Embracing Failure Again

Recently, I presented my PhD proposal before a review panel at the university where I’m currently studying and teaching. Those who have been through the process know how gruelling it can be to have your ideas placed under the microscope. For those who haven’t, a proposal review it’s a process that’s almost a cross between making a sales pitch, delivering a carefully-scripted monologue of Shakespearean proportions (not quality!) and being prepared to unpack the whole process when asked questions about your understanding of the research, the design, methodology and instrumentation of your study proposal and your personal beliefs about education and what brought you to being where you are at this point in time.

My review was a particularly valuable experience, causing me question how we define, through the discourses in education, our socially constructed versions of success and failure.

On one level I “failed.” My reviewers quickly picked up my selectivity and partiality towards a particular area of the research while neglecting other areas that were, upon reflection, closely related. I made quite a number of oversights in the design of my study, thinking in grandiose dimensions and answering carefully composed questions with big picture statements that didn’t address the issues raised by my supportive audience. I now have a list of areas to address that’s literally as long as my arm! It’s a typical “revise and resubmit” result that is often inferred in academic circles as a gentle way of saying “go back to the drawing board.” 

Yet, I’m reminded of my parting words the day I left my last school. I told the teachers there – many of whom I’d worked with for nearly a decade – that what would always stay with me is the sense that I was able to embrace my many failures and to be supported by those around me – by kids who realised that I was human and colleagues that struggled with the same stress, workload and self-consciousness.

In this light, I think that embracing failure is ultimately a form of success. For my proposal, I had some of the best minds in Education who had spent a lot of time reading through my thirty-something thousand words, helping me to structure my thoughts, willing to listen to my ideas over a coffee and, when the time called for it, willing to tell me that I what I have done wasn’t to the mark and that I needed to rethink my ideas and approach. As a result, I’ve spent a week or so with the same research and realised that there’s much more that I don’t know; I’ve begun to learn with a renewed passion what I otherwise would have left aside. Many of my doctoral peers were able to see me make my own mistakes – publicly as it just so happened – and learn from them (particularly as several of them present next month). They probably respect me just as much (if not more so) for making these mistakes as they would if the whole proposal had gone smoothly without a hitch. In way, I’m glad to have made these mistakes – and glad that I can once again embrace failure. That’s the best recipe for success. 



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Finding the Voice

For the past few months, my Back2skool blog has really been weighing heavily on my mind, as I struggle to find a voice in the crowd. When I started blogging in 2008, every day in the classroom was a new experience and I was like a child with technology. I found it so easy to let the ideas just flow onto the keyboard, through images and video. I also found that I tended to learn more through the reflective experience of typing each blog post – through the language that gives so much structure to one’s own learning.

This year, I’ve moved away from teaching kids and begun the next part of the journey – teaching the big kids as best I can while concentrating much of my efforts in trying to hone an academic voice (one worthy of the publishing I’ll need to secure a permanent position).  

Still in the process of working out who I am in the new environment, I find I’m more and more reserved in what I share, vetting the things I say and often going to great lengths to check my facts before I suggest something to a colleague or student. This isn’t the fault of the environment, per se – it just seems to be how I’ve adapted in the early stages of becoming an academic. 

So the struggle is one within the mind – and it’s one that I really hope to conquer in the coming months. I have plenty of ideas that, with the right time and thought, could be worth writing down online. Ideas like  teaching teachers, finding my place in a field of research and exploring new technologies are hopefully ones worth sharing.

Life is still (and perhaps always) a work in progress, but I’m determined to continue to put ideas out there that matter to other people. 

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No Ivory Towers

I was having a chat with my wife last night about our mutual experiences moving from secondary education into working as tutors and lecturers in higher ed as both of us complete PhDs. Felicity has a couple of years on me, being nearly finished with hers while I’m just beginning to dip my toes into the water. Her experiences played a big part in me finally deciding to take a break from the secondary classroom; she told me I’d spend a lot of time grieving the loss of the kids (I know – probably not the sort of thing a burned out teacher says… but we both loved teaching in schools and were very far off being burned out). 

During our conversation, I asked Felicity: what had surprised her most about trying to establish herself as a higher educator?

“What surprises me is the fact that, in doing the best job possible, I’m no longer a threat to anyone. There are plenty of senior lecturers and professors with more years of experience, publications and knowledge of the research than I may ever have. Any of them could easily cut me down if they wanted. But somehow, in the three years I’ve worked at uni, nobody ever has. People just value who I am, what I have to say and what I do.” 

This really got me thinking about the analogy of the academic sitting grandly in the “ivory tower,” far removed from the realities of the primary/secondary classroom teacher. It’s funny that academics are often criticised for their apparent lack of understanding – and I’ve often wondered if that’s really a fair assessment. 

My own experiences in schools isn’t entirely dissimilar to Felicity’s. Being keen, saying yes to great initiatives, working in teams to solve problems and collaborate, sharing who I am transparently with people – all of these things matter so much to good teachers and are important to the future of education. Any Google search reveals that there are brilliant teachers out there who willingly share ideas, resources, solutions and important questions with the world; their transparency and generosity speaks volumes about their professionalism. So when does that become a threat? For whom?

I think the answer to these questions has a lot to do with power and the simple paradox that while true education is empowerment of the individual, it should never really be about power, at least not the kind of power that corrupts. The real power can and should be in the knowledge, understanding and openness that we foster as teachers – in getting our students to become the people they want to be.

In being well-educated, each of us has enormous power in the world. We have, for example, privilege over those in developing countries simply by virtue of being born where we are. As teachers in Australia, we’re a part of the global minority, the 6.7% of the world’s population with a university degree. The perspectives on the world that we acquire through our education is an enormous part of the privilege we enjoy. 

So if we use our education to assert control over others, for our own political gain or otherwise, we’re abusing the power we have. Fortunately, the academics with whom I’m very lucky to work try extremely hard to be the best teachers they can be, knowing that they’re helping more people to gain a university education and become empowered. Fortunately, the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers with whom I’ve worked try extremely hard to empower the minds of young people and help them move towards the next stage in their lives. 

So for all the BS that goes on anywhere – the rhetoric, power-play, cards held close to the chest or cutting down – it doesn’t seem like there are any ivory towers anywhere near me. What a wonderful thing.  



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Two weeks in higher ed and things never looked better

Well, two weeks have passed on what has, so far, been a journey into my new career. Moving from secondary teaching into the world of Higher Ed was always going to be a steep learning curb – but I think I’m slowly working things out. Insights include the following:  

– Uni students are still students. They have needs and they still glow inside when I hand out stickers for good work. Sure, we’re all adults (and we have a chuckle when I explain how positive reinforcement works).

postscript – at the store today, I couldn’t help myself – and purchased three new sticker books…

2013 02 08 22 02 25


– The future of education in Australia is in good hands. The pre-service teachers with whom I work have hopes, dreams and passion for good teaching, creativity, loving their future students and nurturing their freedom of thought. 

– Many of these pre-service teachers went to school in tech-rich environments. “Digital divides” hardly seem relevant any more – and I feel like the ancient one when I admit that I went through high school in the mid-90s. At the end of the day, I’m still learning all the time from the students that I teach. 

– Juggling research and teaching is a real challenge. The criticisms of those in Eigher Ed (e.g. academics living in the ivory tower) aren’t fair any more than criticisms of primary/secondary teachers being “child minders” are. There should be room for middle ground – secondary teachers can be passionate researchers just as academics can be passionate teachers. My workload for the next week includes 40 hours marking, preparing for 3 classes, starting over 100 hours of research assistance work, doing the usual admin and, God forbid, making a start on my PhD.

– Nonetheless, I still celebrate openness. Studying a PhD in a higher institution is a luxury (check world figures on this and you’ll see what minuscule number of people actually have the luck and good fortune to make it to where I have). I feel that contributing back to research is the very least that can be done – and I openly share who I am and what I do.  


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Finding the Voice


Catch the wind

Catch the Wind” by Ian Sane (Flickr) 

One week on from leaving my job as a classroom teacher with nearly a decade of experience, I’m sitting down at the computer to once again find a creative angle on my life as an educator. As those who write infrequently know, it can be very difficult finding the voice after lengthy periods of silence – and all too often, the fear of “talking loud and saying nothing” can easily take hold and stop you from working out so many ideas in the head. The whole decision to hold off writing can become a non-virtuous circle very quickly. 

As a teacher, writer, researcher and blogger, I’ve often grappled with so many different ideas about technology, learning, creativity and thinking – ideas that are challenging, disarming, enlightening, scary, productive, useless, half-baked or life-changing. Most of the good ones belong to others; occasionally I’m lucky enough to have one of my own, whether it comes seemingly from out of nowhere or takes its time to germinate while I do something related or unrelated. At the best of times, I’m bubbling with ideas – so many that I find it hard to shut down and sleep. At the worst of times, the creative urges aren’t there; I can see there are plenty of ideas and I take my time chewing through as many as I can, but somehow my mind doesn’t seem to respond with its own take on things in order to form a perspective that can find a way through it all. So I accept my own confusion and form a sense of learned helplessness. 

I suppose thinking about creativity in Education is one way of making that blog post finally happen and there is something magical in the decision to sit down and write about some of the ideas – however small – that have made up my world in the past few months. Writing as a process of formation is perhaps a bit like catching something in the wind – if you’re lucky and skilful enough, you manage to take hold of it. However, the refusal to write, for me at any rate, so often means that the ideas end up never being fully formed, shared, scrutinised and allowed to breathe. On a personal note, this means that I never get around to writing that one post that could become an idea to change my practice or at least make me think a little more about what I’m doing. On a broader note, I think about so many people that work so hard, only to go home every night and de-stress in front of a DVD. How many good ideas are lost in the ether? How much wasted creativity do we risk by not continually exploring our own ideas and finding ways to share these with like-minded individuals? 

Of course, there’s really no easy answers to these questions. Perhaps asking them is more important than answering them?


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Warts and All

Earlier today, I finished a literature review that I’ve been working on as part of a project at the Macquarie University ICT Innovations Centre. As a working title, I eventually decided on “Warts and all: a review of C.21st learning,” figuring that it would be good for a chuckle when my supervisors copy edit the draft later this week. 

In the article, I did my best to look at some of the big game changers in technology education and how they play out through badly designed curricula, poor change management and a misplacement of focus on technology over pedagogy. As the title suggests, there really seems to be plenty of warts – but beauty isn’t always skin deep and it’s exciting to be able to sit and research some of the really exciting approaches out there – I’m certainly hoping that some of them rub off on me. My top five list ended up being:

  1. Personal learning networks
  2. Pedagogy first
  3. Atomization
  4. Design and computational thinking
  5. Real-time online collaboration

I’ve often thought about the problem with literature reviews – by their very nature, they tend to focus on justifying both the present and the future in the context of the past. In technology education, that kind of perspective can be somewhat limiting, given that so much of what happens in the future may have relatively little bearing on anything that’s gone before it. History has shown us that many of the great innovations didn’t always signpost themselves before they happened. Some might say that what happens, even at the best of times, can be quite chaotic and there’s excitement in the unpredictability of it all:


Arenamontanus’ “Chaos” 

After reviewing nearly sixty articles about technology in education, I’m starting to feel like everything’s been said and done and I’m going to struggle to find anything new. But just like the Lorenz system, even when we’re on a relatively set course and we think that nothing new can come of our thinking, new ideas – often tangential, disruptive, chaotic and exciting – will emerge. If we’re open to possibilities, our own ideas can surprise us. Was that what I was expecting? 

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Wheels of Change

I’ve just emerged from a tumultuous term, culminating in a farewell to my beautiful Year 12 English class, my own Masters graduation and, just a few days ago, notice of resignation from my current teaching position. All in all, you could call it a busy but very emotional time for me – and it will probably take the school holidays to process it all.

As a gift, my graduating English class presented me with a decorated book of letters, each one written from a student, about how I’d touched their lives. Even now, after several readings, the words really get to me and my eyes mist over. Of course, most teachers always work hard for every class, but as many will tell you, some classes are a little different and sometimes we just find ourselves connecting a bit more.   


I’ve always very much considered myself an introvert and it can be hard doing six period days, working with over a hundred young people, keeping track of my thoughts, communicating openly and finding the energy to do it all over again the next day. Most days I feel that just get by – all students need some kind of help, so I just do my best to offer what I can. Most of my students are really appreciative and I rarely have issues with behaviour or disengagement these days (lucky as I am to have been working where I have). 

Even so, sometimes students will tell you things about yourself that you’re not always prepared to admit.  I’m starting to realise that I overcompensate for my own negativity by being as resoundingly positive as I can when working with others. Naive? a little – but given that I’ve taken over thirty years to work things out and come to some point where I’m relatively realistic about my abilities, I’d rather my students go out into the world full of confidence, prepared to make and learn from mistakes without the crippling sense of self-doubt. A comment from one student in my book makes me think I might have managed that in a small way:

“Your warmth – every time I walk into the classroom – has given me strength to strive for my best. I hope to make you proud in my HSC exam, but even if I do not get the top band, I know that you know I have tried my best.” 

I found myself at Macquarie University last Friday collecting my degree, my own graduation as I move on into the world. Having forced myself to go along for the ride, I posted a Facebook update: “four years of this and I’m finally a Jack of all trades and a master of ONE.”


I’ve never felt really good at any one pursuit – possibly the source of my insatiable urge to learn new things and forever be the “expert novice.” I suppose that makes me a good teacher in some ways: I’m always excited about sharing new discoveries with kids and excited when they do too. I love research for the same reason – when I wade through a series of articles, I’m stupefied as to how little I know about the topic I’m supposed to already understand. Most steps feel like I’m at Square One again and that can be as liberating as it is daunting. At this stage, I have four degrees – and there’s a billion things that I’m no good at – but there’s only one direction to go when you’re focused on what you don’t know, and that seems like a good thing.  

A few days ago, I resigned my position as a secondary teacher, deciding to go ahead with my PhD full-time at Macquarie next year. I’ve been overwhelmed by the reactions of my compassionate and professional colleagues – dedicated teachers from whom I have much more to learn than to give. My nine years has nearly been a third of my life and I owe every success I’ve had to the support, mentoring and opportunities I’ve had there. Now seems like a good time to start something new and learn to see the world in a different way. 

I guess many things happen in threes – so now I’m catapulted into the unknown, on a journey that won’t necessarily make me wiser, but one that will maybe help me empathise with and learn from others. When farewelling my Year 12 class, I gave them a short speech about my three rules to living life:

1. Avoid harm.

2. Be the person you want to be.

3. Use the person that you are to help those around you.

I said, “if you can put these three things together, you’ve cracked it – life is yours and you’ll be happy.”

I think these three rules can work for me, but I’m still trying to work them out. I don’t really know who I want to be, so I’m just trying to work from 3-1, the other way around. At least I’ve got some time and am blessed with teachers from all ages who care enough about me to help me on the path. 

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Thought of the Week – We’re going mobile

I would imagine that I’d have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to notice the enormous shift away from desktop-centric computing towards mass mobility. Anecdotally, for those of us with smartphones and 3G tablets, we now find ourselves connected to the internet in one way or another most of the time – which brings new horizons, perspectives and uses that were previously never possible.
As we’ve also seen, the rise of “apps” and social media also reflects the growth of the mobile-driven internet. Very often, when out and about and pulling out phones from pockets or handbags, we need a simple app to fulfil a function such as checking a currency exchange, looking for that email we’ve been waiting on, Googling a fact and, increasingly, updating our status and telling the world what we ate for dinner!
This week’s post comes courtesy of Kim Davis and Mary Meeker, who put the shift to mobile within the enterprise/corporate world under the spotlight. While many educators have looked at what this shift means for education, it’s good to consider the corporate context too – after all, that’s where many of our students are headed, and “money makes the world go round.” :)
Interestingly, Davis asserts that “rapid mobile adoption is still in the early stages.” As we move into the hurricane, so to speak, developers, analysts, educators and business people alike will be looking at how our relationship with computing devices evolves. Mary Meeker’s main point is that mobility represents a largely untapped cash-cow; when there is money to be made, software and hardware development follows and, if we’re savvy, the consumer (teachers and students) can win. Mobility also presents some caveats and conditions though – and isn’t some kind of panacea for the world’s problems. As educators, I believe we need to understand some of the biggest differences between computing on a mobile device as compared with computing on a traditional desktop or laptop. As always, it’s a case of finding the right tool for the right job.

