Up front, this post is a response to Ewan McIntosh’s recent post “What’s the Difference Between PBL and Design Thinking?”. It’s taken me a few days to sort myself on this one because I wanted to clarify some similarities and differences in my own head – albeit, from a decidedly non-expert, grass-roots practitioner.

Over the 18 months in my current role, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a day with Marco Torres learning about Apple’s “Challenge Based Learning”, a day with Jay McTighe on “Schooling By Design”, three days with Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett exploring “Design Thinking”. All of that on top of tinkering with Project-Based Learning approaches to a handful of units over several years.

I’m in no way an expert on any of this, but I am excited by any approach to learning that puts the learner at the centre, that allows teachers as co-learners in the classroom to see the bigger picture, to make authentic connections between what the world needs, and what we are doing in our classrooms, to ask meaningful questions and explore possibilities and solutions. And I continually grapple with finding the right balance between what Ewan and Tom refer to as the “rocks”, or accountabilities of our curriculum system, and the “whirlpool” ideas of creativity and student-driven choice and questioning.

So over time, I’ve used UBD and its backwards design principles to loosely develop units of work in Religion. Topics such as “How does an understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes help me to Be the Best Person I Can Be?” (Esto Vir = our school motto), allowed students to explore foundational principles of faith in life, in movies, in news, (all of their own choice) and develop their own responses. Currently, our seniors are exploring world religions through the essential question, “How do major religious traditions provide their adherents with the means to engage in interfaith dialogue, and promote unity and peace?” I don’t have an answer, and they are searching for one.

I’ve also worked with Year 7 English students on a PBL unit where we explored the issue of refugees, and we came up with the question of “What would cause someone to risk their lives to seek refuge in Australia?” – and then students investigated living conditions in a developing nation of their choice and eventually wrote an empathy narrative around the issue. And with several cohorts of Year 10 students, made to complete the Board of Studies “All My Own Work” modules? We’ve done so in context, in teams, investigating personal responses to questions like “What is success?” or “How can we make a difference in our world?”

I am guilty of being one of those educators who has “just” used Design Thinking for a school improvement project – but it was an authentic project, meaningful for the students and me, has led to changes (slowly) and has taught the students involved about “problem finding”, asking real questions, patience, collaboration, resilience, and working towards real solutions within real limitations.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a student project into the wider community but would love the chance. And in many cases, my attempts at DT, PBL or UBD are most likely a mash-up of more than one approach. Research would say that critical mass in achieving school change is necessary, and having a particular platform might make it easier to get teachers speaking the same language, but we do live in a re-mix culture!

My point? I am only one of many thousands of teachers who believe in shifting the paradigms of education – in a classroom, in a school, in a system, in a country… away from textbook, rote learning, away from test preparation for the sake of it – and towards authentic, meaningful, lifelong learning. And most of these teachers are on full teaching loads, balancing playground duty, full classes, pastoral needs of students, and their own professional learning… Pushing the boundaries of what they do and how they do it is not always part of a whole school or system change, but part of their own exploration into making learning more meaningful for their students. There are amazing teachers like Bianca Hewes who so generously and honestly shares her teaching journey, including her use of PBL, or my good friend Joyce who blazes the trail for PBL and is mobilizing teachers and students at my old school, or my friends Jorga and Jenny (@jcsymington) working through UBD frameworks with staff at their respective schools – or any of the thousands of inspiring teachers, tweeters and bloggers out there who keep pushing our own boundaries, reflecting on our practice, educating ourselves so we can provide the best possible learning experiences for our students.

As educators, we are moving from one size fits all, straight rows and multiple choice, through to cooperative learning and role sharing, and now towards models such as CBL, PBL and DT that embrace collaborative inquiry. Those changes are certainly needed, and slow to happen in some areas – but the conversations, and the practices, are moving in the right direction. And they have to start somewhere.

UBD may “start with the end in mind”, but DT has the notion of “tilting towards completion” – which from what I understand is akin to the subtle nudging a teacher can give towards a design thinking project to help it align with curriculum goals. Just as there might be overly narrow projects in UBD or PBL, the same could be true for a teacher starting out with Design Thinking. But in the hands of a confident teacher, a UBD or PBL or DT approach could – and should – also result in deep thinking and problem solving and collaborative inquiry on the part of the learner. But teachers and schools are like any learners – they learn at different paces, in different ways, and come in contact with new ideas at different stages of readiness.

So if a teacher, or a school, embraces a new paradigm by looking for enduring understandings from a unit of work; if a teacher works her way from carefully designing a PBL unit, towards developing the confidence and comfort to hand this design over to her students; if a teacher uses a DT framework to involve students in a school-wide problem-finding and solution experience…they are all grappling with moving away from how they themselves were most likely taught and towards what they know has lasting relevance for their students. And people who tend to be reflective practitioners are seldom content with “enough”, and constantly looking to better themselves for the sake of their students.

