Erica McWilliam: The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler

Erica McWilliam visited the University of Canberra this week (13 May) as part of the ACE on the Road program. The topic for her talk was The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler. This post was written live at the talk.

67 Photo source

This is Erica’s Eduspaces profile and this is her blog page.


Stephen Parker welcomed Erica Mcwilliam to the University of Canberra.

Erica opened her presentation with the observation that “the great calling is to be a teacher who introduces young people to the pleasure of the rigour of the work”. She identified teaching as a moral and intellectual project. Erica made a passionate argument for low threat-high challenge and high expectation-high support classrooms.

She asked her audience what we will do in the 21sy century for our pupils? Many of the easy advances in education have been made.

Erica developed her theme with a discussion of assessment and the emergence of international standardised tests. She noted an initiative by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft to develop these tests (Barry McGaw will lead this project and it will be based at the University of Melbourne). An example of a test for fourteen year olds required complex, multifaceted, transdisciplinary skills. She noted that such tasks require precise skills, address specific (as well as general) cultural issues and appropriateness. Erica mused on the kind of school conditions are required for this task to be availalable to all children so that they are able to feel part of this kind of enquiry. This is activity beyond download and print out! It is a substantial move towards synthesis.

Teachers’ Roles

In the next part of her talk Erica discussed teachers’ roles and changes in professional behaviour.

In the classroom there are important moments for instruction. Erica argued strongly that some knowledge requires instruction and the presence of the sage (a teacher with a claim to expertise and energy). She talked in detail of the pleasure of the rigour of this approach and exemplified her discussion with approaches to the teaching of maths and spelling. She argued strongly for ‘in the bones’ development of basic skills through the energy of teachers and the creation of teachable moments that transform children’s understanding. Erica noted the persistence of rules used by sages and gave the example of ‘when two vowels go walking’. For Erica the best kind of sage teaching had a profound technical component and embodied a respect for scholarship through hard work.

The  teacher as a guide on the side was discussed next. Erica noted the move in teacher education and practice to a model of the teacher as a whisperer and counsellor. This change in role led to a move from teaching as theatre to teaching as therapeutics. Erica suggests that this change led to a loss of structure and technique. The teacher becomes a counsellor rather than teacher and there was an overemphasis on psychological second guessing. Erica argued strongly for teachers avoiding being a psychotherapist and urged the building of a learning culture in classrooms that is more than weedling the soul out of children. She discussed at length the passivity of classrooms that has emerged in many of the well-meaning guide on the side classrooms.

Erica argued strongly against classrooms that are worksheet rich and challenge poor. She argued strongly too against the role of teacher as a person who kept children happy as the main outcome of teaching. She made a telling point about the classroom becoming a place where attention deficit was a logistical outcome of lesson planning. Many classrooms did not support ‘stickability‘ nor can the children there tolerate discomfort. Erica made it clear that in her view creativity is hard work if children are to stay and work in the ‘grey of undecidability‘.  (Erica noted here Carol Dweck‘s work on motivation). Teacher librarians are seeing the dilemmas of children guided by worksheets with no pedagogical input.

In her discussion of the teacher as meddler in the middle, Erica identified three sets of 21st Century Skills:

  • academic functional
  • aesthetic digital
  • dynamic interactive

She suggested that intellectual clout was needed in this work to become  ‘usefully ignorant’ as the meddler in the middle. We must be pedadgogical experts but not knowledge experts. The 21st century classroom will need to be:

  • Seriously playful
  • Epistemologically agile
  • Low threat high challenge

Erica explored the skill set of the meddler and her fascination with design, disassembly and rediscovery. She illustrated her point with the story of her as a young child cutting up a tennis ball to find the bounce in(side) the ball.

The meddler’s classrom is:

  • Respect rich
  • Structure rich
  • Conversation rich
  • Information rich
  • Challenge rich

This envoronment is more than going digital.  Erica concluded her talk with an example of work in Singapore with 16 year old pupils using mind mapping tools to explore ideas. She invited the audience to consider the kinds of assessment procedures required to support wide and deep learning. The kind of work produced as a folio of such work will be:

  • Deep, wide and  transdisciplinary
  • Move from known to unknown
  • Unfolding as a series of responses to wondering
  • A tightly edited document of a learning journey that exhibits distilled sufficiency
  • Demonstrating growing complexity of thought and skills of editorship
  • Amenable to evaluation

The child is able to discuss this portfolio and the teach as meddler is a co-learner. This approach has clear pedagogical intention and significant affordances. The classroom is in design mode: what is the idea good for; what does it do and fail to do; does it have a future; how could it be improved; what is the value add? The design classroom is characterised by:

  • Knowledge more than facts
  • Deeply understand what is being built upon
  • Immersion
  • Social processes
  • Going past the labels to the activities

In the design mode disassassembly creates space for thinking. It welcomes error, strategy, instructive complication, and interesting ideas. Meddlers accept and create space for co-designing and are clear about looking for ideas and when error is welcomed. The classroom celebrates wonder, imagination, and step outside held views.

