After some summer holiday reading (Guy Claxton’s “What’s the Point of School” and “Key Competencies for the Future” by Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd & McDowall) I’ve been all revved up and revived in my attempts to focus on a much broader range of outcomes – not only the academic, core curriculum stuff, but also Harvard’s dispositions of thinking, the NZ curriculum’s key competencies, a design thinking mindset, Claxton’s ‘Magnificent 8‘, as well as knowledge skills, digital literacy, and visual literacy. There are many, many overlaps between all of the above, and they share very similar base concepts – ones which are integral to living well in this complex, knowledge-ridden world.

I’ve written in a post a few weeks back what I thought were the ingredients needed for designing good learning. It turns out it’s easy enough to sit back and blog about it – it’s much more complex in practise to actually do it. Regardless – I’m giving it a nudge, and today in class we began exploring how to “cook up” good learning for ourselves.

It’s the start of our Term 1 in New Zealand, so we really wanted to kick-off with a strong message about learning. That it takes effort and challenge, that it’s an active process, that it stems from curiosity, that it is sometimes collaborative and sometimes solitary, that it is sometimes online and sometimes offline. With an eye on curriculum coverage (instructional writing and author purpose) we decided to prompt the students into writing a recipe – “How to Cook Up Good Learning”.

We integrated different elements ~

Inquiry – This forms the core of our inquiry this term, how we live well in the world, with ourselves and with others.

A generative topic / interest hook – We showed clips of Chef from the Muppets and afterwards reflected on why it was or wasn’t clear. We gave the students a list of instructions which asked them to read all of the 20 instructions below first, then the last point said disregard all of the above except the top two (not one single student read all the instructions first! – good learning for all). We asked – why should instructions be entertaining?

Guided Reading – We read excerpts from Guy Claxton’s “What’s the Point of School” and other blog posts I borrowed information on the qualities of good learners from. We read through these together in a guided way, the students taking notes on post-it’s as they went. These were combined into a whole group brainstorm later where we shared what we had learned, adding our own prior knowledge. We talked about comprehension and what to do when we are unsure of certain vocabulary.

Independent Reading – While the students were’t with me they were looking at my Star Wars Cookbook and Jamie Oliver clips and taking notes on the kinds of language being used (a pinch of this, a hint of that, bake X for 20 minutes, prepare X beforehand).

Knowledge Snapper – We presented a 10 minute “Snapper” on the features of instructional wiring. Students listened as we ran through it, although it is now available online for them to check out if they need a refresher.

Writing – Today we took all of the above and began planning out our “learning recipes” on big pieces of paper with post-it notes, scribbling thoughts down in a low-fidelity way – talking with others and getting their feedback. Tomorrow, students begin drafting their recipes, getting feedback early and often as they move through the writing process.

And it’s working out pretty well so far! The students seem very keen on it, and love the silliness of “adding a hint of curiosity” and “bake the thoughts in your head overnight at 200 degrees”. They are getting the key curriculum content over both reading and writing, learning more about themselves as learners, and practising the dispositions of getting thinking out into the wild, being open to feedback, working with others, and the challenge of working with complex ideas – “working the hard parts”.

I’m learning a lot this week about how to blend lots of these elements together – it’s not easy, and takes a bit of thinking, but it’s absolutely possible to have your cake and eat it too in this teaching gig. To cover what you need to cover, but still really helping grow key competencies and dispositions for these students which will serve them well now and in the future.

After a bit of reflection and professional reading over the holidays, here is what I want each and every lesson / experience / sequence of learning I facilitate to include. They are my Rules of Thumb for Designing Good Learning Experiences, circa early 2015.

