Doing the Work

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It’s difficult for me to believe, on occasions, that it was back in 2010 when I started dabbling in getting students to contact experts outside of the school to support their own inquiry learning. Fast forward to 2013, and from Castlemaine via Maryborough I find myself at Crusoe College.

When innovating, the structures of a secondary school can make things more difficult than at a primary, where flexibility allows you to take advantage of more opportunities. If you want to do something new and different, invariably, the secondary school timetable is not your friend.

Yet, these are things that can be overcome, and secondary schools often provide opportunities that are absent in primary schools. For example, students at secondary schools are more likely to be already familiar with using technology, and often have mobile devices at hand that, rather than being a scourge to the teacher, can actually be used to their (and the students’) advantage. And dedicated science classes and laboratories excite most year sevens as something totally novel (“we’re heating water?!?! AWESOME!!!”).

My beliefs around teaching science have been pretty hard-wired for a long time. Having been a scientist, I know that science is really about not just finding answers, but finding questions. I fear we don’t tap into getting kids to ask their own questions, which almost instantly gets them more interested in the answer than if the question had come from the teacher. The difficulty for the teacher can be dealing with dozens of different questions, all requiring different levels of support.

One novel way I’ve tried to deal with this is to enlist an army of “Virtual Scientists”, who kindly give up their time to support students investigating their own questions. The main way they do this is through a dedicated science site, where students blog their progress in their investigations, and our scientists push their thinking and answer their questions. The site allows for public and private messaging, forums, and twitter integration to give all parties a chance to find what form of communication works best for them.


Recently, this plan has become a reality, as a small number of students have signed up and received feedback on their Coffee Cup experimental plans. And while the asynchronous nature of blogging and messaging suits busy scientists and awkward timetables, there’s nothing quite like some real-time, face-to-face discussion. So it was with a sense of excitement that our budding scientists Skyped with Tim Moore, an electrical engineer in Newcastle and all-round good bloke (he was part of the program in the early days at Castlemaine North Primary School) and Dr Melanie Thomson from Deakin University in Geelong.

As I told one of the budding scientists later, we want this to be a normal part of science; that when you got home and were asked “What did you do at school today?”, the answer “Oh, Mel and Tim helped me understand the data from my experiment” would not be unusual.

We’re on our way.

(If you’re a scientist reading this and this style of working with students appeals, you can read more and sign up here).


Humanising the classroom

I was preparing a presentation for differentiating mathematics using technology recently, and ended up editing a TED talk by Salman Khan.

What struck me was Khan’s idea that technology can humanise the classroom – which, as Khan acknowledges, is in some ways counterintuitive. Indeed, when I talk to teachers about technology in the classroom, they have visions of a very inhuman scenario, where students have their eyes glued to the screens, interacting with noone. I’d argue that many things that currently happen in traditional classrooms are dehumanizing; however, we don’t see them this way because that’s how classrooms have always been. I’d also argue that technology can humanize these experiences. Here are four things I’ve invested time and effort into that have humanized the classroom.

Humanizing instruction

As Khan points out, the traditional classroom is predicated on the idea of teacher-led instruction. Teachers give a one-size-fits-all lecture; teachers choose when this occurs and around what topics. And teachers are the ones who decide when the class moves on to the next topic. This dehumanising experience can be humanised through the use of video. By allowing students to experience the instruction that they require for their own specific learning needs; by allowing students to pause and rewind instruction when they don’t understand; and by allowing them to move forward to a new concept in their own time depending their individual progress allows us to humanise instruction in a way not possible without technology.

Humanizing showing understanding

In a traditional classroom, the way students show their understanding is similarly one-size-fits-all. The worksheet, test, exam, essay, poster and other traditional methods of assessment restrict student choice and may alienate students without certain skills; for example, a lack of literacy skills may hinder a student showing their potentially excellent understanding of Mathematics. Technology allows students to show their understanding in new ways, gives them far more choices, and removes the dehumanising necessity for one-size-fits-all assessment.

Humanizing writing

The purpose of writing is to communicate. To communicate requires an audience. Writing without an audience is like public speaking to an empty room – a dehumanizing experience. Yet this is exactly what happens in a traditional classroom – students write in writing books where the audience is close to zero. Technology can humanize this experience of writing by providing an audience of hundreds or thousands, spread around the world, allowing students to connect to peers and be exposed to feedback and new writing styles and, at the same time, cultural understandings. Our Writers’ Club does exactly this, and has led to very real human interactions around the world. This is what real writing should be about.


