Pitch Perfect

In view of my word for the year (experience – read more here) this week I participated in CORE’s innovation experience ACCELERATOR. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: suggest an idea, form teams around ideas, explore and evolve the idea. Test the idea and the assumptions that underpin it. Pitch the idea. And yes, this is what we did. But ACCELERATOR is so much more than this – as if what I’ve just described isn’t enough on its own!

Being pretty familiar with design thinking and the social lean canvas, I wasn’t sure ACCELERATOR would offer me too much. But I was invited to participate, and knowing that I’m going to be facilitating ACCELERATOR when it hits Wellington in July (more here), I figured the best way to learn about the process was to wholeheartedly join in.

So what did I learn?

IMG_0461Pitching is hard. It takes real skill. And the process of having to refine your idea to convince others of its worthiness is invaluable. What is the problem? Why is it a problem? Who is it a problem for? Is that really the problem? How do you know? So, what’s your idea to fix it? How will that work? Is that truly an innovation? In three minutes. Or your money back. Okay, not that last one, but in three minutes or get clapped off the stage, anyway.

I liken the process to panning for gold. You start with a tray of dirt. You slip in a little water and swirl. You may seem a glimmer straight away. You may not. But you keep bringing a little more water on board, you keep swirling and slushing away more and more dirt, and eventually, if you’re lucky, there’s a teeny speck of gold at the bottom of the pan. 

For me, this isn’t about coming up with an idea that will lead me towards world domination. It’s about the process, it’s about the experience, it’s about the learning. To take feedback. To be open to changing your idea (this one’s hard for me). And to think really really hard about the words you will use to encourage others into your waka.

And what else did I learn?

I’m a facilitator. I’m a teacher. I believe in respectful practice. And when the pressure goes on, my task-oriented brain goes into bossy mode! I unreservedly apologise to my teammates I bossed around like the big sister I am. Wowsers. It wasn’t pretty, but it was an eye-opener to me. Day one, I felt like I kept a good foot in both camps: being a contributing part of my team; keeping the focus on my other teammates and their learning. Day two, with the final pitch looming, this went out the window. “Nope!” I would say. “We need to do this.” “Oh, and don’t use this word, use this word.” All those old behaviours of directing and telling came rushing back.

Here’s why I think ACCELERATOR is an important experience: it’s no good having an idea if you can’t convince others why it’s a good idea. We can do a lot of moaning about the things that bug us. What if we focused our energies instead on not only solving those irritations, but helping others to come on board with our solution? And while you’re changing the world, you may well learn something about yourself in the process.

 

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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

The “Me” in Mentoring

I’ve written about getting to be a mentor and critical friend in my work with CORE Education previously. In this blogpost I thought I would reflect on what I’ve learned in about 18 months of doing this interesting, engaging and challenging mahi.

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My image, “Mentor”, Dec 17

Ironically, I’m going to start with myself. This is completely contradictory in the face of a mentoring relationship which is really all about the mentee. What I love about mentoring is getting to know another person and their context. It’s been a great antidote to the almost crippling imposter syndrome I face working with giants in the Aotearoa New Zealand education system at CORE Education.

When mentoring, there’s no way on earth I could possibly know everything (or, indeed, anything) about the areas of interest and focus of the mentee. Therefore, I release myself of this burden. I don’t have to be any kind of “expert” in their field. I need to be curious and willing to learn more. Given my love of learning, that part’s a snap.

The thing I find easy to get carried away with is the fact that I genuinely like the mentees I get to work with. This means that I can slip out of ‘mentor mode’ and slip into ‘casual conversation with a colleague mode’. I can find myself wanting to share stories of my practice, to tell them what I think they should do with the issue on the table, and to make it about me and what I know and can offer. I guess it’s like slipping into teacher mode in a way.

And when this happens, I’m no longer listening intently. I’m listening for a pause. I’m holding my story, my idea in my head so I can say it. I’m making the mentoring about me. This is definitely work in progress for me, but I reckon I’m improving on the “interrupty” front. I think my next step is to be purposeful in sharing stories. Perhaps to ask if sharing a story at this point might be useful. And to keep focusing on developing my active listening skills.

I have other things I’m wanting to focus on with improving my mentoring skills too. Recently my goal has been to ensure that we ‘telescope up’. Yes, right now we’re discussing this particular issue in this particular area of your practice, but what can you learn from this that might be transferable into other areas or other contexts?

In 2018, because I’m lucky enough to continue mentoring next year, I really want to improve on checking in. By this I mean asking: “Is this working for you?”, “How might I meet your needs better?” I want to build this in to help me reflect on my mentoring practice and not to get complacent that I’ve got this mentoring malarkey done. Because I haven’t. Not by a long shot.

So, actually, this post has been all about ME. But in a way, it’s about me learning to position myself differently than in a ‘normal’ conversation. Because in mentoring, it’s so not about me.

Modern Learning Curriculum

Over the past couple of months, I have been shadowing and participating in one of CORE Education’s online programmes: Modern Learning Curriculum. It’s been really interesting and I thought I’d just reflect a little on what I’ve learned.

Firstly, I enjoyed the opportunity to bring together some prior knowledge (and I want to do a shout out here particularly to the #edchatNZ MOOC that I did last year) with some more specifically New Zealand-context research and readings. I thought it was excellent the way that the course moved between global trends in education, for example the research coming from the OECD, and our Aotearoa New Zealand context using research from NZCER, as well as firm grounding in the New Zealand Curriculum and Education Review Office materials.

In terms of my own learning, I would say that I was prompted to think more about three things:

  1. Agency. Ah yes, this popular buzzword. Specifically, student agency. In a course entitled “Modern Learning Curriculum” there is going to be strong advocacy (and rightly so) towards a learner-centred curriculum that empowers student agency. I particularly liked Tim Gander on the idea of agency. This helped me to evolve my understanding of ‘agency’ beyond just ‘the power to act in one’s life’ to ‘the power to make choices that make a difference’.
  2. The crossover between learner-centredness, emotions, wellbeing, Universal Design for Learning and modern learning environments. If we accept that we cannot learn unless we feel safe and feel a sense of belonging, then this has huge implications for the design of our classrooms / learning environments before we even begin to think about what and how we teach. I could really end up channelling Hamlet here and getting stuck by the massiveness of the issues: paralysis by analysis.
  3. Assessment. I don’t think I’ve done nearly enough thinking about assessment. The word has become a bit ‘dirty’, perhaps not dissimilar to ‘data’. But we have to know we’re making a difference. Learners have to know where they’re at, and what their next steps are. And this requires assessment, otherwise how will we know what to keep doing, stop doing, or do better? This has offered me food for thought: assessment OF learning = teachers assessing students against goals and standards; assessment FOR learning = teachers using assessment to inform their teaching, and to offer feedback to students; assessment AS learning = students self-assessing and setting learning goals.

But what have I learned about curriculum? In many respects, I am potentially more confused about what constitutes ‘curriculum’ than I was at the beginning. But I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Where does curriculum start and end? I’m not convinced there are firm boundaries around ‘curriculum’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘assessment’. But I do wonder if many schools stumble into their curriculum without deeply considering all the aspects that frame it. I’ve tried to capture some of these things here:

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My image, curriculum, November 2018

We need to have open and robust conversations to set the parameters around our local curriculum, and we need to be deliberate in our choices.

Conferences

This post captures much of the application I have just made to start my PhD in 2018 (yikes!). It is not intended as a criticism of any particular conferences or unconferences I have attended. uLearn17 last week was a blast! For me, it is about whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō tatou: seek after learning for the sake of your wellbeing.

In April, I was sitting in the crowd at a popular teachers’ conference in Wellington when I realised I was bored. I had spent the day moving from one location to the next merely to listen to someone talk at me from the front of the room. My bottom was numb, I was totally disengaged from the professional learning on offer, and I just wanted to go home. It struck me: in a time when teachers are being asked to “do” school differently (Bolstad et al., 2012), isn’t it time that professional learning and development for teachers looked differently to match?

From this experience, I have begun to wonder about a particular aspect of teachers’ professional development: the conference. It seems to me to be an under-researched and unquestioned mainstay of professional learning.

