The End is Nigh

This blogpost is my contribution to EdBookNZ 2016. Thank you to Sonya van Schaijik for the opportunity.


Photo “The End is Nigh!” by Mikey, CC BY 2.0

Like a precarious but game-winning Jenga tower, education is the last major industry standing extant. Critics claim the education system is broken and thus that it is ripe, nay, overdue, for disruption. Here in New Zealand, we talk about our “long tail” of underachievement and the inequalities that urgently need addressing. It is common to point to the fact that classrooms today bear little discernible difference to the classrooms of 50, 100, even 150 years ago…


CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)           CC-BY-SA-2.0-CA (Wikimedia Commons)

We also know what has happened to other industries that have failed to adapt and evolve. Frequently cited examples include: your local video store, Kodak, print newspapers. These have become the cautionary tales of the modern world: warning us of what happens if we arrogantly deem ourselves non-disruptable.

We argue that now we live in a world of hyper-change. Moore’s law is regarded as immutable as a law of nature, and consequently our societies are rapidly, exponentially, unfathomably changing – primarily due to technology. Again, frequently cited examples include:

If we aren’t careful the robots will have our jobs, we will have created our own unemployment crisis, and the planet will be frying under human-created or -accelerated climate change. (But on the plus side, we will have world-wide WiFi.)

The only logical conclusion is that education needs to be disrupted in face of this uncertain, unknowable, unpredictable and technologically-advanced future. Our current students will go into jobs that haven’t yet been created. Right?


Can we just push pause on the mania for disruption and think a little bit first. I know the CPUs will get fasterer even as I type so time is of the essence, but I think a little of ‘slow down to hurry up’ might be in order here.

Let’s think about ‘disruption’. And let’s think about how we used to use the word in a non-business or technological sense. For example: were you the ‘disruptive’ child in class? The naughty one who prevented others from getting on with their learning? Has your public transport service ever been ‘disrupted’, but no need for panic because normal service will resume shortly? Inconvenient, but the status quo will re-set. Does your city or town plan road works over night in order to minimise “disruption”? Rather thoughtful of them, isn’t it?

How have we come to a place where we believe that if something isn’t working that nothing less than total annihilation – read disruption – is required? Why do we champion disruption?

I’ve been wondering about the purpose of those ‘all hail the mighty disruption’ speeches, and can’t help but suspect a motive of whipping up panic and stoking the fires of fear about an uncertain and unknowable future where we must “disrupt or be disrupted”. Nothing less than a completely radical metamorphosis is needed. The alternative is extinction. Oblivion.

disruptionLinker (2014)

Sometimes, I concur, these speakers offer solutions. But I similarly urge suspicion of the silver bullet. Teach all children coding! Follow a STEM (or STEAM) curriculum! Be agile and teach entrepreneurship – real skills for a productive and employable life! Design thinking is where it’s at! If we accept the premise that education is so fundamentally broken that nothing less than complete and utter destruction – sorry disruption – is needed, how will a one-trick pony fix it?

So. Let’s pause and think. What’s it like to be the disrupted? How does ‘disruption’ position people?

Metaphors I’ve observed include the dinosaur. This is an image that fits well with the rhetoric of disrupt or die. It is the dinosaur’s own fault for not adapting to exponentially different times, so they became extinct. That’ll learn ‘em. ‘Dinosaur’ handily connotes age here too. Who is the dinosaur in your staffroom? The older person who doesn’t / won’t / can’t get on board with an initiative, one often involving technology? Thought so. Digital immigrant? Can’t even get a passport let alone a visa.

What about the ‘resistor’? Not the piece of science equipment from the lab, but the people who resist change initiatives, often the ones involving technology. They can be identifiable by their big buts. You know, as in: “I would, but…”; “We tried that five years ago, but…”; “But the parents…” They are the naysayers, the ones with every excuse as to why they can’t, they shouldn’t, and why it wouldn’t work even if they did. Because the resistors actively resist the nifty initiatives dreamed up to prevent them from becoming irrelevant, we give ourselves permission to ride roughshod over their concerns. We feed the hungry, we don’t bother with watering the stones.

