Schooling for Personally Significant Learning: Is it possible?

Schooling for personally significant learning – pipe dream or possibility? Dean Ashenden’s recent paper ( suggests that it’s very unlikely. Peter Taylor and I are a bit more sanguine, despite the obstacles, as we explain in our recent paper. 

Schooling for Personally Significant Learning: Is it possible? 

Erica McWilliam and Peter Taylor 

This is a sequel to our paper:

Personally Significant Learning: Why our kids need it, why they are unlikely to have it, and what we can do about it. 

What’s the difference between schooling and learning? Most schools claim to meet the individual needs of students, but is this the same as ensuring that learning is personally significant to every one of those students? And how much credibility does the entire schooling sector have – government and non-government – when it comes to delivering on its marketing promises?

In a recent paper[i] reflecting ruefully on Australian schooling over the last hundred years, educational policy analyst and commentator Dean Ashenden makes a strong case that schooling and personally significant learning continue to be at odds with each other.  Drawing on John Hattie’s effective schools research about what works and doesn’t work in classrooms, Ashenden is unequivocal in concluding that the plethora of reforms that we have seen since the 1960s and continue to see flagged in the Gonski Report, have had little or no impact on the “‘organisational facts of life’ to which teachers must adapt”.[ii] Moreover, he argues that most teachers have little if any say in how schooling in general works. They are made aware very soon after their first appointment that most of the daily routines of the school are already set as non-negotiables. ‘This is how we do things here’, is more likely to be the message than ‘we look forward to hearing the exciting and innovative suggestions you have for our school’.

So what are these “organisational facts of life” (OFLs) that shape the daily work of teachers, and is there any way out of the ‘change but no change’ conundrum that continues to bedevil our schools?

OFL 1: Schooling is a set of institutional arrangements and related expectations involving governmental authorities and bureaucracies, professional educators, parents and students.

Schools are subjected to a host of regulations that must be met in order to allow them to function as bodies accredited to educate and care for young people. Over the many years since schooling was made compulsory for all children, the regulatory framework of schooling has been expanded according to include a wide range of policy matters – health and safety, timing of holidays, modes of reporting and so on – for which there is a broad public consensus. This consensus extends to quite explicit expectations for the student experience of schooling. Often consensus has been hard won, with the various stakeholder groups bringing contesting perspectives to the table. Where there was once consensus about the right of the principal to cane students, for example, there is now consensus around the right of the child to be safe from physical and emotional harm in while at school. Put simply, no school employee is free to function outside the policy framework and related expectations of the school as an accredited educational institution.

OFL 2: Teachers have a legal duty of care to their students equivalent to that of caring parents.

Being in loco parentis means that teachers are expected to exercise responsibility and judgment towards their students equivalent to that of a good custodian or parent. As is true for ‘good parents’, the duty of care that teachers have when they have children in their ‘custody’ means that teachers are not free to let their students explore physical and virtual spaces in whatever way they choose. So regardless of a teacher’s personal philosophy about the relationship between ‘freedom’ and ‘learning’, teachers must work within prescribed ‘safety’ parameters, which are themselves expressions of the broad public consensus discussed in OFL 1. Many teachers can still remember a less regulated culture in which teachers could pile their entire football team on the back of a ute, or take kids on a camp or excursion without being buried bureaucracy. Not possible now.  Today’s teachers are at times criticised by their counterparts in commerce and industry for their timidity in not opening all possible windows and doors to their students’ learning. But in loco parentis means custodial care of a minor, and this requires more caution and constraint than would apply to working with an adult.

OFL 3: Classrooms are organised around lock-step principles based on age, and progress is determined by ageing, not learning.

It is not so long ago that children who ‘failed’ were required to repeat a grade, which put them in classrooms with a younger cohort of their peers. This is now regarded as demeaning for the child both socially and academically. In post-war times, we have followed in a trend to build what William Glasser called “Schools without Failure’. As the rhetoric of reporting shifted from ‘F’ to ‘Very Limited Achievement’, so all children progressed to the next year level regardless of their progress in learning. An army of special education professionals was brought in to provide extra scaffolding so that learning deficits could be met without the ignominy of ‘staying back a grade’’. While there is much that is laudable in this, the relentless forward march of many struggling students deferred the visibility and consequences of learning deficits until a later time, often around Year Nine. Disengagement from school-based culture and activities may well begin much earlier.

