Tony Ryan

on Friday, 01 June 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Tony Ryan
Author of Thinkers Keys

Tony Ryan is an educational consultant and writer, and offers professional support to school organisations throughout the world on issues such as change leadership, lifelong learning and quality classroom practice. He has presented numerous keynotes and workshops at state, national and world conferences in the past 15 years. 

He is the author of the Thinkers Keys program, which was released in an earlier paper-based format, and is available for free at The latest updated version is available for sale at the same site. 

Tony has been engaged as a teacher-in-residence in over 400 schools throughout Australia, New Zealand and Asia. In this role, he teaches extensively, and offers guidance to teachers with their everyday practice. Many of his ideas used in his work can be found in his blog at

Tony is a director of School Aid (, a non-profit charity that supports all school systems in Australia to provide support in times of global crisis.

Interview with Tony Ryan

Can you describe what are the 20 Thinkers Keys and the purpose behind the concept?

I wanted to clarify 20 (and only 20) specific thinking strategies that could cover the full gamut of thinking. Some are very specifically within the critical domain; others are outrageously creative. The earlier version were very concise; the 2006 version expanded upon them somewhat, and altered quite a few of the original Keys. Their purpose has always been to deeply infuse thinking within the curriculum. The meta-purpose: To create a future society that can think for themselves, rather than to believe everything that is offered through the media. 

In which particular area and age group have you found the implementation of these Keys most effective?  

Upper primary and early secondary appear to be the age groups that most utilize the Keys. However, in saying that, I need to point out that I’ve seen some amazing thinking being generated by 5 year-olds when they use the Keys. They’ve also been used in Uni lectures, and even in the corporate world. 

What are some of the other mind engagement techniques that you employ and promote?

Endless options here. Here’s one of the Specials. Anything that is inquiry-based. Units that are formed around an authentic intellectually rigorous inquiry-based assessment task will get most kids thinking. Bit of a mouthful, yet every descriptor is vital. Examples? For a class of 10-year-olds to develop a podcast that challenges adults to rethink the very structure of today’s schooling systems; and to provide viable alternatives. To then present this podcast (replete with justifiable examples) as a workshop at a teacher conference. 

In the current saturated information age, how do your strategies assist educators and trainers engage individuals?

The Thinkers Keys are simple and concise, without being too simplistic (especially the latest versions). In our present saturated learning environment, anything that is based on the KISS principle (Keep It Short and Simple) is a winner. It’s a variation on the one-page rule. If you can’t put it on to one page, it’s too complicated and time-consuming. And so, when it’s easier to read / understand, it’s more likely that most people will choose to be more engaged. And don’t get me wrong here; complex and intellectual is sometimes great for the brain. Just not all the time. It exhausts you. 

What has motivated you to develop and sustain your initiatives in the educational and business world?

It’s one of the oldest clichés around, and it still stands the test of time. When you know that you make a difference in kids’ lives, it keeps you going. I am honoured that my initial ideas have been adopted in so many classrooms. And I cannot adequately describe how it feels when 9 or 14 year-olds demonstrate their learning and ideas to you, after having used the Keys. 

How can your Thinkers Keys be applied to the difficulties women encounter in the area of breaking through the glass ceiling to achieve equality and parity?

I always say: Get creative. We are, right now, in a transformational age of humanity, and this rapid time of change will require us to become more creative than ever before. Earlier inequalities in any form of endeavour were caused in part by inadequate thinking. We need new paradigms of communication between all people, and it will come from using Keys such as the Perspectives Key, the Improvements Key, the Brick Wall Key, the Ridiculous Key (most of these are in the earlier version, which can be downloaded at in the Free Materials section). 

From your experience, what are some of your observations about how people in the top echelons of business think as opposed to those who struggle to climb the ladder?

 They believe in themselves. More clichés, yet your life is determined by what you think about all day long. High achievers might still occasionally doubt themselves, yet they’re prepared to put their plans into action. And that takes lots of focused thinking. 

How have you dealt with individuals who think using old patterns, prejudices and stereotypes including gender biased ones?

We can never force someone else to change; we can only model for them what is best for our civilizations on this planet. Someone famous once mentioned that we must become the change we wish to see in the world. And unfortunately, that takes time and patience. Maybe even 3 generations. Too long for you?? Then think again. In the grand history of the planet, that’s not long at all. Remember that just 300 years ago, most people accepted and supported slavery. Now we have thankfully moved on. As we will with old-fashioned prejudices and stereotypes. 

Do you think that boys and girls learn differently and should be taught differently?  

Yes, the genders do learn differently. Anyone who teaches is aware of that. Any well-respect neuroscientist also will reinforce for you that the male and female brains respond to various circumstances in different ways. Should they be taught differently? Paradoxically, yes and no (given the previous sentences). There are common pedagogical elements that must be offered to ALL learners (eg deep understanding, narrative, explicit quality criteria). However, within each of those elements, there are a myriad of possibilities on their application. And gender differences must be taken into account as we choose from those possibilities. 

What would you like to see change in how we educate our children at home and at school?

Depends upon what we mean by ‘change’. Many educators (teachers and parents) already accomplish fantastic things. They really do. However, that’s not to say that they can’t enhance what they do even further. So, here are a few thoughts on what may come to fruition over the next ten years: 

Web 2.0 environments (eg Twitter, FaceBook) will be supplanted by Web 3.0 learning worlds, in which a web-based learner can comprehensively explore a series of inquiry-based learning projects at their own learning pace.

School environments will still be relevant to learning. It’s just that we will need to rethink the concept of ‘school’. Paradigms such as 9 to 3, the 40 wk year, and classroom-based instruction will undergo a revolution. A school will comprehensively align with the local community, and will support the inspired learning needs of everyone from the ages of 0 to at least 100. For 50 weeks of the year, for 16 hrs / day.

Teachers will become a form of Learning Agent who contract their skills to families, businesses and specific interest groups. Teaching teams will be encouraged to provide their expertise in resolving a series of educational and social issues in their local and in other communities. Permanancy of position will still be a standard scenario, although extra support and encouragement will be offered to those who are inspired by the manner in which they make a difference in their community…and thus, the world.