Category Archives: On Education…

Inquiry vs. Explicit: Is there even a difference?

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I teach physics via explicit instruction, right?

My physics classes generally follow an ‘I do’, ‘You do’ format. We do weekly tests and, insofar as I can manage it, everything that I ask students to do is highly structured and knowledge focussed. I think it’s fair to label this ‘explicit instruction’ and, as such, I’ve often felt a sense of validation when reading articles like this one by Paul Kirschner which claims that PISA data demonstrate that inquiry-based instruction is no match for explicit. Kirschner also suggests that, despite clear evidence, PISA doesn’t want to accept its own conclusions:

“Although this distinction is very clearly shown in the figure, the PISA report is very hesitant with regards to interpreting these results. It seems as if the authors can’t bear the thought to dismiss the enquiry-learning ideology. Pathetic and unfair!”

But recently I did some reading that rocked my explicit instruction boat. The reading was in preparation for an Education Research Reading Room podcast episode with Sharon Chen in Taiwan. Entitled Inquiry Teaching and Learning: Forms, Approaches, and Embedded Views Within and Across Cultures, the paper compared inquiry-based instruction in German, Australian, and Taiwanese primary science classrooms.

All was going just fine until I came across the following sentence:

‘We could argue inquiry learning occurred not only in students’ peer dialogues and in teacher elicited dialogues with constructive activities, but in teacher guided instructional dialogues as well…’ (p. 118)

What the heck? ‘Teacher lead inquiry-based instruction’… I thought that was an oxymoron. Does that mean that I teach by inquiry?

I decided to ask my students. First, I gave them two definitions:

Explicit Instruction

    • The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them clear to the students, demonstrates them by modeling, evaluates if students understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-tells them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure (adapted from Hattie, 2009, p. 206)

Inquiry based Instruction

    • The teacher provides opportunities for students to hypothesize, to explain, to interpret, and to clarify ideas; draws upon students’ interests and engages them in activities that support the building of their knowledge; and uses structured questions and representations (diagrams, animations, live demonstrations, experiments) to assist students to learn. (adapted from Chen & Tytler, 2017, p. 118).

Then I gave each student one of these (each student given one spectrum, axes reversed every other spectrum to cancel out any erroneous associations of ‘right is better’ or the opposite).

Ollie Oliver Lovell Explicit Inquiry Enquiry Teaching Scale

The verdict?  This is a 10 point scale and (after accounting for the flipped axes) the average rating of my physics teaching was only 0.56 points to the explicit side of centre! I’m a fence sitter (or my students are?). Fitting, seeing as the spectrum looks like a fence.  I digress.

Both my teaching and the definitions were obviously not as clear cut as I had thought. It was time to go definition hunting.

First Stop, PISA

All the while I had Kirschner’s article firmly in my mind, so PISA seemed like the logical place to go to explore definitions. Below is the image (red boxes in Kirschner’s article) that he featured as evidence for the conclusion that inquiry-based instruction is baloney (image from 2015 PISA results,  pg. 228).

Ollie Oliver Lovell Explicit Inquiry Enquiry Instruction PISA image

So I clearly needed to find out exactly what these ‘teacher-directed science instruction’ and ‘inquiry-based science instruction’ were. The following comes from page 63:

PISA asked students how frequently (“never or almost never”, “some lessons”, “many lessons” or “every lesson or almost every lesson”) the following events happen in their science lessons:

Then, for Teacher-directed (often thought of as synonymous with explicit instruction, i.e., ‘sage on stage’ rather than ‘guide on side’. (pg. 63)

“The teacher explains scientific ideas”; “A whole class discussion takes place with the teacher”; “The teacher discusses our questions”; and “The teacher demonstrates an idea”.

For inquiry-based instruction…(pg. 69)

“Students are given opportunities to explain their ideas”; “Students spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments”; “Students are required to argue about science questions”; “Students are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they have conducted”; “The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena”; “Students are allowed to design their own experiments”; “There is a class debate about investigations”; “The teacher clearly explains the relevance of science concepts to our lives”; and “Students are asked to do an investigation to test ideas”.

Looking at these broadly, the main difference between them is the kind of distinction that the layperson would hold, and the distinction that I held prior to Chen and Tytler’s paper: inquiry-based is more student-directed, which is in contrast to explicit being more teacher-directed.  Additionally, inquiry-based instruction is more frequently related to ‘our lives’.

This definition wasn’t as complex as I’d hoped. Time to dig a deeper.

Stop 2, Furtak’s Meta-analysis

In Chen and Tytler’s paper they referenced Erin Furtak’s 2012 Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of inquiry-based science teaching: A meta-analysis. I jumped into this paper and found a much more nuanced approach. Furtak presented two dimensions of inquiry-learning, cognitive and guidance, with each split into different domains. I’ve summarised the framework in the following image:

Ollie Oliver Lovell Explicit Enquiry Inquiry Erin Furtak

Here’s a basic summary of each dimension and domain

  • Guidance Dimension
    • This is what we’re all familiar with and Furtak explains it with the diagram below, with ‘Teacher-guided inquiry’ added in the middle.

