Thursday, December 17, 2015

"...the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

The only thing we do know about the future is that is is uncertain. It surprises us. In our own lives and society, we know that unexpected challenges, problems and opportunities arrive. People and society is faced with everything from poverty and abuse to ISIS, climate change and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornados. This doesn't even begin to talk about the uncertainty that we have about where technology will take us next. If for just one day, you were not allowed to use any technology that was invented in the last 15 years, what would your day look like? There would be no Facebook, no iPhone, so I would actually have to take a GPS with me. There would be no Netflix. Wait, there would be no YouTube. There would be no Wikipedia. Things are getting serious now. I would probably have to listen to a CD - oh the limitations to my playlist size! Scrutinise any part of your day, and you will notice the enormous influence that technology has had on our lives. Would we have been able to predict twenty years ago just how great the role of technology in our lives would be? You could try and argue with me, but if you just think about how many power outlet points there are in any given room in a house built this year compared to a house built twenty years ago...
"When contradictions, complexity and chaos
 combine with accelerating change the only
definite outcome is uncertainty"

Ziauddin Sardar sums up the ideas of uncertainty and complexity in today's day and age beautifully in his must read article, Welcome to the postnormal times; "When contradictions, complexity and chaos combine with accelerating change the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

It seems strange that the only thing we really do know about the future, is that it is riddled with uncertainty. Yet, in schools we seem to do little about preparing students for uncertainty. Instead, we give students timetables to tell them where to be every minute of their day. We tell them the learning objective at the start of the lesson so that they know what to expect and what to learn. We teach to a test or assessments, and we get upset if the questions surprise us. As teachers, we prepare our lessons, plan them out. In fact, how many schools and departments have the planning for the whole year ahead laid out, bit by bit? We are available to help students out when they get stuck. We tell student which strategies to use, what books to read and what thoughts to think. Before students learn to think about uncertain student finances, babies and children, political instability, we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Then we ask them to make enormous investments in degrees that may or may not be useful as the market is too uncertain to know what will actually be useful. We help students believe that they just need to stick to the plan, and the all will be OK. There is no shortage of articles and research available about the disjoints between education and the workforce, both at a school and higher education level. Is it just me, or are the things that we teach, the ways we teach, actually doing the complete opposite of preparing students for coping with the unexpected and uncertain? And that's without getting me started on the helicopter parents!

I often hear teachers and parents talk about preparing students for the future. However I wonder if we have really thought about what this means. Does it mean teaching and learning of Shakespeare and Pythagoras as we have always done? But much like the economic ideas of continuous growth, that we perhaps try to do it better? Does it mean that we teach students coding and robotics? Perhaps it means that our schools should teach with devices, type those essays on Google Docs? Perhaps even collaborating on a Google Doc? Does it mean that we focus on things such as collaboration, problem solving, creativity, innovation?

So what then does teaching for and with uncertainty look like? It seems fitting that I am uncertain! However, my current approach to uncertainty involves rapid iteration and deep reflection. Hence, here are some of the things that I have tested and tried with various levels of success over the past year:

  • Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC: You might wonder what these two have in common... As I see it, Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC are problem solving approaches. Where Design Thinking uses empathy to solve problems, science and maths uses objectivity to solve problems. By teaching using these (and other) approaches side by side, I hope that my students begin to understand processes of problem solving, rather than simply looking for an answer. I hope that they learn to distinguish between the pros and cons of problem solving approaches, and learn to apply each approach accordingly. Or perhaps even to mix approaches when the moment is right.  In class, we explicitly discuss problems together and talk about what the best problem solving approach might be. 
  • When teaching maths in particular, sometimes I give impossible problems. Problems that can not be solved because I did not give enough information. Or sometimes I give problems with too much information. Sometimes I give problems that I have not yet taught the skills for. These problems are usually followed by reflections where we discuss our responses to uncertainty. Some of us get defensive, some of us act like we know when in fact we don't (and then sound very ignorant!), some of us simply give up, get distracted or even get angry. We talk about what might have been a better approach. We talk about what we could have done, alternative approaches. 
  • For some time now, I have also been an a fan of programmes such as Art Costa's Habits of Mind. This approach gives students strategies for 'knowing what to do when you don't know what to do'. It enables students to coach themselves through challenges by having strategies to draw on when they don't know what to do. 
  • Simulations: This year I was fortunate enough to co-teach with Steve Mouldey. Together, we ran an alien planet invasion simulation in class where students had to make decisions for themselves in a highly complex environment. This meant that students had to deal with real uncertainty and complexity on the fly. Without a doubt, this was some of the most powerful learning I have ever seen for a group of students. You can read more about this simulation here

Of course, as most of my experiments in the classroom goes, they only raise more questions...

  • If schools valued the ability to cope and thrive in uncertainty, would they want to measure it? How would it be measured?
  • What other approaches could I try to help my students cope and thrive in uncertainty? What does best practice for teaching and learning with uncertainty look like? Can there even be best practice for uncertainty?
  • How do my students feel about uncertainty? Do they feel as uncomfortable 'not knowing' as the adults?
  • Are teachers able and willing to work in a space where they don't 'know', a space where they too are uncertain? Are teachers able to challenge and redefine their identity as the one who 'knows' the answer? 
  • Why is uncertainty so uncomfortable? Why is uncertainty often associated with the negative rather than the positive? 
  • Is it foolish to be/act certain about the future?
With so many more questions, it would appear the the only thing I am certain about is that uncertainty is a key to thinking about Education Futures. Perhaps you are more certain than I? How do you think we might prepare students for a society fundamentally different than ours, so different that we can not know what to prepare them for? How do you think we might prepare students for uncertainty? Or perhaps, you think we shouldn't? 

Friday, December 11, 2015

I think, therefore I am - That time my Teaching as Inquiry went a little wonky.

The school year is drawing to a close so it seems appropriate that I wrap up my Teaching as Inquiry project for the year.


Focussing Inquiry: "In the focusing inquiry, teachers identify the outcomes they want their students to achieve. They consider how their students are doing in relation to those outcomes, and they ask what their students need to learn next in order to achieve them."

Although I did my teacher training in New Zealand, my first teaching role was in Ramsgate, England. From there I went on to Albany Junior High School where we had students from year seven to year ten. In 2013 I joined Hobsonville Point Secondary School as a foundation staff member where we started with only year nine students and have gradually grown from there. What all of this leads up to is the fact that I have never taught at NCEA level. Although I am a mega professional learning junkie, doing copious amounts of professional reading, attending conferences and even doing some more formal university study, this does of course not guarantee that my practice will allow my students academic success at NCEA. As passionate as I am about authentic learning experiences, creativity, problem finding and solving, diversity, sustainability, how do I know that these values, my philosophical approach to teaching and learning, will also lead my students to have success within the qualifications systems? I am a huge advocate for teaching with dispositions, in particular Art Costa's Habits of Mind, and our very own Hobsonville Habits. In my opinion, this provides students with the means to become life long learners, to build growth mindsets. It provides students with a toolset for managing their own learning, for finding and solving problems, but also to become more thoughtful in their actions.

