So, I’ve been a bit quiet the past few weeks, but I have an awesome excuse: I’m travelling in Scandinavia! We flew into Copenhagen, hung out there for a bit, then joined a group bus tour through Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and now we’re staying in an apartment in Oslo for a week. Stunning weather, varied landscapes, Vikings… it’s fabulous.
And while we were on the organised group tour, it struck me: travelling in this way is very much like a attending a conference – at least most of the ones I have been to for the purposes of teacher professional learning and development. What do I mean by that? Well, in case you’ve never been ‘on tour’, let me give you a snapshot of what it’s like.
Before going away, you will have poured over various websites and glossy brochures in order to choose the trip you want. Does it hit all the highlights? Will you get to stay in nice hotels? What excursions are included? Then, while you are away, you have a highly informed Tour Director who organises everything for you. What time to get your bags packed and ready for collection. What time to have breakfast. What time to be on the bus for departure. When the ‘comfort’ stops will be. When and where lunch will be. The history of your present location. Suggestions of things to do with your unscheduled time. It’s quite the experience.
You’ll have the absolute reassurance that you will have seen the key spots in the neighbourhood. You’ll learn something of the country, its people, and its culture. You’ll have someone to help you if you have problems. You’ll have a whole busload of people to chat with. It’s organised, safe, and reliable. And enjoyable: you get to see a lot from up high in those reclining bus seats.
I think there are a lot of comparisons to be made with traditional conferences. You’ll spend time thinking about whether you really want to attend the event. Are the themes of interest and relevance to you? Who else do you know is going? What break-out sessions are on offer? Who are the keynote speakers? And once you’ve registered, the conference timetable is set. Follow the instructions and advice of the conference MC to make the most of the experience. You have the reassurance of knowing you’ve heard from experts in your field, the fun of socialising and networking with peers, and the enjoyment of learning something new.
But perhaps the key comparison that has struck me is that of agency. Bus touring and conventional conferences offer the illusion of agency. Choosing between optional excursions and deciding what to do with your limited ‘free time’ on a bus tour that is otherwise highly scheduled gives the illusion that you are an independent traveller. Similarly, choosing between breakouts and workshops at a conference gives the illusion that you are an independent learner.
It is undoubtedly harder to be independent in both contexts. It requires effort, motivation, curiosity, and, perhaps above all, time. Time to do your research, to really commit to navigating your travelling… or your learning. So what’s the pay off in going off the beaten track? Satisfaction. Pride. Confidence. And the skills to continue journeying.
There’s nothing wrong with the easy route. It’s a great place to get an introduction. But we must not stop there to admire the (carefully pre-selected) view. We must then find our own paths into the unknown.
Why am I rambling about conferences? Because that’s the topic of my PhD. Learn a little more here.
This post was first published on CORE Education’s blog. Click here to see the original.
Schools cannot simply rely on their positive culture and respectful relationships to promote wellbeing but need to provide opportunities for students to make decisions about their wellbeing and to be active in leading their learning,Education Review Office, 2016, p. 18.
The wellbeing of young people is increasingly an area for focus for schools both here in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as overseas. In the past we have possibly relied too heavily on an implicit approach to the wellbeing of our staff, students, and school community: that teachers and students have a good rapport; that leaders have an ‘open door’ policy whereby any issue can be raised at any time; that the school environment has a positive feeling. While these are indeed all strengths schools can build upon, this isn’t an approach to wellbeing in and of itself. If we see wellbeing as important, then it must be reflected in all areas and aspects of a school. Wellbeing requires an explicit approach, as the Education Review Office (ERO) calls for in the quote above.
Firstly, what is wellbeing? When I asked participants this very question at a recent CORE Breakfast, this is what people said:
A synonym I like to use is flourishing (as did one or two others!). That our young people are nurtured to do more than exist; they thrive. They have the right to be who they are without having to leave any aspect of their identity (such as their ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation) at the school gate.
This is all very laudable, but how do schools go about explicitly planning for our young people to flourish and thrive?
Taking a youth development perspective in wellbeing work;
Seeing young people as active agents in their lives.
Whole-school really means whole-school: that wellbeing goals are reflected in school policy, curriculum, the physical environment, pastoral care practices, in the staffroom, in the boardroom, and in the classroom. That we monitor the wellbeing of all students and staff, and that we iteratively design and evaluate wellbeing strategies and initiatives.
Taking a youth development perspective requires moving beyond our previous practices of focusing on responding to specific issues as they present themselves (bullying, teen pregnancy, smoking, for example) to promoting wellbeing. It also means that students are actively involved in developing and leading wellbeing programmes. This goes hand-in-hand with treating young people as agents in their lives. Young people are experts in their own lives: they have knowledge that deserves respect and offers learning opportunities for adults.
Last year I had the privilege of being selected for the Lifehack Flourishing Fellowship. Lifehack was a systems-level intervention in youth mental health and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. One of the amazing resources I was introduced to was the ‘Mapping and Mobilising Conditions for Youth Wellbeing and Hauora’. This is a tool primarily designed for youth work teams and organisations to “identify and strengthen their practices and ways of working across areas that are known to promote youth wellbeing, hauora and positive and youth development.” As soon as I saw it, I got excited. I could see its potential to be used in schools as a reflection tool. I tested it with a group of teachers, and we had a think about both its format and its language. Based on their feedback and thoughts, I had a play to create this version for use in schools and Kāhui Ako: Pathways towards student wellbeing.
In it, I pose three key questions:
Agency and Engagement: How are young people involved?
Cohesion and Collaboration: How do we learn and work together to nurture wellbeing systemically?
Environment and Community: Do our environments show that young people are valued and important?
Much of the literature about youth wellbeing places emphasis on what in education we call ‘agency’. That young people are involved in the planning, leading, and implementation of wellbeing programmes and initiatives. We should work towards the consistent involvement of diverse groups of young people, including initiatives and programmes they co-design and lead.
As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to agency and engagement, you may like to consider student leadership.
Who are the student leaders in your school?
How are they selected?
What role(s) do they fulfil? How much agency do these leaders have?
Who is not represented in student leadership roles?
And perhaps more broadly:
To what extent are young people involved in the design of programmes / initiatives and in decision-making generally?
Are there are a variety of opportunities for young people to participate and be involved in meaningful ways?
To grow the capacity of a school to support youth wellbeing, it is important to be a learning community. The principle of ako is crucial here: how do we learn with and from one another, how do we share this learning, how do we curate this learning? The challenge in this space is to have a commitment to innovation and collaboration, and iterative ways of working and learning both internally and externally. To have knowledge shared openly, and learning that is reciprocal, and that young people are active agents in creating and sharing knowledge. Collectively, we build a broad and deep knowledge base that is curated.
As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to cohesion and collaboration, you may like to consider learning as inquiry.
Who decides what is taught and how?
To what extent is learning through inquiry a basis for learning in classrooms; as professional learning and development; as building capacity for leadership?
How do we share the learning from our inquiries with one another?
And perhaps more broadly:
To what extent are individuals, groups, teams and / or departments operating in silos or in isolation?
How do individuals and teams draw on and contribute to data and a shared knowledge base?
The third aspect to consider is that of environment and community. This is intentionally broad, encompassing all aspects of the environment: the physical, cultural, social and emotional environments of the school. It is important that the input and value of young people is reflected in places, spaces and governance structures.
As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to environment and community, you may like to consider what’s on display on the school and classroom walls.
Do we display learning in progress, or finished products?
Who decides what is displayed?
Who decides where material is displayed?
How often is material for display changed?
What isn’t displayed on walls?
And perhaps more broadly:
Do young people feel welcome and included in our spaces and community places?
Does the design and management of amenities and spaces specifically incorporate young people’s needs?
These are big issues for schools to grapple with. However, starting by asking young people what is happening for them in their lives, and in your school; auditing wellbeing programmes, initiatives and data; and then considering the strengths the school has to build upon are useful beginning steps. The key theme is that of agency: Nothing about us without us. This is a wero all schools should wrestle with.
In view of my word for the year (experience – read more here) this week I participated in CORE’s innovation experience ACCELERATOR. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: suggest an idea, form teams around ideas, explore and evolve the idea. Test the idea and the assumptions that underpin it. Pitch the idea. And yes, this is what we did. But ACCELERATOR is so much more than this – as if what I’ve just described isn’t enough on its own!
Being pretty familiar with design thinking and the social lean canvas, I wasn’t sure ACCELERATOR would offer me too much. But I was invited to participate, and knowing that I’m going to be facilitating ACCELERATOR when it hits Wellington in July (more here), I figured the best way to learn about the process was to wholeheartedly join in.
So what did I learn?
Pitching is hard. It takes real skill. And the process of having to refine your idea to convince others of its worthiness is invaluable. What is the problem? Why is it a problem? Who is it a problem for? Is that really the problem? How do you know? So, what’s your idea to fix it? How will that work? Is that truly an innovation? In three minutes. Or your money back. Okay, not that last one, but in three minutes or get clapped off the stage, anyway.
I liken the process to panning for gold. You start with a tray of dirt. You slip in a little water and swirl. You may seem a glimmer straight away. You may not. But you keep bringing a little more water on board, you keep swirling and slushing away more and more dirt, and eventually, if you’re lucky, there’s a teeny speck of gold at the bottom of the pan.
For me, this isn’t about coming up with an idea that will lead me towards world domination. It’s about the process, it’s about the experience, it’s about the learning. To take feedback. To be open to changing your idea (this one’s hard for me). And to think really really hard about the words you will use to encourage others into your waka.
And what else did I learn?
I’m a facilitator. I’m a teacher. I believe in respectful practice. And when the pressure goes on, my task-oriented brain goes into bossy mode! I unreservedly apologise to my teammates I bossed around like the big sister I am. Wowsers. It wasn’t pretty, but it was an eye-opener to me. Day one, I felt like I kept a good foot in both camps: being a contributing part of my team; keeping the focus on my other teammates and their learning. Day two, with the final pitch looming, this went out the window. “Nope!” I would say. “We need to do this.” “Oh, and don’t use this word, use this word.” All those old behaviours of directing and telling came rushing back.
Here’s why I think ACCELERATOR is an important experience: it’s no good having an idea if you can’t convince others why it’s a good idea. We can do a lot of moaning about the things that bug us. What if we focused our energies instead on not only solving those irritations, but helping others to come on board with our solution? And while you’re changing the world, you may well learn something about yourself in the process.
“How’s the PhD going?” is a common question I’m being asked since enrolling at university last month.
“Oh, dipping my toes in,” is the vague, non-committal response I usually give.
Where do you start a such a huge piece of work? Luckily I know a few people who have completed, just submitted, or are about to submit a PhD, so I polled them. I was given some great advice:
‘Write first, read second,’ was one I really liked. I usually do a lot of reading. I try and read as much as possible, as broadly and as deeply as possible. But I can see the pitfalls of this starting with this approach. Once you’re on this track, how do you know when to stop? When do you start to lose track of your own ideas, and have them hijacked by the ideas of others? The more you read, sometimes the more you get lost. In a fictional context, I like this. When I’m trying to contribute some original knowledge to the world (yikes, #nopressure) I can see this as rapidly becoming an extension of imposter syndrome: losing sight of the gaps, and seeing only what’s been done. Who am I to think I might have a different perspective or contribution to offer?
‘Write a research question. See if you can answer it. If you can, write another research question,’ was another I really liked. So much so, that after the person gifted me with this advice, I went home and had a questionstorming session. I generated nearly 50 research questions. For me, I found this really useful. It was a concrete and discrete task to complete. I could do it over a short space of time (I’m only studying part-time) and feel as though I had achieved something. In a way, it’s similar to the ‘write first’ idea: start with your own thoughts and ideas first. Ground yourself in your interests and branch out from there.
I’ve also inadvertently stumbled into my own useful practices. One I’m determined to keep up is my ‘What have I done today’ journal. I have a document I write in at the end of every study day where I summarise what I’ve done, and jot down any questions or key thoughts I’ve had. Not only does this help to give me a sense of accomplishment, it’s also super useful when I put down my research on a Thursday and don’t really pick it up again until the following Wednesday.
To complement this practice, I also ‘park on a hill’ – another piece of advice from a recent PhD student – I write a post-it note to myself with some tasks I will start with the next study day. This way, I begin the day with a sense of what I’m going to do, even if I change my mind later on in response to something I’ve read or written or thought.
I’m also grateful for the other work I have done in supporting others’ research, such as the CORE Education eFellows, and the work I have done in my own thinking and research. This has prepared me well for the familiar (but still uncomfortable) feeling of not knowing what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I should be doing. I recognise that you have to trust your brain to throw up an idea, or bring several ideas together at unexpected times. For me, this is often when I’m cleaning the bathroom. Or, as it was the other week, at the ungodly hour of 5am.
I’ve come to realise that it’s a cliche because it’s true: a mighty project like a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t have to know yet the scope and shape of the thing. At the moment, having some useful practices about how to think and work is enough. So I don’t think it’s that I’m dipping my toes in. They’re not yet wet. But I have managed to take my sock off.
Ko Pirongia te maunga. Ko Waikato te awa. Ko Nicoll te iwi. Nō Kotimana me Airani ōku tūpuna.
I whānau mai ahau i Kirikirioa. Nō reira, kei te Whanganui-a-Tara tōku kainga inaianei.
Ko Philippa ahau. Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou.
When I was about fourteen I was chatting with a classmate. She was Māori and was sharing a story with me. I couldn’t even tell you what the story was about, nor the context in which it was shared. What I do remember though, was that the story included the word ‘moa’ (a large native New Zealand bird, now extinct). But I didn’t understand the word as my classmate was using it. She repeated it several times. I shook my head, my mind completely blank. What was she saying? Finally, she sighed. “Mow-er, Philippa, mow-er, the dead bird, you know, a mow-er?” I hadn’t understood her because she was pronouncing the word correctly, and it wasn’t until she said it incorrectly, the Pākehā way, that I recognised it. She wasn’t cross with me, nor did we ever speak of the moment, but it seared into my mind. This wasn’t going to happen again. I would recognise Māori words when they were spoken to me, and I would make every effort to pronounce them correctly from this time on.
And I have prided myself on doing this, and learning a pepeha (above), two karakia, a few songs, and a few whakataukī. I argue with others about unconscious bias and the way the system privileges Pākehā over Māori. And I rest on my laurels.
Every now again I get a jolt though. I have written about such moments before: here, in a blogpost entitled “Wero”, and here, in a blogpost entitled “Vanilla”.
I was jolted again at the end of last year. I am lucky enough to work for an organisation (Tātai Aho Rau | CORE Education) which is striving towards being Treaty-based. I attended an internal workshop on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which really opened my eyes to understanding history from a Māori perspective, and to knowing more about Te Ao Māori pre-colonisation. As an action following this workshop, I purchased a copy of Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand and it was the first book I read in 2018.
I devoured it in a few days. It was readable, entertaining, and enlightening. I was left with three key thoughts after finishing it:
Māori identity is not just ancestral but is also place-based. The word ‘whenua’ means even more to me now (land / placenta). I can see why it is crucial to understand the kawa and tikanga of the iwi and hapū of the rohe. I can see why (teacher hat on) place-based curriculum is so crucial.
Māori are amazing adapters. Part of their genius is being able to interact with technologies and to adapt or discard these for use in ways that fit within Te Ao Māori.
That Aotearoa New Zealand has experienced so much history in such a short amount of time.
I know that these are not new for many people – and certainly not Māori! – but I record them for my own learning.
And I was left with this crushing question: How much of what I take for granted is Pākehā? By way of an explanatory sentence: what would the six o’clock news look like if told nightly from a Māori perspective?
It’s become a bit of a ‘thing’ this word for the year business. Instead of setting New Year’s Resolutions (although I do have one of those this year: cook one vegetarian meal a week) I choose a word – more accurately a verb – for the year. In theory, this helps me to align goals and strategies and helps me to focus on what’s important. Some years this is more successful than others (see here for 2017’s word), but regardless, I think it’s an optimistic and positive way to start a new year.
I’m anticipating 2018 being a big year for me. Firstly, it’s the year in which I return to study. On Monday I enrolled at Victoria, University of Wellington, and tomorrow I have induction meetings. It’s official, I’m a PhD candidate. It was such a buzz to briefly walk through campus. And I can’t wait to hit the library! #nerdlyf.
Secondly, it’s a year in which the nature of my work is changing. For the past two years I’ve worked almost exclusively with the Connected Learning Advisory – which is an awesome free service for New Zealand schools and kura to access unbiased, independent advice and support around embedding digital technologies for learning. But I’ve gone part time to give me some space for study, and I’m also increasingly working directly with schools as part of Ministry of Education-funded professional learning and development. This means rapidly developing a whole suite of negotiation and work management skills, as well as upskilling in the areas schools want support with.
Thirdly, it’s a year in which we have some significant travel planned. We’re going to take a tour through Scandinavia, a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and hang out with some very dear friends of mine in Germany.
How to synthesise all these various components? By appreciating them as unique, valuable and life-expanding experiences.
But ‘experience’ is not just about the big things. For me it’s also about the small things. I’m a prolific reader, but generally it’s novels I inhale. So, I’m seeking to have new reading experiences by reading more non-fiction. So far I’ve read a couple of history books and beside me right now is a memoir.
And ‘experience’ is also about me knowing myself. I am not about to become a hiker, an athlete or outdoorswoman. Generally speaking, I just do not appreciate these kinds of experiences. Physical challenges are not my jam. Intellectual ones are. I like to be cognitively challenged. “Where’s the learning in this for me?” is my focusing question to help me tune into the experience I’m, well, experiencing.
I’ve written about getting to be a mentor and critical friend in my work with CORE Education previously. In this blogpost I thought I would reflect on what I’ve learned in about 18 months of doing this interesting, engaging and challenging mahi.
Ironically, I’m going to start with myself. This is completely contradictory in the face of a mentoring relationship which is really all about the mentee. What I love about mentoring is getting to know another person and their context. It’s been a great antidote to the almost crippling imposter syndrome I face working with giants in the Aotearoa New Zealand education system at CORE Education.
When mentoring, there’s no way on earth I could possibly know everything (or, indeed, anything) about the areas of interest and focus of the mentee. Therefore, I release myself of this burden. I don’t have to be any kind of “expert” in their field. I need to be curious and willing to learn more. Given my love of learning, that part’s a snap.
The thing I find easy to get carried away with is the fact that I genuinely like the mentees I get to work with. This means that I can slip out of ‘mentor mode’ and slip into ‘casual conversation with a colleague mode’. I can find myself wanting to share stories of my practice, to tell them what I think they should do with the issue on the table, and to make it about me and what I know and can offer. I guess it’s like slipping into teacher mode in a way.
And when this happens, I’m no longer listening intently. I’m listening for a pause. I’m holding my story, my idea in my head so I can say it. I’m making the mentoring about me. This is definitely work in progress for me, but I reckon I’m improving on the “interrupty” front. I think my next step is to be purposeful in sharing stories. Perhaps to ask if sharing a story at this point might be useful. And to keep focusing on developing my active listening skills.
I have other things I’m wanting to focus on with improving my mentoring skills too. Recently my goal has been to ensure that we ‘telescope up’. Yes, right now we’re discussing this particular issue in this particular area of your practice, but what can you learn from this that might be transferable into other areas or other contexts?
In 2018, because I’m lucky enough to continue mentoring next year, I really want to improve on checking in. By this I mean asking: “Is this working for you?”, “How might I meet your needs better?” I want to build this in to help me reflect on my mentoring practice and not to get complacent that I’ve got this mentoring malarkey done. Because I haven’t. Not by a long shot.
So, actually, this post has been all about ME. But in a way, it’s about me learning to position myself differently than in a ‘normal’ conversation. Because in mentoring, it’s so not about me.
Over the past couple of months, I have been shadowing and participating in one of CORE Education’s online programmes: Modern Learning Curriculum. It’s been really interesting and I thought I’d just reflect a little on what I’ve learned.
Firstly, I enjoyed the opportunity to bring together some prior knowledge (and I want to do a shout out here particularly to the #edchatNZ MOOC that I did last year) with some more specifically New Zealand-context research and readings. I thought it was excellent the way that the course moved between global trends in education, for example the research coming from the OECD, and our Aotearoa New Zealand context using research from NZCER, as well as firm grounding in the New Zealand Curriculum and Education Review Office materials.
In terms of my own learning, I would say that I was prompted to think more about three things:
Agency. Ah yes, this popular buzzword. Specifically, student agency. In a course entitled “Modern Learning Curriculum” there is going to be strong advocacy (and rightly so) towards a learner-centred curriculum that empowers student agency. I particularly liked Tim Gander on the idea of agency. This helped me to evolve my understanding of ‘agency’ beyond just ‘the power to act in one’s life’ to ‘the power to make choices that make a difference’.
The crossover between learner-centredness, emotions, wellbeing, Universal Design for Learning and modern learning environments. If we accept that we cannot learn unless we feel safe and feel a sense of belonging, then this has huge implications for the design of our classrooms / learning environments before we even begin to think about what and how we teach. I could really end up channelling Hamlet here and getting stuck by the massiveness of the issues: paralysis by analysis.
Assessment. I don’t think I’ve done nearly enough thinking about assessment. The word has become a bit ‘dirty’, perhaps not dissimilar to ‘data’. But we have to know we’re making a difference. Learners have to know where they’re at, and what their next steps are. And this requires assessment, otherwise how will we know what to keep doing, stop doing, or do better? This has offered me food for thought: assessment OF learning = teachers assessing students against goals and standards; assessment FOR learning = teachers using assessment to inform their teaching, and to offer feedback to students; assessment AS learning = students self-assessing and setting learning goals.
But what have I learned about curriculum? In many respects, I am potentially more confused about what constitutes ‘curriculum’ than I was at the beginning. But I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Where does curriculum start and end? I’m not convinced there are firm boundaries around ‘curriculum’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘assessment’. But I do wonder if many schools stumble into their curriculum without deeply considering all the aspects that frame it. I’ve tried to capture some of these things here:
We need to have open and robust conversations to set the parameters around our local curriculum, and we need to be deliberate in our choices.
This post captures much of the application I have just made to start my PhD in 2018 (yikes!). It is not intended as a criticism of any particular conferences or unconferences I have attended. uLearn17 last week was a blast! For me, it is about whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō tatou: seek after learning for the sake of your wellbeing.
In April, I was sitting in the crowd at a popular teachers’ conference in Wellington when I realised I was bored. I had spent the day moving from one location to the next merely to listen to someone talk at me from the front of the room. My bottom was numb, I was totally disengaged from the professional learning on offer, and I just wanted to go home. It struck me: in a time when teachers are being asked to “do” school differently (Bolstad et al., 2012), isn’t it time that professional learning and development for teachers looked differently to match?
From this experience, I have begun to wonder about a particular aspect of teachers’ professional development: the conference. It seems to me to be an under-researched and unquestioned mainstay of professional learning.
But what is a conference? It is just one aspect of a broad spectrum of professional learning and development opportunities and experiences. At its heart, a conference is a bringing together of people with similar interests in a fairly formal setting to engage in discussion. So what makes a conference different to a workshop, symposium or seminar? Coming to an appropriate definition will be one of the challenges of this research. For this current purpose, I see a conference as an extended professional learning and development opportunity. One that is both an activity as well as a process by which knowledge is exchanged.
Being part of a learning profession, it is fair and reasonable to require teachers to engage with professional development and research. It is enshrined in the Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession (Education Council, 2017). Teachers must “engage in professional learning and adaptively apply this learning in practice” and “be informed by research and innovations related to: content disciplines; pedagogy…and wider education matters” (p.18).
Thus the conference as an activity continues to be a popular means of accessing and obtaining knowledge as part of a teacher’s professional learning and development, even though research suggests that it has little impact on student outcomes (Timperley et al., 2007). Indeed, there are a huge range of conferences teachers might choose to attend from the formal, such as subject association conferences; vendor-sponsored conferences, for example CORE Education’s uLearn; union conferences, for example by the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA); professional networks’ conferences, for example, Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand (SPANZ); through to the informal, such as the unconference-style educamps.
As a means of accessing and acquiring knowledge, a conference can be seen as a learning process. Through this lens, a conference could be said to be about the transfer of knowledge. How then, does the model of the conference sit in this Knowledge Age whereby knowledge is increasingly seen less as a noun and more of a verb: something to do something with; a building block not unlike a humble Lego brick (Bolstad, 2011). These questions open up the possibility of exploring the epistemological and ontological aspects of a conference.
While there have been some calls to take different approaches to teacher professional learning and development, such as those made from Bolstad (2011), and Bull and Gilbert (2012), these appear to have had little impact on conferences. This isn’t to say there haven’t been some attempts made, such as the 2016 edchatNZ conference, on whose organising committee I sat. There, we organised teachers into ‘tribes’, with a trained mentor as ‘tribe leader’. While attendees still selected a few breakout workshops to participate in, they spent a significant portion of time as a tribe, working collectively to create an initiative that could potentially evolve beyond the two days of the conference.
Indeed, there are many competing constituent parts to a conference to be considered: the organising committee and its assumptions and agendas; the delegates or participants with their expectations and individual needs to be met; the speakers and presenters with their key messages and unconscious biases. There are considerable sources of tension and friction to explore. In fact, when I start to think about all of the aspects of a conference as both an activity and as a process, I wonder if a conference might meet the definition of a complex system (Johnson, 2007, and Holland, 2014).
