All posts by Angela

Mindstorm on a hillside: learning to stay in play

I have just finished reading Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers, which has led me into re-reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.

You can read the full text of Papert’s Mindstorms here on MIT’s website. I have been a little surprised by not hearing much about Papert and constructionism in the thirteen years I’ve worked in higher education. For some ideas about how Papert came to be a bit under-the-radar in higher education,  see this paper about Seymour Papert’s Legacy.

To those I’ve asked recently, Mindstorms is perceived as being primarly about  technology and early education. It’s not a text to go to naturally for insight into learning in higher education, unless perhaps, you are in ed-tech. It has such an ageless relevance about how we learn.

I first read Mindstorms about ten years ago. I also must confess to being a child of the LOGO language. I have vivid memories of the first time I sat in front of computer in primary school and used LOGO. When I read Mindstorms it was all about computers. I now find myself reading Mindstroms very differently.  This is the first jolt:

“Thus this book is really about how a culture, a way of thinking, an idea comes to inhabit a young mind…My interest is in universal issues of how people think and how they learn to think.” (Papert, p10)

Playing ‘on’ playgrounds

I find myself thinking about a playground on a mountainside in Switzerland where I had an extraordinary learning experience, given to me by a passer-by. I think about this often and have wanted to write about this playground since we were there in 2015. Now feels like the right time.

It was a playground like no other. An adventure by cable car to get there. Equipment surprisingly plonked perfectly on the hillside. Epic views of snow-capped Alps in summer. A path out of it which led into a beautiful hillside wildflower walk.


Sssh. At home, I know of a rare park with extra swings high enough for adults to have a swing. If the park is quiet and we have it to ourselves, I’ll gleefully hop onto a swing and swing into the blue sky. If another grown up turns up, I’ll self-consciously slow so down so that I’m sort of really just sitting on the swing. I feel, somehow, embarrassed to be seen….playing.

At this epic playground of playgrounds in Switzerland, I of course I got on the swings alongside our children.  My husband did too. Swinging through the warm summer air in the snow-capped mountains, this was truly the stuff of my imagination. The park of my childhood consisted of some swings in a shade-less hot prickly-weed paddock behind suburban houses. If you swung high enough and jumped off,  you could catch a glimpse of  foot-hills in the distance.  Something about the glimpse of those childhood hills made me feel like there was the potential of adventure to distant lands in the future. Here in this impossible land of hot sun and snow,  was my imagined landscape.


Suddenly, a woman, dressed in bright colours,  appeared from the wildflower path.  She just seemed to emerge from the hills as if she was a flower that had grown from them. I was merrily swinging, and characteristically slowed down self-consciously to a stop. She walked over to me and said “Hello, hello, keep swinging, keep playing, it is beautiful to see this!“. She then told me that she missed seeing adults play and being able to play herself. She explained that where she grew up (somewhere in Germany) it was acceptable for adults to play on playgrounds, but where she lived now (somewhere in France) it was not acceptable, and she had often been laughed at and mocked. She said it was beautiful to see adults playing. She then waved, said goodbye and continued on her walk, disappearing along the path down the mountain.

I think so often of this message from a stranger.  Three years on, I now see the very beginnings of my 10 year old standing aside a little,   as her younger brother plays if there are others present. At home, just the two of them, they are different.  The self-consciousness about being seen to play is creeping in.

Questions I can’t answer

Why, at some point, do we feel embarrassed to be seen to play?

Is this a global phenomena? Are some cultures really more playful than others in adulthood?

As you are reading this, in your country, what would it feel like if you were seen on a swing?

And then, I think about play-based approaches to learning that I am seeing more of through working with younger learners. When I look side-by-side at learning in primary years education and the differences between how we support children into learning, and our approach to adult education, I feel a sense of forgetfulness in higher education. Like something is lost, a pastel-wash of colours where the colours should be bright.

Must we grow out of play?

Why do we so easily give up play in formal education? Is this inevitable, or are we teaching this? Is this cultural or academic?

 Why is it acceptable that final years of high school, and higher education is acceptable as a grown-up “stressful” experience?

Why is exam and assessment pressure so normalised? Why do students who don’t have exams in their course become apologetic, and express that they  “feel guilty?” amongst their peers for not having a stressful assessment period?

What contribution does our quest for seriousness and rigor in higher education have on the brain chemistry of our teenage and adult students?