Ollie Oliver Lovell Explicit Enquiry Inquiry Erin Furtak guidance spectrum

  • Cognitive Dimension, made up of
    • Conceptual domain
      • Furnishing students with an understanding of all of the science ‘concepts’ of science. This can be thought of broadly as knowledge and relationships between various bits of information.
    • Epistemic domain
      • Exploring with students,  ‘How do scientists know when something is a fact or not’
    • Procedural domain
      • Exploring with students, ‘What kind of things do scientists do to help them find out things about the world?’
    • Social domain
      • Exploring with students, ‘How do scientists communicate with each other, and with the wider world, in order to advance and communicate science?’

Fundamentally, Futak and colleagues argue that most of the time, when discussing ‘inquiry’, we’re talking about what instruction looks like in the classroom, i.e., the guidance dimension. What she suggests matters more is what’s actually going on in students’ heads (the cognitive dimension). This is a classic surface vs. deeper structure error where we’re making assessments of what’s going on based on what we see on the surface instead of what’s going on underneath (for more on this, see Chi, Feltovitch, and Glaser on how expert and novice physicists classify questions differently based upon either surface or structure features).

We’re so good at making this mistake, in fact, that of the 37 papers that Furtak and colleagues examined, they found that:

many of the experimental studies performed in  [the decade during which inquiry was the main focus of science education reform, 1996-2006,] did not actually study inquiry-based teaching and learning per se, but rather contrasted different forms of instructional scaffolds that did not substantively change the ways in which students engaged in the domains of inquiry (pg. 323)

Said another way, from a cognitive perspective, in 13 out of the 37 papers (that’s 35%), there was no difference between the way that the control group (unchanged instruction) and the ‘inquiry’ group treated the content!!!

Does that mean that when people argue about ‘inquiry’ vs. ‘explicit’ instruction, 35% of the time they’re not actually arguing about any difference at all?


After sifting through the (limited number of remaining) studies, Furtak and colleagues made the following suggestion:

“the evidence from these studies suggests that teacher-led inquiry lessons have a larger effect on student learning than those that are student led.”

So, turns out the oxymoron of ‘teacher-lead inquiry’ actually turns out to be a pretty effective method of instruction. Go figure.

What I took from this paper was that the ‘inquiry’ in ‘inquiry-based instruction’ isn’t actually about who’s leading the class, the students or the teachers, it’s about what’s going on in students’ heads. As Willingham aptly puts it, ‘Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about. This sentence may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers’  (2009, p. 61).

More evidence?

This finding, that ‘teacher-led inquiry’ is the most effective method, is somewhat  corroborated by recent research by McKinsey&Company that suggests that learning is maximised when instruction ‘combines teacher-directed instruction in most to all classes and inquiry-based learning in some.’ This research, interestingly, also utilised PISA data, therefore also using the PISA definitions.

McKinsey and inquiry learning, Ollie Lovell, Oliver Lovell

To me this also relates to the ‘expertise reversal effect’ from cognitive science (see Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller, 2003). That is, as learners gain expertise in a field, more guided forms of instruction (such as explicit instruction) become less effective, and are surpassed in effectiveness by less guided forms of instruction. I spoke to Professor Andrew Martin about this in a recent podcast where we explored the more and less guided spectrum of instruction in a heap of detail.

And here’s the kicker: If we look back up to the Kirschner-referenced PISA image (the one with the red boxes), we see that the thing sitting directly above the ‘Teacher-directed’ criteria is one entitled ‘Adaptive instruction’, which PISA defined as follows (p. 66)

“The teacher adapts the lesson to my class’s needs and knowledge”; “The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task”; and “The teacher changes the structure of the lesson on a topic that most students find difficult to understand”.

This sounds a lot like ascertaining a students’ level of expertise in a given domain then providing support accordingly, i.e., more or less guided (why haven’t we been talking about this definition more?!?)

Reflecting back on my own classroom

As I thought about my physics classes’ rating of my teaching, I re-visited my lesson plans to try to see if any of what I do would fit into the category of ‘teacher-led inquiry’?  Maybe this does:
teacher-led inquiry? Ollie Lovell, Oliver Lovell

An image that I leave students to think about and discuss to try to work out the answer to (but not for more than about 2-3 mins).

Maybe some of these questions do too:

      • What falls faster, a feather or a bowling ball?
      • How do rockets fly in space?
      • Based upon this analysis, how would one calculate the impulse from a force vs. time graph?(Which followed on from a discussion of: ‘Use dimensional analysis to determine how impulse is related to force!’)
      • What is energy?
      • If you want to drive your car to the shops… where does the energy come from (and through which forms does it change)?

But really… who cares?

More than anything, this (unfinished) exploration into distinction between inquiry and explicit instruction has left me questioning to what degree such ‘definitions’ are even helpful in discussions about teaching and learning. What do we even achieve by taking sides, or trying to put our praxis into a box anyway?

