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! 

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Filtering by Tag: Classroom Management

Self, Work, People, Change, Space

Last term, in the process of pulling together the 'Effectiveness' training day, I decided that thriving as a teacher boils down to these five elements, and in each of the five we face dilemmas and contradictions. In each of the five there is insight and clarity to be had: a path forward through the forest. 

Below is a brain dump on them. I hope it sparks your own thinking. You might use the 5 headings as a way of gathering your own observations, insights and curiosity.

Oh and please if you're local to Sydney, come hang out with me on June 9 and we can explore them together!


Almost every challenge is a self-challenge. Our biggest limitations are our self limitations. Our self-conceptions, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-love, and so on, set the upper limit on all other development. For instance if a colleague or student really gets under your skin, the problem isn't with them, but with you. It simply gets projected outward onto what you perceive as reality. 

I remember going pale with shock at a certain moment when I realised how much my 'self' was constructed by concepts of who I was that OTHER people had, and that I had then internalised and taken at face value. Rewrite the script!


You have reports due Thursday, parent-teacher night tonight, three students you have to catch in the playground, a cheque requisition form to drop off at the office, two unplanned lessons, a conversation you have to have to with a colleague, a phone call to see a dentist, a stack of marking, and then when you glance up you realise there are 30 new unread emails! This is no caricature or hyperbole, is it? In fact I could go much further without exaggeration. 

How can we thrive in the complexity and chaos of school? How can we be creative when we only get the top 5% of our 'to do list' done?

I have felt so much better since I cracked this one with the GTD methodology. Once again I recommend How to Get Things Done by David Allen. It is a life saver. Or... come to my next workshop!


All work is people-work, especially at school. Students are people. Colleagues are people. We convince, inspire, neglect, insult, deride, undermine, praise, negotiate with, get permission from, give permission to, equip, resource, empower, assist, mentor, damage, save and enable each other. 

Picture a school as a network, focal points around optimists, pessimists, leaders, and gate keepers. Where do you fit on this map? What are you broadcasting? What are you known for? 

A helpful tool I find is the notion of 'social currency'. What is your currency? Is it high or low? 

How can you improve your currency? How can you use it to better shape your responsibilities? How can you use it to benefit others?


Well everything is changing. Society is changing. Traditional schooling is a dead duck, plain and simple. The model we grew up with, and see in films and in soap operas, is bankrupt. Schools that don't come to terms with this will not survive another 10 years. I suspect many schools will indeed go under, while new schools will be seeded with a much different charter and radically different structures.

Much resistance to change comes from the reality that we are confident experts of the old model, whereas much of the new model is still to be worked out. If a teacher has spent 5 or 10 years of their career perfecting techniques for 'getting control' of their class, they may be reluctant to embrace a model where 'control' is not even sought. 

It's not only starting from scratch, but it's going where no man has gone before. Yikes! 

But then, who said we had a choice?


I repeat this like an automaton now. I think these words are original, so yes you can quote me:

"Technology mediates relationships. Space mediates relationships. Technology is space." 

Gettit? Two people in a meadow. Their proximity allows them to hear each other and have a conversation. The space mediates the relationship. If they stand further away they can't hear each other, so no conversation, so no relationship. 

Ah, but if they use technology... such as smoke signals, or a telephone, then although they are not in the same physical space they are in the same virtual space. Technology is space. Technology creates space.

Furniture is technology and is also therefore space.

How does your classroom mediate relationships? The shape of your room is technology. The furniture is technology. The layout, centres of gravity, signs and decorations, doors and windows, are technology.

And yes of course the computers and internet are also technology, and are also therefore space. Does your class move through virtual space as well as physical? Do you help your students nurture a virtual persona? Do they publish online? Do they tweet? Do they Skype? Does each have a profile page representing their current learning? Do they answer questions from other students in other schools, and ask their own questions in turn?

Very tricky one, space. Whatever we do we mustn't take it at face value, or ignore it. Every decision about the physical space of the learning environment, from chairs to the internet, is laden with meaning and implications.


Try Teaching Naked

I've just read an excellent article about stripping lecture halls of technology - http://chronicle.com/article/Teach-Naked-Effort-Strips/47398/ (via @mitchsquires and @educatedlife)

Technology is sometimes equated with better teaching. The assumption is that technology is the road to improved learning.


It's much more complicated than that. Technology consists of a wide and varied set of tools that alter our relationships with each other and our relationships with the world. 

In particular technology tends to mitigate or overcome the limitations and tyranny of distance. It can also enhance, or hamper communication. It can hyper-stimulate. It can obfuscate. 

Teachers using technology blindly and without reflection are at best playing a hit and miss game. 

I talk with teachers who seem to feel guilty because they feel they should 'use technology more' - such a vague and general, and DAMNING statement. Introducing technology into a class for the sake of it, out of some general sense that technology = good, may only have the effect of undermining the best thing going for the class - the energy of a real life passionate teacher. 