Why have we made the absence of play for adults, an acceptable culture and one that we, perhaps without realising, perpetuate?

The players in higher education

Some grown-ups are still playing.

Cambridge University is playing: Meet the world’s first professor of play.

JISC too: Learning to play, playing to learn: the rise of playful learning in higher education

Here’s some tips from The Creativity Post: Play Matters: Six Play-Full Practices For Higher Education

I’m excited to see Makerspaces in academic libraries, like at Curtin University Library Maker Space. (lucky things!)

How to play: now you try!


The challenge of play in higher education, seems to be that to have a place to play, we first feel we need to rebuild the playgrounds. Once we have the playgrounds, will our educational culture allow us to play?

If you are an educator, my challenge for you is simple. Next time you see a swing in a playground, test your boundaries of seriousness.

Get on a swing. Swing on it. How does it feel? Is it complicated to express?

Are there people observing? What element does that add to your experience?

It’s just a hunch, but I think the complex swirling galaxies of mixed reaction that at you feel in these moments, is how learning should probably feel.

My hope is that we can make a culture of play in higher education.

“What we bloodlessy call ‘place’ is to young children a wild compound of dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always ‘in’, never ‘on’.”

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks



The Fear – The Dark is Rising

“It was then, without warning, that the fear came.”

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising

Oh! The beautiful opening chapter of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which I’m reading in a massive worldwide book group on Twitter,  has brought back all my inexplicable moments of nature fear – or just The Fear, as Will experiences.

Have you felt, The Fear?

Those times when you find yourself alone in nature and for some reason, your sense of awe and comfort switches immediately to a feeling of pagan animism about everything around you. As if you are so very trembling and small in the scheme of tall tree things.

Being alone in nature is something I am quite comfortable with, and actually sometimes really crave now that it’s virtually impossible to have. I did have some pre-dawn walks for a hour or so earlier this year when we were camping in the remote Flinders Rangers. My husband were still asleep in the tent and I went out by torchlight. There was a slightly similar experience to the one I’m about to tell. Perhaps because I had my dog with me, or because it was morning, or even because I grew up around this wild land, I felt awe, but not fear at the strange undersound I heard as I got closer to the hills.


Watching the sunrise in the Flinders Ranges


There have been a handful of times when THE FEAR has involved not a wild place, but a known place, like it was for Will.

THe last time I felt it, I was feeling comfortable. It was July 2015 and I was outside our rural holiday cottage in Cornwall. A house full of my children and nephews, in-laws and husband asleep. I was outside at midnight with my astrobinoculars and camera taking night sky pictures.


Cosy light from the room when my young children were asleep


Maybe it was because I was marvelling at the novelty of seeing the emerging waxing moon traversing the sky backwards and in reverse around in the northern hemisphere after so long in the southern hemisphere (link explains this if you’ve never realised that there are differences). So, things had been changing in a different way.


crescent moon devon
Waxing crescent moon in Cornish summer skies



Watching the moon travelling ‘backwards’ in the northern hemisphere – Cornwall


Anyway, for some reason, being out there in the dark, even after a long night of Summer light, turned, er,  well, frightening.

It began with a sound from the fields. The gardens were surrounded by tall hedges, puncutated by one small archway cut out with a gate, with fields beyond. The sound had a hint of human cough or maybe throat clearing, but un-animal enough to confuse my senses. It wasn’t a growl, and I’d lived rurally so it wasn’t a cow or sheep or fox sound. Or bird sound. It was just, unidentifiable. Odd. Weird.

Instinctively, in that moment, when my brain could have rationalised, it didn’t. The day spent exploring ancient nooks and crannies of Cornwall took over, and I, the I that might laugh at my reaction,  was gone. THE FEAR had me.

That sound, had set my heart thumping in a rhythm for running. And I wanted to run. I just left my bincolulars and camera on the tripod and ran across the lawns to the sliding door and clambered in to the dark of house and the comfort of the lounge. After a few moments, I realised I had left all my gear outside.  As I tried to slide open the door go back to get it, I tried to let the ridiculousness take over. It wouldn’t.

I forced myself, swearing in whispers,  to go back out and fumble to detach the heavy binoculars, fold down the tripod and pack away my camera in what seemed like an eternity spent in the now thick ominous darkness. It was somehow, one of the most bravest acts against myself.

And that, is The Fear. I’ve felt it only a handful of times.

If you have ever felt it, you will understand.

