Schools, Universities, and the Workplace. Who is to Blame for Not Producing Independent Thinkers?


Ms Demanding Workplace

Mr Selective University

Mrs Compliant School

DW – Ugh! I’m so tired of these employees of mine. No vision, no initiative. Everything needs to be done for them.

CS – If you could just…

SU – (Interrupting CS.) I know. It’s the same problem here. They come out of school with no ability to think independently. They just sit there and write things down. And when they’re questioned, they give us the textbook answer!

CS – But you ask us to…

DW – We have told the media time and time again that businesses of the twenty-first century demand a new set of skills. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the critical thinking? Where’s the problem-solving and the ability to collaborate!?

CS – We try to…

SU – I hear you! We have the same problem. It’s like if this stuff isn’t learned early enough, it’s too late. Our lecturers always complain about the lack of insight and critical thinking they read in student essays. And it’s getting worse.

CS – But surely…

DW – It has to be our schools that are at fault.

CS – Now wait just a…

SU – Absolutely! We can only work with what we’re given.

DW – We need to be more vocal and controversial in our communications to the media: Change the education system! Teach independent thought and innovative thinking! Ten Things Employers Look For! 5 Skills for the Modern Workplace!

SU – And let’s agitate for better teacher training! More rigor! More focus! Higher standards! Meta-analysis!

CS – (In her best teacher voice. Faint quivers in her voice giving away how close she is to losing her composure.) Sit down, the two of you. Immediately. And listen. No! No interruptions! I’m tired of your bullying. This has gone on long enough! I’m speaking now. And you’re listening.

Want to know why all of this is happening? It’s your fault. Mr University: Do you know why you think the students we send you are so unspectacular? Well, try a teaching methodology that goes a bit beyond your stand-and-deliver lectures for a start. And assessments which go beyond exams. Most of the schools you complain about mirror your methods exactly.

But more importantly, your selection criteria are to blame. You tell us you only want those who score above a certain average grade on a standardized test. So we prepare them for that test.

We prepare them to do well in their exams because you create the perception that this is all that matters – just so that your selection process is made easier. And our parents believe this to be the sole purpose of school. As do the media. This is why they are so obsessed with results all the time.

Perhaps if you could consider looking at a more personalized set of criteria, one that embraces critical thinking, creativity, collaborative skills and independent problem solving, we would be more able to focus on those things. Because believe me, we desperately want to.

And then you do studies and meta-studies and you create lists about what works and what doesn’t work in education – based on children’s ability to remember things and to do well in tests. Is this what education is to you? Is it any wonder that all you get is the result of children learning to take tests well?

And you Ms Workplace. It’s your fault too. You sit there all high and mighty and issue missives of complaint, but what are you actually doing to help? Sponsoring chairs and endowments and scholarships for Mr University is what. The two of you, thick as thieves, having your conferences about what’s wrong with education. And then spreading your inane ‘solutions’ to the media.

When do you ever offer to get involved with schools directly? When do you ever turn to University and insist that he changes how he does his selections? Schools these days are far more innovative than either of you two can ever imagine. But the bottom line is that we have a responsibility to get these kids where they want to go. And that is determined by the two of you.

No. I’m still talking.

It strikes me that the two of you are actually only covering up your own shortcomings. The problem isn’t a ‘foundational’ or ‘grassroots’ problem. The problem is a top-down problem. You’re passing the buck, and I expect both of you to own up immediately.

Want better schools? Want sharper, more resilient, more innovative, more independent people at your organizations? Want more mavericks, more energetic out-of-the-box thinkers? Well then, dammit, start rewarding those people who display these aptitudes in your own organizations, instead of rewarding compliance.

It’s time to go to your corner and have a rethink. Ms Workplace: how about you bring your funding and your needs to schools directly, and help us to re-imagine what we do? And keep back your endowments to Mr University until he changes what he does and how he selects students.

Mr University, how about you rethink how you select students to be trained for their careers? Yes, yes, I know it’s more difficult to work with individuals rather than test scores. But it will pay off, I promise. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, as they say.

And while you’re at it, you must set the example. When 90% of what you do is lecture and examine, is it any wonder that you have fewer and fewer independent thinkers?

Have I made myself clear? I expect much better from the two of you from now on.

I’ll be watching you.




Tech Tools: Have You Tried? (5: Accessibility Settings)


An often-overlooked feature of most tablets and smart devices, accessibility settings are incredibly useful in education.

