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?