Changing Employment Mindset: Employ People Who Are Better Than You

The employment of staff can make or break a school. The wrong person, whether it be a teacher or leader, can have a massive, negative impact on learning and school culture. An adjustment in mindset can help you get it right when it comes to employment.

Generally, when employing we tend to focus on filling a particular role or covering a certain function, for example a grade teacher, or someone who can organise sport or run a music program. So long as those employed perform as per their job description, you would expect a positive outcome to the process; but unfortunately, that is not always the case. In today’s competitive educational marketplace, schools and students cannot afford to have their learning culture jeopardised by poor employment choices. Not only that, they deserve more than just ‘good teachers and leaders’. They deserve teachers and leaders who are lovers of learning and brave innovators, who can create for their school that extra something – ‘a point of difference’, that might move the school to ‘next practice’ education.

Changing Focus

The old employment mindset that has failed schools many times, belongs to the ‘factory paradigm’. Its primary focus was on the role and the skillset. This focus now needs to be shifted from ‘the job‘ to ‘the person‘; from ‘what we want educators to do‘ to ‘how we want educators to be‘. That is not to say knowledge, toolsets and skillsets are unimportant, but they should not be the most critical focus of the employment process. How often have you heard in education, ‘You can help someone become an outstanding teacher, but you can’t help them become an outstanding person‘? Choosing the most outstanding person with an abundance of EQ, initiative, agency, confidence and self-efficacy is just as, if not more critical, in modern-day school communities.

When interviewing, leaders should be reflecting on each candidate: ‘What can I learn from this person?’, and ‘Would I be happy to have this person as my boss one day?’. These questions can help determine if a prospective employee has any ‘magic’ that could help a learning community go to another level. They also challenge the mindset, because to truly consider these as relevant questions along with their ramifications, requires a paradigm shift in your understanding of leading.

If a leader’s ‘modus operandi’ is ‘leading from the top’, asking yourself: ‘What can I learn from a teacher?’ and ‘Would I be happy to have this person as my boss?’, would be in direct conflict with your mindset. Over recent years in our school community, we came to realise that during the employment process, we were favouring those who were ‘better than us’ or showed the capacity to be far more effective than us, as teachers and leaders. In the end it became an obvious path to take.

Putting that into some context, most principals would agree that they work with amazing leadership teams, but how extraordinary would it be if every member of the team had multiple skillsets or qualities far superior to their own. Would you dare admit it? Imagine having an entire staff, who individually possessed superior competencies, to the extent that the leader could become the weakest link in the chain. Does that make you an ineffective leader or does it give you a ‘secret ingredient’?

A Flat Leadership Structure

I find this idea extraordinarily tantalising, as it could assist leaders with the right mindset, accelerate their move towards a flat leadership structure, which has loads of implications around collective efficacy, collaborative cultures, lead learners and innovative practice.

Unfortunately, there will be some people reading, who might be intimidated by this suggestion. The thought of being the weakest link could be enough to force some leaders with a closed or fixed mindset to tighten their grip around underlings, ensuring compliance to a ‘top down’ leadership style. This is where many leaders need to consider moving more towards Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. For as long as leaders hold on to the belief that they must control and lead from the top, they will never truly experience the ecstasy of authentically distributed leadership, requiring them to ‘lead with’ their people and even ‘lead from behind’.

The fixed mindset associated with ‘leading from the top’ is all too prevalent in a complex educational world. Many leaders have worked hard (in their eyes) to ‘make it to the top’, and once there, it is more predictable and easier to control when operating in a ‘top down’ or ‘vertical’ leadership structure. In a hierarchy, the chain of command is clear for all to see. When a leader fails in this structure it is because they lack the capacity to control – low compliance mechanisms, sloppy management, and so on. This predictability  drives the compliance mindset. Unfortunately, it can also act as a driver against ‘ground up’ innovation and creativity, and one of the reasons why we can only be a system of ‘really good schools’ in Australia, instead of a ‘world changing system’.


We tapped into this thinking when designing two prototypes, which we believe can help us move closer to ‘next practice’ employment processes, and increase our collective capacity as learners and leaders. We realise all prototypes require ongoing refinement, so please feel free to send us your thoughts.

The first prototype (we are now on our fifth iteration) is called Thriving@StMel’s. We wrote this to help our current staff (at that time) have a better understanding of what it takes to become a Self-Determined Learner and how they can contribute to our school’s self-determined learning journey. We did not want it to be a regular staff handbook that tells ‘what to do’. It helped adjust our focus from the job to the person, so it tells ‘how to be’… successful, organic and self-determined, in our school community.

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 1.40.24 pm

As Thriving@StMel’s evolved, we began to see benefit in having it as part of our employment process. It clearly portrayed to prospective employees, what mattered most and which ‘ingredients’ you need to possess, in order to be successful in our community.

Thriving@StMel’s has six components. The first section ‘What are we about?’ establishes the expectation for total clarity in order to achieve our vision to become a Self-Determined Learning Community. There is no tolerance for ambiguity, hence anyone joining our community must be fundamentally aligned to ‘what we are about’. As Simon Sinek suggests, we started with the ‘WHY‘ because ‘people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it’, and then completed his Golden Circle with ‘HOW‘ and ‘WHAT‘. For our community, we believe that all learners, regardless of age, have the capacity to change the world. This is achieved by working towards becoming a Self-Determined Learner, whilst implementing the Organic Learning Cycle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Three sections follow that explore the importance of growth and self-development. The focus is not on ‘what you need to improve’, it is on ‘how you grow’. We did this to take the focus away from ‘the job’ and put it on ‘the person’.