The best thing is to try the various options to see what they do. (You can always turn them off again.)


Here are some things you can do:

  1. Have your device read text to you. (For those teachers who do a lot of reading, research, you can speed the voice up quite a bit. With some practice, you can get through long articles incredibly quickly.)
  2. For struggling readers and students who struggle to focus, the text reading function helps to focus their attention. Use ‘Alex’ for the best results (He even breathes naturally!)
  3. Students with visual impairments can zoom parts of the screen, or, when typing, the text that is typed. The zoom function even comes with filters to assist with other visual impairments.
  4. There are also options for students with psycho-motor and hearing difficulties.

Showing something on an iPad to a class or some other audience? Enable ZOOM and SHOW CONTROLLER to get something that looks like this:


Head over to:


Miss one? Go to:


Response: What Will Technology in Schools Be Like in 100 Years?

Written in response to this article: (and others like it.)

Let’s start with this: 100 years is an absurdly long time to try and predict anything. For one thing, human population may well be in excess of 12 billion, and non-renewable natural resources will be all but used up. If we’re still around, we might have many, many other pressing issues to worry about.

Or else we might have sorted ourselves out and be living in a prosperous, sustainable, peaceful world.

Either way, 100 years is much too far away to predict anything, especially when it’s hard to suss out how technology in particular will change in just three years from now.

So let’s pick a more realistic number. How about 20 years? A generation. An entirely new set of kids. What will technology in schools look like in 2037? 

Here are my predictions:

Student Driven

Technology will challenge students to create and conduct their own individual learning journey, while connecting them with other students and mentors on similar (or even very different paths) so that they can work collaboratively to exchange and compare their learning. Benchmarking and assessing will also be more individually focused and much less standardized.

Teacher Roles Rewritten

Teachers and schools will have to rethink their roles in education. If students can learn almost anything, anywhere, on differentiated paths, driven by their own interests and focused on independent learning, schools and teachers will need to become more like diagnosticians, emotional guides, character coaches, and partners in the learning journey. I do not think, however, that schools and teachers will become redundant. Exactly the opposite: kids need other kids, and they need an environment in which they can receive support, in which they can be challenged, and from whence they can draw inspiration.

Ubiquitous Access 

Internet connectivity will be so cheap and easy that almost anyone, regardless of socio-economic circumstance, will be able to connect. Online and blended learning opportunities will become widespread, cheaper, and as easy as drawing with chalk.

Truth Tussles

We are only just beginning the war on misinformation. In a generation, the fight will largely be won – in the sense that there will be very reliable fact-checking tools and filters, and young people will know how to evaluate information more effectively.

Democratized Content

Class, subject, school and inter-school wikis will largely replace static textbooks. Students will be generating their own collaborative, fact-checked, inter-connected and constantly revised notes rather than having content handed down to them. Syllabi will be more customizable and more differentiable. 


We already have texture-simulating haptic technology. In a decade or two, kids will be able to use their devices to feel things like a tortoise shell, elephant skin, the surface of the moon, hardened lava, and space shuttle porcelain. Add these to gyro-weighting and feedback systems in devices, and we open up a whole new world to our vision-impaired students. Now mix in high-speed, cost-effective 3D printing, and kids become more design and creation focused, while working on real-world problems.


Many apps and programs do not play well with one another. (Most often on purpose.) In a generation, all hardware and software will work together in any conceivable configuration. And those who insist on having a closed ecosystem will be left behind. (And perhaps by then, we will have had an international convention and decided on universal charging cable and adaptor designs.)


One of the major headaches today with using technology in the classroom is ensuring that batteries are always sufficiently charged. Quick-charging, long-life batteries will largely solve this problem – especially if twinned with kinetic or solar chargers.

Privacy and Safety

Students’ personal information will be extremely closely guarded. Schools around the world will form a cooperative which will unanimously leave those vendors who violate our trust out in the cold.


Software will adapt to the interests and needs and personalities of individual students. Operating systems will become more like personal assistants.

Intuitivity and AI

The best software out there is already trying to anticipate our needs. In the future, software will become more intelligent, working hard to anticipate what we want – sometimes before we know what we need.

Ageographic Learning

Learning technologies will connect young people around the world.


Hardware will become more and more inexpensive, more and more robust, and more and more user-friendly. Devices will become light-weight, malleable, foldable and wearable.

