All posts tagged education

  • Griffith Review essay: ‘Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality’, May 2017

    An essay for edition 56 of quarterly print publication Griffith Review, which is titled Millennials Strike Back. Excerpt below.

    'Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality' essay in Griffith Review by Andrew McMillen, May 2017Worlds Beyond

    Teachable moments in virtual reality

    The blue whale is only a metre or two away from me, and its huge right eyeball is level with mine. I have never seen the largest creature on Earth from this angle, at this depth, in these dimensions. Its body mass fills my vision, and I have to turn my head 180-degrees to take it all in. I’m standing on the bow of a sunken ship, and I have watched, enthralled, as this dweller of the deep sea approached from the dark-blue distance on my left. The surrounding schools of fish and graceful manta rays take little notice of the giant: for them, its presence deserves the equivalent of a submerged shrug; it’s something they see every day. But for myself, standing here on the ship, rooted in place in wonder, it is an extraordinary encounter.

    As it hovers before me, the beast blinks and emits a few curious groans before tiring of this underwater interloper. Just another human being. Boring. When it swims to my right in search something more interesting to look at, its tail-flukes almost lash me on the way past. In sum, I’ve spent only a minute in its company, but I feel as though quite a few things have changed. This is a fork in the road: my life can now be categorised as ‘Before Whale’ and ‘After Whale’. But perhaps the most astounding part of this experience is that it is running entirely on computer code. Even though every aspect of this scene feels real, it is not.

    After I watch the whale disappearing into the dark-blue distance, I turn around to see white text projected on the back of the sunken ship. It is a list of credits for the team of people who worked on this convincing simulation. It’s named ‘Whale Encounter’, and it’s part of a virtual-reality game called theBlu. In reality, you see, I’m standing in a tiled living room in New Farm, in inner-city Brisbane, wearing a headset that is attached to a powerful computer by a thick, black cord. The view from the balcony outside is filled by the Story Bridge. Beneath the steel structure runs the Brisbane River, where there are no blue whales, as far as I’m aware.

    Next, I use one of the wireless controllers in my hands to point and select ‘Turtle Encounter’. This is just as impressive as the previous immersion – and several minutes longer, too. In startlingly clear water, with the sun shining through the surface above me, I stand at the edge of a coral reef. A loggerhead turtle cuts a lazy circle above me, just out of reach. On my right, I’m approached by hundreds of football-sized bright orange jellyfish. Before long, these small creatures are accompanied by several enormous, man-sized giants whose tentacles trail behind them like windblown dreadlocks. Using the controllers, I can prod the jellyfish to affect their trajectory. It is simply gorgeous, and like the whale, it inspires a sense of awe unlike anything I’ve experienced while playing a traditional video game.

    When it comes to eliciting emotions, it appears that virtual reality is streets ahead of everything that’s come before. Moreover, it strikes me that this sort of experience could foster new understanding for children who struggle to process information that’s delivered verbally, or presented on a printed page. Any child can strap on a headset, fire up theBlu and take something away from the experience of feeling as though they are immersed underwater, inside a potentially dangerous and hard-to-reach part of the planet, while still engaging their minds in a way that a textbook, or even the most fervent educator, might fail to achieve.

    To read the full essay, visit Griffith Review‘s website and purchase edition 56, Millennials Strike Back. The image on the book’s cover above is credited to illustrator Laura Callaghan.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Schlock Therapy: The Clown Doctors of Lady Cilento’, February 2017

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the February 11 2017 issue. Excerpt below.

    Schlock Therapy

    In hospitals throughout Australia a dedicated troupe of clown doctors dispenses therapeutic comic relief.

    The Saturday Paper story by Andrew McMillen: 'Schlock Therapy: The Clown Doctors of Lady Cilento', February 2017. Photo by Jodie Richter

    In a quiet and unassuming corner of Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, a transformation is taking place. Inside a nondescript room are two women who seek to make people laugh so that they might forget their surroundings, if only for a few moments.

    Standing before a mirror in a small room, Jenny Wynter applies eyeliner to complement the bright red circles painted onto her cheeks, before picking up a watermelon-adorned ukulele to tweak its tuning. Louise Brehmer secures a series of rainbow-coloured hair ties into her pigtailed locks, dons a purple bucket hat, and fills the pockets of her white lab coat with an array of props. The final touch? Bright red noses, naturally, for a clown can feel only naked without one.

    Affixed to the lockers that occupy the back wall are photographs of six clown doctors, who work in pairs to prowl the bright-green building while spreading mirth. For a few hours at a time, these women dress up to stand out. They seek to become the lowest-status person in every room they enter; they aim for nothing more than to become the butt of their own jokes. When the red noses are on, they’re professional goofs. They act as outrageously as possible to make everyone around them feel better about themselves. “There’s not many jobs where walking down a corridor elicits a smile,” says Brehmer of their eye-catching costumes. “We’re here for the entire hospital, to bring an element of lightness to a serious place.”

    Brehmer has been doing this work for 16 years, and considers it a valuable addition to her career as a freelance actor. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Some days, I have no idea what to do in a situation.” Wynter is a comparative newbie: her background is in stand-up comedy, and she has been a qualified clown doctor since June 2016, having completed her “clownternship” after making 50 appearances in the role. “It’s so much about reading the room, and being willing to change at any point,” she says. “You’ve got to show up with an open heart.”

    On leaving the change room, they switch from friendly colleagues to partners in comedic crime. In the hallway outside, near an immunisation centre, they embrace and address each other by their stage names for the first time today. “Hello, Wobble!” says Wynter, who is now known as Doctor Angelina Jolly.

    As soon as they round the corner, they join the general population of the public hospital’s bustling second floor, and the improvised routine begins in earnest. Within the first five minutes of finding an audience, Doctor Jolly blows bubbles and distributes squares of toilet paper to some bemused boys, Doctor Wobble uses her stethoscope to check the heart rate of a visitor’s stuffed panda, and the pair of them launch into an enthusiastic rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, accompanied by Doctor Jolly’s ukulele. “A lot of the day is just spent cracking each other up,” says Wobble, while they ride an elevator up to the sixth floor.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Jodie Richter.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers’, November 2016

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the November 19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Shock Tactics

    As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.

    Good Weekend story: 'Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers' by Brisbane freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2016

    It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.

    This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.

    Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.

    “Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘

    Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”

    The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”

    When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”

    Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”

    Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.

  • Qweekend story: ‘School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School’, April 2016

    A feature story for Qweekend magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. The full story appears below.

    School Of Hard Knocks

    Sick children need schooling too. At Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School, learning proves positively infectious.

    Qweekend story: 'School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children's Hospital School' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    ++

    In a light-filled corner room of a high-rise building overlooking inner-city Brisbane, a visiting local artist leads a class of six rowdy students. Aged between five and seven years old, they are tasked with creating artworks that illustrate their lives. A handful of the best drawings from this schoolwide project will be sent to China, where a school has a reciprocal arrangement. But it’s unlikely the Chinese students will be able to relate to the experience of these children – they are enrolled in a school very few families in Queensland choose to attend. This is the state’s only dedicated hospital school.

    Sam Cranstoun presents a cheerful front to the kids’ steady stream of questions and comments. The 28-year-old artist asks the four boys and two girls to use crayons to draw what they like to do. Camping, swimming, board games and PlayStation 4 rank highly, before one boy offers another option with a quizzical look. “School?” he asks, unsure of himself. He is testing the waters: is it cool to admit, at age seven, that you like school? “I’m sure your teacher will love hearing that!” says Sam, flashing a smile to the adults across the room. Gemma Rose-Holt, six, draws a swimming pool at the bottom of an enormous piece of paper, then a sun shining high in the sky. In the last couple of years, she has seen her father’s health rapidly decline for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

    Sam continues with the exercise by asking them to consider their place in the world. “Is China bigger than Gladstone?” asks one boy. They talk about their families and school. “Do you guys think about home?” asks the artist. “Yes!” they reply as one, before throwing their talents into happy drawings of the back yards and bedrooms they have left behind.

    “There’s an amazing view out the window,” says Sam, pointing behind the students. “Do you guys ever look out there?” At this, the six kids scamper to the windows, pressing their faces against the glass and pointing out the landmarks they can see from the eighth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, which the Prep to Year 2 pupils are visiting for their art class. They can see Mount Coot-tha, the murky river, the Story Bridge in the distance. “I can see the cat-boat!” announces one boy, spying a blue, white and yellow ferry as it powers against the tide. “I can see bull sharks!” suggests another, prompting a laugh from the teaching staff. Not many schools have a helicopter pad on the roof, nor a giant pink bunny rabbit sculpture standing sentry near the entrance. Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School (LCCHS) has both of these, and when its students are asked to sketch the school, these two features inevitably emerge on the page.

    For their final task, Sam turns these young minds toward imagining their future. “What do we want to be?” he asks them, prompting a flurry of ideas. Teacher? Doctor? Journalist? Soldier? McDonald’s worker? Power Ranger? “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” says Gemma. She draws a nurse standing beside a bed-bound patient wearing a big smile. That’s her father, Damien. He has no hair because the medicine took it away. “The medicine’s yuck, but he has to have it,” she tells Sam. Little Gemma lives with her mother near the RNA Showgrounds, away from her Sunshine Coast home in accommodation subsidised by the Leukaemia Foundation, while Damien receives treatment.

    The students who attend this school are bound by a common experience of illness: either their parents’, their siblings’, or their own. They are from Emerald, Cairns, Chinchilla, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; from every corner of the state. For some of them, it is their first visit to Brisbane, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Entire families are uprooted from their normal lives and relocated to temporary housing reserved for people in crisis. Their parents have got so much on their plates when they come here that sometimes the last thing on their mind is phoning a school, notifying a teacher about what might become an extended absence from their normal classroom. These tasks fade from view when the spectre of death suddenly appears in sharp focus. Into the breach rush 24 hospital school teaching staff, a compassionate, capable bunch of professionals adept at crafting an individualised education that will define these stricken children.

    The school’s impact is wide-ranging, and it sees a diverse population. In 2015, Lady Cilento hospital had 3159 registered students, more than two-thirds of whom normally attended state schools. Of that number, the largest cohort of 21 per cent (663 students) presented with medical conditions; 17 per cent (538) were there for oncology; 13 per cent (410) attended the school because a member of their family was ill, and nine per cent (284) were patients with the Child and Youth Mental Health Service –  which is also located on level eight at the hospital – while the remainder found their way there for reasons related to the likes of surgery, diabetes, rehabilitation and heart disease.

    More often than not, the hospital teachers’ efforts work wonders for the children and their families. During a midweek excursion to the Gallery of Modern Art at nearby South Bank, Mitchell Cawthray, 12, cautiously approaches a teacher watching over the group of about two dozen students as they eat lunch. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “The Force is Strong In This One”, reflecting an indelible truth of this blue-eyed boy’s tough character. His light brown hair is shaved close to his scalp, and when he turns his head, you can see the scar on the back of his neck where the life-threatening medulloblastoma tumour was removed from the top of his spine almost a year ago. “Are you having a good day so far?” asks the teacher cheerfully. “Great day,” Mitchell replies, nodding. He pauses, weighing his words carefully, then looks around to make sure none of his peers overhear his next words. With a shy smile, he says, “I’ve never really said this before, but I think I like school now!”

    ++

    Most children go through childhood without great complications, and without seeing the insides of healthcare waiting rooms for longer than it takes to receive an immunisation jab, to set an accidental bone fracture in plaster, or to go through the motions of a doctor’s check-up. Mitchell, Gemma and their peers are the unlucky few, and the LCCH treats Queensland’s sickest of the sick. All of the “first-world problems”, as Mitchell’s mum, Janine Cawthray, puts it, fade into irrelevance when your child is diagnosed with brain cancer.

    In Mitchell’s case, he and Janine relocated to Brisbane at Easter time last year for his treatment, while his father stayed home in Hervey Bay, managing their small business and caring for Mitchell’s sister as she completed Year 12. “I take my hat off to the teachers,” says Janine. “They not only have to deal with normal academic requirements as per the curriculum; they have to deal with a multitude of personalities – from parents, medical staff – as well as medical requirements and children’s individual needs. They also have to report back to the children’s mainstream school. They’re juggling all of that, and that’s a hard call, but they manage it very, very well.”

    In the middle of the building, on level eight, is a place where a familiar timetable reigns between the hours of 9am and 3pm each weekday. It is a place of whiteboards and colouring-in; of assigned readings and class discussions. It is a place of boring adult words such as literacy, numeracy, curriculum, assessment and “personal learning plans”. For some families, the hospital school quickly becomes the only constant in a life now marked by endless blood tests, chemotherapy and invasive surgery, and – sometimes – dramatically shortened horizons.

    None of these horrible things happen on level eight, however, where the LCCHS middle and senior classrooms serve an ever-changing cohort of students from Years 5 to 12. Nor do horrible things happen on the ground-floor junior school next door, on Stanley Street inside the old Mater Hospital building, where Prep to Year 4 students are taught. In young lives that have suddenly been dropped into seas of anxiety, pain and uncertainty, these two campuses emerge as towering islands of normality.

    There are no school bells here. No uniform, and no rules, per se, only three expectations: be safe, be respectful, and be responsible. Teachers are not known by stuffy honorifics; the students are on a first-name basis with their educators and support staff from the first day. Though visits to these islands of normality are usually short-term matters, these two school campuses can easily act as a home base for months on end, depending on circumstances.

    This unique style of teaching has its roots in doctor-soldiers and military nurses returning from World War I in 1918 and concerning themselves with the rehabilitation, retraining and education of limbless soldiers. From that point, it took only a short leap of logic to twig that children ensconced in hospitals required special schooling, too. The Sick Children’s Provisional School opened at the Hospital for Sick Children in the bayside suburb of Shorncliffe on August 11, 1919; it was the nation’s first such educational institution. Since then, it has been relocated several times. A purpose-built school at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Herston opened in 1978; in 2009, it celebrated 90 years of service to more than 60,000 pupils.

    Vicki Sykes was the longest-serving principal of Mater Hospital Special School in South Brisbane, which opened in 1983.  Appointed in 1986, she served 23 years before retiring in 2009; today, the junior school playground is dedicated in her name with a handsome plaque. In 1986, Sykes described her workplace. “Students come to school from the wards in pyjamas and wheelchairs,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Some are on crutches or have their arms or legs bandaged. During the day some students may need to go off for operations or medical treatment. Teachers don’t know from day to day how many students will be coming to school.”

    In that sense, little has changed since the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School opened on December 1, 2014.  Its purpose is defined by Professor John Pearn in his 2009 history of Queensland’s hospital schools, To Teach The Sick. “Unrealised long-term educational potential has, in the past, been an under-acknowledged legacy of childhood illness,” wrote Pearn in the book’s introduction. “In the context of life’s fulfilment, such may be more serious than any medical after-effects.”

    ++

    The school’s average weekly enrolment is about 150 students, and the student-to-teacher ratio is about seven-to-one.  About half of the students are too ill to make it to either of the two campuses at Lady Cilento, so the teachers come to them, providing bedside tuition. They set daily assignments, and return regularly to check their progress. Depending on scheduling, these ward visits might only last 15 minutes if a teacher has a long list of inpatient appointments. But for the bed-bound students, they might also be the only minutes in a day where they are given a task and purpose that’s divorced from their unfortunate medical reality.

    When visiting a couple of beautiful sisters from Springfield Lakes who have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a palpable sense of cabin fever permeates their immediate environment. Their world has shrunken to a cruel size. Little girls aged six and eight don’t belong in a small room separated by white curtains, behind a door that must remain closed at all times, and where visitors must wear gloves and gowns before entering to minimise the risk of transmitting infections.

    “Homework” is an imperfect word to describe the learning tasks set by these teachers, since the sisters’ entire lives are confined to this room. The hospital, for now, is both their home and classroom. Mid-lesson, a nurse enters to prick their fingers for a blood test. As the precious red liquid is squeezed from a tiny finger, the blonde girl calmly continues reading along to a picture book named Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car with her impromptu teacher, who leaves several worksheets for her to complete. She has long since been conditioned to something that would prompt tears from most other six year-olds.

    For these teachers, visiting inpatients on the wards requires a sense of persistence, positivity and optimism. Every day, these teachers see amazing and terrible things, such as degenerative neurological conditions that strip language and meaning from a young boy’s life with each passing week.

    From his bedside, it’s a short walk to visit a young girl in a wheelchair whose body hosts a flesh-eating viral infection that has left her face disfigured and her forearms resembling those of a burns victim, wrapped in plastic for her protection. Tourism is her passion, and so the ward teachers resolve to bring her homework that suits this interest.

    These teachers are not medical professionals. They cannot fix these problems or treat pain. They can, however, provide stimulation for young minds, if only for 15 minutes each day.

    ++

    After lunch on Thursday, the junior school students file into the flexi-room on level eight for school assembly.  Only Prep to Year 4 are in attendance, as the middle and senior grades are still on an all-day excursion to GoMA. Brianna Iszlaub, 11, with patchy tufts of blonde hair, couldn’t attend the latter as her blood count was down today. She stands beside a girl in a wheelchair as the two of them co-host the weekly event, beginning with an Acknowledgment of Country and an energetic, indigenous-flavoured rendition of the national anthem. “Thank you, please be seated,” says Brianna at its conclusion. School staff and a few parents are scattered around the edges of the dozens-strong group, while the students sit in chairs or on cushions.

    Once Brianna finishes reading from the prepared script, hospital school principal Michelle Bond says to her, “Good girl.” A short and energetic woman who radiates positivity, Michelle, 49, welcomes the younger students to stand up and present their handmade graphs based on a recent visit to a petting zoo downstairs. The principal – who led Royal Children’s Hospital School since April 24, 2006, and LCCHS since it opened – then presents a handful of awards: to an outstanding student who has shown consideration to his peers; to one who has overcome challenges; to one who has made a positive start after joining the school this week. The group sings happy birthday to a shy blonde girl. “Some of these kids would never be chosen to lead an assembly at their own school; they usually choose the school captains and the sporty kids,” Michelle tells Qweekend quietly. “I’ve had parents come and tell me that their child has never received an award before coming here. It’s lovely that we can do that for them.”

    The class’s guest for the day, University of Queensland PhD candidate Maddie Castles, cues a PowerPoint presentation loaded with photos from her recent visit to Namibia. The title slide shows a selfie of her grinning wildly into the camera while a giraffe munches on some leaves behind her. She tells the group about her job studying giraffe social interactions, or “who they’re friends with,” as she puts it. A teacher aide quietly brings a boy in a wheelchair into the room. He is barely conscious, his head held in place by brackets. As time passes, he shuts his eyes and dozes while his classmates leap up for a group photo with Maddie, who might be the first scientist they’ve ever met.

    Posted on the door inside Brianna’s Year 7/8 composite classroom is a photo of her before treatment. Her glorious, long locks are framed by a beaming face. The photo was taken when she first arrived at the school from Townsville in January, after being diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in late November. Her chemotherapy has stolen her hair and some of her energy. Sometimes she prefers to hide her changing scalp beneath a black beanie with devil horns. But none of this is discussed during school hours.

    Brianna’s teacher is Anna Bauer, 35, a bespectacled brunette with sparkling brown eyes who has worked in hospital schools for three years and now can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “No one here will ask you a medical question,” she says of her classroom. “The kids are so tolerant … You can walk in with a nasal gastric tube and a drip tree, and that’s it. We might give the drip tree a name, like ‘Molly’, and then everybody gets on with what we’re doing. It’s what I wish the real world was like.” Working here sometimes demands that the adults develop coping strategies for their own emotional protection, too. “I have to believe that, when they walk out the door, they live happily ever after,” she says.

    In Anna’s current class, Brianna has cancer; the mother of a bubbly Bundaberg girl is being treated for leukaemia; and the fiercely intelligent girl who co-hosted assembly is temporarily in a wheelchair after two recent strokes. But the students she sees aren’t confined to physical illness. “I have so many kids with mental health issues who don’t look sick,” Anna says. “They walk around without baldness, or a nasal gastric tube, or a limp, or a drip tree. There’s no physical evidence, so there’s a real lack of recognition that there’s something wrong with your child. I’m not a parent yet, but oh my God – how awful must that be?”

    During Anna’s second week of teaching at the hospital, a student from the previous day didn’t arrive. When she asked a colleague about their sudden absence, she learnt they were being treated in the emergency department after attempting to end their life. “I took that quite badly,” says Anna quietly. That was when her happily-ever-after belief began to cement itself, as a self-protective measure.

    Some days are worse than others. “You’re on and lifting, all of the time,” says Anna. “But I find it quite humbling, and incredibly powerful, that it’s my job to make their lives feel normal. It can be sad sometimes, but most of the time, it is not; it is joyous, happy, friendly, loving and supportive. The children are sick, but I’m not a health worker. When I’m in here, and they’re so excited to see me, because I’m not a doctor or a nurse, there’s no time to be sad. You’ve got spelling and times tables to do, and we’re going to have fun while we do it.”

    Posted on the door inside Anna’s classroom, beneath the class photos of smiling children at eye level, is a laminated A4 page consisting of a paragraph of white text against a black background, framed by a pink border. I want a life that sizzles and pops, it begins. That first line popped into Anna’s head a little while ago, on a particularly bad day, when her class of six teenage girls were all in a low mood. “And I don’t want to get to the end, or tomorrow even, and realise that my life is a collection of Post-its and unwashed clothes, bad television and reports that no-one’s ever read,” it continues.

    The teacher was getting nothing out of them, that day, so she put the spelling lesson aside and assigned the girls a task: to write about what makes them feel better. Anna kicked them off with that first sentence, and encouraged them to fill the page. She did, too. “I want to see what I see through the lens of a camera and drink wine like it’s real grapes and wrap myself in warm towels that smell like my mum’s washing and dance to songs I don’t even like,” she wrote.

    The girls pasted the text into an online image editing program, fiddled with the design, printed the results and took them home to stick on their walls. These pages were intended to act as a reminder of all that is good in this world, especially on the blackest days. Anna stuck hers to the wall of a classroom where nobody will ask medical questions, in a building that none of the children particularly want to be in. Her paragraph concludes, “I want to wrap my hands around warm cups of tea with friends that will make me laugh so hard I wee a little bit, and I want every day to belly laugh with my people, glad and grateful, that I love the life I have.”

     

  • Qweekend story: ‘Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University’, November 2015

    A story for the November 7-8 issue of Qweekend. The full story appears below.

    Freedom Thinkers

    In their underground “carparktopia”, the women of Brisbane Free University dispense knowledge to anyone within earshot.

    Qweekend story: 'Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University' by Andrew McMillen, published in November 2015. Photo by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    About once a month, beneath a bank on Boundary Street in Brisbane’s inner-south West End, an enterprising trio of young women direct their energies toward setting up a classroom unlike any other you’ll find in the city. Under harsh fluorescent lights and between 13 Westpac customer car parks, dozens of plastic chairs are sat facing a white banner taped to the brick wall, covering the bank’s logo. A second banner is hung above the entrance, so that curious passersby might be drawn in by the impromptu gathering of education-minded locals.

    Since November 2012, a motley crew of passionate, engaged learners has been flocking to this initiative, dubbed Brisbane Free University. Pictured on the banner beside the name is the unmistakable image of an ibis taking flight, its wings outstretched. This bird was chosen for its antagonistic scavenger spirit, and illustrated by 26-year-old co-founder Anna Carlson. It wasn’t until much later that a happy accident was uncovered: the Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth, was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. There’s a curious duality at play here, then: the inner city-dwelling ibis takes what it can from its surrounding environment to survive, while the women of Brisbane Free University enjoy nothing more than to share knowledge with whoever happens to be in earshot, free of charge, to enlighten the lives of those around them.

    Carlson and her two co-founders – Fern Thompsett, 28, and Briohny Walker, 30 – do not take an adversarial approach to the city’s existing tertiary education institutions. To do so would be a touch hypocritical, as the trio met while studying arts/law, anthropology and philosophy, respectively, at the University of Queensland, and a review of BFU’s past sessions show a strong presence of UQ, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith alumni. By 6.30pm on this particular Thursday, Walker steps forward and speaks into a microphone connected to a solar-powered PA system whose two speakers are positioned atop wheelie bins.

    “Thank you for coming down to carparktopia for BFU. It’s lovely to see you all,” she says, beaming. “Tonight is particularly special because it’s a meta-BFU: tonight at free university, we’re going to be talking about free universities. The acoustics here are a little bit weird, so can I check that everyone at the back can hear me?” After getting the thumbs-up from those in the back rows, she hands over the mic.

    Facing the audience are two chairs; one for Thompsett and one for the American guest speaker, Laura Nelson, a 26 year-old student of Harvard University who is studying a PhD on the history of free universities. Both are casually dressed and clearly comfortable with fronting this crowd of around 30 attendees, whose average age appears to be about 22. After acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we sit, Thompsett gives a brief overview of how the event came to be.

    “When Briohny, Anna and myself co-founded BFU, we didn’t realise that there were any other free universities in operation, even at this point in time, let alone in history – which is probably really politically naive of us,” she says with a smile. “It was just an idea that came out of the blue, and a bottle of wine, and then it took form in this very carpark approximately three years ago. It was only a couple of months into the project that we realised that what we’d tapped into was a global movement that stretched back in time, and right around the world.”

    Last year, Thompsett spent five months travelling throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, visiting free universities and studying the interrelated concept of radical education.

    While spending time in Australia, Nelson has been researching this country’s founding movements. She reads aloud a quote to begin: “Training for the economy is the de facto centre of the university’s operations. Students flow in from the public examinations and flow out clutching tickets to membership in the occupational elite. Through the university, a semi-closed upper status perpetuates itself from one generation to the next, preserving the lines of privilege which universal secondary education was thought to destroy. Because their attention is on getting good jobs, the mass of students are insulated from the academic culture of the university and from the radical traditions of student life and thought.”

    As Nelson explains, this quote was first published in a Sydney University student newspaper in October 1967 and became the foundation manifesto of what became known as the Free U, which ran out of a rented house in Redfern and reached a peak of 300 students within two years. The Sydney experiment inspired similar movements in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, among others. As Nelson speaks, buses noisily accelerate out on the street, while occasional hecklers direct their voice toward the carpark, an action which is met with smiles by the organisers. The whole point of using this space is that there is no door between the public and private; instead, anyone interested may walk down and take a seat. That doesn’t happen tonight, perhaps because the audience is among the smallest in recent memory – possible a reflection of the meta theme – but previous discussions on sex and consent, the future of West End and women in media have each attracted healthy crowds.

    After chatting amicably for an hour, Thompsett opens the discussion up to questions and comments from the floor. A young guy in a suit and a flat cap raises his hand; he drones into the microphone for minutes on end about several tangentially-related concepts before attempting to form a question for the two women. I find myself quickly frustrated by his presence, and reflect on how this behaviour would not be tolerated in a mainstream university classroom; he would soon be drowned out by groans, and the lecturer, sensing the restlessness, would likely intervene. Here at BFU, he is indulged with silent patience by all in attendance, though a couple of young women in front of me start rolling their eyes at one another and quietly giggling to themselves.

    This young man is passed the microphone several more times during the group discussion. His barely coherent monologues fill the space, and each time Thompsett skilfully acknowledges his contribution before steering the conversation toward more productive pathways. I realise my frustration toward him is rooted in my own studies at UQ several years ago. I rarely enjoyed the Bachelor of Communication program, doing the bare minimum to scrape through with a pass while pouring my time into socialising and extracurricular activities. This is a fault of mine, not the university’s, yet even here, I found myself thinking in terms of exams and assessment criteria.

    Thoughts such as these are in direct opposition to what BFU represents: learning for learning’s sake, rather than simply chasing a piece of paper, an admirable grade point average or a high-paying job. It’s a beautiful, freeing approach to education, as it opens up avenues beyond the traditional classroom model. It rejects the notion that learning ends with high school, or university. Instead, it’s a lifelong process, and movements such as this acknowledge the universal human hunger for knowledge, discussion and understanding.

    An informal “tutorial” is scheduled to take place in the beer garden of the nearby Boundary Hotel once the organisers have reset the carpark and packed up the PA, but for now, says Thompsett, “I don’t have any conclusions, I just have more questions, which I think is probably the sign of a sound research project – at least for within this framework of anarchist learning spaces.”

    As the audience filters out onto Boundary St after helping to stack chairs, minds and mouths alive with inspiration, it’s clear that this has been another successful chapter not only for BFU’s three founders, but for a radical educational concept that first took root almost 50 years ago.

    brisbanefreeuniversity.org

  • Backchannel story: ‘This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’, May 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

    I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.

    'This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, Medium.com, May 2015

    Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.

    Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.

    But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.

    Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.

    My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.

    Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.

    Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: I also published two outtakes from this story on Medium.com, which are essentially ‘deleted scenes’ from the longer story. The first is about Rocksmith’s origins, and the second is about the process through which Ubisoft licenses popular music to appear in Rocksmith.

  • The News-Mail story: ‘The Message of the Anzacs’, April 2015

    A story for The News-Mail, the newspaper of my hometown in Bundaberg, Queensland. Excerpt below.

    The Message of the Anzacs

    The News-Mail story: 'The Message of the Anzacs' by Andrew McMillen, April 2015

    Anzac Day at Bundaberg East State School in 1993 was an unceremonious affair all but indistinguishable from the weekly whole-school assembly.

    To the school’s newly appointed teacher-librarian, Paul McMillen – my father; a traditionalist who carried a briefcase to work, and coupled shorts with long socks pulled up to his knees – the spectacle was an embarrassment.

    On that April morning, 250 primary school-aged children sat fidgeting on hard concrete, scarcely paying attention to what was being said by the adult addressing the student body.

    At one point, as the restless murmurs grew, an admonition was delivered in a raised voice: “You should be showing more respect for what was done for you in the past!”

    To which any of the students wearing bright green shirts that morning might have replied: what, exactly, are we supposed to be respecting?

    It wasn’t clear.

    The remembrance ‘service’ was little more than a dull formality composed solely of adults talking down to children.

    The teachers’ hearts didn’t seem to be in it, either.

    In all, a thoroughly forgettable occasion.

    Then aged 38, and having recently transferred from a deputy principal role at a nearby primary school, McMillen had neither a particular interest in military history nor a connection to the armed forces.

    Yet something hidden stirred in him that day.

    Soon, he approached the school principal, Doug Ambrose – himself a recent appointment; a no-nonsense sort of bloke who wore a bushy moustache – and said, “I think we can do better than this.”

    “Kids today watch war movies that are ‘glitz and glamour’; full of massive explosions and CGI,” Mr McMillen said to his boss.

    “They have very little idea of what war is like. If the kids are going to respect Anzac Day, they need to have ownership. If their peers are running the service, it’ll belong to them more than a teacher talking to them, as they’re used to in the classroom.”

    In response, the principal gave his new teacher-librarian the nod to proceed with his plans.

    After Mr McMillen’s year of preparation outside of his regular duties – tasks which included networking with the local RSL, writing scripts to be read aloud by the Year 7 students, and building anticipation among the classes that visited his library each week – the school’s Anzac Day service of 1994 was a “monumental occasion”, says Mr Ambrose.

    “It was new ground. The response from the kids and the parent community was astounding; it was one of those special moments.”

    A senior student played the ‘Last Post’ on trumpet.

    No adults spoke to the hushed crowd; instead, a dozen or so students.

    The president of the local RSL attended, dressed in his Air Force uniform, as well as an Army Reservist who stood out from the crowd of 50 parents by wearing his greens.

    Having sat on hard concrete throughout 12 years of unmemorable remembrance services during my own public education in Bundaberg, it is hard for me to imagine 250 children sitting in rapt silence, hanging on the words of their peers as they told stories of decades-old conflict and death under the watchful eyes of solemn men in uniform.

    To read the full story, visit The News-Mail.

  • The Guardian story: ‘School’s out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers’, August 2013

    A story for The Guardian Australia; my first for the website. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    School’s out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers

    Nearly half of all teaching graduates leave the profession in the first five years, Monash University research has found

    The Guardian story: 'School's out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers' by Andrew McMillen, August 2013

    Close to 50% of Australians who graduate as teachers leave the profession within the first five years, many citing overwhelming workloads and unsupportive staffrooms as their main reason for leaving the job, according to new research.

    The apparent exodus of early career teachers is a significant drain on resources, says Dr Philip Riley, of Monash University’s faculty of education, who is leading Monash’s research into the reasons that lead to young educators resigning at an alarming rate.

    “It’s costing the nation a huge amount of money. It’s just a waste, particularly when we’ve got so many threats to the funding of education,” he says.

    Riley estimates that between 40% to 50% of “early career” teachers – defined as recent graduates with less than five years of practical experience – ultimately seek work in another profession, a nationwide figure that’s consistent with research published in the UK and US.

    The most frequently cited reasons for teachers leaving aren’t related to the traditional complaints of difficult student behaviour or mediocre salaries. Instead, Riley’s research – currently unpublished, with a view to publish later in 2013 – pinpoints unsupportive staffrooms, overwhelming workloads, and employers’ preference for short-term contracts as the main areas of tension.

    “Graduate teachers feel relatively well-prepared to deal with difficult kids, although that can be hard,” says Riley. “Young teachers tend to go into schools highly optimistic and full of energy, but if there’s no one to take them under their wing and help them through those first couple of years, they get very disillusioned. The smart ones start to imagine an easier future doing something else.”

    The estimates in Riley’s study are supported by the Australian Education Union and highlight a system in crisis. “It’s a very demanding profession,” says the AEU federal president, Angelo Gavrielatos. “Workloads and stress are both high. Teachers remain undervalued, underpaid and overworked.”

    This scenario rings true for Nick Doneman, a 28-year-old based in Brisbane. He graduated with a bachelor of education from Queensland University of Technology in 2007. “I really enjoyed my degree,” he says. “My practical experiences [before graduating] were really good. But all of that died quite quickly when I saw that the job wasn’t so much about teaching as it was about being a parent. That was a huge turn-off for me. I felt like classroom teaching was only 25% of the job – the rest was dealing with kids and all their issues, the things that go on between them and their parents, and behaviour management, as well as paperwork.”

    Doneman says he got “thrown from school to school” upon graduating; he took several short-term contract jobs, teaching English, Film and Television, and Social Science, but found it difficult to attain full-time employment. His contract stints involved travelling to schools in and around Brisbane, including Kenmore, Bray Park and Carbrook. He found that it wasn’t the kind of job where you could go home at the chime of the three o’clock school bell with a clear head, either.

    “It involved a lot of work in the afternoons and on the weekend, if you wanted to do the job properly,” he says. “It’s easy to be a bad teacher, and not plan ahead of time what you’re going to teach.”

    In each staffroom, Doneman looked around him and found that very few teachers could relate to the young graduate’s initial passion for making a difference to students’ lives.

    “The majority simply did it as a job,” he says. “They didn’t feel like they had the responsibility to do any planning outside of work. I couldn’t live like that, doing a crappy job. There was no teacher at any of those schools where I looked at them and thought, ‘I like what your life looks like’.” After three and a half years, Doneman threw in the towel, went back to university, and now works as a paramedic.

    To read the full story, visit The Guardian.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Learning As One’, July 2013

    A story published in The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, July 13-14 2013. Click the below image to view the PDF, or read the full story text underneath.

    Learning As One

    Mainstream education is the goal for thousands of Queensland children with disabilities. The ideal of inclusion for all remains fraught and Gavin, 8, is one of many yet to make the leap.

    Qweekend story: 'Learning As One: Queensland inclusive education' story by Andrew McMillen, July 2013. Photo by Russell Shakespeare

    Story Andrew McMillenPhotography Russell Shakespeare

    The stomping of little boys’ feet on polished wooden floors echoes through the Angas-Johnson family home in East Brisbane. At the front door, Ben greets me with a smile and a handshake. He’s flanked by his excited sons – Gavin, 8, and Lachlan, 5. After the boys are given ice blocks and decamp to the next room to watch television, Ben, 40, and his wife Dina, 42, take a seat in the kitchen and begin talking about their ongoing attempts to find suitable schooling for Gavin, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder four years ago.

    “It is an emotional and social disability, not something that’s really obvious,” Dina says. Alarm bells sounded when they noticed that Gavin wasn’t talking like his peers. At first they thought speech therapy was the answer. “We found that Gavin started falling behind because of the limited support in the [state] school system,” Ben says. “He was also doing one hour of speech therapy per week, all year, but that wasn’t enough for him to improve.”

    Now in Year 3, Gavin attends The Glenleighden School in Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane’s west, a specialised co-ed facility that accommodates students from early childhood to Year 12. Its motto is “Helping children to speak … and find their voice.” Gavin needs the extensive speech and language programs that only Glenleighden can provide.

    “We’re unbelievably lucky that it’s in the same city as we are,” Dina says. Yet she and Ben want nothing more than for Gavin to be in mainstream education. “He’s going to a special school now, but that’s not where he’s going to learn to live in the world,” Dina says. “It’s just a temporary thing to help him get up to speed.” She smiles and compares her eldest son’s complex educational needs to a puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube.

    “You keep adjusting, twisting, and tweaking.”

    ++

    Since coming into effect in August 2005, the Disability Standards for Education manifesto has sought to ensure that Queensland students with disabilities are “able to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students”. That’s the goal: all children, in the same classroom, learning as one. Previously, Queensland operated on a segregation model for children with disabilities, both physical and cognitive. These students would attend special schools, known then as “opportunity” schools and they rarely interacted with children in regular schools. In 1975, a Division of Special Education was established by the State Government; three years later, following a report titled Future of Special Education in Queensland 1978-1982, this form of teaching was trialled in the state for the first time.

    The vernacular surrounding special education has changed over the years, from “opportunity” to “mainstreaming” and now “inclusive” education. Education consultant Liesl Harper, of Ladder Consulting, prefers to talk about diversity, not deficit. “The phrase ‘inclusive education’ gives the sense that somebody’s out, and somebody’s in,” says Harper, 43, who has worked in the area of special education for 20 years. “It says that you’re still working to include someone, as opposed to just saying, ‘they’re actually all here!’ Our communities have diversity, so do our schools, and we have policy and legislation which requires us to understand that diversity.”

    This naturally presents a challenge to teachers called on to manage up to 28 students per class – a number which is likely to include at least one child with a disability. “It’s tough to find the time to understand the child, their style of learning, and determine the best way to teach them,” Harper says.

    Qweekend story: 'Learning As One: Queensland inclusive education' story by Andrew McMillen, July 2013. Photo by Russell ShakespeareLast year, 24,955 students with disabilities were enrolled in Queensland government schools, roughly 5 per cent of their students. Of that number, 3892 – about 15 per cent – attended 42 state special schools, meaning just over 21,000 were mainstreamed. Within the other schooling sectors, Independent Schools Queensland says 2500 of its students, or about 2 per cent, have ascertained disabilities, while in the Catholic sector, it’s 3 per cent or 4253 students, an increase of 82 per cent since 2007.

    The trend for state schools in recent decades is to operate Special Education Programs and Early Childhood Development Programs, which provide learning support for children with hearing, intellectual, physical, speech-language and vision impairments, as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder – 628 SEPs and ECDPs currently operate in schools statewide. “Parents can choose wherever they want to send their student,” Harper says. What parents of children with disabilities find, though, are systemic roadblocks that stand between their ideals and some schools’ attitudes towards inclusion. “Unfortunately, parents of kids with disabilities are questioned [during pre-enrolment interviews] about the skills of that child, how the school’s going to manage, and a series of other, often really intrusive, personal questions.”

    ++

    The inclusive classroom presents a range of challenges to Queensland teachers. Elliott*, 24,  is a second-year high school teacher in a practical field. In his second semester last year, Elliott taught a Year 8 class of 25, which included five children with disabilities. The first four weeks of class were particularly difficult, as the student with the most complex behavioural problems hadn’t yet been assessed but was eventually found to require a full-time carer. “The teacher aide and I spent the majority of our time with those five students, while the rest of the class just worked through their activities,” he recalls. “I was still helping them, but I wasn’t extending their learning. They were getting enough instruction to pass the subject, but that’s it.”

    The student with complex problems was eventually diagnosed with ASD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as well as intellectual impairment. “He threatened students on numerous occasions with sharp implements; he’d fight with them in the classroom,” Elliott says. “It was overwhelming. With that student, I was frightened to go to class.” Elliott his drive to and from school each day thinking about how to manage the situation and at night he was preoccupied with how to control the student. “I’ve never dealt with anyone like that in my life,” he recalls. “This year I have a similar student who is difficult to work with, and although I have the experience from last year, the same techniques don’t work with him. This time I’m just lucky I only have three children with disabilities in that classroom, not five.”

    Despite the difficulties, Elliott says he believes in inclusive education. “I have beautiful ‘learning support’ children as well, who strive for excellence despite their disability. But I think there needs to be a hard line drawn on safety. For me, that’s the biggest concern. If any student is being violent, there’s no way they should be allowed in the classroom, regardless of learning ability.”

    Now in her mid-50s, Bundaberg primary school teacher Helen* has witnessed the shift to inclusion. “When I first started teaching, any children of the level we’ve got now would’ve gone to the special school,” Helen recalls. “When the change-over first happened, teachers didn’t want to have kids with disabilities in their class. I felt the same. You’ve got enough to do with the children you’ve already got, let alone trying to cater for those with particular needs. I would rather not have had them, but you’re basically chosen because the administration thinks you can cope with them. Someone has to have them.”

    In recent years Helen has taught students who are blind, have spina bifida, acquired brain injury, autism, muscular dystrophy and intellectual impairment. Despite receiving no specialised training for any of these disabilities, Helen – like all state school teachers – is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. “The majority of parents don’t understand the stress and difficulties that the situation presents,” she says.

    ++

    Shiralee Poed is the co-ordinator of the Master of Education (Special Education, Inclusion and Early Intervention) course at the University of Melbourne. A former Queensland Catholic school teacher, Poed, 42, later worked as a policy advisor for Education Queensland, and is completing a PhD on nationwide court cases where families sued state education departments on the basis of discrimination.

    “Within the first five years of teaching – which is when we lose the largest numbers of teachers from the system – the number one reason cited for them leaving is working with children with ‘complex behaviour’,” Poed says. “It might be kids without disabilities who are doing things like ‘out-of-seat behaviour’ – they’ve been told to sit down, but they’re roaming around the room – through to kids who bite, kick and punch as a way of communication, because they don’t speak.”

    “The second reason they leave is uncertainty about how to program for all of the children in their class. There’s such tension surrounding inclusive education because everyone wants the best outcome. The family wants the best for their child; to a lesser extent, they’re not as concerned about the peers, whereas the schools, and the teachers, are looking for the best outcome for all kids.”

    True inclusion remains fraught. Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates says there are very few circumstances left where that withdrawal model – where students spend most of their time in a Special Education Program, and occasionally interact with students in the general classroom – is the one that dominates within a school. “The employer, EQ, has a very clear policy about inclusion,” Bates says. “and I think schools are gradually moving toward realising that policy across the state.”

    One school where inclusive education is working is the 1400-student, independent Canterbury College in Waterford, 30km south of Brisbane. “We have a non-selective enrolment policy,” head of college Donna Anderson says. “Our inclusive education is not solely for students with disability; there are children with other low-level skills, or who need advancement in certain areas. Some of those students may be qualified to receive funding from Independent Schools Queensland, but there are other students who receive no funding, that we support through a range of learning support teachers.” The school funds this initiative itself.

    Executive director of Independent Schools Queensland, David Robertson, explains how funding is allocated. “Students have to go through a verification process to determine their specific needs,” he says. “The higher the need, the higher the funding.” Level one allocates approximately $3000 in commonwealth and state government funding per student, per year; level two $7000, and level three about $10,000 annually. “The school makes the final decision [about fund allocation], but ultimately the money has to be used to support the student’s education plan,” he says. “The number of students eligible for funding in independent schools is increasing at a very rapid rate. This year we’re close to 2500 students, whereas five years ago, it was about 1500.”

    ++

    On March 21, 2011, the sixth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day, Queensland Senator Sue Boyce addressed her colleagues in the federal Senate. “I am a very strong advocate of closing down all our special schools and moving all the resources of the special schools into the mainstream,” Boyce said. “I see this as the only way that we will, long term, push inclusive education and, therefore, real inclusion into the education system.”

    Boyce, 62, has a daughter with Down syndrome, 28-year-old Joanna, and today remains committed to her view. In 2009, Boyce ran a public seminar at the Brisbane Powerhouse, titled Making Inclusive Education Work: Is it the Will, the Skill, or what’s in the Till?

    “The answer is ‘all of the above’,” she says, “but I think the will is the most critical part. I had an interesting experience with the primary school where Jo went: about five years later, under a new principal, another child with Down syndrome tried to enrol there, and suddenly the same school ‘just didn’t have the resources to cope’, and was pushing this child elsewhere. In my view, it’s mostly about the will. You can always work your way around the resources, if people want to make it work.”

    Academic Jennie Duke finds herself regularly challenging “urban myths” with the teachers of tomorrow, when lecturing in inclusive education at Queensland University of Technology.

    “They think they’re not going to be teaching kids with disabilities, because, ‘Oh, they’ll all go to a special school!’. In fact, 82 per cent of students with disabilities are enrolled in their classrooms, not in special schools,” says Duke, citing a figure taken from the Department’s 2011-2012 annual report.

    “They think, someone else will deal with those kids, not me. A lot of our upcoming teachers are white, middle-class people who didn’t go to school with the variety of learners that they’re about to meet [in the classroom] when they graduate.”

    Training teachers to cope is difficult: though they’ll encounter a wide range of students with disabilities in their career, compulsory inclusive education modules comprise only a small part of an undergraduate teacher’s Bachelor of Education program. While mainstream teachers are increasingly called upon to educate children with disabilities, this is an area that requires specific skills.

    “It’s incredibly specialised,” says Ches Hargreaves, vice-president of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association. “Not everybody can be a good teacher in this area. [Special education] is not a place for refugees who can’t teach. It’s a place for the very best teachers in our system – because if you don’t have that, then you don’t get the outcomes.”

     * Names have been changed

  • Qweekend story: ‘Goal Mining: Minecraft and education’, October 2012

    A story that was published in Qweekend magazine on October 13, 2012. Click the below image to view as a PDF (link opens in a new window), or read the article text underneath.

    Goal Mining
    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    A video game that uses collaboration and communication to engage children online has inspired a new method of teaching.

    The first thing we need to do is collect wood. We do this by smashing our fists into tall trees until the wood disintegrates into small blocks, which then become ours to keep. Curiously, punching out the tree trunks makes no difference to their structural integrity; they continue standing tall, trunkless, while we pilfer their wood.

    The second thing we need to do is make sticks. “Using the crafting table, put one wood block on top of the other,” says James Keogh, who acts as group leader and instructs our gang of five as we navigate this strange world.  Easier said than done. Under the clear blue sky, I can’t interpret his instructions to make the most obvious and essential item.

    Sticks are the basis of the pickaxe, the shovel and the sword. I need all of these things to survive and prosper in the world of Minecraft, a computer game set in a randomly generated landscape of mountains, valleys, forests and deserts. Minecraft is unlike any game I’ve played – there are neither clear objectives nor clear instructions. The player is left to his own devices in this virtual playground, to spend his time however he wishes.

    My fellow adventurers – four 11-year-old boys who attend West Moreton Anglican College, west of Brisbane – try time and again to explain the simple process of creating sticks. I’m sweating as oblong clouds pass across the square sun. The blocky mountains surrounding us seem to be frowning at me. Dark squid float idly in the lake nearby, indifferent to my crafting struggles.

    I feel stupid and inadequate, especially in the company of these four well-travelled friends. Darcy Keogh, James’s twin brother, takes pity and gifts me a stone pickaxe, short-cutting the process considerably. It’s a relief. Without my companions, I’d be clueless; come nightfall, I’d surely be dead.

    James and Darcy have been busy using their pickaxes to excavate dirt out of the side of the nearest mountain for our “hidey-hole”, while their friend Liam Catlan patiently attempts to coach some success into me. Torrin Beverley has taken it upon himself to begin digging deeper into the earth in search of precious resources like iron, gold, and – if he’s lucky – maybe even diamond. Mining tools in hand – just a pickaxe and a shovel for now – I climb partway up the mountain and stand at the entrance, admiring their handiwork.

    James warns us that it’s almost night time. I step inside the hidey-hole, shutting the door behind me. Foolishly, Liam stays out and attempts to fight a giant spider. Anguished howls echo across the landscape as he dies at the fangs of his eight-legged foe. His now-itemless character respawns beside us. “Did you have anything worthwhile on you?” James asks. Two stone pickaxes, his friend types. “Not really much, then,” replies our leader nonchalantly.

    Torrin asks if anyone wants a sword. “Yes,” I type, before opening the door and stepping outside. It’s snowing. Pretty, digital snowflakes criss-cross the night sky, falling lazily to the ground. “Whoa,” I say to no-one in particular. It’s a beautiful sight.

    I check my inventory and find Torrin’s gift. All four boys have joined me outside, just beyond the light cast by the flames of our farthest torch. The square moon passes slowly overhead. I wonder aloud whether it’s a good idea for us to be out here, given that one member of our gang of five was so recently slain. “Not really,” says James, swinging his sword defiantly at nothing in particular.

    The boys tell me that there are zombies, skeletons, Creepers, spiders and Endermen out here, prowling the dark landscape. Horrible creatures all. We head back inside and close the door behind us. I turn and stare through the window once again at the mesmerising snowflakes, reflecting on the wide range of emotions I’ve experienced during my first 20 minute-long day/night cycle: confusion, frustration, satisfaction, wonder and, finally, fear.

    ++

    Minecraft is fun because it’s so divorced from reality that minds run free with possibility. Key attractions include its detachment from the responsibilities of daily life – school, work, parenthood, traffic, taxes – and the ease with which the digital world bends to your will. Want to dig a hole in real life? It’s bloody hard work, for starters. Then there are property rights and land ownership to consider, as well as the high likelihood of your dad going off at the sight of his well-tended lawn transformed into a crater.

    In Minecraft, though, it takes just seconds to carve into the ground, or a mountain, and begin exploring what’s beneath. (Once you’ve conquered the admittedly tricky first act of crafting your mining tools, of course.) Likewise, it’s just as easy to create solid structures in-game. Two of the most impressive mega-creations include a 1:1 scale model of the Starship Enterprise, from Star Trek, and a current project involving a few dozen people working on crafting the entire Westeros realm, from the fantasy series Game Of Thrones. Put simply, it’s Lego in a limitless virtual world where the only impediment is your imagination.

    Created by 33 year-old Swedish game programmer and designer Markus Persson, best known by his online handle “Notch”, Minecraft is an international phenomenon. Notch self-published the first “alpha” version of the game online in May 2009, charging a one-off fee of about $12 (€9.95) and updating Minecraft with new features until version 1.0 was released in November 2011 for $24.50 (€19.95). More than 10 million players have bought the game across both the PC and Xbox 360 platforms; it also boasts 42 million registered users, a figure still growing by around 140,000 new players per day.

    Few are immune to its charms, even those who struggle with the game’s mechanics at first – which is essentially everyone, as the PC version of the game offers no in-game assistance. (Minecraft Wiki – a popular first destination for the clueless – contains more than 2,000 detailed articles.) This is the kind of unorthodox design decision that few gaming studios or publishers would allow, yet since Notch created it all himself, he was beholden to no such orthodoxy. Evidently, it hasn’t hindered the game’s popularity.

    “Younger gamers are completely enthralled by Minecraft,” says Janet Carr, series producer of ABC TV’s Good Game, which screens Tuesday nights on ABC2 and attracts an average weekly audience of 108,000. “Since you create your own fun, it gives you the freedom to play it the way you want to. It’s personally satisfying because you have that feeling of discovery, and of creation. Normal game design theory would say that making it hard to play is lethal to your game. Minecraft is the complete opposite: because the kids have to work quite hard at getting a handle on it, they get invested in it really quickly, and very deeply.”

    Carr’s team also works on Good Game Spawn Point, a program aimed at gamers aged 8-12 watched by 80,000 viewers on ABC3 Saturday mornings. She estimates that half of the 10,000 emails sent to the show’s presenters each week are from younger gamers seeking answers to Minecraft gameplay questions. “It’s not even just the number of emails we get about the game that’s surprising, it’s the sophistication of the information they’re seeking,” Carr says. “It’s not, ‘how do I build a pickaxe?’ It’s ‘how do I set up my repeater units so that my mine cart will travel a few kilometres?’ Engineering questions.”

    ++

    It’s impossible to discuss Minecraft without acknowledging its potential to become truly consuming. Since the game world is randomly generated and limitless, it’s unsurprising that those who fall for its charms tend to invest serious hours in the never-ending process of day and night, mining and crafting, exploring and expanding. “A lot of parents are concerned their kids are spending too much time on video games,” says Carr, whose youngest son was obsessed with Minecraft but has since moved on. Unlike most other games, though, Minecraft is undirected. Players must use their own intelligence, intuition and inspiration to derive enjoyment from the game, rather than relying on objectives and rewards predetermined by game designers.

    “A large issue for parents is that they don’t understand what their kids are so enthusiastically raving about,” says Luke Bennett, a 49 year-old ecological consultant who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria and is the father of 11-year-old twins. “When our son first started playing, my wife and I discovered that if he played up until he went to bed, he was so mentally wired that he could not sleep. I’ve responded by letting him play, but not in large chunks of time. Minecraft is a valuable part of a complex lifestyle. You need to leaven it with the other stuff.”

    Recently, Bennett and a friend set up a private online server where about ten children aged 7-12 play online together most nights. “This means my own gameplay is now more of a moderator role, rather than just purely building,” Bennett says. “We’ve set up a blog for the kids so that they can discuss differing playing styles, and resolve conflicts. The biggest issues in the game are virtual urban and environmental planning. The kids’ default response is to ask me to intervene, which has resulted in some very odd conversations at afternoon school pick-up,” he laughs. “But I think it’s great,” adds Bennett, who now tends to play late into the nights with his middle-aged friend after their kids go to bed at 9pm. “Minecraft is a game that encourages players to think, create, solve problems, engineer, train reflexes and socialise. It’s almost education-by-stealth, in the guise of a video game. It’s like hiding cauliflower in mashed potato.”

    Janet Carr agrees that playing with children, rather than observing their behaviour from a bemused distance, is the best way to appreciate their enthusiasm and set limitations around gameplay. “If everyone in the household understands the rules, it doesn’t become an issue,” she says. “If you’ve got a child who’s really wanting to spend all their time talking about Minecraft, you’re almost beholden to get a great understanding of it yourself so at least you can have high levels of conversation about it, and talk about how to manage that time.”

    Steven “Bajo” O’Donnell is co-host of both Good Game shows. “I hate the word ‘addictive’, because it has a negative association,” he says. “I like to use the word ‘compelling’ instead. Minecraft compels you to go back into it, and keep playing it, and keep building.”

    His co-host, Stephanie “Hex” Bendixsen, agrees. “I don’t think it’s necessarily addictive in the way that [online role-playing game] World Of Warcraft is addictive, because that game offers you constant rewards for ‘X’ amount of hours that you’ve put in. Whereas Minecraft doesn’t really have any kind of reward system; it’s really about what you get out of it personally. It may be hard for people to stop playing, but that’s really due to their own experience rather than something that the game is doing.”

    The Good Game hosts regularly hear from teachers who’ve had to ban the game from their schools, or allocate specific times when kids can go into the computer labs at lunchtime to play. “Some teachers use it as a system of reward: if the students get through a computing studies class, then they’re allowed to play for 15 minutes at the end, because they just can’t stop kids from playing it,” says Bendixsen. “They’ve had to try to find ways to work it into school life. Since it’s a game that doesn’t have any kind of guns or shooting, and encourages kids to be imaginative to work cooperatively, it works quite well in the classroom.”

    ++

    High above the clouds, I’m standing on a transparent platform bathed in the orange glow of twilight. At the edge of one horizon, a square sun dips; behind me, a square moon rises. Underneath the platform is an enormous mass of blue-green. It’s the kind of view only an astronaut would see in reality: star-speckled blanket of infinite space above, stable blue marble below. Suddenly, a man in a white labcoat appears next to me. The glowing yellow text above his head reads “Elfie”. He begins giving me a virtual science lesson while showing me around his greatest Minecraft creation – an animal cell he built for his biology students.

    “The whole idea of these first platforms was to give the kids an overall picture of the cell, because it’s very hard to imagine what it looks like from the outside once you’re in there,” says 32 year-old Stephen “Elfie” Elford, who teaches science, maths and humanities at Numurkah Secondary College (enrolment: 300) in north-eastern Victoria.

    As we travel between observation decks by right-clicking on teleportation terminals, we’re getting closer to the giant blue-green mass. Its curvature is reminiscent of the human brain. On the fourth and final deck, I’m presented with the option of teleporting to four unfamiliar, scientific-sounding stations. I choose “Golgi”, the first option. Now I’m inside the giant mass, and before me is a roughly rectangular prism that represents the Golgi apparatus. Right-clicking on an information block at the edge of the platform gives a text overview of its function, written in the same straight-talking language Elford would use while standing at the head of his classroom. “This is an animal cell,” says Elford. “As my biology students tour the cell, they fill in a booklet. I wanted to deepen that understanding and give them a good visual representation they could call on, when needed.”

    So Elford invested six months, on and off, in creating this three dimensional, to-scale replica of how he understands the inside of an animal cell might look. He estimates that he’s moved two million virtual blocks during the 50-hour building process. The brightly-coloured textures of this fascinating structure bear little resemblance to the lifelike shades of the world I explored with the four 11-year-old boys.

    Elford’s animal cell is a remarkable, inspired piece of work from Australia’s foremost expert on MinecraftEdu, a modification (or “mod”) based on the existing game engine. Developed in collaboration by teachers in Finland and the United States, the mod’s disparate but growing network of Games-Based Learning practitioners see efforts like Elford’s as a way to engage the next generation of “digital native” students. (Elford runs a blog called “MinecraftEdu Elfie” where he shares his learning experiences with teachers throughout the world. He has also uploaded dozens of videos to YouTube showing how his classes have interacted with the game.)

    For the last eight years, Elford had taught Nurmurkah’s science students about animal cells from the textbook, two or three times a year. “I was kind of over it,” he reflects. “I don’t know if it was a seven-year itch a year late; I just didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself. And then this came along, and now I’m enjoying my job again. It’s given me that little bump to keep going.”

    Rather than learning through Elford’s descriptions and the biology textbook, it’s much more engaging for students to see his scientifically accurate representation of an animal cell with their own eyes. I didn’t take any science subjects in senior high school, partly because it all seemed so dry and dull. Had MinecraftEdu existed when I started year 11 in 2004, though, I could well have been drawn in by the technological lure.

    Elford is the first to admit that fanciful creations like this won’t entirely replace traditional teaching methods. In fact, he has used this incredible virtual environment in-class once so far, for a total of two hours. He has plans to upload the map so that other teachers can use the animal cell in their own classes. “The time and effort I put in is far outweighed by the students’ immersion in this cell,” Elford says. Using the game, he’s also led students through reaction time experiments; he’s explained the transformation between solids, liquids and gases (by setting his students on fire, in-game, of course); and he’s run an assignment wherein students built energy-efficient houses, then recorded video tours of their new creations. Despite these breakthroughs, MinecraftEdu is only used on occasion at Nurmurkah, when it’s appropriate to the learning at hand.

    “Personally, I think it should be in every school,” says Elford as he wraps up his tour of the animal cell while we stand outside, gazing up at the monolith. “The opportunities it provides for students to create, and to be creative, is something I haven’t found anywhere else in my time as a teacher.”

    Meanwhile, 15km north-west of Cairns at Kamerunga in far North Queensland is Peace Lutheran College, a prep-to-year-12 school of 585 students. Andrew Wright, 40, is eLearning mentor at Peace. He’s the one who drove the college’s IT department to adopt MinecraftEdu for the first time this term, across two classes of 25 students. “It’s been fantastic,” says Wright, who also teaches Year 7. “We’re studying Ancient Rome at the moment. We found a MinecraftEdu map of that, where the pupils started off in the Colosseum, then partnered up and walked around Rome to have their photographs taken outside iconic landmarks such as the Pantheon. They then went away and researched what that real building would have been used for, and made a presentation about it. You walk around [the virtual] Rome yourself and you think, ‘wow, someone must have spent years doing this!’”

    Though a classroom of 25 kids running rampant in MinecraftEdu sounds chaotic – despite the availability of teacher-only crowd control tools that can instantly freeze, mute or teleport students – Wright assures me it’s quite the opposite. “Because the students want to be learning, and they want to be engaged, they’re very respectful of the game and of each other,” he says. “That’s what we try and teach them – within the game, you have to cooperate, you have to use all the skills that you’d need in the real world. Collaboration, communication; it’s all there. There’s a real learning curve going on because the Year 7s are teaching the Year 1s.”

    Wright, who is now in his fifth year of teaching at Peace, says that “addictive” is “a strong word” when used in the context of Minecraft. “As a teacher, if you’ve got something that the students are keen on using, and you can use it in an educational way, you’re on to a winner. It can be seen as taking up a lot of time, but as with anything, you have to manage that time. When parents see their children coming home and working on this stuff after doing their homework, I don’t think you can put a value on that.”

    ++

    James and Darcy Keogh are showing me around their virtual world one week before my first in-game experience. It’s the first time I’ve seen Minecraft in action. James walks through their well-tended farm of pumpkins, melons, wheat, sugar cane and cacti while playing on a laptop that’s connected to a widescreen television in the living room of a house in Chuwar, about 6km north-west of Ipswich.

    Parents Robert and Grace, who are separated, watch intently from the lounge as their 11-year-old sons walk them through a world they understand a fraction as well as their youngest children do. Throughout the 90 minutes the twins spend pumping me with information, they chatter constantly, challenging one another on which elements of the game to demonstrate and how best to describe its complex functions. It’s a dizzyingly detailed language spoken by twins fluent in Minecraft-speak.

    “There are different ranks of tools,” James explains. “You start with wooden, which is the worst, then upgrade to stone, iron, gold and diamond.”
    “But you’ve got to mine all that stuff to make it,” says Robert, who has himself dabbled with the game.
    “You’ve got to chop down the trees to get the wood,” Grace adds. “That’s the first thing you do – punch a tree. I never got past wooden tools,” she says, with a hint of regret.
    “When you play, you just muck around,” James gently cajoles her, “putting blocks down anywhere …”
    “You’re not fanatical like some!” Robert interjects. The Keogh family laughs together.

    Countless hours sunk into this intriguing world built on blocks, mining and crafting. Millions of players absorbed by the limitless promise of what this game represents better than any before it – a tangible, tantalising sensation of freedom. Two 11-year-old boys who have been playing video games as long as they can remember, and who have played this particular game practically daily since their eldest brother, Brendan, first showed it to them in 2009.

    “So why do you guys play?” their father asks.
    “Because it’s creating, and you can basically do anything you want to,” replies James.
    “Where most games are just, ‘you do this, then you do that …’” says Darcy, “and you don’t get to …” James interrupts by finding the right word for his twin.
    “Most games are linear,” James says. “Minecraft isn’t linear.”