We begin these three sections with ‘Growth Recipe @StMel’s’, which identifies five essential ingredients – the importance of taking risks, aligning passion with purpose, ‘talking the talk AND walking the walk’, exploring ‘Next Practice’ possibilities, and nourishing deep connections through self-reflection.


Excerpt from Growth Recipe

Then we break open the idea of self-determined learning in a section called ‘Growing as a Self-Determined Learner’. Here we name what is required to become models of successful life-long, learning. We stress being a model learner, because it is critical that everyone is seen to be a learner. If we want the students to believe in the idea of life-long learning, they have to witness it across the entire school community. This includes the principal.


Excerpt from Growing as a Self-Determined Learner

Whilst this section names eight ingredients, it could easily be expanded or refined. The key ingredients named are initiative, EQ, innovation, inspiration, agency, collaboration, communication and integrity.

Next we examine how to ‘keep the main thing, the main thing’, which is based on Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 – Important/Not Urgent, from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this section, we highlight how learners maintain focus through immersing oneself, seeking regular feedback, continuous learning and being conscious of what it means to have a ‘growth mindset’.


Excerpt from Keeping the Main Thing, the Main Thing

The fifth section changes from ‘the person’ to ‘the what’, which is Organic Learning. Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping, the Competency Rubric and the value of making thinking and learning ‘Visible, Tangible and Critique-able’ wherever and whenever possible (for all members of the community), are briefly revealed and explained.

The final section of Thriving@StMel’s identifies those things we wish to avoid in our community. This section is called ‘Unconscious Incompetencies’ and is related to our Competency Rubric. The key ideas in this section refer to things like ‘blind ignorance’ and lack of awareness, having a ‘fixed mindset’, mediocrity, complacency and the negative impact of working in silos.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 1.46.57 pm

Excerpt from Unconscious Incompetencies

By providing this information up front to prospective employees, we believe they will have a greater awareness of where they ‘fit’ and where they might ‘not fit’ our educational paradigm. It may also help them to adjust their thinking in accordance with our vision for learning.

So You Want to Work at St Mel’s Campsie?

Our second prototype is in response to preparing for and participating in an actual interview process. We created a flyer called ‘So You Want to Work at St Mel’s Campsie?’. It is provided to all applicants who apply for a position and invites them to prepare for a process that we believe will allow them to put their best foot forward.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the tensions in the interview process that can get in the way of a potential employee revealing who they really are, is the interview. Sitting around a large table responding to random questions from strangers is unnatural, fake and ambiguous. At best it allows the interviewers to hear how well the interviewees can articulate ‘what they do’. The best way to find out how effective teachers are is to ask someone they work with or to see them in action yourself.

Going back to our original point of shifting the focus away from ‘the job’ to ‘the person’, our key objective during the interview process is to determine if someone is ‘the right fit’. This is a two-way street because the applicants need to decide if we are ‘the right fit’ for them, as well. For this to occur, the applicants must be fully aware of what will be required of them as learners, collaborators and risk takers, and whether or not they feel comfortable stepping up to the challenge of working in an organic learning community. By providing them with all the answers and as much information as possible, much of the ambiguity of the interview process is removed. The applicants can then focus on sharing with the interviewers, ‘who they are’, ‘how they operate’ and ‘how well they would fit in’ with our organic culture.

Since conducting interviews in this way, we have seen a change in the way applicants present themselves. Rather than regurgitating responses on how to teach, they are more confident in their skin and willing to share thoughts, fears and feelings, because we are not trying to catch them out or judge them based on right or wrong responses. There are no right or wrong responses.

Feedback from applicants has been very positive, even from those not employed. The experience for many has been a sense of awakening; becoming more aware of strengths and areas of need, and a growing confidence in who they are and what drives them as teachers and leaders. They are more able to see a ‘bigger picture’ and a ‘greater purpose’ beyond the mechanics of teaching. It is about learning and who they are as a learner and a lead learner. So at the end of the day, the process itself is helping all applicants, regardless of whether they are successful in obtaining a position or not, become better learners, teachers and leaders.


Exploring the Removal of Silos in Education

It is bewildering that education systems still exist within a structure created for a paradigm that has long outlived its ‘due by date’. Educators continue to refine the creative art of teaching, but at the end of the day are constrained by the same claustrophobic structures borne out of a manufacturing mindset.


One of the many structures that ought to be defunct by now, is the self-perpetuating silo; self-perpetuating because a silo usually exists for its own benefit or to benefit those who control it. A hierarchical structure is reinforced by its leaders employing people to fill roles below them, thus fortifying a ‘top down’ mindset. This is why in an Organic Learning Community, we always look to employ people who are more talented than us, with the capacity to become far more capable than anyone in our leadership team, and hence continue to improve on what we have created.

For a long time now, the idea of removing silos in education has become a personal provocation. I have no definitive answer, only a possible consideration (for those in a position of influence) to explore.

One of the tensions I see in silos generally, is that a department or directorate consists of experts in the same field. This is compounded in education systems as nearly everyone is a teacher. All education systems would have in operation a Curriculum Directorate or Teaching & Learning Directorate, with multiple sub-groups made up of experts, such as primary and secondary teachers and/or leaders. There would also be particular experts in specialist areas that go across K-12, such as Special Needs, Curriculum Subjects, EAL/D (English as Another Language or Dialect), Student Welfare, Innovation, eLearning, Gifted Education, and so on. For the most part, each of these sub-groups would operate within their own area, with minimal communication between groups, and nowhere near enough opportunities for collaboration. So we have the unfortunate situation where silos exist side by side, within a larger silo.

