Category Archives: Exemplar Learning

ADEC Conference and Parents in the Classroom

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the ADEC (Australiasian Democratic Education Community) annual conference. It was hosted in the delightful Pine Community School in Brisbane, and included a range of great speakers and experiences.

As part of the conference I had the opportunity to run a session on the role of parents in the classroom (download a summary of the session outputs). With a mix of educators and parents in the room it was a insightful workshop that will be particularly useful in my ongoing work on a parent education program.


Some Assembly Required – Teaching in a Constructivist Context

This morning, my son Jem walked – arguably for the first time. By this I mean that he confidently took several steps in succession without our intervention. It won’t go down in his baby blog however, because it didn’t meet the exacting standards of ‘first steps’ that stipulate no supporting devices – he pushed his little block cart which provided enough resistance to allow him to walk.

Watching this reminded me that walking is not something we do by ourselves (and I owe a debt here to Andy Clark amongst others). When Jem walked this morning, it was actually an ‘assemblage’ that did the walking;

  • the particularly cute little boy
  • the shoes his grandmother gave him yesterday that have nice, large, flat soles
  • the cart with its handle at just the right height, and
  • the rough, uneven stones in the backyard. Only within the balance of this whole system could ‘walking’ occur.

This was emphasized when we came back inside and the kitchen floor was too smooth, allowing the cart to roll away from him. I took a screwdriver and tightened the wheels until they would not turn, and once again he was able to ‘walk’.

This broader perspective of walking is not only relevant to those of us learning to walk. We all believe we can walk, but how many of us can walk in ice skates, or on top of a moving train. It’s easy to forget that everything we do, we do as part of a larger assemblage of parts that include not only ‘ourselves’, but other objects and other people.

Taking this perspective raises questions about how we should teach. If we (as pure individuals) never do anything, except in association with other elements, how does this change what we should do ‘in the classroom’. Some of the answers are obvious – there are certain partial assemblages that are socially important, such as using a pen or pencil, and we spend time building those connections through rehearsal.

Beyond the purely physical, the idea of assemblage can be extended into social and academic spheres – and here we arrive at something very close to constructivism (which progressive educators since Dewey have been espousing). Our notion of the lone scholar, independent of any external resources, may be exactly what our ‘exam culture’ focuses on – but it is a completely unrealistic depiction of any reality!

The work we do in life – from physical to social to intellectual – is always done as part of an transitory assemblage of heterogenous parts. Just as important as building any ‘internal’ skills within the individual is nurturing our ability to engage and articulate with other people and things in order to create and maintain productive assemblages. This should be a focus for our teaching.

Two simple examples of this are optional resources and project based group work. The former involves setting tasks (often in mathematics) and providing various aids (from physical blocks to drawing apparatus to calculators, as is appropriate) that students are encouraged to access if they wish to. By placing the onus on the student (rather than dictating what tools must be used) students learn to create assemblages that are most suited to arriving at a solution.

The second example involves bringing together small groups (about four students in the case of primary aged students) for defined projects. By doing this repeatedly, students build their understanding of assemblages that include other people. They learn about the kind of people they work well with, and what types of productive output will be created by engaging with different people in different ways.

While these are only two very simple examples, they point to a type of fluid, student-focused classroom that spends less time putting knowledge into kids’ heads, and more time letting them discover, experience and learn from new ways of coming together with other students, tools, and bodies of knowledge. In this process of forming, maintaining and dissolving assemblages, they will be developing critical competencies for existing in our complex, heterogeneous and interdependent world.

Why don’t we need to teach kids creative thinking skills?

Recently I spent some time pondering what interesting units I could develop for teaching in an upper primary classrooom. I wanted to do cool, engaging stuff that challenged the class and gave them some skills that they wouldn’t typically be exposed to. One possibility that sprung to mind was creative thinking. I am lucky enough to get the opportunity to teach creativity professionally now and then, and it’s one of my favourite things to teach. This weekend I’m travelling to Japan with a colleague to run a two day workshop on creative ideation for executives at Japanese ad agency Dentsu. We teach techniques for lateral thinking, generating truly innovative ideas, and creating cultures and spaces where that kind of thinking can occur. I figured that surely this kind of stuff would be interesting for kids.

When I thought about it a little more, I was surprised to realise that these were probably skills of little use to a primary school student. Understanding the work that they do day-to-day, I decided that creative thinking skills were clearly something that would be needed later – not in the primary classroom. We ask students to write imaginative stories, to solve challenging maths problems, to research topics, and to make arguments – but rarely if ever do we put them in a position where they are required to think creatively, to develop original and innovative solutions.

It was only later that I started to wonder whether this was not perhaps the symptom of a greater problem. Dentsu are flying us to Japan for the weekend because, like so many companies, they believe that creative thinking is critical to their future success. Business leaders consistently bemoan the difficulty of hiring creative thinkers and stress the importance of creativity as a business differentiator. Given this, should we perhaps be concerned that – even in the early years of schooling – we are not creating opportunities for students to engage with these kind of challenges, and build skills in an area that appears to be a powerful asset in contemporary society?

Skills for the 21st Century

If you’ve been wondering just what we should be teaching kids to prepare them for a future of jet-packs and hover-boards, the folk at the Buck Institute for Education have the answer. Back in 2008 they audited more than ten separate academic and policy educational frameworks to identify important ’21st Century Skills’. You can check out the result here (including downloading their notes on where in each of the contributing sources they are drawing from).

Cutting to he chase, the skill domains and sub-components they propose are…

ICT Literacy

  • Information Media Literacy
  • Technological Literacy

Cognitive Skills

  • Critical Thinking / Problem Solving Skills
  • Creative Thinking Skills

Inter-Personal Skills

  • Communication Skills
  • Collaboration Skills
  • Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Leadership Skills
  • Social Skills

Self- and Task-Management Skills

  • Self-Monitoring / Self-Direction Skills
  • Project Management Skills

Personal Characteristics

  • Ethics / Civil Resposibility
  • Accountability (for High Standards)

The shape of Exemplar Learning

So I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about Exemplar Learning recently, trying to get down on paper as simply as possible what it is I actually want to do, and what the key principles underlying it are. This de-waffling is critical obviously as I try to move toward actually starting to build the organisation and engage others with the vision – they need to actually know what the vision is!

While the graphics are a bit cludgy, this shows how I see the organisation functioning – the creation of experiences at the core and then the amplification of that through a range of channels and activities to engage key audiences, from policy makers to parents.

In terms of how the experiences are innovative and progressive, this diagram outlines the core tenets of the philosophy of Exemplar. On the basis of these ideas, the experiences will then be shaped.

TEDxYouth@Sydney videos up on the site!

I was delighted to notice that the lovely folk at TED have found a handful of the TEDxYouth@Sydney videos that we shot and linked to them from the site. It’s awesome to see our fantastic young speakers and performers up there, in the midst of all the other great TEDx content. Congratulations guys!

Check them out at

Make your kids hate chores even more with HighScore House!

HighScore House is an online startup that offers to ‘gamify’ your children’s chores. They do chores. They get points (‘stars’). They spend those points on rewards (‘eat ice cream for breakfast’, ‘play video games for 30 mins’). I could just leave it at that, but my bloody-mindedness compels me to point out several disturbing things here.

First off, the obvious. Extrinsic motivation (like the clear ‘reward’ structure created here) does not help me to ‘love chores’, as HighScore House suggests. It makes me love rewards, and tells me that chores are obviously horrible detestable things whose only redeemable feature is the reward I will get for doing them. Two problems with this are ‘hedonic acclimation’ that tells us I will need ever greater rewards to motivate me (as Slash wrote, “I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do it, so the little got more and more”) and the fact that this type of extrinsic motivation actually extinguishes behaviour when it is removed – so when I finally move out of home and no one gives me an ice cream for cleaning my room, well, that’s the end of room cleaning!

Secondly, I can’t decide whether I am more concerned with the way it reinforces parental power (instead of imbuing children with a sense of responsibility), or the way it almost releives them of having to take responsibility for their own power by allowing them to defer to ‘the system’. “Sorry, little Johnny, no desert for you – computer says no.”

Thirdly, the team behind HighScore House compare their effort to Zynga games (Farmville and the like). Emulating Zynga is definitely a success strategy, but there seems to be a missing piece in how the brilliantly manipulative mechanics of Zynga games translates to HighScore House. Zynga have never been foolish enough to include ‘real world’ activity in their games, they have succeeded through;

  • play based on small tasks that build incremental addiction
  • managing the repetition to play to create habitual behaviour
  • enabling the creation of ‘owned spaces’ that players then give emotional value
  • massively leveraging social networks for propagation and normalisation

Sadly, HighScore House does none of this – their invocation of Zynga appears to be lip service only.

Okay, so the thing is set up by four guys who look like their mum probably still does their washing. And it’s not like they’re an established outfit receiving huge accolades and support. But they have been funded by VCs, which could be taken as a concerning (by utterly unsurprising) sign of the times. On a more positive note, perhaps it speaks to how much opportunity there is in the space for people who actually do it well. We shall see.

Sorry guys, ChoreWars and Farmville both do it better, and HighScore House is not a beautiful melding of the two.

Are you looking for Exemplar Learning?

If you happened to be in the audience this afternoon and are looking for – my apologies. Unfortunately the site is still ‘under construction’.

To make up for the disappointment, why not visit our Exemplar Learning Facebook page, make friends, and that way you’ll be the first to know when we have a proper site up.

Thanks for listening!

– brett

Motivation in Education – after Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’

After reading Drive by Daniel Pink, I thought it would be worth making some observations about his thoughts on motivation – particularly since he explicitly applies them to education in a short section late in the book (p.174-184).

