Is what we are teaching “life worthy”?

future wise

I got unashamedly excited when I saw the above book pop up on Twitter the other day and thought this looks like the kind of provocative book I’d be interested in!

You probably know Perkins from his work at Harvard, with Project Zero. After hearing him speak at the International Conference on Thinking a little while ago, with his straight talking, common sense but clever approach, I was keen to read the book. I’m only up to Chapter 4, but I’ve got far enough to share a few points.

Perkins’ book explores the idea of life worthy learning, in other words, learning that is “likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live.”

He leaps in with that pesky question kids ask – “Why are we learning this?” which I’ve been pondering myself. Being a very well behaved student who was more focused on grades than real world application, this has been a question I’ve thought about as a grown up, not really when I was sitting at a desk or on the mat.

Perkins then goes on to explore the quadratic equation. How many of you have used it (outside of teaching it, that is) in your lives outside of school? Very few? So that begs the question – is it really life worthy? He says that previous generations could count on their children’s world looking fairly similar to their own.  However, with the rapid changes in technology and globalization, we can no longer say this is true.

Which begs the question, what IS worth learning then? To this question, Perkins says some teachers have been exploring the 6 “Beyonds.”

  1. Beyond the basic skills – 21st century skills and dispositions
  2. Beyond the traditional disciplines – renewed, hybrid, and less familiar disciplines
  3. Beyond discrete disciplines – interdisciplinary topics and problems
  4. Beyond regional perspectives – global perspective, problems, and studies
  5. Beyond mastering content – learning to think about where content connects with life situations
  6. Beyond prescribed content – much more choice of what to learn

I must say, one look at that list and we can be chuffed that we are doing incredibly well in little old New Zealand! But there still remains the question of the quadratic equation and its friends that may be clogging up students’ time with non-life worthy stuff.

He also suggests children learn big understandings that are filtered through the following criteria, which I thought would (at least) be a great filter for potential inquiries in schools:

  1. Big in insight (helps reveal how our physical, social, artistic, or other worlds work)
  2. Big in action (empowers us to take effective action professionally, socially, politically, or in other ways)
  3. Big in ethics (urges us toward more ethical, humane, caring mindsets and conduct)
  4. Big in opportunity (likely to come up in significant ways in varied circumstances)

So, why haven’t we made many changes to the traditional structure of the curriculum and the delivery of this? Perkins suggests:

  • We don’t actually know what students will need for their uncertain futures – “The challenge of a curriculum rich in life worthy learning is more like a smart bet at the casino of life than it is a sure thing.”
  • Parental/community pressure – “I learned that. Why aren’t my children learning it?”
  • We pay more attention to the gap in achievement (from the middle to the lower achieving kids in the class) than what is life worthy, which means we tend to focus on teaching the same stuff better.
  • We are so caught up in teaching the curriculum and getting our kids to achieve that we forget that if you don’t use or apply the knowledge learned, you tend to forget it, and what’s the value in that?
  • If we suggest getting rid of certain bodies of knowledge from the general curriculum, we get the reaction that we are “sacrificing rigor” or we don’t want to deprive kids of the areas they are interested in and passionate about. So, clearly, there needs to be a balanced approach.
  • We want our kids to be well informed but, Perkins argues, how much information do we actually need to know off the top of our heads to live our lives? Perkins suggests we could become “expert amateurs”  and gives us the example of cholesterol – how much do we actually need to know to make informed decisions, live healthy lives and contribute to a basic dinner table conversation?
  • We are in a system where lots of things seem/are pretty locked in – university expectations, NCEA assessments etc.
  • There is a question around what we do with the “niche” or “technical” understandings that may not be life-worthy for the majority. It seems a bit rash to chuck them out.

So far, I’ve enjoyed all the examples Perkins gives and the way he rebuts the typical arguments one would expect to hear from some dedicated teachers. I am waiting for the really provocative bit though! Now… back to the book!


Are we inadvertently squashing kids’ thinking?


I’d like to invite you to collaborate on a doc that I think will be helpful to many teachers. I am curious about what we say and do to open learning up (or keep it open) versus closing it down or squashing students’ thinking.

