of sheep being led into the big wide without any armour. Students need the know-how to understand the media, messages, and mediums that will be thrust upon them, and to appreciate the stories that speak to them.

Engaging with digital literature, some of the time, as a part of a reading programme and broader media education / digital literacy strategy, is a meaningful way for teachers to get going on this journey.

This is the second half of a design thinking process I’ve been grappling with recently.

The TL;DR of Phase 1 is: I noticed our students were struggling to find places and spaces with which to get some peace and quiet for focused independent work. I introduced “Flow Signs” and “Quiet Tents” into our learning spaces.

See the post on Phase 1 for more details.

So, the tents were up and the signs were out. It was show time!

The first day was all go – we had students sitting around outside the tents waiting for their turn, chatting, not getting much work done, disturbing those within. We had clashes and arguments as students ran to secure a flow sign. We had flow signs mysteriously go walk-about if someone dared to let it out of their sight. It was all on!

Gradually though as the shininess of the new toys wore off, the students began to use them more appropriately.

During the first few weeks, anecdotally, we noticed some small changes. Perhaps the most stand-out effect was that certain students – a few of those students who would normally be surrounded by their peers, were choosing to use the signs. This was interesting – these students were beginning to make better decisions for their learning, instead of just reverting to a style which didn’t always suit the task.

Perhaps it’s important at this stage to note that I’m not saying that group work / collaborative work is less desired than independent work. What is important (I think) is that students can choose where, who with, and when they do their work flexibly – that they have the mindset to be able to tell themselves “Righto – I wonder what strategy my friend is using for this maths problem” V “Righto – I just need a bit of quiet time to finish off this email.” It’s my position (and I’ll attempt to back it up via some research in my next blog) that there are tasks that are better suited to independent work and tasks that are better suited to collaborative work. There will be many grey areas, sure, but I think a case could be made for this. We’ll see!

Anyway – the signs and tents were popular. They were in use throughout the day. A range of students were using them, although to be fair, probably more from Year 3 – 5 than Year 6. Whether or not it was related, the hub started feeling calmer than it had been. Teachers reported a downturn in off-task behaviour, resulting in more time available for 1:1 conferencing. Some students who were regularly missing deadlines began to hand in their work more often.

There were some unexpected uses of the signs too. Pairs or small groups of students were using one sign for their group (begging the question, can groups of people be “in flow”) and pairs, not individuals, were using the tents as quiet discussion areas.

As a side note here, this led me to consider the nature of Thornburg’s “Cave” space. A cave is a secluded, isolated place that enables deep, reflective learning to occur. What seemed to be happening was that students were making their own caves, without any actual cave. It was more a ‘cave mindset’ they were pulling into being. I wonder then, if a cave can be something more than an actual space, but more a state of mind one puts themselves into to enable cave-type thinking and learning.

In addition, the Flow Signs were being used not only to signal others that they were not to be distracted, but as prompts for the users themselves that it was time to get down to some serious work. A student would make a conscious decision to pick up and use a Flow Sign, therefore choosing to do work. This then put themselves in the right frame of mind to focus, recall information and instructions, and produce new work.

As a hub, we had a couple of conversations about how to use the signs and the tents – what they were for, and when to use them. We pitched the signs as “bubbles” around you, your own little cave where you can focus and get some work done. We talked about flow and what it feels like to be in that state. We had 1:1 conversations with students about how they were finding the signs and tents, and they popped up quite frequently in the students’ weekly reflections. This communication, we felt, was needed in order to help guide the students to get the maximum potential out of the signs and tents, and in order for the ones that were not particularly interested in them to understand it was important to respect those for whom they were important.

From a teachers perspective, they seemed to be doing the trick, or at least contributing towards doing the trick.

It was at this stage I progressed the project in two further ways. I started gathering hard data using a hub-wide survey and interviews, and I began iterating on my first prototype of the signs.

I’ll start with the data gathering. It was an attempt to move from my anecdotal, gut feelings – the heuristics of the situation – into a more algorithmic approach to gauging the impact. You can only go so far on anecdote and personal observations – at some stage you need objective, honest feedback in order to move forward.

Here are some of the results:

Some statements:

  • Approximately 80% of the hub were using the tents and signs in an average week
  • 60% though still reported being interrupted by others when using them
  • 18% reported getting “HEAPS more” work completed when using the sings and tents
  • 85% reported getting more work done in general
  • 69% reported there were now an “OK amount of places” with which to find some peace and quiet
  • 23% said there were still not enough focus zones

In addition, the written feedback portion of the survey produced some illuminating statements:

What is one thing about the Flow Signs or Quiet Tents that is good for your learning?

“One thing I like about the signs and tents is that you can move away and get into your own space if needed.I get more work done this way with hardly any distractions.”

“One good thing for my learning is the flow signs because you can go and get one when you need it and don’t have to go and ask a teacher every single time.”

