The Plastic Brain

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Discovering Positive Eduction, Part Four

Today was the final day. Sessions covered:

  • Positive Purpose
  • From Discovering to Living


As with most of the course, the Positive Purpose session could equally be used to consider our own search for meaning, as well as providing strategies for exploring purpose with students. One of the key nuggets of gold I will take away was from the introductory session, looking at the value of purpose and meaning. To paraphrase:

Those who have found meaning and purpose are fortunate.

Those who are searching for meaning and purpose are fortunate.

It is certainly true. Both the pursuit and the finding of purpose are valuable experiences. The state to guard against is purposelessness. Unfortunately, this is often where I see students, especially towards the end of year 10. At this point my thinking links back to earlier discussions of fixed and growth mindsets. Students with a growth mindset see the search for purpose as a valuable and challenging experience, those with a fixed mindset can give up, and slip into purposelessness.

In From Discovering to Living we explored the GGS model for the introduction of Positive Education and the related change management. It is based on advice from Martin Seligman:

Learn it, Live it, Teach it, Embed it

In the four-day residential course, we had the chance to learn it and live it. Key to this is the idea of teachers truly living it before teaching it. Positive Education is not something that can simply be dropped into a school. It must be embraced by staff (and maybe even by parents and the school community) before it can be taught to students successfully. However, the model does not stop there. Embedding is about taking Pos Ed beyond the pastoral care program. It needs to infused into the school culture at all levels. It should be:

  • Applied in the academic curriculum
  • Expressed in assessment and reporting
  • Embedded in behaviour management policies and practices
  • Central to staff evaluation, feedback and professional development
  • Promoted and explained in parent communications and newsletters

Bringing together all of these aspects will support culture change, and allow the full, deep and authentic practice of Positive Education.

So there it is, we have come to the end of the course. Probably the most intensive, but also the most meaningful and worthwhile training I have ever attended. I can’t wait to get home, share with my family and colleagues and start my new way of thinking and teaching.


I thank my family for their love and support, without which none of this would be possible.

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Discovering Positive Education, Part Three

We have pushed past the half-way point. It is a huge course, covering so much content. Given any other material I would probably be flagging by now, but this stuff is gold, and keeps me coming back for more.

Today’s sessions were:

  • Resilience
  • Character strengths

Only two today, as these are big. Really big in my mind. In the Geelong Grammar Institute of Positive Education model, resilience is defined as:

Practising sustainable habits for optimal physical and psychological health that are developed from a sound knowledge base.

It is clear from this, and what they said, that they view resilience as both a physical and mental strength. It relies on flexibility, growth, adaptability and perseverance. It also relies on both internal and external resources. While we may acknowledge that resilience requires inner strength, it is also important to know that resilience is supported by connections to family, friends and community. This is a point that adolescents sometimes miss too.

In the break-out session we explored the concepts of help-seeking and coaching – once again, addressing the external resources for resilience. It is OK to ask for help – it benefits you and empowers your helper.

The other session was on strengths. In particular, the focus was on the VIA Character Strengths. You can take a survey here, to find out more about your strengths. The strengths are a great way to start dialogues with students about what they can do. Especially when they are in trouble, or even in crisis. In fact, I am such a fan of Character Strengths that I have embedded it across the Year 8 Pastoral Care curriculum. After today’s session, I plan to go even further. I want to make sure it happens earlier, and goes deeper.

It is important for students to be aware of their strengths, but it is only by using them that they really take their well-being to the next level. Therefore it is important to teach them in context, not in isolation. For us, we are asking students:

  • How would you use your signature strengths to combat bullying?
  • Which strengths would be important is these scenarios?
  • How can you use your strengths to make a positive impact in the lives of others?

I hope that a strengths-based approach will increasingly become part of our program. But more than that, I want to see it in the regular curriculum, and in our school policies, even for staff.

I also find it useful to be aware of my own strengths, and how I use them. One of the most powerful activities this week has been the Strengths Spotting exercise, in which members of the group identified the strengths which we saw in each other. It was truly uplifting.


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Discovering Positive Education, Part Two

Today’s sessions were on:

  • Positive Engagement and Flow
  • Positive Relationships
  • Positive Emotions and Gratitude

Once again, each of the sessions involved an introduction to the whole group, break-out sessions and a plenary.