Very similar to the resistors are the “laggards”. These people languish at the bottom of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations bell curve:


CC BY 2.5, Pnautilus, Wikipedia

They are the last to know, the un-networked, the ostriches. Chicken Little, at least, knew the sky was falling. The laggards wouldn’t know about the planned initiative because they can’t log into their emails to read about it. They’re clicking their red pens and surreptitiously marking when the principal stands up to talk about in the Monday afternoon staff meeting. That’s if they didn’t skip out of the meeting entirely, citing a doctor’s appointment. Right?

These are among the labels we use to categorise and stereotype people who don’t believe as we do and won’t blindly endorse our plans. So much easier to complain about them en masse when we lump them into a group like this. The labels become shorthand and in doing so, we lose sight of the individual: their beliefs, their thoughts, their hopes, their fears, and their stories in which they are the hero.

And who are we to do this? Nobody starts their day by deciding to be incompetent. It takes a rare individual indeed who wakes up wanting to be disrupted. Do we use the word ‘disruption’ to threaten because cajoling has failed?

So, what if, instead of the dystopian zombie apocalypse stories of ‘disrupt or be disrupted’, we could agree that the future is (truism alert) fundamentally unknowable: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and see what human-centred, inclusive frameworks we could employ to help actively shape the future rather than be frightened into passively accepting our robot overlords?

Frameworks like: Design Thinking, Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s Spiral of Inquiry, Snowden’s Cynefin framework with its safe-to-fail experiments. Tools for thinking, not recipes for radical metamorphosis. Human-centred rather than top-down. Honouring the stories and the roles people play as the experts of their own lives. Inclusive: embracing of diversity and genuinely seeking to hear the voices of the unheard. Asking new, different, difficult questions. Seeing the system and exploring how we might influence it in a desired direction.

This kind of approach is respectful, empathetic. It does not mean that it is easy nor that it may not result in difficult, evolutionary changes. But it is collaborative and consensual. Empowering. Agentic. It is measured and thoughtful. And it might just create the kind of ethical, creative citizenry I personally want for the world, how about you?

Beware disruption and its horsemen. Shall we have a transformative evolution instead? After all, the future is nigh.

Acknowledgements and Sources:

  • Pete Hall
  • Annemarie Hyde

Secret Agen(t)cy

Attribution: CC0

This year I am obsessed with the question of how you encourage / enable / empower (what is the verb to use?) agency.

Why am I obsessed with agency? A couple of reasons. It seems to me that we spend quite a lot of time talking about learner agency, meaning student agency. But I wonder how we develop agency in our young learners if their teachers are not agentic learners themselves?

We also seem to spend quite a lot of time and anguish wondering about how to “shift” teachers: how to get them to take on board whatever initiative is currently on the table. And I wonder if developing teacher, or professional, agency might be a key to adopting innovations, changing practice, and thus transforming education.

So, the million dollar question… How?

I’m wondering about reflection. When we take time to really think about things, we develop our self awareness. We have the opportunity, in the quiet and privacy of our own mind, to analyse ourselves, to critique our decisions, and evaluate our next steps. In other words, when we reflect, we learn.

This reflection and learning, I believe, can lead to an internal ‘aha’ – a realisation. When we discover things for ourselves, this gives us an impetus to act – our own reason to change. Our secret agency. And this is far more powerful than anything imposed on us.


Find your Tribe

Whew. In the insane flurry of last-minute jobs, stresses, emails, worries it’s been hard to find time to relish in the upcoming #edchatNZ conference. But then, an invitation to speak at the conference by our amazing founder Danielle Myburgh prompted me to remember what I’m so passionate about with the #edchatNZ community. And, really, it’s best summed up in this sketchnote by the artistic Sylvia Duckworth:


For me, the sound of the first #edchatNZ conference was a squeal of delight – delight in finally meeting the educators you had been connecting with for months, years even, on Twitter. The delight (and frankly, relief) of finding out that you’re not the only one with the crazy ideas that education should be different – and how you might go about invoking this transformation. The delight of meeting fellow edu-nerds and edu-heroes.

At that conference, the running metaphor was one of the ‘lone nut’ and the ‘first follower’. You’ll possibly recognise the phrases from this great TED talk. This time, we have a tribal theme. I get that there are connotations with the word “tribe” and that some aren’t necessarily comfortable with its choice. We have deliberately chosen this because of the sense of connection and community that #edchatNZ gives us.

