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.

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Image source, CC0
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Feed the Hungry: Applying design thinking principles to invigorate teachers’ professional learning

This blogpost is a written version of the ULearn presentation I gave on 8 October 2015, as the culmination of my CORE eFellowship research. 

 

Here I will seek to share some insights into my research as part of my CORE Education eFellowship where I wondered about how my design thinking pedagogy might invigorate teachers’ professional learning.

By way of an ultra-brief introduction to design thinking, it is a process or methodology of problem finding and creative problem solving that seeks to keep users at its centre. There are various iterations of the process, but the d.School in Stanford, and the NoTosh representations have been most influential in my thinking.

For the purposes of this research, I have focused on the design thinking mindsets, and these have particularly informed my professional learning facilitation in my current capacity as the Postgraduate Programme Director (Wellington) at The Mind Lab by Unitec.

In this role I facilitate a 32 week programme, the first 16 weeks comprise weekly four hour, face-t0-face sessions, ultimately working towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning). I joined The Mind Lab because I was hugely inspired by its founder, Frances Valintine, and her vision of having 10,000 teachers complete the course in the next five years. To me, this represents a real tipping point, a disruption to the New Zealand education system.

Hence, when it came to choose a particular focus from the design thinking mindsets for my research, I gravitated towards ‘bias towards action’ – it wouldn’t be enough for me to contribute towards this disruptive vision with ideas, something tangible and concrete would need to come from the teachers who complete their DCL. I was going to change the world one classroom at a time.

I figured that, if that was my aim, then I had better learn about what makes for effective professional learning. I started with the Timperley et al (2007) Best Evidence Synthesis. And immediately came to a crashing halt. I felt there was a certain arrogance in my role as facilitator – was I assuming I knew better than the teachers who willingly give their precious time to this professional learning opportunity? Were we being upfront with teachers about our assumption/expectation that a shift in their practice is needed? Other facilitators seemed to be provocative, to play the role of devil’s advocate, but I felt I didn’t have the stories or the experience to do that. And isn’t that a bit rude anyway? Who was I as a facilitator?

After thrashing around in the dark for a fair bit, I decided I needed to come back to first principles – those of the design thinking mindsets. What I realised/remembered was that empathy is key to design thinking – it’s actually what separates design thinking from other inquiry or problem-based learning models. Design thinking is user-centred design; it is a deeply human process. I felt much more comfortable with this, but still harboured a secret desire to disrupt…while disliking the word itself…

Then, the amazing Louise Taylor, one of our CORE Education research mentors, handed me the phrase that set me back on the path: “disrupt with humility”. It suddenly all made sense to me. Focus on respectful practice. This aligned perfectly with both my personal and professional values.

So the arc of my research process went like this: reflecting on my own practice and blogging about it; a ‘goldilocks’ survey to find out what the teachers thought I should do more of/less of/was doing just right; listen to teachers to hear their stories, and from this conduct interviews to hear some particular stories in more depth. I unpacked these interviews to tease out ways in which we might disrupt with humility.

Disrupt with Play

I don’t think we value play nearly enough as a powerful learning experience for adults. Every session at The Mind Lab includes a ‘play’ element, and design thinking itself, I have come to see thanks to Keryn Davis, is playing with ideas. In a dedicated design thinking session, one of the teachers on the course, Imogen Warren, was so struck by the process that the following week she instigated a challenge with her class: ‘How might we make Room 9 even better?’ One conclusion the class reached was to have an Imagination Club. The design thinking session sparked a creative force in the class whereby learners are now actively encouraged to explore their creativity and individuality – and thus Imogen reports that it “changed the culture of the class in an afternoon.”

Similarly, another teacher reported that by experiencing a live, hands-on demonstration of a Twitter chat facilitated by me and Tim Gander, Education Director of The Mind Lab in Gisborne one Wednesday evening, this sparked the realisation that Twitter can be a powerful source of professional learning. So much so, that he returned to his own school to spread the word amongst his colleagues.

Disrupt with Dialogue

There is immense power in conversation, humour, asking questions, following tangents. One teacher spoke of how being with a colleague on the course, and car-pooling with this person drove her back onto the path of being interested in leadership. The opportunity for critical reflection and to develop critical friendships was seminal. In fact, the time to converse with fellow teachers, to network across the educator sector, to build a community of practice, was a key theme emerging from the goldilocks survey. Teachers want to connect, to converse, to share their stories, and this is what is most valuable to their learning.

Disrupt with Time

Thus the connector between the themes in my research became obvious to me: time. It takes time to play, to think, to talk, to discuss, to reflect. While the individual stories the teachers generously shared with me were all very different, the concept of having the time to embark on a learning journey came through loud and clear. Because it takes time to learn. We have this myth of a sudden ‘eureka’ moment, but we know this flash of insight or inspiration rarely comes like this. Instead ideas develop iteratively, as a ‘slow hunch‘, combining, building, colliding, from which deep learning occurs.

And these teachers’ stories disrupted my thinking. What were the implications of espousing respectful practice? I began to examine my own assumptions, starting with the very title of this research: ‘Feed the Hungry’ which comes from the phrase ‘feed the hungry; don’t water the stones’. I also referred in my research outlines to ‘willing and curious’ teachers. Who was I to call some teachers ‘stones’? Who was I to judge some teachers as ‘willing’ and thus position others as ‘unwilling’? Where was the respect, the empathy, in that? I began to wonder about the language we use to refer to the so-called ‘resistant teachers’.

