Start with the child…

Start with the child, not the curriculum. Schooling is currently organised the wrong way around. The curriculum becomes the structure for the learning and is delivered via a timetable. Yet we know that every child is different so there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling. Learning and teaching should be designed around each child’s learning strengths and needs. In this way, the curriculum is the reference point, not the blueprint. 

~Greg Whitby

On the first day back after the summer break, we introduce our 2017 focus to our team of educators:


Check in: Choose a word that describes one of your strengths and then one you would like to work towards.

Sharing the justification for our choices serves both as an ice breaker in the cross campus, multi-year level groups, and as a provocation to think about and value the diversity amongst us.


A provocation: Watch till 2:38 and create a title that sums up the essence.

The video provokes a range of responses and lively conversation ensues. To what extent are we guilty?

Pre-thinking: Create an image that represents your first thoughts about the notion of starting with the child.

There are rich conversations about the possible connotations of the phrase and an exchange of ideas about what it might mean to us.



An appreciative inquiry…

Discover: What are we already doing?

It’s important to acknowledge the many ways in which we already start with the child.  This activity creates a space for cross pollinating ideas and sharing practice.


Dream: What are the possibilities for taking it further? 

Teachers are encouraged to imagine. What if…? How might we..? Could we…? How would we…?



  • How do we ensure we cater for diverse needs and interests?
  • How might we rid ourself of the idea of a controlled classroom?
  • Imagine if we didn’t have grades and reports.
  • What if we could get rid of Naplan?
  • What if we had one free choice unit of inquiry every year?
  • What if the children wrote the curriculum?
  • What if we didn’t have timetables?
  • How might we increase opportunities for cross age learning?
  • How might we build a culture where all children value each other?
  • How can we ensure social and emotional wellbeing of every child?
  • What if there were no bells interfering with learning?
  • How might we help every child to believe in himself?

Design: What will you do?

We ask teachers to record something they will start working on right away.

What will you do? Try out? Think about? Explore? Change? How will you ensure that you start with the child?

How are all learners’ needs for catered for?

Have you thought about whether or not all learners needs are catered for, as highlighted in an earlier post?

Which of these images resonates with your perspectives on inclusion, differentiation or simply catering for every learner’s needs? 

Multiple different entry points, well planned in advance, to allow access for every learner?

Or one broad, interesting, open-ended provocation that allows each learner to go to a different place…?

Image by Dominic Walter


How do you cater for all learners’ needs?

Do you plan for differentiation in advance of the learning? Or do you wait and see what the provocation reveals?

Do you teach first, then observe what learners need? Or do your learners have a go, before you step in to teach or support?

Are there opportunities for all learners to engage in a complex, meaningful problem in different ways, depending on interest, ability and preference?

Does agency and ownership allow learners to learn at their own pace, seeking support when they need it?

Does an inquiry stance in itself ensure differentiation and inclusion?

Related post: 10 ways to differentiate learning.

Are all learners’ needs catered for? 

How are all learners’ needs for catered for?
The design thinking model is an excellent way to approach the issue, forcing us to think about this from the learners’ point of view first.

It’s not the time to express your opinion or to make judgements. It’s too soon to identify problems or jump to conclusions. Ideas and solutions will only come later… Step #1 is EMPATHY and we need to focus on how the learners feel.


We go around the room, taking turns to put ourselves in the learners’ shoes. At various points, some or other students will feel…

  • invisible if their needs are not noticed
  • inadequate when they are unsure what to do
  • liberated when they have agency
  • valued when others take an interest
  • isolated when withdrawn from class
  • comfortable when allowed to express learning in their own way
  • important when their contributions are valued
  • anxious about others’ opinions of them
  • self-doubt when they can’t keep up
  • excited when they feel successful in their learning
  • understood, when their needs are identified
  • labelled (although some kids want to be labelled, it turns out)
  • confident when they can take the lead
  • secure when given time to think
  • pressured by high expectations
  • stupid when they don’t understand
  • appreciated for their individual abilities
  • frustrated when unable to understand or explain
  • rushed because of timetable pressures
  • afraid to show what they don’t know
  • proud when they achieve things for themselves

This stage of the process ends up taking the whole session. But it’s worth it…


Who are ‘they’?

It’s a joy to be spending a few weeks with precious little gifts, Matan and Shai, one blonde, calm and smiley, the other dark, energetic and curious. Perhaps they’ll grow to have much in common, but I think they will always be very different.

The local cousins have seven children between them, aged from 2 to 16, each one so different from the next, it’s hard to believe they are related. They have varying interests and strengths, some have discovered their passions, some find school tedious, each has their own unique learning story.

All of which reminds me of a question I often ask: Who are ‘they‘?

You hear about ‘them‘ frequently, in the things their teachers say…

‘They’ struggled with this.

‘They’ won’t be able to do that.

‘They’ don’t get it.

‘They’ are a talkative bunch.

‘They’ are an interesting group.

‘They’ are a tough class.

They can, they can’t, they do, they don’t…

There is no ‘they!’

Every learner has her own way of constructing meaning. Each one has something valuable to contribute. Each learns in a different way. Each has talents, challenges, interests, needs and a personal story that matters.

Stop lumping ‘them’ together in one generalisation.

And leaders, your teachers are not ‘they‘ either!

Back Channelling in the classroom…

Does ‘the research’ know best?

“I think that enough research has been done on the delusion of multi-tasking to say, yes, do all the back channel stuff, but perhaps leave it to afterwards?” … This is part of a comment left on my previous post, in which I introduced the notion of back channeling as a form of documenting for learning.

Perhaps it’s a skill one can develop with practice, since many are able to do it successfully.

Or perhaps it’s best seen as part of a collaborative exercise. Different people capture different elements in the back channel and the combined results are greater than what you could have achieved on your own.

Or perhaps it’s simply not for everyone.

One size does not fit all

The comment writer says  “I take copious notes during presentations and then go back to blog on them, however I’ve tried at times to do the twitter backchat thing and find I can either listen properly or tweet, but not both.”

It’s the opposite for me. Personally, taking copious notes is what distracts me from the content. Distilling the essence in tweets works better for me. One size does not fit all… nor should it. Not in life and not in the classroom.

Which is why @langwitches introduces teachers to a range of different options in her presentation. And it’s why she introduces the students to a range of options in the lessons she models throughout the week.

Back Channel in the classroom

‘The back channel is the conversation that happens behind the real life front conversation,” says Silvia by way of introduction to Today’s Meet, which the students will use to document their thinking during this particular lesson. ‘You’re going to have your own chat room.’ The students are instantly engaged!

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 2.09.35 pm

It takes a bit of time for them to get used to watching a video and expressing their thoughts in the back channel simultaneously. Some find it easier than others, but that’s ok. They are all learning to use the tool today. Once mastered, it can be just another option in their tool boxes (and that of their teacher) to add a layer to the learning, used by those for whom it’s useful at appropriate times.

After a while, Silvia switches to the ‘front channel’ to discuss what’s going on in the back channel. When a student writes something inappropriate, it’s a ‘teachable moment’ and she happily takes the opportunity to talk about audience and purpose.  Hopefully, lessons are learned. She skims through the comments with the students, highlighting valuable contributions, listening to their observations and pointing out good techniques, like inserting an @ when replying to an individual. Silvia points out that the teachers observing in the room are learning too.

The learners are practising a range of transferable skills – reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, analysing, applying, interpreting data, decision making, evaluating…

Students comment ON the back channel IN the back channel:


Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 2.29.40 pm

How might you use the back channel in future?

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 2.44.25 pmAnd some other ideas…How about sharing a back channel with another class in our school for a discussion?  Or a class in another country – synchronously or asynchronously? What if teachers shared their learning with their class while they are out at professional development? As Silvia says ‘It starts with imagination… ‘

The back channel as a source of data

Silvia meets with the teachers later to unpack the back channel. The process involves pasting the transcript into a google doc and ‘cleaning it up’. Any irrelevant comments (lots of ‘hi’s’ and ‘sups’ to begin with) are removed. Misconceptions are noted for addressing. She shows the teachers how to use Skitch to annotate a screenshot of the remaining conversation with different colours representing different kinds of observations.


Some students were able to repeat points they heard in the video, some asked and responded to questions, some connected ideas and demonstrated original thinking. It’s a rich source of data to inform teaching and learning and a way to assess a range of skills.

Documenting OF and FOR learning

And all the while, we are documenting the learning, that of the students and that of the teachers, through photos, video, annotations and notes…


and via ‘that’ Twitter back channel…

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 3.47.43 pm

What are your thoughts on back channelling?

#2 in a series on learning with @langwitches

10 ways to differentiate learning…

Once upon a time in the olden days, the teacher stood out front and taught the whole class the same material in the same way. Everyone was expected to do the same tasks, some passed and some failed and were labelled ever after. The focus was on teaching, not on learning. One size was supposed to fit all and if you learned in a different way, too bad for you.

Time passed and it turned out that everyone didn’t learn in the same way after all. The teacher realised that learners have different needs, interests and abilities. Differentiated instruction was invented. The teacher prepared different tasks for each group in her class and preparation now took a whole lot longer. The needs of the learner were being better catered for, but the teacher was up all night.

She needed to think about differentiation in a different way.

10 ways to differentiate learning…

1. Let go.

Give the students (at least some) ownership of their learning. Don’t always be the boss of the class, be part of the community of learners. Don’t make all the decisions. Allow choice. Encourage students to think about how they learn best. Have students decide how to demonstrate their learning.

2. Change your expectations.

One size does not fit all. Not everyone fits the traditional mould of school, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. You might need to change what you do. Remember you teach people, not subjects.

3. Change the sequence.

Learners don’t need total mastery of all the skills before they can apply them. Provide meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for everyone. Turn Bloom’s taxonomy on its head. All students can solve real problems and write for a real audience.

4. Use technology creatively.

Blogging, film making, global interactions, social media, photography, gaming (and much more!) …all provide naturally differentiated opportunities for learners with varied levels of ability, different interests and special talents.

5. Care about what matters to them.

Encourage learners to follow their interests. Know their story. Make their learning relevant. Connect with their passions… or help them to discover what they might be.

6. Assess for learning.

It’s not about a test at the end. Record student thinking and track development over time. Create meaningful assessment tasks that allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Think of everything as an assessment. Every piece of work, every blog post, every interaction, every conversation can tell us where a learner is at and where they need to go.

7. Embrace inquiry as a stance.

Create a culture of thinking, questioning, wondering and exploring. Start your questions with ‘What do you think?’ so that all responses are acceptable. Find ways to provoke learners’ curiosity and a desire to find out for themselves.

8. Don’t be the only teacher.

Students can learn from their peers, other teachers, parents, their on-line contacts, the world. Help them build their own personal learning network with and from whom they can learn.

9. Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.

10. Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback. Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

If you’re the teacher in the story above, take a look at this chart, highlighting the differences between differentiated instruction and personalised learning. Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization by Barbara Bray.