The guru of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalli, defines flow as:

…the state of intense absorption and optimal experience that results from taking part in intrinsically motivating challenges.”

Through today’s session, I feel I have gained a much deeper understanding of flow, and more importantly, have practical tools to establish conditions in which it can occur.

Firstly, flow relies on three dimensions of engagement. These are cognitivebehavioural and emotional.Therefore, to enhance flow you must provide conditions which support these dimensions of engagement.

Secondly, flow occurs during activities in which high challenge meets high skill. Without the requisite skill, we feel anxious and frustrated by the task. Without sufficient challenge, we may become too relaxed or even bored. This is tricky in the classroom. How is it possible to supply the optimal challenge to students who are at different levels? One approach may be to use adaptive learning environment (such as Khan Academy), where the complexity of learner challenges is based on previous performance. Probably a better way is to allow students to pick appropriate levels of challenge for themselves. One of the delegates in my break-out group reported that she offered students the option of a “mild, medium or spicy” assessment tasks.

For Positive Relationships, we explored the practice of Active Constructive Responding (ACR), a technique which is well explained by Dr Martin Seligman here. Although I have done this before, it was good to have a chance to practice it again. It felt good to both give and receive ACR.

The final session focussed on Gratitude. Much of this looked at Kerry Howells’ view that gratitude actually has two stages. Firstly there is appreciation. Here is where many people stop. But she argues that to fully realise gratitude one must then act upon that feeling. We then explore numerous ways in which we can practice gratitude, some private, some shared. These included: Gratitude journals, acts of kindness, gratitude letters, gifts and so on.

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Discovering Positive Education, Part One

As promised last time, I now have a proper definition of Positive Education, after completing the first day of the Discovering Positive Education course:

Positive Education brings together the science of positive psychology with best practice teaching and learning to encourage and support schools and individuals within their communities to flourish

Geelong Grammar School, 2011


The course is structured around a cycle of sessions.

  • Each session begins with a short slide show and theory around the topic to be discussed
  • Groups then split into break-out sessions, to discuss these ideas further and complete practical activities
  • Groups the reconvene with the larger group to summarise their discussions and share key findings or insights

So far, the sessions have covered:

  • Introduction to Positive Psychology
  • Accomplishment and Mindsets
  • Positive Emotions

There has been much of interest, and so many ideas to take back to the classroom. One of the main things I have noticed about this course, compared to other PD I have attended, is that the instructors really practice what they preach. It is an approach which is very personal, and they are not afraid to share their life stories or show vulnerability. I was talking to Steve over dinner about mindfulness. He shared that one of the key ingredients to having mindfulness work in the classroom is you have to be truly authentic – you just can’t fake it.

Other nuggets of gold from today:

  • We know that growth mindsets are preferable to fixed mindsets. But how do you foster a growth mindset? One strategy is to focus on process-oriented praise. It takes more time, and you actually have to observe student processes, but the investment means that the feedback you give will be much more powerful.
  • Oldie, but a goodie: When you hear yourself or a student say they cannot do something, but sure to add the qualifier “yet”. As in “I can’t juggle…yet.” The brain is capable of extraordinary learning, and we ourselves do not know the ceiling of our potential.
  • We spent time focussing on building positive emotions. One of mine to focus on was joy. I most often feel joy when I am with my wife and kids. Luckily I am with them often (just not now). But when I am with them, too often I let insignificant things block us from playing, laughing, ticking, pranking and sharing our joy.

Finally, our homework was to write three entries in our Gratitude journal. Mine are private, so I might just post this and do it now.

Looking forward to tomorrow.

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Discovering Positive Education, Part Zero

I am back in Geelong. It’s been a while.

I grew up in Adelaide, but lived in Melbourne for a five years, working as a neuroscience researcher. During that time we used to visit Geelong regularly. We moved back to Adelaide when I became a teacher, but now I’m back across the border.

I’m here for the Discovering Positive Education training course at Geelong Grammar School. Positive Education is big right now, huge. And rightly so. It is built on the foundation of Positive Psychology, which dared to ask: what if we used what we know about psychology to improve everyone’s lives, instead of only working to remove mental illness?