Humanizing research

Technology has taken us from books to google as a source of information. However, anyone who has done research in the real world knows that research comes as much from other humans as it is from secondary sources. Nevertheless, we persist in ignoring this more authentic source of research for the reference books and googling. Technology can humanise research by linking students to real life experts who can assist students to use their research with greater purpose, and be a more realistic representation of research in the 21st century.


This photo is of my brother and I in 1994. This is our first car, which we shared ownership over. If you can believe it, I’m the guy on the left! The colour of the car, if you’re interested, is “Cypress Metallic Green”.

If there’s one thing I’ve been acutely aware of since working with teachers, it’s making sure I don’t rob teachers of a sense of ownership. I think this is because I know how I feel when I am doing something I perceive I don’t have ownership over. I’m someone who really needs to be involved in something or else I disengage in it.

This raises some interesting questions for the kind of work I do now. Often I am leading the use of technology in classrooms – which means I am usually creating something : communities, websites, tutorials, ideas… which I assume others will find of benefit to them. But always gnawing at the back of my head is, “how do I give people ownership over the things I create? How would I feel if I was on the other side of the fence?”. On the other hand, I feel that sometimes you DO need someone to take the lead and kick things off, and I do acknowledge that not everyone is like me, and some teachers do indeed appreciate being given strong direction.

This issue has been raising its head with our Writers’ Club. The idea is that I create blogs for students of the teachers that join, and they instantly become part of a global community. Which is fine for those who have never had their kids blogging. But what about teachers who are already blogging with their kids? Do they need to abandon their work to join our community? And does this then represent a lose-lose situation, where we miss out on being involved with teachers who already have significant expertise with blogging and global education, and they miss out on being part of a vibrant community?

For a long time, I wrestled with the idea. I talked at length to my colleague in Shanghai, Toni Olivieri-Barton, about it, and I came to the conclusion that, eventually, the audience factor would win, and teachers would be convinced to start afresh on the Writers’ Club.

But this ignores the need for the teachers to have ownership.

So when Denton Avenue from New York joined, ready with their blogs, I decided to give them accounts but let them have their own blogs as well. And it works. The students with their own blogs simply put their blog address into their profile, so that when their profile is clicked on by a Writers’ Club member, they see the student’s blog address and can visit and comment on their blog, outside the Writers’ Club. The security of the site is still maintained, the students with their own blogs benefit because they are able to participate in the community and drive readers to their blogs by doing so; and the current members of the Writers’ Club benefit by having new things to read and have a greater audience for their own work.

It’s not ideal – it would be simpler if everyone had a blog on the Writers’ Club. But if I can convince those teachers already doing great stuff that this work won’t replace what they do but enhance it, and I can bring even more students from around the world together, then it is for the best.

Everybody’s doing something; we’ll do nothing!

I feel like George Constanza at times, trying to explain the premise behind the Writers’ club:

There are heaps of global collaborative projects around – just take a cruise around The Global Education Ning if you are looking for something specific. However, in terms of global collaboration, we’ve taken a slightly different route at The North School.

Most of the global education projects out there have specific goals or themes : discussing certain books, historical events, cultural themes, and so on. While these are great, we have found that it can be hard to align what we’re teaching (which is often tied to whole-school planning) to a global opportunity. And the lifetime of these connections can be limited. So rather than having a specific theme for collaboration, we’ve gone for the most general thing we could think of.


All students write. So we thought, if we could offer students a chance to have their writing read and commented on by students from around the world, that might motivate them to write more, and they might find out more about their readers at the same time. We also thought that because writing is pretty much an everyday activity, it means that interacting globally would be an everyday occurrence.

We also wanted to encourage as many schools as humanly possible to be a part of this site. The reality is that global education through technology remains something for the ‘outliers’ of education – it is far from mainstream. We wanted to lower the barrier to participation as much as possible to encourage schools and teachers that aren’t outliers to get their feet wet in global education.

How do we lower the barrier to participation? Well, there are few restrictions on the site. Students get a blog, and can put up writing as often as they like – they can write every day, or they can write once a year. They can write about anything they like – stories, persuasive pieces, information texts… anything at all. And a teacher can have their whole class on, or just one particularly passionate writer.

And with only loose boundaries, who knows what a bunch of passionate writers will inspire each other to write.

Join us.

Cross-posted at