Just as Susan Cooper must have understood, when she wrote it for Will to experience.

Have you known, The Fear? I would love to hear your tales.


An Arthurian adventure awaits you – #TheDarkisReading

Starting 20th December – worldwide reading of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

What could be more magical than reading (or re-reading as it is for me) one of the most imaginative and wonderful Arthurian children’s/YA novels ever written, starting when the book does, on Midwinter Eve?  (Midsummer Eve for us in the southern hemisphere!)

Well, how about reading it with a fellowship of other readers, just strangers bound together within the world of limited characters (Twitter) in a shared quest to wrangle and snatch moments in time to read together in the mad days of Yule?

If you have never read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, maybe it’s time. Published before I was born in 1973,  I feel like I grew up with it, even though I was in my 20s before reading it.  I only discovered it after studying Medieval English Literature and seeking out modern Arthurian stories.

If you have an imagination stirred by Arthurian tales, Celtic or Norse mythology, magic, standing stones, quests, good and evil, it’s time to read this.

Will Stanton, our 11 year old warrior awaits.

“You are the seventh son of a seventh son, Will Stanton. You step through time. One by one, the Signs will call to you. You will gather them and gain the power of the Light. You are the Sign-Seeker.”

More details about how to participate in the reading group in the post below from Julia Bird.

Hello to new visitors in search of #thedarkisreading, an unexpected Christmas delight. Read on! ******* ‘This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining…’ tweeted @RobGMacfarlane, posting a photo of a gift copy of Susan Cooper’s classic children’s novel The Dark Is Rising (1973). ‘A wonder!’ I replied ‘I reread it every Christmas too […]

via #TheDarkisReading: A Midwinter Reading Group — Julia Bird

The invisible thread: librarians and learning designers

Dark matter.

Unseen in-between
Luminous light of stars
Shy energy
Binds the cosmos
In clusters.

As a teacher, a parent, or a student – do you know if your school has a Teacher Librarian?

If you don’t, ask. It matters. Here’s why:

Podcast: Why we need qualified teacher librarians for the digital future (Kinderling Retrieved 16 Oct 2017)

A teacher librarian, Holly Godfree of the School Library Coalition was interviewed for this podcast.  She describes the role of teacher librarians in supporting research skills (including digital skills) and encouraging reading for pleasure.

Online does not mean more accessible

What stood out for me in Holly’s answers was that she mentioned the damage caused by the myth of “everything is now online”.  This one is potent, in that it can lead to a perception that school libraries and physical resources have a limited future use.

Holly cited some of the problems with the assumptions of this myth – online resources are often not free, not trustworthy and often adult focussed. This bears a strong relation to similar assumptions in higher education that online courses make learning more accessible by the virtue of simply being online. Myths like 24/7 learning is better for you because you can schedule it when you need to.

In reality, whether online learning works for any individual is because of an invsible immeasurable background energy. That background energy involves a lot of translation of materials throughout the design, creativity and then supporting the skills needed to use those online materials for learning and teaching.  Even for the student studying online, (who we tend to label  online students) there is even a lot of invisible energy in offline learning that we tend to ignore.  You can’t see this energy, or measure it.

To me, it makes sense to think of all these unmeasurables as the dark matter of learning.

It binds everything together, but it’s easy to overlook.

The invisibles

As a learning designer, I can really relate to the explanation Holly gave  about one of the challenges of being a teacher librarian is having work that is “invisible”. She explains that she may give direct contribution to shaping an assignment activity, helping teachers to support learners with resources, and the behind-the-scenes nature of the work makes it hard to measure. This contributes to the difficulty in measuring the real impact of teacher librarians. This in turn, contributes to a pattern of moving away from these roles with schools. They vaporise.

I feel a strong common bond here as a learning designer (and qualified librarian).  As a learning designer, you may have an in-depth working relationship with academic staff and contribute greatly to the design of learning activities, sequence of tasks and tools and technologies. Even as a technologist, you may also influence pedagogy (controversial, huh?). However,  it is very difficult to attribute that or evidence your real impact.  Sometimes it is even impossible to know for yourself, your own impact as a learning designer.

I feel a common bond with librarians. We are part of the same hidden energy in supporting learning.

Groups like the School Library Coalition and Australian School Library Association are helping to highlight the important impact of teacher librarians. This made me wonder about whether in my own field, there is a part to play to increase the visibility of learning designers?