A useful experiment for me would be to get rid of technology all together, at least for a certain period of time. This would help me notice afresh how technology changes things.

A few other ideas in the article made particular sense to me:


1. That PowerPoint is the worst thing in the whole wide world. Don't. Use. It. PowerPoint is the violence of written word against the poetry of speech. (My words, and you can quote me!)


2. That in some sense technology threatens to do away with the teaching role altogether - or to disrupt it. I teach online French. My students barely need me. And they perform better than face to face students doing the same course. My school offers lots of online courses, and we see the same pattern across the board.

So what's the new role of the teacher when the content of the course can be taught without a human being?

Again this is complex. We generally prefer interactions in our learning. We're not robots and it's no fun learning by staring at a computer screen. There's nothing like an informed, entertaining and persuasive orator. 

On the other hand, busing in 1,000 students into a High School, sitting them down in boxes and gettingBarn_hens
 them to copy off the board can be done away with. As can sitting down students in a computer room and telling them to type an essay response. The teacher is serving no role except as dictator, director, baby-er, babying the students, spoon feeding them, rendering them passive. 

High School teacher Andrew Douch uses podcasts to deliver much of the basic content of the biology course. Students work through them when and where they want, at a pace that suits. They can repeat sections, skip other sections. His role is re-invented - and his face to face classes are for discussion, exploration, student-driven experimentation.

I've moved down a very similar path and never want to look back.

Now, stripping technology from the classroom seems to me to be an excellent experiment to see what teachers are still good for! 

Give me technology pushed to its logical conclusion, where I can learn unhampered, free from being bossed around by the teacher-king whose subject I am. 

Or give me a room with some peers and one or more enthusiastic experts in the field, and let's just see what we can do when we bring our creative energies together. I'll thank the expert on the way out for spending time in a room with me helping me to delver deeper into the field.

What purpose then, for classic 9am to 3pm schooling, in little battery boxes? I predict (hope) that the traditional school structures will break down over the coming years. It may be a slow erosion as students begin to outsource certain subjects to alternative providers, or it may come suddenly. I hope it happens.


3. That students who are used to passive learning kick and scream when prompted to take an active role.

Our online students find online study difficult. My students find themselves backed into a corner. They have no teacher bossing them around. They have to take control, take initiative. They almost always end up rising to the occasion, gaining in the process entrepreneurial skills that will benefit them for life. 

But almost universally they don't like the switch! 

Don't expect your students to thank you any time soon if you start stepping back from a directing role and require them to start driving the learning process. 

Group work


In conclusion, I see a very complex relationship between people, technology and teaching. Technology can be a tool for subduing students, pacifying them. 

It can also be a tool for liberating students from the constraints inherent in the industrial model of teaching. 

Getting rid of all technology sounds to me like a great way of finding clarity about just what teachers are still good for. 

Go the whole way and get rid of pen and paper, which is also technology!

Let me know if you have tried this. Let me know how you've observed tech tools being used to dominate or liberate. 

Punishing Students for Behaving like Adults

I often wonder about how teachers set up rules for students that adults never have to worry about. Lateness, in particular, comes to mind. Adults show up a little late to stuff all the time... but they're on time for important things, and sometimes they're early. So why do I put so much mental energy into maintaining a military regime of punctuality? Sure, punctuality has some worth, but have we perhaps lost a bit of a sense of proportion?

Anyway that's not what's on my mind right now. I ran a whole series of 30 minute training sessions for our school conference this week. The sessions went wonderfully, with my colleagues attending in droves and having a ball, and learning heaps. By all measures I couldn't be happier with what was achieved.

But I noticed a whole series of interesting behaviours in my class of colleagues. Some didn't read the instructions on the board and got stuck for this reason, some raced far ahead of me, and some remained several steps behind. When I gave instructions, in my assertive, clear teacher voice, many of my colleagues were clearly tuned out, focused as they were on what they were doing at the time. Indeed they'd talk over me, incessantly.

I smiled to myself about this even at the time. All my colleagues wanted to learn, and they were getting on with it, in their own way, through experimentation, asking the person next to them, and yelling out for me to come over and help. It was very loud and chaotic, and wonderfully fruitful. They learnt far more than if I had insisted on confining them to some rigid master-plan, relying on an  'all eyes on me, listen to me!' approach.

The punchline, obviously, is that teachers try to eradicate the very behaviours that, from what I saw this week, go hand in hand with great organic learning.

I think we do this because we assume bad faith, like we're trying to get students to do something they don't want to do. Therefore, we have to wrench control of student behaviour. In the result, we sell ourselves and our students short, and learning limps along slowly and stressfully.

But if you assume good faith, then there's no need for control, and from the chaos springs great, often unexpected, and always idiosyncratic learning.

We shouldn't
          stamp on our students

                                    when they display behaviours

                                                                        that we ourselves display

                                                                                                      when we're learning!