It is quite clear that our current structure of education is based on a factory or industrial paradigm, but as a collective, education is about growing learners, not manufacturing them. If we were to move away from our current structure, there are a growing number of alternatives we could consider. Many education systems are becoming more aligned to a corporate mindset, which brings its own set of hierarchical complexities. Personally, I have had enough of ‘top down’, vertical structures. I see education as more of a natural, ongoing creative process, so maybe there is benefit exploring industries with a totally different mindset.

A critical friend of Organic Learning, Tom Barrett, introduced us to the Valve Corporation a few years ago whilst we were exploring ‘flat leadership’ structures. Valve is a video game developer and digital distribution company in the United States. It is not the kind of company, one would think, could offer genuine insight for education, but when you read their Handbook for new employees, it is very explicit about their preferred structure to enhance creativity. They write: ‘Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, like the military. When you go out of your way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to do what they’re told, obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish’ (page 4).

Does that not sound like an enticing introduction to a structure within which a creative education system, filled with intelligent, innovative and talented teachers, might possibly exist? Governments could definitely learn a thing or two from Valve. Can you imagine how the educational landscape would change if Government funding was based on measured growth in creativity, critical thinking, empathy, metacognition, depth and breadth of innovation, and capacity to collaboratively find and solve problems, across any area of learning? I can.

In Valve’s structures for work, instead of setting up silos of experts to work on projects, they take a different view. People are not told what work to do, they are expected to be constantly looking around for the ‘most valuable work they could be doing’ (page 9). At Valve, people are not employed to fill a specific job description, they are employed for the value they can bring to Valve.

Let us put this into the context of education. Imagine a Curriculum Directorate that is filled with multi-talented, cross curricular experts; that is, people who are highly competent across a broad skillset and expert in a particular discipline. Instead of being allocated projects, they are encouraged to assign themselves to multi-disciplinary projects based on priority and their capacity to make critical contributions. Each project would be established with its own criteria, protocols and governance structure, thus taking the focus away from the people and placing it on the project. On any particular project (identified by need, Government funding or whatever), there could be contributors from primary, secondary, leaders, or teachers with significant experience in Special Needs, Student Welfare, eLearning and so on, or anyone who has ‘that something extra’ to offer a project. In fact, it does not need to be restricted to only educators, as long as contributors have the right skillset needed for the project. There would be an expectation for employees to put themselves forward (we call this initiative) for projects where they believed they could make a difference, to collaborate and create. Tenure within the project team would be fluid and once their contribution was no longer required, they would then move to another project.

dnaThe idea of multi-disciplinary project teams (or nests) formed organically, given free license to be self-determined with its own explicit governance structure, sounds like an enticing, creative way to operate. The internal structure of the team/nest would evolve naturally, based on who develops the required knowledge or as Valve puts it, ‘who can be used as a resource to check decisions against’ (page 16). Prevailing assumptions would need to be checked regularly and the intended and enacted plans would have to be tested and critiqued by ‘other’ colleagues, at predetermined intervals (this would be seen as a norm), via the project’s protocols and governance structure. Multi-disciplinary, self-determined project teams could become the DNA of education systems.

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules regarding the relevance of joining a project, Valve (page 9) recommends consideration be given to things like (altered for education): the most valuable thing I could be working on now; the project most critical to [our students and schools] and the possible depth of impact stemming from my input; availability of anything interesting or rewarding; projects that leverage my individual strengths the most; whether the [Directorate] is not doing something that it should be doing; and the point of difference I can bring to a project.

This thinking comes from a video game developer. They make games! We are teachers. We grow and nurture contemporary learners and leaders of the future!! We owe it to our students to do better.

I am certain if Government and Education systems worked synergistically and operated through a new lens, instead of our current paradigm, we could create ‘next practice’ structures and processes more aligned to contemporary learning, and be significantly more effective as educators.

It’s Time for Education to Let Go of its Autocratic Accountability Mindset

FactoryParadigmThere are so many structures and processes in schools today that directly connect us to the old ‘factory model’ of education. Even with the construction of new schools, the model is still pretty much the same. There are some innovative practices in flexible learning spaces and methodologies for individualising learning, but our schools are still fundamentally unchanged. Education will never change from the top because our current structures and processes lend itself to being easily managed, directed and controlled. This ensures compliance and the achievement of benchmarks and standards, set by external bodies. In short, a ‘top down’, accountability driven paradigm exists for its own benefit.

It is hard to imagine education escaping this conundrum. Maybe it is time to view the educational world through a different lens. I believe we are approaching a ‘tipping point’, whereby many school leaders see themselves in a position to be able to exist within a new paradigm, they are just not sure what that actually looks like. The momentum for change is fast approaching. Unfortunately for most, the ‘fall back’ practice of leaders is still deeply routed in autocratic accountability, particularly when it is in reaction to the extreme external accountability measures established by government and school systems.

Even so, the general attitude amongst many school leaders today is a preference to restrict the impact from unwanted external expectations. They want the focus to be on learning, not compliance, governance or external tests. I rarely hear school leaders boasting about the excitement of running their school with an iron fist, using a top down autocratic style to achieve outstanding results in compliance, even though for some that may be an unintended outcome from dealing with and acting upon external pressures. Schools are human-centred, complex organisations in which educators work tirelessly to create critical and creative thinkers and learners. Existing within an autocratic accountability mindset seems out of alignment with our goal as educators to grow independent, self-determined learners.

