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.

disruptionLinker (2014)

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:

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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
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Redundant Adjectives

This post is my contribution to a collaborative project initiated by Sonya Van Schaijik that aimed to unpack and question the various ‘buzzwords’ currently in use in education. This collaborative book was launched at the end of Connected Educator Month. I am proud to have taken part in this challenge, and am grateful to and appreciative of the warm but demanding support of Kathy Scott who was my critical friend.

Redundant Adjectives: Pedagogy’s built-in understanding of being future-focused

To all intents and purposes, the New Zealand Curriculum’s opening words are those of the overarching vision for the document: “Young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.” Note the use of the future tense. This verb tense continues over the page where the stated vision is fleshed out into five bullet points including: “Our vision is for young people who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising”. Thus, the intention of the curriculum document is to “set the direction for student learning” and that direction is one pointing firmly into the future.

A further way that the New Zealand Curriculum explicitly sets its direction as being future-focused is through its principles which, “embody beliefs about what is important and desirable in school curriculum – nationally and locally.” One of these principles is that, “the curriculum encourages students to look to the future by exploring such future-focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation.” It is clear then that the New Zealand Curriculum is an aspirational document and one which seeks to address the future needs of Kiwi kids.

Pedagogy, while a separate concept to ‘curriculum’, is similarly forward-facing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as, “The art, occupation, or practice of teaching. Also: the theory or principles of education; a method of teaching based on such a theory.” If you like, curriculum is the ‘what’ of teaching, and pedagogy is the ‘how’. Generally speaking, the meeting point of the two is schools and the main medium for delivery is teachers. Therefore, while not synonymous, the two concepts have the same basis of intention: to shape young people into the kind of adults a society deems desirable.

Thus, in my opinion, the phrase ‘future-focused pedagogy’ is redundant because the future is already inherently implied and understood in the use of the word ‘pedagogy’: schools and teachers are naturally focused on developing students’ capacities and capabilities. And these are the capacities and capabilities that will best serve them as adults and future citizens in society. Needless to say there are considerable value-laden assumptions behind what kind of adults and future citizens are seen to be necessary by curriculum writers and the research they draw upon. But all of this, in my opinion, begs an important question to explore: what kind of future is implied by our pedagogy?

One of these visions for the future is an industrial, production-based model. Most recently Sugata Mitra has argued that our current school system was designed with elegant efficiency by the Victorians who wanted to produce future workers for their industrial age factories. Students in this era experienced a factory-style pedagogy appropriate for molding factory-style workers. Young people were viewed as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge they would require when they needed it. Curricula prescribed the knowledge that young people ought to know, and, to some degree, ought to be able to do with that knowledge. All students learnt the same thing in the same way for the same kind of future.

But we are no longer in the Industrial Age. We are now in the Knowledge Age where “knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth”. This change also signals a shift in what ‘knowledge’ is. We also understand a lot more about how learning occurs. Students no longer need a sole diet of ‘just in case’ learning but rather need ‘just in time’ learning: knowing how to learn when learning is required; how to critically navigate a glut of information. This is an entirely different vision of the future. Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert talk about knowledge as having metaphorically shifted from a noun to a verb: “as a resource to do things with, not an object to be mastered.” Students need to know how to interact with, and build knowledge. And the pedagogy needed to empower this capacity in students is fundamentally different.

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum document reflects this difference. While, as already noted, curriculum is not pedagogy as it is not a description or formula for how to teach, there is substantial overlap between the two. The focus in the New Zealand Curriculum on the five Key Competencies of managing self, understanding language, symbols and text, participating and contributing, relating to others, and thinking, implicitly requires a different pedagogy from that operating in an Industrial Age model. I urge New Zealand educators to concentrate their focus on this ‘front half’ of the document as a signal to shift attention away from content and instead onto skills and dispositions.

But let us now return to the question posed at the beginning: What kind of future is implied by our pedagogy? While the very nature of the future is that it is definitively unknowable until it is the present, we tell stories of what the future is ‘likely’ to be all the time: hover cars, robot overlords, post-apocalyptic wasteland, living on Mars under a great glass dome… Keri Facer, in her important book Learning Futures, explores some of these potential futures ahead of us. In doing so, she emphasises that these stories of potential futures are precisely that: narratives. And the nature of narratives is that they can be manipulated and changed, that they are not set in concrete. The future is the consequence of a whole series of decisions that are made right now. As Facer says, “The future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene.”

Pedagogy, with its in-built understanding of being future-focused, is one of those intervention methods. We don’t know what kind of future lies ahead of us, but we are pretty sure of what it isn’t likely to be: a Victorian manufacturing plant. Therefore we must ensure that our pedagogy is future building, a term that, “implies we have power and agency to create the future we want.” Certainly the intention behind the New Zealand Curriculum, and its Key Competencies in particular, reflects this.

I believe that teaching is an expression of hope for the future. That our learners not only become “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners”, but adopt this vision as part of their current identity. That our learners do not become citizens, but see themselves as citizens already. Thus, while the adjectival phrase ‘future-focused’ is indeed redundant to qualify the noun ‘pedagogy’, we must make sure that our pedagogy is an expression of this hope. Bibliography (To access a version of this blogpost with footnotes, please click here.)

  • Claire Amos, “Futures Thinking and the Future of Education.” Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert et al, “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, NZCER, 2012
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future, NZCER, 2008
  • Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change, Routledge, 2011
  • Rosemary Hipkins, Rachel Bolstad, Sally Boyd, and Sue McDowall, Key Competencies for the Future, NZCER, 2014
  • The New Zealand Curriculum, Ministry of Education, 2007. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Sugata Mitra, “We Need Schools…Not Factories“. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • OED, Accessed online 20/9/14

Want to read more? The other chapters of the collaborative book are here:

I touch the future; I teach – reflecting on Keri Facer’s “Learning Futures”

Let's touch the stars

On the recommendation of Steve Mouldey I purchased and read the truly thought-provoking book by Keri Facer: Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change.

In this well-structured and coherently argued book, Facer builds a compelling case for maintaining physical schools in the light of increasing claims about what the future will mean for education, such as those here.

While, of course, Facer’s “future-building school” of 2035 represents a significantly different educational institution to those of the local school down the road today, it is undeniably a physical presence in a literal building where human relationships are key.

Facer begins her book by exploring some of the exciting and some of the alarming potential futures ahead.  In so doing though, she continually emphasises that the stories of the future she outlines are just that – potential narratives – just versions of what may or may not be.  She calls us to take action now – not to see the future as something pre-determined, but as something that is created step-by-step from the decisions that we make today.  The ‘ending’ of the story can be changed.  And schools have a critical role to play in shaping the future – not just in churning out workers for jobs – but as nurturing citizens who may well have to grapple with environmental, biological, technological, generational and societal issues.

And, for me, it is this emphasis on the future as a story that particularly resonated: “The future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene.” (p. 6) While there are indeed significant challenges ahead, and Facer argues that schools must become democratic hubs where learners explore how to live in an equitable, sustainable, connected way, ultimately I was left with the very hopeful feeling that teaching is really a tangible expression of optimism – that what we do can, and indeed should, make a difference.

So while I generally avoid such cheesy sentiments as those in my title, I too recommend to you Keri Facer’s Learning Futures as a place to go to think about why education and schools are so crucial because in teaching we have the opportunity to ‘touch the future’.