OFL 4: Teachers continue in the main to work separately from each other in classrooms that hold similarly aged students.

Despite the value attached to teamwork in many work environments today, most teachers still do their classroom work as singular and separate individuals. They go among their students like Gulliver among the little people. As the one adult in charge of more than a score of energetic children, a classroom teacher is under pressure from the outset to see successful teaching as the effective management of busy, ‘heads down’ seat-work. While some ‘team teaching’ and ‘open area’ experimentation did occur in schools in the 1970s, the persistence of traditional pedagogies made them mostly unsustainable. Many teachers are still self-conscious about being ‘seen’ teaching by their peers or by anyone who might evaluate their teaching negatively. As Ashenden puts it, “teachers routinely mistake busyness for engagement, activity for learning”, with the result that  “students – the experts on the quality of the teaching – mostly report encountering only a handful of teachers who made a lasting and positive impact.”[i] The stark reality is that, while we have probably been taught by up to sixty teachers in our lives, we remember only two or three as ‘good’ ones.

OFL 5: The curriculum structure frames, and is framed by, OFL 3 and OFL 4.

Teachers are not free to teach whatever information they like in whatever way they like. They are expected to introduce their students to the specific concepts and information set out in a syllabus to be ‘covered’ in a particular timeframe at a particular year level. This syllabus, in turn, is part of an overarching knowledge framework, which was once state-based in Australia, but is now being standardised as a National Curriculum. A key rationale for this move is that children who move from state to state (eg, children of defence force personnel) are not disadvantaged as they have been in the past. But while the structure of a nationally standardised curriculum serves a positive purpose in this respect, it can leave many teachers with a sense that ‘coverage’ of information is more important than learning to learn. In a ‘coverage’ classroom culture, children are likely to see the goal of learning as retaining information for successful completion of standardised tests.

OFL 6: The rhythm of the school-day and the school year are deeply embedded cultural artefacts resistant to substantive change.

The rhythm of schooling – the segmentation of its hours, days, weeks and years – was originally developed to be aligned with, and to prepare young people for, industrial work. The time-based industrial working day demanded a departure from the rhythms of agrarian work, which were closely aligned to seasonal changes and the length of daylight hours. Now that two working parents is the dominant first-world socio-economic model, scheduling matters like the start and end of the school day, term and year, the timing of holidays, and the timing of parent-teacher interviews and parent information evenings, cannot be shifted around with impunity. They are inextricably linked to household arrangements, including not just when and how children will arrive at their school, but how extra-curricular activities are to be included and sustained. So the invitation to provide, through on-line affordances, a more flexible set of arrangements that allow for learning “just in time, just enough and just down the hall” is one that is likely to be refused, not because teachers or school administrators are intransigent, but because it cuts across unwritten social contracts about when and how educational activities will be offered. Parents want to know when their children will be in the care of schools and teachers.

OFL 7:  Teachers are responsible for measuring and reporting on individual student achievement and potential.

In times gone by, principals and or teachers had a broad licence to report the progress or otherwise of their students in whatever way they chose. So comments such as “all Ages were Dark to Duckworth” were acceptable as long as the spelling and grammar were correct. Risk management policies have now merged with a student-centred culture of positivity to militate against both sarcasm and negativity in school reports. As a result, reporting tends to be oriented to achievements and successes rather than failures and deficits, as outlined in OFL 3. While in theory this is certainly progressive, it can and has meant that an entire generation of teachers have constructed their reports by means of a computer-based drop-down menu of no-risk, generic comments that have been prepared and authorised in advance to ‘cover’ all aspects of a child’s schooling performance. So Duckworth, now Darren, is spared the sarcasm and the relentless focus on academic achievement alone, but is now described (along with other Darrens) as an A3 (‘has the potential to do better with more diligent application’), B2 (‘friendly and popular with his peers’), C4 (‘work improves when completing routine tasks under close supervision’). Darren is likely to be at home playing digital games when his parents are trying to make more sense of this report at a parent-teacher interview.

OFL 8: Classroom activities are mostly set and co-ordinated by teachers.

Despite all the rhetoric of student-centredness, children come to school expecting to be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Showing initiative is always lauded in theory, but good classroom order depends on routines, and these in turn on predictable beginnings and endings to allocated tasks. Rewards may be given for finishing a task quickly and/or well, and then some discretion might be allowed in terms of activity options. However, as made clear in OFL2, the use to which any discretionary time is put is necessarily limited by the duty of care responsibility of the teacher. Many of the tasks done by students come to them in the form of worksheets, accompanied by teacher explanations or expectations. These are often retained from year to year by teachers, some of whom update them periodically.

