a site for serious play

On the shoulders of giants…



Shouders of Giants by David Goehring (CC Flickr)

Last week I attended the EduTech conference in Brisbane–a huge affair with over 3000 delegates! Keynote speakers included some of the “giants” in contemporary educational thinking such as Daniel Pink, Ken Robinson, Stephen Heppell, Alan November, Gary Stager, Ewan McIntosh and our own Stephen Harris. Whilst there, my guilt about not having completed my VICPLN “homework” abated somewhat as I realised what a great opportunity I’d been given to “stand on the shoulders of giants” (Isaac Newton) and reflect on what it means to be a 21C teacher and learner. Here’s my brief take on what the giants had to say:

Daniel Pink:
Pink drew on Science to offer some thoughts about motivation. The three key motivators for enduring performance, said Pink, are:

    • Autonomy: We engage in an activity when we’re required to get there under our own steam, and we engage when we’re required to do non-commissioned work (i.e. work that is not constrained)
    • Mastery and Feedback: Making progress depends on feedback and feed forward
    • Purpose: People need purpose to do something better

And the biggest takeaway: The notion of “FedX days” (aka “Ship-it” days or “innovation Days”) where teachers and students are given time to do whatever they want–to do “non-commissioned” work. But whatever work is produced, must be shared with others.

Just came across this fantastic video tweeted by @medkh9 to illustrate the difference in creativity between commissioned and non-commissioned work in a 3rd grade classroom. The video’s creator , Elad Segev, invites viewers to try the same project and send him the results.

Ewan McIntosh:
The gist of McIntosh’s presentation is encapsulated in this video he showed:

And McIntosh’s advice for learners?

  • Be curious
  • Listen to yourself
  • Humble is cool
  • Good energy is infectious
  • Find a way

And the implicit advice for teachers?

  • Don’t take away students’ opportunities for creativity and curiosity
  • Provide periods of time for “design thinking”–periods of deep immersion in an idea
  • Give learning back to students
  • Let students find the problem (by asking ‘Why am I doing this?”) and the solution
  • Link learning to Claxton’s  pillars of learning: challenge, collaboration, responsibility, real things, choice, curiosity.

Teach students it’s okay to:

F – first
A – attempt
I – in
L – learning


Here’s a presentation by Ewan McIntosh delivered in January this year at the International Conference on Thinking. It’s long, but it’s the next best thing if you didn’t make EduTech.

Stephen Harris:
For schools to change, vision, strategy and resources must align. Shape the learning culture at every level.

  • Collaborate
  • Take risks
  • Question everything
  • Do, then ask (Icelandic mantra)
  • Grow a team who understand paradigm shift
  • Create the vision together

Harris’ full presentation can be downloaded from his blog.


Gary Stager: Stager is an education revolutionary leading the charge of the Maker Movement into classrooms around the world. Riding on the educational theories of Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky and Papert, Maker Learning is “learning by doing.” It’s not a new concept–children have been “making” for eons, but what sets the “new” maker learning apart is the incorporation of digital technologies which enable the reanimation of traditional forms of “making.”  Check out Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show to see what an 8 year-old maker is doing.

Image: Teachers as Makers Academy New York (ISKME cc Flickr)

Maker learning in the classroom blurs the boundaries between subjects, and the boundaries between academic and vocational activities. The best projects, noted Stager, “push up against the persistence of reality… they create memories, and that’s the core of our business.” When designing projects for students, aim for:

  • brevity (your question should fit on a post-it note)
  • ambiguity (give students a choice in how they address the problem)
  • freedom from assessment (remember, prescription kills creativity)

Stephen Heppell

His main points:

  • Return the trust to the students
  • Giving students identical projects is like giving them identical haircuts
  • introduce kids to technology EARLY
  • Make learning spaces playful
  • And for teachers: “If we don’t believe it [the power of technology], who the hell will!”


Alan November:

A great classroom is one where you can remove the teacher and the learning continues

November advocates that technology hasn’t been the change agent we hoped for; that we haven’t learnt how to kick-start the “expensive stuff” and  the dominant use of digital technologies continues to be as a $1000 pencil! So how do we use technology to make learning more effective? November says:

  • Change the purpose of work to make it more meaningful
  • Let students pose the questions
  • Apply knowledge in a context
  • Flip the classroom – let students do the talking, the challenging

Ken Robinson

Sir Ken

A very impressive presentation for someone who had to deliver it at 2am local time!

The purposes of education:

  • Economic
  • Cultural
  • Social engagement
  • Personal

The principles of improving education:

  • Create a climate of possibility in which people flourish
  • Recognise diversity
  • Nurture creativity
  • Recognise that life is organic and non-linear

Finding your element (the title os SKR’s new book):

  • Do something that you are good at
  • Do it with passion and your energy will be lifted

A final Edutech thought:

This conference was not about technology. It was about learning! For more resources on the conference, check #edutech on Twitter.

Characteristics of the 21C Learner
So where have these giants taken me in terms of identifying five (let’s make that six)  characteristics of a 21C learner? And what role can digital technologies play in each of these? Here’s my list:

Creative: This has to be at the top of the list, and serves as an umbrella characteristic for the other six characteristics noted here. Traditional understandings of creativity consider it a “special” quality possessed by eminent individuals, especially those in the arts. More recent understandings of the term, however, adopt a wider stance and view creativity as something possessed by all individuals and capable of being expressed in all areas of human endeavour. For many, Ken Robinson touched a sensitive nerve when he declared that traditional educational settings stifle creativity in schools. The creative process, he notes, is so often constrained in a world of high-stakes assessment, outcome-driven curricula, and rigid school structures and schedules.

It’s broadly acknowledged that the use of digital technologies can foster creativity by enabling users to think and act in ways that have been previously inaccessible or non-existent. Digital technologies provide new tools, media and environments that enable individuals and groups to build and share knowledge in ways that support exploration, play, risk- taking, collaboration and reflection. And then of course, there’s the sheer ability of digital tools to engage and motivate learners. But, as Elad Segev’s video above suggests, access to all the technology in the world wont’t foster creativity if the the parameters of a project place too many constraints on the learner.

Flexible: Learning is iterative and circular. It really is all about the journey and not the destination. The 21C learner needs to be prepared to wander down dark alleys, rest awhile to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going, maybe go back to the start and try a different path, and basically enjoy the sights and sounds at every twist and turn. Digital technologies provide a wide range of “travel options” for learners. They can take learners further and faster; they can help learners meet fellow “travellers” and offer myriad ways to share  and create travel stories.

Curious: Simply put, you can’t learn if you’re not curious; curious about “How can I use this information?” “Why am I learning this?” Rote learning is not learning; it’s regurgitation. Listening isn’t learning until you convert it to something personal–and that won’t happen until you’re curious. So how can ICT help the curious learner? Well, it certainly makes for a much deeper rabbit hole, and a rabbit hole that one can explore anytime, either alone or in the company of others. And no matter where a learner is (within reason) their personal rabbit hole can be right there in their pocket.

Passionate: As the decisions on what to learn, how to learn and the ways in which learning can be demonstrated shift onto the learner, self-drive–or passion–becomes a prerequisite for learning. Whilst curiosity might light the  learning fire, passion will fan the flames and keep the learning going . So where do digital technologies fit into this? Like anything, “variety is the spice of life” and the enormous range of ways in which a learner can discover, create and share using digital technologies can keep the passion alive by engaging and motivating learners.

Collaborative: My recent EduTech experience was a great reminder that learning together can be so much more powerful (and fun) than learning alone. There’s no way that I could have left the the conference with a record of all the gems of wisdom I wanted to revisit at my leisure. But thanks to digital technologies I now have that record. The Twitterstream, Twitter aggregators such as Storify, and delegates’ blog posts have helped me create my conference quilt that I shall snuggle into over the next few weeks.

Intellectually courageous: Although this comes at the end of my list, I believe this characteristic is perhaps the quintessential one. Creative ideas are often the product of intellectual risk-taking; of continuing down the path without knowing what lies around the corner, or in fact, without even caring what’s there. It’s a characteristic that lies at the heart of Michael Schrage’s “serious play”- the notion that underpins my own learning and which inspired the name for this blog. The digital landscape provides a perfect playground for the intellectually courageous learner. There are endless opportunities to try new things in new ways. As well, the collaborative nature of digital technologies enable learners to take risks in supportive environments where feedback and feedforward are offered.

And what did I learn whilst writing this blog post?

  • I couldn’t have done it without the support of those in the Twitterverse who kept the #edutech backchannel buzzing and who provided me with a wonderful summary of the conference.
  • To embed a video in a WordPress blog just paste the link and then unlink it. WordPress will do the rest!
  • To stop unwanted text appearing next to images, change the image alignment to “none.”
  • My next-to-no knowledge of coding is improving on a “need-to-know” basis. It’s something I’m going to keep working on!

Author: diannelaycock

Teacher Librarian. Doctoral student, University of Sydney.

4 thoughts on “On the shoulders of giants…

  1. Great summary, Dianne. My head was spinning for a couple of days after EduTECH but the quote that I can’t get out of my head is the one from Suan Yeo – “Are we educating our children for our past or their future?”

    • Thanks Jacqui. Yes, that is a great quote from Suan; it’s hard for us to give up what is so familiar to step into the relatively unknown. Unfortunately time prevented me from mentioning all the sessions I went to at EduTech… maybe they’ll be the subject of some future posts. I would like to reflect more on Martin Levin’s notion of ‘digital normalisation’ where we accept the use of digital technologies as second nature. I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet. Cheers.

  2. We were jealous of you as we saw the tweets from EduTech- but now I feel like I’ve at least been there in some way. It seems like the conference dovetailed well with your PLN work, and I also saw a few people mention that the conference wasn’t about technology but learning. That’s part of what we tried to do too, think about learning and then how technology can support, change or augment the experience. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Hi Cameron, the coinciding of EduTech and my PLN activities certainly was serendipitous. It was a good reminder of how PD can be delivered in so many ways.
    Before the conference, when I was thinking about the characteristics of an effective learner, I had in mind “risk-taking” as an essential. EduTech certainly built on that idea and I like the way that it was presented as “intellectual courage” – fits in nicely with notions of emotional and physical courage. Cheers.

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