Saturday, 15 October 2011

Steve Jobs: calligraphy and connecting the dots

Listening to a replay of Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford University I was struck by the importance he placed on following your passion. He never graduated from university but dropped out and then dropped in to courses that interested him. One of these was calligraphy.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
You can't connect the dots looking forward; yet this is what education bureaucrats, politicians and media commentators expect teachers to do. Any teacher knows that we can use evidence to inform out teaching practice, plan detailed lessons, teach effectively only to have the lesson derailed by a kid who is out to lunch with his or her behaviour. I'm going to use this quote - " can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

Monday, 26 September 2011

Debriefing questions for lesson professional development

Last week I worked with three teachers to explore a professional learning model using a truncated version of lesson study. The model is called a triad, even though it's a quartet if you include me as facilitator.

The teachers planned a lesson on using metaphors and took turns to teach, observe, reflect and revise as a group

Each time we revised the lesson it got tighter and each teacher had ownership of it, which was referred to as "our lesson".

Below is a list of our debriefing questions
1.    How was the lesson planned?
2.    What worked well with the planning?
3.    What changes would you make for the next planning session?
4.    Was the lesson goal clear?  Were the Learning Intentions and Success Criteria displayed? Did the sequences of learning contribute effectively to achieving the goal?
5.    Was the flow of lesson coherent?
6.    Were the materials helpful in achieving the goal of the lesson?
7.    Was the lesson chunked into digestible bits or episodes?

8.    Was the lesson appropriate for students’ level of understanding?
9.    Did the classroom discussions help promote student understanding?
10. Was the lesson differentiated? If not, how could it be differentiated?

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Literacy Coordinator's role at a P-12school

This afternoon I wrote some notes on my work as Literacy Coordinator at a regional P-12 school and thought there seems to be a lot of things the job requires me to do. In the interests of sharing the information I've listed the role below.
Literacy Coordinator  P-12
Key Role: to lead, coordinate and monitor teachers, students and programs in Literacy Education P-12 in accordance with MEC Strategic Plan. The purpose is to ensure that literacy improvement is a continual focus, so all students can achieve and all teachers can teach to high standards.
Responsible to: Principal
  • Coordinate literacy across the school as a key leadership position
  • Research best practice; use evidence based teaching to identify priorities for development
  •  Develop, review, revise and implement with school staff, a 2-4 year Literacy Plan
  • Review and manage multiple sources of data. Use data to direct teaching and learning resources.
  • Give feedback to show positive, static and negative change 
  • Promote and model best teaching  and learning literacy practice across the school 
  • Assist domain areas to develop effective strategies and resources for improving literacy
  •  Facilitate classroom observation
  • Coach teachers  to use evidence based teaching practices in literacy
  • Contribute to Regional and Network Literacy Coordinator workshops
  •  Present the Regional Modules to staff
  • Provide Professional Learning to enhance quality literacy practices across all domains
  •  Liaise with other Literacy Coordinators in the Network and across Networks
  •  Use the Network Literacy Improvement Officer (NLIO) as a resource to assist with all aspects of Literacy Improvement in the school
  • Be the point of contact for the NLIO to distribute information and resources to staff
  • Oversee classroom literacy programs
  •  Promote literacy in the school and school community
  • Work with year level teachers to plan, monitor and resource literacy programs

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Chalk is much more interactive than an interactive whiteboard

I've just read about a high tech classroom complete with interactive whiteboards which has been upstaged by good old fashioned chalk. The classroom was designed for an education conference in Bahrain and was designed to show the best in cutting edge technology. As can happen with situations like this, the technology failed.

According to TES the star of the show was Ewan McIntosh, an expert in digital media from Edinburgh, who covered a wall with chalk notes and doodles.

Ewan McIntosh said, "I think we fetishise technology at the expense of thinking about physical space. Chalk is much more interactive than an interactive whiteboard."

It's not all as it seems.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Teenage Brains Research

Amelia Hill writes in The Guardian about new research into teenage brains which has found that they're less developed than was previously thought. Teenagers may look like adults but their brain structure is similar to that of much younger children, and brains continue developing well into adulthood.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil of University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience puts it like this:"'It's not the fault of teenagers that they can't concentrate and are easily distracted. It's to do with the structure of their brains. Adolescents simply don't have the same mental capacities as an adult."

Teenagers have 'chaotic thought patterns', caused by an excess of grey matter (the cell bodies and connections that carry messages within the brain). Adults have less grey matter, and their brains work more effectively. Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who led the research, explains: "What our research has shown is that there is simply too much going on in the brains of adolescents ... The result is that their brain energy and resources are wasted and their decision-making process negatively affected."

