Frames of Reference

Want to communicate more effectively?

I do. It is something that I have been trying to improve lately by employing simple strategies like asking more questions (rather than simply providing answers), constantly asking colleagues for advice, and having a peripheral sense of empathy.

Seeking advice is one easy way of establishing relationships in any environment. By seeking advice we communicate that we respect and admire others’ insights and expertise and subtly invite that person to make a commitment to us. It says to that person that you are open to different perspectives, are considered and that you create opportunities for others to contribute and to lead. I am by no means an expert but as I develop I am finding a combination of powerful and powerless communication techniques like hedges, tag questions and intensifiers are all great ways to earn respect and influence by inviting others into the conversation.

Adam Grant in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success explains three broad styles of interpersonal dealing: Taking, Matching, and Giving. Takers are those who try to take more than they give. Matchers are those who try to give and take equally for their own best interests. Givers are those who give more than they take. Grant states that “it’s possible to track the flows of energy through networks by rating interactions (between nodes on the network) on a scale from strongly de-energizing to strongly energizing.” This is true from my experience. Takers are like black holes that have a gravitational pull that others around them feel. Givers on the other hand inject light into a situation or organization by shifting their frame of reference to the recipients perspective. When we try and understand others’, we can make the mistake of staying within our own frame of reference and asking ourselves “How would I feel in this situation?” Switching reference frames requires us to ask instead “how would this other person feel?” This is a subtle but important shift.

I used to love explaining reference frames to students as a precursor to the study of Einstein’s Special Relativity. A reference frame is simply a framework that is used for the observation and mathematical description of physical phenomena and the formulation of physical laws, usually consisting of an observer, a coordinate system, and a clock that could assign times to positions. As part of that discussion I used to show the 1960 film below created by the Physical Sciences Study Committee featuring University Physics Professors Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey. It’s brilliant and explains why we need to have peripheral empathy and be able to escape our own reference frame when interacting with others.

The Creed of the Persistent and Passionate Mind

In Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, Diamandis shares the importance of having principles and truisms that can guide you in times of difficulty and opportunity. He shares;























What are your go-to principles?

The Normalized Child

In Video Games & Learning, Kurt Squire quotes The Absorbant Mind from Maria Montessori written in 1949:

“Normalized” children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others…. An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery….One is tempted to say that the children are performing spiritual exercises having found the path of self-perfectionism and of ascent to the inner heights of the soul.

Instead of normalizing test scores so that we have a nice bell-shaped curve, wouldn’t it be prudent if we devoted our energies into promoting what Montessori describes as “normalization?” ie. Enabling students to develop a,

“Love of work that includes the ability to chose work freely and to find serenity and joy in that work.” (The Absorbent Mind, pg.202)

This is what the ‘back to basics’ movement should be all about – awakening students interest and curiosity and empowering them to pursue this interest, thus igniting a passion for learning.

Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in a Digital Age, is a strong argument for the question “Why Games?” and is littered with case studies that show how games can be used for learning. Squire has an obvious interest in strategy games such as Civilization and uses this to frame his arguments.

Highly recommended. 

The Techno-Human Condition

Technologies inhabit two rather independent realities. First there is the reality of the immediate effectiveness of the technology itself as it is used by those trying to accomplish something. This is a level 1 technology (ie. a jet airplane). The other reality is that of systemic complexity – level 2 technology includes subsystems that when acting together create emergent behaviour that is often unpredictable and infinitely more complicated. (ie. the air transportation system)

From The Techno-Human Condition:

At level 2 one gets phenomena such as “lock-in” which occurs when economic, cultural, and coupled technology systems coalesce around a particular way of doing something – as we see in the automobile industry, where hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology is feasible today, but the energy-supply infrastructure necessary to support it is not. The gasoline internal-combustion engine is thus “locked-in” by the economic interests of the suppliers of petroleum fuels, the physical infrastructure of the pipelines and gas stations, the interdependency of gasoline internal-combustion engines and gasoline, and the cultural role of fossil-fuel consuming automobiles.