Mixed-Interactive (MI) Reality

The problem with holographic, virtual, and augmented reality in education is that they are largely passive. In a decade or two, students will be able to be fully immersed and fully active in simulated reality. They will be able to build, change and interact in their own worlds. 

The World of Work

Deeper connections to what employers need will be made with learning centers. Students will get to experience and learn what it is like to work as a scientist, lawyer or entrepreneur through simulated experimental learning.


Having an educational assistant (i.e.: a smart electronic device) will no longer be noticeable – just like having pen and paper in a classroom today is taken for-granted.

Off Time

Devices will be configurable to reduce eye strain, and to turn themselves off if kids have been using them for too long. Teachers will need to plan around this and ensure that kids get enough non-screen learning time.

Pedagogically Focussed

Most ‘educational’ apps out there are focused on shoveling out content. A few even target skills. But very few explicitly nurture twenty-first century dispositions like curiosity, collaboration, creativity, independent learning and critical thinking. In the twenty-thirties and forties, apps which encourage independent and collaborative thinking and problem-solving will become the norm.

Learning Spaces

Because learning can happen anywhere, and because education will be so customizable, schools will have to radically rethink timetables, lesson times, and the arrangement of classrooms. Modular and shiftable spaces and schedules arranged around the needs of our students will become the norm.

The future of education is going to an exciting place to be. I will be on the cusp of retirement, no doubt fighting to stay on!


What If?

What if schools really are what most people think they are?

What if they’re really all about getting good marks so that students can move on to university?

What if respect and rigor and discipline and conformity really do matter more than anything else?

What if remembering facts is actually more import than the ability to reason independently, decode problems, and generate innovative solutions?

What if canned syllabi actually do matter more than the individual needs of our students?

What if there really doesn’t need to be any connection and collaboration between different subjects and the skills they teach?

What if encouraging grit and determination and resilience really are more important than exercising compassion, understanding, and empathy?

What if it really is all about competition and being better than everyone else, rather than learning to negotiate, cooperate, and collaborate?

What if the ability to take a test well really does trump abilities and dispositions like critical thinking, curiosity, compassion, creativity, and good communication skills?

What if after-school programs like dramatics, debating, chess, dancing, and robotics really are not as important as the traditional sports codes?

What if the Arts and Humanities really aren’t as important as mathematics, the sciences, and the languages?

What if teachers who teach senior grades really are more important than those who teach younger students?

What if having more experience does indeed make you a better teacher?

What if kids really should sit still and shut up?

What if it’s true that students have to learn lower order thinking skills before they learn the higher order stuff?

What if it truly is their responsibility to listen and learn rather than to debate and ask questions?

What if practice really does make perfect?

And what if every teacher believed that this was really all there was to education?

Posted in EDUCATION | 4 Comments

Espresso Idea: Great Teachers Are Not in it to Be Remembered


Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

Yes, every teacher does make an impact on a child’s life. And the best of us make a lasting difference.

But the most lasting gift a teacher can give to a child is to get them to think they did it all on their own, to build their own sense of independence, self-worth and confidence so that it is the child who stands on their own and goes on to forge their own path – and to make a difference in the world.

Most often, this involves standing back, only offering guidance, correction, a kind word and a gesture or two of encouragement.

So what if they don’t remember how they became successful? So what if they never look back?

We are who we are because of the great teachers we have had. And they are who they are because of their selfless devotion towards helping us become better people.

We teach for life and for the betterment of humanity, not for for our egos.

We teach for the future, not the past.


Tech Tools: Have You Tried? (4: Apple Clips)


Apple Clips is another idevice app. It works quite simply – you record a video and the app automatically adds subtitles (which you can edit if your accent doesn’t translate well!).

Clips is another cool way for students to create content on the fly or for teachers to create short explainer videos.

You can also add effects, sounds and even motion to your pictures and videos.

There is a bit of a learning curve, but the controls are mostly intuitive and easy to use.

A few ideas:

  • Make dynamic posters
  • Create living poetry readings
  • Jazz up explainer videos
  • Speak in one language and retype captions in another

Head over to:

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Espresso Idea: Argumentation & Guerrilla Punctuation


Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

Very few things drive me as kooky as people who take what I say and spit it back at me covered with flecks of punctuation. I am becoming particularly revolted by snotty inverted commas and gooey quotation marks.

As if if this is all that is needed to confute the point I am making.

I find this is especially rife on Twitter – mostly because of the character limit (and the impersonal nature of social media). But I’ve also had emails and replies on Facebook where the same fallacious use of punctuation-as-a-counter-argument is employed.