Why teenagers can't concentrate: too much grey matter

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Pat Conroy has enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers

About eight years ago I read a book about teaching which I haven't forgotton. It's called THE WATER IS WIDE and is Pat Conroy's memoir of a year teaching poor black kids on Yamacraw Island about a world they didn't know existed.
The first thing I learned when I got there was that fourteen of the seventeen kids in grades five through eight read below the first grade level. Five of the kids did not know the alphabet; five of the kids also did not know how to add one and one, two and two, things I thought rather basic in the education of most people.

It was a year that changed Conroy's life. Read it if you can get a copy.

I remembered the book when I read this letter about book censorship which is a beautifully eloquent homage to English teachers:

A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteenstory building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye fortyeight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because bookbanners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works– but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against–you’ve riled a Hatfield.

pat conroy

Friday, 13 November 2009

Results of testing won't be used for league tables?

We seem to becoming more obsessed with tests and and easy comparisons. Julia Gillard, Australia's Education Minister, says there will be no league tables.

We've heard it all before.

Recently a meeting of principals in Canberra warned a new website that provides information on schools around the country could lead to the creation of league tables even though the website has been designed to stop that happening.

Are exams bad for children? The Telegraph, UK, quotes Greg Watson, head of OCR, one of three main exam boards, as saying that the system of league tables and Ofsted inspections piled pressure on teachers to get results at all costs.

In a speech, he suggested that “exam factories” were being created, potentially damaging children’s education.

The article is written by By Graeme Paton, Education Editor of The Telegraph. He says that the comments are a latest in a series of attacks on the way the UK Government uses exam results to hold schools - and pupils - to account.

Two of England’s main teaching unions – the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers claim the exams, which are taken in the final year of primary education, skew the curriculum and force schools to “teach to the test”.

Exams are not in themselves bad for children - what is bad is an exam the results of which "indicate the school's performance", making the school teach to the exam to improve their rating - together with financial incentives.

I remain sceptical when our politicians say the they are being transparent and that league tables won't happen.

At the Canberra principals meeting Ms Gillard insisted after the launch ''there is no part of this website that can be sorted into a league table by using sort functions on the computer. That is simply not possible''. clever - It's not us that will create the league tables.

League tables won't be created? Yeah, and pigs might fly.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Learning slowly according to Manfred Spitzer

Gary Woodwill reviewed a book about learning, thinking and acting. The title grabbed my attention "The Importance of Learning Slowly". The book is by Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting.One of the comments Woodwill makes about the book is that:
While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience ... and according to Spitzer "It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.”
(p. 53)

Woodwill continues

We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical metaphors of his day. In the 19th century, Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, coined the term “the average man” based on the pendulum (Piaget’s “equilibrium”), while Herbert Spencer wrote a psychology of adaptation using the newly created thermostat as his model (Piaget’s “adaptation and assimilation” within set limits).

In the second half of the twentieth century, two models of computing competed for dominance. One model was artificial intelligence, based on a model of inputs, storage, processing, and outputs - in other words, a factory metaphor. The other model was that of neural networks, modeled on what was then known about the functioning of brains in humans and other animals. In the 1950s, AI became the darling of computer science, leaving neural network development far behind in terms of funding and attention.

Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.

Spitzer also believes that children can and need to learn more quickly than adults. Children need a rough and ready view of the world while adults want to increase their depth of understanding. Spitzer relates this to the pace of change in today’s society. “The old master violin building makes better violins than the young student of the trade. If, however, all of a sudden the customers want music synthesizers, student will adapt to change more readily.”

The importance of feedback is apparent in both brains and neural networks. Neural networks have a technique called backpropagation of errors that simulates feedback loops in the brain that slowly change the hidden layers between input and output. This means that learning is much more to do with practice and observation than being told what to do. “Children learn from examples,” says Spitzer. The brain stores its learning in “self organizing feature maps.”

Spitzer is a psychiatrist in Germany, so it is not surprising that he has a chapter entitled “The Disordered Mind” in which he discusses autism and oppression. Most of his conclusions are on the best way to raise children, making this book less applicable to the adult learning. However, there are so many insights going through it that I highly recommend it to everyone in education and training.

I’m looking forward to reading it.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

On line courses at Yale

Occassionally I remember to check out on line courses which I think are great. Yale courses can be linked at On line courses at Yale. For example the history department
... is home to one of the most popular majors on the Yale campus and encompasses the histories of Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America. Courses range in focus from the earliest recorded historical periods up through the modern day. Students are required to study history from a variety of geographical, chronological, and methodological perspectives, utilizing source materials wherever possible. The department also houses the History of Medicine and Science major. Learn more at

Check it out from your kitchen table.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Building reading stamina

"This year reading is really boring. Everytime we finish a chapter the teacher gives us a sheet with questions that we have to answer. Last year reading was fun, we made up our own questions and talked in groups about the text."

