Adventure Time – an experiment in student driven learning…

Most formal curricula have hundreds of outcomes. If you were to address them individually, you’d need to be at school for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 20 years…

What if you relinquished control and let learning happen?

What if the students had opportunities for authentic, meaningful, self-directed learning, through which many of the curriculum areas were addressed?

Last week I visited Jina’s class as they were preparing to present their pitches for ‘Adventure Time’. The couple of pitches I witnessed incorporated multiple curriculum areas and a broad range of trans disciplinary skills.

It’s interesting, then, that teachers think they can’t spare the time for this sort of learning!

I’ll be observing the learning with interest as this experiment unfolds and documenting it here.

Here’s what the kids are saying…

A learning community…

Do you feel part of a learning community?

What teams exist within your school?

How do you build a culture of learning within and across your school teams?


We start the year with a whole school gathering, an address by the principal in which he welcomes new staff,  shares achievements from the past year and outlines goals for the next. 

Moving inwards to the next circle, we have a two hour workshop for P- 6 staff across our three campuses, facilitated by the Teaching and Learning team.


  • Get to know each other across teams and campuses.
  • Develop a shared understanding of the primary school goal for the year.

Almost a hundred teachers are seated at tables in groups of 6. Constantly moving between groups will allow opportunities to meet and talk to a range of people, while engaging in educational dialogue.

  • Choose one of the chocolates on the table and say how it represents you. The ice is broken and everyone is laughing before we go any further. 
  • Examine the visual (above) and discuss what it says to you. The responses are varied and interesting, questions are raised and discussion is animated as we consider the purpose of each of the teams.
  • Explore the goal: Use data to inform teaching and improve learning.

What is data? Teachers are asked to classify a dozen items under the headings of data or not data. Some groups debate whether informal, subjective information counts as valid data. Others question how much information we get from formal testing. Watching Peter Reynolds’ The Testing Camera reinforces that testing is a snapshot, not necessarily representative of where the student is at. The conclusion is reached that everything is data. Observing students and listening to the learning, analysing their thinking and questions, watching them play and learn and interact will provide much more data than testing alone.

  • Traffic light protocol (adapted).  Teachers highlight which types of data they are already using, which they are uncertain about and which they haven’t yet considered.
  • Hopes and Fears protocol (adapted) This provides an opportunity for teachers to share what they hope to achieve in terms of our goal and where they might need support. (We are gathering data too!) 

The activities have given everyone the opportunity to clarify what data is, consider how they already using it and how they might in the future. They have engaged with the big idea that everything is grounded in evidence. We don’t just plan lessons and teach them. We build our planning around responding to the individual needs of every learner. (We are ready to take this further as the year unfolds.)

  • Individual and group reflection time. Did we achieve our objectives?  A ‘Plus Delta’ protocol (with which we try to conclude all our meetings) returns these amongst the popular responses: 
    • Opportunity to meet and talk to different people from different campuses.
    • Clearer understanding of what data is and how we will use it.
  • What does the school value? Each group brainstorms a list, based on the workshop we have just had. Responses include some of the following: 
    • Learning.
    • Each child reaching their full potential in all areas. Student centred learning. The wellbeing of every child. Holistic development. Individuality. Meeting all children’s needs. Targeting teaching to student needs.
    • Collaboration and communication. Collegiality. Teamwork. Community. Relationships. Each other as colleagues. Staff input, ideas and initiative.
    • Deep understanding of learning. Educational dialogue. Teachers as learners. Critical and creative thinking. Different perspectives. Reflective practice. Purposeful PD which models purposeful teaching and learning.

Our workshop has been successful.

Moving inwards to the next circle… 

What are your beliefs about learning?

Do you just go in there and teach or do you think about the ways in which your students learn best?

Just mention the periodic table and my daughter bursts into song  ‘Hydrogen, Helium…’

She has little if any interest in things scientific or mathematical. She hated maths at school and I recall a science teacher once reporting to me that she had fallen asleep during class. It was a race to see whether maths and science teachers gave up on her or she stopped trying first. She spent her final years at a school that specialized in the arts, where she focused on drama, theatre, art and music. These days, at 26, she is fluent in Spanish and runs a children’s arts and literacy foundation in Ecuador.

So how is it that she recalls the periodic tables fifteen years after learning them?

As part of a 6th grade performance, the music teacher set the elements to music. The catchy tune and the elements of the periodic table have stuck in my daughter’s head ever since.

What does this tell us about how learning works?

What does it tell us about the ‘one size fits all’ model of school?

What are your beliefs about learning?

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.