In my practice, I am also constantly seeking to increase student engagement, to move from a covering content approach, to helping my students become curious, eager to learn more, keen to question, to think deeper. I want my students to keep learning without me, I would rather be the spark to their fire than the fuel. I want my students to want to learn. I want my students to have, hopes, dreams, ambitions, and to pursue these with their hearts and minds aligned. I want my students to have authentic learning experiences so that they feel empowered to contribute and make a difference in their world, so that they know that they can build the futures they want, both for themselves and the world. Over this year, I have also increasingly realised that I want my students to embrace diversity, able to collaborate, able to build and draw on the strengths of others. I want my students to have empathy, for the world and community, for perspectives different than their own.
As great as these goals and aspirations might be, my students still need to gain qualifications. They need these to move on to their careers of choice, to universities and more. Qualifications in today's world are usually the entrance ticket, even though once you get in they may not necessarily provide much value (this is a blog post for another day...). Hence, one of my professional goals for this year, but also the focus for my Teaching as Inquiry project became:
How might I ensure that I am deeply challenging my learners to promote further learning that leads to pathways for academic success?

Teaching Inquiry: "In this teaching inquiry, the teacher uses evidence from research and from their own past practice and that of colleagues to plan teaching and learning opportunities aimed at achieving the outcomes prioritised in the focusing inquiry."

Many educators around New Zealand will undoubtedly talk about their love for SOLO Taxonomy as a way to help students towards success in their qualifications. This thinking Taxonomy scaffolds deeper thinking in a clear, easy to understand way. Pam Hook has a phenomenal amount of resources, books, Pinterest boards and more. My colleagues here at Hobsonville Point Secondary also bring an enormous amount of expertise in this area, in particular Cindy Wynn and Megan Peterson. There are also those colleagues across the country such as Matt Nicoll and Mel Moore whom I have watched carefully over the years in regards to their use of SOLO Taxonomy. In the context of this inquiry, SOLO Taxonomy could be used as a tool to scaffold students towards speaking the 'assessment language', as well as the assessment for learning tool that it was intended to be.

As well as SOLO taxonomy and the associated assessment for learning practices, we also know from John Hattie's work that feedback has a huge impact on student achievement. "Self reported grades comes out at the top of all influences. Children are the most accurate when predicting how they will perform. In a video Hattie explains that if he could write his book Visible Learning for Teachers again, he would re-name this learning strategy “Student Expectations” to express more clearly that this strategy involves the teacher finding out what are the student’s expectations and pushing the learner to exceed these expectations. Once a student has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, he or she gains confidence in his or her learning ability." - source.

Of course, if academic success with the the NCEA framework was my goal, it was also important that I familiarise myself with the standards, the clarification documents and assessment conditions. It was important that I had a go at writing my own tasks, and completing the assessments myself. Of course the NCEA workshops also contributed here.

Teaching and Learning:


I used many rubrics throughout the past year. The one above was inspired by Austin Kleon's Show Your Work and the ongoing maths teacher frustration around students showing their working. This allowed students to self assess their working for problems, independent of whether their answer was correct or not. This saw a marked improvement in students communicating their thinking. I even went as far as designing a task where each question already had the answer directly underneath and the students simply had to give the working. It was a great activity to see where students were in their thinking. You can see the task here.You can also see a range of rubrics that I have constructed over the year here.

SOLO Taxonomy tools:
One of my favourite SOLO Taxonomy tools are the hexagons. Each hexagon has one key concept and students are asked to find connections between the hexagons. This is a great tool to help students consider how concepts, key words or ideas relate. 

Another SOLO Taxonomy Tool that I have used extensively are SOLO Hot Maps. Pam Hook Shares the templates and rubrics for these on her Wiki. These are great tools for helping students to build a more comprehensive understanding of concepts. It also helps student to go deeper in their thinking.

Developing my own SOLO Taxonomy inspired tools:

Throughout the year I also developed some of my own tools using the thinking behind SOLO and Hattie's work around feedback and reflection, and marrying them up with some other ideas that I had encountered over the year. Some of these include developing a Describe++ Rose Bud Thorn Thinking Map inspired by design thinking and a Data Feelings Impact thinking map inspired by a Complexity Theory leadership book called Simple Habits for Complex Times. Other tools I developed include the Super-gons and the Reflexagons. While Super-gons were an expanded version of the SOLO Hexagons where students had to write a PEEL paragraph about key words/ideas and then write explanations for the links, Reflexagons were aimed to help students gain a more comprehensive understanding of a large topic or idea. 

Students constructing their Super-gons

Learning Inquiry: "In this learning inquiry, the teacher investigates the success of the teaching in terms of the prioritised outcomes, using a range of assessment approaches. They do this both while learning activities are in progress and also as longer-term sequences or units of work come to an end. They then analyse and interpret the information to consider what they should do next."

Although I have undoubtedly increased my repertoire of teaching tools and strategies, and improved my understanding of NCEA, I felt that more often than not, I was not actually making much progress towards my goal. In fact, I frequently felt that I was doing something 'wrong' in my Inquiry because I still felt little confidence in my ability to help students achieve academic success. Being incredibly stubborn however, means that I could just not let it go. I kept banging my head against the goal that I had set for myself, trying to break through whatever was leading to my lack of confidence. It was not until the last few weeks that things really clicked into place as to 'why' I have felt this way.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege of working with Jane Gilbert in the area of Education Futures, as well as working at Hobsonville Point Secondary where I am actually able to test these academic ideas in practice. This has meant that I have grappled with the purpose of education, what knowledge is in a schooling context, and how knowledge is changing. This has meant that I have had more than a few existential crises this year. I feel real empathy for Descartes and his thoughts around whether anything is real! Once I started really questioning 'why' we teach things, and why we teaching things in certain ways, things really started unraveling. 

I increasingly found myself struggling to consolidate what I felt was important with what was required for success within the assessment criteria of NCEA tasks. What if students showed some powerful, deep and meaningful learning however there were no standards to recognise this? Where are the standards that recognise a student who can recognise and apply the unique approaches of learning areas (disciplines), can negotiate between what each learning area offers and then bring them together to consider problems and concepts in a new way? You know, the way Climate Change as a fields transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires climatologists, mathematicians, sociologists, and more to make sense of ideas together?
More and more questions arose... Why are things like knowing about the carbon cycle assessed, but collaboration is not? Why did I feel that little if no understanding of the Nature of Science was needed for achieving at NCEA when this was the compulsory aspect of the science curriculum? You may have read my recent blog post about my issues with exams too.

Even just the word 'standard' started to annoy me. Although I appreciate that we need some measure of success, I feel increasingly conflicted with the idea that all students should 'know' the same things. Our students are so diverse, so talented and interested in areas outside of these 'standards' that I struggle to ask them to fit in within the standards. I am far more interested in developing my students' capacity to explore, make sense, think deeply and broadly, find and solve problems, make the world a better place than to ensure that my students meet a standard.
As it turns out, I think my personal philosophies clash with the approach that I sometimes need to help my students succeed academically. It took most of this year and feeling incompetent multiple times to come to this realisation. Often, I felt that it was simply because I was incompetent. I don't think this is the case... I am pretty sure that I could just teach to a standard, but why on earth would I want to do that?