Instead of asking each other ‘Do you teach by inquiry?’ or ‘Are you trad or prog?’, I think that a much more helpful set of questions could be something like:

  • When you did that activity in class today, what did you hope that students would be thinking about?
  • What did you hope the students could do by the end of today’s lesson that they couldn’t do at the start?
  • Why did you choose to ask that question/call on that student at that time?
  • How did your assessment of your students’ expertise in this domain influence your choice of activities today? (except in less words)
  • What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the way that you chose to check for understanding at the end of today’s class?
  • When are you going to re-visit this content, and how are you going to re-visit it, to ensure that students retain the key points?
    • and, following any of these, ‘Why?’, ‘Why?’, then, ‘Why?’.

Epilogue: I watched some ‘teacher-led inquiry’ science lessons in Taiwan…

Whilst I was in Taiwan recently I went and watched the teacher, Pauline, who was featured in Chen and Tytler’s paper as an example of inqury-based science teaching in Taiwan (podcast here). I watched her run four ‘teacher-lead inquiry’ based lessons on solids, liquids, and gasses with year 5 and 6 students… and it was FANTASTIC! Maybe I’ll share a blog post about it some day, but for now, I thought I’d share the following brief notes.

Basic lesson format: 1. Teacher-led re-cap of content covered previously (which related directly to the experiment), 2. Teacher tells students how to do an experiment, 3. Teacher tells students exactly what she wants students to look at and think about whilst the experiment is taking place (what changes between before and after the heating of the popcorn/chocolate/egg?), 4. Students do experiment, 5. Teacher runs a class discussion about what happened, and why! 6. Students eat the food.

This was all in 40 minutes mind you, and the classroom was left spotless by the students too, even though they were making popcorn,  melting chocolate, and frying eggs atop (oldschool) bunsen burners!

Students were engaged, they were expressing their ideas, they were using subject-specific vocabulary and making connections to prior-learning. Pauline had high expectations of them and was rigorously questioning them on the concepts and terminology that she wanted them to be learning.

And whilst discussing and reflecting upon these 4 lessons with Pauline, we barely even used the word ‘inquiry’ ; )



Edit: I enjoyed Greg Ashman’s critique of this post here, to which I replied here.

‘Performance Assessments’ of teachers… what the evidence says.

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A recent article on Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s website entitled ‘Lifting the Bar on Quality Teacher Education‘ states that  ‘The Turnbull Government is lifting the bar on teaching quality with the rollout of performance assessments for new teachers graduating in 2018.’ and that ‘Minister Birmingham said all new teachers would need to pass a teacher performance assessment before they could graduate.’

This prompted me to share a correspondence on teacher observations and assessments that I had recently with Heather HIll, Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I share it here in the hope that Heather’s response can be considered by those groups and individuals who are making decisions regarding this proposed teacher performance assessment.

I asked Heather (with minor edits):

Hi Heather.

Ollie Lovell here, head of senior maths at a Melbourne School (Australia). Trying to build a healthy culture of teachers visiting each other’s classes.

Dylan William quotes you on the Craig Barton podcast (an excellent episode by the way!)  and says ‘Heather Hill’s work at Harvard suggested that a teacher would need to be observed teaching 5 different classes, with every observation made by 6 independent observers to  really be able to reliably judge a teacher.’

But searching through your work I wasn’t able to find this statistic referenced at all?

Am I just looking in the incorrect places?

In some ways I’d love for this statistic to be true. It would  help me to introduce more classroom observations in a non-threatening way. But in another way, I’m doubtful, because There are things that we can observe (feedback, spaced repetition, good modelling of problem solving and metacognition, etc) that can point to whether a teacher is or isn’t on the right track.

Further to this point, I’ve seen people quoting this paper (1) recently as suggesting that “We can’t tell good teaching when we see it” (see tweet here) but in this paper they used ‘thin slicing’, only showing assessors less than 5 minutes of footage from teachers’ classrooms. My response to this would have been ‘Teaching takes place in time, but learning takes place over time (John Mason).’ It makes sense that it’s impossible to tell the quality of a teacher from such a small clip, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that accurate assessments can’t happen in less than 30 observations. I feel that, personally, by observing a teacher in 2 to 3 lessons I can get a pretty good feel for what they’re like, as well as identify some of their key strengths and areas for improvement.

If you’ve got time, I’d love to know where this original stat came from and your take on assessing teachers through observations more generally.

Hope this finds you well Heather and I hope to hear back. 

All the best.


Ref 1: Strong, M., Gargani, J., & Hacifazlioğlu, Ö. (2011). Do we know a successful teacher when we see one? Experiments in the identification of effective teachers. Journal of Teacher Education, 62(4), 367–382.

Heather replied (shared here with Heather’s permission).


Hi Ollie.

Thanks for your question about how many observations are necessary. It really depends upon the purpose for use.

