How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning


I have done quite a few teacher professional learning workshops on project based learning (PBL). Nearly all of them have involved telling teachers about elements of authentic PBL, how to design a ‘good’ driving question’ and the importance of formative assessment and feedback. I am currently working on another series of professional learning workshops on PBL,  but this time the team is also focusing on the “soft skills” of PBL. These soft skills include collaboration, student self-regulation, creativity, critical thinking, etc. These soft skills are included in the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum as Learning Across the Curriculum. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on collaboration.

PBL often require students to work in teams. If students are to work in teams successfully, they need to know how to collaborate. One thing I learnt very quickly in my PBL journey is that collaboration doesn’t come automatically for students. Simply putting students in groups and getting them to sit in a circle won’t teach them collaboration. If students don’t know how to collaborate, they will find the PBL experience frustrating and the teacher will find it frustrating. Like reading and writing, collaboration needs to be explicitly taught. But how?

In my PBL journey, I have found teaching students how to establish group norms, how to determine and assign roles to team members, how to backward map from timelines of due dates of tasks, and how to negotiate and compromise, to be crucial in PBL to be a successful learning experience. However, I have found the most important aspect of successful student collaboration is a safe learning environment; an environment where students trust each other, respect each other, support each other and feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks in their learning. What are the strategies to enable this? How can students be assessed and receive regular feedback on these aspects. Just like reading and writing, students need to know how they are going with their collaborative skills and what they need to do next to improve?

How do you teach collaboration in your classroom? How do you teach collaboration in PBL?


TeachMeet – professional learning by teachers for teachers


This week I ran TeachMeet Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was the third TeachMeet I ran and I have lost count of the number of TeachMeets I’ve attended. I went to my first TeachMeet more than 4 years ago. I still find TeachMeets to be one of the most valuable professional learning.

TeachMeets are structured and informal gatherings of teachers and educators with the purpose of sharing good practices and professional journeys. TeachMeets are educator-driven, not organisation-driven. Presenters are not paid; they volunteer their time and expertise to share with others. They are free. They are open to everyone. They happen outside of school hours. They have a strong online community. It is these characteristics that make TeachMeets are valuable part of a teacher’s suite of professional learning.

Because TeachMeets are free and open to everyone, presenters and participants range from pre-service teachers, teachers, educators who work with schools and university academics. Teachers come from all school sectors. It is this mix of people, who are all passionate about student learning, but work in very different contexts, that enable cross-pollination of ideas. Presentations are short and sweet, 7 minutes or 2 minutes so you get lots of ideas to work on and implement with your students. I also find the strong online community valuable. Like many other TeachMeets, TeachMeet Futures had a strong Twitter backchannel. This allowed people to learn from the TeachMeet even if they were not physically there and it allowed connections to be formed amongst presenters and participants beyond the TeachMeet. It also allows the thoughts and opinions of the TeachMeet to be revisited and reflected on after the event if the tweets are curated and saved via Storify. See the TeachMeet Futures Storify as an example.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, go to one. And if have been to a TeachMeet, go to another one or host one. The power and impact of TeachMeets stems from passionate teachers and educators sharing and learning from each other.

Embedding Formative Assessment: a book that has changed the way I teach & lead – Part 1

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms. It’s one of those education books that really speaks to me, from ‘aha’ moments to moments that I felt comforted as it is validating what I have been doing with my teaching practice for years. I wish I read this book before I became a head teacher. I wish I read this book before I started teaching. In this blog post, I will be reflecting on my own teaching practice according to what I’ve learnt from the book. For my first post on this book, I’ll be reflecting on teacher professional learning.
1. Teacher professional learning needs choice

Teachers are experts in their own learning. Teachers know what their strengths are and what they need to improve on. Most of all, teachers know their students. While schools and systems will have their own strategies, directions and goals, teachers should be able to choose their own professional learning goals within this framework to make the most impact on their students learning. In NSW public schools, teachers select their professional development goals every year within the framework of their school’s strategic planning. I’ve been doing a similar process for a few years before the official professional development goals were implemented. While I was able to support every teacher in my faculty to select their goals, I never felt I supported them enough to develop and monitor the progress of their goals. I had regular follow-up, one-on-one meetings with each teacher throughout the year, along with pre and post meetings for lesson observations once a term. For a couple of years I even had everyone in my faculty doing action learning. However, I never felt the goals, the implementation and the reflections maintained momentum. I had the ‘big picture’ but not the ongoing supportive accountability structures. The book suggests a structured teacher learning community meeting where teachers meet and learn from each other from discussing the implementation and progress of their professional learning goals. The book provides ideal timings for such meetings and ideal frequencies of these meetings. What I find extremely useful is the suggested structure of the meetings as it provides a clear pathway for the teacher learning community to listen to each other, give each other feedback and use that feedback to plan forward. I also really like how this strategy emphasises teachers to be the experts of pedagogy.