And then there’s the sniffy question mark or exclamation point, or even a ‘hmmm?’ or a ‘huh!?’ or even a ‘lol!’ after quoting something I have said. (Although to be fair, I do say a few bizarre things.)

I am all for open and respectful debate, I am happy to be proven wrong, and I celebrate people’s right to disagree, but using guerrilla punctuation to make these arguments smacks of lazy thinking.

I’m not saying I need a three page rebuttal. But surely, with a bit of thought, a concise, witty counter-argument isn’t impossible? Or even a more engaging ‘Have you considered?’ Or what about something entirely vanilla-flavored, like ‘I believe you are wrong because…’?

Or perhaps even a short blog post…

Posted in EDUCATION | 1 Comment

What Happens When Kids Design Their Own Competency Descriptors

When Kids Design Their Own Competency Descriptors (With Thanks to Ronel Hugo)

Our Preparatory School teachers are deep in the throes of preparing for student lead conferences. Because we are long longer working with grades, we are focused heavily on skills.

One of our superb Afrikaans teachers, Ronel Hugo, decided that she would get her students to collaborate on redesigning their own descriptors. Rather than teacher-based competency descriptors, she thought it would be a good idea to let her students collaborate to decide on how best to describe their skill levels in various aspects of second language learning.

Here’s what they came up with:


What I especially like about the descriptors they decided on is how the help level goes from ‘I need help from my teacher’ to ‘I need someone to help me’ to ‘I can help others’. Not only does this describe competency levels, but it also details a different type of collaborative class dynamic.

Ronel also has a more detailed reflection sheet where the kids are asked about their favorite parts of each particular section, as well as to provide strategies they can use to improve their skill level in each aspect of learning their second language.

The level of metacognition and reflection involved here is wonderful.


What Roboting Teaches You About Life (Students Write)


So I ‘coach’ robotics. Which is my way of saying I use robotics to teach kids to solve problems. I don’t ever teach them how to build or code their robots. Instead, I give them a challenge and stand back, offering guidance only every now and then. 

For the last four years, I have entered teams into the World Robotics Olympiad. I have had teams make it to the international rounds for two years. Unfortunately, none of my teams performed particularly well in the actual international competition, but they were amongst the best in the country, and they did learn heaps: about themselves, about independence and about how to solve problems. And even those who didn’t make it past the regional rounds learned similar things. This is why I love robotics so much.

What follows are my students’ ideas about what robotics and being involved in robotics competitions has taught them about life.

  1. Don’t give up. To be successful, you have to fail plenty. Look closely at where things went wrong, understand why they went wrong, and fix them.
  2. Be very patient. Great things always take time.
  3. Find good partners. Things are easier in a team.
  4. Keep calm when things go wrong. If you panic, you won’t be able to fix anything.
  5. It’s better to use a smart code and to go with the flow and self-adjust than it is to try and ‘hard code’ to control everything step by step. 
  6. Look for different solutions. Sometimes you get stuck on one idea. 
  7. Be honest with yourself. If something really isn’t working, and you’ve tried a million ways to make it work, try something else.
  8. Once you are most of the way towards a solution, be careful about changing things too radically. Going back to line one isn’t always a good idea.
  9. You’ve got to learn to do things for yourself.
  10. Create some flair!
  11. Be organized. If you don’t have a plan, it will take you longer to find a solution. But be prepared to change your plan as other things change.
  12. Better parts don’t necessarily mean a better robot. Sometimes you just have to make do with what you have. (This sometimes forces you to be very creative.)
  13. Don’t compare yourself to other teams. Set your own goals and benchmarks and meet them one at a time. That way, you can never lose – even if you don’t win.
  14. Don’t copy other solutions. You have to understand the problem and find your own solution. Otherwise, if things go wrong, you won’t know how to fix them.
  15. Don’t be afraid to stand out. If everyone has a similar solution and yours is way different, you will stand out from the pack.
  16. Don’t let your coach or your parents or anybody else do too much for you – no matter how well-meaning they are – or you will never learn to do things for yourself.
  17. Help other teams. Sometimes the best way to learn something is to teach it to others.
  18. Don’t be intimidated by big occasions. Take some time to explore your surroundings, and figure out where things are and how things work. Talk to some people, and give yourself time to settle in.
  19. Take a break. Sometimes you need to walk away or do other things. When you come back to the problem you can often find a good solution.
  20. Don’t get lost in the competitive element. You won’t learn as much and it won’t be as enjoyable if all you want to do is win.
  21. Sometimes you need to look at the details, sometimes you need to zoom out and see the big picture. Don’t get stuck on either one of these problem-solving methods.
  22. Every new environment brings with it its own set of challenges. Instead of complaining, learn to adjust.
  23. Stay with it and keep trying. You’ll never know how far you could have gone if you give up too quickly.
  24. Have fun!