Absolutely, our goal must “not be the mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person.” (David Orr, in “What is Education For?” via George Couros) But as passionate educators who are currently caught between “rocks” and “whirlpools”, the reality is that we need to continually explore ways to provide deep, authentic, meaningful learning for our students within the systems we have, whilst advocating for better ones for our children’s future.

Understanding and learning from different traditions adds depth to our own practice, skills, and knowledge – whether that be drawing from both “whole language” and “phonics” approaches to reading, or appreciating the message of love and compassion inherent in all religions, or blending the best of different learning frameworks. Whatever name we call the framework, we probably are as Ewan says “splitting hairs” – but I think it is unfair to say the differences are minimal on the one hand, yet through language choice like “narrowly designed”, or “relatively lower order”, or “just school/community improvement” imply that one approach is inherently superior to another.

 As Pi says, in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, “If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” Teachers face enough opposition from some sectors of the world – we’d do better to focus on supporting each other in our journey. I’m not mad… just taking part in the discussion 🙂… nuff said!


From Virtual to Reality

Earlier this week, I attended, and presented at, TeachMeet HIlls out at Gilroy. LOVED IT! This was my fourth TeachMeet, and the second at which I’d presented, but my first since having become more active on Twitter.

I’d attended Domremy College and All Saints Liverpool, Girls TMs last year, and pushed myself way out of my comfort zone to present at Eveleigh in March… but I didn’t know anyone then, and therefore couldn’t embarrass myself too much, could I? At each TM, I loved the energy, the synergy, the dialogue and laughter with people committed to sharing their practice. And mind you, this is always after hours, after some in the general public think we’ve clocked out at 3pm to go home after working half a day.

As some of you may know, I’m in a position where I love the work I do, but am sometimes discouraged by the challenges of doing it… One of my bosses has cheerfully said, “Keep looking for ways to turn those challenges into opportunities!” I am a glass half full kinda girl, so I do keep pushing through, but often after scraping myself off the floor and looking for a new way to approach something – or someone.

Enter Twitter in March… Since the BIG TeachMeet, and then using Twitter for backchannels at a couple of conferences, I was hooked. Vivian Matiello had introduced #ozengchat in the same room where I presented at the big TM, and that became a great way to dip a toe in and meet like-minded educators. Not everyone who participates there is an English teacher, but certainly they are all passionate and dedicated educators who set time aside from their families and leisure to connect, share and support – (every Tuesday night from 8:30 – 9:30).

Over time, I re-tweeted, offered links and support, and entered into a few conversations, I followed more people, and my little network grew. (Not extensively, but comfortably :-)). If you are reading this, you likely already know what I’m about to say, and I found Jeannette James and her brilliant, heartfelt post “With My PLN, I Am” really resonated with me. Same with Daniel Edwards’ post about “The Ten Stages of Twitter”. Out there in the big, wide, virtual Twitterverse are all these dedicated educators who don’t whinge, who don’t complain, who just support, encourage, pass on resources, send a kind word, sympathise, encourage, reflect, and challenge my thinking.

Over the course of the last five months, I’ve found I have more energy, more enthusiasm, can contribute in a more positive manner. I think more broadly, read more professional blogs and literature, and am constantly inspired by the amazing work of others. I don’t feel like I am alone in wanting to improve my own practice, or to see the best opportunities realised for our students…I feel connected, supported, and proud to be part of such a brilliant profession.

Now back to Tuesday night, and the title of this post. When I was young, if the teacher called on me in class, I’d slide under the desk I’d be so embarrassed. But I value pushing myself out of my comfort zone, so plowed ahead.  I had great support from Monique Dalli. I prepared my PK – obsessed over getting it right – tossed and turned, felt sick all day, arrived at Gilroy late, didn’t see signs, wandered around the grounds – and eventually saw the signs at reception. After making my way through the corridors, I snuck into the back of the room where Polly Dunning was presenting (her great post on her experience is here). I tried to sit alone, but was quietly called forward… and here’s where virtual became reality. I felt like I had walked OUT of a cartoon or video game, through some magic bubble, and entered a new space and time… I was sitting next to @karlao_dtn, who was really sweet and humble Karla, and she wasn’t her Simpsonised dp! And next to her, @MalynMawby, and next to her, @Townesy77 for REAL! To my right @ellyconnolly (and a nice guy who seemed quite close to her, who turned out to be her husband Andrew @akwc). And at the front of the room, after months of tweets and support, was @1Moniqued. At the break, I chatted to Malyn (who’s as wise in person as she is online), hugged a bubbling Monique, and introduced myself to, then hugged Matt (@mesterman). Andrew Wharton (@whartonag) even approached ME and was so excited to meet ME in person – who would have thought? I was more nervous than ever going up to present… but shouldn’t have been.  Because everyone there was just there to share practice, and learn from each other; some were Twitter “celebs” (in my newbie experience..), but mainly people were just there to support each other, listen, share and learn. (I’m seriously a bit too old to get so star struck, but then again my experience of an online PLN over the past few months has been an educational lifeline…)