Something needs to change – either teachers and school leaders or the system of accountability. If the current systems and processes imposed by external bodies continue as they are, I fear for the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders. For the most part, teachers and school leaders are passionate about what they do, so they just keep giving and changing in response to external demands. As the bar is raised, they do whatever they can to meet it, but you can only jump so high. It is either time to push back, or time to create.

In our journey to become a Self-Determined Learning Community, we find ourselves moving away from ‘top down’ structures and becoming more ‘organic‘. Maybe the education system could consider something similar. Through Organic Learning, our focus is on aligning spaces, tools and skills to make learning unambiguous. We aim to create a clear line of sight for all learners in the community (regardless of age) towards self-determined learning, which means having the capacity to determine what I need to learn (based on an identified need) and the capability and agency to go about learning it. Students, teachers and leaders are encouraged to value collaboration, risk taking, learning from failure, critical and creative thinking, and taking full responsibility for learning. The language used is the same, the learning cycle and processes are the same, and the learning spaces are based on the same learning principles. This helps us to make learning and existing in our community less ambiguous, so that as learners mature they are able to become more self-determined. For teachers and leaders, this means spending less time on ‘box ticking’ processes like checking programs and performance reviews, because the expectations and processes are so refined, explicit and understood, it literally requires little to no monitoring, particularly if all processes are visible, tangible and critiqueable.

Is there scope for our education system to reimagine itself as a Self-Determined Learning Community?

BirdsIn our presentation ‘Becoming a Self-Determined Learning Community’, we use the image of the bird hierarchy to illustrate ‘top down’ structures. It never fails to get a laugh from teachers, but it is true that in this hierarchical structure someone ends up on the bottom. In schools that happens to be the teachers and in education systems it is the school. We challenge people to name ‘Who’s who in your learning community?’ And if you are a leader, where do you sit? Where should you sit? In a Self-Determined Learning Community the leaders need to be as close to the bottom rung as possible.

There are some interesting ideas coming out of Holacracy, which favours a flat leadership structure. In his talk, Brian Robertson reflects on his own experience as a CEO of a company and he identifies that it was the fundamental structures and systems that got in the way of their achievement of intentions. And that embedded within these structures was power and the difficult to manage ‘social’ tensions that came with it.

What I find most interesting about holacracy is the understanding that ‘order’ does not require a ‘boss’ to direct or maintain it. With the right set of explicit rules, processes and structures, we do not need a boss to tell us what and how to do something. It is a big shift in perspective e.g. instead of Delegated Authority they talk about Distributed Authority, Transparency and Autonomy.  We need to explore and unpack holacracy further from an educational perspective.

Rather than continuing to operate out of an Autocratic Compliance Mindset or constantly trying to change the skill set of school leaders and teachers, maybe we should be looking at how we might move towards a Holacratic Mindset in order to allow schools to achieve its real purpose, the development of self-determined learners.

WeLearn: By Teachers for Teachers (An Organic, Ground Up Innovation)


GroundUpInnovationInnovation is a highly prized ingredient in any high performing school system. I find it interesting then, when government and/or school systems mandate school participation in ‘innovation projects’ and expect a significant impact on school-wide learning. Contrary to this approach is the idea of ground up innovation, where innovation occurs naturally based on an observed need within a learning community, and is encouraged and supported by government or school systems.

A few years ago I was at a conference with a colleague and we were keen to find out more about digital pedagogy. A number of gurus were able to articulate their understanding of digital pedagogy and what it should look like in a classroom, but no-one could actually show us. The recurring message was something like: “It should have these elements; you would need to have these intentions” and so on.

This became a provocation for us to explore. We analysed what was available online and came up with an inquiry question: How might we create a ubiquitous resource for teachers that enhances individual and collective capacity (knowledge, skillset and toolset) in digital pedagogy? After seeking some critique, we then changed it from digital pedagogy to ‘best practice pedagogy’ (the broader, the better).Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 3.44.25 PM

And so the seed for WeLearn was born. From our humble beginnings of two (@jamiewahab and me), we now have over five hundred users and more than one hundred high quality best practice videos. This link takes you to our WeLearn promotion video created by one of our talented WeLearn administrators Christine Kodomichalos.

This post is not just about the WeLearn site for best practice pedagogy. It is also about organic ground up innovation, hence its inclusion on our Organic Learning Blog. Ground up innovations are inherently organic as they are borne out of a genuine identified need: ‘we needed to learn more about digital pedagogy’. It is not an imposed innovation from external bodies pushing a predefined agenda: ‘you need to learn more about digital pedagogy’.


Our WeLearn innovation exemplifies the Organic Learning Cycle. Our Explore phase included gathering authentic data, which led to our self-determined need to investigate digital pedagogy.

Once data was gathered, it was analysed. Connections were made and defined, and we pitched our first provocation and received critique. We then began to Create possible frameworks for how WeLearn could look and operate and we constantly revised our ideas until we refined it to ‘best practice pedagogy’.

We enlisted some highly skilled teacher collaborators and began to Innovate by making videos and creating a physical site. This became the first of many prototypes, which we continue to critique and refine to this day, based on the Impact of our innovation. I invite you to join and explore the site at your leisure, but I promise once you start viewing it does become addictive as there are so many fantastic strategies for teachers to dip into.

We are currently redesigning the WeLearn site with a greater emphasis on what we have called 90 Seconds of PD. We do have some videos that run for 3-5 minutes, but 90 seconds appears to be ‘just right’ for quickly learning something new. Wall of Pride is an example of 90 Seconds of PD. To get full access to the site, you need to request a login.