Therefore, I am wondering about drawing on complexity theory as an overall approach to this research. I have been struck by the practices recommended by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in their book Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015): asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, seeing systems. I have a hunch that this approach may be fruitful in seeking to understand what happens at conferences and why these things happen.
Within this framework, it could be useful to explore the history of the conference: what was a conference originally intended to be? Are there traditions modern conferences draw from, whether consciously or unconsciously? Given the context of conferences as a part of teacher professional learning and development, it may be pertinent to review principles of andragogy, as well as what the literature suggests constitutes effective professional learning, such as those offered in Garet et al. (2001), Desimone et al. (2002), Timperley et al. (2007), and Timperley and Alton-Lee (2008).
It would be interesting to interview attendees from a range of conferences: the teachers and leaders, conference organisers, as well as others present at a conference, such as those on the trade stands. What stories do they have to tell? What insights might they offer into the conference experience? What patterns emerge? It could also be worthwhile to consider why some teachers choose not to attend conferences.
In asking these questions, I am wondering about how conferences operate as a system, not unlike a biological ecosystem such as a rainforest, as well as the position of conferences within the wider education system. Conferences are one aspect of teacher professional learning and development, and thus can be subject to political forces and whims. How do these influence conference organisers and their choice of themes, keynote speakers, communication and marketing strategies?
It seems that there are many questions to be asked of conferences. It will be challenging to consider their constituent parts, and to attempt to see the conference as a whole. Why are conferences popular? If research suggests they have limited impact, why does the model persist? What might be learned from other professions’ conferences, such as those for doctors? Perhaps the key questions to be explored are the seemingly simple ones: what is happening at conferences? Why are those things happening? How might conferences be improved?
These wonderings lead me to my overarching question: How might conference participation support teachers in shifting their practice?
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Yesterday, I listened to this recording of retiring Dean of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, Graeme Aitken, in conversation with RNZ’s Kim Hill. While there are many interesting points raised, I’d like to respond with a story about why teaching is an awesome profession. So, here’s the pinnacle of my teaching career…
Without meaning any disrespect to the schools that followed, my four years of teaching at Aquinas College in Tauranga remain the absolutely outstanding favourite of my career. It was a new school, had only been open for two years when I joined. I came in with the first cohort of Year 12s, and was their dean. I taught primarily English, but with a little bit of German on the side. Eventually I also became the Assistant Head of the Languages Faculty and the teacher trustee on the Board of Trustees. But this isn’t a story about any of that.
It’s a story of me and the next bunch of Year 12s I had the genuine privilege of being dean to. In my first year at Aquinas, I had two Year 10 English classes. The DP at the time told me that these kids were the best kids in the school. He wasn’t wrong. I felt instantly connected to these two classes – still couldn’t tell you which one was my fave for the year of the two – and, more broadly, loved the year group as a whole. So when I had the opportunity to be their dean two years later, I leapt at the chance.
Such neat young people. Kind, connected, fun, great sense of humour, interested in the world, with a real sense of community. Everything you could possibly want in a young adult. But they weren’t especially enamoured with one of their Maths teachers. There was a bit tension which I was called on at times to mediate. It can be a tricky road to hoe, sometimes, being a dean. You are an advocate for ‘your kids’, but you have a professional responsibility to support your teaching colleagues too.
So, when one of the best of the best kids of the year group came to fetch me from the middle of their Maths lessons, I knew it was serious. I had to act, and to act swiftly. Of course, none of the senior leaders was anywhere to be seen, so I was off. On my high horse. Riding to the rescue. I followed the young woman down the corridor towards… wait, this wasn’t in the direction of the Maths class…
I walked out of the front doors of the school towards the landscaped garden. In front of the large wooden cross (Catholic school, Aquinas College), the whole year group was gathered. I was thoroughly perplexed. What was going on?
The young woman I had been following, turned to me and presented me with a gift. An engraved silver cross: YR12 07.
I almost still don’t know what to say about that moment. Except that it still moves me to tears. This is why you go teaching. To make a difference. And if, very occasionally, that gets acknowledged, then you treasure it to your dying day.
Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu. Though it be small, it is greenstone – it is precious.