2. Teacher professional learning needs small steps.

Teaching is complex. Solutions cannot be copied and pasted from one context to another. What works for one teacher with one class may not work for the same teacher with another class. Teachers need to tailor the strategies they learn in professional learning to make it work for them and their students. This takes time. Often we expect results almost immediately, even for the teacher implementing the change. And when we don’t see immediate results, we think it’s a failure and we don’t implement that strategy ever again.
The book emphasises that new practices take time to develop because they need to become a teacher’s habit. This is the major hurdle. How can teachers be supported so that evidence based practices become habitual, day-to-day classroom practice?

In my next blog posts, I’ll be reflecting on designing learning intentions and success criteria, activities designed to identify students’ understanding and the value of self and peer feedback.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts and experiences on the impact of teacher professional learning. What makes teacher professional learning ‘successful’? What ensures teacher professional learning have impact on student learning?

Where are the teacher caves?

If you are interested in flexible learning spaces, you would’ve come across the concepts of campfire, waterhole and cave. It is a way for teachers and students to design flexible spaces to reflect the learning needs for an activity. Campfire involves learning from an expert. Typical furniture set up include tiered seating or ampitheatre style. Waterhole involves learning with and from others where each person has something to contribute while also listening to the group. Typical furniture set up for waterholes include seats in a circle or desks connected in groups. Caves are where students can work independently and quietly, away from other distractions. Typical furniture set ups include single desks with single seats, positioned in a quiet space.

One thing that freuqently pops up in discussions on learning spaces is the need to get rid of the teacher desk in classrooms. The teacher desk has become a symbol for old ways of teaching. If there’s a teacher desk, it is assumed you teach in a traditional way, most likely didactic.

While I agree that a teacher desk can take up a lot of valuable space, I think in reality teachers just need somewhere to put their things, like their laptop. A lot of teachers, including myself, end up working in a classroom outside of class times on any desk, regardless whether it is categorised as student or teacher, because it’s the only place where we can concentrate and be productive with independent work like giving feedback on student work, planning lessons and reflecting on how we can improve. Staffrooms are great as waterhole and campfire spaces, but they are rarely effective cave spaces. While many schools re-designing student spaces, many do not get an opportunity to do the same for teacher work spaces. When the walls are knocked down between classrooms to create open spaces and teacher desks are gone, are those destroyed cave spaces created elsewhere?

Companies known for their innovative spaces like Microsoft and Adobe have beautiful open, collaborative spaces. But they also have cave spaces. They have small rooms where individuals can use when they need to concentrate by themselves. Perhaps this is something schools can follow.

Makerspaces – Bringing play back into learning

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Young Creators Conference, an event that brought young people from primary and secondary schools together to share their STEM/STEAM projects. One of the projects I saw is shown in the video. Many of the projects involved makerspaces, a space (and provision of time) for students to build prototypes, which may or may not involve digital technology. When I asked the Young Creators about the learning behind their projects, these stuck out to me:

“We have one STEM lesson a week. We go into a makerspace and we can create whatever we want.”

“We ended up making this by accident after mucking around with things we discovered this can happen.”

This struck me because many of the projects mirrored the concepts of play based learning, which “involves the construction and manipulation of various materials. Ideally, adults will provide a variety of materials, while also providing “just in time” incidental teaching“. Play based learning is a learning and teaching approach that is promoted in early childhood education. It often involves personalises learning and teaching around individual learners’ interests and passions. It promotes learning from trial and error, exploration and discovery. While play based learning is mainly suitable for early childhood education, the elements of personalised learning and learning from trial and error are suitable for learners of all ages. When learners are able to learn through their passions and interests, and are provided with the time, structure, process, support and guidance to create, evaluate and re-create, they are not only learning the STEM/STEAM concepts central to their projects, but also developing trust in themselves, a growth mindset, how to learn from mistakes, problem solving and critical and creative thinking. In comparison, more traditional subjects and ways of teaching often do not allow the time, space or processes to learn from experience. Learning looks almost the same for everyone and learners are pressured to ‘get it right’ the first time.

While not every school has a makerspace, or the timetable structure (yet) to  have STEM/STEAM in makespaces, teachers can most definitely bring play into learning. Playing and ‘mucking around’ aren’t just for pre-schoolers; everyone can learn through play. There’s enough of the so-called ‘serious’ learning already in other areas of the curriculum. It’s time that we make more space and time for play.