In March 2017, we presented WeLearn at the 21 Century Learning Conference in Hong Kong and signed up our first teachers from Asia. Up until that time, we had never advertised the site on twitter or any other medium. It has grown by word of mouth and through workshops for teachers in neighbouring schools, funded by Sydney Catholic Schools.

So how does a ground up innovation like WeLearn gather momentum and reach what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a ‘tipping point‘ and begin to take on a life of its own (not that WeLearn has reached epidemic levels)? Contributing to a site like WeLearn is quite an onerous task. Apart from having the time to film, edit and receive strong critique on a skillset identified by you, it takes a courageous teacher to put their reputation on the line for judgement by their peers. Yet in two years, we have more than one hundred high quality videos available on our site to be shared and watched over and over again.

I really believe teachers who are successful in  getting their video onto the site definitely have what Carol Dweck identifies as a growth mindset and possess the qualities of what Hase & Kenyon refer to as a self-determined learner. These are teachers who have the initiative and capacity to take full control of what they need to learn and how to learn it, the agency to overcome setbacks and failures, the insatiable desire to learn, and the confidence to share their learning with others for the sake of raising the collective capacity of teachers and improving student learning for all students. Their focus is not about self-importance, but about learning and the exhilaration that comes from learning that is so perfectly described by Jason Silva as cognitive ecstasy.

We need to find those teachers who are self-determined learners and provide them with opportunities to ‘innovate’ individually or collectively. They are the ones who can help take us out of old educational paradigms and help us create a new one. We need to explore how we can create Self-Determined Learning Communities that can challenge the status quo whilst contributing to not only ‘best practice’, but ‘next practice’ system/nation-wide learning.


Do Inquisitive Teachers have more Inquisitive Students?

I have not collected any hard data on this as yet, but since implementing Organic Learning across our school it is becoming increasingly obvious that our students are in fact more inquisitive. Is this as a result of Organic Learning or something else? There are a number of contributing factors to consider in this observed growth in curiosity.

InquisitiveFirstly, as part of our journey to becoming a Self-Determined Learning Community, we strategically aligned Learning Spaces, Structures and Processes for students, teachers and school leaders. This we believed would help us remove ambiguity from school-wide learning and make it simpler for us to become collectively more self-determined. This link explains in greater detail our Self-Determined Learning Journey. Becoming self-determined requires in itself a capacity to explore, inquire and problem find.

Secondly, the impact of aligning our Spaces, Structures and Processes has pushed many of our teachers (and leaders) outside their comfort zone and allowed them to re-engage their inquisitive mindset (to explore, inquire and problem find). As a community of teacher/learners, we spent more time being inquisitive and took this mindset into the classroom more often than before.

The result? Our children thrived on the opportunity to explore, make connections, create, fail and refine their learning. Learning was seen as exciting by students (and teachers).

This raised a tension – a third factor: our students actually ‘engaged their curiosity’ faster than our teachers ever did. Is that because they had never lost it in the first place? And if we had not seen it as much in our students before, is it because there is such an overemphasis on achievement standards and external exams in our current educational climate?

One thing is for sure: our students are showing their inquisitive nature more often than before because they are being encouraged and allowed to. And because our teachers are themselves being more inquisitive in their own professional learning, planning and teaching, they are more aware of the importance of allowing students to learn within the act of being curious.

So I suspect the more inquisitive we can get our teachers to be, the more inquisitive students we will have. And in the act of being inquisitive we can help them become better problem finders and solvers and develop their capacity to change the world.

And what about teachers who demonstrate less curiosity than other teachers? I suspect (no hard data) their students have less of an opportunity to engage and articulate their curiosity (but that may be just an assumption on my part).


Sterile Learning Walls Inhibit Critical and Creative Thinking


The learning environment is rightly considered the ‘third teacher‘ in classrooms across the world. Whilst setting up our school-based research on Organic Learning, one of our provocations was ‘how might we make learning walls more reflective of an inquiry process in order to enhance critical and creative thinking?’ During our Explore Phase, we identified that classrooms contained a variety of teacher-generated wall displays, as well as a vast amount of space dedicated to showcasing colourful, finished student work.

There is certainly a place for teacher generated displays that entice learner engagement, provide direction or are used by students as a tangible resource, and having finished work on display adds to the development of a positive learning environment, but that falls way short of what we believe learning walls can contribute to critical and creative thinking. It may be colourful, but it is sterile, at best. Wall space at the learner’s eye level is where teachers can make a real difference for their students.

We decided to place more emphasis on how we could use our available learning wall space at eye level, to capture and display students’ thinking and their journey of learning. This meant providing space for students to display their thoughts, questions and ideas, and structures for critiquing, collaborating and reflecting. We wrote about structures in Student Metacognition: Using a Competency Rubric to Assess Deep Learning.

Version 2

If we can see what learners are thinking, then the thinking can be quickly assessed, critiqued and refined. This can lead into richer conversations around learning and encourage deeper individual and collective thinking by allowing each learner to compare their thinking to other learners’ and align their thinking to metacognitive rubrics (such as the Conscious Competence Rubric). It is not only the teacher who does the critiquing. Other learners are able to critique and question as well. This helps learners be accountable to each other during the learning cycle.


In the above classrooms, the learning walls have lots of examples displaying what the learners know and want to know, what they ‘see, hear and feel’ and what questions they have so far during the Explore Phase in the Organic Learning Cycle. When they begin to make connections, this can become a tangible learning experience as their thoughts and understandings can be touched, moved, clustered, tabbed or edited by others. Seeing a learning wall of thoughts creatively connected can uncover amazingly rich learning experiences.

