Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A few lessons learnt about collaboration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel... or do we?

As teachers, we are sometimes a bit like magpies. You see something shiny, you pick it up and take it back to the nest. Or to be precise, you see a good resource, a teaching tool, a strategy, and you take it back to your classroom. Over the years, many of us have stockpiled many great resources. In fact, we are such magpies, that there are entire websites devoted to our magpie tendencies. Teachers Pay Teachers has seen numerous educators around the world make a pretty penny by sharing their resources for other teachers to buy. Sites like TES have banks of great resources, both free and paid for to also indulge our collection of shiny objects. Here in New Zealand, N4L’s Pond is attempting to do the same. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the copious resources that are being shared through social media.

With so many resources around, I have heard many educator say that there is “no need to reinvent the wheel”. I’ve heard this said across a number of contexts, and by numerous people. And perhaps because we are now well into term three, the coldest and darkest of the New Zealand school terms, I’m hearing this more. Perhaps term three is when we are most reminded that we have to manage our teaching workload more carefully, and hence, a good resource that saves some preparation time feels likes a win. By now we also know that there is plenty of research that shows that we need sleep for more effective problem solving and even creativity. So perhaps, our need not to reinvent the wheel, stems from the recognition that we are tired and don’t necessarily have the mental energy to do so. It is a fairly well researched fact that sleep deprivation affects our ability to solve problems.

Recently, I also blogged about how busy we are as teachers. Between reports, planning, meetings, parent demands, marking, professional learning and leadership responsibilities, there never seems to be enough time. It makes sense then, that we adopt some time saver tips such as our magpie approach. It’s a time saver when we do not reinvent the wheel!

While I hear this phrase more and more, I have all of a sudden become sceptical. (It might also be the “How might I be wrong?” postit stuck to my screen). You see, when this phrase is bandied around in a meeting, we often nod our heads in agreement. Or, we retweet it on Twitter, because yes, we agree that we shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. But what if we are wrong? What if we SHOULD reinvent the wheel? In fact, you might find that the wheel has been reinvented many times over, and thank goodness for that! You wouldn’t want a wooden spoke wheel on your brand-new Tesla, would you? Whilst technology marches on, and has brought virtual reality, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, the blockchain and home genetics kits knocking on our doors, schools are still saying that there is “no need to reinvent the wheel”. Is it just me, or does that seem like a pretty fatal flow in our thinking?

No need to reinvent the wheel” is making me increasingly and incredibly uncomfortable. If we do not reinvent the wheel, doesn’t that put us at risk of becoming obsolete as a profession? Or for privatisation to capitalise on our lack of reinvention in the public school system? But more importantly, does that mean we are frequently accepting the outdated, old fashioned, ineffective, unproductive wooden spoke wheels in education?

Watson the super computer is diagnosing lung cancer better than experienced doctors, Tesla can send push updates to your car to improve it remotely, my smartphone has technology that would have cost $5 trillion dollars in 1984, and an artificially intelligent teaching assistant helped students online for an entire semester and nobody noticed. I have thought about it a little more, I’ve actually decided that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. It’s time we start building the education equivalents of hovercrafts.

I’ve adopted a new lens to use in my leadership and my everyday practice. This means rather than assuming that I do not need to reinvent the wheel, I should instead evaluate whether a wheel is still appropriate. Perhaps I am in the territory of hovercrafts, self-driving cars and the hyperloop. I for one, will definitely no longer accept not reinventing the wheel.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Term 2 in pictures

Year nine and ten students designed games for year seven and eights to teach them about climate change.

We made more progress in our Learning Hub Curriculum. In this session, students were discussing aspects of emotional intelligence.

Had a massive win for algebra. Students used algebra to test out their card game designs. Students found this algebra so useful that they kept referring to it!

I have been exploring triads as a means for gathering an overview of the class and their progress on tasks. 

You can never go wrong with a bit of model making! Students were asked to create sculptures that represented the habits of their organisms's environment. 
I was able to take three students and three staff to meet Jane Goodall at the Auckland Zoo. Wow!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why so busy?

What is the one thing teachers (and many other professions) want more of? If you ask this question at any education conference, any gathering of teachers, they will always say the same thing; time. If you ask a teacher how they are, they will likely say "busy". Lately however, I have been wondering if there is a little bit more to our not-enough-time-syndrome.


