Conferences

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.

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My image: uLearn17, Design thinking workshop

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?

References:

  • Bolstad, R. (2011). Principles for a future-oriented education system. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 2011-2012(21), 77-95.
  • Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A. Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Bull, A. & Gilbert, J. (2012). Swimming out of our depths: Leading learning in 21st century schools. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER.
  • Desimone, L. M., Porter, A. C., Garet, M. S., Yoon, K. S., & Birman B. F. (2002). Effects of Professional Development on Teachers’ Instruction: Results from a Three-year Longitudinal Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 81-112.
  • Education Council. (2017). Our Code, Our Standards: Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers. American Education Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945.
  • Garvey Berger, J. & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. California, United States: Stanford University Press.
  • Holland, J. H. (2014). Complexity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, N. (2007). Simply Complexity: A clear guide to complexity theory. London, England: Oneworld.
  • Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best evidence synthesis iteration. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Timperley, H. & Alton-Lee, A. (2008). Reframing Teacher Professional Learning: An Alternative Policy Approach to Strengthening Valued Outcomes for Diverse Learners. Review of Research in Education, 32(328), 328-369.
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Thinking Conditionally

In this blogpost I seek to bring together my key learnings from participating in Lifehack’s Flourishing Fellowship 2017. I’d like to acknowledge my employers’ support (CORE Education) in attending this programme.

I’m not really sure why I applied to go on the Flourishing Fellowship. I saw it advertised on Twitter and actually thought it would be more relevant to a friend of mine, so I sent her the link. But it kept coming across my radar, so I sent myself the details and let it hang out in my inbox for a while. When the idea wouldn’t go away, I decided to apply even though I had no idea what it really was, nor how it might fit with me. I don’t have anything to do with youth wellbeing. But they mentioned design thinking, which is my jam. And learning about Te Ao Māori, which is something I’m seeking to grow in. So, why not?

I had a grand chat during my interview, and promptly got off the video call to realise that not once had I even mentioned ‘wellbeing’ which seemed to be the main thrust of the Fellowship. Ooops. Interviewing 101 fail. Somehow or other though, I got picked. So, three residential hui later, what have I learned?

Obviously I learned a heck of a lot more about what ‘wellbeing’ is. I would totally confess to having had a very one dimensional understanding of what this is: health. Okay, mental health and physical health, but health nonetheless. You can call it hauora if you like, but it’s solely in the realms of the Heath and PE Curriculum. Right? Even being exposed to the Five Ways to Wellbeing and Te Whare Tapa Whā didn’t especially shift my thinking.

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Image source: Egmason, CC BY-SA 4.0

What is wellbeing? I came to realise that the clue was in the name of the Fellowship: flourishing. Thriving. For me, the key question of the three hui is this:

What conditions do we need to grow for young people to thrive?

And now I could see myself in this mahi.

An area of particular interest for me now is systems thinking, and it hinges on that word conditions. What are all the things that need to be in place: environmental, physical, cultural, societal (etc.) for young people in thrive, and in my context, thrive in schools?

This question has taken me to two places – and they are intertwined. The first is a question of how do we know what our system is doing?

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In the second hui Penny Hagen introduced us to a prototype of a framework which looks at mapping and mobilising conditions for youth wellbeing. The key questions are:

  • How are young people involved?
  • How do we learn and work together to offer best responses?
  • Do our environments show young people are valued and important?

I got very excited by the possibilities of this tool. For me, in the context of education, it is asking about the conditions for learner-centredness. For agency. And these must be crucial for youth wellbeing.

The second place the overarching question of the conditions we need to grow in order for young people to thrive is the knotty question of what we tend to call in schools “student voice”. What do young people tell us about their experiences of school and education? How do we ask them? What do we do in response to what they say?

One of my fellow Fellows offered this phrase: ‘Nothing about us without us’, which reminds me very strongly of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12: ‘Children have the right to have a say in matters that affect them’. And yet, do we really do this in schools? One of my colleagues pointed me to this article by Rachel Bolstad of NZCER: “From ‘student voice’ to ‘youth-adult partnership” in Set, 2011(1), pp. 31-33. In this article, she argues for a shift away from “student voice” towards “youth-adult partnership” which has the potential to be more transformative: to actively “[enlist] young people to help shift the ways schooling is done” (p. 31). For me, one way to do this is to move from designing for to designing with, which I’ve mentioned before here and here. I could go really big here and mention important things like equity and power-sharing, but I think you catch my drift.