And, of course, because we’re #edchatNZ, we want more than this. At the conference all attendees have been grouped diversely into “learning tribes”. We want to grow the sense of community into a force to be reckoned with. A grassroots (chalkface?!) community who is empowered and inspired and supported to start change now – not waiting for the government, politicians, policies and the stars to come into the exact right alignment.

Our learning tribes will be facilitated by trained mentors (thanks to the uChoose programme from CORE Education) who will respectfully prompt, probe and promote deep thinking and learning. Behind them sits a Tribal Council (no extinguishing of flames here) to support and coach the mentors. It’s all been purposefully crafted and shaped to maximise personal connections and collaborative learning.

So, fingers crossed! It turns out there’s a lot to relish about the next few days.

Woods, trees and on ramps

Sometimes, the more time I spend with something, the more I seem to lose my way with it. This is what seems to have happened to me in the past few months. I have apparently lost my ability to articulate the “why” of embedding digital technologies for learning. And this is a bit of a problem.

CC BY 3.0

So, in order to find my way through this inability to see the wood for the trees situation, perhaps it’s more useful to think about what I do know.

I do know I’m not a ‘techie’. In fact, I’m constantly embarrassed by my low-tech skills. I rarely know the new, cool apps, and while these can be fun, aren’t really what ignites a passion for education and learning in me.

I do know that technology in and of itself won’t make a difference to learning. Equally, the same can be said, I believe, of an exercise book, or even a teacher. Plonk these things in a classroom and there will be no discernible effect. Like any tool, it’s what we do with it that counts.

I do know that relationships and emotions make a difference to teaching and learning. Mostly  based on my own experience of being a student, as well as fifteen years in the classroom, but also because the OECD tells me so:

“Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning….Any debate about whether learning institutions should be concerned about learners’ emotions and their development is…irrelevant” (“Nature of Learning”, OECD, p. 4)

I do know that there is, rightly, in my opinion, an increasingly loud call for learner-centred education. There are many facets to this argument. One is an egalitarian one – that it is simply not acceptable that our schooling system works for some, but not for others. Another is that a knowledge economy requires that everyone be lifelong learners. Without the skills to learn how to learn, the motivation or interest to do so, then we run the risk of perpetuating an out-of-date, industrial model. A further argument is a learning sciences one. This links to the statement above about the role of emotions, as well as showing that learning collaboratively, learning deeply, and learning connected knowledge is key. (See “21st Century Learning: Research, Innovation and Policy”, CERI) And maybe another is just a ‘gut feeling’ one. We are all different, with different backgrounds, interests and needs. One size just doesn’t fit all, nor should it, and increasingly we have the ability to meet these diverse needs.

CC BY 3.0


Maybe this is my “why”. Because digital technologies can offer significant ‘on ramps’ to this desired pathway of learner-centred education.

Again, from the OECD report “The Nature of Learning”, we know that the learning sciences suggest that the following are the fundamental conditions under which successful learning can occur:


  • “Constructive, self-regulated learning is fostered
  • The learning is sensitive to context”
  • It is often “collaborative” (p. 3)

And they list six “building blocks for innovative learning environments”:

  • Cooperative learning
  • Service learning
  • Home-school partnerships
  • Formative assessment
  • Inquiry-based approaches
  • Learning with technology (p. 10)

Learning with technology: “Learner-centred approaches to technology-enabled learning can empower learners and leverage good learning experiences that would not otherwise have been possible. Technology also often offers valuable tools for other building blocks in effective learning environments, including personalisation, cooperative learning, managing formative assessment, and many inquiry-based methods.” (p. 10)

This first sentence about learner-centred approaches has definite echoes of the New Zealand Curriculum to me: “Schools should explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning.” (Emphasis mine in both cases.)

This call is similarly repeated in the e-Learning Planning Framework, where learning and teaching should work towards “Student-centred, authentic, higher-order, collaborative learning, and digital literacy, is enhanced by ubiquitous digital technologies.”

So here’s my own list. Technology is not THE solution, but A solution. An on ramp to learner-centred education. Technology offers us ways to:

  • Access information and people
  • Collaborate
  • Bring the world to the classroom – to be connected to the global community
  • Self-manage and reflect on our learning
  • Ensure learning is engaging, authentic, purposeful
  • Learn ubiquitously: anywhere, anytime

And I’m picking this is a good thing.