I am a busy woman. At any one time, my life is a balance of my Learning Community Leader role (dispositional curriculum and pastoral leader), my role as a science and maths teacher, my role with Edge Work at AUT, my thesis, #edchatNZ, family, friends and chores. I hear colleagues, friends and family rattle off their list of responsibilities too. All those things that keep them so busy! I see them looking tired and stressed, not getting enough sleep, and rarely getting enough exercise or feeding themselves well. What is most striking about this however, is that this business is frequently not seen as a problem, instead, I have noticed that we seem to wear busy as a badge. As if how busy we are is some sort of indication that we are committed to our job, or doing a good job. Sometimes it seems, we us this badge to illicit sympathy, and other times, it appears as a means to validate or qualify ourselves. Sometimes, it's an excuse. Either way, "busy, and you?" seems to have replaced "fine, and how are you?" as an acceptable response in our daily lives.

Why exactly are we so busy? I've been thinking about this a lot lately. We all know about people who have burnt out, who stop teaching, or even who leave education altogether. I have a hunch... (A hunch in this case, being a theory that has not been tested). Are we suffering cognitive overload? Are we so busy ducking and weaving through all the things being thrown at us all the time, that we are too busy to take stock of which things we should actually be doing, and which we should not? Do we keep throwing in more stuff, and never take anything out? Do we actually stop and think whether all the many things we are doing, is actually useful, helpful or important? And if they are important, which is the most important?

What do you think?

I've been working on this busy thing personally. I thought I would share a few rules for how how I manage my busy syndrome in an effort to tackle the work-life balance challenge.
  • Sleep. I have a 9:30pm deadline. If it is not done by 9:30pm, it has to happen another day. I need sleep. So do you. Whatever you tell yourself, you are not a medical marvel and exception. The fact of the matter is that in order for your brain to fire on all cylinders, you need sleep. I have found that by keeping to my 9:30 deadline, I do the important things first. And because I have had a decent amount of sleep most of the time, I am able to stay more level headed, more focussed and get things done faster and more effectively.
  • Eat well. If you want your brain to function well, you need to feed it well. Whatever fuel you put in, is the performance you get out. If you put in lots of sugar, saturated fats and minimal good fibre,  then don't be surprised if you start to feel tired and like you just can't keep up. You wouldn't expect a car to drive or win any races if you gave it the wrong fuel. Why would you expect something different for yourself?
  • Email. Email is a deceptive demon. If not managed carefully, it can make things feel urgent that really are not. Sometimes, emails actually make more work! Instead of a two minute conversation, it can turn into a long winded backwards and forwards. Sometimes conversations that should happen in person, happens through email and starts unnecessary conflict. And on top of that, sending emails that aren't important or necessary to people who don't really need them clogs up everyone's inbox and wastes everyone's time.
  • Single tasking. Doing one thing at a time means I devote my full brain power to the task. It means it gets done faster and better. This often means moving away from coworkers into quieter spaces, closing down all tabs that are not needed for the task at hand, and turning off any potentially distracting notifications. If you want to get something done, then stop trying to do a million things at once.
At the end of the day, I also have to remind myself that I am wildly passionate about education. Sometimes, busy is not bad, it is a deliberate choice I make because my head and heart is fully engaged in what I do. And as long as I have balance, then buys might just be okay. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Inquiry learning - 3 reasons why

A few months ago, a rather juicy discussion erupted on a Facebook teacher group I belong to based on the graph above. One of the comments that really stood out for me was from another educator who said:
"It's evidence like this that makes me worried about the 'new' style 'open learning environments' that seem to be the vogue for schools being built at the moment. Is the 'student led, open inquiry' style of teaching going to erode progress that has been made?"
It seems that inquiry learning is often at the pointy end of the debate when discussions of academic achievement are had. Direct teacher instruction still seems to work best. The thing that many people forget however is that this works best for some things, certainly not for everything. Hattie's work in Visible Learning (as far as I understand it) looks particularly at achievement data. As does most other research because achievement is easy to measure. The thing with this research, is that it does not look at all the other measures of success, like how happy a student is, their sense of autonomy over their learning, how successful the student is beyond a school context, and most importantly, how passionate the student remains about learning. Although academic achievement may contribute to these things, it is important that we see its limitations, particularly when we start passing judgements on different and new styles of learning.

One of those new styles of learning that is frequently under fire is inquiry learning. Personally, I am a big advocate for inquiry learning because as I see it, there are a number of reasons why inquiry learning is appropriate for this day and age:

Inquiry develops student ability to understand the ‘culture of inquiry’ within a discipline or paradigm and use it to problem solve:Inter-disciplinary learning might be trendy right now, but it is important not to forget the many good things that each learning area does offer. Science has a particular way of asking questions, a particular way of seeing the world. It is precisely because of this 'culture of inquiry' in science, that we have been able to make all the stellar advances in medicine, space travel, technology etc. The same can be said for the 'culture of inquiry' within other disciplines too. Hence, inquiry learning allows students not just to learn about the knowledge that science, history, etc. has gained through its particular cultures of inquiry, but it allows them to learn to use this to seek answers and solve problems for themselves, by drawing on each discipline's culture of inquiry. Hence, they learn how knowledge is constructed in that discipline. 
A simpler way to think about this is that each discipline offers a range of toolboxes with which to solve problems. We should not just be teaching the students what each toolbox has built already, but rather, how they can use the toolbox to build and repair things for themselves. Additionally, because inter-disciplinary studies have become increasingly important, (eg. climate change, nanotechnology, etc.) we should also be developing students' abilities to mix tools across toolboxes, but do so deliberately knowing full well the power and limitations of each tool.

Develops student ability to critique their research decisions:In the post-truth age of fake news and social media, the age old philosophical question of 'how do you know?' becomes infinitely more relevant and critical for the everyday person. And so, the methods by which we find truth and knowledge becomes critical. If students have spent their entire lives consuming content that is provided by schools, they will be inculcated to consume without question elsewhere too. In order to understand the difference between opinion, perspective, information, fact and fiction, we must understand what actually counts as knowledge, the context in which we can rely on this knowledge, and the limitations of knowledge. And learning about this is not the same as developing the capacity to do this, the former just provides more content to consume. Hence, inquiry learning if done well, develops student capacity for critical thinking about far more than a content or concept focussed question easily examined in an exam. 
To get back to the toolbox metaphor, students need to learn to use each of the tools in their toolbox for the right reason, knowing that a hammer and a mallet although similar in appearance, are not the same.

Develops student ability to critique the validity of ideas, models, representations and sources:
So your students are able to navigate to a trusty source of knowledge on the internet, or can spot a biased article. You didn't really think that was enough did you? There is not a discipline under the sun that claims that its knowledge is absolute or complete. Hence, we should be developing students' ability not to think in absolutes or in final answers, but rather, to think critically in understanding the strengths and limitations of all ideas, models, representations, perspectives, opinions and knowledge.
This not only contributes to students' understanding of disciplinary concepts, but it might also contribute in helping them become better democratic citizens. After all, in the world's current political climate, I think it is safe to say that we need more people who can critically evaluate ideas, take on multiple perspectives, and recognise limitations of ideas (just think Trump's border wall!). The ability to recognise the limitations of knowledge, also enables students to see where they might contribute in the world beyond social media and click-bait garbage. If we want students to see and live beyond the instant and momentary famous of Instagram and Snapchat, then surely we must show them other ways they can contribute and leave their mark in the world? 
To use our toolbox metaphor again... Not every space that we construct with our tools is of equal quality, and even the best quality can never be perfect. There is always room for improvement. Being able to see the strengths and weaknesses in the spaces that we have constructed allows us to make better judgements about what to use a space for, how to use it and even, when not to use it.

In reference then to the fellow teacher who asked the question at the start of this post; 'Is the 'student led, open inquiry' style of teaching going to erode progress that has been made?' I have to ask, what might content driven, direct teacher instruction be eroding?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

7 new things I tried this term

  1. I redesigned and adapted my favourite board game, Catan, in an attempt to engage some of my more passive learners in a more active way. It worked a treat, particularly for my Pasifika learners! Afterwards, I had the students evaluate their strategy from a mathematical perspective, and then plan a different strategy for the next time we played.

  2. I decided that there was not enough ethics in addressed in our curriculum. So I have made an ethics section as part of all scientific investigations. As I expected, students have actually spent little to no time thinking about preventing harm in academic contexts. To be honest, this has me a little bit concerned given the state of the world.
  3. I tried combining three achievement standards into one. This is a work in progress. I'll have to let you know how that goes. Essentially, the students are doing a scientific investigation and using the data gathering process and analysis as evidence towards two maths standards. My hope is that through combing the standards that students can gain an appreciation for the range of skills and knowledge that goes into the process of constructing new scientific knowledge. The standards are:
    • AS90925: Carry out a practical investigation in a biological context, with direction 
    • AS91026: Apply numeric reasoning in solving problems
    • AS91036: Investigate bivariate numerical data using the statistical enquiry cycle 
  4. I have been trying to help students have deeper discussion with a more diverse range of students. To do this, I have experimented using question scripts that include a series of questions to interview each other about, question cards to have a bank of questions to help draw out each other's answer in more depth, and even setting complex tasks that required extended discussion and a range of perspectives to solve.
  5. You may have already read about the Learning Hub Inquiry. The process of engaging students with actively developing a personal goal through a personal action research project. Again, a work in progress as this involves leading the HPSS staff through the process too.
  6. I've been trying to engage students with the idea of cognitive bias. I am approaching this from the angle of why we have processes such as the scientific method and random sampling, and how this helps us overcome cognitive bias. This has been inspired through two books, Tomas Pernecky's Epistemology and Metaphysics for Qualitative Research and Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.
  7. I've been having a go at engaging students with futures thinking. By this I mean, getting students to engage with designing solutions for complex problems with no one right answer. Students have been designing a space city. They have been asked to make calculations about how much food, oxygen and water they will need. They have explored alternative food sources, energy sources and some even how to maintain genetic diversity in a reduced population in space. 
    Students planning their space city. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

How do you teach students to unlearn?

It was futurist and writer Alvin Toffler who wrote;
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
What I find particularly significant about this quote is the play on the word learn. My interpretation of what Mr Toffler is saying here is that to be literate in the 21st century, it is not sufficient to be able to learn a lot of stuff, or to put it another way, it is not sufficient to only teach kids a whole lot of content and skills.

To unlearn, we must first acknowledge that what we know is wrong. In some cases, this is pretty easy, we can simply change one fact for another. In other cases, where we have built a mental model, a way of making sense of the world around our knowledge, this is much, much harder. To put this into context, this is the difference between learning the names of the seasons (learning more stuff), learning that Greenland is disproportionately large on most world maps - it is not nearly the size of Africa (substituting an old fact for a new one), and learning that the earth rotates around the sun rather than the sun around the earth (changing a mental model about how the world works and how we make sense of the world). If you know even a little bit about the history of science, you will know that Galileo's heliocentric views of the solar system caused such a kerfuffle, that he was declared a heretic, condemned, and that he died under house arrest. These mental models, our way of making sense of our experience in the world, are often such deeply rooted beliefs, that we sometimes don't even know we have them, or why we have them. And what's more, when people begin to question these mental models, we often respond with aggression, discomfort, conflict or denial. Just think about how angry people get when you question them about their religion and politics!

How then do we teach students in such a way that they are able to truly unlearn? What does an education look like where students are expected to unlearn? In fact, how would parents react if you informed them the next week of school will be focussed on unlearning? When so much of school is focussed on learning, to read, to write, to discuss the evidence for atoms, or to speculate about the motivation of Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth, what emphasis do we give to unlearning? How often do we teach how, or even give the opportunity for students (or teachers?) to unlearn at a deep level?

Over the past year, I have been working alongside Di Cavallo, Lea Vellenoweth Ros Britton and Jayne Dunbar to develop a curriculum for the Learning Hubs at our school. This has been a huge amount of thinking, refining and more, and we have been excited to kick off this seriously refined and increasingly rigorous curriculum this year. As part of this new curriculum however, we were grappling with how we might engage students with rethinking and reframing their visions of the possible futures that lie ahead for each learner. Not an easy ask! But together we settled on the idea of a Learning Hub Inquiry, where students might engage with all kinds of possible futures for themselves, and take action towards this.

