The Plastic Brain

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Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.


“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

  • Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
  • Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
  • Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
  • Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

  1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
  2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
  3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
  4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.

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Murder on Detroit Avenue: STEMxCON13

I will presenting at the STEMxCON on Saturday morning in Adelaide. However, since it goes out to a global audience, I am hoping that some participants will be checking in on Friday afternoon from the US.

So, what is STEMxCON? From their website:

Welcome to the Global 2013 STEMx Education Conference, the world’s first massively open online conference for educators focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and more. The conference is being held over the course of three days, September 19-21, 2013, and is free to attend!

STEMxCon is a highly inclusive event designed to engage students and educators around the globe and we encourage primary, secondary, and tertiary (K-16) educators around the world to share and learn about innovative approaches to STEMx learning and teaching.

You can view the schedule in your own timezone here. Check it out, there are some amazing talks that will be happening 24hrs a day.

Case cover

My own talk is titled: 

Murder on Detroit Avenue: An interdisciplinary STEM Unit

…and a link to the full description is here.

As a courtesy to STEMxCON participants and readers of this blog, the Case Notes which I wrote for my murder investigation role-play can be downloaded here: Case file. The slides from the talk are here: STEMxCON Final

I am looking forward to presenting, as well as attending as many of the talks I can. Some to look out for are from my colleagues at the the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS).

Finally, to keep up-to-date, check the STEMxCON website and follow @stemxcon on Twitter.


My session went really well, and I am so grateful for those who came along and got involved in the back-channel chat. The full recording of the session is available here, using Blackboard Collaborate (MP3 Audio and MP4 Video also available).
Two great outcomes for me were:

  1. The positive feedback really gave me the drive to further develop unit and ensure that I run it again next year.
  2. We had a discussion about including more literacy skills, and bringing in an English teacher. The unit provides a perfect platform for a persuasive writing piece. It could also be the springboard for a creative writing piece.

Tracy Watanabe followed up on Twitter with a couple of great Tweets, which really made my day. The second tweet includes links to some pretty amazing programs, in which the Police and Journalism students are involved in Forensic Science units. Love it.

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“Journeys to Flourishing” Positive Education @ Seymour College

I had one of the best and most inspirational days of professional development today, exploring the world of Positive Education with expert speakers and like-minded educators. There were so many highlights that it would be impossible to summarise them all here.

Instead, I have provided below a summary of some of the key points from the opening Keynote address by Assoc Prof Lea Waters, who looked why it is so important to understand Positive Education, and try to incorporate it into our practice.

“The Why of Positive Education”

Assoc Prof Lea Waters, University of Melbourne

Looking at why Positive Psychology matters

The key driving factor for “why?” is the statistics which show mental illness and depression in young people. The severity and youth of sufferers are also increasing. Of great concern also is the likelihood of underreporting and the number of subclinical cases.

These issues were brought into focus by a poem which Waters showed, called The Lost Generation. Watch it now.

Waters described the poem as “a lovely palindrome to reflect the field of positive psychology”. I think it is genius, and it certainly produced an emotional reaction.

Research, PP and Education

Waters presents Peterson’s (2008) of definition of PP

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that conducts scientific inquiry into the factors that help individuals, communities and organisations thrive by building on their strengths and virtues.

She then looked at research in the field, including her own, highlighting that schools have a unique reach to support young people.

One of the main windows into understanding PP is Professor Corey Keyes’ Two factor theory. On the left are the more traditional strategies of removing negative states – the usual focus of psychology. On the right, the more rarely used strategies for promoting positive states.

Removing negative states

Promoting positive states

Take away obstacles

Bringing in enablers

Waters’ research shows that in 1992 only 1% of articles in psychology journals focussed on promoting positive states. In 20 years that has risen to over 4%. Still, more that 95% of research published focuses on removing negative states.

PP, as a field, is interested in bringing both of the factors together. “Why do we wait until something goes wrong?” Seligman talks about PP as a psychological immunisation. The aim is to turn psychology into a profession of prevention, rather than reaction.


Promoting positive states has clear clinical benefits. It was also made clear that absence of illness is not the same as wellness. This means that it is beneficial for all students. Not just those who are ill or at risk.

