How are bus tours like conferences?

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.

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Own photo. Somewhere in Norway.

Why am I rambling about conferences? Because that’s the topic of my PhD. Learn a little more here.

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Nothing about us without us: Student wellbeing

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:

wellbeingA 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?

Both ERO and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) have produced useful work for schools focusing on the wellbeing of students. When we bring this material together, we can see that both organisations call for:

  • A whole-school approach to wellbeing;
  • 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:

  1. Agency and Engagement: How are young people involved?
  2. Cohesion and Collaboration: How do we learn and work together to nurture wellbeing systemically?
  3. 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.

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