See also Project Zero’s Visible Thinking site, which has some really useful Thinking Routines for teachers to use in class.

Within the context of Organic Learning, the alignment of learning principles is a critical driver for our school-based research. When we were exploring how to make student learning walls more tangible and critiqueable, we decided to do the same for teacher learning walls and assess the impact. For the most part, teacher learning walls do not reflect teaching as the creative process it really is. They are generally quite sterile and compliance focused. If you ever get to check out Google work spaces, it becomes quickly obvious that their focus is on creativity, not compliance. We started exploring ways to make teacher learning spaces more creativity-focused.

We have already written a number of posts about our Bunker Room and Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping. That was a good start for our research, but we are also determined to align more closely, teacher learning space with student learning space.


Our Bunker Room wall contains an entire year of curricula learning intentions for each stage of learning. Every teacher can see what everyone else is planning. The clusters of learning intentions are visible and critiqueable. Programs are not stuck inside a laptop or folder. Colleagues will frequently question, make suggestions, offer support and encourage each other randomly during the course of a week. By having the planning and learning visible in the Bunker Room helps to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ (Stephen Covey, 1995, First Things First), which is learning. And because it is transparent, it keeps teachers accountable to their stage partners and to the rest of the staff.


We have found just from creating our Bunker Room there is an increase in what Albert Bandura calls Collective Agency. Our teachers are more able to take control of the school-wide learning agenda as they synergistically collaborate, support each other and enhance collective efficacy to deliver deep, rich learning.


The Bunker Room is not the only learning space for teachers. Like most schools, we also have a very detailed Data Wall showing levels of attainment for Reading, Comprehension and Numeracy for all students. The data is visible, tangible, transparent and critiqueable. We find teachers will regularly scan the data and question colleagues about their student’s levels, making comparisons to when they taught the same students. This often turns into  rich discussions around the use of data informed explicit teaching strategies.

A Bunker Room and Data Walls are only part of the Teacher Learning Space. Our student learning walls also contain reflections on their own learning and metacognition, whilst adhering to the same principles for learning spaces in that they (the reflections) are visible, tangible and critiqueable.

img_7434To bring our alignment between student learning spaces and teacher learning spaces closer, we established a learning wall for teacher professional learning, which we have called an Organic Learning Sprint. The intention for this space is to externalise every teacher’s professional learning plan. From a negative, closed mindset, this could be seen as incredibly intimidating or competitive. From a positive, growth mindset, it can create opportunities for critiquing each other’s learning that could lead to authentic collaboration, empathy and collective self efficacy and agency. It can also turn top-down processes such as yearly performance review structures into flatter, transparent and a self-determined process that encourages teachers to be accountable to no-one but themselves.

After increasing alignment between student and teacher learning spaces, we began to explore how we could do the same for our leadership team. We already had a learning wall for scanning and planning in relation to managing the school and system processes, but we wanted to be able to externalise and tangiblise our thinking and tensions.


We set up a  Provocation Wall made out of magnetic glass as we wanted to be able to write on it as well as stick things on it in order to make elements tangible. Unfortunately, the magnetism behind the glass is not strong enough, so we just write. But the ideas, provocations and prototypes are visible and critiqueable. Many hours are spent in deep discussion around various provocations.

We can underestimate the importance of student, teacher and leadership visible learning spaces. As Jon Kolko (Drivers of Design Synthesis) describes, we are able to make sense of chaos through the process of spatialisation. By externalising and making sense of data we discover insights and generate solutions to problems.  Implicit and hidden meanings are uncovered.

Our next step is to establish a parent learning wall. This will complete the breadth of our alignment, although we will continue to work on its depth. To help make this alignment prevalent, we developed Learning Space Experience Tours for students, parents and teachers. An Experience Tour is like a ‘learning walk’ or an ‘Instructional Round’, but with an organic twist. The intent of these Experience Tours was to provide the various learners the opportunity to experience all the Learning Walls, record their observations, feelings and critique, and then synthesise and share what they thought. This exercise alone, helped to foster greater collective appreciation and empathy across our community.

The overall impact of aligning our learning walls for students, teachers and leaders has been an undeniable growth in consistency of the language of learning, the depth of creative thinking, metacognition and capacity for critiquing and being critiqued, and an emerging shared growth mindset across the school. You can see it, you can hear it and you can feel it. Our learning walls were once sterile, but are now becoming more fertile.

Eradicate Ambiguity in Learning by Aligning Processes Using an Organic Learning Rubric


We believe the key to eradicating ambiguity in school-wide learning is to align the learning process for all stakeholders. In our community, this is achieved through the Organic Learning Cycle. The cycle has been developed so that it can be utilised for every aspect of learning in the school whether you are a student, teacher, parent or leader. Our aim is to refine it to the point where the cycle could be used even for systemic learning (as self-determined learners we believe we can change the world).


Currently, the Organic Learning Cycle is utilised for the development and implementation of learning programs across the school (for students and parents), creating a personalised professional learning plan for teachers and leaders and for facilitating our engagement in system processes (formal reviews and contract renewals). If Organic Learning is THE learning process used across the school, then regardless of age, all members within the community will not only speak the same language, but also share the same understanding of the learning process.

To support aligning the learning process across the school, we created an Organic Learning Rubric (below). The Triangular Mosaic (symbols) and key phases are the same as the Organic Learning Cycle and are intended to be made visible in all learning spaces in the community. In that way, learners can identify the learning phase by the symbol as well as the term.