Another key point is to be aware of what PP is not. Positive psychology is about resilience thinking, not positive thinking.

Literacy, numeracy and wellbeing should be our aims aim primary school. Wellbeing, like the other two, is teachable and learnable. It not only supports the others, but also so many aspects of education and child development.

The academic benefits of PP programs were also reviewed by Waters (link). Students enrolled in social and emotional learning programs ranked 11% points higher on achievement test (controlled for many variables)

Programs are useful, but infusing wellbeing into your practice is the key.


It seemed clear to me that this is an area well worth exploring. It has far reaching implications, can make real differences to student wellbeing and academic outcomes, and is evidence-based. What’s more, it feels right and is easy to start. Personally, I have identified language and practice changes which I can make on Monday.

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APST “Illustrating Practice” Workshop 3

Review and Resources

The Workshop began by review some of the successful outcomes from the previous workshop. In particular, the break-down of the Focus Areas using fishbone diagrams was highlight. The diagrams from the session were scanned, and are available through the SkyDrive.

This provided a lead-in to the other files and resources available on the SkyDrive, including a guide to e-portfolios on Google Sites, and a template for annotating evidence.

Pair and Share

The first activity was a pair-and-share, looking at:

  1. How we went with our Lesson Observation (link to tool)
  2. What Annotated Evidence we had brought

It was a useful chance to talk to others about the benefits of lesson observations. My partner and I agreed that it would be useful for schools to have policies and maybe even defined programs to support systematic lesson observation.


To follow on from the Lesson Observation, we watched DECD Webisode (featuring Evan Polymeneas). Then, we discussed how evidence in the Webisode matched Focus Areas in Standards 3, 4, and 5.

Next, we looked at the benefits and outcomes of our own observations. What Standard did you focus on?

In my observation, we did not explicitly define a standard on which to focus. However, Standard 3 (Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning) became the focus of the lesson.

During our table discussions, we raised the following points:

  1. Some Standards can be assessed by observation (eg 1-5) other cannot (eg 6-7). Within those Standards, some Focus Areas are also easier to observe, and is very unlikely that any observation can address all Focus Areas within a Standard.
  2. It is of value to observe lessons outside of your teaching area(s). Nonetheless, one member of our table (a Maths and Science teacher) had observed an Art lesson and found that they were almost speaking different languages. They needed to do a briefing before the lesson, in order to unpack the learning intentions, so that the observations were more meaningful.
  3. In some small (country) schools, there simply are not opportunities to have a program of lesson observations.

Building your Annotated Evidence

The final part of the workshop looked at how to put together your evidence. Once again, the SkyDrive is populated with resources.

The main formats for evidence sets would be:

  1. A traditional (paper) portfolio. I would not favour this, but I did see some about, and can really see how they could make it simple to collect evidence.
  2. A file or folder with electronic evidence. This is what I have started doing. I have a powerpoint file, with each slide having an evidence artefact and annotations. However, I am beginning to see the limitations of this, and am moving to…
  3. An e-portfolio. This allow easy hyperlinking and sharing, as well as embedding of rich evidence types (audio, video). See a previous post on e-portfolios. The SkyDrive has a walk-through of making a Google Sites e-portfolio. I am currently leaning towards this platform (WordPress) as the host for my e-portfolio. I will generate posts for each artefact, which can be tagged with the relevant Focus Areas.


The Certification process looks like it will be long and arduous – and all of the final details are still not confirmed. However, it does look like a very worthwhile process. Already, I have learned so much about myself, and what it means to be a highly accomplished teacher. Reflecting on your own practice and planning your professional development is never wasted time.

Whether there will be “bonus payments” in South Australia appears unlikely at this stage. Nonetheless, being accredited as a Highly Accomplished or Lead Teacher will certainly have career implications. Job and person specifications are already starting to use the language of the Standards and Career Levels.

[Link to Workshop 1, Workshop 2]

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Notes on “New Pedagogies for Deep Learning” (Part 2)

This post follows on from Part 1.