And I can’t help but wonder if the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) doesn’t call for us to do this anyway. The same colleague who brought the Bolstad article to my attention has also left me pondering this: the vision of the NZC is a statement of wellbeing. So how might we create the conditions in which young people thrive and become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners?

Co-design for Wellbeing

The seeds for this idea have come from many nurseries. One in particular I would like to acknowledge is my place on the Flourishing Fellowship, offered by Lifehack HQ.

Thanks to NetSafe, I have started to think about digital citizenship in the context of wellbeing. In case this isn’t a logical connection for you (because it wasn’t for me), let me offer these thoughts. Digital citizenship is more than cybersafety, although that is an important aspect. Feeling safe and knowing how to keep yourself safe online is crucial. Being online and being a digital citizen means being connected to a community or communities. It entails being respected and respectful. Sharing and contributing. Giving of yourself. These resonate with my understanding of wellbeing, and I can see connections to these concepts and the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing:

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In schools, as a gross generalisation, I think we have a tendency to do ‘to’ our students rather than ‘with’. And I think the area of digital citizenship is no different. You may recall that I’ve been thinking about how we seek technical solutions to people problems. And that I frequently urge people to sit deeply with ‘buzzwords’ to think about the vast implications these have for our practice. And that I’ve had a bit of a shift in my design thinking methodology to incorporate co-design.

So.

What if co-design was not just a process to create learner-centred initiatives, but also an empowering methodology by which youth wellbeing was fostered?

The excellent NetSafe Digital Citizenship Capability Review Tool holds student-led digital citizenship initiatives as the ideal for schools. It suggests practices such as: “Our students are active partners when we plan, develop and review digital citizenship and wellbeing” and “Our students drive initiatives that promote the relationship between the positive use of digital technology and wellbeing“.

So.

I would like to develop (or be part of a team which develops) a resource to support schools and their learners to co-create student-led digital citizenship initiatives.

My hunch is that this will have greater impact than other digital citizenship programmes. That co-designed initiatives will be more sustainable. That these initiatives will lead to a more embedded approach to digital citizenship. That co-design develops the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum. And that co-design fosters learner agency.

My secret desire is that learning to co-design might lead schools to reflect on their ‘learner-centred’ practices and explore ways in which working with young people shift power structures and genuinely foster agency.

My wonderings are encapsulated in this image, which I gleaned from our second Flourishing Fellowship hui:

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and how I might tap into these aspects of expertise, especially mātauranga. What does digital citizenship look like in kura? I need to test my assumptions about learner-centredness, because they are entirely based on my observations of and experiences in English-medium schools. I don’t want to add chocolate sprinkles on the top, I want mātauranga to be a fundamental ingredient to this digital citizenship cake – without which it will not rise.

So, here’s the invitation. How can you help me? What do you know? Who do you know? What can you suggest? What are your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions? Please let me know by commenting below or tweeting me: @AKeenReader.

Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

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Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

Mentor, mentor, on the wall…

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CC0 TobiasMuMo

Something I get asked a lot in my work with teachers and leaders across Aotearoa New Zealand is how to ensure people are ‘on board’ with the planned initiative for the school. It isn’t uncommon for leaders to say in hushed tones, “We have a … range of staff at our school, Philippa,” as if that were a situation entirely unique to their context, and not the reality of every classroom and every staffroom everywhere. In fact, the principles of Universal Design for Learning encourage us to recognise the diversity of people and to embrace this as a strength. Isn’t wonderful that we’re all different, with our own backgrounds, stories, brains, and ways of learning?

But I hear the sense of frustration for what it is: the desire of the passionate to share their passion. And I don’t have answers, nor, more’s the pity, a magic wand. But I do have some thinks, mostly due to reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, having my own mentoring relationship through CORE’s uChoose programme, and exploring some of the work of Joan Dalton.

So here are a few things I’ve learned and that mesh with what I consider to be respectful practice.

Garvey Berger and Johnston remind us that we’re not logical beings like Spock from Star Trek. So outlining cold facts about why I should embrace a new initiative isn’t all that likely to be effective. Rather, we need to engage people’s emotions. The way to do this is through story and metaphor. These draw people in and help them to get excited about new directions. Garvey Berger and Johnston actually suggest that the kinds of metaphors that are useful are those to do with journeys – but not destinations. And that giving people the sense that they’ve already started the desired change is important.

I really focus on keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story. This helps me to be curious about what stories other people tell themselves about their actions to frame themselves in this way. Seeking to hear and understand other people’s stories is crucial, in my opinion. And this does take energy, empathy and time.

Which is where I bring the following strategy from Joan Dalton into play:

  • Listen
  • Pause
  • Paraphrase
  • Inquire

For me personally, this is aspirational, but I know that on the odd occasion where I’ve managed this, it can be quite powerful. My goal is to support educators to reflect on the decisions they’ve made and to consider these deeply. What worked? What didn’t? What could I do differently next time?

I feel privileged to mentor some fine educators and am on my own learning journey about how to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, but it is an honour to be gifted with their stories and to hear of their challenges and their successes.

For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.

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I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

Believe: My Word for the Year 2017

Okay, so confession time first: I was not great at relishing last year. As is often the way of New Year’s resolutions, I started with a hiss and a roar, and then it faded almost as quickly as it began. However, I already have higher hopes for this year’s word:

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Firstly, on a strictly pragmatic level, I have higher hopes because this word came to me several weeks ago – and I’m still remembering it in February.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think ‘Believe’ will stick better this year simply because my thinking around this word has already evolved.

Originally, I conceived of the word in the context of ‘believe things will get better’ (which makes it sound like I’m having some kind of crisis – which I most decidedly am not). But this meant that I was having hamster-wheel thoughts about how things would get better; the steps I would take to ensure this happens; the people I would talk to; how those conversations would play out… etc, etc. I feel exhausted just writing that, and I’m kind of picking it wasn’t a joy to read either.

But then I had a kind of, well, epiphany, I guess – to go with the religious connotations of my word for the year. If I believe that things will get better, then they will. I don’t need to spend time and energy worrying about them. This then, leaves time to have time. To be here and present in this moment without worrying unnecessarily about the future. And in this way, for me, ‘believe’ has evolved into a kind of peaceful optimism which I fervently hope persists.

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These are not new ideas, but they are new for me and have really got my brain pinging.

When I was twelve we had to do some work experience, I guess as part of a ‘careers’ unit. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I sure spent a lot of time reading, so my Dad arranged for me to spend a day in our local library.

A whole day with books? Bliss.

From that day forward, I volunteered in the library all through high school, eventually getting a proper, paid job that saw me through five years at university up until I went into  teaching (English, of course!). For me, libraries are a safe space of sanctuary. Quiet, relaxing, replenishing, and jammed-packed with new ideas, arresting stories, pathways into worlds unknown.

So it’s kind of embarrassing really, that it’s taken me this long to connect my passion for libraries with my passion for future-focused education.

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But I’ve been thinking about school libraries in particular, and how they can be a living representation of the vision and pedagogy of a school. Is the library a storehouse of stories, ideas and information – a whare pukapuka – a traditional house of books?

To me, this would represent an industrial age model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a noun: the facts and tales we need to know to fill our place in society and be a successful worker. In this model, the library is a place of knowledge curation.

Or, is the library a place not only of knowledge curation, but of knowledge creation? Is it a place to showcase our learning and the learning of others? Is it a place to connect ideas and test them out? Is it a whare mātauranga – a space that seeks wisdom, not only offering things to think about, but things to think with?

Because to me, this would represent a future-focused model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a verb: the building blocks of ideas that we develop, connect, unbundle, remix, and play with. The life-blood of the life-long learner and the creative, critical citizen.

Is the library an innovative learning environment? Chock-full yes, of great books, and also a gallery, a makerspace, a design lab, a studio… Is it a place of ‘shhh…!’ – a holy space of study, or a place of ‘sh…sugar!’ – a stimulating space of discovery? How does your school library reflect your vision for teaching and learning?

 

The End is Nigh

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

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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…

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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?

Woah.

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.

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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:

diffusionofinnovation

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

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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.