Tag Archives: Creativity

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] bbc.co.uk. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2008/07/17/greenwich_americanfootball_feature.shtml [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: https://vimeo.com/83976926 (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 Amazon.com.au

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

Seelig, T. (2013). How Reframing A Problem Unlocks Innovation. [online] Available at: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1672354/how-reframing-a-problem-unlocks-innovation [Accessed 1 Jul. 2015].

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



Are Facts more Important than Critical Thinking?

‘Factual Knowledge Precedes Skill’

This is the ‘guiding principal’ in chapter 2 of Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School. I’ll start by pointing out that this title for Willingham’s book is a bit misleading and the subtitle ‘A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom’ gives readers a much better idea of the book’s content.

Willingham’s book is an excellent overview of 7 crucial cognitive principals that are of great value to anyone who is interested in teaching and learning. In fact, the book in large part inspired this set of posts (of which this is the first) for me and I’ll be going over each principle in detail in the coming weeks.

Of all of the lessons in the book, this one was for me the most profound.Why? For many years I have been of a certain mind that “we are wasting our time teaching kids facts at school, what we need to be teaching them is how to learn and how to think critically!” Whilst I still firmly believe that learning how to learn and critical thinking are… critical, this chapter helped me to realise that:

“Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about.The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”-kindle location 552

…It’s all to do with working memory.  Here’s (my elaborated version of) “Just about the simplest model of the mind possible” that Daniel introduces in Chapter 1. Let’s talk through it

This is what your mind looks like

When we begin to solve a problem, 3 windows of our mind are engaged, The environment, our working memory, and our long term memory. The environment is where the question is posed, it’s also where we have access to other information like youtube clips, formula sheets, the working of the kid sitting next to us, and so on. Long term memory is where we store all of the stuff that we’ve already learned. Working memory is where the processing happens. So when we solve a problem we can draw both from our long term memory and from the environment to come up with the solution. If that’s all there is to it then theoretically we should be able to solve any problem as we have access to a seemingly limitless amount of information, but there’s a catch, your working memory only has about 7 slots. 7 precious slots with which you can work*. The reason why long term memory (knowing stuff) is so important is that by remembering stuff you can compress many individual pieces of information and concepts (represented above as pink blocks) in such a way that they only take up one slot in working memory (ie: 1 blue block=many pink blocks). This process is called Chunking and it frees up working memory space for additional info and processing facilitating higher order and more complex thinking. This has important implications for teaching/learning techniques such as the use of formula sheets and scaffolding.

* (7 plus or minus 2 slots covers the majority of the population)

For an example of this please see the bottom of this page.

This information has completely changed my view of what it means to ‘learn’ something…

“I don’t have to memorise anything because I can just put it onto my formula sheet.”

This was my mindset throughout the majority of my undergraduate degree in Physics. See the picture below for an example of one of these such sheets (which we were permitted to take into exams).

Final Cheat Sheet Photo, page 1

After reading this chapter of Willingham’s book I now better understand why I found some parts of my degree as challenging as I did. My ‘I’ll just put it onto my cheat sheet’ mentality was actually preventing me from taking my Physics to the next level. The 7 slot limit of my working memory was being overwhelmed. I hadn’t memorised important facts and info sufficiently for me to ‘chunk’ them, which was limiting my ability to combine concepts in creative ways to solve problems. This conclusion has opened my eyes to the importance of storing things in long term memory and from now on I’ll be making a more concerted effort to use programs such as Anki to do just that! (also the reason why I’m changing my Wot-I-Got blog post format and will be introducing more mnemonics to help readers/my self to better remember blog post content in future).


So, are facts more important than critical thinking? Well… it’s more that facts are a precursor to critical thinking. Knowing facts frees up the processing power of your brain to analyse new information as it comes in.

But this isn’t the only reason why learning facts is super important. Another reason is because knowledge is like money, the more you have the easier it is to get. This is the topic of the next post in this series (coming soon).

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An example of how we’re limited by our 7 slots.

Let’s consider the importance of knowing stuff with an example.

Q: If the nightly revenue of a restaurant is represented by R=-20c2 + 200c + 1920 (where c is no. of customers per night) use calculus to find the maximum nightly revenue.