Reflecting on the edchatNZ MOOC


This is the reflection I wrote in Week 8 of the edchatNZ MOOC (Massive Open Online Course):

What I have been particularly struck by during this course is the idea of digger deeper before moving forward. The idea of unpacking the assumptions that we base our thinking on has been very interesting to me. In order to really understand our own ideas, and even the ideas of others, we must first understand the basis or the foundation of these ideas. Tentacle-like (without associated sinister undertones) these assumptions permeate all the other ideas that link to them. For example, if I believe that education is about empowering young people to take their place in the economy, then this will inform the kind of knowledge I believe is important, the kind of curriculum I think schools should offer, and a worry that automation will ‘steal’ jobs from humans. My belief in a strong economy filters through all of these other ideas too. Thinking about this has been an unexpectedly interesting thing from this MOOC. (Thanks Danielle!) Note: the thanks to Danielle, is Danielle Myburgh, founder of edchatNZ, and all-round eduhero of mine.

And yet, interestingly after 10 weeks of study, I haven’t really moved from where I started in terms of own belief about the purpose of education, or my vision about what a “future school” might be like. In the first week of the course, I said: “An education, to me, is about a whole person, and ultimately about empowering citizens.” And I couldn’t honestly say that I’ve changed this opinion one iota. Nor, as I mentioned, have I changed my vision of a “school” as a community learning hub – a vision strongly influenced by my reading of Keri Facer.

Does this mean I haven’t engaged deeply enough with the MOOC that I haven’t unpacked or challenges these assumptions of mine? Is this a reflection that I had already done some thinking in this space? Or…?

After spending a fair bit of time last year, while working at The Mind Lab by Unitec, thinking about technology and its oft-hailed “disruptive” qualities, I have become again more attuned to ideas of technology and its ability to affect us. For me, this takes the shape of a call to embracing the need for ethics, values, critical thinking, imagination – the stuff of a future curriculum?

I really enjoyed the work of Kieran Egan and thinking about why talking about education is so difficult. This gave me a framework I would like to explore further to think about the overlapping and conflicting ideas we hold about and expect from our schools. I would like to develop the ability to tune into the language people use and the conversations we become involved in to wonder from which model(s) people are operating.

‘Education’ and ‘school’ provoke an emotional reaction in us, one based on previous experiences – which is why we’re all “experts” in education. This MOOC has helped me to see that this is a function of how we have been socialised. I wonder if complexity theory can offer us a way to think outside of these systems even when we are a part of them? I also wonder how I might turn complexity theory “on myself” to explore and test my own thinking?

Studying with this MOOC, I have become even more obsessed with language and its connotations – how it can include and exclude; how it reveal underlying assumptions, values and beliefs – even with something as potentially as innocuous sounding as verbs like “work” and “learn”. And to beware the seductive follies of reductive thinking: those pesky false dichotomies, for example ‘knowledge’ versus ‘skills’. I much prefer an expansive model, one that says: ‘yes, and…’

In this same way, the MOOC has confirmed my belief (again, gleaned from Keri Facer) about the future as a narrative that we are active characters/participants/agents within. To me, this presents a vision of the future that is powerful and optimistic: our current choices have the capacity to shape our future.

And finally, I think we need to embrace the luxury of time:

  • To sit with ideas
  • To identify, unpack, challenge assumptions
  • To understand deeply
  • Slow down to hurry up
  • Not rushing to solutions
  • Gather data, research, hear multiple perspectives

My next steps are to reveal in learning more about complexity theory – prompted by this MOOC. I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015). So, again, thank you Danielle.

Re-focusing my UDL Lenses

Lately, I’ve been challenged to think more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I’ve been exposed to the framework previously, even using it to inform a professional learning session when I was the Future Learning Leader at Marsden. I thoroughly enjoyed Katie Novak’s presentation at ULearn in 2014. I was so impressed by the way she modelled UDL even given the constraints of a conference keynote speech. Lucky enough to be a CORE Education eFellow last year, Chrissie Butler, our local UDL guru, led us through a session on UDL which prompted me to think more about the kind of language we use to talk about individuals and groups within our schools, e.g. the “special needs” kids and their “teacher aides”.