1. If the use is teacher professional development. I wouldn’t worry too much about score reliability if the observations are used for informal/growth purposes. It’s much more valuable to have teachers and observers actually processing the instruction they are seeing, and then talking about it, than to be spending their time worrying about the “right” score for a lesson.

That principle is actually the basis for our own coaching program, which we built around our observation instrument (the MQI):

The goal is to have teachers learn the MQI (though any instrument would do), then analyze their own instruction vis-a-vis the MQI, and plan for improvement by using the upper MQI score points as targets. So for instance, if a teacher concludes that she is a “low” for student engagement, she then plans with her coach how to become a “mid” on this item. The coach serves as a therapist of sorts, giving teachers tools, cheering her on, and making sure she stays on course rather than telling the teacher exactly what to do. During this process, we’re not actually too concerned that either the teacher (or even coach) scores correctly; we do want folks to be noticing what we notice, however, about instruction. A granular distinction, but one that makes coaching much easier.

2. If the use is for formal evaluation. Here, score reliability matters much more, especially if there’s going to be consequential decisions made based on teacher scores. You don’t want to be wrong about promoting a teacher or selecting a coach based on excellent classroom instruction. For my own instrument, it originally looked like we needed 4 observations each scored by 2 raters (see a paper I wrote with Matt Kraft and Charalambos Charalambous in Educational Researcher) to get reliable scores. However, my colleague Andrew Ho and colleagues came up with the 6 observations/5 observer estimates from the Measures of Effective Teaching data:

And looking at our own reliabliity data from recent uses of the MQI, I tend to believe his estimate more than our own. I’d also add that better score reliability can probably be achieved if a “community of practice” is doing the scoring — folks who have taken the instrument and adapted it slightly to their own ideas and needs. It’s a bet that I have, but not one that I’ve tested (other than informally).

The actual MQI instrument itself and its training is here:

We’re always happy to answer questions, either about the instrument, scoring, or the coaching.



I hope that Professor Hill’s thoughtful take on assessing teachers through observations can be taken into consideration as decisions are made regarding this new policy.

Edit: Since posting this I’ve had this document brought to my attention which, helpfully, provides some background to this current policy push. It also provides some guidance as to what such performance assessments could look like. 


What makes ‘typical’ and ‘great’ learning? Teachers’ perspectives

I’m currently participating in the Bastow Institute’s Create: Middle Leaders program. Our first major activity was to take photos in our classroom, then have a conversation with 4 students from the class and get them to choose 2 pictures that represent ‘typical’ learning, and two that represent ‘great’ learning.

We brought these pictures to day 1, compared and contrasted with a small group of other colleagues, then presented a poster ‘provocation’ to share with other groups. My group chose to contrast the typical/great dichotomy, and to set up a spectrum, inviting viewers to guess which end represented ‘typical’, and which represented ‘great’, here’s how it looked. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 11.46.22 am

And we posed a question?

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 6.02.32 pm

Have a look back at the first poster pic, where do you think teachers’ sticky notes would have congregated, further towards the left, or further towards the right?

Now, for the result… scroll down

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 11.50.12 am

No big surprise there. Here’s what the cluster looked like close up.


And here’s what the lone ranger in the middle had to say…IMG_20170525_112227The author of this post it made a really good point in conversation afterwards. He said that if we took the top right photo on the poster (see closeup below)

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 6.10.11 pm

And we replaced the student doing the building with a teacher. How would that change the interpretation of those teachers viewing. Would it suddenly invalidate the modelling of the person doing the modelling, or would there be no difference?

I think this suggested thought experiment was a really sensitive yet striking way to support teachers to question assumptions about what I would suggest is a somewhat false ‘learner centred’ and ‘teacher centred’ dichotomy.

And with that, here’s the answer that our group came up with…


IMG_20170525_112245In closing, I just wanted to feature the work of another group who I thought framed the ‘typical’ vs. ‘great’ learning debate really eloquently (not to mention in a very aesthetically pleasing way).

Enjoy the cherry tree!


‘The blogosphere recapitulates the teacher’s career’

Earlier on today I came across a blog post from Michael Pershan collating a whole heap of golden posts from 2016 (from other bloggers), as well as a few interesting reflections. My interest was piqued when Michael wrote:

When I started reading and writing about teaching back in 2010-2011, it seemed to me that the vast majority of math teachers were blogging about the activities they made or used. Most people were embedding slides or worksheets, or describing progressions of questions they had used.

Michael then shared what he’s most been enjoying most from the year just past…

I think of many of my favorite posts from 2016 — like Lisa and Grace’s above — and they focus on relationships and culture. But how do you talk about relationships and culture? This is hard stuff! It’s what, perhaps, teachers will be blogging about more in years to come, but it’s not easy to figure out how to talk about. The language isn’t always there for us in the way it is about designing a great task.

