Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

Click on "contact", won't you, and wave right back at me?

Goodbye for Now, Education

Friday I spoke with the Stephen and broke the news, it's time for me to move on.

Saturday - 12 further phone calls, one by one, to dear colleagues, I wanted you to hear this first from me.

Sunday - I took the car and drove into the wilderness...

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...and ended up here, in "The Artist's House" - a little cottage beside Morton National Park. For a few days I'm in a bubble - away from dear ones, from home, from agendas and responsibilities. 

In a few days I start an entirely new chapter.

It's goodbye for now, education. 

We had 15 years, and never a dull moment.

If I vastly oversimplify, I can put the journey in chapters: 5 years as a full time teacher, 5 in leadership, 5 as a speaker/facilitator.

In the end, I genuinely think we had an impact on education in Australia and New Zealand... a little dent in the industrial schooling model. I hope this work continues.

It was all teamwork. I learned a stack from colleagues, all the way through! 

We leave bits of ourselves in each other, we inter-weave ourselves. You, my colleagues, will be fondly remembered when I'm old and reminiscing. Anne, Michael, and Michael - I mean you. Mark B, Mark L, and Lou, you too! Clariss and Suzanne, you too. And many more from the present and past.

You've made me me! 

Look at this fellow I met this morning outside the little cottage I am staying in. 

This little property is exquisite - like 'grand designs' level of exquisite... with mystery pathways, strange installations, rough walls, stone archways and more.

Everywhere I look I see inspiration and intent. 

The guestbook is something else: it's full of poetry, superlatives and exclamation marks - the place has elicited deep feelings.

I noticed one of messages said: "we found the secret room". So I went searching, and came up blank. Until... I looked at how the wooden tree ornament near the fireplace might be climbed on, on my eyes rose up to little hatch in the roof.

Climb up there and you can see the stars and swaying tree branches.

I need to take my hat off to school principals. Ours in particular - Stephen Harris. 

I started in 2002. In 2005 he said - hey, I saw this online collaboration program in Europe, why not start something like that here? That was the first of many gestures: prompts, opportunities, and latitude to experiment, that broadened my horizons and experience.

Stephen's view, that people want to grow, will grow if given the chance, infuses his leadership. It brought the best out in me, and deepened my viewing of others in the same light. It plays out in a focus on shared conversations mixed with autonomy and trust. The conversations create the glue that allows agency to thrive. 

And this how he thinks of every child, too, and built a school community through this lens: opportunities to grow. 

I'm pretty sure the same builder/artist has been active in the neighbouring property, which is full of overgrown mayan-like ruins.

I think he must have given up, or had a break, because it's all half finished and rather creepy. 

School is a design-space, and an odd one at that - the routines, conventions, constraints... and the sheer economics of the thing: 1 adult for 30 kids.

The oddest of all is how school becomes the locus for societal conversations about how we want to be. Watch as every player, parent, politician and educator project anxieties onto the screen of schooling, that collective shopping-list for every should and every ought.

Three cheers for any and every humanising gesture in the intensity of it all.

It's been a busy 15 years, no stop for breath at any point. 

In the early days, learning the basics. Then Beyond Borders online collaboration project, which grew to thousands.

There was Twitter, and virtual 3D worlds, technological sweet spots. New spaces, pedagogy, collaborative norming, vision setting and idea-sieves. I travelled the world with colleagues, now for research and inspiration, now by invitation to speak. I facilitated teams of every type in all kinds of places - in High Schools, Primary Schools, and universities...  events of entire clusters of schools, and tiny schools. Teams raring to go and teams in crisis. Each was a privilege, and a chance for me to learn.

Once last year in the busy-ness of it all, I was invited to write an academic book chapter. How to fit it in?? I got up very early on the weekend and slogged it all out in a day, finishing at midnight! There! If they hate it, it was only 1 day... but it passed peer review and now it's in print!

The learning curve was so steep I often felt out of my depth. I stood waist-high in anxiety, flying in to new places, trying to decode the context and contribute something useful.

One lesson I'll never unlearn: it was always far better to be part of a team than to play solo. 

With colleagues Mark, Lou, Anne & Michael, I lead the invention of a clever little learning design kit, shrink-wrapped, shipped around the world! To see it used by teachers to ask, "how will what we do work for the kids?", has been a mountain top moment!


As 2016 unfolded, I lost my mojo.

It resurged when I travelled... some amazing new memories in Alaska, Christchurch, Perth... and Moree, Griffith and Lithgow. Every place, passionate educators trying to cure schools of their industrial culture-toxins. 

But once home my mojo dropped again.