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My image: uLearn17, Design thinking workshop

But what is a conference? It is just one aspect of a broad spectrum of professional learning and development opportunities and experiences. At its heart, a conference is a bringing together of people with similar interests in a fairly formal setting to engage in discussion. So what makes a conference different to a workshop, symposium or seminar? Coming to an appropriate definition will be one of the challenges of this research. For this current purpose, I see a conference as an extended professional learning and development opportunity. One that is both an activity as well as a process by which knowledge is exchanged.

Being part of a learning profession, it is fair and reasonable to require teachers to engage with professional development and research. It is enshrined in the Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession (Education Council, 2017). Teachers must “engage in professional learning and adaptively apply this learning in practice” and “be informed by research and innovations related to: content disciplines; pedagogy…and wider education matters” (p.18).

Thus the conference as an activity continues to be a popular means of accessing and obtaining knowledge as part of a teacher’s professional learning and development, even though research suggests that it has little impact on student outcomes (Timperley et al., 2007). Indeed, there are a huge range of conferences teachers might choose to attend from the formal, such as subject association conferences; vendor-sponsored conferences, for example CORE Education’s uLearn; union conferences, for example by the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA); professional networks’ conferences, for example, Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand (SPANZ); through to the informal, such as the unconference-style educamps.

As a means of accessing and acquiring knowledge, a conference can be seen as a learning process. Through this lens, a conference could be said to be about the transfer of knowledge. How then, does the model of the conference sit in this Knowledge Age whereby knowledge is increasingly seen less as a noun and more of a verb: something to do something with; a building block not unlike a humble Lego brick (Bolstad, 2011). These questions open up the possibility of exploring the epistemological and ontological aspects of a conference.

While there have been some calls to take different approaches to teacher professional learning and development, such as those made from Bolstad (2011), and Bull and Gilbert (2012), these appear to have had little impact on conferences. This isn’t to say there haven’t been some attempts made, such as the 2016 edchatNZ conference, on whose organising committee I sat. There, we organised teachers into ‘tribes’, with a trained mentor as ‘tribe leader’. While attendees still selected a few breakout workshops to participate in, they spent a significant portion of time as a tribe, working collectively to create an initiative that could potentially evolve beyond the two days of the conference.

Indeed, there are many competing constituent parts to a conference to be considered: the organising committee and its assumptions and agendas; the delegates or participants with their expectations and individual needs to be met; the speakers and presenters with their key messages and unconscious biases. There are considerable sources of tension and friction to explore. In fact, when I start to think about all of the aspects of a conference as both an activity and as a process, I wonder if a conference might meet the definition of a complex system (Johnson, 2007, and Holland, 2014).

Therefore, I am wondering about drawing on complexity theory as an overall approach to this research. I have been struck by the practices recommended by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in their book Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015): asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, seeing systems. I have a hunch that this approach may be fruitful in seeking to understand what happens at conferences and why these things happen.

Within this framework, it could be useful to explore the history of the conference: what was a conference originally intended to be? Are there traditions modern conferences draw from, whether consciously or unconsciously? Given the context of conferences as a part of teacher professional learning and development, it may be pertinent to review principles of andragogy, as well as what the literature suggests constitutes effective professional learning, such as those offered in Garet et al. (2001), Desimone et al. (2002), Timperley et al. (2007), and Timperley and Alton-Lee (2008).

It would be interesting to interview attendees from a range of conferences: the teachers and leaders, conference organisers, as well as others present at a conference, such as those on the trade stands. What stories do they have to tell? What insights might they offer into the conference experience? What patterns emerge? It could also be worthwhile to consider why some teachers choose not to attend conferences.

In asking these questions, I am wondering about how conferences operate as a system, not unlike a biological ecosystem such as a rainforest, as well as the position of conferences within the wider education system. Conferences are one aspect of teacher professional learning and development, and thus can be subject to political forces and whims. How do these influence conference organisers and their choice of themes, keynote speakers, communication and marketing strategies?

