Vanilla

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.

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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.

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Reflecting on the edchatNZ MOOC

MOOC

This is the reflection I wrote in Week 8 of the edchatNZ MOOC (Massive Open Online Course):

What I have been particularly struck by during this course is the idea of digger deeper before moving forward. The idea of unpacking the assumptions that we base our thinking on has been very interesting to me. In order to really understand our own ideas, and even the ideas of others, we must first understand the basis or the foundation of these ideas. Tentacle-like (without associated sinister undertones) these assumptions permeate all the other ideas that link to them. For example, if I believe that education is about empowering young people to take their place in the economy, then this will inform the kind of knowledge I believe is important, the kind of curriculum I think schools should offer, and a worry that automation will ‘steal’ jobs from humans. My belief in a strong economy filters through all of these other ideas too. Thinking about this has been an unexpectedly interesting thing from this MOOC. (Thanks Danielle!) Note: the thanks to Danielle, is Danielle Myburgh, founder of edchatNZ, and all-round eduhero of mine.

And yet, interestingly after 10 weeks of study, I haven’t really moved from where I started in terms of own belief about the purpose of education, or my vision about what a “future school” might be like. In the first week of the course, I said: “An education, to me, is about a whole person, and ultimately about empowering citizens.” And I couldn’t honestly say that I’ve changed this opinion one iota. Nor, as I mentioned, have I changed my vision of a “school” as a community learning hub – a vision strongly influenced by my reading of Keri Facer.

Does this mean I haven’t engaged deeply enough with the MOOC that I haven’t unpacked or challenges these assumptions of mine? Is this a reflection that I had already done some thinking in this space? Or…?

After spending a fair bit of time last year, while working at The Mind Lab by Unitec, thinking about technology and its oft-hailed “disruptive” qualities, I have become again more attuned to ideas of technology and its ability to affect us. For me, this takes the shape of a call to embracing the need for ethics, values, critical thinking, imagination – the stuff of a future curriculum?

I really enjoyed the work of Kieran Egan and thinking about why talking about education is so difficult. This gave me a framework I would like to explore further to think about the overlapping and conflicting ideas we hold about and expect from our schools. I would like to develop the ability to tune into the language people use and the conversations we become involved in to wonder from which model(s) people are operating.

‘Education’ and ‘school’ provoke an emotional reaction in us, one based on previous experiences – which is why we’re all “experts” in education. This MOOC has helped me to see that this is a function of how we have been socialised. I wonder if complexity theory can offer us a way to think outside of these systems even when we are a part of them? I also wonder how I might turn complexity theory “on myself” to explore and test my own thinking?

Studying with this MOOC, I have become even more obsessed with language and its connotations – how it can include and exclude; how it reveal underlying assumptions, values and beliefs – even with something as potentially as innocuous sounding as verbs like “work” and “learn”. And to beware the seductive follies of reductive thinking: those pesky false dichotomies, for example ‘knowledge’ versus ‘skills’. I much prefer an expansive model, one that says: ‘yes, and…’

In this same way, the MOOC has confirmed my belief (again, gleaned from Keri Facer) about the future as a narrative that we are active characters/participants/agents within. To me, this presents a vision of the future that is powerful and optimistic: our current choices have the capacity to shape our future.

And finally, I think we need to embrace the luxury of time:

  • To sit with ideas
  • To identify, unpack, challenge assumptions
  • To understand deeply
  • Slow down to hurry up
  • Not rushing to solutions
  • Gather data, research, hear multiple perspectives

My next steps are to reveal in learning more about complexity theory – prompted by this MOOC. I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015). So, again, thank you Danielle.

Re-focusing my UDL Lenses

Lately, I’ve been challenged to think more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I’ve been exposed to the framework previously, even using it to inform a professional learning session when I was the Future Learning Leader at Marsden. I thoroughly enjoyed Katie Novak’s presentation at ULearn in 2014. I was so impressed by the way she modelled UDL even given the constraints of a conference keynote speech. Lucky enough to be a CORE Education eFellow last year, Chrissie Butler, our local UDL guru, led us through a session on UDL which prompted me to think more about the kind of language we use to talk about individuals and groups within our schools, e.g. the “special needs” kids and their “teacher aides”.

So I believed I understood the ‘big picture’ behind UDL – that it’s about providing universal supports that work for everyone, the way automatic opening and closing doors do in the supermarket or shopping mall regardless of someone’s mobility.

Underpinning this idea are values that I am comfortable with: the notion of equity for one. That we are not all equal, but with the same right to access information and knowledge and learning. Therefore as teachers, we should provide ‘on ramps’ so that everyone can have access to the learning.

With my design thinking hat on, I easily get on board with the idea of knowing your learner as this is what being empathetic requires.

And when it came to the role of technology with UDL, it was clear to me that it was mostly about assistive technologies like text to speech functions, altering font size and colour. If I pushed the boat out a bit further I could see that digital technologies also had a role to play in offering choice: offering more ways to access information and more ways to demonstrate understanding of knowledge.

Yep. This UDL thing. I’ve got it down.

But then it was pointed out to me the underlying purpose of UDL.

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  • Engagement: purposeful, motivated learners
  • Representation: resourceful, knowledgeable learners
  • Action and expression: strategic, goal-directed learners

Suddenly these reminded me of future-focused pedagogy goals. Self-managing learners. Curious, motivated, life-long learners. Oh.

And then I started to connect this to the OECD 7 Principles of Learning. Recognise these ideas?

  • Learner at the centre: “Learners are the central players in the environment and therefore activities centre on their cognition and growth.” “The environment aims to develop ‘self-regulated learners’” (p. 6)
  • Recognising individual differences: “The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it…” (p. 7)

With these new UDL lenses on, the role of digital technologies becomes greatly expanded. Much more than a learning support and a means to offer choice, but instead to ensure learning is:

  • Engaging
  • Motivating
  • Personalised
  • Collaborative
  • Connected to students’ passions
  • Matched to students’ needs and interests

And that learning is about:

  • Bringing who you are to the learning
  • Being responsible for your own learning
  • Becoming a more independent, self-managing learner: knowing what is being taught and why

Ah!

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve still got a lot more thinking to do about this, but suddenly UDL makes a lot more sense to me. As always, there is a lot more behind a concept than a surface glance can give.

Adopting future-focused pedagogies means being learner-centred. In turn this means knowing your learners deeply. And UDL is a way to achieve this. It is not a separate framework, but a lens through which to view curriculum design and the role of digital technologies for learning. It isn’t a ‘bolt on’ addition, but a crucial ‘yes, and’.

This re-focusing also reinforces my belief in the power of language. If you choose to adopt a ‘buzz word’, or, as in this case, a buzz phrase like ‘learner-centred’, be prepared to really sit with it and unpack it deeply. There’s always a lot more than meets the eye.