Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Smog, whispers and mystics

I started this post a week or two ago. There were just so many thoughts flying around my head that it took some time before they all made sense enough to share...

Today was one of those once in a lifetime, take your breath away kind of days. It was full of elation, endorphins and adrenaline. We started the day at 4:30am where we saw a sunrise over Annapurna in the Himalayas (if you're not familiar, this includes the tenth highest peak in the world). At first, only the very tips of the peaks began to glow. As the sun rose, the whole valley lit up. I have only experienced one other moment like this, an experience that words don't begin to describe, cameras can't capture and even your emotions don't feel sufficient. This was that kind of sun rise.  
Sunrise view of Anapurna

Following on from this stunning sunrise, I went paragliding for the first time. Today I literally soared with the birds over the Himalayas. 

Paragliding over the Himalayas 

In the afternoon we were rowed across the lake in Pokhara. From here we climbed many steps to a Buddhist peace pagoda where we saw the sunset over the Himalayas. The peaks of Annapurna were again highlighted in beautiful shades of pink. 

View of the lake in Pokhara

View from the peace pagoda in Pokhara

I also spent 90% of this incredible day in silence. On the first day of this fellowship we each had the opportunity to write down a pledge. My pledge was that I wanted to listen more and talk less. In a place filled with so much spirituality, watching the sun set while standing at the peace pagoda, overlooking the glowing Himalayas, it would have been easy to interpret losing my voice as something mystical. The explanation is actually far more sinister...

For two whole days I completely lost my voice due to a bad chest infection I picked up in Kathmandu. Chest infections are very common in Kathmandu because of the extreme levels of pollution. Many of the teachers we worked with were surprised that some of our fellows were over sixty. They explained that the extremely high levels of pollution here means that not many people live past sixty. While we were in Kathmandu, almost every day the smog levels were classified as dangerously high. A number of factors contribute to these incredibly high pollution levels. For example, Kathmandu is located between the mountains. On winter mornings, a thick layer of morning fog traps the smog inside the city. This is aggravated by the many brick factories that surround Kathmandu, and the incredibly high levels of fossil fuels that are burnt here on a daily basis. Public transport is extremely limited, many people use fossil fuels for cooking, and cars are badly maintained. 
The smog over Kathmandu
Rice paddy in Pokhara

The view over Annapurna was breathtaking, figuratively and literally. Climbing to the peace pagoda whilst still having a chest infection was quite the challenge. I literally had to rest every ten steps, my chest ached, my throat hurt, there may have been the occasional dizzy spell and some nausea. I got to the top though, and the view was 100% worth it. While these sights were breathtaking and awe inspiring, this was mirrored by an intense sadness. While most likely these were once in a lifetime experiences for me, I was reminded of just how accurate this statement is. Our guide explained that in the twenty years that he has been working as a guide and sherpa, the glaciers have been reduced to half their original size. While I may come back to Nepal some time in the distant future, chances are that the glaciers will have shrunk even more as we continue to burn fossil fuels and an alarming pace. Sooner than we care to admit, there may be no more snow capped peaks in the Himalayas. 

In New Zealand classrooms, we learn about pollution and climate change. In Nepal, this is already their lived reality. While we argue about whether petrol should include additional taxes to pay for public transport, fossil fuels are literally reducing the lifespan of the people in Nepal. While we enjoy our steaks and lamb roasts (and probably complain about the price), the people in Nepal are already suffering because changing climate has already impacted the production of their food crops - frequently their only supply of food and income. While we are arguing about what 'cleaning up our rivers' actually means in New Zealand, the streets in Nepal are filled with water trucks that use fossil fuels to carry drinking water to the people. A great many number of people still have no running water. And of course, tap water is certainly not drinkable.
There is no shortage of ways that our quality of life in New Zealand (and many other Western countries) leaves Kathmandu in the dust (pun unintended). We have everything from high levels of female literacy, a stable democracy, power, water, food, social benefits, good medical care and toilets. What is alarming however is that much of what we take for granted in New Zealand, actually contributes to the reduced quality of life for those people in countries like Nepal. We drive our excessively big cars to the supermarket to buy food that wasn't produced in New Zealand. We keep on eating meat, we keep on buying things we don't need. We keep burning fossil fuels because it is convenient, while more and more people around the world will suffer and struggle as climate change affects their critical food production. A critical lesson about climate change that we often forget is that it is not the most affluent of us that will be most affected. It is those communities already struggling for survival. 

