Teaching Thinking

There are currently a couple of initiatives at my school that target thinking as a skill; I’ve been fortunate enough to be somewhat involved in both..

One of these is using the Philosophy framework, i.e. Socrates’ “Logos, Pathos, Ethos” to unpack how we think when faced with situations where we need to make decisions or we need to be persuasive. In a nutshell, what is at the forefront is logical reasoning for Logos, emotions for pathos and ethics, character and wisdom drawn from experiences for ethos. This is a simple framework that is very accessible for year 9s to whom this initiative is targeted.

Another one uses the neuroscience framework, i.e. “Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC), amygdala and hippocampus” – parts of the brain. In a nutshell, amygdala is responsible for our ‘flight or fight’ response or when we allow our impulses and emotions to rule our behaviour and thoughts. The hippocampus is in charge of storing our memories, like a scrapbook of our lives. The PFC – which is not fully developed in adolescent brains – takes care of thinking and decision-making and so, moderating our behaviour. This framework is very accessible for year 8s to whom this is targeted.

In Software Design and Development – and really many (all?) subjects, students need to think logically particularly when critically analysing, evaluating and making recommendations. In SDD, we look at software from the perspective of users and developers and yet I’m finding that my students are not leveraging their extensive experience using software to inform their thinking. Seems like such a waste of resource, right?

So, I told them about the 2 frameworks above. The idea is that the frameworks provide them with another way to view contexts. For example, when they struggled to name features of a banking system, a prompt using their own experience in banking opened a flood of features in far greater detail…and stories (gotta love those). A student who often struggles with staying on-task and is regularly disruptive was also quick to change when prompted with “you’re letting your amygdala rule; try a bit more PFC”.

In our last lesson discussing software installation methods, a richer discussion was had as students were challenged to think of examples drawing from their experience and how they may have felt (connecting to another syllabus content: impact of software to users). And so then, the logic of choosing one method over another makes more sense, from a social-ethical perspective. It may well merit adding to my list of ways to teach empathy.

I’m under no illusions of the impact or permanence of these changes.  What I’ve done is planted seeds that I hope to nourish in the next few terms as I help my students face the HSC and the wider world beyond. I’m teaching them to draw deep into resources within themselves as a way to connect beyond themselves (is any other way possible?). Teaching thinking skills is all part of building student agency.

This may be an unconventional approach to teaching the syllabus but for me, it makes sense. It aligns with my own industry experience and consequently, vision of introducing more of humanities into learning about and creating digital technology.

Get these 5 right for better oral presentations

The year 11 Software Design & Dev PBL Delta X was to culminate with a pitch presentation to a panel of judges. As part of the project, I gave the students an opportunity to present just to assess their presentation skills. While I had a few who came across as confident and prepared, the majority were not.  I was very lucky to get Melissa Pye, an advertising/startup pitch specialist, come and do a workshop with my students before the pitch.

Melissa went through the steps of creating a pitch deck – the “pitch in a nutshell” which really emphasised elements of the PBL giving it more authenticity. I loved that she mentioned the importance of understanding the problem including audience and purpose as well as how designed solutions can help make it easy, faster and/or cheaper.

Melissa also went through 5 elements to consider when actually delivering the presentation. I believe that these are really useful for all types of presentation, including delivering instruction …meaning, it’s also useful for teachers like me. Here are the 5 elements and a bit more blurb about what Melissa said and did.



Think positive. Think confident. Think authentic. Think passionate.

Melissa reminded us about being prepared including anticipating questions. Having done the prep work, the next bit is to trust in this prep that the presentation will go well.

Body Language

Be big and open – stand with legs apart, back straight, arms on the side not crossed. Use open palm instead of pointing finger. Look at the audience (look at noses or foreheads if you struggle with eye contact).

Melissa got each student to stand up and say something. In this way, she was able to provide individual constructive feedback, much needed by many of my students. To one student self-conscious about being over 6-foot tall, she said “You’re lucky you’re tall. Be tall.” It’s pretty amazing how much ‘presence’ can be evoked with appropriate body language.


Vary pitch (lower pitch is preferred), volume and speed. Variety adds interest.

Again, after modelling, Melissa gave each student individual feedback. She was able to draw out impressive volume from 2 of my quietest students. This was amazing to watch and the transformation is palpable.


Use succinct, positive and confident words. Technical jargon is not necessarily a no-no as it can indicate specialist knowledge.

Melissa emphasised the need to choose appropriate words and phrases. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice saying the words you will say.


Use pause before or after a key point to emphasise it.

Melissa modelled this to great effect.


I’m happy to report that my students employed what they learned in this workshop. Their pitch presentations were so much better than the trial presentations. It was so good, I was gushing (haha).

Anyway, developing oral presentation skills is important and the above are good pointers to help teachers help/teach students. I highly recommend practice sessions and giving students specific feedback just like Melissa did. Another useful post is by Erik Palmer in BIE (Buck Institute for Education), “Speaking Matters! Improving Project Presentations“.


I’ve been wondering about how I could incorporate more well-being stuff into my classroom. A chance conversation (as seems to be the norm on Twitter) yesterday with an esteemed tweep, @lasic, was the catalyst to trying mindfulness in the classroom. Tomaz suggested smilingmind as a resource. (Yes, check it out).