It seems that there are many questions to be asked of conferences. It will be challenging to consider their constituent parts, and to attempt to see the conference as a whole. Why are conferences popular? If research suggests they have limited impact, why does the model persist? What might be learned from other professions’ conferences, such as those for doctors? Perhaps the key questions to be explored are the seemingly simple ones: what is happening at conferences? Why are those things happening? How might conferences be improved?

These wonderings lead me to my overarching question: How might conference participation support teachers in shifting their practice?

References:

  • Bolstad, R. (2011). Principles for a future-oriented education system. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 2011-2012(21), 77-95.
  • Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A. Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Bull, A. & Gilbert, J. (2012). Swimming out of our depths: Leading learning in 21st century schools. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER.
  • Desimone, L. M., Porter, A. C., Garet, M. S., Yoon, K. S., & Birman B. F. (2002). Effects of Professional Development on Teachers’ Instruction: Results from a Three-year Longitudinal Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 81-112.
  • Education Council. (2017). Our Code, Our Standards: Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers. American Education Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945.
  • Garvey Berger, J. & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. California, United States: Stanford University Press.
  • Holland, J. H. (2014). Complexity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, N. (2007). Simply Complexity: A clear guide to complexity theory. London, England: Oneworld.
  • Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best evidence synthesis iteration. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Timperley, H. & Alton-Lee, A. (2008). Reframing Teacher Professional Learning: An Alternative Policy Approach to Strengthening Valued Outcomes for Diverse Learners. Review of Research in Education, 32(328), 328-369.

iCubed: How design thinking develops lifelong learners

This post was first published on CORE Education’s blog. Click here to see the original.

In an interview with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ last month, Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, said that we have to accept being “perpetual newbies” in this digital era. He argued that “We’re going to have to become lifelong learners. I think this is the major meta-skill that needs to be taught in schools.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agrees: “The capacity to continuously learn and apply / integrate new knowledge and skills has never been more essential.” (OECD, 2012, p. 8)

Handily, for us here in Aotearoa New Zealand, The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (TMOA) mirror these sentiments. No doubt we are familiar with the call to develop young people who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.

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Doubly handily, the NZC doesn’t just leave us floundering with the abstract notion of the ‘lifelong learner’, but gives us the key competencies as the means by which lifelong learners are developed. If you like, the key competencies are the ‘how’ to the ‘why’ of the NZC’s vision; they directly support it.

The ‘what’ is the ‘stuff’ teachers decide to do, guided by the essence statements of each learning area. And while there is a lot of ‘stuff’ competing to be on the list of things teachers could do, I’d like to suggest design thinking as a way to develop the key competencies, and thus nurture lifelong learners.

The ‘what’ is the ‘stuff’ teachers decide to do, guided by the essence statements of each learning area. And while there is a lot of ‘stuff’ competing to be on the list of things teachers could do, I’d like to suggest design thinking as a way to develop the key competencies, and thus nurture lifelong learners.

It’s difficult to capture in a succinct sentence what design thinking is. It’s a methodology, it’s a mindset, it’s a kind of inquiry process on steroids. David Kwek does reasonably well when he defines it as an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4)

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I like to think of design thinking as being a way to bring people together to explore, learn and co-develop solutions to real-world problems. I see it as having three broad phases:

  1. Immersion: researching, scoping, thinking, exploring, and, most importantly of all: empathising
  2. Ideation: synthesising, defining, brainstorming, creating
  3. Implementation: prototyping, pitching, gathering feedback, refining, problem-solving.

I call it I-cubed.

And I believe that as learners grapple with each phase of the design thinking process, they actively encounter the five key competencies: thinking, relating to others, using language, symbols and texts, managing self and participating and contributing.

By way of a brief example a few years ago my Year 8 English class was exploring how we might welcome new students into our school. We began by putting ourselves in the shoes of a new student. We close-read some passages, we role-played, we conducted interviews. We were using language, symbols and texts, relating to others, and thinking. After generating loads of creative ideas, we formed groups around those we thought might have the greatest impact. We made prototypes, pitched to each other and to key members of staff. We sought feedback, refined our ideas and worked together to find solutions. We were thinking, managing self, participating and contributing.

