Michael Anderson

One powerful way to beat the trauma of school transition with joy and fun

On the Monday post lockdown, schools again reverberated with the sounds of all their kids in the playground. In this pandemic much has changed but perhaps none more than schools and the work of teachers. For many parents, teachers and students there will be justifiable anxiety about what students have missed out on. There will be no doubt be a  rush in some classrooms to cram missed syllabus content into kids (which will soon be forgotten) as well as re-establish routines. There might be a better way to manage the return to schools by looking at what  our neighbours across the ditch have done and are planning when they reopen later this year. 

Schools in Aotearoa New Zealand have used the arts and creativity to support students and teachers make a meaningful transition back to classroom learning. An on line resource, called Te Rito Toi was created by the University of Auckland, in partnership with the NZ Principals Federation and the the teachers union that represents over 90% of all Primary teachers. The site provides lesson plans and advice for teachers to use the arts and creativity to help students reflect on their lockdown experiences and consider how they might use those experiences to make their learning more fruitful as they meet their teachers and classmates again. 

A central pillar Te Rito Toi is that arts-informed curricular approaches are powerful for individual and community recovery after disaster, strengthening social support and building hope.

For students it is a gentle way back into schools that promotes opportunities for students to create and reflect on how the world has changed during lockdown and at its heart children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning. 

For students, it is a gentle way back into schools . . . children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning.

The program is based on decades of international research into what the arts do, that they qualitatively shift the kinds of talk that happen in classrooms and provide students with opportunities to recognise how the pandemic has disrupted their lives and schooling. It also provides creative processes for them to respond to their experiences as they re-join their school communities. 

In 2020 the University of Auckland team (who developed the program) carried out a research project with eight schools around Aotearoa about the use of Te Rito Toi in schools. It found that the lockdowns were just another layer of trauma along with multiple traumas happening in the lives of children and their families-the pandemic just exacerbated what was already happening. This was especially true in areas where Covid hit hard and where there are existing traumas such as poverty and dislocation. 

When children are busy working hands-on in the arts, teachers observed that it was easier to have meaningful one on one conversations about their worries and concerns. This research demonstrates that the arts provide a space for safe dialogue with the adult teachers about their anxieties such as ‘will my grandad die? What will happen if they do?’ All the big questions best handled outside a whole class discussion. The research found that coming back to school to some joy and fun, along with the excitement of painting, drawing, dancing and moving was critical in supporting student wellbeing.  Many teachers in this study, recognising the trauma of transition decided to put aside those more formal kinds of structures to excite kids about being back at school. 

In New Zealand Te Rito Toi has been very popular. The lesson plans feature different mediums of expression and provide ways for children to build relationships, explore and describe emotions, engage with possibility, and reimagine the world. The Te Rito Toi team have delivered webinars to over 40,000 teachers around the world that have inspired similar resources in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hungary. The Te Rito Toi online resources have been used in the US, Canada and Australia. This enthusiastic take up recognises that while routine and syllabus content are critical, they are not enough to support this massive transition and readjustment. The NZ Ministry of Education have joined the Principals Federation, the teacher unions in endorsing  the approach for schools in Auckland when they return after months of lockdown. 

Te Rito Toi focusses on classroom-based curriculum resource post-crisis. Schools cannot go back to ‘business as usual’ post-disaster and resume normal routines as if nothing has happened. They must address with children the fact that the world has changed and help their students make sense of that change. These resources provide ways for children to reflect and create on their own experiences in a safe way and helps them to make sense of how they might be feeling. As our classrooms spring back to life we might look across the ditch to see how a dose of creativity and the arts can make spaces for our young people to process, reflect and respond to the changing world around them rather than just expecting them (and us) to just get on with it.  

The CREATE Centre hosted a Webinar, Coming Back To School Through The Arts, featuring Prof. Peter O’Connor(University of Auckland) and Prof. Julie Dunn (Griffith University) in October, with discussion of some of the resources from Te Rito Toi and how they can be used effectively to support young people returning to school. Professors Peter O’Connor and Julie Dunn highlighted how critical attending to the intrapersonal and interpersonal capacities and needs of children rather than just their ‘academic’ needs. The webinar helped educators understand the background and applications of this arts education resource in and beyond Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Dr Michael Anderson is Professor of Arts and Creativity Education at The University of Sydney and Co-Director of The CREATE Centre.

Professor Peter O’Connor is the Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland and an Advisory Board member of the CREATE Centre

Why do we educate our children? Is why being lost in the how (all the testing and measurement) in Australia?

How do we measure success in education? At the moment, and for a fair while, we have measured success through a benchmark score, standardised testing and a system that often pits individuals against one another and schools against schools. The result is less like comparing apples with oranges, and more like a system to rank the relative worth of a fingerprint. While fingerprints are useful they don’t tell us all there is to know about ourselves. And our modern testing regimes certainly don’t tell us all we need to know about student progression and what’s working in schools, universities and other organizations.

As an education researcher and university teacher I often find myself in discussions with teachers and school leaders about how we might reimagine our schools to embed deeper learning. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a school talking about the capacity for the 4Cs – creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection – to fundamentally transform not only schools, but the way we view learning in many contexts.

I had a receptive audience and they engaged deeply with the discussion, yet there was a lingering objection from quite a few leaders and teachers from the principal down which was what about the ATAR? What about the HSC?

This story, which is common across education, reveals what kind of dichotomy that we encounter in many schools. Put brutally the objection is ‘We don’t have time to learn deeply because we have to maximise our ATAR’. We spend so much time thinking about the ‘what’ we fail to consider the ‘why’ of schooling. As Friedrich Nietzche once argued, people ‘…who have a why to live can bear almost any how’. So how is it that we have strayed so far from the why?

I think the disconnection from the ‘why’ is part of the reason that some schools are resistant to transformation. Until we get the ‘why of schooling’ straight, the how is not particularly meaningful. The confusion is understandable. For instance, high-stakes testing, often imposed from above, creates great stresses on schools, students and teachers to ‘win’ the NAPLAN or the ATAR ‘game’.

The problem is, while schools and students are focussed on how our NAPLAN scores look as opposed to the school down the road, we miss the opportunity to make deep learning central to what our schools do. We miss the opportunity to focus on non-NAPLAN or ATAR learning. Learning that incidentally we keep hearing is going to be critical and is critical now in our ever-evolving society replete with complex, contradictory and chaotic problems.  

Theologian, James P Carse uses the metaphor of finite and infinite games to explain how he thinks the world (including education) works. A finite game has a winner and a loser. An infinite game has no ending, no beginning, no winner and no loser-the aim of the game is to keep the game going. Corporate leadership expert Simon Sinek, who recently popularised the discussion of infinite and finite games in the corporate sector, claims that there are examples everywhere of finite mindsets distorting infinite games. 

Examples of infinite games include health, education, international diplomacy and so on. Finite games include cricket, soccer and perhaps in an educational context the HSC, NAPLAN and the ATAR. Of course, infinite games have finite games within them and these finite games sometimes have great value. But the damage is done in education when we don’t realise how finite games detract rather than strengthen the infinite game. What happens when a finite game takes over the infinite game and all our energy is taken by NAPLAN rather than learning? Fundamentally, schools should be about learning. If we agree that this is the case it has deep implications for the way we do school.

On one level, that seems like a completely uncontroversial argument. However, ask any leader or teacher what takes precedence, learning or the endless pursuit of finite game outcomes. If we are truly to understand that learning is an infinite game, we need to rethink and re-imagine our schools.

For transformation to be a reality in our school communities and not just a buzzword we need first to understand our ‘why’. We must then turn our innate and inborn human capacities of creativity, critical reflection, collaboration and communication into foundational capacities that drive deep learning in schools and organizations.

For schools and school leaders this means interrogating everything through the prism of deep learning. Is the curriculum, leadership and organization focused on learning or is it focused on extrinsic forces such as logistics and bus timetables? For instance the division of ‘curricula’ and ‘co-curricula’ activities makes no sense from a learning perspective. There is deep learning in netball, AFL and the dance ensemble about collaboration and communication but often schools partition these off from the curriculum.

Surely it’s not beyond schools to imagine the valuable learning in these places as central and integrated across the curriculum.

The infinite game also has implications for parents and policy makers. We need to consider if the finite games we currently play are actually damaging learning. There is currently some political appetite for change in Australia but it will take the parent community to shift as well.

If parents insist on schooling as they experienced it we will be left with an outmoded and increasingly irrelevant system. Again there are signs of movement here with parents seeking more contemporary approaches to schooling offered by public schooling systems.

For this to succeed systems will need to provide support for these fledgling offerings and seek to embed the innovations across the system generally.