I signed up and tried the first edu session for 16-22 year olds with my 10 IST class today (last period)  – a bunch of really lovely girls who are used to me saying, ‘let’s try something new’….aside, it’s really wonderful to have a class like that!

This was also a good opportunity to get started with using discussion forums, a feature available in our Sharepoint-based virtual classrooms. Another aside…Whatever else people may say how outdated forums are, the reality is that it is used in universities. I figured, my students should at least be exposed to it and see how it compares to other forms of asynchronous conversations.

Straight after the 5-min activity, they were given another 5 minutes to reply on the forum. I asked them whether or not it was worthwhile to have mindfulness activities in the classroom and why. Here are some of the responses:

Yes. So that I can be motivated to do it because I want to keep my mind happy.

[Yes]…because it relaxes the mind and in turn, the person, which makes it easier for the person to complete meaningful work and also to complete it more diligently.

Yes…because I feel that a student is more likely to concentrate with full focus in class once they have centred their thoughts and relaxed from thinking about all the problems they may be going through…

I think it depends on the subject as some subjects are not relevant to this

Maybe we should at times to rest our mind from other things we do at school.

[Yes]…to enable us to clear our thoughts…and concentrate more in class

This is a good class of happy and engaged students. Today, they were all ‘happy’, relaxed, inquiring, more daring, less afraid to ‘fail’. Being on my 2nd year with this class, trust me when I say there was a different and even more positive vibe in the classroom.

It’s too early to tell whether or not it is worthwhile to do mindfulness activities in the classroom. Previous readings on the topic and my gut feel from today is that yes, it will be. It certainly helped me focus, which on a busy and full teaching day, is quite amazing and pleasantly surprising.

As with anything, if this is to happen at all, it’s got to be given time and space. I think I can afford to give it 5 minutes in an 80 minute lesson. No? If this has a consistent effect, I think the 5 minutes is time well invested not just in well-being but in learning. We did it at the start of the lesson. I may experiment with timing and try midway or even towards the end. *watch this space*

Have you tried mindfulness activities in the classroom?

How did you do it?

Would you recommend it and why?

Can we teach resilience?

Is it possible to teach resilience? I guess it depends on what we think ‘teach’ means, i.e. direct instruction vs facilitation vs guidance, etc. Whatever. I think there is more consensus that resilience can be learnt….somehow.

As a mum, I think resilience is one of the most important things my daughters ought to learn. I have a professional and personal imperative to know how to teach resilience. Previous advice and research have taught me to expose my kids/students to challenges/difficulty and failure; easier said than done, at home and at school. Still, it seems to work (at home, at least) and my daughters are fairly resilient (lucky me!) BUT not so much when it comes to school stuff.  We’ve had plenty of dramas on this over the years (“I’m stupid; I’m dumb; I’m no good at Maths…).

Whatever happens at school, at the end of the day, us parents have to help our kids deal with it. Likewise as teachers, we can perhaps help our students learn resilience.

@anniemurphypaul wrote Tough as a drill sergeant (apropos, it’s worth subscribing to her posts….do it) with strategies that make sense and are easy enough to remember.

Think like an optimist.

Optimists see setbacks as “temporary, local and changeable”.  This phrase appeals to me far more than related clichés: Think positive, Don’t sweat the small stuff, This too shall pass and I dare say: Keep calm and carry on.

Fight back.

Negative and disparaging thoughts will come so it’s important to know that one can and should fight back. Block them. Challenge their validity. Search for a different/positive perspective.

Be grateful and generous.

Find the good and be thankful.


I’m not so sure this would work but I’m willing to give this a go. With my kids. With my students.  I love that the strategies are action-oriented, concrete vs. abstract.

I wonder, is resilience context-specific and how can it be made transferrable?

How do we teach empathy?

Please watch this video first – it’s less than 2 minutes long and well worth your time.  I got on to this video via a tweet by @gcouros which led me to  Shawn Ram‘s blog and eventually this post: Do your words say what they should?”

The Power of Words

This video is an ad that capitalises on the power of words, particularly in evoking new meanings.  The ‘new words’ were obviously more able to evoke empathy from passers-by.

I hear ’empathy’ a lot lately.  Is it a new trend?  Why is it even important?

I’ve always valued empathy, particularly because I am so anti-apathy.  Empathy is generally understood as the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.  Empathy is an act of sharing, understanding and connecting.  Being able to feel what someone feels, see what they see, be who they are, albeit temporarily – all help to build relationships.  Empathy allows us to say “You matter. I care.” with more depth and meaning.

Empathy is having perspectives other than one’s own. As social beings in an increasingly hyper-connected world, it is an important life-skill to have and nurture.

But how do we teach empathy?, asks @Brittgow.  How do we provide our students with more perspectives?

Here are my suggestions. Please add more.