“They show the person on the outside that they need to give you your space.”

“It will get people to not ask you anything because you’re in the flow, and we get more work finished than normal so you are 2x as fast as you normally work.”

“So why I like this is because you get quick sometimes and you don’t really get distracted so you just look at your computer so you don’t really care about anything when you go into the tent or the magical bubble that’s invisible.”

“One thing is that it creates a bubble around you and nobody can pop it.”

Are people using them properly? How could we make them better?

“I think people are using them properly. Maybe we could have more?”

“You could make them better by having a couple of pillows in the tent because the ground is quite hard especially on the lino.”

“I think people are using them properly.But a lot of people go in corners because they still think someone is going to bother them.”

“People talk while using them and I think there is no point of having sitting next to a buddy and talking because you ain’t actually using it probably”

“Yes. We can make them better by saying “please give me some time.”

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the Flow Signs, Quiet Tents or finding quiet places to work?

“The flow signs don’t create bubbles because people ignore it and just talk OR They don’t see the signs because they are on the ground so they just talk.”

“The tents people keep asking you what are you doing whose in there and that’s annoying.”

“Some people just lean on the tent or hit the tent and tents are LOUD when that happens.”

“When I try to concentrate my friends start to talk then I forget all about everything.”

Some excellent student feedback for making the signs and tents even better! Here are some summary next steps / thoughts:

*It seems that while the signs and tents are being used, there are still substantial issues with other students not respecting the fact that others want some “alone time”.

*Perhaps increasing the amount of tents (there are only two) would provide just those few more spaces which students are requesting

*Pillows / blankets in the tents is a great idea, and would lead to them becoming more inviting and comfortable

*Ongoing education / chats are needed to so students are clear they can’t disturb others using the signs / tents

*Continued thinking / observation around groups using the signs and tents


At the same time as I gathered the above feedback, I made some small changes to the signs.

1) I realised the back of the signs – the side facing the students – were blank. A missed opportunity for further communication! I added a blue side to the back saying “It’s up to you now! Focus, think, problem solve” and changed the wording of the front a little bit for clarification. I also moved up the text a few centimetres as the metal of the cafe number holder obscured the view of the words at the bottom.

Prototype 2

2) I added some posters around the hub showing a student using a sign, with a bubble drawn around them, stating that when you see someone with a sign, don’t pop their bubble.

3) Another teacher in the hub came up with some further ideas to extend the quiet zones into other areas. We stipulated the staffroom and board room, in particular, as places where you could go for quiet work. Because it’s not in the direct 24/7 observation path of teachers, we needed to rely on students using these spaces properly and independently. To help with this, we laminated up cards to place on the wall in these spaces – the cards acting like the yellow and red cards a football referee has. If a student was to start chatting with friends in one of these spaces, another student could show them the card (as a first warning) and then show it again if the talking continues, at which point they would go back into the main hub. The cards have only been used a few times in three weeks so far!

So that is where the project currently stands. My next steps are more rounds of feedback and iterations to improve the system, and some more professional research and reading to answer some of the questions which have been raised as a result of going through this process.

Further critical questions I’ll look into:

Does “quietness” necessarily mean good learning? Does a “learning hum” necessarily mean there is collaboration happening?

Is the level of noise or distraction the big influence at play here, or rather the ability to filter that noise or distraction? Is the space or the mindset?

What effect does the routine of using a sign or a tent have on the learning one can accomplish? Does just the simple act of stepping into a tent or putting up a sign trigger some kind of creative / focused state of mind?

Are there certain tasks that are done “better” when alone or “better” together?

How much guidance do children need when introducing something like this? Is it a case of set-and-forget?


Link to Flow Sign printable

This is a write up of an experiment in Design Thinking I recently went through. The task was to make a small change to my learning environment with the aim of positively impacting learning. To jump to the end for a little bit, this process I’ve gone through has been a transformative one. It’s dawned on me, sitting here reflecting after it all, that even the smallest changes can have massive impacts. All it takes is an open mind, a juicy problem, and an eye to action. This is empowering and meaningful and impactful for teachers struggling with edicts from higher up and other challenges. I think it’s a way forward for us all – to make the changes we know are needed in education, to actually do the reforming ourselves rather than waiting for others to lead us.

I hope that in telling my story others can take heart – make a small change, and see where the rabbit hole leads.

So, here’s my story…

I’ve always embraced the messiness and noise and buzz of learning “happening”. It surrounded me as I sat back and observed my own learning environment one day, “looking, but not seeing”, watching how the spaces and systems were being experienced from the eyes of the students, empathy building. This particular learning hub consists of a group of 85 multi year-level students with four teachers, who at any time could be in workshops, following their personalised timetable, or any number of things. It’s a bustling, busy, buzzy space. It’s a purpose built “modern learning environment” with open plan, flexible spaces and a variety of furniture which can be formed and reformed in various configurations.