As my fellowship here in Nepal draws to a close, I hope that I carry the extreme contrast of Kathmandu with me forever. While New Zealand students are learning about dystopian futures, in many places around the world this is their every day lived reality. I hope that at every moment I remember the enormous privileges and opportunities we are afforded in New Zealand, particularly in our schools. I hope that in 2018 and beyond, I not only appreciate these privileges and opportunities, but that I seize these to make a difference where I can. 

*All photos my yours truly (and the paraglider instructor). Please do not reproduce without attribution.  

Friday, January 12, 2018

New friends and lifelong memories.

We have now completed our first teacher conference here in Kathmandu. The four days working with one group of Nepali teachers was pretty spectacular. We started on day one with a quiet group who did not know each other. However, over the four days of the conference, together we discussed openly and honestly the challenges that we all face as teachers. As a result, we all learnt so much from each other. While the entire conference was great, there were definitely a few highlights for me.

We had a great afternoon going over 'relaxed vigilance' strategies for behaviour management. We really got into it with some role play where the teachers pretended to be naughty students for each other so that they could practice these new strategies. Our group was so keen to learn more, that they decided not to have afternoon tea but to keep learning about restorative justice instead.

Another huge highlight was seeing one of our teachers who was super quiet on the first day, really participate, discuss, laugh and ask lots of questions by the last day. I felt humbled and honoured by the honest sharing and the risk taking from this teacher. I am sure that they will be in my memories for a long long time. I was also honoured by the kind words from one of our students who was asked to make a speech to the whole conference.

We finished the first conference with a very long closing ceremony that involved many long winded speeches (at least, this was the 'translation' from one of the Nepali teachers). However, following this our group of eight teachers borrowed some official banners (without permission), and pulled us back into our classroom to have our very own ceremony for handing over their certificates. We laughed and clapped an took many photos. After this, our students sat us down and handed us each a wrapped package. They had  printed a photo of our group and framed it in a traditional Nepali window frame. Anna, Steph and I were truly touched by their thoughtful gift. Even more exciting, this amazing group of teachers have decided that they will continue to meet after the conference to support each other in implementing the new strategies they had learnt. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best possible outcome from this conference; building a sustainable professional support network for the passionate teachers of Nepal.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Some things are universal

Today we had the third day (out of four) working with a group of Nepali teachers here in Kathmandu as part of an LRTT Fellowship. The past few days have been incredible, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. 

I am currently reading The Culture Map. The book details some of the more subtle cultural differences that can get in the way of working successfully across cultures. This has been a great read whilst being fully immersed in a culture so different from my own. While in my culture shaking your head from side to side means no, here in Nepal it means yes. If I had not known this prior to working with our Nepali teachers, I may have misinterpreted much of our communication. While I feel that we have worked really hard to communicate across cultural boundaries, I can't help but wonder how a more in depth understanding of cultural differences may have helped us be more successful. One of the activities we did today, was to ask the group to arrange themselves in order of birthdays. Everyone had to be completely silent and had to do this through gestures, facial expressions, mime, etc. This was a great reminder that while some gestures are universal, others are definitely not. Gestures that might seem obvious to one cultural group, might mean nothing to another.

Working across a language barrier can also add in additional challenges. This week has made me painfully aware just how tuned we become to certain sounds. I have been trying very hard to pronounce the names of each of the Nepali teachers, however, I just can't seem to make the right sounds! In our tiny classroom, there have been at least three different English accents in the room. Sometimes we talk too fast, sometimes we use too big words. We have skipped and sometimes stumbled our way over educational jargon.

Yet, despite these differences, we have somehow managed to come together as a group. We have laughed together and learnt together. Because luckily, some things are universal...
Yesterday, Anna, my LRTT co-teacher/fellow did a model music lesson. It was a gold standard lesson. It was carefully scaffolded, fun, and she did great progress checks along the way to establish learning. By the end of the lesson, even I could vaguely keep a rhythm and clap the different beats. Anna also taught us an Israeli wedding song and dance. That means two Australians, a New Zealander, and eight Nepali dancing an Israeli wedding dance together in Kathmandu. We laughed, and danced, and clapped. It was wonderful. It was also a critical reminder that regardless of how different our backgrounds and context, some things are universal. Music is one such thing. It can transcend time and place to bring us together. 