Such smart kids.


Google Sites as a Digital Portfolio and Showcase for Learning (Guest Post)



The following post is from Mr Mitchell More – a dynamic middle school English and History teacher at Redhill School.


This year in History, the Grade 7s are busy creating their own Google Sites based on the work we are doing throughout Term 2 and 3. This is an ongoing process.

The process started off with me recording a video for them on how to create a Google Site. (It’s really easy.)

Then the fun happens:

Firstly, students work in groups of four to develop the look and feel and structure of the site. (We obviously give them hands-on guidance and information to assist them in this aspect of website creation.) They then create sub-pages for the sub-topics we cover, and then adjust headings and themes. The History teachers also show them the site that I set up as a guideline.

(As an example, the topic for Term 2 is the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This will be one of the ‘main pages’ and the ‘sub-pages’ will be the topics and themes we cover in class under this main topic. So in the main page they should have some short description of the slave trade, and the the first sub-page will be the story of Olaudah Equiano.)

Students are also tasked with getting more information than just the outline their History teachers give them. They have to ensure that this information is reliable, and to rephrase and bring together this information in their own way. (They have to provide hyperlinks to their sources.)

The sites they produce this way will then work as their history portfolio for this year.

As they do individual classwork, something like an essay or an analysis, each item needs to be published on their site under as a sub-page, once their work is marked and suggested changes have been implemented.

Unfortunately, we cannot share the link to the site with the outside world as we would like to protect the privacy of our students, but there is a screenshot of the site at the top of this post.

We look forward to watching what the Grade 7s produce Mr More!

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Tech Tools: Have You Tried? (3: VideoScribe)



You know those videos where a hand seems to write text and slide in pictures? Well, this is what they use. VideoScribe Anywhere is an app for idevices, and is great as an alternative presentation app for students or for teacher recorded ‘explainer’ videos.



This app does take some getting used to. The timing and other settings need to be tinkered with a little before starting any project.

Miss one? Go to:


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Espresso Idea: Why More Teachers Should Blog


Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

Spend more than half an hour with any random teacher and you’ll walk away with at least one cool new idea.

And I’m always the guy who says “You should share that idea with the world!”

Some of the braver ones do.

But most teachers think that their ideas are somehow not good enough to share. Or that someone must already be doing what they’re doing. 

There are so many ideas that regular non-blogging teachers have that other teachers around the world would love.

I know teachers who teach Grade Ones to code, who engage in philosophical discussions with Grade 3s, who lead Middle School students on historical murder mysteries using augmented reality, who use robots to teach literature, who have created low cost learner-friendly furniture, who create makers’ spaces out of cardboard and masking tape, and who have created entire blended learning platforms. 

I’m in touch with teachers around the world who are outdoor learning specialists, creativity domos, brain specialists, and magicians. And I wish everyone could see the amazing things they’re doing.

So get to it teachers! Start a blog. Share some espresso ideas. Or even some fancier cappuccino revelations. (WordPress and Blogger are relatively simple to use, but you can also micro-blog on Twitter.) It’s time to get your ideas out into the world!

(An open invitation: If you don’t want to create a blog, consider sending me your post and your details and I will potentially publish your guest post on this blog. Keep it short and sweet and send me a few pics. Post a reply below and I’ll be in contact.)


Espresso Idea: Why This Foolish Teacher is Wary of What Research Tells Us Doesn’t Work.


Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

If only teachers would listen. Research proves that when they do X, it has no effect on learning.

We now even have a list hundreds of items long that tells us what works and what doesn’t.

So what’s the problem? 

Scientists and researchers define ‘learning’ as the ability to recall information. And empirical testing is used to judge a methodolgy’s effectiveness in students’ ability to memorize. 

But I say education is so much more than memorization. Learning happens in the heart as well as the head. Education is also about nurturing critical thinking, creativity, independence, curiosity, compassion and many more of these wonderful aptitudes.