OFL 9: The industrial classroom is dominant architecture for people management in schools.

“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is good at doing’, says neuro-scientist John Medina, “you probably would design something like a classroom”.[ii] It is a design that has served as an efficient means by which to sort, discipline, train and credential masses of young individuals for highly regulated industrial workplaces. So well has the industrial classroom performed this function that it is only in recent times that designers of formal education settings have begun to understand the aesthetic appeal of a space and place of learning as being inextricably connected with the higher functions of learning. In the history of the modern schooling architecture, the importance of an interesting and attractive environment has been treated as an expensive ‘frill’, to be added only if and when practical matters, like the mastery of the 3Rs, have been addressed. As a result, “uninspiring and misplaced rooms … planned according to functional and financial requirements” have been the in-school reality worldwide, with inadequate maintenance “making the conditions of the aesthetic even worse”.[iii]  Some teachers are lucky enough to teach in beautiful and flexible surroundings, but they are in the small minority.

OFL 10: Test results and university entrance scores remain the dominant measures of the quality of schooling.

What’s counted counts. The entire trajectory of schooling continues to be predicated on the absurd presumption that the highest calling in life is to enter university, there to continue to be so academically successful as to become a professor. While much lip-service has been paid in recent times to the idea of educating ‘the whole person’, there is no doubt about the strong investment many parents have in test results that lead to a higher education degree. This perhaps most evident in the decisions parents have made, particularly at the secondary level, to invest in the independent schooling sector over the last 20 years. It follows that standardised test results and university entrance scores take on an importance out of all proportion to their actual value in university or higher education entry (now with multiple pathways) and the twenty-first century workforce, as many highly-qualified unemployed workers world-wide can now attest. The tension between the goals of providing a positive experience of learning and improving test scores puts pressure on everyone. Governments both federal and state seek to show that their students are doing better on international (PISA/TIMSS) or national standardised (NAPLAN) tests. Parents who seek to assure their children’s future look to enrol their children in schools with ‘a good reputation’ for doing well on such tests. Teachers may find their appraisals impacted by an improvement or otherwise in the collective performance of their classes from one year to the next.

Where to from here?

It’s clear that teacher effectiveness is an urgent matter for schools. A recent submission from Queensland State School Principals to the Teaching and Learning Senate Inquiry names the current “quality of teachers” as “inconsistent”.[iv] Their submission goes on to say that “the prolonged and time-consuming processes involved in dealing with under-performing teachers” allow “poor-quality teachers to remain in the system”, and moreover, that “meeting accountabilities and reporting requirements” is distracting more capable teachers from their core pedagogical work.

Little wonder, given the reality of schooling as outlined above, that many teachers come to see highly effective teaching as at least an improbable goal, and at most an impossible one. Meanwhile, they continue to bear the brunt of criticism in the media and elsewhere for what schools are not doing to ensure that young people graduate as ‘keen and sceptical’ learners. “Schools are squelchers,” says creativity guru Richard Florida from the safe distance of the Harvard School of Economics[v], and it is for this reason, he says, that we should looks to life after school, not during it, as a time of creative possibilities. Other commentators like Marc Prensky are dismissive of schooling because of the sector’s slow uptake of digital learning[vi] despite the fact that many teachers are now, like their students, ‘digital natives’. ‘Going digital’ is important, but ‘going pedagogical’ is more important.

Perhaps more problematic for teachers than outsider criticism is Ashenden’s assertion that “highly effective teaching is hard to do, hard to learn, and hard to find. It is exceptional.” His insistence that schooling “only functions well in the hands of a maestro, and that maestros are thin on the ground” can have the unintended consequence of suggesting that highly effective teaching is unlearnable, and that teacher effectiveness is unimprovable. Unfortunately the OFLs listed earlier tend to reinforce this sense of pessimism – they suggest a context that is inflexible, immobilised by decisions that precede the work of teachers or shrink it down to a matter of risk minimisation.