And stayed low.

My languages colleagues Suzanne & Clariss said "we're concerned, something's wrong with you!"

It was physical.

This is all I can say: my heart moved on months before my brain could understand it. There's no explanation, apart from a primal sense of cabin fever... a need for new horizons. 

I walked down a gully to see "Erith Coal Mine" - dating from the turn of the 19th century. The plaque outside painted quite a picture: apparently the coal from the mine was crap, only useful for very undemanding tasks. The mine eked out a living for a couple of decades before closing.

Now, I certainly don't want to end up like that!

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My final, lingering thought, as I step outside, is that a school is a community, second-family and village.

It's a place for being and becoming, inspiration and aspiration, a sense of horizons, and knowing and being known.

More than any other way, each learns from the potential acted out in the broader social fabric.

For a child, just one teacher can make the difference of a lifetime - just one phrase, just one look, just one day, recognised only in hindsight.

I'll never lose my deep respect for the hard work of teachers, breathing their very identities into a new generation. 

The good stuff, it comes from somewhere very deep within. 

Colleagues, near and far, present and past, it has been an honour!


I'm genuinely not sure yet if I will disappear from education entirely or find myself earnestly edu-tweeting within days.

My new role involves corporate consulting around spaces and culture. I'm actually very excited about it. In theory there's scope for keeping a toe in education, either officially or on the side, but I genuinely don't know how or if that will play out. Still, if you have an idea or proposal, you can get in touch. Or if you want to share the cool stuff you've been doing, well I'd definitely love to hear about it!

With that, education, it's goodbye for now!

Steve Collis, Nov 3, 2016

Beyond Coding

I love coding. I grew up coding and worked for a while as a programmer. Skills in coding and computational thinking are highly relevant for participating in our increasingly automated world. 

Beyond mere coding a revolution in computing is maturing: neural networks.

Neural networks consist of simulated neurons rather than classic algorithms, and they aren't programmed so much as trained. You create a bunch of neurons and connect them, feed the network lots of examples & examine the output, repeatedly tweaking the neuronal connections and firing patterns, thereby evolving a sort of simulated brain that performs a function. How it performs the function remains translucent. The how resides in what is termed the "hidden layer" of the network.

Neural networks are being used in the mainstream right now: 

I created a neural network with free "MemBrain" software

There's also plenty in the immediate pipeline:

If you're curious to explore neural networks, there are open access tools to have a play. 

For instance, "Membrain" allows you to create your own neural network and train it with data. 

Also, IBM's "Watson Analytics" is free to use online. You can upload datasets and see how it makes sense of them, often offering up questions or connections for further exploration.

Watson Analytics

Watson Analytics

What to do with all this? As for the teaching of coding and computational thinking - bring it on!

How can we go further? Insight into the power of repeated and branching algorithms doesn't begin to prepare us for what is essentially distributed extended cognition. Incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligence, including neural network computing, is embedded in our lives and progressing in rapid cascades. 

How might we develop critical literacy regarding high-order artificial intelligence?

For teachers (see this thought-piece by Pearson for what's in store, and note that in Australia, NAPLAN essays will be marked by AI in 2017).

For young people - a chance to grapple with the ontological, teleological, philosophical and political questions that extended cognition raises at the most practical levels: to understand that if they're on Facebook, its AI forms a functional part of their attention discrimination system; that when the Google search, they are teaching Google as much as Google is teaching them. I wonder how to do this with younger students in particular? I speculate here that a degree of personification might just hold some promise. Dennett's "intentional stance" could be made to work in simple. quasi-metaphoric framing for children of what technology is and what it does.  Quick, someone write a children's book like this! (Has someone already!?)

The Australian ICT general capability just doesn't use language to grapple with questions of third party machine agency: it's not just about "using" it's about extending into and being subsumed by. The into and by is an ecosystem of non-human agents, each with something like intent or agenda and increasingly consisting of hybrids that include "hidden layers" of neural networks whose functions were evolved rather than algorithmically programmed.

It's all getting rather complex.

A Quantified Self

On the last day of 2014 I posted this on Facebook:

What did these numbers mean? 

Whatever else happened in 2014, I did a lot of cycling.... that says something. doesn't it? I formally defined, recorded, and completed 579 tasks - what does that say? Something! I clearly got out of bed...!

More numbers - this time for 2015:  I completed 625 tasks (up 46) , 15 projects (down 14) and 51 events (up 3), and 1600km on the bicycle (down 1579), and saw 21 films (down 5).

In those 2015 numbers there was some big stuff:

  • we bought a house & moved in
  • I gave a TEDx talk
  • saw Star Wars (!)