I can see that teaching method X works to stimulate progressive learning because I am there. With my students. Watching them learn.

And unless these researchers can show me that X doesn’t work in the context of my classroom and with my definition of what learning entails, then, yes, I will be one the fools who doesn’t listen to their recommendations.


Tech Tools: Have You Tried? (2: TellaGami)


TellaGami is an app for idevices which allows you to create talking, moving, expressive avatars. Students love this as an alternative to traditional presentations and teachers love using it to create videos for flipped classrooms.

TellaGami is very easy to use. Backgrounds can be customized, as can the characters you create. Try using different moods.


The free version only allows 30 seconds worth of recording at a time – which is okay if you record a whole series of videos and then splice them together using an app like iMovie.

Head over to:  

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Tech Tools: Have You Tried? (1: ThingLink)

This, the first in the series of recommended tools for teaching and learning, showcases ThingLink. ThingLink allows users to insert hotspots over an image containing text, videos, audio, hyperlinks, maps and much more.


Imagine students using this when analyzing poetry, developing map skills, understanding physical forces, studying plant life, breaking down the parts of an equation, cartoon and/ or visual image analysis, and so on. It also makes for a great way for students to demonstrate their learning in collaborative or child-driven learning experiences.

The icons on these images are hotspots which you or your students can create and then tap to explore.


Thinglink is cross-platform (meaning you can create and view on any device) – and it’s free. (You will need to pay to access the virtual reality ThingLink maker though.)

Head over to:

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Espresso Ideas: How Good Teaching is Like Good Eating

Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

(With apologies to my vegan and vegetarian friends.)

Good food always has a crispy element. And you can always taste when something stale has been refried in an attempt to make it crispy. It’s just not the same. Good teaching crackles with crunchy newness and fresh-cut goodness: A sliver of contemporary affairs, a rasher of the latest in neuroscience research, and a crouton or three of a new approach makes all the difference.

Spice makes all things nice. Sometimes it’s used delicately to achieve a masterful balance, and sometimes it’s thrown about liberally. Teaching spices include: brain breaks, games, and, best of all, a sense of humor.

Eating is better together. Learning is a better when done collaboratively.

There’s probably no eating experience worse than when everything on the plate is the same color, the same texture, and practically the same taste. Gloop does not make for good eating. Like good cuisine, good learning is multi-layered, multi-textural and complex. It engages the senses and excites the mind.

Sometimes you just want to bite into a good steak. And you want to chew on it’s juicy tenderness. Giving kids a good juicy problem to sink their teeth into and to chew over is far yummier than pre-chewing it for them.

Trying new taste combinations and experimenting with new flavors, cooking styles, and dishes often gives us a new perspective on what food is supposed to be. Same with teaching. A new approach might not be to your taste, but it’s always worth trying twice: the second time to make sure it isn’t for you.

Too much of the wrong kind of food can cause irreparable damage. And sometimes, just a little bit of a toxic ingredient can be incredibly dangerous. So much of what we do in our classrooms is about trying not to do any harm.

The best eateries cater to a diverse range of palettes, instead of forcing you to enjoy what they recommend. (And some of he least enjoyable ones tell you what you should be enjoying.) The best classrooms cater to a diverse range of abilities, interests and backgrounds.

(A note: No, I am not the Heston Blumenthal of the classroom. My lessons are often canned and stale. But I do try to make my teaching palatable. Like almost everything else I publish, this is a reminder to myself as much as it is advice for anyone else.)


Espresso Ideas: What About The Mind? (Rethinking Makerspaces and Learning Spaces at Schools)

Espresso Ideas: Small but strong ideas to make you sit up and say ‘yeah!’ (Also known as wasabi ideas)

Schools are embracing the idea of makerspaces along with their more general openness towards reimagining how classrooms look and feel. 

We want learning environments that are more obviously student-centered and which encourage tinkering, experimentation and hands-on learning.

But the real learning space is the one inside our minds. We need as strong a focus on children’s thinking environments as we have on their physical ones.

As much as we need kids to tinker, play, create and experiment in the real world, we also need them to learn to tinker, play, create and experiment with ideas inside their own heads. Renovating young people’s mental spaces by bringing in rational thought, imagination, and deep consideration has to be at least as important as a less structured classroom layout.

As nice as it would be to have nifty tables and couches and tools and gadgets in our classrooms, nicer would be if we had an environment more conducive to nurturing and growing young minds.

New collaborative and creative pedagogies are a great way to knock out a few walls and open up our students’ mental learning spaces. And to support this, well-chosen educational technologies and software which support these pedagogies can make a damp, cold and dark thinking environment a fresh, warm and open one.

Image source: 


Reimagining Disruption in Education

By now you’ve most likely heard the talk. I’ve heard it so often now I think someone is selling it at a discounted rate. It’s the same speech over and over again: The speaker will caution you against complacency because the world as we know it is changing quickly and in unprecedented ways. Thus, they’ll continue, we need to embrace innovation or be left behind. And they’ll always use the same positive examples: Netflix, Über, Airbnb, Virgin, and Google/ Apple. (With Kodak as the negative example.)

In education, we are told, we need to embrace new disruptive educational technologies in particular, or risk being left behind.

So what’s wrong with disruption as a term in education? 

On the surface of it, not much. In the last half decade, disruptive innovations have certainly improved my life and the lives of many around the planet – in some very profound ways. And disruptive technology in education – things like tablets, ChromeBooks, MOOCs and the like certainly seem to be helping to produce a richer educational experience.

But dig a little, and you’ll find that not all is as it seems.

Disruption is Slow and Persistent

Firstly, true disruptive innovation often starts out being worse than existing systems. True innovators fail, and then improve, they slowly make their alternative better and better until it appears that suddenly they have emerged with a whole new way of doing things. Disruption is thus not a single moment of epiphany, it is a long, hard slog. Real innovation is a slow, patient, deliberate, stubborn, sweat-stained evolution, not an explosive revolution.

And in schools, this is exactly what we need to be encouraging in our teachers and students. True innovation takes time. It takes work. It takes persistence and resilience. It takes collaboration and it takes vision. ‘Disrupting education’ simply by lifting the lid and throwing in new innovations doesn’t work. In order to truly change schools and education for the better, we need to learn from the true nature of disruptive innovation: we need slow, deliberate, sustained revolutions. We need to embrace our failures, and constantly set about improving what we do.

Disruption is Careful

As is the fate of most new and wonderful ideas, ‘disruption’ has now become a wash-out with overuse (and misuse). Mostly, this is the case because ‘disruptive’ companies want to capitalize on the success of the giants of disruption. Hence, now that anyone can ‘disrupt’, innovation is associated with short-term, superficial, faddish products. They do not make a significant change in the way we live and are forgotten within a few months.

In education, we constantly have to defend against these empty disruptions. There are a horde of providers who want to sell us things to ‘disrupt’ our classrooms: From innovative furniture to collaborative learning, from fancy interactive boards to a plethora of ‘educational’ apps. Very few of these disruptive ideas and products are focused on where innovation truly makes a long-term difference. Disruptive education is a slow change towards a more meaningful, flexible system of learning, one in which students are given agency and choice and respect. Only outside innovations which support this vision have any kind of real and sustainable effect. The rest will be forgotten very quickly.

Disruption is Small

Disruption starts in someone’s garage. The juggernauts of disruption we know today all began with one or two nutcases imagining something better. Disruptive innovations start small. They take mad courage and the passion to make the impossible possible. And they are rooted in the conviction that the world can be made into a better place.

Disruption in education is about individuals. It is about the crazy teachers who know there must be a better way. It is about those students who love to tinker and challenge and rebel and try and learn beyond the confines of the syllabus. It’s about those subversive parents and administrators who support these children and teachers. And soon enough, if these people are persistent and patient enough, the movement grows. But it can just as easily wither and die, if the focus is on the wrong things (like tests and grades and ‘disruption’)… And if we bang on the garage door and tell them to shut up.

Disruption is Meaningful

What’s interesting about disruption and disruptive innovations is that they are so seldom applied to what matters: poverty alleviation, gender inequality, environmental despoilation, intolerance, and our general deficit of compassion. We can get a ride somewhere by tapping a screen, we can binge-watch tv on our computers and we can access our files from anywhere with an internet connection. But are we really making the world a better place?

In education, there are disruptive innovations which allow students to search the Internet, we can ‘personalize’ learning with sophisticated software, we can analyze data, we can assess digitally, and we have wonderful apps to tap out amazingly artistic creations. 