I have to give a huge shoutout to Jill MacDonald here. Jill is the Learning Area Leader for Maths at Hobsonville Point and she has done a huge amount of thinking around how maths might look different. She has been relentless in her support this year as I worked through making sense of this NCEA business. It is thanks to Jill that I feel that I can somehow consolidate my personal philosophies with NCEA. It was Jill that helped me to recognise how easily the mathematics standards could map to the learning my students were doing. As for science, I am still working on reconciling. However, some little high flying birds told me that I was not alone in my feelings that some of the science standards do not necessarily map to the intent of the curriculum. No wonder it made me feel so frustrated! 

This has been a particularly tough Teaching as Inquiry project, however on reflection, I am very proud of it. How often do we really challenge our own assumptions and thinking in our Teaching as Inquiries? How often do we simply modify our practice without actually revealing or thinking about our hidden commitments? How often do we really examine our theory-in-use? I really appreciate those people that have helped me to do this, in particular Jill MacDonald for her leadership and support at school to make sense of NCEA related things, Matt Nicoll for blogging his rethink of the year eleven science programme, and Megan Peterson for her expertise both with NCEA and Assessment for Learning. Of course, my supervisory Jane Gilbert who regularly turns my brains to scrambled eggs with different ways of thinking. There are of course many others too!

Where to next you might ask? 

Well, the way I see it, I have on of two options. Option one is to investigate the use of e-portfolios as a means of assessing student learning more holistically. Option two is to show evidence of student learning that completely knocks the socks right of NZQA and the Ministry of Education. I guess 2016 will be another interesting year!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are exams an anachronism?

As exam season for schools and universities around the country draws to a close, I find myself (again) reflecting on the purpose, point and goals of exams. Hence, I have a few questions for Mr Exam. I would appreciate if someone could pass the questions on. Or at least speculate on what his answers might be.

  • Why should students attempt to 'prove' their understanding in an artificial context? What is the point of recalling facts and skills in an artificial environment? Would you go into a meeting or a presentation at work without your notes? You can take notes into a job interview. When solving complex problems at work you are certainly not expected to solve them from memory! We do careful research, we collaborate, we seek feedback, we refine. When I have struggled with particular aspects of a role, I often make notes for myself. I check over them to help me complete the task. I struggle to understand why students should be expected to recall without notes, without their peers, without context and without an authentic purpose? When you have to use recall for your drivers licence test, there is a purpose. What is the point of recall in exams?

  • Do exams value recall or deep thinking? All of the most profound moments of realisation, understanding, application in my life, and I am betting yours, did not happen in exams. It involved deeply thinking in light of new experiences, information, discussion and so forth. Does this mean that exams are not about thinking? Perhaps they are about regurgitating and recalling your thinking? Although, I suspect it might also be about recalling someone else's thinking and not your own.
  • Do exams value efficiency or efficacy, quality? When students are given contrived time limits to recall and apply facts, skills, etc. are we suggesting that it is how fast you are able to do things, not how well? Are we suggesting that learning, Knowledge, skills, capabilities can be packaged into two and three hour blocks?
  • How can we possibly allow for diversity when we are expecting a whole country to sit the same exams? There are piles of research about the euro-centric approach in education, and piles about Maori and Pacifica frequently not 'achieving' at the same rate off pakeha (New Zealand European). This phenomenon is evident in other countries with indigenous peoples too. By making a whole country, district, class, year level sit the same exam, by standardising, are we ignoring cultural capital? Are we suggesting that cultural capital does not matter in academia? Why should all students know and think the same things? Does standardisation ignore and devalue diversity? 

  •  Are exams about equity or equality? All students are expected to write the external 'English exam' or 'Maths exam' at the same time, regardless of what is going on for them in their life. +Ros MacEachern gives a great example from her last school where students were leaving exams early because they were hungry. How many other factors like this is going on? Is that fair?
  • Are we assessing their writing or their understanding? All students, regardless of their strengths, preferences, cultural traditions, personal experiences, family situations and so forth at expected to 'write' exams. They have to give written explanations of their understanding. All teachers know students who can give incredible verbal explanations but struggle to do so in writing. We all learn differently, communicate differently yet exams seem to ignore this? Where do exams make space for different modes of thinking, learning and communicating?
  • How do exams help to build a better future? The value that we attach to exams, explicitly, implicitly and tacitly, are they actually making the world a better place? What values are they instilling in students? What are they teaching students, the community and families to value? What are they teaching about how we assess and individual? What are they teaching about what matters about an individual? Or about a group?

As far as I can tell, exams are not about learning, not about thinking and not about Knowledge. So what is the point? Are they just an an anachronism? A tool from a past age where standardisation was more valued than diversity? Where Knowlege was confined to the pages of linear books rather than the multi-dimensional reality of the real world? If the purpose of exams were about learning and thinking, how would they be different? Are we still making kids and students write exams because coming up with something better has simply been lumped into the too hard basket? 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Buzzword Bingo presentation

I did a presentation recently at a maths day called Buzz Word Bingo  - thought I would share the slides!

Buzzword Bingo - personalised learning, modern learning practice and environments, collaboration, student agency, BYOD, etc.

What are all the buzzwords really about? Why does there seem to be so much non-stop change in education? Why does it seem like we are constantly needing to teach more and more things? Why does it seem like often we just can't keep up anymore? This session will bring together academic arguments and take a look at the practical implications for the department and classroom. Are these all just fads, or is there more to the story?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why bother with change in education?

My latest Core Education EDtalk. Thanks to all the great thinkers, academics, practitioners and more who have developed my thinking in this area. If you want to know more, I highly recommend you read some of the following:
  • Too Big to Know - Weinberger, D. (2011). Too Big to Know. New York: Basic Books.
  • Learning futures: Education, technology and social change - Facer, K. (2011). Learning futures: Education, technology and social change. Taylor & Francis.
  • Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the future of education - Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the future of education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand Perspective - Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand Perspective: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy - Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2012). Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press.

Monday, November 9, 2015

My masters: Using MOOCs and complexity thinking to disrupt current debates on educational futures.

As many of you will know, for some time now I have been dabbling in post graduate studies. Although for some time I thought that I might examine some aspect of mathematics education, a chance meeting with the legendary Jane Gilbert in February this year saw me change my mind. I ditched my previous proposals (which fortunately was still very useful in learning how to use words like ontology and epistemology). Although I have met some fascinating and knowledgeable researchers and academics over the past few years, Jane was the first that genuinely listened with intent to the story of #edchatNZ and my passion for bringing about change in the education system. I talked about my hope to develop a MOOC (massive open online course) to deepen the many wonderful discussions I had seen on #edchatNZ. So, together we have embarked on a very exciting project - designing a MOOC examining Education Futures, and then studying what happens. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and one that even early on in this project, has turned my thinking inside out and on its head, inside out and back around. Like all things #edchatNZ, you can sign up to help build and design, or participate in the discussion. Even better, would be if you chose to participate, if you invited friends parents and colleagues. The larger the community that takes part in discussions about education futures, the more likely that we will see the changes that we so desperately know our students need. You can learn more about the MOOC on the #edchatNZ website, as well as sign up for more information or to participate in its design.

For those of you who are interested in the more academic side of things, below is part of the more formal research proposal for this project.

Major changes in the world beyond education have led to calls for a more “future-focused” education system: however, change has so far been slow or small in scale. This project plans to investigate one possible way to bring about the required change on a larger scale. It will explore the extent to which participants in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) talk to colleagues about ideas they are exposed to, and what these conversations are like. It will also explore the extent to which participants’ thinking (about education) changes as they experience the MOOC. 