  1. Modeling.  Teachers can and often do model empathy.  While making it explicit might seem ‘strange’ or ‘devalues the act’, it is important that kids understand that the act of empathy is a skill that can be learned.  Learning vicariously – or by osmosis – is an acquired skill in itself (I digress again).
  2. Role-playing.  Use imagination and/or research to build up ideas of what a particular character might think, feel, see in a particular context. I’ve done this as part of a pastoral care curriculum.  It can also be done in academic subjects other than English and Drama.  For example, I got my year 7 maths to imagine themselves as ancient Romans and operate with numbers using Roman Numerals – or even beyond that using tallies; they learned to appreciate Arabic numerals and even decimals (representation of fractions).
  3. Use different ways of expressing meaning.  Use different words, like in the video above. Use multi-media like Claire who expressed her Irlen Dyslexia through art .
  4.  Celebrate diversity. This has the pre-requisite of identifying our uniqueness and finding value in it.  This step may be confronting for kids, especially teen-agers when the need to belong seem strongest.  Being an individual yet somehow blend in is is one of the ironies of adolescence.   Classroom discussions are good opportunities to encourage and support different perspectives.  A line I often use is, “Who haven’t I heard from yet?”, which makes students feel their unique viewpoint matters. @edusum suggests in her comment below to watch this video:Love. Not Loss. It is a good example for celebrating bio-diversity, valuing what we have rather than what we’re losing is a shift in perspective; a concrete example of empathy.
  5. Change contexts. Admittedly, this is similar to (2 – role-playing) above but the emphasis for this is that the student remains who they are but the context is changed.  For example, I have asked students to be ‘the teacher’.  This was actually a revision exercise where students were asked to teach a particular topic of choice, given a list of choices.  I acted as one of the students, mostly attentive but sometimes not and one prone to ask questions.  Their reflections afterwards showed more empathy for the teacher.
  6. Immersion. A good way to present another perspective is to actually be in it – not pretend, imagine or research, actually BE in it.  Jeannette (@7Mrsjames) suggests below to take students to do community service and then reflect on the experience.  Reflection and discussion help students process the experience and manage the ‘do-charity-to-feel-good’ possibility.  I think this is closest to the activism espoused by social justice principles, i.e. empathy that leads to action.
  7. Guest speakers.  First-hand accounts are powerful and compelling.  @Brittgow mentions below how a paraplegic speaker was brought in to teach students to play wheelchair basketball.  Perhaps Britt is right that this strategy may be easier to arrange than Immersion.  I think it also allows a bigger audience and a de-brief session afterwards will help emphasise points and deepen understanding.
  8. Story-telling.  This is an extrapolation of idea #7 for really, the power of guest speakers is their personal story.  But don’t we all have our own?  Sharing one’s story is a powerful way to express individual perspectives and opportunity to celebrate diversity.  One time I asked a year 8 student what she did in her school holidays and she said plastering.  When another student piped in, “Was that fun?”, she answered, “I wouldn’t call building walls with gyprock (plasterboard) and plaster fun but it was ok; I was helping dad.”  There’s an insight into the life of a country girl, and I thought she was creating or painting crafty plaster molds.
  9. Acknowledge individuality.  Make it personal. Listen. Care. Tell them.  I said above Empathy allows us to say “You matter. I care.”, yet failed to add it as a strategy.   Let each student know that they matter and that you care.  Help students think and believe “I matter. I care.”, starting with themselves and on to others. @Lasic says all this perhaps more eloquently and passionately in his comment below and certainly in his website, Human. @Murcha suggests giving students opportunities to show their strengths.  Let them shine. When individual students are seen and valued for who they are, they are able to see and value others around them, too.
  10. Connect. There’s a whole world out there of individuals with different perspectives and connecting is easier now with technology/social media. Connect via video-conferencing (skype), blogs, micro-blogs, etc.  Learn about other cultures and countries from the locals.  Experience the cultural and language barrier and how these might be overcome.  This idea evolved from a Twitter conversation with @pickledtreats pondering on the difference between expats and immigrants as well as growing Xenophobia over at the Netherlands.
  11. Fiction, movies, games.  Research shows that fiction readers have greater empathy, possibly because they are able to relate with fictional characters (Research paper: The Science of Fiction via @whartonag).  Reading fiction, and possibly watching movies and playing computer games, facilitates entering the simulated world of the protagonist/s which evokes comparable emotions.  The research also said that better effects are gained via fiction than documentary.  Isn’t that interesting?
  12. Participate in events.  This idea came courtesy of @ktenkely who tweeted about a student’s empathy for orphans.  Their school participated in Orphan Sunday and obviously reflected on the experience too.  Find out what’s happening in the community (local and global) and see which ones fit in with your class or school.  Such events create awareness, and with reflection can be a powerful way to develop empathy.
I want to add more.  Can you help?
When I first published this post, I originally had 4 items in the list.  With each comment came another idea and the list is now sitting at 10 as I write this reflection.  I’m happy with that. very.
I read about crowdsourcing, liking the idea even and benefitting from it through works of others like @tombarrett and his Interesting Ways series.  I didn’t think I could pull it off but here is proof.  I’m amazed with all that. very.
I am richer for the many perspectives that my PLN have shared with me.  I’m grateful for that. very.
This is not to say I’m closing this post.  All input welcome.  More ideas. More examples. More learning.