Music of course is not the only universal way to bring people together. I had great fun learning a game from our Nepali teachers and students today called coco (not sure about spelling). Just like music, games also have a way of transcending cultural and social boundaries. While I was reminded of this at the NZCER Games for Learning conference earlier this year, this week has really made this sink in. Games have the potential to bring people together. It helps us find a common ground, build relationships and share our cultures. The explicitness of rules help us to navigate and explore new and different social boundaries.

With the last day of our conference tomorrow, I will certainly make sure there is time for at least one more game and one more song.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

First day reflections - A global community!

On Sunday we had our first day working with Nepali teachers. Limited Resource Teacher Training (LRTT) and their local partner organisation VIN (Volunteer Initiatives Nepal) have organised a 4 day conference for approximately 100 Kathmandu teachers. These teachers are then split into groups of about 10. Two or three of the LRTT fellows then work with one group of ten teachers for the four days of the conference. I am really enjoying this format as it gives the opportunity to design the conference around the teacher's needs. It also provides the time to really get to know each other and have some genuinely robust conversations.

We started the first day of this conference with an opening ceremony. Various Nepal leaders spoke about the importance of this opportunity. Rachel, one of the team leaders from LRTT gave a fabulous speech too. After this the whole group of LRTT fellows, made up of mostly Australians, a handful of kiwis, and a few people from the United Kingdom got up and sang a waiata we had taught everyone the night before. Sarah, one of the kiwi fellows then explained the meaning of the waiata. It was beautiful. One of the Australians remarked later in the day that they felt proud to be a little bit kiwi today.

I am really lucky to be working with two fabulous teachers here, Stephanie and Anna. They both bring the most incredible sets of experience and expertise. Anna is an encyclopaedia of folk songs. Stephanie also dabbles in politics where she is an elected councillor. Both are deeply passionate about education.

Using the Question Race game to generate questions.

The sessions we ran with our Nepali teachers on day one was largely focussed on getting to know them personally and professionally. As a result, we had SO many great discussions! I found a kindred spirit in one gentleman who wanted to revolutionise education, and another in an enthusiastic woman who was interested in global citizenship and creativity.

We used the Question Race game to help identify the areas that the teachers in our group wanted to focus on over the course of their training.

Our group of teachers identified student motivation, behaviour management and parent engagement as issues that they would like to learn about throughout the conference. These are the same things many of the teachers in New Zealand, Australia and everywhere else struggle with. Perhaps one of my key learnings from the first day working with the awesome Nepali teachers, Australian teachers, New Zealand teachers and those form the United Kingdom, is that we really are a global community. We are never alone in our journey to do the best for our students, and if we reach out to learn from and support each other, there is so much more that we can accomplish.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Tea with a monk and sunset with a monkey

Today was the third day of my LRTT fellowship in Nepal. We started the day by getting stuck in Kathmandu's crazy traffic. The roads are full of pot holes, wild driving and so much dust!

Our first stop was a Buddhist monastery school. We were served delicious sweet tea and biscuits, while learning about the school from the monk who has worked as the principal for the past few years. The school moved to Kathmandu from another site after the disastrous earthquake here in 2015. As a result, many of the students are orphans. The school provides everything for students, books, pencils, food, accommodation, etc.

We also had a chance to observe a maths lesson. Students sat in rows and watched their warm and friendly teacher explain percentages. Interestingly, all the textbooks that we saw today were in English. Yet, when speaking to students and teachers, their English was fairly limited. While observing the maths class, I also managed to disrupt the lesson accidentally... I asked a student about their Frozen pencil case. Before I knew it, half the class were asking me to sing. Oops!

Next we had a brief visit to the school where we will be hosting a four day conference for about 100 local teachers. We had a quick look around the classrooms and a brief chat to the incredibly friendly students.

Finally, we ended the day with sunset at Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the monkey temple. There are hundreds of monkeys that are hanging out at the temple. We arrived here just in time for sunset over Kathmandu. It was a stunning sight!

It was a busy day and left me with lots and lots of questions. Two of the key ones for today:

  • Digital technology is completely absent from the school we visited. From what I can tell, it seems to be absent in most schools. With digital technology playing such a huge role in our global economy, will this absence of this affect Nepal's chances of building a stronger economy in the future?
  • Through much of its history (and even today), Nepal is very isolated from the rest of the world. I'm reading a great book at the moment called Culture Map by Erin Meyer. The book suggests that often in cultures that have been very isolated, there are lots of reading between the lines communication. For example, the same word could have lots of different meanings depending on the context it is being used. Additionally, much of the communication is non verbal. This has me wondering, in the west where our communication is much more explicit, how much do we miss when working in a multicultural context? 


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Introducing Kathmandu

Gems with dirty feet
Hidden in the dirt and dust
Kathmandu's contrasts.

Some of you may be aware that I am spending January in Nepal where I am doing some volunteer work with Limited Resource Teacher Training (see my Give a Little page for more information). More about that in the days to follow! For now, a few snapshots of the city. I arrived a day early to squeeze in some extra exploring. 

Kathmandu seems to be a city of contrast. Hidden between dilapidated buildings and dust are beautiful coloured buildings with pretty balconies and accented windows. As you walk, you pass the odd chicken, stray dogs, and curious little hole in the wall shops. The many cars and scooters are constantly honking.  We are staying at the Volunteers Initiative Nepal. From here it is a 20 minute walk to Thamel, a tourist market. Thamel, is a nirvana for the handicraft enthusiast. This market is made up of small busy streets covered by coloured prayer flags. Walking back from Thamel to our accommodation at night, you pass fires that made in the street. Locals sit around them to keep warm. The roads are dusty and filled with litter. 

After breakfast today, we will have our induction. We will find out more about the work we will be doing here, our schedule, teams, etc. Excited, curious and nervous for now. And full of questions...
  • How will our group of 30 people from across New Zealand, Australia and the UK work together with the local teachers from Nepal? What will be the biggest challenge?
  • What cultural differences are there in regards to leadership and communication, between the contexts that I am used to, and those of Nepal (and my fellow LRTT fellows)?
  • What is the Nepal curriculum like? Do they have one? And if they do, what are the ideas that informed it? 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"I inquire into my practice all the time!" Yeah right.

I got stuck in traffic a few weeks ago. I decided that I would use the time productively by dictating a blog post to my phone (thanks to Richard Wells for the voice dictation inspiration!). This post has been distilling in my head for some time and seemed a fitting post at this time of the year where we often have a moment to reflect on our practice.

When the subject of Teaching as Inquiry or Spirals of Inquiry is discussed in schools, one of the phrases that I have heard numerous teachers say over the past few years is "I inquire all the time, I just don't write it down". Sometimes this sounds like "I reflect about my practice all the time, I just don't write it down." Well, today I would like to go out on a limb, put on my devil's advocate horns, and say... I think that is nonsense, baloney and rubbish. I better explain...
There are two reasons for this, the first is the nature of memory. The way I memories work, is that every single time we access a memory, we modify it slightly. The more times we have recalled a memory, the we have manipulated it and changed its shape. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the video below from Dr Julia Shore.

Dr Shaw's research into memory showed that people who had never been involved with a violent crime, could be 'memory hacked' to believe that they committed one. Alarmingly, the memory hacking experiments was so effective, that the research had to be shut down early. While Julia's work is targeted at criminal psychology, this is very relevant for all of us who have a "but I inquire all the time, I just don't write it down approach". The reality is, that unless we write things down, we are like to bend and flex our memories to suit us. And, every time you recall a memory, you bend, shape and flex it even more. So while you thought you were inquiring into your practice, what we might really doing, is modifying your memory to suit our purpose. And every time I remember it, I convince myself just a little more. In other words, the retrospective recording of your inquiry just before your appraisal meeting is not great for critically reflecting on your practice...

The second bit of research worth paying attention to is the work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. One of the key ideas that Kahneman talks about is cognitive bias. Through great examples in his book, he shows us just how biased we are without realising. Have a go at some of these problems that illustrate our biases if your don't believe me! What this means is that if we are "inquiring all the time but not writing it down" and not formally collecting data, and attempting to analyse it objectively, it is very likely that we might in fact be feeding into the cognitive biases embedded in our thinking.

I’ve been reading Ann Milne's book, Colouring in the White Spaces.  What really stands out from this book, is the generational prejudice and bias in our system that we don’t even notice. We are biased and prejudiced in ways that we are not even capable of identifying. The same is true for biases about women, race and more.