I was struck by these ideas off the back of a conversation I had with another early career teacher today in the maths staffroom. My mate Ben and I were talking about our responsibility to our current Y12 students, and how our No. 1 goal is to prepare them for their end of year exams; ‘we can’t let them down’. As our brief chat ended and Ben swivelled back around to his desk, I was left thinking. I was struck by the gap between my main focus at the time of lesson planning, giving my students the skills required to have success in the exam, and the more grandiose teaching values I’ve espoused over time; develop questioning and critical thinkers, independent learners, considerate democratic citizens, (etc).

Rather than becoming depressed at this apparent gap between ideals and reality I was somewhat liberated by my inchoate understanding of the difference between novices and experts, and simultaneously somewhat tickled by a phrase that came to mind somewhere out of the recesses of my long term memory. That phrase was, ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny‘*, or as I took it to mean, ‘The developmental stages of the individual’s life mirror the evolutionary stages of their phylum’.

I realised that a parallel could be drawn between the above phrase and Michael’s observations regarding the development of the maths blogosphere. Maybe the blogosphere, in a way, mirrors the development that I currently feel myself going through. The equivalent phrase could be something like, ‘The blogosphere recapitulates the teachers’ career‘.

I’m at a time in my novice development where I’m really focussing on the ‘what’ of classroom instruction. As I develop and bed down the basics of good instruction, space will open up in my working memory (I hope) whilst I’m in the classroom by enough to enable me to ask more complex questions, instruct and guide the lesson more spontaneously, and think more about classroom culture and the other ‘hard stuff’.

Perhaps the we’ve just seen the development of the first cohort of maths bloggers move from novice to expert, with the content and focus of their posts naturally progressing from the concrete to the abstract. If it is fair to say that I’m part of a second generation then I’m just glad there’s now a (sometimes slightly overwhelming) repository of content spanning the entirety of the developmental progression that I can now sink my teeth into!

*It’s a nice quote, but it isn’t necessary true!



If students can’t be little scientists, can PSTs be little teachers?

When I read the above tweet I made a connection. A lot of people have been writing recently (and not-so-recently too) about the fact that trying to teach students science by the scientific method doesn’t work because novices approach problems in different ways to experts. Novices don’t have the same background knowledge as their expert counterparts, meaning that they don’t have sufficient info in their long-term memory to evaluate complex problems and are essentially rendered ineffective in complex situations due to overloaded working memory.

But have we applied this to our teacher training too? Is it reasonable to expect a pre-service teacher to comprehend and apply the science of learning in a complex classroom that requires them to simultaneously apply content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, then pedagogical content knowledge.

I’m thinking about what load reduction instruction look like for pre-service teachers. Surely we’d need to “Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step” as Rosenshine tells us.

A good lesson is made up of a balanced confluence of clear instruction and searching questions, teacher direction and independent work time (etc,), with key transition points existing at the junction between each of these facets of the lesson. Maybe micro-teaching is the gateway for novice teachers to master these skills, with an expert teacher guiding and holding the other elements of the class as the novice focusses on one at a time.

Food for thought, and something I’ll be keeping in mind when I take on my first pre-service teacher later this year.

What would it take to fix education in Australia? Notes from a Symposium

What would it take to fix education in Australia?
This was the title question of a recent symposium that I attended at the Melbourne Graduation School of Education. Moderated by Tom Bentley with a panel comprised of Professor Geoff Masters (AO, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research),
Associate Professor Larissa McLean Davies, Dr Glenn Savage, and Dr Jessica Gerrard (all three from MGSE), the discussion was held in conjunction with the launch of a new book entitled Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead. Here’s wot-I-got from the discussion.

Glen Savage spoke first, introducing some of the themes from the book. Containing 22 chapters Glen suggested the content was diverse, but broadly in line with four themes. The first is the Evolving the purposes of schooling. This section of the book suggests the reframing and considering afresh of some of the purposes of education. The second section ‘New Pathways to Student Achievement’ focusses on the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that young people need, and the ways that these are changing. Section three ‘The role and impact of teachers’, explores advancements in teacher training and teacher education, with a focus on work that’s been done with respect to the clinical model espoused at MGSE. Section four is on the challenges of system reform. This section goes into battle with some of the long standing challenges in education.

Glenn suggested three implications from the book. He suggested that one of the main findings was that growing inequality and inequity poses great challenges to education in Australia in the decades to come. In some cases, policies designed to break down some barriers have actually exacerbating challenges. For example, achieving fair funding is undermined by decades of entrenched unfair funding policies. The second take away was in regards to the vital role that public policy plays in achieving positive change in schools, however, policy is never sufficient in achieving such positive change. Somewhat contrary to this, in the book it was often highlighted how politics often get in the way of good policy.

Glenn closed his introduction by highlighting the encouraging number of chapters on ideas and approaches that promise to bring positive change in education, from new collaboration platforms to technologies that will allow people to learn online.

