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:

Yet another reason why Design Thinking is Genius

I wrote a post a little while ago declaring my passion for Design Thinking. Since then I have done loads of reading and thinking about it. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time participating in the #dtk12chat on Twitter – especially the day that it was summer vacation in the States, so I basically got an hour of one-to-one time with the lovely and uber-helpful Lisa Palmieri to ask her all my annoying novice questions. I’m currently preparing a design thinking exploration for my Year 8s in Term 4, and this resource centre, curated by Thomas Riddle, is proving exceptionally useful.

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But this doesn’t explain why I have such enthusiasm for design thinking. And today it struck me. At the risk of making design thinking into some kind of panacea, I truly believe that it offers powerful potential for schools to address the needs of their 21st Century learners.

Last November, as I was starting my Future Learning journey, I read Bolstad et al‘s  (2012) research report “Supporting future-oriented teaching and learning”. I blogged about the reading here, here and here. Today I’ve had occasion to revisit those blogposts and the research, and I can see that design thinking can mesh beautifully with several of the future focused themes Bolstad and her colleagues pinpoint in their report.

There is the notion of personalising learning – that the activities and curriculum content students engage with should reflect their input and interests. Design thinking will certainly allow this, as students generate their own questions in relation to the topic or issue at hand, and then follow these ideas through a prototyping and feedback cycle.

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Bolstad et al also speak of diversity. Design thinking offers a means by which a great deal of ideas and questions are generated, welcomed, and indeed valued. Learners must generate (ideate) a wealth of ideas, and learn to filter these through the human-centred lens of empathy. Different perspectives offered by people of diverse backgrounds can therefore only be of benefit in order to empathise with others and add to the collective knowledge and ideas of the design thinkers.

Design thinking requires creating and using knowledge in ways that are different to traditional schooling. Filling an empty vessel is so contradictory to the process of design thinking as to render it inconceivable and redundant.

And to work within a design thinking process is to fundamentally shift the roles of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’. The teacher truly does become a facilitator as learners explore their own ideas in relation to the issue at hand. Teachers are just the most experienced learner in the room.

Furthermore, design thinking offers much potential to integrate and foreground the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum. The potential of the Key Competencies to shape the senior secondary curriculum is discussed in another of Bolstad and Gilbert’s publications, Disciplining and Drafting (2008), which I read in the recent school holidays. I suspect the next book in my reading list, Key Competencies for the Future (2014), will continue to make this kind of compelling argument. By following a design thinking process and adopting a design thinking mindset, it is inevitable that learners would be thinking, using language, symbols and text, managing self, participating and contributing and relating to others. This is because design thinking is a human-centred process that has a bias towards (social) action. In fact, it has the power to equip learners to tackle with the “wicked problems” outlined in Keri Facer’s seminal book, Learning Futures (2011), which I have read and blogged about here.

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Acknowledgement of images: The K12 Lab Wiki

So, when I get excited about design thinking, it is because I believe so strongly that belying its seeming simplicity, it offers a wealth of rich possibilities to transform education.

Reflections on a professional reading – Take 1

I am in the process of reading through this research report: Supporting Future Oriented Learning and Teaching – NZCER.

I have read the executive summary twice, and find the ‘teacher friendly’ curriculum update really accessible: NZC Update 26.  I actually read the executive summary as almost the first piece of initial exploring I did into this area and upon recently re-reading it, it’s amazing how much more sense it makes now!  Thus, I’ve been inspired to read the whole kit and caboodle.

The introduction seeks to define ’21st century’ or ‘future’ learning and to capture what the current educational situation is like in New Zealand.  While only being a third of the way through the report as a whole at present, something I’m finding consistent and striking is a call for a “system transformation” (p. 9) in order to support every single student to “develop the skills, competencies, knowledge, and understanding required to participate in, and contribute to, our national and global future” (p. 9).

The metaphor that is used to capture this need for systemic shift is that of ‘unbundling’ – taking apart structures in order to reassemble them in newer, more meaningful ways.

Acknowledgement: https://plus.google.com/109042623230585069530/posts

I like that the report directly addresses the why of change, and that this response is not just about economy or changing careers, but also about the fact that more is known about how learning occurs, and that there has been a fundamental shift in the way “knowledge is thought about and used” (p. 11).  The two supporting tables which explore these latter two concepts on pages 13 and 15 I find particularly useful.

For example: “It is no longer possible to accurately predict exactly which knowledge people will need to draw on as they move through life in the 21st century.  It has been argued that students need, among other things, opportunities to build their sense of identity, become self-reliance, critical and creative thinkers, be able to use initiative, be team players and be able to engage in ongoing learning throughout their lives” (Table 2: Old and new views of knowledge, and the implications for schooling, p. 13)  for me, this is real confirmation and justification for my focus on what I’ve been calling the ‘3Cs’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

And: “To learn, people need to be actively engaged – they need to be doing something, thinking something and/or saying something that requires them to actively process, interpret and adapt an experience to a new context or use.” (Table 3: What we know about learning, p. 15).  This is calling for thinking and having experiences to think with.

Speaking of thinking – something I need to do more thinking about is the concept of ‘wicked problems’ – I almost certainly will come back to this at a later stage.

Finally, I have just finished reading the section on ‘personalising learning’, which is the first of six “themes” that the report deals with as those “linked with contemporary views of learning for the 21st century” (p. 9).

The distinction that is made between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ practice of personalisation has struck a chord with me.  I can see that staff in my school are genuinely making steps towards the ‘shallow’ end of personlisation pool: offering “choices about which activity(ies) [students] will undertake to master the knowledge determined by the teacher” (p. 19).  This report suggests, of course, that we should be working towards ‘deep’ personalisation where “students’ learning activities and the curriculum/knowledge content they engage with are shaped in ways that reflect the input and interests of students, as well as what teacher know to be important knowledge” (p. 19).

My gut reaction to this was one of guilt – I’ve been kidding myself that offering ‘shallow’ choices to students was allowing for the personalisation of learning.  However, I see that we all have to start something – and the intention behind the choices is a genuine one.  We can’t go from zero to hero in one fell swoop (to mix a metaphor).  I’m also reassured – but need to make sure I don’t use this as an excuse to try ‘deep’ personalisation within my classroom – by the concrete examples of deep personalisation supplied in the report from two New Zealand schools.  I particularly like the model outlined on page 23 that comes from Albany Senior High.  Here we can see the recurring call for a transformation at a systemic level in practice – ultimately this is what is needed to create genuine transformation.

Now, to keep reading…