We agree with Ashenden that “tinkering with pay structures, teacher education, bonus schemes and the like” will not turn ineffective teachers into effective ones, but we insist that teachers can learn on the job and, as a result, their teaching can become more effective. For this to happen, teachers need to unlearn the fixed mindset that frames their professional identity as either that of a ‘maestro’ minority or a mediocre majority.[vii] Framed in this way, it is too easy for teaching to collapse back into the ‘born-not-made’ fallacy that makes a nonsense of the value of teachers’ professional learning.

Teachers can and do improve their effectiveness. They may not leap from mediocre to maestro in a single bound, but that is all the more reason to refuse such binary categories in favour of a ‘growth mindset’ that re-frames all teaching as improvable, and effective pedagogy as learnable.  Similarly, we see many of the OFLs as open to contestation, and therefore to change.

In fact, we see these two possibilities as interdependent, and therefore only achievable if mutually addressed. Changing the OFLs, for example by tinkering with the timetable to produce shorter or longer lessons, in itself will not lead to an improvement in the effectiveness of the shortened or lengthened lessons.  Likewise, seeking to introduce new pedagogical approach such as problem-based learning without addressing the expectations of parents and students (OFL 1) is doomed to failure.

Schooling for personally significant learning is a daily achievement that demands the exercise of deliberate interventions in the otherwise predictable rhythms of schooling, and routines of classroom practice.  Importantly, these interventions need to recognise and scrutinize the existing OFLs and routines as a point of departure.  This might seem at odds with the well-recognised injunction to ‘start with the end in sight’, but our experience suggests that just focusing on the eventual destination – even if it is as laudable as the achievement of ‘personally significant learning’ for all – provides little real assistance to schools and teachers who want to teach and learn more effectively. Professional development needs to focus on the journey, not just the destination.

Our work in supporting professional development through the use of site-specific ‘smart building’ is one approach that is generating both greater teacher optimism and actual improved teaching at a school-level. This approach is based on the following deceptively modest propositions.

  • – All teachers share the desire (explicitly or implicitly) to improve their effectiveness in the interests of the children they teach.
  • – Teachers are more likely to learn from each other than from any passing expert or guru.
  • – When teachers get to see their own work and that of their peers (not something that OFLs readily facilitate) in a safe professional space, real possibilities are opened up for building more effective practices.
  • – As teachers come to value the expertise of their peers, and to engage in constructive sharing of that expertise, they re-professionalise themselves.
  • – When school leaders promote such sharing and conversations, they promote the development of a culture of educational professionalism.
  • – School staff’s whose professionalism is strengthened will find the means to adapt OFLs in ways that promote achievement of their professional goals.

These are the conditions under which teacher learning becomes personally and professionally significant, and contagious.

Smart building as a teacher improvement process has three inter-related strategies.  The first involves the establishment of a small group of ‘thought leaders’ to champion and model the overall approach.  The group should include teachers from different areas, and at different levels of leadership.  That group is responsible for identifying quite specific foci for sharing/improvement.  In one instance in one school we have been engaged with, the initial focus involved the routines teachers use to start lessons, and engage all students.  A particular focus is used for a set period of time, eg, a semester, and is then replaced by an equally specific focus in the next cycle of smart building of peer practice. The new focus could be, for example, teacher questioning, or use of group work, or conducting whole-class discussions.  Such time-based attention to both specific and generic aspects of teaching is central to smart building.

The second strategy involves sharing the variations of approaches used by different teachers, based on brief (3-5 minute) video clips of the particular practice for which they take responsibility. Here individual teachers (often with assistance from students) video record their own practices, and then reflect on the qualities of those practices. The clips are intended to make the actual practices ‘visible’, and the thinking behind those practices shareable.  (NB: They are not intended as exemplars of ‘best practice’!)  When shared, professional conversation inevitably explores and probes that reasoning, and invites deeper reflection on how each participant goes about this work with their own class/es.  In many instances, those conversations continue well beyond the initial sharing – after all, the colleague whose practices were shared is ‘just down the hall’, and can be accessed readily in most cases for further conversation, and observation.

The third strategy is the desired outcome – building more learning-valuable practices – where the professional conversation moves to identify aspects of the particular practice that ought be given more attention. Participants in sharing events, in our experience, invariably express surprise at, and admiration for, the work of others.  The conversation needs to move from admiration to analysis, keeping in mind the desired outcome. Thus, these forums provide a powerful acknowledgement of the value of the shared work, and a credible invitation to improve an individual teacher’s own practices, however experienced or inexperienced they are.