Although I cheekily only posted numbers on Facebook, I do capture a bunch of different artifacts and then use them as anchor points to try to make sense of... to try to bring narrative to... my identify and purpose. 

I use Evernote on my phone or computer to do the capturing. It's easy to do. I create "tags" for the various artifacts I want to collect. 

Examples below are from my work life:

For instance - and much more meaningfully than mere whimsical numbers -  whenever I get unsolicited feedback I keep a record of it - I have 65 entries so far, including a book cover a friend told me reminded them of me, Post It notes from my 40th Birthday, and proper evaluations from schools I've worked with...

These little files I keep have been incredibly helpful for me because I happen to suffer nasty bouts of imposter syndrome - the awful feeling in my gut that I am a total fraud, totally out of my depth, and the world is about to notice & call me on it.

Brené Brown in "Men, Women and Worthiness" gives a good antidote. She talks about our "sacred ground", where we are neither puffed up nor do we shrink back.

My capturing, my quantifying in an externalised system, has given me anchor points to come back to when I've felt shaky. 

This year, for a bit of fun, I targeted those nitty gritty 625 tasks and used Wordle to analyse the most frequently occurring words: (bigger means more frequent).

Nothing too profound, but still therapeutic and quite beautiful, to peer at some of the fabric of the practical steps that I've taken, one by one. I find it interesting that people and interaction are prominent!

I travel quite regularly for work, and this year thought to track it all onto one map:

It does something, to see it on a map. The map represents quite a few years - but it does accumulate!

Just this year I started taking snaps of each hotel room I stayed in:

I feel I ought to finish with something profound... but all I've got is that life is a messy patchwork, but I want to savour it, and to savour it I need to watch sometimes, like an observer. Capturing & quantifying is a quaint habit of mine but it sure helps me take that step back for perspective. 

Whatever 2016 brings I'll be sure to be playing a little bit of archivist along the way.

Maker Ed, Scaled

Well hats off to Lou Deibe and the amazing coalition of brave Primary teachers, because had I been the catalyst, this would have been a containable pilot, not a holus-bolus Maker day that:

  • encompassed all Primary (400 students)
  • regrouped the kids vertically (kindy mixing with Year 6, everyone mashed up!)
  • thrown in the deepest of the deep ends.... 
  • redefined Maker away from the computational/engineering slant it normally hasx

It was really done on a wing and a prayer - a bunch of "stations" set up around the school:

  • as deconstruction station, where students could basically break stuff - appliances, gadgets, other products
  • knitting station (plus heaps)
  • cardboard creations
  • painting etc
  • classic maker... Makey Makeys, motors, Little Bits, etc
  • MORE

The structure? Scaffolding? Well that came later (the following week). This day was GET TO KNOW the possibilities. Almost no structure other than "go, play, make" which is further up that end than I normally go (Oh but for ONE DAY what joy!).

Some photos

My TEDx Talk - Discovery + Direct Instruction

In my TEDx talk below - "The Power of Opting In" I attempt to describe a design space which marries direct instruction & information feedback loops (learner <-> teacher, learner <-> learner, teacher <-> teacher), with high degrees of learner agency, a spectrum of intents (including subversion), movement, discovery, improvisation, fluidity, and more than anything else: relationship & community as the beating heart.

The two questions "what works?" (explanatory) and "how do we want to be?" (narrative) can feed into this design space in elegant synchronisation. A design space can make room for multiple narratives to come together, preserving a sacred sense of self-determination in a social fabric.

I speak not theoretically but retrospective-descriptively based on a range of program designs we've developed at my school since 2005. We've not "got it right", but we have developed promising design directions that "make space" for everyone to grow. Internalisation can't be forced, so space for "opting-in" is critical even if it is sometimes post-hoc.

In my talk I propose the term "learning landscape" for this design space and propose 3 critical layers to the design: physical space, virtual (information flow) space, and cultural (head) space. All 3 can be designed together with intent. The result can have sophisticated structure and constraints that bring both focus and freedom to a community of learners.

I have a deep respect and admiration for my colleagues who have worked hard to develop these structures over many years of trial and error and constant iterating and rebuilding.

I've put the Prezi and the exemplar video footage below since they are not clear in the TEDx video:

Post Script: an observation

This scaffolded design space is not dissimilar to computer game design space, which also maximises autonomy, making/building, embraces subversion, embeds a mixture of curated + discovery learning, is profoundly social & cooperative, and includes sophisticated information flow loops. Many educators have noticed such parallels including John Hattie (p67, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn).