8 Ideas for University Student Leaders

Today I had the opportunity to address 300 incoming student leaders of residences at the Australian National University (ANU). As an ANU alumnus, I was asked to return to speak about my experience establishing Raising Hope Education Foundation and provide the students with advice for 2016.

After sharing the incredible academic journeys friends Helen Baxendale and Josiah Khor, I provided the following ideas for those present to reflect on.

1) Actively consider how you live you life.

The most successful people I have met are those who know their values and have have deliberately chosen to live their life in a certain way. Many go to the gym, regularly read new books, volunteer and attend events that give them new ideas or challenge their perceptions. While everyone is different, understanding who you are and actively choosing to live your life in accordance with your values is an important part of being prepared for leadership.

2) Look for your next step today.

By establishing plans and goals for the future, students can give themselves concrete reasons to be at university. If you can’t find one, it might be time to genuinely think about why you are at university and if it’s the right place for you to be.

3) Be conscious of your time – it is precious.

One of my former bosses once told me ‘time is our most precious commodity, you can’t buy it. Even the richest person alive craves more time.’ By being aware of this and using the time we have more effectively, all people can improve their leadership.

4) Complete your readings and attend lectures, but don’t be afraid of skipping a few.

Something I struggled with at university was attending lectures and ensuring I read required articles before attending tutorials. While some of the opportunities I had meant it was ‘worth it’ to skip the occasional lecture, I should have been far more diligent. Because of this, I didn’t get the most out of the academic side of ANU. A first class university requires students to be well-read and ready to engage in high-level dialogue. Unless you’ve done the readings and attended lectures, it’s difficult to make this happen.

5) Seek out ideas you disagree with.

One of my favourite memories of time at ANU is the discussions I had with those I disagreed with. From political issues to religion, having an open and respectful dialogue with people who held different opinions made me a much better person.

6) Be an active contributor to campus life.

Universities are inspiring places where students can take part in a diverse range of  extra-curricular opportunities and give back to their community. Actively participating in campus activities ensures a better university experience for yourself and others around you.

7) Get to know the awesome that is Canberra.

Living in the bubble of on-campus accommodation at ANU can limit your contact with the ‘real’ Canberra. While some students venture out into the deep South or North, many miss out on the local magic. From walks around Lake Burley Griffin, hikes in our local national parks, or visit the great local bookshops, exploring Canberra is a must for any ANU student.

8) Build relationships for life. 

Students should seek out real and long-lasting friendships. ANU is an incredible place full of opportunities to meet genuinely passionate and inspiring young people. Utilising this time to meet ‘your people’ who share a similar passion for life should be number one on this list, but left to last so that it was hopefully the most memorable part of my presentation.

Finally, similar to friendships, university is an incredible time to search for love. While many students, including myself, tried and failed to find love while at ANU, it is a noble goal nonetheless.

I hope that all students of ANU continue to share in the incredible journeys it has to offer, both now and well into the future.

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Kids need real opportunities to innovate

As a child, I was constantly reading my way into the worlds of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl or Alex Rider. I searched for a place with endless possibilities and freedom. Literature was my method of escape from the confines of our world. Like most kids, I was full of inventive energy and needed somewhere to let my mind wander.

Today, children around the world build their own clocks, design new apps or create their own Iron Man suit. Young people in Australia are also full of entrepreneurial energy.

With a new Prime Minister talking up ‘innovation’, we have to ask ourselves if the current education system is preparing our students to take part in this ‘most exciting time to be an Australian’?

Children seem to have a near-unrivalled ability to develop creative solutions to complex problems. However, they crave authenticity and the chance to live out their fantasies in the real world. With technology comes the possibility of helping make kids dreams a reality, while they are still young and free from the confines of a world that usually says ‘no’.

A few days ago I read this article about a Canberra primary student Will who had been selected as a finalist for Origin’s ‘littleBIGidea Competition’. The development of his idea – a blood test strip disposal unit – highlights the endless possibilities of student-lead innovation.

Online education platforms like the Khan Academy and Code.org provide incredible opportunities for students around the globe to learn modern STEM skills online. Unfortunately, without embedding the development of these skills within our curriculum, our students will struggle to compete with kids in countries that do. To really make this work we also need local grass-roots organisations that build excitement and passion in these areas.

The student designer Will and hundreds of other students have participated in events run by local Canberra company HACT. I have recently seen the passion of local HACT cofounder Matt Stimson, specifically designing a company to help young people get excited about the possibilities of technology. HACT runs events for kids aimed at developing their STEM skills like coding and enabling them to create their own tech from the ground up.

Children will only be inspired through opportunities where they can get their hands dirty and be inventive. Witnessing their ideas come to life and having an opportunity to pitch for real finance or support helps make this authentic. Mentoring and advice from those who have done it themselves is also crucial to develop our students.

Governments should consider working with organisations like HACT to incorporate this style of learning within schools. The example of Will and others highlight the importance of providing students real opportunities to develop their ideas. Either by partnering with local organisations or embedding an authentic style of tech-learning within curriculums, schools need to get in on the action.

The new Prime Minister is right, is is an exciting time to be an Australian. However, without the right investment in education and support for our students, the dream of a more innovative Australia will not materialise.

Using discussions to engage students in learning

I mostly groan when I remember some of the tutorial discussions I was required to attend at university. While some created a thirst for knowledge**, it felt like others were slowly destroying my brain cells.

I recall small rooms filled with tired or overzealous undergraduates, lead on a ‘journey of discovery’ by a tired PhD candidate. Generally there was a journal article or textbook chapter to read for the week. However, blank copies of unread writing lay bare for all to see… if they were even present.

For the poor tutor, extracting conversation out of some students was like a mother asking her despondent child ‘what happened at school today?’ For a few select students, a fountain of new knowledge came out. For most, it was an hour of cruel and unusual punishment they would much rather skipped.

I saw a few consistent problems with these discussions.
1) Many students were not prepared for discussions due to not completing set reading – myself included!
2) There was often no explanation of what makes a ‘good’ tutorial. Rules were rarely established; and because students could clearly opt out of discussions by refusing to contribute, engagement was low.
3) Each student engaged in the tutorial discussion in a different way. Some saw them as an opportunity to practice their debating skills while others mostly observed or simply stated an opinion.

After this experience, I was generally concerned about the ability of my own students to have such a discussion. What would happen? Would it become a heated argument? Would students just sit their in silence?

Well, last week I found out.

After honing some of my facilitation skills in the classroom over the past six months, I decided to trial ‘socratic seminar‘ with my Year 9 and 10 students. I was taught this discussion method by a particularly brilliant Deakin University academic Julie Dyer. It allows classes to discuss a particular question in a tutorial style format, responding to a text.

A topical civics example could be politicians’ entitlements. The teacher would ask students to read some news articles or opinion pieces, then have them participate in a 30 minute discussion on ‘what expenses should taxpayers subsidise for our politicians?’

During a socratic seminar, half the class participates in a discussion facilitated by a fellow classmate. The facilitators job is to ensure everyone contributes and helps to guide the conversation. The other half observe, each partnering with someone in the discussion to mark them on their participation. All students self assess and provide feedback to each other as a group at the end.

For the two classes, students in Year 9 discussed ‘What was the most significant change that occurred during the Industrial Revolution’ and Year 10 looked at the statement ‘Businesses should be allowed to scale pay rates for workers aged 14-20’.

I gave both classes only a short period of time to prepare for the discussion, challenging them to think quickly and engage how they could. This made sure they were all jumping into the deep-end of learning, but allowed them to have stimulus so they could contribute even a small amount.

Students were asked to value all opinions and to see that no answer was necessarily right or wrong within a discussion. I said that my hope was for them to gain a greater insight and learn more through hearing all views, like the Jedi Council…

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I was astounded at the participation rate. In all three of my classes, every student was engaged. While those observing were clearly not as stimulated, they still sat, listened, took notes and marked their partner on their progress throughout the discussion. For those participating, the early silence turned quickly into a highly engaged discussion.

Putting students into an environment where they were unprepared was also beneficial. At the end of the lesson, the class identified all of the key ingredients to a good discussion and noted that they all wanted more time to prepare. Their conversations were far from perfect, but the learning was there. Many students also agreed that next time they should be doing some reading at home to make sure they were ready.

Watching students share their own ideas, hear others and challenge each other was remarkable. I sat back and never had to speak, only walking around the room encouraging the markers to maintain their focus and keeping note on the whiteboard of how many times each person had participated.

It might not be rocket science, but it certainly felt like it. It is a genuine struggle to create an activity that is engaging for all students, but this did it!

All three classes have asked for us to do more of these in the future and I look forward to seeing them share ideas and challenge each other in a positive way.

I haven’t smiled this much all year.

‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.’ – Margaret Mead.

** I should pay tribute to some of the great tutors and lecturers I had while at ANU. Of particular note: Helen Keane, John Warhurst, Alistair Grieg, Adrian Bazbauers and Adel Abdel Ghafar.

Learning Through Theatre

Many years ago I had the great pleasure of experiencing the true magnificence of Geoffrey Rush as his royal highness in ‘Exit The King’. His portrayal of a dying monarch at the Belvoir Street Theatre was once of the first times I had opportunity to go and enjoy the theatre.

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A small group from school had traveled to Sydney on an arts excursion. While the trip itself was a memorable learning experience, the play gave me a unique opportunity to learn about death, power and relationships.

Recently I have been teaching Year 9 History. We spent the last few weeks immesing ourselves in the knowledge of the harrowing experiences Australian soliders faced in World War I, focusing on Gallipoli.

Students in my class often tell me they would enjoy learning far more from film or television but found it difficult to engage with ‘Gallipoli’ featuring a young Mel Gibson. Perhaps it was the 1980’s soundtrack… I have suggested they watch the recent television series.

This week I was lucky enough to attend ‘Black Diggers’ at the Canberra Theatre. An incredible performance by some remarkable actors brought to life the experience of Indigenous Australian soldiers during the war.

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‘Black Diggers’ focused on the struggle they faced with their family, the terrible treatment at home, their desire to enlist and fight and their hope things would change upon their return. We know over 1,000 Indigenous Australians enlisted and fought, reviving no change in their treatment after the war.

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I have encouraged students to try and see the peformance while it is here in Canberra. I explained that it is an incredible opportunity to learn through Theatre as I did during school. I wish I had managed to arrange a formal excursion to ensure they had this opportunity.

Australia has a long way to go with reconciliation and I only hope this play and others in the future will have the capacity to spark a change in the understanding many have of the darker side in our history.

As Shakespeare wrote in Henry the VI, Act 2, Lord Saye “And seeing ignorance is the curse of God, Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

My Experiment With Student Choice & Texbooks

I often overhear adults asking children ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’.

I have asked many students that over the past few years myself and am usually provided with one of three absolutely legitimate answers.

  • 1) I want to be *insert exciting career occupation*
  • 2) I’m not sure but I do have some ideas
  • 3) I have no idea….

Many children (and adults) are overwhelmed by the monumental choice of ‘what am I going to do with my life?’

Perhaps some are waiting for Hagrid to come in and say ‘You’re a wizard Harry’, for Obi Wan Kenobi to take them on an adventure or to go to Mount Olympus and pray to Zeus and find out you’re actually the child of a God.

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Life is full of choices. While our choices are limited by our education, circumstance, governments, parents or even our own self, you can’t deny that life is full of decisions that student will need to make.

In my opinion, schools are currently struggling to encourage independence and autonomous learning. From the standardised curriculum to the way we learn, grouping by age to uniforms, most schools continue to be bastions of conformity. Ironically, schools are often lead by some of the most progressive individuals in their communities. Yes there are some options and ‘student choice’ is becoming more present but it doesn’t go far enough.

We are still struggling to provide kids with a diverse platform where they can have some choice over what they want to learn in a structured environment. This would need to build their capacity and give them responsibility.

I see that this is changing though and I am glad to be apart of it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert but I absolutely want to give the students in my classes more choices at school.

As a new educator this year, I want to see student choice in my class and not just in silent reading. In week 2 I decided to trial ‘student choice lessons’ in my more settled Year 7 classes.

My Year 7s are studying ‘The Ancient World’, full of exciting possibilities for students to decide what they learn. Fortunately at my school there are a range of different textbooks for this topic full of accessible information and activities.

While I didn’t to begin with, I have since explained to the students that this is intentionally designed to get them accustomed to making decisions and realise that they are able to learn for themselves.

Once a week, after silent reading time and a short history discussion, students have the option to learn about a topic they are interested in. They are given a textbook each and have a few minutes to pick a subject from the contents along with an associated activity they feel comfortable with. If they cant choose I have two options written on the whiteboard for them to start.

After this, I quickly check with each student what society and topic they have chosen to learn and the activity. Students then read for a few minutes and begin to complete the activities.

During this time I have the opportunity to give additional support to students individually or in pairs or checking in with individual students. I then quickly check their work before they leave for lunch. It seems to inspire a greater love of learning than my other lessons do currently and students leave with smiles.

Each lesson I also aim to explain how gaining a love of ‘learning’ is one of the keys to success in life and that they should follow the curiosity their passions inspire, when they find them. I hope that by providing students with the opportunity to choose what they learn and allowing them the space to start thinking about choice, I will inspire them to start investigating topics they are interested in.

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While some need additional support and structure to engage with ‘student choice lessons’, it has proved to be quite popular with most students who say they appreciate the choice. Some have since asked to do additional tasks on subjects they will cover in Year 8, 9 or 10.

An idea I am now adding is asking students to write down 5 interesting facts they discovered at the back of their book during these lessons. This is so they can look back at the end of the year and see what they have achieved. The idea was suggested by one of my Teach for Australia mentors.

Hopefully this will give students more experience at making choices for themselves and might even help them to discover their passion! While it is only the beginning, this trial has been an interesting experiment and I have already started looking at other ‘student choice’ ideas for assessment pieces, lesson tasks and homework.