The success of this site-centric approach invites the possibility of smart building using resources both within and beyond the site.  That is, it is a means to larger ends, including the development of a culture of professional conversation and learning, the sustainable improvement of specific aspects of professional practice, and the development of a shared language about teaching (and learning) within the site. The approach seeks to value existing expertise, to systematically share that expertise, and through these strategies to expand the critical insight, expertise and intentionality of all involved. In summary, it is a pragmatic local step towards authentic professional learning.

There are a few ground rules for initiating this smart building process.

  1. There should be no use of the terms ‘best practice’ or ‘showcase’ when initiating the process. Such terms take us back to the fixed mind-set that causes teachers to be afraid of revealing what they actually do in classrooms for fear that it is not ‘top drawer’.
  2. An explicit focus on one aspect of teaching that is agreed and shared by all participants  – the learning intentions, for example – is more likely to pay off than a general invitation to talk about anything and everything.
  3. Starting small. Just a 3 to 5 minute video-clip of the agree practice is enough to initiate and sustain hours of collaborative and constructive conversation within peer groups of teachers.While the process is likely to begin with the ‘willing-to-share’ teachers, the expectation should be that professional sharing and conversation are regarded as normal for all teachers in the school.
  4. Principals and other school leaders should be involved as ‘head’ teachers and leading learners in this process, through taking part in professional conversations generated by video-clips of teacher practice within PLCs, brown-bag lunches, and the like.

While it’s true that many aspects of the organisation of schools are out of the control of individual teachers, it’s also true that every teacher can improve their effectiveness in spite of this fact. Moreover, as each teacher becomes more effective more quickly, they will get much more pleasure out of living, learning and earning in their school. Site-specific, respectful, and well-designed professional engagement with colleagues – like a smart building process – is, we believe, an approach to professional development that can improve teacher effectiveness in all schools with the will to initiate the process. Our work in supporting a number of very different types of schools in smart building is testimony to this fact.

So while Ashenden is right to bring our attention to the organizational realities that constrain school teachers, we don’t feel it is necessary to join with him in bemoaning what teachers can’t do, unless they’re maestros. Schooling for personally significant learning is possible in any school that commits itself to a well-designed process of site-specific teacher improvement for all its teachers. All its students will be the beneficiaries.


[i] ibid, page 4.


[ii] Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.


[iii] Kjaervang, U. (2003) Power of Aesthetics to Improve Learning,, accessed 23 May, 2012.


[iv] Chilcott, T. (2012) Principals stuck with low-quality teachers, The Courier Mail, 13 November, page 7.


[v] Florida, R. (2004) Keynote Address: The Rise of the Creative Class, sponsored by the Homery Institute, The Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove Urban Village, Brisbane, 22 March.


[vi] See Prensky, M. (2002) The motivation of game play: the real twenty-first century learning revolution, On the Horizon, 10, (1), 5-11.


[vii] See Carol Dweck for more on the ways that a ‘fixed’ theory of intelligence or capability can have negative consequences on growth and development, in Dweck, C. S. (1999) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis/Psychology Press.





7 Responses to Schooling for Personally Significant Learning: Is it possible?
  1. Graham Gallasch Reply

    This is the most inspiring yet pragmatic focus on practice and pedagogy that I have read in years.

    • Erica McWilliam Reply

      Thanks for this very positive response, Graham, from such an experienced and passionate educator. Peter and I will be in Adelaide from the beginning to the end of May next year – it would be great to catch up and discuss further. My email is

  2. Anne Ryan Reply

    Erica can you see ‘smart borrowing’ working as effectively when initially it is not employed as a whole school approach? I was involved in a teaming to teach project (Year 12 Further Mathematics) at my school in 2012 with great outcomes evidenced in VCE data and data collected from students throughout the year. A mutation of ‘smart borrowing’ was in operation in our classroom. Problem: How do individuals push through the blockades in systems to ensure that this kind of activity gets greater priority on school agendas? We live in times when we should be troubling education in many ways but it seems to be becoming harder to do.

  3. [...] E., and Taylor, P.  Schooling for personally Significant learning: Is it possible? < http://www.eric...
  4. Maggi Gunn Reply

    The concept of site-specific “smart borrowing” is intriguing! We are currently involved with a trial of peer coaching (and you many be pleased to know the current focus is feedback). However, the possibilities of a more equal “peer share” based approach is VERY appealing…

  5. [...] “Teachers are more likely to learn from each other than from any passing expert or guru.&#8221...

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