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.

Image source, CC0

A Waitangi Day Reflection

Tēnā koutou katoa.

Ko Pirongia te maunga. Ko Waikato te awa. Ko Nicoll te iwi. Nō Kotimana me Airani ōku tūpuna.

I whānau mai ahau i Kirikirioa. Nō reira, kei te Whanganui-a-Tara tōku kainga inaianei.

Ko Philippa ahau. Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou.

When I was about fourteen I was chatting with a classmate. She was Māori and was sharing a story with me. I couldn’t even tell you what the story was about, nor the context in which it was shared. What I do remember though, was that the story included the word ‘moa’ (a large native New Zealand bird, now extinct). But I didn’t understand the word as my classmate was using it. She repeated it several times. I shook my head, my mind completely blank. What was she saying? Finally, she sighed. “Mow-er, Philippa, mow-er, the dead bird, you know, a mow-er?” I hadn’t understood her because she was pronouncing the word correctly, and it wasn’t until she said it incorrectly, the Pākehā way, that I recognised it. She wasn’t cross with me, nor did we ever speak of the moment, but it seared into my mind. This wasn’t going to happen again. I would recognise Māori words when they were spoken to me, and I would make every effort to pronounce them correctly from this time on.

And I have prided myself on doing this, and learning a pepeha (above), two karakia, a few songs, and a few whakataukī. I argue with others about unconscious bias and the way the system privileges Pākehā over Māori. And I rest on my laurels.

Every now again I get a jolt though. I have written about such moments before: here, in a blogpost entitled “Wero”, and here, in a blogpost entitled “Vanilla”.

I was jolted again at the end of last year. I am lucky enough to work for an organisation (Tātai Aho Rau | CORE Education) which is striving towards being Treaty-based. I attended an internal workshop on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which really opened my eyes to understanding history from a Māori perspective, and to knowing more about Te Ao Māori pre-colonisation. As an action following this workshop, I purchased a copy of Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand and it was the first book I read in 2018.

I devoured it in a few days. It was readable, entertaining, and enlightening. I was left with three key thoughts after finishing it:

  • Māori identity is not just ancestral but is also place-based. The word ‘whenua’ means even more to me now (land / placenta). I can see why it is crucial to understand the kawa and tikanga of the iwi and hapū of the rohe. I can see why (teacher hat on) place-based curriculum is so crucial.
  • Māori are amazing adapters. Part of their genius is being able to interact with technologies and to adapt or discard these for use in ways that fit within Te Ao Māori.
  • That Aotearoa New Zealand has experienced so much history in such a short amount of time.

I know that these are not new for many people – and certainly not Māori! – but I record them for my own learning.

And I was left with this crushing question: How much of what I take for granted is Pākehā? By way of an explanatory sentence: what would the six o’clock news look like if told nightly from a Māori perspective?


The “Me” in Mentoring

I’ve written about getting to be a mentor and critical friend in my work with CORE Education previously. In this blogpost I thought I would reflect on what I’ve learned in about 18 months of doing this interesting, engaging and challenging mahi.

Image-1 (1)
My image, “Mentor”, Dec 17

Ironically, I’m going to start with myself. This is completely contradictory in the face of a mentoring relationship which is really all about the mentee. What I love about mentoring is getting to know another person and their context. It’s been a great antidote to the almost crippling imposter syndrome I face working with giants in the Aotearoa New Zealand education system at CORE Education.

When mentoring, there’s no way on earth I could possibly know everything (or, indeed, anything) about the areas of interest and focus of the mentee. Therefore, I release myself of this burden. I don’t have to be any kind of “expert” in their field. I need to be curious and willing to learn more. Given my love of learning, that part’s a snap.

The thing I find easy to get carried away with is the fact that I genuinely like the mentees I get to work with. This means that I can slip out of ‘mentor mode’ and slip into ‘casual conversation with a colleague mode’. I can find myself wanting to share stories of my practice, to tell them what I think they should do with the issue on the table, and to make it about me and what I know and can offer. I guess it’s like slipping into teacher mode in a way.

And when this happens, I’m no longer listening intently. I’m listening for a pause. I’m holding my story, my idea in my head so I can say it. I’m making the mentoring about me. This is definitely work in progress for me, but I reckon I’m improving on the “interrupty” front. I think my next step is to be purposeful in sharing stories. Perhaps to ask if sharing a story at this point might be useful. And to keep focusing on developing my active listening skills.

I have other things I’m wanting to focus on with improving my mentoring skills too. Recently my goal has been to ensure that we ‘telescope up’. Yes, right now we’re discussing this particular issue in this particular area of your practice, but what can you learn from this that might be transferable into other areas or other contexts?