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LT Thought of the Week – How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)

I often argue that a useful analogy for technology is the toolshed: a place filled with a bunch of different tools that do different things for the right teaching/learning situation at the right time. Following this analogy, sometimes we need to spend a little time sharpening our tools and checking to make sure we know what each them is capable of doing. With this knowledge and understanding, we can usually take the right tool out of the shed and use it when needed.

Or can we? I think things get a lot more complex when we think about the “toolshed” housing the tools. Is it a place where everything is labelled correctly? Does a collapsed shelf or overturned table get in the way? Is the roof leaking? Does the light work? All of these things can stop us from reaching for the tool we need – and of course you could consider the “overturned table” to be a metaphor for something – the network, a software application or laptop battery – not working when we need it most. In any case, the analogy sticks.

This week’s post from Mark Weston via the Fluency Project explores the toolshed in more breadth and depth. “How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)” investigates some of the underlying problems in the support structures for teachers trying to achieve good outcomes – the “2 sigma” – for all their students. Weston’s belief is that the 2-sigma (the highest possible learning outcome) are simply not achievable given the load that is placed on most teachers in most schools:

Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.

In drawing our attention to the burden of trying to do the best for all of our students all of the time, Weston suggests that “education is failing technology” – that, in spite of the tools and infrastructure we have, there are underlying problems in terms of “organisational designs and decisions” with the system that need to be addressed.

Weston sees the solution as “putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.” Inherent in this argument is the importance of recognition of professionalism and agency over compliance and a repeated set way of doing things that isn’t questioned, revised or built upon. I think we all have so much to offer – and it’s our collective efforts that make the “toolshed” that is our school a well-designed, pleasant place to visit and find the right tool with the right support behind it.

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LT Thought of the Week – “Too Quiet in the Walled Garden”

All of us no doubt remember “Long Live the Open Web,” in which web founder Tim Berners-Lee presents a compelling argument on many of the threats to net neutrality and the open Internet. I think that engaging with ideas like these are a fundamental part of online citizenship and our role as teachers educating students to be good “netizens,” so to speak. 

This week’s article (no author indicated) comes courtesy from colleague who sent it my way today when he saw it on SMH. As fans of Berners-Lee and readers of articles like these, Greg and I often enjoy talking about some of the broader philosophical ideas on where technology is headed and what this means for education. “Too Quiet in the Walled Garden” presents what is really a very interesting and challenging perspective on our experiences with technology: that they are becoming more limited and restricted the more we “funnel” these experiences through hardware devices like smartphones and tablets and the walled gardens of software platforms like Facebook. Most critically, the author suggests that while tablets and mobiles may be good appliances, other computers are more generative: “they can be programmed to do more than they were set up to do.”

If we look at this a bit further, the idea of the “walled community” outlined in the article is rather a tempting option in education, isn’t it? Often, we want (or even need) control, parameters, predictability and safety. None of these things are bad, of course – but it’s a question of balance. On the other side, I think, you have a lack of control (less teacher control = more student autonomy), movement outside of the parameters (often through creativity that moves beyond the specified task), unpredictability (more of a learning partnership between teachers and students where, ideally, we learn with them) and less safety (i.e. more risk taking and more getting to know “the real world”). Of course, there are negative aspects of relinquishing control as teachers, but if we balance things well we can pretty much take the good and deal effectively with the bad. 

I think the key point we need to recognise is that the kinds of technologies we choose in the classroom need to suit the purpose of the task and the sorts of learning experiences we want to engender in our students. Mobiles are all well and good for some purposes, but I wouldn’t like to think of the kinds of restriction they would place on a student’s creativity were that student required to do everything through apps (all of which are subject to the approval of the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft). Extensibility and this authors ideas on the generative potential of technology are hard to ignore. At the end of the day, I want to know that my kids are capable of doing more – much more – than I ever imagined they could.
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