So I believed I understood the ‘big picture’ behind UDL – that it’s about providing universal supports that work for everyone, the way automatic opening and closing doors do in the supermarket or shopping mall regardless of someone’s mobility.

Underpinning this idea are values that I am comfortable with: the notion of equity for one. That we are not all equal, but with the same right to access information and knowledge and learning. Therefore as teachers, we should provide ‘on ramps’ so that everyone can have access to the learning.

With my design thinking hat on, I easily get on board with the idea of knowing your learner as this is what being empathetic requires.

And when it came to the role of technology with UDL, it was clear to me that it was mostly about assistive technologies like text to speech functions, altering font size and colour. If I pushed the boat out a bit further I could see that digital technologies also had a role to play in offering choice: offering more ways to access information and more ways to demonstrate understanding of knowledge.

Yep. This UDL thing. I’ve got it down.

But then it was pointed out to me the underlying purpose of UDL.


  • Engagement: purposeful, motivated learners
  • Representation: resourceful, knowledgeable learners
  • Action and expression: strategic, goal-directed learners

Suddenly these reminded me of future-focused pedagogy goals. Self-managing learners. Curious, motivated, life-long learners. Oh.

And then I started to connect this to the OECD 7 Principles of Learning. Recognise these ideas?

  • Learner at the centre: “Learners are the central players in the environment and therefore activities centre on their cognition and growth.” “The environment aims to develop ‘self-regulated learners’” (p. 6)
  • Recognising individual differences: “The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it…” (p. 7)

With these new UDL lenses on, the role of digital technologies becomes greatly expanded. Much more than a learning support and a means to offer choice, but instead to ensure learning is:

  • Engaging
  • Motivating
  • Personalised
  • Collaborative
  • Connected to students’ passions
  • Matched to students’ needs and interests

And that learning is about:

  • Bringing who you are to the learning
  • Being responsible for your own learning
  • Becoming a more independent, self-managing learner: knowing what is being taught and why


I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve still got a lot more thinking to do about this, but suddenly UDL makes a lot more sense to me. As always, there is a lot more behind a concept than a surface glance can give.

Adopting future-focused pedagogies means being learner-centred. In turn this means knowing your learners deeply. And UDL is a way to achieve this. It is not a separate framework, but a lens through which to view curriculum design and the role of digital technologies for learning. It isn’t a ‘bolt on’ addition, but a crucial ‘yes, and’.

This re-focusing also reinforces my belief in the power of language. If you choose to adopt a ‘buzz word’, or, as in this case, a buzz phrase like ‘learner-centred’, be prepared to really sit with it and unpack it deeply. There’s always a lot more than meets the eye.

‘Weighing a pig doesn’t make it grow faster’

Image Source

As a classroom teacher, and an English teacher at that, numbers are not my friends. Therefore I didn’t ever have a great attitude towards data or data-driven practices. My feeling about ‘data’ (which strictly equated to quantitative assessment scores in my mind) was that data entry was a bureaucratic process strongly associated with compliance and accountability.

Being good with ‘paperwork’ and a bit of a girly swot, I would dutifully enter assessment data as directed – usually around report writing time. If I accessed data, I would use it to group students (particularly for reading and spelling purposes). As a Head of Department, I would use data to reflect on which Achievement Standards to focus our teaching efforts on for the following year. And that was about my sum total of interaction with, and thinking about, data.

So it follows quite logically that I had a limited understanding of the school’s SMS (Student Management System). I could plug in assessment results and access behaviour and attendance records as needed. I rarely linked these three concepts: assessment, wellbeing, pastoral needs, in my head, let alone to consider how an SMS might help me to do this. So the SMS was rarely used in any meaningful way by me.

Fast-forward a year or so, and in my new role as an advisor for the Connected Learning Advisory I was asked to contribute to a Ministry of Education SMS initiative which ultimately saw us develop an online resource and deliver workshops for school leaders throughout New Zealand. This project was definitely going to challenge my personal knowledge and, frankly, my attitude towards using an SMS, but I’m always up for a challenge – especially when I get to collaborate with my brainy fellow CLA colleagues!

During the course of my reading and research, I discovered this quote by Timperley:

“…evidence related to students is something that informs teaching and learning, rather than being seen as a reflection of the capability of individual students that is most useful for sorting, labelling and credentialing.” Timperley (2010), p.2

Cue lightbulb moment.

You can use data to reflect on your own practice! Data not only shows me what my students have learned (or not) but how I have taught!

Oh. I had seriously missed the boat for about 15 years as a classroom teacher.

You approach data with an inquiry mindset. You seek to put a ‘face on the data’ (Sharratt and Fullan, 2012): to use data holistically to help tell the story of the learner who sits behind the numbers. These are ideas I can connect with: building empathy; immersing yourself in quantitative and qualitative data to understand the classroom context more. After all, these are design thinking attributes.

And this works strategically too – broader than the classroom, this data inquiry mindset can be used at a whole-school or even Community of Learning level. If we see data as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ we can recognise strengths and weaknesses which inform future initiatives and how to resource them (including professional learning). Data-driven practices are learner-focused for improved outcomes. Now that’s an equation I can get on board with!

So, no, weighing a pig won’t make it grow faster, but it might suggest how the farmer can improve their techniques to make fatter, happier pigs.


To be continued…

So, thanks to a spot of laser surgery to rectify a small tear in the retina of my right eye, this weekend this keen reader isn’t really up to doing much reading. No problem. I have a bank of podcasts I often complain I can’t find the time to listen to. Case in point, this Serial podcast I’ve heard so many people go on about.

And never being one for half measures where text is concerned, I managed to listen to the entire first season in one day.

This is what struck me: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Everything is complicated. Like, everything. My recollection of an event is not the same as yours. It gets filtered through my experiences, my bias, my senses, my brain. What strikes you is inconsequential to me. And vice versa. This reminds me very much of why Memento is one of my all-time favourite films, with this as one of my all-time favourite quotes from it: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation…” 

Before I go too far off track here, let me just say that I am profoundly interested in the intersection between stories and identity. The way we interpret and understand the world around us is through stories. Stories are our identity. And stories are multifaceted, they are layered. They are complex.

Image Sources: Change Management, Complexity

Which is why something like ‘change management’ structures irritate me so badly. Change is multifaceted, layered and complex. It cannot be stuck into boxes to follow a set pattern which will magically get everyone working together with the same goal in mind.

A good comeback at this point might be to say, okay, sure Philippa, you don’t like change management processes, but you’re a bit of a raver for design thinking…what’s the difference, really? And fair enough. The way design thinking is often portrayed is as a linear process: first this, then that, and then the other.


The first thing? Immersion: empathy building. Sitting with the complex, the multifaceted, the layered. And seeking to understand it from another’s point of view. When you do this, you honour the stories of another. You honour who and what they are, and who and what is important to them.

I’m still grappling with these ideas (one of the reasons why it’s been so long between blogposts), and you can hear my grappling as well as some more of my thoughts here in a podcast I did with Pete Hall of Network for Learning. But there’s something about language, stories, identity and empathy and what these might offer us in education to invite others into agentic practices that has gripped me and is occupying a lot of my thinking. I guess this is an episode that for me is to be continued…


Wine Glasses on the Table

I’m having a dry April. (I know, I know, it seemed like a good idea at the time, what can I say?!) But I tell you what, there’s nothing like foregoing alcohol for an extended period of time to make you think about the place of booze in New Zealand culture.

You start to realise how many social events revolve around alcohol: have a catch-up with a friend. At a pub. Enter a quiz. At a pub. Watch a sports game. At a pub. Birthday parties. Dinner parties. Parties parties. Heck, even the cinema these days.

Then I feel as though I have to explain why I’m not drinking. No, I’m not on antibiotics. No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I am driving, but that’s besides the point. I’m just not drinking at all this month. A glass of sparkling water would be delicious, thank you.

It makes me think about how taken for granted having an alcoholic beverage is. How ubiquitous the booze. In fact, even the word ‘drink’ itself in adult contexts is synonymous with alcohol: “Now, what can I get you to drink?” When you go to a restaurant, the non-alcoholic drinks are listed way at the back of the menu. The expectation just is that you’ll be having wine. In fact, there are empty wine glasses already on the table, waiting for you. The prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumption is that everyone drinks alcohol.