How do learning designers make our work visible? How do we notice and care for our influence? How do we prove ourselves, when it is asked of us?

How can we explore the common bond between librarians and learning designers in our work towards supporting teachers and learners in a digital future?



Learning: the unobservable universe

The concept of the observable universe is a concept in astrophysics encircling all of the matter that we can “see” in space from Earth. It’s not all there is to see, but it’s what has travelled to us in the time we’ve been looking and measuring. It’s bigger than the visible universe, because it includes being able to measure the very footprints and traces left by whatever the big bang was. It’s full of trillions of galaxies.

The observable universe is a visualisation of the limitations of our own technology. We learn a lot from those limitations. The observable universe is vast and fascinating and as rich as our own data can afford us.

However, there’s something that for me is even more fascinating to think about.

Beyond the cosmic horizon, the vast unknowable – the unobservable universe. There is information that will just never reach us.

The more I delve into astrophysics, the more I realise that so many of the concepts relate to learning.

The way our earth-bound thinking and theories tries so desperately to capture, evaluate and measure learning. To bind it to the measurable.

Learning, when thought about as an unobservable universe, has no lens from which to gaze through. It is only recognising that our view is bounded, and by attempting to ensure that from time to time we call our limitations into our actions and think and play unbounded.

How do we unlearn?

“…our understanding of the actual universe is bounded by the edge of the observable universe. We cannot know for sure what lies beyond the enclave our instruments can detect.”

Paul Halpern  The Nature of Reality


What is best practice in learning and teaching?

Trying to capture best practice feels like observing the night sky.

The light you see with your own eyes, is not the origin, but the aftermath.

It’s observing a past situation that can never exist or be repeated because the conditions no longer exist.


Dark matter and stardust

I love it when black hollyhocks appear, having self-seeded. It’s like having Edgar Allen Poe or Neil Gaiman popping in for a cup of tea.

Sometimes, they cross with other hollyhocks, and appear more of a dark purple. The darkness can be variable each year, so when you get a true deep black emerging, it feels a bit magical.

This years are a lovely velvety gothic night-sky dark.

The pollen falls like stardust on the petals.

The mythmaker of academia

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats  

I originally wrote some of this post some time ago, but I’ve come back to it because I read Jesse Stommel’s beautiful post –   Why I Don’t Grade.  Jesse’s heartfelt expression of the “emotional character of learning” and why feedback is more valuable than grades is one of those pieces of writing that makes me still feel at home in higher education, even though I don’t quite fit.

My humble story is an attempt to tell you about the emotional power of academic feedback and the impact of grades.  It’s about the boundaries of feedback too. This is likely the most self-indulgent writing I’ve ever done, but I had to write it. Maybe just for me, but perhaps also for anyone, who thinks just aren’t made for it.

I am speaking about the power of words that teachers say and write. These conversations with students, our children and young adults.

They form myths of the self, within.

The tension and the power of feedback and grades.


Being first

I was not born into an academic life and it’s fair to say that I almost missed it. When I finished high school, despite high academic grades, I didn’t know what to do. I enrolled in a vocational course at a different high school. After the first term, a teacher in a topic I was doing  did something unexpected.  She told me that whilst she was happy to have me on the course, and I was the best student that she’d had (ie from a grades perspective)  she had a question…

She asked me why I was not “going to University”?

No one had every asked me why not.

“This” she said, holding up a paper that had won me the campus writing competition, “The way you write! Why are you not pursuing writing at university?”

I tried to explain the feeling I had about not fitting in to university. I wasn’t good with group work and large groups of people. I wasn’t even able to attend the assembly to claim my writing prize. She replied with something I could not refute.

She asked, “Have you ever been?”

She had a point. I had never been to a University. My parents had never been. No one I knew well had been. Everything I knew about university in Australia,  I am embarrassed now to admit, was based on 1980s American college films. Why on earth would I run to a university, when my perceptions were of a loudly social place, where I thought social interest groups were compulsory, lectures filled with hundreds and campus life was geared for the extroverted. Where you had to dynamically verbally debate your thoughts at any moment?  Why would I run to that fearsome environment when school was an effort of myth-making enough?

But I did, because she told me I could do it.  In effect, this incredible teacher encouraged her highest grading student to ditch her course half-way through.