Jessica spoke next. She suggested that in order to answer the question ‘What would it take to fix education in Australia?’ we need to first ask ‘What’s broken?’. She expanded suggesting that any answer to such a question depends on who you ask. She spoke of four key elements that she herself feels are key to consider. 1. Constantly decrying the failure of education can lead dangerously to fast tracked and piecemeal solutions to eduction. 2. We need to create a space to debate the purpose and role of schooling. How do and can schools and school systems reflect and shape Australian society? 3. We need to take as a starting point the rapidly changing conditions and social relations in Australia. We live in uncertain times. From our settler history and the unresolved challenges that remain, to the current challenges relating to asylum seeker policies. In understanding public schools and their roles we must also understand our diverse and changing populace. 4. The future of public schooling relies on understanding that the state is not a stand in for the public. The state and state funding does play a role in public education, but fundamentally ‘public’ education is a place where communities come together and take control of their own education. Governments can and do take a moral and political position that seeks to undermine the safety of certain groups in Australian society, so we can’t just leave it to them. In summary, we face a challenge challenge of coming to a collective focus for education whilst acknowledging and embracing the diversity of Australian society.

Geoff Masters, looked at school improvement also, but from the viewpoint of Assessment. He suggested that the current approaches, terms, concepts, and distinctions of assessment are reflective of the way that we think about schooling itself, and that this traditional way that we think about schooling is what you’d hear from anyone on the street. This idea starts with the curriculum, what teachers are expected to teach in a year of teaching. The role of teachers in the traditional model is to deliver this curriculum, and the role of students is to learn what these teachers teach. Finally, the role of assessment is to determine how well students have mastered the body of content that was ascribed to their school level. Geoff then argued that this only really makes sense if all students start at the same starting line at the start of the year. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Why are we then judging all students by the same finishing line? In such a system, the outcome is predictable, those who start further back end up further back, and those who start ahead generally tend to stay there. This means that for some students, who get Ds year on year, they could justifiably be forgiven for concluding that they’re not making any progress at all, even if this may not be the case. A challenge exists for those who start and end at the front in that they aren’t being stretched? Thus, Geoff concludes that the traditional view of schooling isn’t supporting this diverse community. So what’s the alternative? Geoff suggests that we could think of the curriculum instead as a map of long term progress against which teachers can monitor the progress of students. Assessment is then the process of establishing where students are on this progression at a particular point in time, and using that to help direct the next step for them and the support of their learning.

Finally, Larissa McLean Davies spoke. Larissa focussed on clinical teaching and took a strength based approach, ‘what is working already?’, to her chapter. Drawing quite heavily on the Master of Teaching from the MGSE as a case study, she then broadedned this to the discussion of teacher education more broadly. Larissa interestingly opened by acknowledging and naming the co-orthers of the chapter that she contributed to, and talked about how she did this as an acknowledgement of the importance of a communication and cohesion between the different levels of teacher education, from the pre-service phase right through and into schools themselves. Larissa argued for a fundamentally different conceptualisation of ‘teacher education’ beyond the walls of teacher education institutions. We won’t solve the challenges that we face without bridging the gap between policy and practice.

In question and answer time the discussion moved into Geoff Masters making the oft heard assertion that the inevitable destination for schooling is to move away from students being divided by year levels. He cited the role of technology in this and how technology would facilitate better tracking of students along his aforementioned curriculum progressions. I’m still not sold on this one, I haven’t as yet seen a successful model of this working. Would love for someone to point me to one!

Jessica made an interesting point in question time about how we operate on an assumption that equality and equity are goals for education but once we leave school and head into work and life we assume that there’s going to be inequality everywhere. Is such a schism in expectations justified and, if it is the case, what does that mean for what we expect of education? Glenn added: are we placing too much pressure on schools to fix society’s problems?

The four speakers then closed…

Glenn: There’s a misalignment between the locus of policy making and the locus of accountability in Australia. We’ve increasingly got federal bodies making decisions that have implications for education right across the country (locus of policy making), whereas the accountability to the impacts of these decisions actually falls not at the federal level but at the state levels. Fundamentally this is a broken feedback loop (my terminology) that undermines improvements and accountability right throughout the system. .

Larissa made an interesting point on the role of literacy. Following up on a question from Maxine McKew on the inclusion of Australian literature in Australian schools, she suggested that the literature studied in schools must represent the diversity of our Australian society. If we don’t do this then we’re effectively saying to vast swathes of our society ‘You do not have a place here’.

In closing, Geoff spoke about the importance of clarifying what highly effective teaching looks like, and how do we evaluate whether teachers are implementing these processes? What is it that teachers who stay in the classroom and are supposed to be getting better, supposed to be getting better at. Again here I’m not totally sold. I think we know a whole heap about what makes good teaching (see ‘The Science of Learning‘, Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction‘, and ‘Why Students Don’t Like School‘ for just three starting points). The challenge is for us teachers to become better informed about the basis of good teaching, and then to apply it.

Larissa closed by suggesting that if she could pull one lever it would be to establish sustainable funding for teacher professional development for the entirety of their career.