In 2018, because I’m lucky enough to continue mentoring next year, I really want to improve on checking in. By this I mean asking: “Is this working for you?”, “How might I meet your needs better?” I want to build this in to help me reflect on my mentoring practice and not to get complacent that I’ve got this mentoring malarkey done. Because I haven’t. Not by a long shot.

So, actually, this post has been all about ME. But in a way, it’s about me learning to position myself differently than in a ‘normal’ conversation. Because in mentoring, it’s so not about me.

Modern Learning Curriculum

Over the past couple of months, I have been shadowing and participating in one of CORE Education’s online programmes: Modern Learning Curriculum. It’s been really interesting and I thought I’d just reflect a little on what I’ve learned.

Firstly, I enjoyed the opportunity to bring together some prior knowledge (and I want to do a shout out here particularly to the #edchatNZ MOOC that I did last year) with some more specifically New Zealand-context research and readings. I thought it was excellent the way that the course moved between global trends in education, for example the research coming from the OECD, and our Aotearoa New Zealand context using research from NZCER, as well as firm grounding in the New Zealand Curriculum and Education Review Office materials.

In terms of my own learning, I would say that I was prompted to think more about three things:

  1. Agency. Ah yes, this popular buzzword. Specifically, student agency. In a course entitled “Modern Learning Curriculum” there is going to be strong advocacy (and rightly so) towards a learner-centred curriculum that empowers student agency. I particularly liked Tim Gander on the idea of agency. This helped me to evolve my understanding of ‘agency’ beyond just ‘the power to act in one’s life’ to ‘the power to make choices that make a difference’.
  2. The crossover between learner-centredness, emotions, wellbeing, Universal Design for Learning and modern learning environments. If we accept that we cannot learn unless we feel safe and feel a sense of belonging, then this has huge implications for the design of our classrooms / learning environments before we even begin to think about what and how we teach. I could really end up channelling Hamlet here and getting stuck by the massiveness of the issues: paralysis by analysis.
  3. Assessment. I don’t think I’ve done nearly enough thinking about assessment. The word has become a bit ‘dirty’, perhaps not dissimilar to ‘data’. But we have to know we’re making a difference. Learners have to know where they’re at, and what their next steps are. And this requires assessment, otherwise how will we know what to keep doing, stop doing, or do better? This has offered me food for thought: assessment OF learning = teachers assessing students against goals and standards; assessment FOR learning = teachers using assessment to inform their teaching, and to offer feedback to students; assessment AS learning = students self-assessing and setting learning goals.

But what have I learned about curriculum? In many respects, I am potentially more confused about what constitutes ‘curriculum’ than I was at the beginning. But I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Where does curriculum start and end? I’m not convinced there are firm boundaries around ‘curriculum’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘assessment’. But I do wonder if many schools stumble into their curriculum without deeply considering all the aspects that frame it. I’ve tried to capture some of these things here:

My image, curriculum, November 2018

We need to have open and robust conversations to set the parameters around our local curriculum, and we need to be deliberate in our choices.


Yesterday, I listened to this recording of retiring Dean of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, Graeme Aitken, in conversation with RNZ’s Kim Hill. While there are many interesting points raised, I’d like to respond with a story about why teaching is an awesome profession. So, here’s the pinnacle of my teaching career…

Ko Pironga te maunga. My photo.

Without meaning any disrespect to the schools that followed, my four years of teaching at Aquinas College in Tauranga remain the absolutely outstanding favourite of my career. It was a new school, had only been open for two years when I joined. I came in with the first cohort of Year 12s, and was their dean. I taught primarily English, but with a little bit of German on the side. Eventually I also became the Assistant Head of the Languages Faculty and the teacher trustee on the Board of Trustees. But this isn’t a story about any of that.

It’s a story of me and the next bunch of Year 12s I had the genuine privilege of being dean to. In my first year at Aquinas, I had two Year 10 English classes. The DP at the time told me that these kids were the best kids in the school. He wasn’t wrong. I felt instantly connected to these two classes – still couldn’t tell you which one was my fave for the year of the two – and, more broadly, loved the year group as a whole. So when I had the opportunity to be their dean two years later, I leapt at the chance.

Such neat young people. Kind, connected, fun, great sense of humour, interested in the world, with a real sense of community. Everything you could possibly want in a young adult. But they weren’t especially enamoured with one of their Maths teachers. There was a bit tension which I was called on at times to mediate. It can be a tricky road to hoe, sometimes, being a dean. You are an advocate for ‘your kids’, but you have a professional responsibility to support your teaching colleagues too.