This rubric is a prototype and still a work in progress, and will continue to be critiqued and refined by users over time. It is visible in the Bunker Room, in teachers’ programs and in classrooms, which creates alignment between teacher learning space and student learning space and begins to make learning unambiguous, even for six and seven year old learners.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-11-07-03-amIn this image from a Year 1/2 Class, the teacher and her students have started recording their thinking (making it visible), in preparation for their learning. The students are using the same language of learning that teacher use.

To introduce Organic Learning to the parent community, a Parent Experience Tour was conducted. We believed it was important for parents to ‘Explore’ the cycle of Organic Learning first hand and then experience the process of learning via a collaborative workshop.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The rubric is also central to teachers’ professional learning inquiry. Taking responsibility for our own learning was proving to be a provocation in the early days of our research project and was in many ways a catalyst for our focus on aligning the principles of learning in the community. A number of our teachers were showing signs of being ‘conditioned’ by the system so much so, that they were still wanting to be told what to learn and how to go about learning it. This encouraged us to explore Self-Determined Learning and make it a focus for the whole school community.

To assist our teachers’ own understanding of Organic Learning, we incorporated the rubric as part of our Professional Learning Sprint. The Professional Learning Sprint is based on the concept of a Design Sprint. We rebadged our version as an Organic Learning Sprint, which goes over an eight week period. So it is more like a canter than a sprint, but it allows teachers critical time to explore and take risks in their own learning and hopefully step outside their comfort zone. In preparation for the sprint, all possible data perceived as relevant by the teacher, needs to be considered. As with all other learning across the school, each phase of the Organic Learning Sprint is made visible in the teacher learning space. This allows for authentic collaboration because the learning is visible, transparent, tangible and critiqueable, and it keeps all learners personally accountable to themselves and to each other.


Organic Learning Cycle


Our Organic Learning Cycle has been evolving since 2015. We attribute a lot of our thinking to our learning in Design Thinking. Significant staff changes and participation in system/government improvement projects, led us to uncover tensions and ambiguities in our school-wide structures and processes that required critical discernment and creative thinking ‘outside the box’.

This became an opportunity to create a school research project and ‘shake up’ assumptions related to improving student achievement, increasing teacher capacity, the rigour of explicit teaching and its connection to inquiry learning, understanding authentic data, the depth of professional learning in action and the effectiveness of whole school strategic planning and review. It allowed us to draw a line in the sand and establish our own organic framework to maintain the integrity and rigour of our school-wide learning agenda, whilst providing a filter for managing external expectations and processes that regularly attempt to dominate school agendas. The end result is an unambiguous language of learning for all members of the community with consistent structures and processes accessible to all learners. We believe this will bring us closer to actioning what Fullan refers to as ‘leading from the middle‘ and if done in collaboration with other schools sharing the same journey, we may become a collective driver for systemic cultural change and improvement.

As mentioned in a previous post, our Why is to help learners develop the capability to change the world, our How is keeping Self-Determined Learning as ‘the main thing’ and our What will allow it all to make sense. The Organic Learning Cycle is our What.

Overview of Organic Learning Cycle


This is about our sixth iteration of the cycle and it is still evolving. It appears rather complex, so this post will attempt to broadly explain the critical components. In subsequent posts, each phase will be unpacked in greater detail.screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-5-28-22-pm

The centre of the cycle outlines the 5 Key Phases learners go through during an Organic Learning Cycle: Explore, Connect, Create, Innovate and Impact. Student, teacher, leadership team, parent and whole school learning can be accommodated in the cycle.


Explore is the beginning of the learning cycle with many possible starting points depending on the relevance of authentic data available to the learners. The breadth of data can stem from assessments, learning intentions, problems or tensions uncovered through learning experiences, and personal or collective passions and interests. During the Explore Phase, learners move from ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ to ‘Conscious Incompetence’.

Connect is the second phase during which the learners connect the dots, synthesise their ideas and consolidate new learning (with guided practice). They connect the new with what they already knew and begin to move from ‘Conscious Incompetence’ to ‘Conscious Competence’.

During Create learners begin to think divergently to generate possible ideas to solve problems or experiment with newly learned skills or concepts, with support. It is critical during this phase for learners to receive effective critique in order to improve their ideas and refine their knowledge and skillset.

Innovate is when learners apply new learning. It is where new knowledge and skills really kick in and take shape, when a reader can apply their skills into becoming a writer, a mathematician can apply newly acquired problem solving skills into authentic and meaningful situations. It is also where the composer, inventor or tinkerer can show off a prototype in order to receive valuable critique, to refine and improve it in order to impact upon the world around them. It is also where the explicit can become the implicit.

Impact is where our learning cycle is more explicit compared to many others. It is always implied that new learning will make an impact, but how often does it hit the markHow often is new learning really reflected upon and evidenced, in order to influence change for the better? How often is it compared against the baseline or initial data that informed and sparked this new learning in the first place?

This phase invites and encourages the learner to be proactive and dig even deeper and find a new area, skill or concept to learn about – something that the learner had not previously considered because they were still scratching at the surface level. It justifies and celebrates the ‘So What?’ in learning and why it was even undertaken in the first place. This is where the cycle can begin againIt is reflective and celebratory and feeds into new learning.

Outlining the circumference of our Cycle are what we believe are the ‘drivers’ for Organic Learning. Many of these would be familiar to all educators. We see each driver equally critical to maintaining momentum and motivation in the learning process. It obviously depends of what new learning is being undertaken to the degree as to which they will be key influences. We acknowledge the importance of these and work to give time and resources to developing each in our self-determined learning community.