Consider for example the following,
"In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. The case described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Flynn and Anderson assigned half of the students to read Heidi’s story and gave the other half the same story with just one difference—they changed the name “Heidi” to “Howard.” Professors Flynn and Anderson then polled the students about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense since “their” accomplishments were completely identical. Yet while students respected both Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” The same data with a single difference—gender—created vastly different impressions." Exert from Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Kindle Locations 723-728). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

Ultimately, if we are really committed to make a positive change, it is necessary that we become aware of our biases. For many generations now, we know our education system has not served our Māori and Pasifika students well. We know that not as many girls stay in the STEM subjects. Whether we like it or not, some of this is as a result of our biases, and unless we are able to identify, critique and address them, change is very unlikely. Fortunately, Teaching as Inquiry and Spirals of Inquiry models help us to do just this. By forming a hunch and seeking ways to test our hunches, it allows us to challenge our assumptions. However... when we adopt an "I inquire all the time, I just don't write it down" attitude, we are in fact at risk of continuing to be subject to our biases, particularly given how our memories are modified every time we recall them. Additionally, perhaps when we write things down, when we deeply challenge our assumptions and beliefs about the world, the need to change ourselves comes to the forefront. Once we realise our bias, we have to do something about it. But making genuine change requires an investment of physical and emotional energy. Often making change is really uncomfortable. So perhaps when we can't be bothered to write things down, to do the work required to make change, what we are really saying is that we are not prepared to make change.

So here are my questions for you. How well did you record your inquiry? Did you do so regularly? Did you collect data in such a way that you could challenge your own assumptions? Just how committed were you to making change? Or will 2018 be the year where you inquire all the time and write it down?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thesis snapshots 1

There are 8 weeks left before I have to hand in my thesis (eek!). So despite having about twenty blog posts brewing, I just will not have much time to blog. Instead, I thought I would post sections of my thesis here for critique, review, feedback, etc. The more brutal the better! 
So here you go.... Thesis snapshot 1

Is formal education broken, expired and systemically flawed? Academic experts across the world have argued that our current education system is not fit for purpose. The public mirrors their arguments too, everyone from politicians, parents, teachers, students and the media can, and do find fault with the current system. Yet, despite so many finding fault with schools, a myriad of change in education, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, have somehow not succeeded in bringing about the necessary change. This begs the question, why not? 

In the chapter ahead, the history of education reform in New Zealand will be outlined. Following this, a brief evaluation of the New Zealand public education system, and its fitness for purpose, in light of the three philosophical purposes of education, socialisation, qualifications and subjectification. This establishes the argument that education in its current form is no longer fit for purpose. The chapter concludes with a review of how this has been addressed in the past, and establishes the limitations of past interventions. 

History of education reform

Despite the endless critique of education, its history is littered with varied attempts at change. (Berry, 2011; Brown, 1990; Thomas, 2013). These reforms in education reflect the historical and sociological context, including the rise of Marxism, Neo-Marxism and Capitalism (Brown, 1990; Gordon, 2016; Thomas, 2013). Specifically, in Western history, a number of global trends stand out in this timeline, including the rise of compulsory education and the secularisation of schooling. As well as the sociological context, education debate across Western nations have also been swayed throughout history between progressive (child centred, learning by doing) and formal ideas (teacher centred, back to basics, chalk and talk) (Thomas, 2013). 

Within New Zealand, a number of significant changes in education can also be noted. During the 1870s the development of state schooling, followed nearly a hundred years later with the Tomorrow’s Schools reform in 1989, are examples of the major educational reforms that have shaped the New Zealand education context (Gordon, 1992; Novlan, 1998).The Tomorrow’s Schools reform is perhaps the largest impacting factor on the current New Zealand education landscape, and has been credited as "one of the most notable episodes of liberalization that history has to offer” (Evans, Grimes, Wilkinson, & Teece, 1996). Largely, because it introduced free market ideals in the education sector (Philips, 2000). Gordon (2016) credits this reform with many of the structural aspects that we can see in New Zealand education today, including the governance by Boards of Trustees, competition between schools, fee-paying students within tertiary education, and the shift towards operational funding being managed by schools. The introduction of the Tomorrow’s Schools Act is largely credited with the autonomy with which New Zealand schools function today (Gordon, 2006). 