So, when one of the best of the best kids of the year group came to fetch me from the middle of their Maths lessons, I knew it was serious. I had to act, and to act swiftly. Of course, none of the senior leaders was anywhere to be seen, so I was off. On my high horse. Riding to the rescue. I followed the young woman down the corridor towards… wait, this wasn’t in the direction of the Maths class…

I walked out of the front doors of the school towards the landscaped garden. In front of the large wooden cross (Catholic school, Aquinas College), the whole year group was gathered. I was thoroughly perplexed. What was going on?

The young woman I had been following, turned to me and presented me with a gift. An engraved silver cross: YR12 07.


I almost still don’t know what to say about that moment. Except that it still moves me to tears. This is why you go teaching. To make a difference. And if, very occasionally, that gets acknowledged, then you treasure it to your dying day.

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu. Though it be small, it is greenstone – it is precious.

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.


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?

IMG_2784 (1)

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?


A random personal blogpost.

Sometimes, if you listen carefully, the universe speaks to you. Sometimes, it needs to shout at me to get my attention.

So I haven’t been very good at keeping the “peaceful optimism” I envisioned when my word for the year found me. But I have recently had some experiences which have nudged me back on track.

I have come to realise that stepping sideways out of the classroom has been a more profound decision to make than I anticipated. I badly underestimated how much of my identity is caught up with what I do. By this I mean that by stepping out of the classroom, I lost sense of what I’m good at, the things I like to do, the nature of my passion for education.

Luckily, the universe shouted.

Firstly, it was the final night of my Lifehack Flourishing Fellowship. We were having a kai and kōrero discussion. We were asked to choose a value from the various cards that were strewn on the floor. I saw a word I did not know, so, of course, I had to pick it up. The value was mōhiotanga: wisdom, enlightenment, sharing knowledge with others.

Secondly, on our final day of the Fellowship, each person anonymously wrote an affirmation for the others. They were packaged up for us to read privately at a later time. Here’s a selection of mine:

img_2799.jpgWithout prompting, nearly half of my affirmations made some comment about wisdom, intelligence, smarts, knowledge.

And then there’s this:


And suddenly I felt back in tune with myself. I had done this survey before. These strengths have not changed. I am a nerd, a cautious nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. I like to read and think and listen and question and discuss and teach. Staying true to these things and using them as reference points to help me make discerning choices will keep me in alignment with myself.


So I recently saw the film Arrival. I really enjoyed it. In case you’re not familiar with its basic premise: a bunch of weird huge pod-like structures have descended from a planet unknown in cities around the world and there’s a rush to figure out who these aliens are and what they want. Our heroine, a linguistics professor, works conscientiously to learn the aliens’ language in order to best understand their intentions. It’s a story of language, culture and time.

For me, it’s a ‘first contact’ metaphor and a reminder that language, worldview and culture are inextricably intertwined. That we cannot understand another people without knowing their language. And that language is not neutral. It conveys our values, beliefs and understandings about the way the world works. In the film, without giving away spoilers, the crucial understanding is about time. The film deliberately plays with the white, Western, belief that time is linear, to clever effects.

But it less about time that I’m thinking about here, and more the concept of how language imbues culture.

B. Navez CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve been privileged recently to be on a writing team. The task has been to use plain English words to capture ideas that will help schools identify their strengths and weaknesses in a particular area. On this team has been two exceptional Māori educators, and they have, in a respectful yet insistent way, challenged me to consider my use of inclusive language.

You see, I intentionally used the word ‘school’ in the previous paragraph. Ordinarily, with the sincere desire to be inclusive, I would write ‘school/kura’ so that Māori medium learning environments would be captured. But ‘kura’ is not a synonym for ‘school’. A kura has its own way of being, its own processes and educational aspirations for its learners – its ākonga. And for me, this is the real challenge of living in a bicultural country that privileges Pākehā over Māori. With the very best of intentions, I adopt (co-opt?) Māori words and phrases into my lexicon, but without the understanding of the cultural concepts these kupu contain.

As we were working as a writing team, trying desperately to express abstract ideas in practical, functional English language, every now and then one of the Māori educators would say: “Vanilla!” as a reminder that we were using exclusive language that conveyed the assumption that how English medium schools operate are the way all educational environments work, and this is simply not the case. It’s been a real wake-up call for me.

Returning to my regular work, I was reviewing another piece of writing I was working on. Again, something intended for use by schools/kura. I had been very happy with how the work was progressing. As I looked at it again with fresh eyes, I heard my colleague in my head: “Vanilla!” I could see that what I had written was totally Pākehā-centric and that kura would not be able to ‘see’ themselves in it. I was excited by my self-realisation, but equally frustrated that I did not know how to un-vanilla my writing.

For now, though, I am pleased to have this new perspective and this reminder as a call to personal action. I have been wanting to increasing my knowledge of te reo Māori, but now I know I must. I cannot understand the Māori worldview without doing so. This is my own arrival.

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.