Find your place in the world

This blogpost is inspired by my colleagues Rosalie Reiri, Te Mako Orzecki and Patariki Grace. I had the privilege of attending their CORE Breakfast on Friday. I believe the session was recorded, and will become available for purchase should you wish to be inspired also. Mauri ora!

As someone who has moved quite a bit, both nationally and internationally, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of place. I have called many places home, from Dublin to Norwich, from Germany to New Zealand. For me, home has been rooted in people (and occasionally cats), rather than a physical location. Also caught up in this mix is not having a clear sense of whakapapa – not knowing exactly who my ancestors were, nor from whence they came.

I may have been born in Hamilton and spent a great deal of my life there, but I don’t feel especially connected to it. The location was a result of my father’s job at the time, rather than being there for any ancestral reasons. In many respects I feel a greater affinity for Ireland. We lived in Dublin from when I was 20 months to when I was five years old. I started school there. I had an Irish accent. My understanding is that my great-grandfather was a school teacher in Cork for a time. But I would feel fraudulent if I laid any claim to being Irish.

So attending a seminar and workshop on ‘place-based education’ presents an interesting dilemma for me. Intellectually, and from a social justice lens, I fully embrace the concept that a school’s curriculum should be embedded and intertwined with the geographical area as this supports all learners, including our Māori learners, in their quest for personal identity and belonging.

I’ve written previously about growing in my understanding of whenua, that Māori identity is more than genealogy, more than knowing one’s corporal ancestors, but also outlining kinship to the land. But if you don’t have a connection to particular landmarks, or, as is perhaps the case for me, to multiple landmarks, how are you supposed to really embrace the journey of place-based education?

Luckily Rosalie, Te Mako and Patariki offered me some real food for thought on this very question. Rosalie quoted Wally Penetito: begin where your feet are. Perhaps I don’t need to wrestle with my whakapapa just yet. What are the stories of the places about me? Why is the street I live on now named what it is? How did this suburb come to be? Who was here before the colonial settlers arrived? What stories did these people tell of these hills, these trees, these streams?

Because the power of a story is that it is never finished. There’s another version, a further chapter, a prequel, a sequel, a digression, a tangent. Stories spread in every direction and across dimensions. As Rosalie said, again quoting Penetito: you begin where your feet are, but you don’t stop there; you move outwards.

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Image by Nadine Shaabana, CC0

 

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For Pink Shirt Day

Slightly belated, this post is related to Pink Shirt Day, which was on May 17, 2019.

I was super-excited to start high school. I was going to learn French and walk with my books tucked under my left arm. It would be the epitome of sophistication.

My parents decided that I would attend an Anglican girls’ school.  Even though none of my friends were going, I don’t recall being upset about it. As long as I could take French, and carry my books, I was happy.

Prior to high school, I had no idea that clothing had brands, or that some school bags were cooler than others, or that there were the ‘right’ bits of uniform to wear, or the ‘right’ way to wear bits of uniform. So maybe I stuck out from day one. Whatever it was, I never gelled in that place. I never made friends, I never found my tribe, I never got accepted into a group.

In fact, in ways only girls know how to be cruel, I was actively rejected. The group I would sometimes eat lunch with, would disappear off the face of the earth. My desk contents would be messed up. I would be the butt of the in-jokes.

But this post isn’t really about that. (Although, lengthy side note: I am incredibly grateful to have had these experiences in the early 1990s when there were no cellphones nor social media. Other than one night of obscene phone calls, when I left the school gate at 3:25pm, at least the bullying was done.)

Nor is it about the girls who chose these behaviours and who thought it was perfectly fine to treat another person in this way.

It’s about the crowd. Those faceless, nameless others in the class who knew full well what was going on. And did nothing. Absolutely nothing. These days, when I think about my high school experiences at all, this is what makes me mad. So when I see the message of this year’s Pink Shirt Day: ‘Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu’, for me these people are the target audience.

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I sometimes think that when we consider our responses to bullying we focus on the individuals concerned: the ‘victim’, the ‘bully’. I would prefer to see a focus on the culture that allows and condones the bullying behaviours in the first place. What makes me wild is not the lack of empathy for others, but the apathy of the crowd.

We say that actions speak louder than words. This is highly debatable in all kinds of contexts. But I think that it is true to say that sometimes what you don’t do speaks as loudly as what you do choose to do.

What I learned from writing my PhD proposal

IMG_4673 (1)Just before Easter I handed in my PhD proposal. It was a major achievement for me, and I felt stoked. For those of you not familiar with PhD study, at my university the process is as follows: when you first enrol, you are really only a ‘provisional’ PhD student. Your first major job is to write a proposal. The proposal should outline your area of study, the key literature relevant to your field, the theoretical lens(es) through which you will view your study, and some of the specifics of your research design: research questions, methodology, ethical considerations. It’s about a 10,000 word document. (Or 10,700 if you’re me…) Your proposal is formally reviewed by a small committee, and, if it’s accepted, then, Pinocchio-like, you’re then a ‘real’ PhD student.

Now that I’ve submitted my proposal (yay!) I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the experience of drafting, writing, reviewing with my supervisors, editing, re-writing.

  1. Diagrams and tables are your friend. As a former English teacher, and holding an MA in English literature, I prefer to express myself in words. However, my supervisors encouraged me to incorporate tables and diagrams to help convey ideas. Woah. That helps to keep the word-count down, and really helps me to be more succinct. It also helps break up long chunks of text for the reader. It was good advice.
  2. It’s hard to read 10,000 words in one go and keep in mind the overall argument and structure. I’m thinking about this from an editing point of view, but also if I, as the author, finds this challenging, then the reader is probably too. Sub-headings are another friend for both the writer and reader. I also found it helpful to think about each section as an essay: writing an introduction, body and conclusion. I then started to think about each paragraph in these terms. A seminar I went to on editing your own writing gave a tip which I used: go through your writing, reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. Focusing on topic sentences to make sure these are in a logical sequence and capture the unfolding argument was a useful strategy.
  3. Taking on feedback. Hmm. I’m not always that good with feedback. I freely confess I can take criticism personally and get defensive. Here is where I think I’ve been gifted with two awesome supervisors who couch their feedback in ways that support me to write better. I think it also helps that I have a clear sense on the aspects of my work that I am strongly committed to, and which areas I am happy to amend. For example: I triumphantly sent off a near-complete draft to discover that my supervisors really didn’t like one of the theories I was planning to explore. I wasn’t wedded to it, so that work went. I didn’t find it painful or crushing. Select the section, hit delete. New material went in to replace it. Perhaps this is a revised perspective on ‘holding your ideas lightly’: know which ideas you want to hold tightly to, and hold to those – this is your research after all – but those other ideas? How central are they? Maybe they can go.
  4. Finished is better than perfect. This is a big learning for me. For once, knowing that this work isn’t going to be graded, it will either be fine, need some revisions, or need major re-working, has released me from the tyranny of my A-type personality. I figure that my supervisors wouldn’t let me submit a proposal that was woefully sub-standard, so if they’re okay with it, then I should be too. Reading the piece through for the nth time to change a ‘thus’ to a ‘therefore’ will not a better proposal make. Get it finished, get it in. Job done.

So what do I still need to master? Aside from everything, I want to be able to capture my PhD in a snapshot, to be able to give the ‘elevator pitch’ I guess. In my faculty, once the proposal is accepted we have to deliver a 20 minute presentation on it. I’m hoping this will help me to distil the key aspects, and then to be able to give an overview to a layperson in ways in which they might find my work interesting. Or at least not boring. High hopes.

Ausländerfeindlichkeit

In 1992/1993 I was a German exchange student. It was my summer break between Year 12 and Year 13 (or 6th and 7th form as it was way back when). I was a fairly timid, dependent, quiet teenager (whose German was not that flash). It was a big deal to be so far from home and working away at living in a foreign language. Luckily for me my German family was phenomenal, and my German sister’s best friend rapidly became a very good friend for me too.

One afternoon, without really knowing where I was going, but happily tagging along, I found myself at a rally / demonstration “gegen [against] ausländerfeindlichkeit”. I didn’t know this second word, and when I looked it up in English (‘xenophobia’) I was none-the-wiser. But I did recognise the neo-Nazi sentiment in the streets. And I did recognise the racism against, in particular, the Turkish people living in that part of Germany.

And I felt amazed. These teenagers were so well-informed about the news events of the day. They had political opinions. They wanted to take a stand against racism, and hatred / fear of ‘the Other’. They shouted. They had placards. They knew slogans. In an interview with my German high school paper, not long before I left to return to New Zealand, I couldn’t recall the name of our Prime Minister. (It was Jim Bolger, FYI…)

This is one of the things I wish to cling to, in the aftermath of the March 15 attacks: on the same day, our school students marched in response to climate change. Young people are aware. They are informed. They have a voice. They take action and stand up for things in which they believe. And I hope they continue to do so.

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Teacher Learning

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Image source: Roman Kraft, CC0

As a facilitator, and as a PhD student of education, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about teacher professional learning and development. Wearing the first hat, I think about the content a principal or leader has asked me to convey, and I think about how best to do that – in particular what activities teachers could do to get them grappling with the content at hand themselves. Wearing the second hat, I think about conferences for teacher PLD, including how conferences are designed, and whether this matches with what we know about effective PLD and with what teachers are actually asked to do in their classrooms.

What I haven’t ever thought about, until now, is the ideas about how teachers learn that underpin my thinking, and the thinking of others who design and support teacher PLD. This is known as ‘teacher learning’, and research suggests that how leaders (facilitators, principals, administrators, etc.) believe teachers learn directly influences their leadership practices, their interpretation of policy, their allocation of resources, and their design of PLD for teachers (Coburn, 2005; Nelson, 1998; Spillane, 2000).

For example, Coburn (2005), examines the practices of two US principals who design, resource, and support teacher PLD in reading in light of reformed policy. One principal sees knowledge construction as the transfer of knowledge as ‘stuff’ from the head of an expert to the head of a teacher. Therefore she prioritises accessing external experts and expert materials and bringing these into her school for her teachers to learn from. Teachers are also given time, and are encouraged to try out the materials and techniques in their classrooms. The other principal sees knowledge construction as a social and collaborative activity: less about knowledge transference, and more about teachers thinking about their practice and what might need to shift. This leads to prioritising building professional learning communities and networks: making sure teachers have time to learn with and from one another.

This leads me to consider my own practices. What do I prioritise when designing professional learning experiences for teachers? I actively seek to talk from the front as little as possible. I prioritise activities that encourage and support teachers to explore ideas and reflect on what they currently know, and what they might need to find out next. I guess, to put a bit of a fancy label on it, I see teacher learning as being both individual and socially constructed (Borko, 2004).

And it makes me wonder. What do other facilitators, teachers, principals, policy makers, etc. base their PLD design on? What does their PLD programme suggest about how they understand teachers to learn?

References

Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3-15.

Coburn, C. E. (2005). Shaping teacher sensemaking: School leaders and the enactment of reading policy. Educational Policy, 19(3), 476-509. Retrieved from  doi:10.1177/0895904805276143

Nelson, B. S. (1998). Lenses on learning: Administrators’ views on reform and the professional development of teachers. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 1(2), 191-215.

Spillane, J. P. (2000). District leaders’ perceptions of teacher learning. CPRE Occasional Paper Series.

 

 

The Profession of Teaching

What is a professional? I have been reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008, Allen Lane), and it’s given me pause for thought.

Shirky argues that a profession is a specialist position: one that requires specialist knowledge beyond that required of a regular ‘job’. A professional is a product of scarcity, coming to the fore where there is abundance; many customers, few specialists. Think of a librarian; many books (yes, I know they do way more than books, but go with me) – few librarians. Many businesses; few accountants.

Further, a professional has to have specialised training, gain certification, and this grants them membership into a particular body or organisation of similarly trained and certified professional peers. This professional body sets the norms, accepted practice, code of conduct: determines what being a professional in that profession actually looks like in practice. In this way, Shirky says, a professional cares at least as much about what their practice looks like to other professionals in their field as they do their customers.

By way of illustrative example, and building on earlier chapters in his book, Shirky analyses the rise of blogging (cue some irony) and what this means for the profession of journalism. With a blogging platform, anyone and everyone can be a ‘journalist’, reporting and editoralising on the news.

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Image source: rawpixel, CC0

So if anyone can be a journalist, what does this mean for the profession of journalism? Shirky raises many interesting points, not the least of which is about the journalist’s ‘right’ to protect their sources. But one I’m particularly struck by is that when anyone can report the news, it challenges what counts as ‘news’. An event that the mainstream media, those certified, card-carrying members of the professional body of journalists, may, in their professional judgement, deem unworthy of publication can be deemed highly important and newsworthy to a blogger. Gather enough steam online, and the originally un-newsworthy event may even eventually be picked up by the mainstream media. Is this the rise of the amateur, or a time of mass professionalism?

All this leads me to think about the profession of teaching.

Thanks to technology, just like blogging and journalism, anyone can be a teacher. Wikipedia, YouTube, Khan Academy, TED talks, and any number of community websites, fora and noticeboards which help online members… these are means by which people learn, mostly in an open-source, crowdsourced kind of way.

As Shirky says:

“A profession becomes, for its members, a way of understanding their world …. Sometimes, though, the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake – the professionals themselves – from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession” (p. 58).

So, what does being a professional teacher mean to you? What might we be missing when we see our profession through our professional glasses?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

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.

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.

Resources:

Pitch Perfect

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?

IMG_0461Pitching 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.

 

Taking my sock off

“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.

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Image source, CC0