Major world trends including the rise of technology, globalisation, networked knowledge and the increasing urgency of “wicked problems” such as climate change have led many to argue for change in education (e.g. Berry, 2011; Bolstad et al., 2012; Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2012; Claxton, 2013; Gilbert, 2005; Snyder, 2013). We also know that the way our young people interact with the world via technology is very different from any previous generation (Collins & Halverson, 2010; Gardner & Davis, 2014), and that the nature of knowledge, the traditional foundation of education, is also shifting (Biesta, 2007; Cope & Phillips, 2009; Gardner & Davis, 2014; Weinberger, 2011). However, despite this, change in education is slow, often non-existent. Many authors argue that our education system and its underpinning ideas have not co-evolved with the wider society, and, as a result, are no longer “fit for purpose” (e.g. Berry, 2011; Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2012; Collins & Halverson, 2010; Gilbert, 2005; Weinberger, 2011). Unless shift is generated across the network, our education system’s capacity to meet the needs of today’s students will continue to decline. 

While there have been many attempts at reform in education, most of these attempts have been “top down” approaches, involving new “inputs” into the system (new policies, structures, technologies, curriculum, pedagogical approaches, and/or assessment systems). While these approaches may result in superficially new forms of organisation and/or new ways of talking about what happens in the system, they have not produced the kind of system-wide change that is needed (Snyder, 2013). New approaches are needed. 

According to Forte, Humphreys, and Park (2012), educators who belong to, and regularly participate in, professional sharing and discussion in social networks are more likely to participate in reform efforts. Daly (2010) shows that specific subgroups within a network such as education can inhibit or lend support for overall strategies as they are made up of more densely connected networks. This project’s aim is to explore the possible influence of these networks and subgroups on the system as a whole. While some work has been done in this area, it has (so far) been small in scale (and therefore unlikely to affect system wide change), or unable to foster the kind of in-depth interaction and thinking required (for example, the various Twitter-based professional networks available to educators).

This project’s starting point is the idea that change will not come from adding more “inputs” - more administration, more policy, more ideas, and more processes - into the existing system. Rather, change has to come from within the system. Hence, the focus of this project is a within-system initiative designed to produce more – and deeper - interactions between the system’s elements. The idea is that this increased interaction will produce a shift in the way teachers think about education, across the system, and, following from this, new ways of working with past “inputs”. This within-system initiative is the proposed MOOC.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) became popular in 2012 (Daniel, 2013). These free or low cost university courses allow open access to knowledge traditionally only available in formal university degree programmes. MOOCs potentially allow large numbers of people, irrespective of location and/or circumstances, to participate in discussion and engagement with complex ideas.

This project involves developing a MOOC that is designed to make available some “big ideas” about education’s future, and to encourage participants to discuss these ideas with others. The research part of the project is designed to investigate the extent to which exposure to, and debate about, the ideas affects participants’ thinking about education. 

Research Questions
  1. Do participants who have voluntarily enrolled in a MOOC discuss the ideas they are exposed to in the MOOC with colleagues and/or family and friends?
  2. If they do, how in-depth/ extensive are these conversations?
  3. Do these experiences change the way they think about education?
The broader context is to investigate the potential of MOOCs for facilitating within-system change. 

  • Berry, B. (2011). Teaching 2030: What we must do for our students and our public schools: Now and in the future. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Biesta, G. (2007). Towards the knowledge democracy? Knowledge production and the civic role of the university. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 26(5), 467-479. doi: 10.1007/s11217-007-9056-0
  • Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand Perspective: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2012). Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press.
  • Claxton, G. (2013). What's the point of school?: Rediscovering the heart of education. London: Oneworld Publications.
  • Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2010). The second educational revolution: rethinking education in the age of technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 18-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00339.x
  • Cope, B., & Phillips, A. (2009). Signs of epistemic disruption: transformations in the knowledge system of the academic journal The Future of the Academic Journal: Elsevier Science.
  • Daly, A. J. (2010). Social Network Theory and Educational Change: Harvard Education Press.
  • Daniel, J. (2013). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Open Education Research, 3(006). 
  • de Waard, I., Abajian, S., Gallagher, M. S., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., Koutropoulos, A., & Rodriguez, O. C. (2011). Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(7). 
  • Forte, A., Humphreys, M., & Park, T. (2012). Grassroots Professional Development: How Teachers Use Twitter Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Sixth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.
  • Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2014). The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the future of education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Snyder, S. (2013). The simple, the complicated, and the complex: educational reform through the lens of complexity theory. OECD Publishing, 96. 
  • Weinberger, D. (2011). Too Big to Know. New York: Basic Books.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Stop pretending that you know!

I have been grappling with what the Knowledge explosion has meant for the curriculum, in other words, what we teach and how we teach it. +Rose Hipkins and Jane Gilbert independently drew my attention recently to how frequently as teachers we still say things like 'learning about electricity' ... Learning facts is no longer enough. As teachers, we need to be careful when we still treat knowledge as something we have and our students do not, something that we have to impart to our students. I find that often I still catch myself thinking and doing things that suggests that my theory-in-action and espoused theory are not quite as aligned as I would like. The question that I keep asking myself at the moment (and my students...); Google knows 'about' stuff, what can you do with this knowledge that Google can't? In other words, what value do I add that Google does not? And I'm not talking about fruitlloop websites here, I'm talking scholarly articles, encyclopaedias, scientists, government organisations etc.

Then, to add another layer to my ongoing subject teacher identity crisis (see this blog post here), I am increasingly becoming aware of students whose expertise far exceed mine in different areas. And this is, as it should be. My students, and yours, are incredibly diverse and bring with them enormous cultural capital, experiences and knowledge. I am not the (only) font of knowledge. For example, I have a student with a huge interest in quantum particles and another with a knack for asking incredibly insightful questions and representing his research with infographics. I have a passionate basketballer and an aspiring race car driver who spends huge amounts of time volunteering at the racecourse.

On top of this is the fact that the internet has made the boundaries that we have put between silos of disciplines increasingly artificial. We filter forward rather than out.
Expertise was topic based - Books focus on specific topics because they have to fit between two covers. So, in a book-based world, knowledge looks like something that divides into masterable domains. … topics don’t divide up neatly. They connect messily. While people of course still develop deep expertise, the networking of those experts better reflects the overall truth that topic boundaries are often the result of the boundaries of paper.” - Too Big to Know by David Weinberger
What does it mean to be a teacher in an age of Knowledge explosion? An age where Google knows better than me, and in many contexts, the students know better than me, even in academic contexts? What does it mean to be a teacher and teach a curriculum, when new disciplines, new fields have been discovered, and others have been disestablished since 'someone' decided what students should learn at what level? Why year elevens should learn linear equations? Why year twelves should learn this, and year nines that? What does it mean to be a teacher in the post-normal times, where the world of people is more complex, more connected, more uncertain? To be a teacher in a world where the existing ways of thinking has produced climate change and inequality? Problems that can only be solved by crossing the boundaries of different disciplines?