And while this is a highly surface overview of both the learning and the key competencies that were being fostered, it was clear to me that design thinking is a powerful way to develop creative, empathetic thinkers. And my students thought that too, as one said: “design thinking helps you to learn how to process ideas into something to help people”.

In other words, my students were being “critical and creative thinkers, active seekers, users and creators of knowledge, informed decision makers” (NZC, p. 8). They are lifelong learners.

I’m also presenting on this topic as part of CORE’s Breakfast programme. I’ll be in Dunedin on 8 November.

 

Bibliography

Other resources

Thinking Conditionally

In this blogpost I seek to bring together my key learnings from participating in Lifehack’s Flourishing Fellowship 2017. I’d like to acknowledge my employers’ support (CORE Education) in attending this programme.

I’m not really sure why I applied to go on the Flourishing Fellowship. I saw it advertised on Twitter and actually thought it would be more relevant to a friend of mine, so I sent her the link. But it kept coming across my radar, so I sent myself the details and let it hang out in my inbox for a while. When the idea wouldn’t go away, I decided to apply even though I had no idea what it really was, nor how it might fit with me. I don’t have anything to do with youth wellbeing. But they mentioned design thinking, which is my jam. And learning about Te Ao Māori, which is something I’m seeking to grow in. So, why not?

I had a grand chat during my interview, and promptly got off the video call to realise that not once had I even mentioned ‘wellbeing’ which seemed to be the main thrust of the Fellowship. Ooops. Interviewing 101 fail. Somehow or other though, I got picked. So, three residential hui later, what have I learned?

Obviously I learned a heck of a lot more about what ‘wellbeing’ is. I would totally confess to having had a very one dimensional understanding of what this is: health. Okay, mental health and physical health, but health nonetheless. You can call it hauora if you like, but it’s solely in the realms of the Heath and PE Curriculum. Right? Even being exposed to the Five Ways to Wellbeing and Te Whare Tapa Whā didn’t especially shift my thinking.

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Image source: Egmason, CC BY-SA 4.0

What is wellbeing? I came to realise that the clue was in the name of the Fellowship: flourishing. Thriving. For me, the key question of the three hui is this:

What conditions do we need to grow for young people to thrive?

And now I could see myself in this mahi.

An area of particular interest for me now is systems thinking, and it hinges on that word conditions. What are all the things that need to be in place: environmental, physical, cultural, societal (etc.) for young people in thrive, and in my context, thrive in schools?

This question has taken me to two places – and they are intertwined. The first is a question of how do we know what our system is doing?

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In the second hui Penny Hagen introduced us to a prototype of a framework which looks at mapping and mobilising conditions for youth wellbeing. The key questions are:

  • How are young people involved?
  • How do we learn and work together to offer best responses?
  • Do our environments show young people are valued and important?

I got very excited by the possibilities of this tool. For me, in the context of education, it is asking about the conditions for learner-centredness. For agency. And these must be crucial for youth wellbeing.

The second place the overarching question of the conditions we need to grow in order for young people to thrive is the knotty question of what we tend to call in schools “student voice”. What do young people tell us about their experiences of school and education? How do we ask them? What do we do in response to what they say?

One of my fellow Fellows offered this phrase: ‘Nothing about us without us’, which reminds me very strongly of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12: ‘Children have the right to have a say in matters that affect them’. And yet, do we really do this in schools? One of my colleagues pointed me to this article by Rachel Bolstad of NZCER: “From ‘student voice’ to ‘youth-adult partnership” in Set, 2011(1), pp. 31-33. In this article, she argues for a shift away from “student voice” towards “youth-adult partnership” which has the potential to be more transformative: to actively “[enlist] young people to help shift the ways schooling is done” (p. 31). For me, one way to do this is to move from designing for to designing with, which I’ve mentioned before here and here. I could go really big here and mention important things like equity and power-sharing, but I think you catch my drift.

And I can’t help but wonder if the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) doesn’t call for us to do this anyway. The same colleague who brought the Bolstad article to my attention has also left me pondering this: the vision of the NZC is a statement of wellbeing. So how might we create the conditions in which young people thrive and become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners?

Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

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Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.

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I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

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.