Image Source 

And all this makes me wonder. What are the wine glasses on the table for education? In other words, so as not to torture the metaphor further, what are the prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumptions that we just ‘know’ about school?

That everyone speaks English? That everyone is literate? That everyone has access to the Internet? A TV? That students wish to accumulate knowledge and pass tests? That teachers will be referred to by their surnames? That students aren’t allowed in the staffroom, but that teachers are allowed in the common room? That high schools don’t need playgrounds? That everyone should learn English, Maths and Science? That teachers are experts in their field? That school starts at 9am, finishes at 3pm, and runs Monday-Friday in ten week blocks we call terms? That summer is sacred?

There are several approaches I could suggest at this point, first and foremost being Universal Design for Learning, but I wonder if we need to start even more from first principles here. What if we wrote all the things we ‘know’ about school, and thought about whether they were helpful (i.e. nourishes a culture that empowers confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners – and in that I include adults, and whanau too), or not helpful. What if we asked lots of questions? What if we openly acknowledged and examined our assumptions – maybe by using a framework such as Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s spiral of inquiry (2013)? What if everything was up for debate, and we welcomed students and whanau to debate them too? Then we might be on our way to reimagining and revisioning school and not just assuming that we should put wine glasses on the table.

How might Design Thinking transform our schools?

This blogpost is the final in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

Let me start by looking at the title of this blogpost. Something that’s common in design thinking practices is to use the phrase “how might we” (often abbreviated to HMW…which doesn’t stand for ‘homework’!) to pose a framing question. I find these three words powerful. “How” implies something is possible, but it’s a broad question word which encourages immersion and exploration. “How” is free from agenda, in the sense that it doesn’t imply that the answer is already known and that rubber-stamping is being sought. “How” asks us to problem find, as well as problem solve. “Might” is another open word which encourages free flowing ideation without judgement or bias. And “we” is utterly inclusive. I like this way of framing a question as it encapsulates the design thinking mindsets: empathetic, curious, collaborative, growth-minded, biased towards actions, requiring deep thought, and focused towards an as-yet-unknown outcome. So, how might we use design thinking to transform our schools?

(Side note, the verb that follows the ‘how might we’ requires careful thought and consideration too. Choosing one often sends me towards a thesaurus and I usually write multiple versions in search of the perfect nuanced combination. I love this post by Mary Cantwell of DeepDT on this very topic.)

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So, if you’ve followed along with me so far, you’ll have learned that for me design thinking is extremely powerful, and I believe that it has much to offer us in the education sector. But you’ll also be aware that I actually can’t answer my own ‘how might we’ question, as it will be up to you in your own specific context to explore how design thinking might disrupt and transform your school. Instead, I thought I might pose a series of ‘what if’ questions. (Design thinkers like those too!)

What if we…

  • Used design thinking to craft a strategic vision for our school, and then use this overarching vision to inform whole school planning?
  • What if we embraced the design thinking mindsets and actively encouraged question asking, risk taking and a ‘just do it’ approach within an iterative feedback loop?
  • What if we wrote bug lists in our staffroom and classrooms…and used these to inform our next steps? (NB: A ‘bug list’ is not a list of the insects to be found in the school grounds, but a list of things that ‘bug’ – i.e. annoy and irritate – you.)
  • What if we explored radical collaboration to give voice and agency to learners, teachers, and the community?
  • What if, by embracing a whole school design thinking approach, we could short-circuit change management concerns because we had engaged empathetically with all involved?

By way of an example, I’d like to return again to Grant Lichtman’s book #EdJourney (Jossey-Bass, 2014), where he tells the story of the Los Altos School District in California that comprises nine schools. They wanted to be able to capture student voice in order to truly revolutionise learning. So, they created “Student EdCon”, a three day design thinking conference that was student centred. In the book, Alyssa Gallagher, the director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships, reports that at the conference they “exposed the students to thought leaders who would resonate with them and their interests. Then they learned about the design process, and had a chance to develop solutions they had created for different ways to approach learning.” (p. 155) I wonder what students themselves would create if we opened up thorny issues like curriculum design and timetabling to them in honest and democratic ways?

Because, I guess, that’s what all this design thinking business is about for me: What if design thinking gave rise to a movement to drive innovation in our schools?

Further reading:

Edutopia: Design Thinking in Education