Following on from the Tomorrow’s Schools reform in 1989, other changes also took effect. A new qualification system (National Certificate of Educational Achievement - NCEA) was introduced from 2002 for students from year eleven to thirteen (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, n.d.). Additionally, New Zealand saw the introduction of a new curriculum from 2007 (Schagen, 2011). Although not credited with having as radical an impact as the Tomorrow’s School reform, the introduction of the latest New Zealand Curriculum document is of interest. This document, which is often touted as future focussed, saw a shift in the way education was approached in New Zealand, marking a movement from “setting out not what children are expected to know, but how they should be” (Priestley & Sinnema, 2014; Watson, 2010), for example the shift towards key competencies (thinking, relating to others, understanding language, symbols and text, managing self and participating and contributing), as opposed to large amounts of clearly defined content. Despite much protesting, National Standards introduced in 2010, required schools to report to Ministry of Education and to parents, on the literacy and numeracy levels of students from year 1 to 8 (Crooks et al., 2009; Ministry of Education, 2010). And most recently, New Zealand saw the introduction of the Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy in 2014. IES was deliberately designed to increase collaboration between schools and teachers (Ministry of Education, 2014). Under the Tomorrow’s Schools reform however, schools were set up to compete. Yet, none of the legislation from the Tomorrow’s Schools reform was amended, despite the conflicting purposes of IES and Tomorrow’s Schools policies. In conclusion then, New Zealand schools have seen a host of changes in the past thirty years, however only the Tomorrow’s Schools reform tackled systemic change rather than a tweaking of the system.  

Despite the many changes that have occurred at the policy level, there are many who argue that even more change is needed. This desire for change in public education is evident in schools and tertiary education, locally and globally (Berry, 2011; Bolstad et al., 2012; Claxton, 2013; K. Facer, 2011; Gilbert, 2005; Lichtman, 2014; Productivity Commission, 2016). There appears to be broad agreement from educators, academics, and the public, that education should be different. However, there is lack of agreement about what is actually needed, and no consensus about how a change might be achieved. For example, the PPTA (post primary teachers association) have argued against Innovative Learning Environments (Post Primary Teachers' Association, 2017) that is now mandated for all new built or refurbished schools in New Zealand (Ministry of Education, 2015). The lack of consensus is also apparent between schools and their communities, between various political parties and even between families.

Is education broken?

Purpose of education

To understand why public education, and in particular schools might need transformation, it is important to first examine its three philosophical purposes. Since inevitably, these act as the measure by which we establish whether public education is in fact, fit for purpose. However, these purposes for education are underpinned by conflicting ideologies that are “fundamentally irresolvable” (Biesta, 2009; Egan, 2001). As a result, these conflicting ideologies contribute tension to public private, political and academic debates where unknowingly, arguments are based on incompatible philosophies. This means that debates about the success of the education system are incapable of reaching a consensus, as different parties inevitably prioritise different purposes of education.  

Generally, we can agree on three common, albeit conflicting purposes for education; Plato’s academic idea, Rousseau’s developmental idea, and socialization (Egan, 2001). Similarly, these are identified by Biesta (2009) as, socialisation, subjectification (development of individual autonomy), and qualification, (acquisition of knowledge and skills). Despite these ideas underpinning most, if not all debates about educational success, they are rarely acknowledged, but instead are assumed. This problem stretches beyond our current dissatisfaction in education, even extending to Aristotle who captures these tensions when he wrote; 
“For in modern times there are opposing views about the tasks to be set, for there are no generally accepted assumptions about what the young should learn, either for virtue or for the best life; nor yet is it clear whether their education ought to be conducted with more concern for the intellect than for the character of the soul. - Aristotle (Thomas, 2013)
Although Biesta (2009) begins to stress the importance of examining the purpose of education within the current political landscape, his argument does not extend to a critique of these ideas, or the extent to which the current system actually meets these goals. Further, whilst the above three ideologies regarding the purpose of education are inherent within current and historical debates around education reform, an argument can be made that education within its current state does not serve any one of these particularly well. Additionally, this argument for potential system failure is amplified when considered in light of emerging global trends, and the Futures literature. In conclusion a case can be made for radical shift within public education, particularly in schools and universities.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Static vs. dynamic knowledge

Essentially, knowledge has become networked, exponential, dynamic and diverse (Weinberger, 2011).

Yet we have a predetermined list of achievement objectives or content, that is static.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A few lessons learnt about collaboration.