Without being too exhaustive let’s list some of the things that someone would need to know to answer this question. (think of each number as a pink block)

  1. How to read
  2. What a restaurant is (etc, etc, etc with the really obvious stuff)
  3. what revenue is
  4. that c2 means that it’s a quadratic
  5. that a quadratic equation has a gradient
  6. That the turning point of a quadratic is when the gradient = 0
  7. How to take a derivative
  8. How to set a derivative, R’, equal to 0
  9. Basic algebra to isolate C once you’ve set R’ equal to 0
  10. That that’s the number of customers that would generate maximum revenue
  11. that the R equation relates the number of customers to the revenue associated with that many customers
  12. That you can sub C into the R equation to calculate to find the maximum nightly revenue possible

Now, to me that looks like more that 7 pink blocks. For pretty much all students we can conclude that they have combined pink blocks 1 and 2 (ie, all the obvious stuff) into a blue block, but after that it’s still clear that other stuff must be ‘known’ in order for them to successfully complete the problem, especially if one of their 7 working memory slot is being taken up with a “I can’t do this, I’m confused” mantra.

From the above it’s hopefully clear that for a student to successfully solve this problem they must have stored at minimum 6 of the above bits of info in their long term memory.


Book Review: Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity-Phil Beadle

This post is part of an ongoing “Wot-I-Got” series. This series acts as a way for me to share Wot-I-Got out of a book or presentation, and to whet your appetite for enquiry. It also forces me to finish books that I start, and to review and summarise my conference notes! 

Phil Beadle is an award winning and well respected english teacher from the UK. He has won national teaching and journalism awards and enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. I picked up his recent book, Dancing About Architecture, upon recommendation from a friend who had really enjoyed it. She also directed me to a recent interview with Phil on ABC radio. I’m always keen to hear about how to inspire more creativity in the classroom, so I dove in. Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 8.18.46 PM

We were off to a flying start, I couldn’t agree more when Beadle relayed the quote that ‘an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements’ and enjoyed his intriguing example (I won’t ruin the surprise) demonstrating the necessity of a stimulus to prompt creativity. As the book progressed Phil offered more and more creativity-promoting ideas that could easily be used in the classroom, the ideas are delivered with with a great whack of humour (even if the tone of writing is lacking a little in modesty) and a superb vocab to boot (great book to read if you want to learn new words!!!). Alas… I have some reservations.

Firstly, many of the ideas hark back to the basic concept that if you throw something random in (eg: have a heap of flash cards in your pocket to stimulate new teaching approaches when you’re getting a bit low on ideas) then you’ll get out an inspiring lesson. Whilst this ‘random assembly’ method does hold some promise, I feel that Phil stretches the technique a bit too far, and too many of his examples stem from this random=creative premise. I was often left wondering whether this approach would achieve the intended educational outcomes (perhaps, performance based outcomes?) but this leads to a question about finding the balance between inspiring students and furnishing them with practical skills for further learning and discovery. This is a balance that warrants further exploration, for me anyway!

Secondly, Phil states that “ A genuinely outstanding teacher will be sufficiently confident in their own abilities to not bother engaging in any real way with the centralised attempt to define what it is they should be doing”. In this quote he is referring to the standardisation and auditing of lesson content and teaching performance such as that undertaken by Ofsted in the UK. Whilst I don’t personally know what sort of a job Ofsted does at ensuring a high quality of teaching and learning, I do believe that standardisation is important. To define a level of accomplishment that is expected from each module or grade is, in my opinion, an excellent initiative. It ensures that students moving between schools (and even countries) have an easier transition, it provides guidelines to help teachers to know how much to cover, and it acts as a yardstick that allows interested parents to keep informed about their child’s education. I believe that “a genuinely outstanding teacher will be sufficiently” aware of the necessity of a cohesive education system so that children aren’t 1: repeating what they did last year and thus getting bored or 2: being asked to take far too big a leap from one grade or teacher to another. The outcomes of such standardisation will be illuminated in the years to come as the effects of the recently implemented  Common Core State Standards (U.S.) are studied.