Why Self-Determined Learning Should Be The Main Thing


Learning is a lifelong journey, no doubt about it. If ever you get to a point in life when you believe your learning has come to an end, then you may as well lay down in bed and not bother getting out. When you stop learning, you stop living.

Covey talked about ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’ in his book, First Things First (1994). What should be ‘the main thing’ for learning in schools? Should we continue to use test scores, entry into university or the promise of a high paying job as the main drivers for learning? I remember when I was at school I asked the teachers a number of times: What is the purpose of learning trigonometry? The usual responses were something like, “To pass the test”, “You need to know trig so you can do higher order math later” or, the one I hated the most, “It helps you to think!” For a teenager, who was a passionate musician and surfer, had I known trigonometry was fundamental to sound engineering and oceanography then maybe I would have made more of an effort to engage in the learning.

As teachers, how often do we share with our students the learning intentions and the specific purpose for engaging in an explicit skill-based or concept ‘Explore’ session? What’s your response to a child who asks: Why are we doing this?

I love the concept of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle in which he describes the necessity to start with ‘The Why’. For our school-based research on Organic Learning, ‘The Why’ brings purpose to keeping ‘the main thing the main thing’.

As a school community, there are many responses to the question: Why do we do what we do? There are also many perspectives – system, teacher, leader, parent and student. For an Organic Learning perspective, the centre of ‘The Why’ is the learner. If learning is a lifelong journey, then every member of our community must be considered a learner and hence fundamentally connected to ‘The Why’. For our school community, we do what we do because we want every learner to believe they have the capacity to change the world. This means having the competency to identify or uncover authentic tensions, problems or unknowns, and the capability to do something about it and so impact on the world. The kind of learner required for this is a self-determined one, which for us fulfils ‘The How’.

We explored Hase and Kenyon’s work on Heutagogy, which is the study of Self-Determined Learning (as described by Blaschke). This learning is an ‘active and proactive process’ where ‘learners are the major agent in their own learning’. When learning how to learn they acquire competencies (knowledge and skills) and capabilities (confidence in using their competencies and an ability to determine appropriate action when finding and solving problems in familiar and unfamiliar settings). From our school’s perspective, our learners’ (students and adults) acquisition of competencies was more than adequate, but it was the area of capability that needed further unpacking. We discovered this to be true even for a number of our teachers.

During the development of our school-based research, we were exploring the tensions and commonalities between highly structured, explicit teaching and a rigorous cycle of inquiry. Whilst making connections and synthesising our observations, a debate on the difference between pedagogy and andragogy provoked our thinking to look at teaching and learning a little differently; what does learning look like without the constraints of a pedagogical or andragogical lens? That is not to say pedagogy or andragogy are unimportant. Having the right pedagogical practices in place is critical for student learning and the same goes for andragogy and adult learning. We were perplexed, on a number of occasions, by some of our teachers who found it difficult to be proactive in taking responsibility for their ongoing learning. They appeared to be more comfortable with being told what to learn, which we found quite frustrating.

We found ourselves unpacking learning, free from constraints, and came to a conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that effective learning is effective learning whether you are five, twenty-five or sixty-five. All that is needed is an authentic purpose to drive the desire for learning. This could derive from curiosity, interest, failure or need.


If we want all members in our community to be self-determined lifelong learners, we not only need them to acquire a certain level of competence based on authentic purpose, but also to develop the capability to uncover a problem and have the self efficacy to go about solving it. We wanted this idea to be applicable for all learners regardless of age. We set about aligning explicit teaching/learning and gradual release of responsibility, with inquiry and gradual increase in learner agency.


This became the impetus for exploring how we could extend our alignment of learning principles across the school in our spaces and structures, and gave purpose for developing and aligning processes. With our ‘Why’ in place and ‘How’ established, ‘The What’ became the  final piece to our unique Golden Circle jigsaw puzzle.

Rubric for Deeper Thinking About Learning

As part of our ongoing school-based research in developing and embedding Organic Learning, we have experienced many instances in which our assumptions were way off the mark (always be aware of your underlying assumptions!).

When working with Tom Barrett, we were tinkering with screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-59-47-amMartin Broadwell’s Conscious Competence Learning Model and SOLO Taxonomy originally developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis. We were exploring how to make metacognitive thinking more visible for our students, keeping it aligned with our mandate to keep thinking and learning visible, transparent, tangible, critiqueable and accountable within learning spaces. At the same time we were exploring Competency Sets: Skillset, Toolset, Mindset (from Nelson & Stolterman’s Design Way) as part of our Design Thinking learning with teachers.


First Prototype created on Provocation Wall

Whilst unpacking the idea of Conscious Competence and Skillset, Toolset, Mindset with teachers, we came to realise many of them were having difficulty applying these concepts to their own learning, beyond a superficial level (assumption one – not all teachers are reflective learners). We found this quite provocative and decided to create a visual on our Leadership Provocation Wall. Initially we attempted to combine Conscious Competence, SOLO and the Competency Set into one rubric, but ended up dropping SOLO as we struggled to align it with the other two. We expanded on our initial thinking and included Reflective Competence and Knowledge Set to our rubric. Our first attempt was critiqued over many months by various critical friends and we eventually came up with a workable prototype to use with teachers. Our first rubric focused on Professional Learning Inquiry for teachers. This worked so well we decided to create one for student learning and trialled it with our Stage 3 students (10-11 year olds). They picked it up quicker than the teachers (assumption two – don’t underestimate young learners!).



Competency Rubric used with Stage 3 Students