Collaboration is one of the core values I uphold in my teaching practice. I encourage it, foster it and make opportunities for it. I seek it out, both for myself and my students. You see, for me, collaboration is the only feasible answer to the wicked problems that plague our world. For example, neither poverty, inequality, or climate change will make any shift in a positive direction without collaboration. Take climate change for example, the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Transport would certainly need to get involved with each other to reduce emissions.  They would have to coordinate with some marketing and mass media messaging teams. What about trade and export? How about consumer labelling? Car manufacturers? A wicked problem is not solvable by a few homogenous people. Instead, at its very core is the challenge of bringing together people with diverse interests and potentially even priorities. And our world is riddled with wicked problems.

We have created these wicked problems, and if we are to help our students navigate and potentially even resolve the complexities of these wicked problems, then they will need to be able to collaborate at a level and scale that few of us have done before.

My focus on collaboration goes beyond my lofty ideals too. There are also piles of research that link collaboration with engagement, and with learning! While for students it has shown to improve both their engagement and their performance (particularly in maths), for teachers we have seen that the absence of a collaborative culture can lead to disengagement (and even low retention rates).

But what do I mean by collaboration? Much has been written about collaboration, and whilst I am no expert, I have come to establish some very clear boundaries in terms of what collaboration means to me, and what it does not.
To me,
  • Collaboration is creating something together that none of us could have created on our own (even given the time). 
  • Collaboration is complex (in the complexity theory sense). You cannot make predictions of what the outcome will be, because you cannot know the outcome of it before you start. New possibilities emerge from your interactions.
  • Collaboration is embracing diversity to create new possibilities and combinations.

But, I also think that,
  • Collaboration is not delegating. And cooperating is not collaboration either. This is task sharing, it is not creating together. That said, sometimes we might delegate or cooperate in our collaboration process. It is just that delegation is not a synonym for collaboration. When we cooperate, the parts are doing different things that fit together into a whole, like doing the chores. Tonight I will do the dishes while you the the laundry. When we collaborate, the parts fit together to create something more than the whole. In other words, the sum of the parts is bigger than the whole. 

Collaboration then is a series of interactions that attempt to nudge in a particular direction, leading to emergent possibilities. Or in less big words, collaboration is the interactions between people, trying to work towards a common purpose, leading to the creation of possibilities beyond what any one of those people could have imagined on their own.

As we all know however, collaboration can be tricky business. There are too many variables to control all of them. People have varied priorities, emotions and egos to juggle. It usually takes more time than what we thought, and almost always takes more time than what we have available. Frequently, everyone doesn’t always contribute equally because sometimes one person slacks off, or one person takes over and does all the work. Everyone isn’t always accountable; some people miss deadlines whilst others will work deep into the night to make sure they do meet the group’s deadline. And so, these missed deadlines lead to resentment in the group. What’s more, there are also all kinds of social and cultural power dynamics at play. For example, women tend to be interrupted more, and their ideas are often taken more seriously when the same ideas are suggested by a man. The series of challenges is endless.  How then, do we help our students navigate this infinitely complex space more effectively than we have in the past?

Over the past two years, I have been experimenting with various strategies in my classroom to help students deal with the complexity of collaboration. Below are a few of the key ideas and the strategies that support them that I have tried.

  • Design tasks that require collaboration, not just cooperation.
    It is human nature to take the path of least resistance. Hence, if collaboration is not necessary, why would you do it? Hence, tasks where students are asked to collaborate should be designed with enough complexity and richness to require collaboration for success. In this way, students have to deal with the barriers of collaboration, rather than someone taking over a task and doing it all themselves. This might be done my designing tasks that draw on interdisciplinary skills. For example, solve this really complex maths problem, and then communicate the thinking process in a visually engaging way. It requires the ‘maths expert’ to communicate and share their maths problem solving, whilst it requires the ‘design expert’ to make sense of the ‘maths expert’ thinking. The ‘design expert’ has to work with the ‘maths expert’ to then translate the maths thinking into a visual story, and the ‘maths expert’ to continue checking the visual story for the maths. 
  • Choose authentic tasks in the real world that have accountability beyond the classroom.Schools have a tendency to over simplify things (I could write a whole book about this alone). However, in the real world things are often more complex than the contrived simplified tasks we give students at school. Authentic contexts amplify the complex and requires students to practice navigating these. When there are too many variables for one person to control, they have to give up some control if they are to be successful. And further, authentic contexts usually mean authentic stakeholders. It requires students to move beyond what ‘they want’ towards meeting the needs of others. In order to collaborate, it is key that we are able to make sense of the needs of others, rather than becoming trapped by our own ideas and paradigms. This might look like working with a local business to design a product for them. It would require students to identify the needs and constraints of the business, and design from their perspective. Ideally, you would also then weave it the many elements this involves, including marketing, food costs, profit margins, etc.
Year 9s and 10s designed games for the year 7s and 8s to teach them about climate change.
  • Drawing on diversity should be a requirement for success.If a task could be easily completed by one person working by themselves, the task was not complex enough. However, when students have to draw on the diversity of others to be successful, it sends a message that diversity is a resource and is valuable. As a result, students are required to find ways to work with diversity, rather than to avoid it.

