“The more we can move education away from a motivation framework based on avoiding failure (teachers and students) towards one constructed around self discovery and genuine engagement the better.” – Dan Haesler, Australia

We all know that the most engaged students are the most successful ones. We also know, and are reminded day after day here at Daily Edventures, that engaged teachers are the ones making a real difference in education. But engagement is significant in another way, according to Dan Haesler. It’s a sure way to ensure the wellbeing of both students and educators. “By investigating engagement levels,” Haesler says, “we get an insight into how people feel about themselves and what they are doing. By seeking to improve engagement in education (as opposed to enforcing compliance), we can innovate in a number of areas with regard to pedagogy, use of technology and community involvement.”

Haesler, who has shared the stage with education luminaries like Sir Ken Robinson, was awarded a government scholarship in 2010 to address and raise awareness of youth depression. The work was life-changing for Haesler, enabling him to work with some of the leading thinkers in the world, and setting him on a course to make an even bigger difference in education. “Building on this,” Haesler says, “my work now focuses on student and staff wellbeing. The primary strategy I use to address wellbeing is enhancing engagement levels.”

Haesler is currently developing programs to be delivered through YouthEngage – a not-for-profit initiative – to enhance engagement levels in school communities of those kids deemed to be at-risk of falling through the cracks. In today’s Daily Edventure, Haesler talk about the mindset shifts that must take place in students and teachers alike and about the role technology can play in engaging learners.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I’m of the opinion that one of the factors that accounts for the rise of depression levels in society is that too many people are in jobs that hold little intrinsic reward. What’s more, I believe people accept this because of their educational experience. The more we can move education away from a motivation framework based on avoiding failure (teachers and students) towards one constructed around self discovery and genuine engagement the better. The feedback I get from schools is very encouraging. Schools are addressing how they look after and engage their whole school community. Schools are looking at really innovative ways to educate and assess their students, whilst developing the professional capacity of their staff.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable for a while. Think about what ways you can create more autonomy, mastery and purpose in what you do. This will mean letting go of some control – e.g. you may not know where the unit of work will take you or how you’re going to assess it – and letting students take more ownership of the work you do in the classroom. Your thinking around assessment may change completely. Can you attach a grade to what you’ve done, or are self and peer assessment a more valid way of interpreting things? Will you even still think in terms of “units” or “grades” to define education?

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology has helped me to help many schools and teachers enhance levels of autonomy and purpose in what they do. Technology means that kids can now work with anyone, anytime, anywhere, anyhow. In an age when we keep hearing how inappropriately kids use social media, it was great to work with kids who created a Facebook page to address Body Image. Who’d have thought it? Kids using social media positively! What’s more, this kind of learning is real. It’s real kids collaborating on real issues, coming up with real solutions.

I’ve also been fortunate to be a part of the team responsible for developing PLANE – an online professional learning network for teachers in Australia. It’s collaborative, self-directed and available to all teachers regardless of what school they work in.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Because everyone has had an education, everyone has an opinion on it. Often that opinion is based on old fashioned thinking. We need to challenge what a lot of people take for granted in order to enhance education. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen on a meaningful scale as long as education is tied to political votes. The incredibly complex issue that is education is often reduced to one line, overly simplistic slogans and philosophies. There is also a lack of the professional voice in the education debate.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

The new Australian Curriculum has some excellent concepts in it, although there is some concern that these are overshadowed by the fact it is very content-heavy. I think Australian teachers are very keen to share and some of the PLN activity on Twitter and other sites is very healthy.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Same as most western education systems. Reduce focus on standardized test scores and the comparison between countries/regions. Build teacher capacity by recognizing their expertise and encouraging autonomy in the workplace. Seek to genuinely engage kids in their learning, rather than expecting them to conform to “the norm.” Seek to genuinely engage teachers in the debate around education.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Teachers across the globe are connected more now than ever. Innovation rarely comes from one person’s idea. Rather it’s the meeting of minds where great things happen. We should look to nurture existing PLNs and value the expertise therein. Administrators, school leaders and politicians should recognize that in order to innovate we must build the capacity of the teachers who are already going down that path.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Don’t lose sight of why you went into education. Hold onto your enthusiasm and idealism. Many will challenge or criticize you along the way – stay true to yourself.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The trend that is helping is the same that is getting in the way. The use of technology – whether it be the use of videos a la The Kahn Academy or blogging, etc. – needs to be seen as part of a 21st century education. Currently, too many see technology as the silver bullet to education, and as a result it isn’t used to great effect. All too often technology is used to simply replace what kids would normally be doing with pen and paper. Used well, technology enables kids to create, collaborate, communicate and advocate; four very powerful concepts to engage kids. Tapping into these four concepts can help you make any learning task an authentic real world experience for kids. I’m of the opinion that school should be real, not just a place where we prepare kids for the real world.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

A growth mindset. This is an attitude that says, “I can get better.” People with growth mindsets are not defined by their achievements, or labels that get bestowed on them by well-meaning adults. They strive for mastery, and do not seek excuses when they struggle.  Check out the work by Carol Dweck, PhD for more on mindsets at: www.mindsetonline.com.  If more teachers and students had growth mindsets, we wouldn’t spend time worrying about our position in the standardized test league tables, yet ironically I believe our standings would most likely improve. As kids genuinely engage with their learning, their numeracy and literacy levels would improve.

I believe that achievement is a by-product of engagement and wellbeing. But all too often, we pursue achievement at the expense of engagement and wellbeing.


About Dan Haesler,

  • Birthplace: Manchester, UK
  • Current residence: Sydney, Australia
  • Education: BA (Hons) in Physical Education and English
  • Website I check every day: Twitter
  • Person who inspires me most: My kids – I’d like my opinions to be surplus to requirements by the time they’re at school.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Summer evenings at the cricket club (very English!)
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Denmark – presenting alongside the Danish Education Minister Christine Antorini, around the value of vocational education.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? A couple of minutes ago – for some reason my four-year-old son has taken on the challenge of substituting the word “underpants” into famous song lyrics.
  • Favorite book: Don’t have one in particular, but I like most of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, Drive by Dan Pink lays out Self Determination Theory really well, and the Dr. Seuss books my wife and I read to our kids have lessons for everyone.
  • Favorite music: A bit of everything, but particularly partial to the Welsh group, the Stereophonics.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
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