Re-thinking student-driven scientific investigations

lab photo

Scientific investigations are key to being a scientist. A typical high school science curriculum will have the scientific method as a key component. Students learn about the steps of designing a fair scientific experiment – writing an aim, devising a hypothesis, designing a method, analysing the results, scrutinizing the results, drawing a conclusion etc. This is then matched up with writing an investigation report.

In New South Wales, Australia, high school students are required to plan, conduct and report on a scientific investigation of their choice in the Student Research Project (SRP). I have always found the SRP to be a wonderful opportunity for student choice and personalisation of their learning because students can choose what they want to investigate and different students are able to design, conduct and analyse their experiments to different levels, according to their interests, ability level, passion and commitment. However what often happens with the SRP is that students are given a list of pre-approve “experiments” to do at home by themselves. Some popular ones are which kinds of sticky tape are the stickiest, what will keep flowers fresh the longest, what conditions will cause bread to go mouldy the quickest, etc.

While there is nothing wrong with these experiments (as they are effective in enabling students to understand the scientific method and how the write an investigation report), it does not not reflect how real scientists work. Real scientists don’t do research by themselves. They usually work with in a team, often with a mentor/supervisor who guides them in their research. Their research contributes to a bigger picture of research in their field. They don’t randomly pick a topic from a booklet and do an experiment hundreds of students have done before. When I was in third year university zoology studies, my classmates and I had an Honours student as our supervisor and we did a mini-honours investigation on whether skinks can identify predators through scent. It was something that has not been done before in that area. It was a topic that would contribute to the understanding of animal behaviour. It was one of the most authentic, engaging and valuable science learning experiences for me. And most importantly I was guided by another scientist who was more experienced than me. I learnt so much from that apprentice-master style of learning.

So how can we bring that type of experience to schools? I think now it’s easier than ever. With technology, it is now possible to create and maintain community partnerships. For the SRP, perhaps students can partner with universities? Can high school students help contribute to university research? Can high school students partner up with an Honours student or scientist? Perhaps students can use their SRP in citizen science projects such as monitoring the environment?

The SRP is a great opportunity for students to experience “real science”. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to pursue their own interests. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time to re-think the SRP and think about how can we do it differently to inspire our students.

What is future focused learning?


Licensing info can be found here.

This week I started a new role with the NSW Department of Education. I am now the Secondary Advisor for Futures Learning Unit, an initiative of Innovative Education Reform. Since I started, I’ve been frequently asked ‘What is future focused learning?’ Other synonyms I’ve heard this week are ‘future-proofing education’ and ’21st century learning’. So what are these things?

Firstly, I don’t like the term “future proofing education”. Many things in this world cannot be “future proofed”. “Future proof” makes it sound like some kind of insurance. I much prefer the term “future focused” because it emphasises a process and culture. So let’s get back to it – what is future focused learning?

I think most of us have heard of how things are rapidly changing, how many of today’s jobs will be automated soon and won’t exist, how many jobs for the next generation are not existent yet, how globalisation is influencing economic growth and social structures. Here’s a video that summarises the changes our young people will face and why we need to re-think the current way we design learning.

For me, future focused learning is about looking at the way we currently implement learning and teaching and challenging ourselves at whether this is the most effective way at preparing our students for THEIR futures. Will learning each subject separately enable student to learn how to construct knowledge and create solutions for complex problems? Will a heavy focus on knowledge consumption allow students to think creatively and critically? Is a physical environment that is designed to have one teacher for every thirty students for a short period of time the best way to personalise learning?

I often hear that future focused learning is about learning spaces and technology. Yes, spaces and technology are important, but they work with an underlying key factor – learning and teaching design. You can have the most funky and colourful furniture. You can knock down walls. You can have the latest gadgets. But unless the school culture on learning and teaching is future focused, spaces and technology will make minimal impact.

I also often hear “But aren’t we doing future focused learning already? My students are engaged. I personalise learning for my students. We already have cross-curricular units.” I don’t disagree with this. A lot of things teachers and schools already so are making a massive impact on student outcomes for their community. However, we always need to be striving for ongoing improvement which means continuous change. An important part of future focused learning is for teachers to be researchers of their own practice and develop evidence-based practices that best suit their community of learners.

So that’s my very brief take on future focused learning. I’ll dig down more in later posts. I want to get it out there that it isn’t about colourful furniture. It isn’t about refurbishing a building. Future focused learning is about how teachers teach, how students learn, how learning is designed and how schooling is designed.