• Karen Caswell

More In Us Than We Know

Updated: May 16

#iOTF6 #WeAreCrew #PBLworks #BacktrackBoys #authenticEDU #TLAPdownunder

Where did it all go wrong? That’s the question that kept running through my head on the weekend as I listened to the amazing keynote speakers at the i On The Future Deeper Learning Conference. After two days, I walked away equally hopeful for the future of education, and upset about the disservice I feel we’ve been doing to our children in recent years.


Over the past ten years, I feel we well and truly lost our way. The direction education headed moved further and further away from the needs of our students towards the requirement to measure students as a form of accountability. While I completely agree we need to be accountable for the job we do, my feeling is that data became a ‘big stick’ to wield over schools and teachers, rather than a way to inform us about our students needs and guide our instruction. Teachers continued to have their students at the centre of all they did, however there was increasing pressure in the form of a crowded curriculum and testing requirements, that made it oh so difficult to provide for the needs of the whole child. However, after spending the weekend surrounded by 900 passionate educators, I am confident that the outlook is positive and our students are in good hands.


The conference kicked off with an amazing keynote by Ron Berger, author and Chief Academic Officer of EL Education, whom you may know from the story, “Austin’s Butterfly”. The two key words I took away from Ron’s keynote were Character and Craftsmanship – all we do in life comes down to the quality of our character and the quality of our work. In the push on academics, data and test scores, I really feel the time all educators know needs to be spent on fostering these two elements in our students has been limited. We’ve been hampered and restricted by competing priorities, when ultimately a student’s success at school depends on these two aforementioned factors. If we want students to be of good character and take pride in their work, then we need to provide learning experiences that promote these aspects. Deep and meaningful learning can only be achieved by challenging, engaging and empowering our students – this must impact learning design and where we focus our time and energy.



Next we heard from Scott Hartl, President and CEO of EL Education, who shared the EL Education journey, starting with the origin of the EL vision, which came from this quote by Kurt Hahn.



Scott then went on to share their core values and principles, and the evolution of their learning framework. Underpinning all of these, is the culture of ‘crew’ – “a place where character education, adventure, and team building are intentional, assuring success for all students. It’s a structure that fosters a sense of belonging within students, and a place where they can be their best selves while lifting up their peers to achieve more than they think possible.”



For me, the highlights of both of these keynotes were the stories of student accomplishments. These stories truly did demonstrate what our students are capable of, given the opportunity, conditions, and culture in which to strive, thrive and achieve. Even on the second viewing these stories had the power to bring tears to my eyes!



The third keynote address of the morning came from John Larmer, from PBL Works, and author and consultant, Suzie Boss, who articulated the end goal for our students: that they understand what it means to take control of their own education. I loved the analogy that Project Based Learning is the main course, not a side dish or the dessert, as this really helped create a clear understanding of the way effective PBL is implemented – I’ll definitely be using this when explaining PBL to my colleagues. The other part of John and Suzie’s keynote I found useful was the identification of how high impact strategies fit into project based learning that involves deep inquiry and real world connections and application. With the focus by some on effect size, having this clearly stated was really helpful in understanding the positive impact of PBL.



The conference ended with pure emotion, as James Knight, Bernie Shakeshaft and Rusty shared the story of the ‘Backtrack Boys’, and the impact one man and his dogs are having on the lives of rural kids facing some pretty tough challenges. They prompted us to identify the good intention behind the bad behaviour, and urged us to focus on the good in people, as by doing so, eventually we see less and less of the undesirable. I love the concept that there are no rules at Backtrack, only agreements, expressed in the quintessential Aussie way, ‘you f*ck it, you fix it’. Theirs is a powerful story about never giving up on kids, and that no one is beyond redemption. To find out why, as Rusty says, ‘We need more Bernie’s’, read ‘Back on Track’ by James Knight, or you may be lucky enough to have the ‘Backtrack Boys’ film screening near you.




Attending iOnTheFuture6 was inspirational from start to finish, and a powerful call to action that we must do better for our kids. I am in no doubt that’s exactly what the passionate educators who attended will do each and every day - for there is more in them than they know, and they are unwilling to settle for less!


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