As I was watching, a student sat alone on a beanbag, trying hard to focus on his independent task at hand. It seemed like he really wanted to get into it, but the hustle and bustle of hub life was distracting him. He kept looking up and around – there was a workshop going on nearby, a group working on their inquiry project, and some students just outside the window doing some fitness exercises. A constant flow of students wandered back and forth down the hall. Other students came and sat next to him, asking for his advice on a task. He was challenged on all sides by more than a few potential distractions.

The thing is, very few of these distractions were generated from off-task or silly behaviours. They were just students going about their learning, which is wonderful to see – a purposeful, properly busy learning environment ticking away. It dawned on me though, that while the hub provides an amazing space for collaboration, for group work and making and real life projects, there were, perhaps, not an adequate amount of places for quiet, focused, introspective, alone time.

A hustly-bustly learning space is a beautiful thing, but when I put myself in the shoes of that student, I could tell it might become distracting at times. To be honest, those kinds of places wouldn’t have worked for me all the time as a student and as an adult I have even less patience for hustle-bustle when I need to get proper things done. I could tell it probably wasn’t working for that particular student, and if it wasn’t working for him I bet it wasn’t working for others.

So, thanks to this period of observation and empathy building, a few key questions emerged:

Collaboration is of key importance, sure. Is good old independent work however, taking a back seat? How much are students being distracted by other students? What are the downsides of working in big open spaces? How might we create breakout spaces in a modern learning environment in order to allow students the time and space to get into flow?

It was with these questions in mind that I sat down, turned off the notifications on my phone, kissed my wife and son goodbye, and spent a good half an hour on idea generation. I wrote down everything, from the silly to the stupid, the realistic to the revelations. It all came out and it all went on paper. It’s a state I rarely put myself into, so it was tough at the start. But I kept at it, and the ideas did indeed begin to flow.

What was interesting was that the constraints of the problem (ideas generated needed to be pedagogically sound, easy to put into place, and understandable for younger students) seemed to fuel my creativity. The problems and constraints were not so open that it was difficult to know where to start, but they somehow enabled ideas to flow out to a greater extent.

From here I began to group ideas, synthesising them down as per the design thinking process.

I broke the ideas down into:
– New things I could add
– Existing things I could remix
– Things I could help others do

I eventually whittled the list down into some interesting, cheap, easily made ideas. At the top of this list were “Flow Signs” and “Quiet Tents”.

Here’s the action I took the very next day at school:

I introduced two small dome tents into the hub which the school owned for camps. These wouldn’t cut out much sound, but they would lessen the amount of visual stimulus. I thought about a student in there and realised that you’d probably have other students poking in to see if it was in use or not, so I made up a sign saying “In Use” so that students using it could hang it up on the outside of the tent. I thought that to keep it as a place of quiet, individual work, we would limit it to one person in the tent at a time, for now.

A Quiet Tent.... shhhh!

I made up some bright red laminated signs saying: “Please don’t bother me, I’m in flow” which I then placed in some cafe table number holders. I made up six of these, and put them in a central place in the hub. The idea was, if people didn’t want to be disturbed, they would place the signs around themselves somewhere, communicating to others they wanted some alone time. Students do usually go off on their own around the place, but other students don’t often read their body language accurately or understand how the particular positioning of their furniture communicates they want some quiet time. So I printed, laminated, and set these up.

Please Don't Bother Me!

I ran a session with a group of about 25 students about the places and spaces they could use for different purposes. This was originally to explain what I was doing with the tents and signs, but it snowballed into how we could use the existing furniture to signal we were in “flow” and didn’t want to be disturbed. We talked about how our positions (ie body language) could tell people we were “in” our learning (how we could face the wall or window, for example) and about different spaces around the school we could go to do our work they may not have thought of. We talked about what “flow” meant – that state of time just whizzing by, your interest and focus in your task heightened, and your ability to concentrate on anything other than the task diminished. We talked about respecting those students using the signs or tents – that it meant they had a bubble around them which you were not allowed to pop!

So we let them at it, and remarkably, after a few days, the hub started to subtly change…

From my non-scientific, anecdotal observations, I could see that students were indeed using the signs properly, and equally as important students not using the signs were respecting those that were. The hub seemed calmer. There was less franticness. It even seemed like there were less behaviour issues around. Some students really loved the tents and used them all the time. Some used the signs. Visitors to school commented on how calm the place seemed. It was all going wonderfully!

And that is where I will leave this part of the story.

So far, I’ve only been riding on a bit of observation, gut instinct and hunches. In a second follow-up blog, I will describe my efforts in gaining feedback and making iterations on my prototype, and gathering the hard data – the interviews and hub surveys on actual impact. Was it just me looking at things with rose-tinted glasses? Have these signs and tents had the actual effect I think they have had?


Stay tuned for the 2nd blog “Phase Two: Iterations and Data”. I’ll link to the hard data and share printables of the signs which you could use in your own classroom.