But are we teaching our kids to evaluate information, spin, and fluffy reasoning with which they are constantly bombarded? Are we nurturing curiosity and creativity? Are we allowing kids to tinker (with their hands and their minds)? Are we talking through controversial ideas and pushing kids to make unusual connections? Are we encouraging them to find and embrace their own interests? Are we encouraging them to subvert outdated ideas? Are we teaching compassion and understanding? 
These are the real disrupters of traditional learning. And these are the things that will truly lead to a more rational, empowered, compassionate and world-changing generation of young people.

Conclusion: Disrupting Disruption

Schools are not businesses. Classrooms are not startups. Learning is not a commodity. Education is about young people and about doing what is best for them. Education does not need to ‘learn’ from the latest bit of marketing babble. We do not need to ‘disrupt’ education by taking on board all of the latest, shiniest toys. We do need to look closely at the true nature of paradigm-shifting revolutions to effect meaningful change. And if businesses want to be truly disruptive, they would be well-advised to look towards what many progressive schools are doing these days around the world: education is changing in some truly amazing ways: We are shifting our focus away from the product, towards the ‘customer’ experience, we are listening more than we are telling, and we are focused on long term impact rather than short term results.

I’ll let Tom Robbins have the final word:

“In times of widespread chaos and confusion, it has been the duty of more advanced human beings – artists, scientists, clowns and philosophers – to create order. In times such as ours, however, when there is too much order, too much management, too much programming and control, it becomes the duty of superior men and women to fling their favorite monkey wrenches into the machinery. To relieve the repression of the human spirit, they must sow doubt and disruption.”

― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Posted in EDUCATION | 2 Comments

Henry and Nick Go To Cape Town: A Story About Learning

Henry and Nick are going to Cape Town. Henry is Nick’s dad. Henry tells Nick about the trip two weeks before, and then hands Nick his iPad and asks him to research places he would like to go. Nick is eight years old.

Nick discovers Robben Island and tells Henry he would like to go there. And then Nick finds out all about the history of Robben Island. Inside a week, he’s an expert on the prison and the famous prisoners on Robben Island.

Henry decides to fuel Nick’s interest in History, and takes him to the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg. This is the museum that is next to an amusement park. Nick glances over at the rollercoasters and rides on their way into the museum, but he doesn’t break his stride as they walk towards the ticket office.

Many hours later, Nick now knows the names and faces of most of the politicians, activists and key figures of the Apartheid era.

When they come back from Cape Town, they’re planning on visiting Vilakazi Street in Soweto next. Nick is already finding out more about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Nick is eight years old.


Mrs Browne

Let’s call her Mrs Browne. You probably know her. There’s one in practically every school.

Mrs Browne’s been teaching for thirty years. She knows what she’s doing.

Mrs Browne’s classes get fantastic results in tests and exams. Her students run to get to her classes. None of them ever dare to bunk her lessons.

Her classroom is her castle. Her desk and her prep tables and her kettle and her clutter take up a third of the classroom space. And of course the students’ desks are placed in tight, straight rows.

Mrs Browne arranges her students according to their results in the last test they wrote. (Her students write a test a week.) The ‘dummies’ (mostly boys) sit in the front so that they can focus better. The smarties sit at the back.

Mrs Browne loves the smarties. She’s not so keen on the dummies. Some kids are just not cut out for her subject, she tells anyone who will listen. Someone once told her that this was tantamount to child abuse. She laughed.

Fear is a great motivator, according to Mrs Browne. If kids are scared of her, she gets more out of them. They’re afraid of being late, of not doing their homework and of asking questions in class. (Why would they need to ask questions? – She’s taught the work hasn’t she?)

Every day, her students have plenty of homework to do. Mrs Browne’s believes in ‘rigor’. Uniforms have to be neat and tidy because that shows respect.

Students are required to leave bags outside so that they don’t get in her way as she patrols. And the air is always a little too cold in her class.

Mrs Browne calls her students names and demeans them because she thinks it’s funny.

At professional development sessions, Mrs Browne is a tyrant. She sees no reason why kids need to be taught to think, much less how to think about their thinking.

And don’t even get her started about this newfangled technology stuff. Brain-based learning and collaborative structures? Not for Mrs Browne thank you. It isn’t relevant to her subject.

Decades’ worth of young minds have endured Mrs Browne’s class. But most of them have made it through school anyway, and have made a go of life – despite the psychological scars she left in them.

Fortunately, she will be retiring soon, and education can move forward.


(With apologies for the thinly disguised rant. Hopefully, you, dear reader, will read this as it was intended: a metaphor for outdated modes of teaching – rather than an attack on any real person.)