Finally, this book is mostly relevant to English teachers. That’s OK by me, but I’ll let Phils words sum it up:

“The teacher of English respects the importance of the teacher of mathematics…but is acutely aware of the fact that of all subjects on the curriculum only his is capitalised… But he cannot bring himself to care so little about his appearance as to don the clothes the maths teacher wears without question. He also finds the mathematician a tad gauche* socially.” “The teacher of mathematics respects the importance of the teacher of English’s job, but distrusts the impurity of the language they specialise in, cannot understand their clothes and finds them garrulous** socially.”

Dorky jumpers

image source: http://s4.favim.com/orig/50/fashion-jumpers-old-school-style-sweater-Favim.com-456127.jpg

So Phil, we can agree to disagree on clothing and social etiquette, but we can agree on the importance of creativity in the classroom, and I thank you for your contributions to the topic. This book was well worth the time investment.

*Gauche: unsophisticated and socially awkward.

**Garrulous: excessively talkative, especially on trivial matters… See. Good for the vocab!

Wot-I-Got: Selected notes…location numbers refer to kindle location numbers. The following are (in most part) direct quotes. 

Doubt the conventional wisdom unless you can verify it with reason and experiment.-Steve Albini-location 124

We see more of the detail in David when we stand him next to someone else. This is one way in which juxtaposition works. It brings new light to things we might otherwise have made assumptions about. Having a further object to contrast it with allows us to see how it is different to that object.- location 200

‘an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements’,and that a person with a propensity to produce ideas will be someone who sees the relationship between things; relationships-location 229

See the obscure pamphlet Literacy through Football Skills by me (Phil)-location 396

If you want to know what can be achieved in a classroom go and see your school’s best teacher of drama. Learn from them. Copy them. Pretend to be them. For in their classes you will see teaching without fear, without stock reliance on the desk, the pencil and the shout. Should every teacher in the country be drama trained?-location 424

Thought-tracking is a drama form where these secret thoughts are voiced, generally by another performer who, it is likely, will be standing behind the performer who is mouthing the platitudes.-location 443

Uncovering truths is a (the) fundamental part of education.-location 453

There are several tips to creating the perfect tableau or frozen picture…. Phil then goes into detail-location 477

 Thoughts Aloud-at any point of their choosing, the teacher shouts the word ‘freeze’ and says ‘thoughts aloud’ to which the student voices the exact throughs of their character-location 553

Voices of Conscience- Kids work in threes. One plays the character with the crisis of conscience, the other two play either side of the argument.-location 567

 We may then call their names and ask them to offer their ‘thoughts aloud’ for the rest of the class. We might ask them to boil their thoughts into one word. From here we can perform a sound collage. A sound collage is a collection of words that build up to create an aural slab or mass (or mess or wordle).-location 579

much of the modern working world involves and requires skills in presenting to an audience, big or small, and we devote neither time, status nor any particularly skilled professional expertise to teaching kids how to do this.-location 595

We write along to classical music – you don’t? You should – it’s fun. So why not write along to eye music? What work might we get out of the Rothko PowerPoint disco?- location 621

‘Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.’-Brian Eno-location 698

 Oblique Strategy card, which says something suitably vaporous like: ‘Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities’, a set of cards that you keep somewhere then draw from randomly when you wish to construct a creative lesson-location 702

  Ask them why you chose that learning objective.-location 820

 it is certainly possible to build a process of thinking that lays fertile ground for these moments. Webb Young, who we met in the first chapter, defines the stages of producing an idea: Gather raw material. Google has made this grazing easy to do. When researching I tend to limit myself to the first two pages that Google throws up. Importantly, the first two pages of images too, as these can throw a whole new light on things, as well as giving material for the dreaded PowerPoint. Always throw in a wild card of the fifty-seventh (or so) page of results.   Then go away and digest the information. Take a walk. Come back to it when you feel ready.   Look at it from an entirely different angle. Record partial ideas. Riff. Travel up blind alleys.  Think about something else. Lie fallow. Let your unconscious do the work. Dream the solution. Cleanse your creative palate. Listen to some very loud music. Play the drums along with it. Involve yourself deeply in something that stimulates you but bears no relation to the task. Rest.   The idea appears. You dream the perfect song. Reconcile yourself to failure and stop being a perfectionist. Good enough will do. Find it spindly. Accept it as so. Carve it so that it is good enough.   Serve it up.-location 1007