At the TeachEat, I got to talk to Jeannette James (@7MrsJames) who has been a tremendous virtual support in ways she probably doesn’t realise, and Karla, and Simon Harper (@s_harper3 – what a brilliant presentation, Simon – so much time and energy!), Matt, John Goh (@jonqgoh) and Monique. There were others I would have liked to chat to, but there will be other events, I’m sure. I don’t even remember much of what I ate because the conversation was just so good!

I returned to school the next day, floating a bit, and full of optimism and renewed energy to face my challenges, and turn them into opportunities. So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, get along to one soon … and if you haven’t experience the great PLN that is Twitter, what are you waiting for? Thanks to everyone who has shared my journey so far – there is truly strength in numbers.

Two Weeks with the Team

It’s been just on two weeks since my first post ever. When I last wrote, I’d been working with a Year 11 group, using a Design Thinking process to re-envisage the Leadership Structure at our school. They’d had a couple of set-backs, and for reasons including time constraints, weren’t able to go ahead with all they had planned.

We re-grouped a week and a bit ago. Chatted about real life, and how things don’t always go as planned, but that the mark of a leader is how they respond under those circumstances. Leadership speeches and voting will take place in Week 5, so mid-Week 3 they didn’t have a whole lot of time to plead their case or make major adjustments. They broke into pairs – two drafting a letter to the principal, two researching other schools, a few brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard. They left our meeting with a draft proposal, combining their ideas about leadership selection and portfolios, but crafted to fit within existing structures and titles.

“Bob”, as I’ll call him, was one of the boys leading the charge – the one who came with the original shortlist of changes they wanted. And it is in Bob I’ve seen the greatest growth and learning. He was the one who was a bit nervous when the process was opened up to all of Year 11, as he had a firm idea of what he thought should happen. He wasn’t so sure that those boys “just getting out of class” to share in initial meetings was fair. But he relaxed with the process, and could see over time the value in consulting, discussing, being inclusive and listening.

Bob has been a driving force in moving the process forward. And he was probably the most upset when it was cut short. He organized the group to meet again, had charge of the laptop and led the letter-drafting process. He forwarded the draft to a couple of key teachers for feedback. But he bounced back.

So you can imagine how shocked I was when he told me on Wednesday that he’d had second thoughts about leadership and wasn’t going to put in for captain. I wanted to shake him and say, “Wake up! We need leaders like you who care and who have initiative!”  I was upset that maybe the set-backs had proven too much.

But it wasn’t that… he told me he had just been reflecting on what it meant to be a leader. And he was concerned that maybe he didn’t have what it took to take his form forward. That he had a really firm idea of where things should go, but that it wasn’t representative of the form in general. He was concerned that whilst the teachers were encouraging and saw him as leadership material, he wouldn’t really represent his classmates. And if he was worried about relationships, that would detract from a focus on his studies. So he had strong doubts about his own motives for seeking leadership.

I was sad… but felt privileged at the same time, to see that level of self-awareness in a young man of 16. Would that I had been capable of such reflection at that age! I didn’t want to push him into putting forward for captaincy, because that might only reinforce his thinking that he was the teachers’ choice… but at the same time, thought anyone capable of such reflection would be such an asset to a leadership team. So I just told him it had to be his choice, reiterated what I saw as his strengths, and reminded him that whatever the leadership team accomplished, the hope would be to leave a legacy not just for the class of 2013, but for the juniors to follow as well. And that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to be THE captain, that sharing ideas and contributing to a vision is also being a leader.

In the end, Bob and the team submitted a proposal to the principal on Thursday, with a header “From The Design Thinkers”… I didn’t ask him if he wants to be captain or not, but so admire his willingness to learn from the process and be guided by what is right for him, not by what others in positions of authority want him to do.

And again, on reflection – probably a lot of parallels in this story for us teachers – do we see ourselves as leaders, regardless of title? Do we go for a title because it seems the right thing to do? Are we guided by our core beliefs in choosing an authentic pathway for ourselves? Do we maintain the courage of our convictions and bounce back in the face of defeat? I do know Bob has given me a lot to think about in my own role…