In her closing address, Jessica responded to a question from the audience about the way in which the structure of ‘the academy’ undermines some of the suggestions that were made throughout the evening around having a diversity of contributors to education and involving communities more broadly. She then mentioned how the definition of what ‘public’ is has changed from the times of Gough Whitlam to today, where we now believe that a system can still be public whilst at the same time accepting private funds. Jessica purposely resisted, and spoke about resisting, the pull to answer the question ‘Which one lever would you pull’, and did so in order to acknowledge that education is not a sectioned off system, but actually a complex part of a complex society, no one lever will ever do the trick.

Glenn closed with an analogy. ‘As a gardener, monocultures are a bad thing’. He asserted that we should be wary of top down solution proposals, and consider the strength and power that comes from diversity more broadly.

All questions at the end came thick and fast, and the facilitator Tom took about 10 questions in a row prior to giving each of the panel members 3 or so minutes to sum up. The question that iI asked was ‘If we ever do manage to ever agree on what the purpose of education is, what do we need to do as teachers, academics, members of the public, or educational change makers to get there?’, none of the panellists addressed this question directly, but I think it was somewhat addressed by Tom, the facilitator, in his closing. Tom spoke about the role and importance of us building community. He spoke about how, at whatever level of education we engage in, it is communities that underpin communication and collaboration. By building such communities we can amplify the good work of any single individual, as well as support each other throughout the whole process*.

Several times whilst I was listening to this very high level discussion on education a quote came to mind that I heard a couple of years ago,  ‘If you change what happens in your classroom, you are changing the education system.’ So now I guess it’s time to stop blogging and turn my head to lesson plans for tomorrow.

*For a little on an initiative that I’ve started to try to build the community around education research here in Melbourne, check out my page on the Education Research Reading Room here



Footballers doing Ballet?: The Search for Sources of Innovation in Education

What follows is the speech I gave at the recent Australian College of Educators (ACE) national media awards. For the awards I was invited to present anessay that I recently submitted for ACE’s ‘Writing the Future’ competition, and for which I was awarded runner up. A big thanks to Seb Henry-Jones who provided the impetus for this essay format through introducing me to ‘Art Project 2023’, Thomas Firth for his incredibly helpful feedback on my first draft of the essay, and Bianca Li-Rosi for her final edits prior to this blog post. I hope you enjoy it : ) 


I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land on which we stand, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I’d like to pay my respects to elders past and present as well as any First Nations’ peoples here today. More personally, I acknowledge that I have been, and continue to be, the beneficiary of various privileges in my life. These privileges have enabled me to gain a high quality education, and learn to read, write and communicate with sufficient proficiency to enter such competitions as the ACE Writing the Future Award. These privileges are built, in no small part, upon the land dispossession of the Australian Aboriginals. Land that was later farmed by my British ancestors, and mined for Tin by the Chinese side of my family. I think it is important to recognise this as the context in which I am, today, able to share with you the following essay.

The brief for this essay was very… brief. Australian Pre-service teachers were invited to submit a paper under 1000 words, including references, that engaged with this year’s ACE National Conference theme: “Educators on the edge: Big ideas for change and innovation”. After much umming, arring, and mulling ideas about, I sat down on the Sydney to Canberra train in early July and managed to distill the ideas that came to be the following essay. I’ll now read the essay in its original form and follow it with a few brief comments on how my thinking has evolved since that train ride five or so months ago.

Footballers doing Ballet?: The Search for Sources of Innovation in Education

Where do ideas come from? In his 2003 book, James Young wrote: ‘an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements’ (Young, 2003, pg. 15). As we look to the future of education asking questions like such as ‘What could schools look like in the future?’ and ‘How could what it means to be a ‘student’ change throughout the 21st Century?’, it is my belief that the greatest sources of big ideas for change and innovation will come from honouring these words of James Young and looking outside what we have traditionally thought of as the discipline of education. It is by recognising the parallels that exist between educational contexts and other areas of endeavour that we can creatively combine ideas and solutions from further afield to help advance teaching and learning. This essay explores this assertion by considering two fields outside the traditional educational paradigm, public art and healthcare, to investigate how the roles and responsibilities of educational institutions and participants could change this century.

What could schools look like in the future, and what do museums have to do with it?

The internet-smartphone dyad has made the world’s masterpieces omnipresent to such an extent that museums are being forced to re-consider their historical monopoly on meaning-making in the public arena of art. If the public can see it on a screen in the comfort of their own home, is there even a need for museums anymore?

Does this query sound familiar to educators? In the same way that art is now accessible worldwide, so is the information necessary for individuals to learn the content taught in all schools.

A recent piece entitled ‘Art Project 2023’ goes some way to addressing this question for museums. It depicts a hypothetical future in which a Museum is transmogrified from a physical to a digital repository of art, facilitating a revolution in the museumgoers’ experience. Attendees move from being art spectators, to art users, and are enabled to browse collections from around the world and curate their own exhibitions in a supportive and interactive environment.

In Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, authors Patrick Griffin, Esther Care and Barry McGaw (2012) write of how, as we move from deficit to developmental approaches to teaching, ‘the teacher has to reorganise the classroom and manipulate the learning environment to meet the needs of individual students’ (Griffin et al. 2012, p.9). Parallels in challenges breed parallels in solutions. Art Project 2023’s imaginings could inspire future classrooms where students curate their own curriculum in flexible learning environments, more adaptable to teacher and learners’ changing needs. Just as museumgoers change from art spectators to users, so could the tools and techniques of museums map to teaching to help students take charge of learning.

How could what it means to be a ‘student’ change throughout the 21st Century? Let’s look at healthcare

Fitbits, Misfits and Jawbones. The emerging jargon of a new and flourishing sector of the healthcare industry: fitness tracking. But why is this industry rising so quickly? Because fitness trackers are helping to address the oft lacking prerequisite to exercise, motivation. By supporting individuals to set goals, and providing instant feedback and actionable metrics, these devices are gamifying fitness to the point that TV sofas worldwide are now experiencing welcome respite from seemingly perpetual occupation.

What these fitness-tracking devices are essentially doing is ‘making fitness visible’. They are helping exercisers to plan, monitor, and adjust their own fitness trajectories in a way that empowers them to take charge and stay motivated. The link to making learning visible is clear. As educators it should be our goal to make teaching and learning visible to our students ‘such that they learn to become their own teachers, which is the core attribute of lifelong learning or self-regulation, and of the love of learning’ (Hattie, 2012, loc 168).

What if we could take the motivational benefits of fitness trackers and apply them to learning? Rather than a Fitbit, what would a ‘Learnbit’ or a ‘Knowledgebit’ look like? Helping students to become evaluators of their own learning is obviously an area where educators are already focussing energy, but what could be gained by taking a more detailed look at the way the fitness-based metrics are made actionable to users? How are reminders sent? How are accomplished goals celebrated and rewarded? How are communities of exercisers (or learners) scaffolded to support each other to maintain motivation and focus? Drawing from this emerging healthcare sector could facilitate more creative ways of encouraging students to become their own teachers.

In opening

The goal of this piece is not to explicate how education should turn to museums or the commercial health industry for advice, but rather to provide examples of how casting our eyes further afield can clear the way for more and bolder ideas for innovation in education.

The questions we ask are the frames into which our answers fall (Seelig, 2013), and perhaps asking questions like ‘how do our best teachers teach?’ or ‘how do our highest achieving students learn?’ leaves latent innovation potential untapped.

If macho footballers are willing to do ballet in the search for greater footwork, balance, and agility (Cooke, 2008), what fields are we as teachers and educators willing to explore in the quest for innovation as we teach into the 21st century?


As I mentioned in my preamble I wrote this essay about five months ago and, as one would hope, I have read and encountered some ideas since then that I thought worth sharing as a follow up to the essay.

I felt quite validated recently when, during his Dean’s lecture, Anthony Bryk talked about asking the question ‘what might we learn from how others have improved?’ and more specifically said, ‘What can we learn from healthcare?’. But what most sparked my interest was Steve Dinham’s closing comment about the importance being judicious about which innovations, from which sectors, we choose to bring into the realm of education. He mentioned in passing his paper entitled “The Worst of Both Worlds: How the US and UK are Influencing Education in Australia” (Dinham, 2015). I was interested to read in Steve’s paper about how, to his mind, various so called ‘innovations’ in the commercial sector, such as vertical integration, deregulation, and reforms related to autonomy are having, in many cases, negative effects when applied to schools and the education sector more generally.

This is obviously an area where there is much debate and it’s an area that I look forward to continuing to explore more in the future. But I think that Norman McCulla really hit the nail on the head with respect to this, when he wrote, ‘schools and school systems are not businesses but delicate social ecosystems’ (McCulla, 2014).

As I said in my essay, ‘Parallels in challenges breed parallels in solutions’. As we do look to other fields for sources of innovation and inspiration, we musn’t lose sight of the context in which we as educators operate, and how serving our students and generating value from them, does and does not differ from the ways in which the commercial sector seeks to satisfy its customers and shareholders.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this with you today. It’s a real honour to be able to speak at an event held by the Australian College of Educators and I hope to have more opportunities to learn from this great organization and its members in future.


Cooke, M. (2008). American footballers do ballet!. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jul. 2015].

Dinham, S. (2015). The Worst of Both Worlds: How the US and UK are Influencing Education in Australia , 23(49), 1–20.

Enxuto, J. & Love, E. (2014), Art Project 2023, [online] Available at: (Accessed 1 Jul. 2015]

Griffin, P. E., McGaw, B., & Care, E. (2012). Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills. [electronic resource]. Dordrecht ; New York : Springer, c2012.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

McCulla, N. (2014). The Activist Teacher. Professional Educator, 13(3), 4–6.

Seelig, T. (2013). How Reframing A Problem Unlocks Innovation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jul. 2015].

Young, J. (2003). A technique for producing ideas (p. 15). New York: McGraw-Hill