Erica’s concluding point was that creative workforces have literacies and numeracies as their bedroock. They facilitate discovery, autonomy and co-working.


This post is an attemplt to note points during Erica’s discussion. A large audience listened to Erica for ninety minutes. I hope they, like me, were fascinated by the critical wisdom she brought to 21st century educators concerned about equity and keen to develop a craft knowledge that will support creative learning through energy, passion and hard work.

This is a link to her PowerPoint presentation.

090507 Public Sphere Discussions, Canberra


Photo by Andrew Stawarz

I was alerted by Michael de Percy to the Public Sphere discussions to be held in Canberra on 7 May. Pia Waugh (Policy Adviser to Senator Kate Lundy) has worked very hard to develop this program.

The schedule is:

0900 Introduction and comments – Senator Lundy
0910 The ‘unexplored country’ we will be entering with high speed broadband – Craig Thomler. Presentation.
0920 Green ICT – Tom Worthington. Presentation.
0930 Building a Smarter Planet – what is happening in the digital world to build a digital economy and the imperative that we harness technology to position Australia for the challenges it is facing – Judy Anderson (IBM)
0940 Opportunities for online collaboration over long distances with high speed broadband – James Purser. Presentation.
1000 Public empowerment through public engagement with government at all levels – Stephen Collins. Paper.
1010 Citizen engagement and community participation online: The Canadian experience – Michael De Percy. Presentation.
1020 Government service delivery in the new contexts of (a) broadband, (b) highly diverse access devices, (c) highly diverse patterns of use, and (d) highly diverse human needs – Roger Clarke. Paper.

1040 Rural and regional accessibility in regard to accessing agricultural and environmental information for those working on research and on-ground change – Nerida Hart
1050 Personal Publishing, Archival and the Consequences of Upstream (bandwidth) – Jeff Waugh
1100 Online video publishing possibilities and technology needs – Dr Silvia Pfeiffer
1110 Privacy and filtering – David Vaile
1120 The successfully rollout of FTTH in an Australian regional town and how it expands towns with populations of a few hundred, to hundreds of thounsands. Also the economic modeling required – Adrian Blake
1130 High Bandwidth – getting things done: particularly in respect to dealing with complex real world problems, emergency management and dealing with skills shortages. This is relevant to both the commercial and community sectors – James Dellow
1140 Brief presentation on perspectives put forward on the blog for comment – Pia Waugh
1155 Thanks and close of event

Video stream of the event can be found here. Twitter link is here.

I am in Brisbane on 7 May and so will miss the event held at the ANU. My contribution to the debate is a discussion of the role of High Bandwidth in growing sport communities at local, national and global levels.

Some of my ideas are here.

This is an example of using GrangeNet to explore high bandwidth for elite sport use and this is an example of how a connected sport system can contribute to community development.

Rose Holley Innovative Ideas Forum 2009: National Library of Australia

I have been tardy in writing this post! Whilst getting ready to write I read Katie’s delightful write up of the Forum. I thought her post exemplified the energy the Forum created and drew upon. Just as I was writing this I received an #iif2009 tweet about the availability of the podcasts from the day.

Rose Holley, Manager of the Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program, National Library of Australia, presented the final talk of the morning at the Innovative Ideas Forum 2009. Her talk was entitled “Enhancement and Enrichment of Digital Content by user communities: The Australian Newspapers experience”

Katie and the podcasts will help me as I left the Forum after Rose Holley’s talk. I did follow up her talk in her Many Hands Make Light Work: Public Collaborative OCR Text Correction in Australian Historic Newspapers report available here.


What I enjoyed about Rose’s presentation was her careful discussion and acknowledgement of the work of a small team (6 members) at the NLA responsible for delivering a remarkable project. My principal take home message from Rose’s talk was the power of community involvement in the enhancement process. A secondary one was her delightful discussion of the tag fog potential of tag clouds.

I thought Rose did an outstanding job at the end of a morning of illustrious speakers. Her humour and her profound knowledge made the time fly by. Her report provides all the detail included in her presentation and I recommend it to you.

I left the Forum highly impresed by the ideas shared and the possibilities that arise from social networks. I will follow up the iif2009 links on Slideshare too.