    One of the ways that I attempt to help students use diversity as a resource is in the way roles are assigned to group members. Rather than students being assigned particular roles in groups, for example, time keeper, scribe, etc. students instead identify the strength or expertise they bring to the group, and this becomes the contribution they make. This moves away from delegating tasks for the convenience of ‘easy’ teamwork, but instead recognises that each participant in a group brings diverse expertise and the roll of the group is to seek ways to draw out that expertise to connect and recombine it with the common purpose of the group. In the past, I have set this up more diverse groups by identifying four groups of skills relevant to a rich task in class, such as people skills, creative skills, problem solving skills, planning skills. Students then have to choose a skill group with which they most strongly associate. Groups are then constructed to contain a mix of the different skills groups.

    Other ways I have done gone about this is to ask the class to complete a Google Form that creates a mini profile for them based on the range of skills needed for completing a task (for example). I then choose group leaders. These leaders are then put around a board room table in a private room away from the rest of the class. The group leaders are provided with the profiles of the class and are then asked to assign the class to groups, so that each group contains an appropriate mix of skills. Usually they are also provided with additional parameters such as must contain a mix of genders. I really enjoy using this strategy because it pushes students to work with more diverse students who might be on the periphery of their friendship circles.

  • Acknowledge and embrace the complexity.
    It is important that students know that collaboration is not always smooth sailing, but that what is more important, is working through the turbulence. In other words, we actually need to teach students strategies for managing dysfunctional groups (I would hazard a guess that we have all at some stage been part of a dysfunctional team, and probably could have managed it better). This highlights that collaboration is not without challenges, but rather about working through the challenges. We emphasise that we area learning to collaborate, and that is one of the major learning objectives of the lesson.

    One of the ways that I show students how to navigate a dysfunctional group is by making it more explicit and normalising the challenges so that students can recognise it, and deal with it. At the start of a group work session, we often unpack the issues we encounter when working with diverse people in a group. We write them on the board and make them explicit so that they can be recognised. We then discuss strategies for dealing with these challenges. We then identify one or two strategies and all focus on trying it out in the group session for that lesson. We then reflect on its use. Next lesson, we might introduce another strategy or keep practicing using an existing one. Some of these strategies include identifying a group member who is off task, and then rather than asking them to get back on task, ask them to help you with a really specific but easy task. Often group members don’t contribute not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how to. Or when a student is struggling to contribute in a group, give them the pen/laptop/etc. This means that they dictate the pace, rather than the group members who dominate by taking over and doing all the work. This often means the conversation slows down and becomes more inclusive. If a student is taking over, ask them not to use the pen/laptop/etc, but instead focus on communicating their ideas to the group. This means they have to communicate their thinking with their group members, rather than their group members simply sitting around watching them do all the work.
  • Recognise the roll of communication in collaboration, and facilitate and develop it.One of the challenges with collaboration is communication. Unless we can actually get our ideas out on the table, they remain confined to our own thinking. Getting our idea out on the table makes them available for others to play with, to recombine with their own, to develop. Knowing what questions to ask, to draw out another’s thinking is a key aspect in facilitating collaboration. In the classroom, this has involved teaching students to use question cards (actually intended for teachers to better draw out student thinking), to draw out each other’s thinking in discussions. It has helped students not only have deeper discussions and get their ideas out on the table, but it has also allowed them to have conversations with more diverse peers.

Without question, there is so much to this collaboration can of worms that I can't even begin to touch on here. The thing about collaboration, precisely because of its complexity, is that it is fertile grounds for exploration, experimentation and trying new things. It is ambiguous and sometimes just plain hard. But it is also the complexity of collaboration that keeps me coming back to it as a key ingredient for a more hopeful future. And although I am no expert in collaboration, I hope that my enthusiasm for exploration in this space, might make some contribution to the collaborative possibilities that my students might navigate in their future.