Maurie Abraham, principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, gave me a new analogy. What if we ‘invited teachers on the bus?’ He spoke of inviting teachers on a learning journey, on a bus. They could wait at the bus stop if they so chose, but the bus was on a public transport loop and would come around again. At which point, they would be invited on the bus. This warm but demanding metaphor fits much more comfortably with my need for respectful, empathetic practice.

So what have I learned about design thinking as a tool to invigorate teachers’ professional learning? I have come to realise that learning is a deeply emotional experience – it sits right at the heart of who we are as people. Design thinking takes empathy as its core tenet – it has a human-centred focus – and this is why the two fit together so beautifully.

Really, I have come back to where I started: how might we invite teachers on the bus?

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Acknowledgments

What’s the Beef with Research?

Research is scary. It’s inaccessible, it’s technical, it’s wordy and jargon-filled, it’s formal, it’s cold. And it has nothing to do with me, a practising teacher at the chalk-face. There is a gaping divide between theory (read: research) and practice (read: my classroom). One does not inform the other, and I don’t need it even if I did have the time to conduct or read some research. Actually, on the whole, education as an academic pursuit is a pretty dubious area.

This has definitely been my attitude towards educational research for quite some time, harking right back to my days as a university student studying towards my DipT and BEd. While some of the papers I did were of academic interest to me, basically I saw them as a necessary evil to complete in order to get into the classroom.

So it came as a little bit of a shock to discover that, as a 2015 eFellow, I was expected to conduct research. The application hinted at it, and I wasn’t put off by pitching a project or an area for inquiry, but conducting research… that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Right?

Right from our first hui I was confronted by language I wasn’t familiar with. Research design, methodology, ethics, qualitative data, action research… everybody else seem to understand these words in context. Not me. I was politely nodding and hoping they’d go away. They were scary and cold. I wanted to change the world, not be herded into scientific boxes of hypothesis, aim and findings. I’d had enough of that during high school science, thank you very much.

But, it was expected, and I’m good at following instructions and doing what I’m told, so here is my research design. And my final reference list.

And then, it just started to flow.

Indulge in the reading I love to do. Listen to the stories of the teachers around me. Think and reflect on my practice. Write blogposts. Talk to colleagues. Wonder. Learn.

This kind of research isn’t cold and clinical. It is very much about people. It doesn’t overwhelm with facts and figures, but engages the heart to engage the mind. I think it’s more transformative because it is a human-centred process.

And this connection for me is key. Research mimics a design thinking process. Immersing yourself in stories (the scary research word is data). Making connections and synthesising wonderings. Considering possible outcomes, what the implications are for other practitioners. Ideating, prototyping, seeking feedback.

I can see now why research is appealing to me. The things that I love about design thinking turn out to be the same things that make me a good researcher: the security and framework of a process, but the flexibility and creativity to go where ever the wonderings take you. It’s messy, but organised. It’s imaginative and constrained. It’s hard fun.

Image Source

So I challenge you, if you have thought like me, that research is scary and scientific and irrelevant, to confront those assumptions, and to overlay design thinking mindsets of empathy, of radical collaboration, of prototyping, of bias towards action. The teaching as inquiry cycle in The New Zealand Curriculum is a research design model, and I encourage you to consider it as such and to welcome the process in order to be a creative teacher as researcher.

How might embracing research transform your practice?

My Inquiry

In this blogpost, I thought I would look to capture the essence of my CORE eFellow inquiry. It’s fitting for me to do this now, as my research proper will get underway on Wednesday, with the first ever intake of postgrads into the Wellington branch of The Mind Lab by Unitec starting (squee!).

mind lab by unitec_small

I’m asking for help from the postgrads to inquire into my own teaching practice. I would describe this as a Design Thinking pedagogy. On a really small scale, I want to cut any direct instruction time by me to 15 minutes. On a much larger, more significant scale, I want to ensure that I promote discussions around an overarching question or provocation, enable the playing with ideas, and a chance to reflect on education in New Zealand on a systemic, but also a personal classroom, level.

I want to do this in a respectful, empathetic way. I don’t want to make assumptions about why teachers have courageously chosen to make this impressive time commitment to their professional learning. I’m genuinely interested to hear about what’s happening in the classrooms around the greater Wellington region, and the applied learnings that might arise out of participation in the Certificate of Digital and Collaborative Learning.

My belief is that education is about citizenship. I feel a strong moral purpose to do what I can to transform education in New Zealand to better meet the needs of our 21st Century learners. So, in this inquiry I want to investigate how I might employ design thinking principles to invigorate teachers’ professional learning in order to nurture critical and creative citizens. My guiding questions are:

  • How can I use design thinking principles to promote active change in a professional learning context?
  • How can my use of design thinking shift a teacher’s ability to transform their mindset/learning and thus their classroom?
  • What stories of change can I hear from teachers who are inspired by a design thinking mindset?

I’m really looking forward to engaging in this research with the help and support of the Wellington postgrads. Any feedback, thoughts or suggestions are gratefully received. An information sheet about my research is available by clicking here.