The aim of the doc is to come up with a list of questions and statements that:

  • Open learning up – By this I mean, when you are having a conversation with a student, you might reply “can you tell me more about that?” or “I didn’t know that” or  just an interested look; which would leave the pathway of the conversation open to take many directions. The student’s thinking is also completely open and they don’t leave feeling squashed.
  • Close learning down – Here a teacher might respond to a student with a statement that means the student’s thinking is thwarted or stunted, like “not right now, we’re doing spelling”  or forced to take a direction they didn’t want to or that they didn’t need to come up with on their own, like “oh yes, we should make a diorama of that.”

I’d love it if you could share your ideas and add to the doc, which we can all use to highlight how important every single word, gesture and phrase we use is to students’ learning. I intend to use it as a reflective tool for myself too.

Thanks for your ideas!

Here’s the doc.

Get your diary out!


The dates for all 4 EduCafe events are set for the year, so pop them in your diary while you remember!

The dates are as follows. Questions will be decided by vote at the end of each EduCafe session so, as yet, only the first event question is confirmed.

Term 1: 19th of March – Click here for tickets.

Term 2: 21st of May

Term 3: 27th of August

Term 4: 19th of November

If you have suggestions for event questions please email me ( or Tweet me @emmawinder25

Myths about learning

It has always puzzled me that teachers tend to (on the whole, myself included) have very little knowledge of the psychology and neurology of learning. If learning is our core business and our body’s power house for learning is the brain…. then why do we know so little? So I have a goal this year, to explore the neurology of learning and hope to share some of this with you.

This TED Talk by Ben Ambridge debunks a few commonly held beliefs about learning, as well as a few more general psychological myths.

Ben Ambridge tells us:

1. Learning styles are myths – “It’s obvious that the best presentation format depends not on you, but on what you’re trying to learn.”

2. Although we know the brain is not a static organ and is able to be re-wired and changed through life, there seems to be a genetic basis for the difference in academic results at school –  “58 percent of the variation between different students and their GCSE results was down to genetic factors.”

3. There is no such thing as a left or right brained learner – “nearly everything that you do involves nearly all parts of your brain talking together, even just the most mundane thing like having a normal conversation.” However, ambidextrous people experience “both sides of the brain talk(ing) to each other a lot, which seems to be involved in creating flexible thinking.”

4. We don’t only use 10% of our brains, it is more like 100%

5. Listening to Mozart won’t make you smarter or healthier, but listening to something you like “perks you up a bit and gives you a temporary I.Q. boost on a narrow range of tasks.”

Getting stuck in the negative and the effects this has on others

What did we do before TED?! I watched a great TED talk recently on “Getting Stuck in the Negative” by Alison Ledgerwood and it got me thinking about staff cultures.

Alison talks about a “Gain Frame” (glass half full) and a “Loss Frame” (glass half empty). She links this to the way in which humans have a tendency to get stuck in the negative. She says it is easy to get brought down from a positive to a negative mindset but much harder to bring yourself back up from a negative. As we listen to the talk we can think of numerous instances of such a mindset in our own lives.

What really got me thinking was the impact this has on others, personally and in the work place. I know I have been a pain to live with at times, when I am stuck in a loss frame. Work gets stressful and it is almost impossible to avoid bringing that negativity home with you, where it poisons everyone you associate with. I’m sure I’m not the only one! Alison says in her talk that if “somebody snaps at you… you snap back” – just like if someone whispers to you, it is hard to yell back to them. Or if someone smiles at you, are you likely to scowl in return?

I used to do road patrol duty with a lovely boy who was always happy and every Tuesday I knew I would be infected by his smile, conversation and general demeanor. He would always bring me out of a negative slump if I happened to be in one.

I have also worked with people who seem not to recognise the immense power of the whinge (though I know I can be guilty of this too, it is a goal to do it less!) One person complains about a child in their class or how terribly busy they are and before you know it, that whole staff room corner is stuck in a Loss Frame.

I think it’s something to reflect on: How do you frame the things you discuss in the staffroom using a Gain Frame? How often do you infect people with positivity?