“Lock-in” of course, does not imply that technological change is impossible – merely that it strongly tends to follow the paths that reflect past system states. This concept of “Lock-in” relates directly to the current state of education reform. 

Education reform is a hot topic precisely because everyone has a vested interest in education and claim varying levels of experience and expertise in either attending or working in the system. What is apparent however is that no other industry ignores it’s research more than education. Building upon the works of progressive educators such as Dewey, Piaget, Papert and Heppell, we know what education should look like – and it looks very different from the rigid, timetabled, standardized approach advocated in most areas today. Whilst there is pockets of reform and innovation happening in education sectors around the world, the education system, as a level 2 technology, is “locked in” by the economic and emotional interests of policy makers and commercial stakeholders. The inertia inherent with system-wide reform efforts and policy changes makes me think that we may be wasting time with the continual dialogue about the “schools we need.” Instead of waiting for policy-makers to make decisions, those involved in education at a local level just need to follow the Channel 4 slogan, “Do it first, make trouble, inspire change.”

The Techno-Human Condition is a challenging look at the implications of the exponential growth and developments in technology and the implications that this has for society. The book explores the possibility of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies such as neuropharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, genetic modifications, prenatal dietary interventions and computer-brain interfaces, to eliminate ageing and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities.                                        

Highly recommended.

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

“For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your team. Picture that person (or people). Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. You’ve got to reach both. And you’ve also got to clear the way for them to succeed.”

On the plane to New York I got the chance to read Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. This book is relevant for anyone leading change in their own school, no matter how large or small that change is. It is based on the premise that ‘change is hard’ and ‘people hate change’ and delves into case studies of people who have successfully led change initiatives in industry, business, education and their personal lives. The book highlights the fact that no matter what change you are trying to lead, successful change agents share some important characteristics and successful change initiatives share a common pattern. In short, to lead change, people must do three things:

Direct the Rider

  • Follow the Bright Spots
  • Script the Critical Moves
  • Point to the Destination

Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the Feeling
  • Shrink the Change
  • Grow the People

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the Environment
  • Build Habits
  • Rally the Herd

For a more detailed account, the Heath brothers have made a downloadable overview of this change framework available from The book itself, includes a detailed section on overcoming obstacles – relevant for educators who encounter problems as they fight for change (I think we have all heard at least once – “Why should I change? This is the way I have been doing it for years….”), along with advice about overcoming them. The Framework makes sense. Too often we only focus our change efforts on the Rider, without trying to motivate the Elephant – ultimately the Rider gets tired and the change effort fails and the status quo remains. This book has given me a new perspective – I highly recommend it.

My first day in New York, I got a chance to spend some time with the Institute of Play team and visit the Quest2Learn school. This is an innovative games-based learning school which currently has 6th and 7th graders with a new intake of 8th graders for the start of the next school year. The focus is on an integrated curriculum, systems thinking, reasoning and deduction, where students get to learn key academic content whilst involved in game play and games design. A unit of work is called a mission, and within each mission there are quests as students respond to real-world and fantasy stimuli in order to solve problems that are personally meaningful. I will write a more detailed account of this visit in the coming days as this approach really needs to be shared far and wide – great collaboration between students, teachers, curriculum experts and game designers and developers. In the meantime, check out SMALLab, something the Quest2Learn school makes extensive use of in some of their missions.

SMALLab @ Arizona State University – 2009 from aisling kelliher on Vimeo.

The Facebook Effect

“From Sixdegrees to Friendster to Facebook, social networking has become a familiar and ubiquitous part of the internet.” – David Kirkpatrick

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick, provides a fascinating insight into the development of and the people behind Facebook. From near acquisitions from a host of tech companies including Yahoo and Microsoft, to Mark Zuckerberg hedging his bets initially, and continuing working on a file sharing application he named Wirehog, all while Facebook grew into a multi-billion dollar company.