It's all a bit daunting isn't it? Fortunately, I am finding that I am increasingly comfortable with uncertainty. The more I think about the future, my future, the world's future, the more I realise that pretending like there is an answer out there that I just have to find, to know, is not helpful. The world and its people are too diverse to assume an answer. I can not 'know' it all, and it is important that I stay humble and stop acting the 'knower' when I can not know. If I approach this uncertainty with an attitude that I or someone else has the answer, I shut myself down to innovation, deep empathetic problem solving and collaboration. There genuinely are situations where we can not know the answer, and it is important that I acknowledge when I am dealing with a situation where I can, and can not be the 'knower'.

But... what does that look like in practice, in a classroom?! Well, this week it looked like 50 students doing their own inquiry into 'create a robot to address a need'. Students started the inquiry independently on Friday with a reliever. From there, Steve, my co-teacher and I, split the class into two groups, those who were able to self manage and make a decent start, and those who did not. Those who struggled to self manage were then supported to work in a quiet space with regular teacher checkins. Those students who were able to self manage then self selected based on their needs into one of three workshops ran by other students. For these workshops, I invited three students to plan a lesson (with a lesson planning template and SOLO rubric) that would help their peers improve their inquiries. In other words, I wanted the three students running the workshops to use their expertise. One student ran her session about data collection from experiments. Another about how to use questions to find unique perspectives in your inquiry and how to present these through infographics. Another on how misconceptions in science can be addressed through different types of video formats with examples from quantum theory. These are year tens...

As I sat and eavesdropped on the conversations from my students, I was reminded just how important it was that I stop thinking that I 'know' more than my students. I know different things than my students, not more. I am an expert in some areas, but they are too. They are 'knowers' too, and it is about time that I move alongside my students, rather than standing in front of them. In front I might just be in their way. So for the time being, I have ditched the labels teacher-centred and student-centred, and instead, I am experimenting with what it means to be a collaborator - building collective intelligence, not just finding new ways to transfer what I know.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The dirtiest word I know is ... why?

image source
*Disclaimer: this post is a somewhat lighthearted take on what is a rather serious professional challenge I am grappling with. 

How many times have situations been allowed to get worse and worse because everyone is too busy being nice to ask the hard questions? Yet, have you ever asked a colleague or parent why they have said something? Or 'what makes you say this?' Or when they give you a reason, ask them a second why? Turns out people don't like it! Or when someone in a Twitter chat is talking about how knowledge is important in teaching and then you ask them what knowledge is... Turns out people don't like that either. Or ask someone what their previous statement says about their beliefs about what it means to be a teacher... and then you are told 'that's too deep'. Why do I keep getting such negative responses to important questions?

Over the years, I have gotten myself in much hot water because I asked questions. In fact, it's one of those if I had a penny situations... But why is this? Why is it that when we get to the juicy and crunchy, and often the most important parts of the conversation, so many of our colleagues get uncomfortable?

We talk about developing our students as questioners. We talk about developing deep thinkers. Yet, my experiences illustrate that although we might say that questioning is good, we don't necessarily believe it - a disjoint between our espoused theory and theory-in-action. Why is it that I could keep a little black book of people who felt uncomfortable with my questions, when as educators we supposedly encourage questioning? This is something I have been trying to make sense of as over and over, why do I get in hot water for asking questions... Hence, I have been speculating about a range of possibilities.

What could be causing the negative responses to my questions? Here is my brain storm (remember this is fuzzy front end, all the ideas, good and bad should be included): 
  • My tone of voice is rude, loud or otherwise obtrusive, obnoxious etc.
  • I interrupt people mid sentence with my questions (yup... I know I do this one... working on it...).
  • I ask my questions at inconvenient times aka. at times or places where they are not appropriate
  • The questions that I ask does not allow the 'teacher/manger as knower' and as such, makes the person feel vulnerable because it challenges their 'identity in that role'
  • The questions I ask challenges long held assumptions that makes the recipient uncomfortable to confront
  • It's irritating if someone says 'why' all the time
  • The groups in which I have worked are uncomfortable with diversity, hence questions that bring dissonance to light makes everyone uncomfortable
  • People don't want to be asked questions that they might not know the answer to
  • My questions are perceived to slow down progress towards quick solutions
  • My questions are perceived to question the individual rather than the idea
  • There are assumptions that it is not my responsibility/role/place to question
  • People really aren't as comfortable with questions as they might like to think
  • My questions are not seen as helpful
  • My needs as a learner (to understand the purpose of things before I do them) have not been communicated to my manager/boss/team
  • My questions are about beliefs (not necessarily religious beliefs) and as such, the person feels uncomfortable having to justify them
  • People think I might be a conspiracy theorist and that's why I ask so many annoying questions
  • Conspiracy theorists don't like being questions because they don't have facts to back up their arguments
  • I am not using all the 'thinking hats' to ask questions
Yup, I am totally flattering myself with some of these assumptions. I am also serious reflecting on how I might ensure that when I ask really crunchy or juicy questions that dig at the heart of matters, how I might ask them in a more 'warm' way. To use Maurie Abraham's phrase, how might I be both warm and demanding? ... Notice how I turned even this professional challenge into a question... "how might I..." I suppose this officially makes me a question junkie right? Perhaps I should just hurry up and get business cards printed, schools could hire me as an education devil's advocate.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Today I walked with giants

Being the learning junkie that I am, this year I have spent a considerable number of hours at conferences and other education related events. Today however, I was invited to be part of the Teach for All Global Conference (Twitter stream at #TFALLGC2015) (see footnote about Teacher or All in New Zealand). And what an experience it was! I walked away from today, feeling honoured that this community included me, and fortunate to have been able to learn from the people who in my opinion, are making the world a better place, in the toughest possible places.

I was honoured to be part of a discussion panel about amplifying teacher voices with Javier the CEO of Empieza por Educar (Teach First NZ's Ecuador equivalent), as well Evan and Sydney, the founders of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) from the United States. Evan and Sydney have an inspirational story. Whilst working in a school, Evan and Sydney increasingly identified what so many teachers across the world know; we know our students and what they need. We know when policies do not serve our communities. Educators are constantly feeling like change is something that is done to them, or for them, but not with them. However, they set out to do something about it. E4E, the organisation they founded, works closely with teachers to develop them as leaders. They empower them to take on leadership roles in their communities, schools and unions to drive towards change. Their organisations now has approximately 17 000 members. I encourage you to find out more about this truly inspirational organisation and get involved if you can.

I also had the opportunity to hear from Deray Mckesson, an educator turned social activist. Deray shared his story of how he uses social media as a form of activism. Deray has been drawing attention to racism that is still ingrained in many places across the United States. What makes Deray's story so inspirational to me is that much like Evan and Sydney who are helping teachers make the changes that they know their students need, Deray saw in injustice in the world, and is doing something about it. His story reminded me of some key things that I wish every educator takes to heart;

  • "In the end we are all equal stakeholders in the community" - It is our communities, it is our cities and our countries, so we should stand up and fight for the changes we want to see in them.
  • "The true story of resistance is important, one person can change things" - You can affect change, get stuck in. At the very least, you should support those people, however you can, that are working towards making the changes you wish to see.
  • "Decisions in democracy are made by the people who show up" - When you choose not to engage with politics and politicians, when you choose to bow out when things get hard, when you choose not to give your support to those who are fighting for your cause, or when you choose not to challenge those in your school who are not serving the best interests of your students, what are you really choosing? 