Implementation Framework

The second part of the whitepaper focusses on implementation. The plan is laid out in four consecutive stages:

  1. Common Goals:“The framework is premised upon purposeful learning by doing, beginning with a small number of ambitious goals”
  2. Common Measures and Tools:“design a set of common measures and tools to be used across school clusters”
  3. Identify and Share Best Work: “identify and share the best cases of new pedagogies and deep learning work”
  4. Collective Capacity-Building:“teachers to analyze, share and reflect on the best exemplars for both student work and learning activities as a key part of collective capacity-building efforts”

Supported by a Technology Platform

The words “common” and “collective” above are telling. This approach seeks to join numerous stakeholders, and create opportunities for discussion and dialogue. Usual mechanisms of communication would be fragmented (like email) or infrequent (like conferences and symposia). Instead, the aim here is to produce a technology platform which can facilitate the networked, connected and collective interactions required of a project of this nature.

The technology platform will be a scalable online system that includes:

  •  Collection and sharing of student work
  •  Collection and sharing of teachers’ learning activity designs
  •  Online surveys of student, teacher, school leaders and parents’ perceptions, practices, resources and relationships (learning conditions).
  •  Data collection on uses of technology for teaching and learning
  •  Direct online assessments of students’ learning progressions
  •  Reporting engine, providing feedback reports on all of the above inputs

Exemplary Student Work

I find this idea of putting exemplary student work as one of the cornerstones of the project to be unexpected, yet very intriguing. Usually, such programs focus on teacher best practice. However, why not look one step further to student outcomes? Not only would exemplary student work stand on its own, but teacher best practice would shine through in the design of the tasks and then resulting learning.

We will seek to identify best-case examples of student work, of learning designs that prompt such work, and then the school and system learning conditions that nurture and cultivate such learning work.

Capacity Building

Capacity building is a very hot concept in education. I think it is in favour due to the fact that it goes beyond knowledge and even skills. It speaks to a desire to produce learning outcomes which provide intellectual opportunities to learners. Once you have “built capacity” in your students or staff, you can expect to see them take new steps and enter unchartered territory. The authors outline their capacity building program as follows:

Capacity-building programs will include many elements:

  •  Analysis of evidence on learning work (learning activities and student work codes) and learning conditions (practices, perceptions, engagement), using this do identify specific needs
  •  Student and teacher exposure to exemplars, demonstrations and samples of deep learning, new pedagogies, new assessments and new technologies
  •  Identification and development of programs and models relevant to the specific needs of individual schools or clusters. This might involve participation in a cross-cluster experimentation “hubs” focused on particular aspects of pedagogy, learning conditions, technology or policy.
  •  Collaborative capacity-building processes within and across clusters to support the adoption of new models, including supports such as teacher networks, collaboration summits, professional and leadership development, tools, and continuous measurement.

Who will do the Work?

It seems apparent that at the core of this project are a group of professionals funded by grants and/or corporate backing. However, the reach of the scheme is great, and will rely on voluntary contributions from stakeholders.

The partnership will seek to recognize and engage these individuals [teachers and students] as “activators” of new pedagogies and deep learning within and across clusters.

As a teacher who says ‘yes’ to (arguably) too many programs, I am aware of the time these can take. However, I also know that this time is an investment, which is richly rewarded by one’s own learning, and the benefits which can flow to colleagues and students.

The Invitation

The whitepaper finishes with the following invitation:

The world is changing and teaching and learning are changing with it. This paper has defined a vision and a plan of action. Success will depend on partners truly committing to this work to mobilize and dramatically expand
new pedagogies and deep learning on the ground. We invite all who might be interested in participating in this endeavor to contact us at

The Verdict

I’ll sum up with two possibly conflicting statements: 1) I admire the approach, and think it has a lot going for it, 2) I am not going to sign up.

I find it hard to articulate why I don’t want to be directly involved – probably because it is a mixture of reasons. Is it because the project has big corporate sponsors? It is because it seems too big, too impersonal? Is it just because I have enough going on already?

Despite all of that I do support these kinds of initiatives, and will be keen to see what they can develop. Who knows, maybe I’ll jump on the bandwagon once it starts rolling…