Whilst the first 100 pages or so basically recounts the early history and the ensuing legal battles that Zuckerberg faced initially about intellectual property, the rest of the book goes into detail and recounts the many defining moments of both the company, the co-founders and the major players behind Facebook’s success. It is fascinating to read about the company as it grew from a dorm-room at Harvard into a business that is now valued at over 20 billion dollars. The talent that was behind Facebook was incredible – just to name a few:

Dustin Moskovitz – cofounder Facebook/ now working on a project named “Lille”

Charlie Cheever – Quora founder

Adam D’Angelo – Qoura co-founder

Steve Chen – Youtube co-founder

Mark Andreeson – author of Mosiac (the first web browser)/ co-founder on Ning

Chris Hughes – Obama administration social media campaign organizer/ Jumo Founder

Sean Parker – Napster, Plaxo

Matt Cohler – Benchmark Capital (venture capitalist firm)/ General Manager LinkdIn

The concept behind online social networking is not new. Something like Facebook was envisioned by engineers who laid the groundwork for the internet. In a 1968 essay by J. C. R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor titled “The Computer as Communication Device,” the authors asked, “What will on-line interactive communities look like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest.”

Aside from pockets of innovative teachers, education is still slow to adopt the concept of social networking. The main concern is privacy, litigation issues and for a lot of teachers, a fear of the unknown.

James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School explains, “Facebook has severe privacy problems and an admirably comprehensive privacy-protection architecture… Most of Facebook’s privacy problems are… natural consequences of the ways in which people enthusiastically use Facebook.” One of Grimmelmann’s central points is that the violations of privacy that occur on Facebook are frequently the result of the behavior not of the company but of people a user has accepted as friend. This is the point that most people who resist the use of social networking in education miss – it isn’t the tools, but the people who use the tools. This is why we need to be educating our students about safe, effective and ethical behaviour in an online environment. Schools need to be doing this – because if they don’t, who will? Schools also need to be cultivating the next batch of Mark Zuckerberg’s – and this won’t happen if we keep pushing the ‘back to basics’ and standardized tests mantra.

Mark Zuckerberg is a true entrepreneur, a fascinating individual and has as a slogan, “Don’t be lame.”

In 2011 I’m going with this slogan, “Don’t be lame.” – What will your’s be? 

Dumbing Us Down

“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique indivdual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are , whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important; how to live and how to die.” – John Taylor Gatto

In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Talyor Gatto, a picture is painted that says the reality is that compulsory government schooling has nothing to do with education, doing little but teaching young people to conform to the economy and social order. A multi-award winning teacher of over 30 years experience in New York, Gatto’s book outlines what he believes is the destructive nature of schooling and goes on to state that everything he has done in his career has probably been to the detriment of most students. He writes about the seven lessons that he has been mandated to teach: 1.) confusion 2.) class position 3.) indifference 4.) emotional dependency 5.) intellectual dependency 6.) provisional self-esteem 7.) constant surveillance and the denial of privacy.

Gatto says that schools in their current state are unreformable and is a champion of the homeschooling movement. He suggests that we should remove the certification requirment for teachers and let students learn about what matters to them, what their interested in, whenever and wherever this may take place.

The most powerful part of this book for me is the full transcripts of the acceptance speech’s that Gatto gave when recieving his many awards. He uses his own award presentations as a forum to attack the very same educational system that is honoring him. Gatto describes schooling, as opposed to learning, as a “twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it.”

No doubt, some would find this book controversial, but Gatto makes a compelling, passionate case against the one-size-fits-all model of education that is now so prominent.

Steve Hargadon recently interviewed John Taylor Gatto in the Future of Education interview series. You can find the recording at

The Case Against Standardized Testing

“Standardized testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it now threatens to swallow our schools whole.” – Alfie Kohn

In the Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the …, Alfie Kohn explains how little test results really tell us and just how harmful a test-driven curriculum can be. In this book, Kohn explains that:

– High scores often signify relatively superficial thinking

– Many of the standardized test around the world were never intended to measure teaching and learning

– A school that improves its test results may well have lowered its standards to do so

– As much as 90% of the variations in test scores among schools or states have nothing to do with quality of instruction.

– Far more meaningful measures of student learning – or school quality – are available

The proliferation of standardized testing has radically altered the kind of instruction that is offered in schools to the point that teaching to the test has become a prominent part of the educational landscape. Teachers often feel obliged or are indeed mandated to set aside other subjects, for weeks or (particularly in schools serving low-SES students) even months at a time to ‘prepare’ for these tests. The test essentially becomes the curriculum.

Kohn explains that the “One-size-fits-all testing systems have approximately the same effect on quality curriculum that a noose has on breathing.” Standardized tests promote memorization, are inherently biased and inconsistent with the real world. They are given to individuals, and not to groups, and helping one another is regarded as a serious offence. The tests are timed, placing a premium on speed rather then thoughtfulness or thoroughness. The tests are given too frequently and this reflects the assumption that all students learn at the same pace – this obviously isn’t true.

Kohn shares a quote from educator Bill Ayers who says that standardized tests ignore the fundamental characteristics of what makes a good learner – “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting, and least significant aspects of learning.”

The reality is that the types of learning experiences that students remember once they graduate are those that are personally meaningful, intrinisically motivating, real, relevant and authentic -deep learning takes place atthe interstices between disciplines.

What I found interesting about this book, and upon further research, is that there is almost no evidence to support the effectiveness of standardized testing. Kohn states, “The controlling top-down push for higher standards may actually produce a lower quality of education, precisely because its tactics constrict the means by which teachers most successfully inspire students engagement in learning and commitment to achieve.”

Steve Hargadon recently interviewed Alfie Kohn in the Future of Education interview series. You can find the recording at

The book really brings you back to the fundamental question: What is the purpose of education?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Genorisity in a Connected Age, gives an overview of society from pre-idustrialism through to the present day and forecasts the effect social media will play in the coming future.

Historically, looking at pre-industrial London, most of the citizens drank copious amounts of gin. According to Shirky this was their “social lubrication” – they used their free time to drink. They drank as life in pre-industrialized London was hard and dirty and this provided them with a coping mechanism. During industrialization however, the concept of the 40 hour week was introduced – 8 hours a day to work, 8 to sleep and 8 to do whatever you wanted with. Combined with increases in educational attainment, increases in life expectancy and advancements in technology, society had to find something to do with all this new found free time – so they watched TV. Alot of TV. That is changing with the explosion in social media that allows society to become not just consumers, but also creators and active participants on a global scale. To put this in perspective, Shirky shares that US adults spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV whilst it took just 100 million hours to create wikipedia into what it is today.

Shirky poses the question: Imagine what we could do if we could harness a small fraction of the world’s cognitive surplus?

It got me thinking of the huge amount of time, we as educators spend reinventing the wheel – especially in the areas of curriculum and policy. Wouldn’t it be great to have a one-stop shop that pooled evidenced-based best practice, PBL resources, cross-curricular ideas, self-paced professonal development modules etc. etc.

Clay Shirky spoke at a TED event in June of 2010 – have a look if you get the chance.

Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar

“A Buccaneer-Scholar is anyone whose love of learning is not muzzled or shackled by any institution or authority; whose mind is driven to wander and find its own place in the world.”

I have just finished reading Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success by James Bach. This is a great book that really resonates with the fact the school can no longer be identified as the primary place of learning. It really deserves a more detailed post, but their are just way too many great ideas and quotes that stem from this book to do it justice. To share just one, James Bach asks the question “What is Education?”and then answers,

“Education is not a heap of facts. Its not the hours we spend in classrooms, or the way we answer test questions. Its not indoctrination, not worshipping the ancients, not obedience to authority, not taking anyone’s word for what is true, false, vital, banal. Education is the “you” that emerges from the learning that “you” do that matters to “you”.”

This book is required reading. I also recommend listening to the interview that Steve Hargadon conducted with James Bach in the Future of Education interview series.