Positive Education has many elements, but rather than try to describe it now, I think I will hold off until I have completed my first day of training. Did I also mention the yoga and pilates classes? No? Well you’ll probably hear about that too…

For now, I’ll just mention my gratitude. It’s one of my so-called signature character strengths. I am very grateful to be here, and for the support of  my school. I am very grateful for my profession, and the opportunities it provides me for helping young people. Most of all, as I prepare for this week away from them, I am grateful for the love and support of my family.

A good way to start your Positive Education journey is to complete your own character strengths survey here.



A Journey to Co-creation

How I use Technology

I have always used technology in the classroom. This is my third year teaching, after graduating straight into a school which had a 1:1 laptop program and interactive whiteboards in every classroom.

The big change for me this year has not been how much I used technology, but how I used technology.

In previous years, the technology was teacher-focussed. For example, when using interactive whiteboards I am tempted to use them for lecturing to prepared slides shows. Both the screen, and teacher’s computer are at the front, and when I rely on them I end up being tied down. I revert to acting as the  ‘sage on the stage’, with students only using their laptops for taking notes and completing assignments.

Something had to change.

Humble Beginnings

I set up a website.

Learning Space


It wasn’t much, and really, it was just there as a way to store my traditional, lecture-style slide shows. What it did allow was students to go back and check the notes after the lesson, or if they missed it. It also meant parents could have a window into the learning – though what they seem to access most is the page with due dates.

A Work in Progress

It has changed a lot since I set it up. Student feedback and my own experiences have led to both restructuring and cosmetic changes. Before long I realised I needed to give it a name: “Go to the website thingy” is not as clear an instruction as “Go to the Learning Space.” As I worked through the first semester, more and more content has been added.

The other thing that has been changing is the focus. My aim is to move along the continuum shown below. So far, progress is slow, but reassuring.

I feel that the provision of accessible, curated content has gone very well. Focus areas for the next six months are:

  • Resources used as ‘base camp’ for further learning (in progress)
  • Provision of teacher-made videos for instruction – ‘Flipped Learning’ (in progress)
  • Creation of student-made videos for instruction (planned)
  • Students using reflective blogging to record their learning (just started)
  • Students providing majority of resources and writing content for the Learning Space (planned)
  • Co-planning and creation of learning journey (Unit Plan) with students (planned)

Making Ripples

Although the focus has always been the learning of my students, there have been a couple of very positive ripple effects. Firstly, students from other classes have started accessing the content of the Learning Space as a supplementary resource. Secondly, other teachers have shared with me their interest blended learning and flipping. I have delivered a brief flipped learning session to the whole staff, visiting Indonesian teachers, and have convened a group who are sharing their sites and stories, and helping each other grow their skills in this area.

Watch this Space…


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The Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS)

ASSETS brings together a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from around the country for a ten-day Cultural Leadership and Scientific Inquiry programme.

The students are exposed to a fantastic array of experiences, designed to open up new pathways for exploring their interest in science, and their own cultural heritage. They return to their communities as leaders, and often go on to diverse and exciting careers.

This is my third year as a tutor in the Summer School. I have been privileged to work with some extraordinarily talented young people, taken out of their comfort zone and given challenges far above their education level: the general differential is Year 10 students doing university-level experiments.

ASSETS is hosted by the Australian Science and Mathematics School, and this year’s programme has included contributions from the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre (see this previous post), UniSA School of Natural and Built Environments, the Gene Technology Access Centre.

The programme is also well supported by the Governor, His Excellency Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce. In previous years the students have visited Government House, but this year the Governor came to the laboratories at ASMS to see the students in action.

GovernorAs an academic tutor, my role is guide students through their inquiry projects. These are student-driven projects which draw on skills and understandings derived from the initial part of the program. To be honest, I did not have to work hard this year. The group worked exceptionally well, despite occasional set-backs. They brought with them solid scientific skills and understandings and had a determined yet relaxed attitude. I would love to have filled this post with photos of the students doing some amazing science, but due to privacy concerns you instead get a tightly cropped in photo of me with the governor.

The culmination of the scientific programme was the final presentations at the Mawson Institute this morning. All of the groups presented well-considered studies. I was particularly proud of my group, who examined the effects of botanical extracts on bacteria, specifically showing the surprising acute effects of Melaleuca pentagona extract on Micrococcus luteus.

In case you haven’t got the message, it is a great programme, with amazing outcomes for students (not to mention the learning that I have experienced). Despite its ongoing success the programme is always in need of support. If you think you could contribute in some way, or just want to find out more, go here: