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

Experience: My Word for the Year 2018

Word Art

It’s become a bit of a ‘thing’ this word for the year business. Instead of setting New Year’s Resolutions (although I do have one of those this year: cook one vegetarian meal a week) I choose a word – more accurately a verb – for the year. In theory, this helps me to align goals and strategies and helps me to focus on what’s important. Some years this is more successful than others (see here for 2017’s word), but regardless, I think it’s an optimistic and positive way to start a new year.

I’m anticipating 2018 being a big year for me. Firstly, it’s the year in which I return to study. On Monday I enrolled at Victoria, University of Wellington, and tomorrow I have induction meetings. It’s official, I’m a PhD candidate. It was such a buzz to briefly walk through campus. And I can’t wait to hit the library! #nerdlyf.

Secondly, it’s a year in which the nature of my work is changing. For the past two years I’ve worked almost exclusively with the Connected Learning Advisory – which is an awesome free service for New Zealand schools and kura to access unbiased, independent advice and support around embedding digital technologies for learning. But I’ve gone part time to give me some space for study, and I’m also increasingly working directly with schools as part of Ministry of Education-funded professional learning and development. This means rapidly developing a whole suite of negotiation and work management skills, as well as upskilling in the areas schools want support with.

Thirdly, it’s a year in which we have some significant travel planned. We’re going to take a tour through Scandinavia, a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and hang out with some very dear friends of mine in Germany.

How to synthesise all these various components? By appreciating them as unique, valuable and life-expanding experiences.

But ‘experience’ is not just about the big things. For me it’s also about the small things. I’m a prolific reader, but generally it’s novels I inhale. So, I’m seeking to have new reading experiences by reading more non-fiction. So far I’ve read a couple of history books and beside me right now is a memoir.

And ‘experience’ is also about me knowing myself. I am not about to become a hiker, an athlete or outdoorswoman. Generally speaking, I just do not appreciate these kinds of experiences. Physical challenges are not my jam. Intellectual ones are. I like to be cognitively challenged. “Where’s the learning in this for me?” is my focusing question to help me tune into the experience I’m, well, experiencing.

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.

Quiet please, I’m learning

This blogpost is part of the #EdBlogNZ February challenge. I’d like to take you on a photo tour of my learning spaces.

Because I work for the Connected Learning Advisory unfortunately I no longer have a classroom to share, so I thought I’d focus rather on the spots around my house that I like to learn in.

IMG_1957Take this spot, for example. This is where you’ll mostly find me weekday mornings. I alternate between perching on a stool and standing. I like the flexibility of choosing my stance. Note the multiple screens: iPad and laptop are visible, but I reckon at least one smartphone isn’t too far away either. But those of you keen of eye will also spot a newspaper – I do prefer to read ‘off-screen’.


This is a new spot I’ve been exploring lately. There’s a practical reason for this: easy access to a power point for working on my laptop. But it also gets nice early afternoon sun. This room becomes a bit of a ‘dumping ground’ for my papers and is where I store a lot of my work stuff. It will be developed into a proper home office soonish. If you’re looking closely you’ll spy a yellow lanyard hanging from the lamp – my “pimped” name tag from yesterday’s educampwelly!


Meet one of my “colleagues”! This is my lovely cat. She is a very pleasant work mate. The perfect mix of quiet and provider of distractions when required. I love to hang out in my lounge – it also gets great afternoon sun, and is a comfy place to read. And a lot of reading happens here any day of the week! (Please note my bespoke cushion made just for me by a dear friend.)


Finally, this is my favourite outside reading spot. Yep, just there beside the herb planter. Not the most picturesque, so I thought I’d show you my view from when I sit there. You may have already gathered that I’m a bit of a sun-bunny, and this is another sun-trap at my house. Again, lots of reading happens out here.

So, what might we make of my learning places? You might well assume (and, quite correctly) that I’m an introvert at heart. I need quiet, tidy, uncluttered spaces in which to learn. I don’t like music playing, the TV on, or too much chatter. An engaged Philippa is a quiet one, because lots is happening internally. I like nice stationery, and gotta have my favourite pencil and lots of post-it notes handy.

I do like collaboration. Discussion, debate and questioning are important learning processes for me. But I need to schedule these and usually prepare for them. I don’t like to be put on the spot to be asked for my opinion. However, synthesis and reflection are something that must happen solo for me.

Which kind of takes me to a little bit of a soap box. Remember learners like me in your innovative learning environments. We’ll need quiet break-out spaces, natural light, and uncluttered classroom walls. Remember learners like me in your staff meetings. We need agendas beforehand, and small groups to discuss issues in. You might like to offer us back-channels or asynchronous ways to offer opinions. And remember, just because we’re not loud doesn’t mean we’re not engaged.

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?

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…



It’s six months since I wrote this blogpost on my ‘word for the year’. In summary, a previous school principal used to challenge the staff to choose a word for the year as a focus point. I much prefer this to New Year’s Resolutions or even goals because it’s significantly easier to keep one single word in mind. I have a strong preference for verbs as an action point. This year, being in a new job – and my first job outside of the traditional classroom – and being a CORE Education eFellow, it seemed quite natural to settle on the word Learn.