In essence, Pink has written an excellent book about new thinking on human motivation. He is what my supervisor Gillian would have refered to as a ‘populist synthesiser’. What he does is takes a whole slew of research and theory, and packages it up nice and neatly for non-specialists. Its a term I don’t use in a negative fashion – I think writers like Pink (as well as Po Bronson, Steven Levitt and others) play an important role in mainstreaming learnings that would otherwise remain the domain of academic specialists.

In short, Pink has some recommendations for educators, based on the observation that intrinsic motivation is a powerful force – and that autonomy, mastery and purpose play important roles in creating intrinsic motivation. His recommendations are essentially;

  • give meaningful homework (re. autonomy, mastery and purpose)
  • set aside time to tackle projects that the children decide on
  • have students produce their own report cards
  • don’t link doing chores to receiving pocket money
  • offer praise for effort, in private, when deserved
  • provide the larger context for work being done
  • have students teach other students

I have to say, all that sounds pretty sensible and reasonable to me. Nothing there was a surprise – and I guess I wonder how much of a surprise it would be to most people… and hence perhaps how utterly out of touch I am!

Pink also suggests looking at unschooling, Sudbury, Big Picture Learning, the Tinkering School, Puget Sound, and Montessori. I’m intrigued at the reference to Montessori rather than Reggio Emilia, and wonder if that’s an awareness thing.

One thing that did strike me was a comment in one of the early recommendations, about creating projects driven by student interest (and we are really talking about student-directed learning and project learning… nothing particularly break through!) He suggests we “[s]et aside an entire school day… and ask kids to come up with a problem to solve or a project to tackle.” (p. 176) A day? An entire day? Is that really how bad things are in schools?! One can only hope not in all schools.


The relevance of Freire’s ‘critical transitivity’ to primary education in Australia

Freire Reading Paolo Freire ('Education for Critical Consciousness') for the first time, I was keen to see what relevance a Brazilian political agitator would have on contemporary Australian children’s education. ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’ is a piece that explains and documents Freire’s project to address poor adult literacy in Brazil pre- the 1964 military coup. It is both a fascinating background on the cultural challenges Brazil faced (and continues to face) as a nation, as well as a discussion of an innovative literacy program.

At the core of the literacy program was its politicisation. In a nation undergoing the upheavals of early democracy, where literacy was a prerequisite to vote, any literacy program would necessarily be political. Freire made his doubly so by situating contemporary culture and politics at the centre of his program and using engagement with these issues as a driver to build literacy skills. Not dissimilar to the advocates of ‘quality children’s literature’, he believed that literacy was best achieved when grounded in content that was of interest and importance to the learner – and what better than the politics of the nation.

In discussing the history of Brazil, Freire identifies the need for people to become engaged with their environment (he is speaking politically for the most part, but the lesson can be broader), rather than passive ‘objects’ on which the environment acts. As ‘subjects’ with agency whose consciousness is ‘transitive’ (), he identifies two distinct options. The first is ‘naïve transitivity’, where we engage with the world, but is simplistic ways, without argument and discussion, following established patterns unquestioningly. The second is ‘critical transitivity’, a state of consciousness which is “characterized by depth in the interpretation of problems; by the substitution of causal principles for magical explanations; by the testing of one’s ‘findings’ and by openness to revision; by the attempt to avoid distortion when perceiving problems and to avoid preconceived notions when analysing them; by refusing to transfer responsibility; by rejecting passive positions; by soundness of argumentation; by the practice of dialogue rather than polemics; by receptivity to the new for reasons beyond mere novelty and by good sense not to reject the old just because it is old” (p.14)

What parent, teacher, or concerned citizen could argue against critical transitivity as a meaningful outcome for primary education – both as a civics objective, and far beyond. A way of engaging that “is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless and dialogic forms of life” (p. 14).

Freire strived to create “a literacy program which would be an introduction to the democratization of culture, a program with men (sic) as its Subjects rather than as patient recipients, a program which itself would be an act of creation, capable of releasing other creative acts, one in which students would develop the impatience and vivacity which characterize search and invention.” (p. 39) Well, I have to say, if it sounded suitable for illiterate Brazilian farm workers in the 1950s, it sound equally relevant for early primary to me! “Acquiring language does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables – lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe – but rather an attitude of creation and recreation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context.” (p. 43)

Obviously, the challenge facing Freire was dramatically different from that facing a primary school teacher in Australia today. For one thing, working with adults who have developed oral literacy over many years  is not the same as primary students who are still building oral skills. Additionally, the highly phonetic nature of Portugese made it a more straightforward educational challenge. Having said that, his technique of contextualising literacy activity on a broader cultural context, and operating in facilitated ‘culture circles’ (abandoning the idea of ‘schools’ as too traditionally passive) offer valuable inspiration. Also worth considering is his comment on the difficulty of finding and preparing people who would deliver his culturally rich and empowering curriculum. “Teaching the purely technical aspects of the procedure is not difficult; the difficulty lies rather in the creation of a new attitude – that of dialogue, so absent in our own education and upbringing.” (p. 45) Suddenly Brazil doesn’t seem so far away after all.