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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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:

ExpertiseEvidence

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.

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.

 

To be continued…

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

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

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

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

Image Sources: Change Management, Complexity

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

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

But.

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

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

 

Bedtime Stories

Once upon a time, a Dad read “Winnie the Pooh” stories to his daughter. (With all the right voices, Disney take note.) And thus a love of books, of words, of literature (and of Piglet) was born.

My word for this year was “learn”. This year has been a hard year of learning. But what I’d like most to reflect on is the re-learning I have done this year. 2015 has reminded me of the power of stories.

What seems like a lifetime ago, in early October, I had the pleasure of sitting with my fellow eFellows, and listening to the stories of their inquiries. They were varied, they were beautiful, they were touching. And I felt, that regardless of how different they were, the meta-story was about the power of stories.

Camilla asked, “where’s the person in personalised learning?” Vivita focused on hearing the voices of the unheard. Richard reflected on identity. And I learned that it’s the simplest things that matter: to be heard, and to listen to others.

I’m a voracious reader. As a completely unadventurous person, I love to wander in lands unknown, to meet strange and unexpected people, to be exposed to violence and passion. I’m currently reading about 3 or 4 novels a week. Yes, it’s escapism. And it’s also learning.

Just a few weeks ago my beloved Dad passed away. After dinner one night, my husband and I went for an icecream. As we wandered back down Courtenay Place, I thought to myself: none of these people know my Dad is dead. And my very next thought was: I wonder what tragedies and celebrations, what stories are happening in their lives that I don’t know about?

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Image Source

Engaging with stories is a way to experience things you might not otherwise experience. Engaging with stories is to enter into the life of someone else – to walk in their shoes for a while, if you will. Engaging with stories causes you to reflect on the story of your own life. Is it following the path you would like? Is the main character living a full and rich life? What threads or themes can be observed? Is this way, in a circle of stories, identity is formed and I think empathy is learned.

A key and crucial difference between a printed story and the story of one’s life though is agency. We have the power to change the arc that our story is on. We have the power to act.

But first, we must realise that we have this power. We are not passively living out a pre-determined life. We, if you’ll excuse the cheesy cliché, are the authors of our own lives.

And so, I’ve been thinking. The thoughts are half-formed at best, but I’ve been wondering about agency and the power to be active participants in our lives. I’ve been wondering about the power of language and of stories and their role in forging identity. And I’ve been wondering about this in the context of teachers.

One of the great privileges of 2015 has been to listen to the stories of teachers as a facilitator of professional learning. It’s endlessly fascinating to me the unpredictability of what people will latch onto to take away with them to experiment with. You just don’t know, as a teacher, even as a teacher of teachers, what will have an impact. You never know when your story might spark a new chapter in someone else’s story. But it’s this potential to help light a spark that keeps me going.

Exploring this potential spark was the unwritten story of my eFellowship. And I don’t think I’m done with it yet. I want to learn more, to hear more stories about what might ignite the spark and then keep the spark burning.

We talk a lot about learner agency. It’s a bit of an edu-buzz word. But, in my experience, when we’re using the phrase we’re meaning students. We want our students to manage themselves and their learning. But what about us?

This new story is ill-defined at present, but I think there’s something in there worth chasing. How might the power of stories be tapped into to create agentic teacher learners?

To be continued…