To my surprise and delight this blogpost became popular, with other teachers also choosing their own word to shape their year. When this occurred, I thought we’d better follow this up with a six month review. We often write on classroom walls ‘WALT’s – we are learning to… – so here’s my ‘IALT’s – I am learning to…

Actually, when I reflect over the past six months. And boy, has it ever been a journey, I think what I’m mostly learning about is myself. I expected to learn techy skills (and I am, I made my first playdoh piano with a MaKey MaKey). I expected to learn about content related to The Mind Lab postgrad course (and I am, I’m getting my head around the LEAN canvas, startup jargon, and agile-based approaches). I expected to learn more about the power of design thinking practices (and I am, I had some amazing feedback about this from the current Wellington Mind Lab postgrads), but I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself.

So, here’s a snapshot of the things I’ve come to learn about myself in the last six months:

  • I’ve got to feel as though I’m making a difference.
  • That listening is a profound act of love and respect.
  • That WellyED is a force to reckon with, and is something that brings me great joy and pride.
  • That before we can shift practice (and what a presumptive act that is), we must build empathy.
  • That ‘building a plane while flying it’ (as the educators of Hobsonville Point Secondary School often phrase it) is tough, demanding, and, at times, deeply unpleasant. But with huge rewards as potentialities.
  • That working collaboratively can be exhausting, and, as an introvert, I need time by myself to work on my portion of the project, but overall the project is better for working in this way. (But I’m dubious whether many hands do make light work…)
  • That I like the opportunity to think ‘big picture’.
  • That I have a complicated relationship with the future and with school.
  • That my leadership practices are different to others’, and that’s okay.
  • That we must never stop asking why?
  • That ‘thinking’ is my core educational value.

So fellow bloggers, I challenge you to share your 6 monthly reflection on your word for the year… What has happened? Have you managed to keep your word front and centre, or has it become a four letter derivative? Let’s share and support one another on our learning journeys.

A chance to explore my own growth mindset

A flurry of tweets (and exceptionally efficient blogging from Steve Mouldey!) from educators at the Auckland ‘Teaching for Intelligent Mindsets‘ event yesterday got me thinking. The seminar featured important thinkers Carol Dweck and Guy Claxton. (Read Steve’s posts about the two talks here and here.)

Image Credit: https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5579/14599057004_984399e790_o.jpg

I read Claxton’s What’s the Point of School (2008) in the summer and at the time, I was particularly struck by his ideas of intelligence and I reflected on how pervasive the idea that intelligence is innate or fixed really is in our schools. Heck, I’ll own it, in my own mind.

I can intellectually agree that intelligence isn’t fixed and can be exercised, explored and expanded. In schools, as Claxton says, “intelligence becomes defined as the kind of mind that responds most readily to the peculiar demands of school.” (p. 58) And yet the language of innate intelligence peppers my inner thoughts and conversations. I make jokes about blagging my way into jobs that I actually don’t think I have the ability to do. In the privacy of a staffroom, I’ve considered students to be ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’. I have filled out nomination forms for students to enter GATE (gifted and talented) programmes. I have used lazy, short-cut labelling for students: ‘capable but lazy’, ‘not working to their potential’, ‘nice student but not that bright’. All of these thoughts and comments point to a closed mindset and a belief that intelligence is fixed. That have a certain amount of ‘brains’ and that this cannot be increased.

It is a goal of mine to catch myself out of this way of thinking, to focus on developing a growth mindset. Handily, this fits with my word for the year: LEARN.

Starting a new, non-school-based job, is proving excellent training ground for stretching my growth mindset muscles. I am a methodical, organised, focused person. I like to be able to create to do lists that link to my big picture understanding of what needs to be accomplished, and then to set about checking these items off. In schools, I create big termly to do lists, broken down into weekly chunks.

You cannot do this in the agile, start-up environment that working at The Mind Lab is. I both love and struggle with the flexibility. Collaborating with colleagues to co-construct materials is amazing. And challenging. I am constantly having to catch myself: I can’t very well complain about things being different when I said I wanted to work in a different way. Argh!

It is exhilarating and exhausting. It is fabulous and frightening. But, as I learned in Christchurch, out of crisis comes creativity, and that just might transform education.

Word for the Year


Teachers from my previous school may have a wry smile to themselves as to the topic of this blogpost. The school principal frequently starts the year by asking what our ‘word for the year’ is. Personally, I like this approach. I like words, and the power of one word to shape a year is not to be underestimated.

Last year, my word was ‘innovate’. This helped me to remember that I was aiming for more. Better relationships with my students. More meaningful, insightful, authentic learning to occur in my lessons. Ways to integrate technology into my classes that went beyond a $1000 pencil or electronic exercise book.

I find that my word for the year seems to just pop into my head. I don’t go looking for it, it just appears. And if it stays, then I know it’s the word for me, even if it’s word I’d prefer not to have. This ‘sticking power’ is what I find so useful about having a word for the year. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in goals, and in setting down plans and ideas that you wish to accomplish. But I don’t find these as easy to remember, as easy to keep at the forefront of my mind. One word though, now that’s easy.

So, this year’s word? Learn. I like choosing verbs. They’re a call to action. They help me frame what it is I’m doing. I’d probably prefer a more elegant word for 2015. Inspire. Yeah, that’s what I’d rather be doing. But ‘learn’ has stuck. And I’ve already come to appreciate that I need to learn before I can be inspired, or perhaps be lucky enough to inspire others. And I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me: a CORE Education eFellowship for one thing. And a brand new job with The Mind Lab for another!

A month or so ago I was looking to capture my ‘moonshot‘ for education, using the language of design thinking to frame what I feel my purpose is. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m sure it’ll show up on this blog at some stage. But I’m still wrestling with it. It doesn’t sing to me yet, and it doesn’t have the same stickiness as my word does. And I think that’s primarily because I need to learn more first. As Ewan McIntosh might tell me (I’m reading his book How to Come up with Great Ideas at the moment), I need to immerse myself more yet. To me, this immersion is synonymous with learning. My moonshot can’t be forced. I have a few more questions I need to explore yet. And so, for 2015, I’ll learn.

Just Ordinary

Okay, so, um, this happened:

photo (7)

And I share this because I’m nothing special. Okay yes, I’m ultra-stoked and super-proud to have Rachel Bolstad of NZCER fame share my work (squee!), but I’m just an ordinary teacher.

I’m by no means the most innovative teacher there is – far from it. Despite the Twitter handle of @AKeenReader, I’m not the most well-read education researchy teacher there is – far from it. I think my blog is rambly and a bit unstructured at times, but I enjoy doing it. I like looking back at the learning I’ve experienced. I like having the odd (literally and figuratively) suggestion I can sometimes pass onto other teachers who ask a question or express an interest in something I’ve had a play with. It doesn’t strike me as terribly ‘brave’ to share my classroom practice or my iterative learning attempts.

What the above tweets really mean to me is that if I can do it, as an ordinary teacher just trying to make her classroom match what I understand to be best practice, you can do it too.

(PS, I think the blogpost Rachel referred to in her webinar that prompted the above tweets was this one.)

King of Shadows

With my Year 8 English class last term, we embarked on a novel study of Susan Cooper’s book King of Shadows. I’ve taught this novel for a number of years now, so it was time to try something new. Particularly in light of the ‘inquiry’ focus I’m looking to bring to this class. I decided I wanted to have the class make a website to reflect their knowledge and understanding of the text.

In terms of process, the plan I followed was to introduce the class to the kinds of websites students usually go to to access information about texts: Wikipedia, Shmoop, Sparknotes. We thought about what kind of information is on these sites, the language that is used, how the sites are organised and laid out. We considered what someone wanting to know more about our particular novel might be after. This brainstorm eventually generated our ‘to do list’ and the various tasks students completed to generate information for our website.

I did some lessons on digital citizenship. I tried to shift the focus away from the ‘don’t dos’ that the girls could easily and happily recite to me (‘Don’t post mean things’, etc.) and onto making a positive contribution to Internet-land.

We decided on an appropriate time frame, considering that the teacher, as editor, needed time to look over everyone’s work, and that the website designer in the class needed time to upload and format everyone’s work. Students nominated the tasks they most wanted to attack, and the partner they felt they would work well with. I collated this information and allocated tasks on this basis. We also had a go at co-constructing an assessment schedule. And then we went for it!

I was really excited to observe the engagement of the students in the task. They will openly and happily tell you that they didn’t especially love the book, but this didn’t stop them from being thoroughly engrossed in their work. They came into class and got started straight away – no need from prompting by me. They sought very little feedback from me in terms of clarifying their understanding of the task. If they asked, I simply asked a question of them: ‘What do you think someone visiting the website wanting more information about the book will want to know?’ No-one came back for more help after this.

I also liked that no-one blinked an eye when I sent work back to them for a second, third, fourth edit or proof-read. They accepted that if the work was being published for a genuine audience, it needed to be accurate and high quality.

The finished product is here. I’m very proud of what the class produced.

In terms of my reflection, there are two main areas I would want to improve upon if I used an activity like this again:

  • More time on digital citizenship, and to co-ordinate better with the school librarian to deliver this.
  • Better co-construction of the assessment schedule. I don’t know how to do this well, and the way I went about it meant both that the girls lost interest, and we didn’t end up with something they understood or could use to self/peer assess their work.

However, I surveyed the class at the end of the unit, and here are some highlights of what they said:

  • I liked that “everybody had a part, each person was a piece of the puzzle. I also liked the ‘freedom’ of each task and independence.”
  • “I found it interesting how the class is making a website to help others focusing on the book. Not just in NZ but the world.”
  • I got a “better understanding of the book and I quite like the idea of it going ‘live’.”