  • Rich, deep, meaningful, original tasks: PUZZLE, PROBLEM, PROVOCATION, EXPLORE, PLAY, CHALLENGE – students will “work the hard parts”
  • Integrate reading, writing and inquiry – all ‘modules’ pre-planned and available so
    • A) students have the responsibility of choosing their own pathway through the learning and
    • B) so they can see “the whole game” of learning – see how each piece helps them develop new understandings, skills, and knowledge and
    • C) So I know I have coverage of all the things I know are important: content knowledge + web/visual literacy + disposition exercising (The Magnificent 8) + knowledge skills + creativity
  • Designed to be tight enough to be focused (creative constraints), but flexible enough to be self-negotiated
  • Be designed for M.V.T.A (Minimum Viable Teacher Assistance)
  • A catchy title and an interesting, original task + an introduction video (ie, a Generative Topic)
  • A WALT (We are learning to…) and a TIB (This is because…)
  • Linked reading / audio / video resources + official reading objectives
  • Linked knowledge building workshops / Snappers + official writing objectives
  • Scaffold appropriately with examples / models / exemplars (for practice, play, imitation, imagination, and simulations)
  • Online / offline component with a bias towards leveraging the opportunities provided by digital tech
  • Each will have a S.T.A.R moment (Something They’ll Always Remember)
  • Offer autonomy, mastery and purpose
  • Have “checkpoints” for feedback (self, peer, teacher)
  • Have a “want to know more?” or further curiosity prompts
  • Each will be aware of what the assessment is that term and contain elements of practice (you gotta do what you gotta do!)
  • Outcomes will be defined across understandings, skills, abilities and dispositions (within the process and final product) and digital badges provided based on these outcomes
  • Each will contain a reflection piece based upon the overall understandings of the inquiry + reflecting on the learning muscles being exercised + the inquiry process

My role then changes to:

  • “a stream of highly contingent, situation, problem and person-specific interventions and provocations – not nuggets of truth” – Claxton
  • Pushing, prodding, tilting towards understanding
  • Providing the knowledge or guidance needed at that time
  • Questioning, facilitating discussions
  • Providing EXCELLENT feedback based on content, understandings, AND dispositions
  • Tracking quality learning, ensuring engagement. Following up / chasing up.
  • Modelling good thinking and learning dispositions

Designing these kinds of learning experiences takes time, but that’s the bread and butter of teaching; it’s the stuff we should be spending our time on, wading through these complexities to facilitate challenging, interesting learning for our students.

Now….to actually sit down and get to it!

People tend to dichotomise teaching and learning into handy, easy to digest concepts.

Poles of Learning 1

Student led, good; teacher led, bad. Enquiry learning, good; direct instruction, bad.

The reality, of course, is not that simple. At any one moment, in a single day, teachers and learners are on constant bounce between the two. It’s chaotic, it’s variable, and it’s the reality of actual feet-on-the-ground teacher work. The beauty of teaching is in the blend of these concepts – how teachers design learning flexibly, based on the needs of the student. Education needs to have this flex and to not sit too comfortably at any one end.

In reality, teaching and learning looks like this:

Poles of Learning2

So in saying that, I think the stuff on the left – the direct instruction, the teacher led stuff – can (must!) be done quickly and efficiently. This opens up more time for the stuff on the right.

For too long, teachers have warbled on in front of students, saying the same thing in four different ways. A third of the kids have zoned out, a third already know it, and only a third are actually listening. Direction instruction is important, sure, but it must be targeted and quick. The exact kids that need that particular snippet of information must be in front of you, not the whole class.

At our place, we call these “Snappers” – bite sized chunks of direct instruction, lasting no longer than six or seven minutes. They are often rewindable and recorded so kids can revisit the learning at a later date. Examples would be a Snapper on complex sentences, place value addition, or the conventions of written dialogue. Kids are free to opt in or out of Snappers, based on their knowledge of themselves. Often though, we shoulder tap kids that we know need to attend a particular Snapper.

So you get the teacher-led stuff done quickly, which leaves time for the slower, deeper, more student-directed learning. And this is where the magic happens – when kids have the nuggets of knowledge they need, and can go about assembling these into something they themselves craft. Putting all the pieces back together, seeing the bigger picture, having the time to play and experiment.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 10.29.06 am

It is my contention then, that while I talk about the constant bounce between these poles of learning, the balance needs to be tilted to the right. It is in this realm that lasting competencies are developed, that creative juices flow, and lifelong learning is kindled. The right is where students learn to love learning.

So, speed up the left to give time to the right. Linger in creativity and enquiry, be efficient and speedy with direct instruction.


Kudos to Tom Barrett for the original image.