There are some who argue these new approaches that embed the 4Cs will lead to the disintegration of the disciplines (such as English, History, Mathematics and so on). This is a false dichotomy. Without deep discipline understanding creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection have no anchor and context. We can, and for the sake of our students must engage with both to create deep learning that supports students in their own infinite games (relationships, work, and so on)

The 21st century challenges faced by our schools, our organizations and our society aren’t uncomplicated or insignificant, neither are most of them finite. To respond to them we need to support students as they develop deep learning where deep discipline understanding and the development of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection go hand in hand to ready us for the infinite challenges of today and tomorrow.

Professor Michael Anderson is Professor of Education in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. He is an internationally recognised educational leader. Michael has taught, researched and published in education and transformation for over 20 years including 15 books and 55 book chapters and journal articles. His international research and practice focus on how the 4Cs can be integrated using coherent frameworks to support schools and organizations transform.

Those interested in the 4Cs might like to check out our books Transforming Schools and Transforming Organizations and the 4C website

Our schools need to take a mighty leap into the future: let’s dump outmoded practices and mindsets

On October 5th 1979 stuntman Kenny Powers attempted to jump his rocket powered Lincoln Continental car from Canada to the USA across the St Lawrence River; a jump of 1.6 kilometres. The preparation took more than four years; it was costly (more than one million dollars), methodical and exacting. When the day finally came for the jump the car flew about fifteen metres and plunged into the river seriously injuring the stuntman. In the end, no matter how careful the preparation of the equipment or how experienced the team or highly trained the stuntman they fell woefully short.

Fast-forward to today and our schools face a similar jump. We have spent years preparing ourselves, training, restructuring, ‘harmonising’, recruiting and developing our people. However we currently don’t have the capacity to make the jump from old ways of thinking and doing in schools, to approaches that are going to help us jump the gap from rhetoric in policy to the realities of teaching in an uncertain world. We have lots to say in our policies about creativity, innovation, effective and authentic collaboration, perceptive critical reflection and incisive communication, but in schools our teachers face complex problems, fixed mindsets and outmoded practices.

In the University of Sydney’s recently released report Preparing for the Best and the Worst of Times we discuss the complexities created for our schools from the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence and the need for a focus on what we call ‘learning dispositions’ to respond effectively to that challenge. As we see it, Australian schools have the resources they need in energy, hope and compassion but they lack the structures and processes to make the jump.

Foundations for learning

We believe the foundations of lifelong learning are creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection. We call these the 4Cs. They help students move beyond just remembering ‘facts’ to help them make connections between ideas and create new ones. Capacities like collaboration and communication are not ‘caught’ or picked up by accident. Schools need to explicitly teach them through clear frameworks and diverse learning strategies. As our report recommends, these capacities also need to be put into real world settings and with real world problems. These capacities help our young people make their way through the many challenges life presents (and not only at work) by helping them understand and enact strategies that enhance and extend collaboration rather than close down ideas or opportunities because of poor collaborative practices.

We have been using the 4C approach to learning to help schools prepare for the jump; to take them from the vision of education outlined in aspirational documents such as Gonski 2 to the realities of everyday teaching in 2018 for that uncertain future.

In NSW we have now more than 30 schools who are working with our 4C team and are attempting the jump.

Learning dispositions

We believe children adopt different learning dispositions such as curiosity and focus that are critical for them to sustain and apply their learning. To be an effective learner it is not sufficient to just have good thinking skills. Effective learners need focus, empathy and teamwork so they can apply their learning to different and complex contexts. In other words schools need to develop all of these dispositions because they are interdependent. Students who are deficient in the cognitive, intrapersonal or interpersonal dispositions will struggle to sustain, apply and adapt their learning at and beyond formal education settings. We invented a learning dispositions wheel to help explain what the dispositions are and how they can work together.

The learning disposition wheel is based on groundbreaking research from the US National Research Council Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century. Inventing the wheel was a breakthrough in our work with the Hospital School at Westmead who began working with us on the 4Cs in late 2016.

*The Learning Disposition Wheel © 4C Transformative Learning

The wheel has many uses but it is particularly helpful in the early stages of school transformation to establish a common metalanguage and a shared understanding of learning. In the schools we work with, the wheel provides a coherent and shared understanding for leadership, teachers and the community to work towards with individual students, staff and the school as whole organisation.

Our work with The Hospital School

The Hospital School at The Children’s Hospital, Westmead, in NSW may not be familiar to many. This school supports the education of students in Kindergarten to Year 12, who are hospitalised for more than 10 days. For some students, the hospital school is the only school setting they attend all year. The job of the school is doubly difficult in some ways; they need to tailor learning to children and young people who are at their most vulnerable while providing education that allows them to keep up when they leave hospital.

The school saw the potential to enhance their effectiveness for their students by developing learning capacities (through the learning disposition wheel) rather than focusing solely on curriculum content. The teachers and leadership had become frustrated with ‘content delivery’ that did not support the learning of students. The 4C approach was implemented (as it is in most of our partner schools) through a tailored mix of

  • intensive mentoring of leadership,
  • in and out of classroom support and mentoring of teachers
  • in depth professional learning with teaching teams
  • collaborative classroom visits, and
  • network meetings across 4C schools

Through the 4C program staff were introduced to the learning disposition wheel as a tool for diagnosing learning challenges to target specific areas where students required support, such as ‘grit’ or ‘curiosity’, ‘think why and how’ or ‘influence’. The learning disposition wheel was implemented with their normal curriculum (not instead of) to build deep and relevant learning for these students. The 4C learning team worked with the teaching staff to develop a whole school approach that delivered consistency and a common learning and teaching framework including a common metalanguage for the teaching and leadership groups.

The school staff has noticed a clear and remarkable change in student behaviour and engagement. Many students who have previously resisted schooling at this school are now enthusiastic and engaged around attendance and learning. There have also been key breakthroughs with the medical staff who are adopting the Learning Disposition Wheel to ensure that the learning and the medical approaches are integrated. For their students, the capacities they have built through the learning disposition wheel can be applied when they move back to their census school and beyond.

Similar success in student engagement and achievement is present in many of the schools that have engaged with the 4C transformation approach. In some ways if this approach can work in the unique circumstances of The Hospital School, they can and do work in other schools with their own unique and context driven features. The effectiveness of the approach works in multiple and variable contexts as it focusses on a negotiation between context and our strategies for deep learning rather than a ‘bolt on’ take it or leave it package.

Transforming Schools: a rationale for scaleable change

The 4C approach is not only about shifting curriculum. When working effectively it will transform school organization, school culture and help shape a vision for viable 21st Century schooling. The 4Cs form the basis of moving our schools from being ‘museums of pedagogy’ to vital, energetic, flexible and resilient places where learning directly meets the needs of a world where knowledge is ubiquitous but explicit skills for life and work are not. In these schools, classrooms and staff rooms, collaboratively led teaching teams are transforming learning and teaching through this approach. But it takes will, energy, inquiry, courage, determination, and most of all, it takes an explicit understanding of how to teach these sometimes elusive concepts.

The Artificial Intelligence infused world our students face is complex, contradictory and to some extent more chaotic than the world this schooling system was designed for. And yet our school systems have only changed incrementally (at best). Simultaneously, the world of work is changing so that all jobs will be changed and many in health, law, and transport will cease to exist or will be changed fundamentally. While not a cause for undue alarm, our report Preparing for the Best and the Worst of Times focusses on the steps we need to take in education to respond to the potential technological ‘‘colonisation’’ of human work by focusing on the learning dispositions our students require. Schools cannot ignore the looming changes and pretend ‘business as usual’ will adequately prepare our students for these tectonic shifts.

We believe schools need to be enabled to fundamentally change. And teachers need more than policy; they need support to make these capacities understandable and teachable for their students. More broadly, teachers need political, policy and resource support to make hard changes a reality through effective professional learning and partnerships for their school communities.

At The Hospital School and in many other schools who have embarked on this transformation, the changes are deepening and extending the learning. Like Kenny Powers (our stunt driver) we are staring at a chasm with a schooling system that is not yet fit for purpose. What we have on our side though is the bountiful and generative resource; a schooling system with inspired leaders, capable teachers and the almost boundless energy of our students. Let’s hope we have the expertise, wit, courage and vision to make the jump.


Professor Michael Anderson is Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. His is an internationally recognised educational leader. He has taught, researched and published in education and transformation for over 20 years including 13 books and 55 book chapters and journal articles. His international research and practice focus on how the 4Cs can be integrated using coherent frameworks to make learning meet the needs of 21st Century learners.



Dr Miranda Jefferson is co-founder and innovative practice leader of 4C Transformative Learning. She has been involved in leading innovation in schools for over 20 years. She leads programs, initiatives and research in curriculum reform, educational change and school transformation in several schools. Miranda has taught drama and media arts learning and teacher professional practice in the Education Faculty at the University of Sydney. She has also been on advisory boards for ACARA.



For those interested in more about the 4Cs and School Transformation program

The Learning Disposition Wheel is explained fully in our recent book Transforming Schools.


*Copyright for The Learning Disposition Wheel is the property of 4C Transformative Learning and may not be reproduced without permission.