Travel, they say, expands the mind. And never more so if the object of your journey is to work with other expansive educators.
So I am happy to report that rumours of the demise of expansive curriculum thinking in Australia and New Zealand are premature. That’s not to say that times are not challenging in both countries as I will touch on later. But innovative teachers were very much in evidence wherever I went.
Educating sick children
My first day was spent at the newly designed Children’s Hospital in Melbourne where it was my privilege to work with hospital educators. Not content with doing a remarkable job of creating flexible learning opportunities around very sick young people, the teachers are trying to expand their charge’s horizons, building their resilience and optimism in the light of the difficult situations they find themselves in.
Bridging the gap between schools and grant-makers
Bringing schools and philanthropic organisations together for the benefit of learners is the ambitious aim of the project – Tender Bridge – Michelle Anderson has created under the aegis of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). I was speaking at an event for principals, grant-makers and others in Melbourne. The topic was ‘creating an engaged society’. As I spoke and listened it occurred to me that while we often stress our interest in the kinds of capabilities we are seeking to cultivate in young people, we must never forget that unless teachers and other adults can engage with young people, what we do in classrooms is of little value. You can take a learner to water but you cannot maker her drink.
The way that Michelle is actively involving grant-givers and schools in understanding better how engagement can be encouraged seems a very powerful and necessary first step on the road to expansive education. For she is helping schools to use an understanding of learnable intelligence to unlock teacher and learner attitudes to their own growth. It’s exciting to know that Guy, Ellen and I are writing a book for ACER about expansive education initiatives globally to be published next year and in which we hope to feature several Australian examples.
And when educators consciously seek authenticity and practical engagement they often champion expansive techniques. I was, for example, delighted to meet Russell Kerr who attended the event and whose organisation Hands-On Learning has made a dramatic impact on re-engaging teenagers who have dropped out from school. This kind of practical learning is surely what we should be offering all young people and so expanding their capabilities in this area to create more manipulate learners.
Expansive Learning Network
From Melbourne I headed out to Geelong with Shanti Wong from Deakin University who, with colleagues, has created a sister organisation in Australia. This Expansive Learning Network is expanding young people’s capabilities to learn by putting them firmly in the driving seat of their learning and by actively drawing on approaches from the learning sciences such as the development of growth mindsets from Carol Dweck’s work. Students from the school where we were holding the event interviewed delegates about their day and have uploaded a video here.
Bankstown Girls High School
From Melbourne to Sydney and a whole school training day on a Sunday! Yes I really mean a Sunday. So keen were teachers to develop their understanding of expansive education in general and BLP in particular that they opted to work on the weekend in return for an extra day’s Christmas holiday. Bankstown is an example of a school which has fully explored the opportunities of expansive education from two ends of the spectrum. It is embedding BLP into all of its pedagogic processes and it is encouraging its staff to become active researchers as part of its new professional learning community. At the same time its principal, Betty Harper, is adamant she will keep the best of the school’s curriculum heritage while adopting the new Australian National Curriculum from 2013.
Expansive Learning in New Zealand
From Sydney it is a short hop to Auckland and the opportunity to collaborate with a wonderful organisation, Learning Network NZ led by an extraordinary educator, Faye Huwaii. A whirlwind tour of the North Island gave me the chance to work with practising teachers and spend time with principals in Whangarei and Auckland.
As in Australia, school leaders in New Zealand find themselves working in interesting times with central government. In NZ this involves a new focus on accountability and teacher standards that is constricting the wonderfully expansive, capability-based National Curriculum they have. My core message here was the same one we are finding helpful in England; that expansive approaches both develop more powerful learners and help teachers to ‘get better results’.
As expansive educators we have to hold on to the two decades of research, much of it so effectively synthesised by New Zealand’s own expert, John Hattie, as well as by, for example, the IoE in London. This evidence shows unequivocally how learners who have more advanced conceptions of how they learn and can use these in the real world of their learning do better on all counts.