I went to university. I went because that single teacher told me that I could belong, just as I was. I got through university, well more than that, excelled. In the beginning there were panic attacks. The first and only of my life. Travelling on buses for hours to get onto campus, I would sometimes walk up to a tutorial room, think about the group work ahead and turn around and catch the next bus home.

But I presented. Again and again and again.

The mythic cloak

I soon began to realise, that in school, I had made a mythic cloak for myself from the threads that others in authority had sewn in. Very comfortable indeed. Swishy. Yet, the cloak began to shred.

The patchwork was sewn together like this.

Through out school teachers told me I could write beyond my years.  Their comments, words, written in my reports are things I hold dear. There are exclamation marks and beautiful words.  I would have flashes of blushing confidence and pride.

At the same time,  they would force me up in front of groups to share my writing. They would make an example of me. Without warning,  they would read my poetry to the class. They would then say to the class “See what’s inside”. It was mortifying.

Writing for me is always a raw thing, even if it was something I had submitted as an assignment.  I mostly assumed it was a dialogue that I thought would be read and assessed by one. But often, my writing was shared and paraded. I began to consciously  tone down my writing in classes where I anticipated it would be shared. I would consciously write below my capability.

I received high grades, certificates for academic excellence and awards for writing. The feedback and grades of my writing is a wonder to read. I am thankful for the generosity of those comments.

On paper, I was a successful student, but it was the what else that was written into reports, that shrank me.  I still remember.

I still have them. Years of comment. Of penalty. The same pattern.

It goes like this. Something like “writing incredible”, “writing inspired” ,  “beyond years” and some high number and letter grades. Followed by, “what a pity” “let down by” and  “Too shy and timid”,  “Must speak up more”, “Needs to participate more”, “lack of class participation have held her grades down.”

Penalised, for quiet.

Meanwhile, my writing grew so bold and so brave and so activist. My writing WAS my loud me, and yet still, I was told that I needed to “speak up more”.  Yes, I seriously struggled in front of groups. Yes, I did things to try to ‘fix’ myself. I took drama and dance. I wasn’t graded on those brave choices. Or that determination to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.  I wasn’t graded for growing.  Those bold choices did ot translate these into tickable numerical points.


When I think about what haunts me truly, it’s not just the words. It’s the numerical penalty. I was penalised in grades for being introverted. For who I am, for distracting no-one in my own quest for learning. For not causing a ruckus.

It has taken a long time to ungrade myself.

The feedback, the words are more powerful. Those comments about timidity, shyness. Those labels.  They are old mythologies, but powerful mythologies have persistence. I tried rewriting those words, unowning them, trampling on the cloak they were sewn into, but they were still at the core of my lack of confidence about having a voice in higher education.

Here I am now. I work in higher education.  I had to fight inside to stay, still cloaked in feedback from the past that tells me I am far far too introverted to be here. That I don’t belong in a culture where name-splashing still matters.

All of those things that Jesse wrote in his article have been truly and keenly felt by me.

I have my own bold and strong ways.  I grow, not in loudness, but in strength and determination to value my quietness.  In writing, I can be powerful, but only I can measure it. Only I can grade.

Yes, learning is emotional. Feedback is powerful. Every day, grades are wielded in a way that does not consider the real impact grades and feedback have on the person – the ethical questions around placing a numerical value and judgement.

Whenever you give feedback, take care in what you unravel. Whenever you must grade, use numbers softly.

A Coat

I MADE my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.




What are the ethics of online learning?

When we design for online learning, I wonder if we care enough about the impact of the algorithms underneath?

Take group allocation as one example.

When I started out in learning design, I thought of random group allocation as a refreshingly easy solution. I would show how simply pressing a few buttons in a learning management system could allocate classes of hundreds of names into small groups together.  I would advise that it would be useful, to have a plan to approach the inevitable “I want to swap my group” request, but otherwise it’s a fully automated time saver.

The simplicity of hastening individuals into small groups and into private online group spaces and out-of-class meet-ups. A gentle stroll into social learning and group work.

Now imagine.

What if instead of names on a screen, you were grabbing those real people by the arm and pushing them together into small rooms?

Once they were away, they were invisible.

Would you perhaps look closer at the groups before they were put together?

Check in on them in person?

Be concerned about the dynamics?

Question and possibly intervene if you witnessed power and control problems.

Feel their awkwardness keenly.

Does reyling only on that random allocation put a student at risk?

What protections and escapes are there?

What are our responsibilities?

Can you begin to imagine what can go wrong if we don’t care?