I was reminded of this conversation I had with a group of year 7 boys when I read Carol Jago's column 'Readers Just Want to Have Fun' in Voices From the Middle. The boys talking I had worked with in grade 6 as a rural primary school. We were using Reading Circles and the students really came to enjoy reading and to see that it could be fun. Yet here they were one year later and turned off reading because it was now a comprehension worksheet exercise.

If we want students to read we first need to get them enjoying reading and wanting to read.

Recently I've been working with teachers to get them to change from silent reading to independent reading. Independent reading where students choose their 'just right' book, read with a purpose, write in their reading journal with the teacher working by conducting reading conferences.

Sometimes the teacher might run a guided reading group during this time.

But the first thing is to get kids to build up their reading stamina. This means being able to concentrate on reading for 30 plus minutes. To really get into the story, which is something struggling readers rarely experience.

In a couple of classes where teachers have insisted on students reading for 30 minutes students have begun to enjoy reading. And they do not read outside of the classroom.

So, first things first, get them reading for a sustained time.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The beauty of mathematical language

They say a whole page of ideas
Can be captured in a symbol
And a large chunk of life
Can be explained in an equation

With powerful and elegant notations
People can picture in their minds
Through a few simple strokes or curves,
Whole chapters of imagination
And days and nights, countless explorations of intrigue,

A little Pi, is not so simple,
For books have been written, and still more will write
A small lemniscus, is not so naïve
For it never ends and never starts
A tiny epsilon-delta, is not so petite
For it takes tremendous insight and intuition
To see it beyond the small printed space

In a little Greek or Latin
The language of the dead and bygones
A process, and
A concept
Are in love, deep and profound
Tall’s mathematical duality
Like the wave-particle

The beauty of mathematical language
To those who see, they saw beyond,
Far beyond
To those who do not, the little Greek or Latin are
Discretely lifeless and collectively soulless
Like a wonderful poem left idle on paper.

16 December 2004

Victor Tiong

Universiti Malaysia Sabah

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Beautiful writing according to Kate Jennings

Kate Jennings in her Australian Quarterly essay incoporates an extract of 'beautiful writing' from a piece for The New Review of Books by Mark Danner Obama and Sweet Potato Pie:

Everything else they would never see. It existed only for the several thousand cheering people in Vernon Park on that bright morning in Germantown. They would never see, for instance, Obama's riff on sweet potato pie. It came as he told a story about his campaigning "the other day in a little town in Ohio, with the governor there," about how he and the governor suddenly felt hungry and "decided we'd stop right there and get some pie." Now here began a little gem of a story, which had at its center the diner employees who wanted to take a picture with Obama, not least because, as they told him, their boss was a die-hard Republican and "they wanted to tweak him a little with that picture." All this was heading toward a carefully choreographed finale, where the owner appeared personally with the pie for candidate and governor and Obama looked at the pie and looked at the pie-carrying die-hard Republican owner and "then I said to him"—perfectly elongated pause—"How's business?"

This brought on great gales of laughter from the crowd. For the joke turned on a point already precisely made: How can even the most die-hard of die-hard Republicans, if he is thinking of his self-interest, how can he vote Republican this year? "If you beat your head against the wall," Obama demanded of that faraway Republican with his pie, to a blizzard of "oh yeahs!" and "you got that right!" from the crowd, "and it hurts and hurts, how can you keep doing it?" But it was those two words, "How's business?"—that casual greeting thrown at the Republican diner owner that showed that there simply could be no other choice this year—that showed the case proved, wrapped up, unassailable.

And yet what struck me in this little model of political art was a tiny riff the candidate effortlessly worked into it from his banter with the crowd. When Obama launched into his story with "Because I love pie," a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, " I'll make you pie, baby!" and to the general hooting laughter the candidate returned, "Oh yeah, you gonna make me pie?" Then, after a beat, amid even more raucous laughter, and several other female voices shouting out invitations, "You gonna make me sweet potato pie? " More shouts and laughter. " All you gonna make me pie?"

"Well you know I love sweet potato pie. And I think what we're going to have to do here"—and the laughter and the shouting rose and as it did his voice rose above it—"what we're going to have to do here is have a sweet potato pie contest.... That's right. And in this contest, I'm gonna be the judge." The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting. "Because you all know," their candidate told them, "that I know sweet potato pie."