I was blown away too by Kaya Henderson, too the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. A district that has managed to turn its story around, with graduating rates and rolls increasing for the first time in many many years. Kaya's enthusiasm is infectious, and almost unexpected in a politician, but what is more incredible is her commitment to the community. Kaya spoke about how they actually collaborate with their community, showing the sessions they run with the community where everyone is sitting at tables and actually working on solutions together. Kaya's story has a common ingredient with those of Sydney, Evan and Deray's - collaboration. The power of people working together, getting into the nitty, gritty discussion, solving problems together.

Of course, there were local speakers too, including New Zealand's very own Pita Sharples sharing his journey, fighting for the place of Māori in New Zealand. Francis Valentine and Claire Amos were present too, sharing their vision too.

I am overwhelmed (in a good way), by the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the Teach for All organisation.  Interestingly, the CEOs and other members of the this network who were in attendance today, were all remarkably young, and the organisation and its members hugely diverse. The conference rooms were buzzing with individuals who were not accepting the status quo, not accepting inequality, not accepting poverty. I don't know that I have ever sat in a room surrounded by so many people who feel empowered to make a change in the world for the better, and are doing so.

Reflecting on this incredible experience, I am left wondering today about what I can do to help drive towards system wide change that will not only help the disadvantaged, but help us think about the huge changes happening in the world and what they mean for education. I am incredibly excited about the #edchatNZ MOOC, a project with a rather ambitious mission statement; 'increase the capacity of participants to discuss education futures more frequently, in deeper, more sophisticated ways, whilst taking on a more active, informed role in experimenting with change.' I am currently working on how we might make the critical ideas around Education Futures more accessible and relevant, bringing together academic research and expert practice. Again, I am incredibly fortunate that I get to work on this project alongside Jane Gilbert, and her network of incredible educators and thinkers.

Three years ago today, I started #edchatNZ because I wanted to learn. Again, I realised that thanks to the incredible educators around the world and here at home, every expectation I had has been surpassed. I only hope, that I can give back, that I can empower others as much as others have done for me.

*Teach for All is the network that sits behind Teach First NZ, a programme that was met with considerable resistance here in New Zealand, with comments such as "disadvantaged students deserved experienced and qualified teachers, and should not be treated like guinea pigs" surfacing in the media from prominent education bodies. In fact, you can read about the tensions in the New Zealand Herald article today. Teach First NZ teachers receive 6 week high intensity training before being deployed into a schools with low socio-economic status, disadvantaged children. Yet, there is increasing evidence that this programme is working. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Buzzwords are not enough

Visitors to Hobsonville Point Secondary School's beautiful, new modern learning environment are often distracted by the broad open spaces, the bright furniture. However, visiting the school with students in action leaves one with a completely different experience of a modern learning environment. Here are just two examples from my teaching for term three that illustrates this point.

What's a Squircle?

This module combined visual arts and mathematics. Students were exploring geometric properties of shapes, and using these to create screen prints. Using translation, rotation, reflection and in some cases, enlargement, students have created their own tessellations. Students then took a step further and completed a detailed write up, explaining the mathematical principals behind their work of art. 
Student work from 'What's a Squircle?'

 Age of Ultron

This module combined social sciences and science. Together, we have been looking at some of the ideas that sit behind artificial intelligence. In science, we unpacked some of the ideas around circuits including components of circuits, insulators, conductors, types of circuits etc. In other words, the very basic physical aspects of how machines, including smart machines are constructed. Steve Mouldey, my social science co-teacher for this module looked at the sustainability aspects of the rise of the machine, including automation and smart machines. He touched on ideas around economic, social and environmental sustainability. Student learning experiences in this module included modelling of Moore's law and the related chess board problem (see video and images below). We had the team from Thought-Wired in to talk to our students about machine learning. as well as playing with some breadboards, Arduino and also making some wobblebots (checkout the Mindkits website for gear). We deconstructed old computers and servers. Students have even had a go at constructing various parts of a policy statement for New Zealand regarding Artificial Intelligence. 

Student work from 'Age of Ultron'

So what?

I know that the students in 'Age of Ultron' were not just engaged in deep thinking about current, topical ideas, they were engaging with evolving ideas (we have a timeline constructed in class where we track artificial intelligence news as it is released throughout this module). The students were constructing ideas and questions together in spaces and ways where there is no textbook telling them about a single answer, or how to think. These students were dealing with the true complexity of the real world, not some contrived, oversimplified, fake version, and this includes everything from policy statements, killer robots, and even the ethical and social implications of sex robots. In contrast, the students in 'What's a Squircle?' were using existing knowledge of geometry, translation, rotation, properties of shapes etc. to create new meaning, new ideas, new interpretations. Students were not just replicating a method, they explored a method and applied it to create something completely new. Throughout the process, students were able to experience the real problems that occur when physically applying rational mathematical concepts. Students could recognise how two disciplines could find a way to work together.

Intended as a brief snap shot of my practice from last term, I realise that I could easily have turned this post into a buzzword bingo experience. Maker Ed? Check! Authentic and relevant context? Check! Learning from experts (other than teachers)? Check! Project based learning? Check! Elements of design thinking? Check! Blended learning? Check! Robotics and coding? Check! Assessment for learning? Check. Again, much like only looking at the beautiful modern learning environment spaces of schools like Stonefields, Hobsonville Point or Albany Senior, none of these genuinely capture the true complexity of what is going on. Too often in education, we grab the buzzword by the handle, and we leave the very important thinking, the bulk of the suitcase behind (thanks to Creativity Inc. for this metaphor). We look for answers, for recipes, for programmes, rather than actually engaging with the deeper thinking about what is going on, for our students, in the world, in the future. What would our practice look like if rather than talking trends, rolling out literacy programmes and preparing students for the working world (one that is changing so rapidly that this almost seems meaningless)?

The two modules above certainly tick many of the boxes around modern learning practice. I also know that the students were for the most part, highly engaged, they were learning and enjoying it. But is this enough? I hope that the learning experiences that I design changes the way the students think. I hope that the learning experiences I design enables students to collaborate, not just cooperate. I hope that students can recognise diversity (in people, in information, in knowledge, disciplines, experiences, etc.), learn from, and draw on the strengths and weaknesses. I hope to help students discover their passions, so that they may turn them into purpose. I hope to help students tackle challenges, to create brighter futures for themselves, for each other, and the world. I hope that I awake intellectual curiosity and determination. 

Given these hopes, there is no literacy programme roll out that will cover it, and no buzzword without the bulk of its meaning and context that will allow me success. There is no recipe that will allow me to meet these goals. There is however Dr Seuss; "Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!". Here's to term four being about taking the thinking about my practice to a whole new level. Join me?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Failing outside the car park

Failure is just a first attempt in learning. If you've never failed, you've never lived. “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” - Robert F. Kennedy “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” - Ken Robinson “Giving up is the only sure way to fail.” - Gena Showalter.

There is not shortage of inspirational quotes about failure. There is also no shortage of videos, books, blog posts or magazine articles about it either. Yet, failure still has a punch in the stomach feel to it. We still avoid failure. We minimise failure. We use failsafes so that we are less likely to fail. We help, guide, rescue others so that they do not have to deal with failure. Even as we spout inspirational quotes about failure, we try our best to avoid it.

Recently, I had to venture out of my comfort zone to experience some rather public failure. As a 28 year old, I had to learn to drive a manual car from scratch. Being a fairly competent learner of new things in many other areas, I started with my growth mindset switch engaged, as usual. I even got myself a new set of learner plates for the car, proudly sporting the fact that I was learning something new. My attitude paid off relatively well whilst driving around in my local shopping mall car park. But then, the real world. Stalling whilst trying to pull away at the traffic lights that resulted in many loud honks. Or, not stalling, taking my time to pull away calmly, and still being honked at for taking too long. Having to ask for help from others because I can't take myself for a driving lesson or learn how to drive from Khan Academy (yet). Scratching my new car on my own mailbox in the first week of driving it by myself. All of these events make you feel a bit embarrassed (because I still can't get it right), defensive (because I thought I did the whole sequence of handbrake-clutch-petrol right), argumentative (it's not my fault), angry (I'm just learning here, stop honking at me you stupid people, at least I'm trying) and just a general sense of frustration.

Something as simple (and yes, despite the above I am calling this simple) as learning to drive can be so uncomfortable that we sometimes avoid it (I don't feel like a driving lesson now...). We feel angry and upset about it (especially when I scratched the car). If this is how one might feel about driving, how earth can we take risks in schools when learning to drive is this emotional?! How can we innovate if the second we step out of the car park, we let the cars honking from behind put us off? We often feel safe test driving new ideas and innovations in the safety of a car park, but we get flustered, defensive, aggressive and a range of other feelings when we are honked at outside the car park.

But... Would you have told me to quit learning to drive manual because people were honking at me whilst I was learning? Yet we often seem to quit when cars honk in education.

So what do we do about those honking cars?

I am about mid way through a great book called Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (PS: I am considering buying this book for every leader I know for Christmas, i.e. I think you should read it). One of the ideas from this book that has really struck a chord with me is the idea of safe-to-fail experiments, (as opposed to a failsafe). Where adding in failsafes to a process, we make back up plans and safety nets so that the experiment can not fail us, safe-to-fails do not. Failsafes stop the failure from happening, and in the process, limits the learning. In contrast, a safe-to-fail experiment has no failsafe. In other words, if the experiment fails, we don't 'fix' it, we don't have a back up plan, we literally try something that might fail, and let it fail. It means we learn what happens when it fails. Is that a terrifying idea or what?! Not as terrifying as you might think...

A safe-to-fail experiment is instead, an experiment where if it fails, it is OK, because the purpose of the experiment is to learn. The purpose is not for the experiment to succeed, the purpose is to learn. Again, a scary thought... Shouldn't we be aiming to succeed? Yes! But sometimes, learning is more important. For example, lets say that I would like there to be more diverse perspectives in a particular meeting. A failsafe experiment might see me invite outsiders who I know represent diverse perspectives. Of course, the experiment has a failsafe, I don't want it to go wrong, so I am going to remind them of the events, drop hints, maybe even coach the 'diverse perspectives' a little. I need buy in from some senior managers, it's about being accountable after all. I have also organised some 'back up' people incase my diverse opinions can't make the date. In contrast, safe-to-fail might have me ask questions in the meeting such as 'what other perspectives have we not yet considered?' and 'who has a contrasting opinion about this?'. Then, I would simply sit back and listen to what happens. My little experiment might have worked, it might not have. It doesn't matter, because either way, I will learn more about how the group responds to different perspectives.

It is small, it is safe, and it is just as likely to go wrong as it is likely to go right. But, I will definitely learn from the results. And from there, I might upscale my experiment, because I learnt that the group were very receptive to alternate perspectives. Or, I might learn that the group struggled to generate alternate perspectives so my next experiment might be targeted there. Either way, I know more and so, can make a better decision about where to next, what to try next, what experiment next.

Some people talk about failing forward, I like to think about this as experimenting forward. But more importantly, it might be a means by which in education, a system in which we desperately need and want to see change but we are honked at by parents, politicians, communities who fear failure, we might experiment safely. Maybe, by using safe-to-fail experiments, we might learn to drive outside the car park without being honked at too loudly. And maybe this way, we might learn about the ideas and people that underpin our faculties, our schools and their communities, the relationships that shape and guide them, the tails that wag the dogs. We all know that you can't really solve a problem until you understand it. So, until we really learn about and understand our systems, our initiatives, our ideas, our failsafes will keep resulting in us finding mediocre solutions because we have not really learnt about the problems enough. Our innovations and experiments will be limited in reach, they will be bandaids, not arcs.

PS: I can drive a manual now... outside the car park. Join me?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Subject teacher identity crisis

I was super excited when just before the holidays, this topic won the poll for #edchatNZ night:
What's the point of subjects in an age of wicked problems where collaboration rather than isolation will help us solve them? 
The archive for the chat is here and the 10 minute debrief podcast will be here in a few weeks with our other podcasts.

So what is the point of subjects? Or learning areas? Except for at university, it's not like we ever experience situations that require our subject knowledge in isolation. And anyways, what percentage of the students that we teach in this way become academics? And on top of that, so much of what students have to learn at school is completely google-able. So what exactly is the point of memorising something that you will just google later anyway to check that you have remembered it correctly? And who decides what students need to learn anyways? There are entire fields of knowledge that are completely excluded from the school curriculum, despite their enormous relevance and importance. And then, most students still learn subjects in isolation, despite the academic world currently contending with the fact that the traditional disciplines are not sufficient for our current world. Things like climate change, sport psychology, biomedical engineering and more span many disciplines and can not be viewed under the umbrella of a single academic discipline. And on top of all of that, the sheer volume of human knowledge is expanding at an enormous rate, one that means we add more an more into textbooks but understand less and less in great depth. (For an extended argument of how knowledge has changed, with references, see the summary of my reading below).

The question then becomes, what exactly should we be teaching? And for me, in a school with more flexibility that anywhere else in the country, what should I be endeavouring to teach? How should I teach it given the shifts in knowledge and academics? What is best for my students? Will they be disadvantaged if I do not teach them to value knowledge and the disciplines in the way that society has thus far? Or, will they be disadvantaged if I do teach them in this way? What should be prioritised?

All of this is enough to give a subject teacher an identity crisis. And it appears that to some extent I am having one. For some time now, I have felt uncomfortable with calling myself just a maths or science teacher. I feel that what I do and what I teach, is so much broader that the narrow image that people often apply outside of education. At Hobsonville Point I have worked alongside social science teachers, physical education and health teachers, visual arts teachers, dance teachers and more. As a result, I often end up teaching about these things too, combing my subject knowledge in ways that give problems more meaning. More often than not though, I have no idea about many of the things that our students have questions about, even in my subject areas. Considering that our students have asked questions that stumped climatologists, have been the kind of questions you could do a doctorate about, it's hardly surprising that I often can not answer them. What I can do though, and I like to think I do this well, is teach them how to find out. Now lots of teachers teach research. But I would like to push things a little further...

I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that having done science is pretty useless on its own. So is having done maths or social science. A bold statement I know, but let me explain. You are presented with a problem. It might be a small problem, it might be a large problem, it might even be a wicked problem. I can then draw on 'the way we think or act in science' to help me solve the problem. For example, I might make a hypothesis, collect data, analyse the data and then draw a conclusion. This allows me to determine whether my hypothesis is true or false. However, we all know full well know that in an organisation, country or community where we have to make decisions on behalf of others, that an understanding of different perspectives becomes useful. Hence, I might draw on the way that social scientists use knowledge to add a different lens to my data that I collected. I might view the data from different perspectives. Either way, the problem did not require me to remember some facts, but rather, it required me to draw on different ways of thinking. In this way, the old subject hierarchy disappears too, because rather than thinking that English or Science is more important than Performing Arts, in this way, we recognise that each has a particular way of thinking that can be employed as needed.

To get back to the idea of 'helping students to find out'... More and more I have been thinking about how I might get my students to do something more meaningful that simply consume the knowledge of others. To move beyond shallow research projects. What would it look like if my students were producing knowledge, if what they were finding out was not google-able because that knowledge simply didn't yet exist? What if my students were able to draw on the different ways of thinking from the diverse disciplines to combine them in unique and novel ways, to generate new ways of knowing, new things to know, to solve complex problems, to answer beautiful questions, or one day, maybe solve a wicked problem?

Blue hexagons are science ideas whilst social science hexagons are ideas from social sciences. The yellow post it notes explain the links between the ideas on hexagons.

Summary of notes about the nature of knowledge:

Networked knowledge

One of the contributing factors to the need for a systemic change in our education system is the change that knowledge has undergone since the establishment of our education system. For much of the history of formal education, reproduction of existing knowledge has been one of its core goals (Bolstad et al., 2012). This is evident in the approach that schools and teachers brought to the implementation of the current New Zealand Curriculum.  The release of the current New Zealand Curriculum document saw the introduction of the ‘front end’, a range of future focussed outcomes. However, it was found that teachers were more likely to engage with the ‘back end’, the achievement objectives relating to content, rather than the future focused outcomes (Hipkins, 2009).   As mentioned previously, the educational ideas from Plato’s Republic underpin much of our education system today, and as such; Plato’s ideas of knowledge to some extent underpin our education systems. This is evident in the presence of the academic curriculum, which is often creditedto Plato, a curriculum based on the best of human knowledge (Gilbert, 2005). However, the arrival of the Knowledge Age has meant that the nature of knowledge has fundamentally changed (Gilbert, 2005; Weinberger, 2011) need more sources, hence, suggesting a need for a change in our approach to knowledge in schools. As Weinberger (2011) puts forward; “Our most important institutions are being shaken by questions about knowledge that we thought were as firmly settled as those institutions’ marble and concrete foundations” (Weinberger, 2011)

The Changing Nature of Knowledge 

Where knowledge has previously been described as limited, true, actionable, the new nature of knowledge can be considered to be networked, dynamic, exponential and diverse (Bolstad et al., 2012; Gilbert, 2007; Weinberger, 2011).


The new nature of knowledge is that it has become increasingly networked, or as Gilbert and Bolstad (2008) puts it, knowledge is “a product of networks”. Consequently, as Weinberger (2011) argues, the non linear nature of knowledge means that it has become “too big to know”.  Layered on top of the network is what Weinberger (2011) calls filtering forward rather than out. He illustrates this with the following example; in the past, knowledge was carefully edited for publishing in a journal or a book. Hence the publishing industry acted to a large extent as a filter, filtering much out. Bookstores and libraries then also applied a further filter. We were limited by what ‘fit’. This is further evidence with findings from the Andres, Zenter, and Zenter (2014) from the World Bank who found that internet growth in a country led to reduced consumption of paper used for newspapers and printing. In contrast to the confinement of knowledge to printed mediums, Weinberger (2011) explains that today we are more likely to filter forward than out, what doesn’t make it through the filter is often just a few clicks away in the background. In other words, at no point is knowledge filtered out, but rather filters share a node in the network, each node still connected to the easily accessible vast network of knowledge. Add to this, that our knowledge is no longer limited to the final refined, edited, reworked professionally published versions (Weinberger, 2011), but that we share ideas in their infancy, we share drafts, alpha and beta versions. In fact, some go as far as advocating for sharing the draft versions, the process of their work (Kleon, 2014) whilst others suggest that the networked medium means that we can share explanations of knowledge, making it more accessible intellectually (Barker, 2000). Thus, the network allows us gain more complete knowledge, however, at all time confronting us with the idiom of pulling on a loose that results in more and more unravelling.

Dynamic and Exponential 

Of course, if we are no longer publishing only the final versions, and we are no longer limited to publishing through traditional publishers, the rate at which knowledge grows is bound to escalate. The Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC was believed to house the sum of human knowledge  (Cukier & Mayer-Schoenberger, 2013).  By comparison, YouTube suggest that 300 hours of video is upload to their site every minute (YouTube, 2015).  In schools, we can see this trend occur too. In 2012 there were only two schools with a creative commons policy, whilst in 2015 the number was nearing one hundred (McGregor, 2015). Even the volume of scholarly journals have seen an increase, the average length of articles increasing by 80% from 1975 to 2007 (Cope & Phillips, 2009). Of course the nature of how scholarly articles are being distributed and published is also changing. As Cope andPhillips (2009) indicate, and as is echoed by Weinberger (2011), reports, conference proceedings, drafts published to personal websites and blogs are becoming increasingly popular over journal articles due to their immediacy and more often than not, open access. Adding to the growth of scholarly knowledge, is the increasing contributions from corporations (Cope & Phillips, 2009). This is bound to increase again with the rise of big data, as corporations seek to make sense of the increasing amount of data they have collected. As Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger (2013) points out, big data allows us to “experiment faster and explore more leads.” Hence, the pace at which the sum of human knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds (Sardar, 2010a), but also the immediacy with which it is needed and used bears further clues to the changing nature of knowledge.


A further quality of knowledge is that it has become increasingly diverse. More diverse groups are generating knowledge and more diverse knowledge is produced. As pointed out above, knowledge is no longer produced largely by universities and research institutes. Instead, as well as schools, hospitals, corporations and government, social networks are now commonly being utilised for knowledge creation, as it facilitates collaboration between scholars and amateurs (Biesta, 2007; Cope & Phillips, 2009). As a result, the diversity of those creating knowledge has shifted. Cope and Phillips (2009) call this a democratisation of knowledge.  Of course, there is a second level of diversity that comes into play here, that of knowledge itself becoming increasingly diverse. Some argue that knowledge produced from universities still holds the epistemological monopoly (Biesta, 2007), additionally, academic journals are characterised by their discipline or sub-discipline (Cope & Phillips, 2009). However, despite these more formal knowledge institutions, Cope and Phillips (2009) draws our attention to the fact that rise of interdisciplinary fields and problems such as climate change has led to the breakdown of these epistemological and disciplinary barriers. Thus, not only have the types of knowledge increased in diversity, but also the cross over between disciplines. Outside of academia, there is also enormous diversity in knowledge, as Weinberger (2011) puts it, “we can see – or at least are led to suspect – that every idea is contradicted somewhere on the web”. Even in statistics, big data shows us those data points that sit outside what we think we know, as a result adopting correlation rather than cause (Cukier & Mayer-Schoenberger, 2013).  It is these ideas about the diversity of knowledge that might lead to experts such as Bolstad et al. (2012) to argue that “21st century citizens need to be educated for diversity – in both the people sense and the knowledge/idea sense.” Both the nature of knowledge and those participating in its creation is diversifying.


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