If you have any ideas, blogs or resources I should check out, please post below! I really appreciate all the feedback I have been getting.

Magic? Learning Through Letters

“I know this must be frustrating for you … Keep your nose clean and everything will be OK … Be careful and don’t do anything rash …”

While most letters are a little less cryptic than this one from Sirius Black to Harry Potter, communication from elders to our youth through letters is a memorable way to pass on knowledge in a personal way.

I few years ago I began writing letters and personal cards to the people I care about most. Generally this happens at Christmas but It also occurs infrequently throughout the year.

Through this practice, I came to find a love of letter writing and communicating through “snail mail”. While I’m a confessed Twitter addict, and love the power of digital communication, there is something rather magical about the power of letter writing, even if Hedwig isn’t delivering the post.

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This week, I have decided to share my love of letters with my students. I had been discussing with them my desire to help expose them to as many different perspectives on life as possible, through sharing with them the stories of my various friends throughout the world.

While I had originally focused on bringing in guest speakers and having Skype interviews through my class SmartBoard. While this seemed interesting to the students and many of them were excited about it, something gave me a new idea.

A few weeks ago my friend, photographer Travis Longmore, had a Facebook competition where you could suggest someone for him to send a free framed photograph to. After many suggestions, my classroom was one of the lucky ones to receive a small print.

Travis sent his photograph of an elephant to my classroom along with a note. I had a student read the note aloud and then we shared the photograph around the class.

Through his act of kindness, I was given an idea, what if all of my friends from afar and those interested in sharing stories with my students were to write me a letter with a photograph or postcards and send it to the school? I could share these stories as they arrived and pin them to the wall.

Since having this idea, I have spoken to friends all over the world who are keen to share their story with the students. While some will send them via email, each story will be an opportunity to show students a different path and someone else’s tale. Hopefully at least one of these stories will be interesting to each of my students.

My plan is to then get a student to write back to each of those who have taken the time to write to them, building their communication literacy.

Fingers crossed this takes off! I have already had a few wonderful friends write a letter and tell me it’s on the way. If anyone has any other ideas to add to this project, I would really appreciate it in the comments below. ALSO, if you would like to send my class a letter, please let me know! 🙂

Oh, and if anyone has seen my letter from Hogwarts, feel free to hand it over. I’ve been waiting since I was about 9….

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Top Reads for New Teachers

Do you ever think about the powerful lessons you learnt through childhood play?

Around the time I started high school, I was obsessed with the PlayStation game ‘Final Fantasy VIII’. While it was an impressive game, there was one section that taught me a great lesson.

During the game you have to train by engaging in small battles to increase your skill points. Skill points allowed you to ‘level up’ a character and with a higher level it was easier for them defeat the various enemies confronted during your quest.

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I arrived at a particular point in the game on an Island that had been invaded by some terrible enemy. I saved the game, ran into the city, and was about to face the next challenge.

Unfortunately for me, I had not trained enough. I tried time and time again to defeat the enemy but my characters were not strong enough. I had landed myself in a situation where there was nowhere to train and my skill level was too low to defeat the enemy.

During this moment I was very frustrated. I had played the game for hours and it was all wasted, I just couldn’t do it.

This made me realise the importance of preparation. Taking the easy route is not always the best long-term option.

It is for that reason that I have valued the extra years I have spent doing my bachelors degree part-time. Volunteering, working full time and taking every opportunity I could to learn and grow have made me who I am today.

My next challenge is starting soon. I will be starting to teach in 2015 with the Teach for Australia program.

To help me, I have asked my friends and tweeps for advice. One question I have asked it, ‘what book do you wish you had read before becoming a teacher?’

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Here is a list of answers from teachers all over the world. They come from Australia, the UK, US, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Title, Author

Conscious Classroom Management, Rick Smith

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Differentiation in the Classroom, Carolyn Tomlinson

Dream Class, Michael Linsin

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber & Mazlish

Ideology and Curriculum, Michael Apple

In The Deep Heart’s Core, Michael Johnston

Mindset, Carol Dweck

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire

Real Talk for Real Teachers, Rafe Esquith

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques, Doug Lemov

Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, Rafe Esquith

Teach Like A Pirate, Dave Burgess

Teaching As a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman

The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer

The First Days of School, Harry Wong

The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell

With thanks to the following tweeps for sharing their advice:
@DocbobLA@PeterDeutscher@zshanbatyrova@seminyaksunset@Jessa_Rogers , @MosierArnold, @MrazKristine@Roussel_Capra@FarrowMr, @UtahTOY2014, @alford_joanne, @DanielMCarr, @nashtysmans, @snydesn2 and @.

If you have any other ideas, or opinions on the books listed, let me know by commenting below.