As it happened, the Learning Hub Inquiry became one of my areas of responsibility to develop, with lots of feedback and input from the team (thanks lots in particular Di!). As I got really stuck into this project, I got more and more excited. Increasingly, this project morphed into something that felt really special, something that could potentially toe the line between doable and scalable in schools, yet truly future focussed, combining a mix of personalisation, learner agency, digital fluencies, learning to navigate complexity and the unknown, and of course, unlearning.

So what does this look like? You might recognise some of the ideas from the Spirals of Inquiry, with hints of Adult Cognitive DevelopmentKegan and Lahey's Immunity to Change, a dash of the Essential Fluencies, and a sprinkling of Keri Facer's Possibilities of the Present thrown in for good measure.

Each student will go through the process of gathering information about what is going on in their own lives, stretching across broad areas such as their digital footprint, their financial profile, their passions, interests,  wellbeing, grades, etc. From this, they will look for patterns, analysing the big picture to identify a focus area for a goal. In partnership with their learning coach, the student then constructs a goal. Each student's goal would be highly personalised, however with each student the intent being that the goal is an adaptive rather than technical goal (You know you have to exercise more and eat healthier, but you never do? That's an adaptive goal! The kind where you have to change the underlying beliefs, rather than the technical things on the surface if you wish to see long term change). Students will then devote time to research their goals, specifically seeking out new perspectives, ideas and expertise. From here, each student will create an action plan which they will carry out, reflecting, refining, and readjusting along the way. Finally, each student will then present this entire process to their family and whanāu, before beginning a new inquiry cycle. The students are of course supported every step of the way by their learning coach (kind of like a form teacher on steroids), this support looking very much like a coach and mentor rather than a teacher.

For me, this is the very picture of student agency and personalisation. Not only does each student have a personal goal that they come to based on making sense of their own personal data, but they also learn to navigate the true complexity and uncertainty of genuine self improvement. They learn to find new ways of looking at what is going on in their life, new ways of looking at their problems, and then to try out new models of doing things. This could look anything like students setting goals to learn to collaborate more effectively, manage work flow more effectively, lead their responsibilities in the school more effectively, or even make academic shifts. Anything!  Meanwhile, the teacher shifts from knower to coach, entering into a partnership of facilitation rather than director of learning.

Enabling our students to learn, unlearn, and relearn will hopefully develop the capacity of our students to take on any challenge they may face in the future, regardless of how complex it might be. I am also excited about this model because it incorporates opportunities for students to bring their own diversity to the table, rather than always relying on the teacher to bring the direction. It potentially also provides the space for students to mentor each other, as different students will inevitably have different strengths and expertise to offer.

Now... The big question as we launch into our first round of the new HPSS Learning Hub Student Inquiry is really just this: As teachers, are we willing and able to learn, unlearn and relearn enough to take this from possibility to reality?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A quick visual guide to online learning at HPSS

For all those visual learners out there... Here are two visuals that I have developed in my role as e-learning specialist classroom teacher to briefly summarise e-learning at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. The first graphic is aspirational, the second is essential!
PS: All images shared on this blog are creative commons, hence feel free to share.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Exiting the edu-bubble

Diversity, dissonance and new ideas are not only proven to inspire creativity and innovation, but also to stimulate cognitive development in adults. With this in mind, in 2016 I deliberately sought to participate in professional learning experiences that sat outside the normal realm of education conferences. After all, we all seem to agree that education is particularly slow to respond to change, or to adopt new ideas. It seems to me, that if you want to be a leader in education today, looking outside of education to the global, national, economic and academic landscape is key.

With that in mind, here are a few of the key events I attended in 2016 to gain inspiration from outside the edu-bubble:

  • SingularityU New Zealand SummitSingularityU New Zealand exists to support New Zealand to understand, adapt and thrive in an exponentially changing world. The group was originally formed to bring the SingularityU New Zealand Summit to Christchurch, but we know this is only the beginning of our journey.
  • Startup Weekend Auckland: Startup Weekends are weekend-long, hands-on experiences where entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs can find out if startup ideas are viable.  On average, half of Startup Weekend’s attendees have technical or design backgrounds, the other half have business backgrounds. Beginning with open mic pitches on Friday, attendees bring their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Over Saturday and Sunday teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas, practicing LEAN Startup Methodologies and building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts.
  • Complexity and Leadership with Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer designs and teaches leadership programs, coaches senior teams, and supports new ways of thinking about strategy and people with clients facing these dramatic shifts in complexity, volatility, and change in their workplaces and markets. She blends deep theoretical knowledge with a driving quest for practical ways to make leaders’ lives better.
  • Kiwi Foo: Kiwi Foo Camp launched the Unconference format in Warkworth, New Zealand for the first time back in 2007, bringing together experts in fields from neuroscience and physics to open source programming and politics. This annual, invite-only gathering attracts nearly 200 people from New Zealand and across the globe to share ideas, network, show off their latest tech toys and hardware hacks and find new partners for future collaborations. Attendance at Kiwi Foo, like every Foo Camp around the world, is by invitation only and is free for attendees. 
Each of these events have paid off in a number of ways. Kiwi Foo consistently inspires me into action and motivates me to keep tackling enormous problems in the world. On top of this, Kiwi Foo is a phenomenal networking opportunity where you not only meet inspiring people, but you also create connections that often later pay off in fantastic ways. For example, it was great to be able to invite the ambitious Ludwig Wendzich, founder of NZ Gather (whilst he was still in high school), to speak to the students at my school.

SingularityU inspires me to feel like despite climate change, Trump and his cronies, there is hope. This stellar event convened by the inspirational Kaila Colbin, captured and discussed some of the radical changes that already disrupt our day to day lives, but also those that are likely to radically disrupt our lives in the very near future. The event also came with a very firm call to action, to not let the opportunities brought about by innovation in the tech world go to waste in making the world a better place. Of course, just learning about these things is only one step of a learning journey, it's what you do with these ideas that count. I am looking forward to teaching a course inspired by exponential technology such as genomics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology this semester at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. In a maths module I have planned, I will even be touching on block-chain technology. If you don't know about these yet, you better get outside that edu bubble of yours... 

Both of Kiwi Foo and SingularityU gives insight into the massive volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) that has become so characteristic of our world. Despite the healthy dose of hope these events come with, these ideas can be so big that one could almost be forgiven for responding with paralysing fear. Fortunately, I was also lucky enough to attend a two day workshop with Jennifer Garvey Berger (thanks to Edge Work, The Educational Futures Network) focussing on leadership in complex times and spaces. This fabulous two day workshop explored some of the strategies we might use to navigate complex and uncertain times. If you haven't yet, I highly recommend reading Jennifer's book, Simple Habits for Complex Times. I've just recently purchased a copy for my mum too!

Adapting some of the strategies from a Lean Canvas
for managing my thesis.
Adapting the Kanban board for my thesis.
For some reason, in education conversations, I have often heard the mindsets and ideas from the business and corporate world dismissed, even ignored or avoided. Although I can see some merit in not blindly adopting strategies from the corporate and business world in education, there are many great things to be learned from this sector. Startup Weekend is perhaps one of the best places for educators to do this. Not only is it targeted at being an educational experiences, it does so in a phenomenal way that combines hands on learning, learning to collaborate in a diverse team, and learning to become more agile and responsive. I have also been incredibly fortunate to have acted as a mentor for Auckland Startup Weekend in 2016. This was an intense and rewarding experience where I had the opportunity to work with stellar mentors including Rowan Yeoman and Alan Froggatt. Not only is this event carefully curated to ensure lots of diversity in the room, but it is also a great experience in learning to be a mentor. Perhaps one of my favourite experiences of this event is the mentor room where all the mentors meet to talk about the strategies they have been using with different teams, and what each team might need next. The experience of hearing the thinking that goes into each mentor's decision making is a stunning example of learning from the diverse wisdom of the crowd. Interestingly, Startup Weekend is also where I picked up two of the strategies that is helping me manage my thesis writing at the moment. I have converted the Lean Canvas into an academic one to ensure that I keep the full picture visible at all times and update it regularly, whilst also adopting the Kanban board to juggle the many different strands of things to do.

Without a doubt, some of my biggest learning moments, but also most useful strategies I have picked up over the past year, have come from those who work outside of education. I know that my students have benefited from me being able to offer them insights and opportunities from and with the world that is happening outside the classroom door. I can not hope to keep their learning and my leadership up to date and relevant if I am trapped in the education bubble where things change ever so slowly. Although there are some quality professional learning events in education, I urge you all to step outside the education bubble.

PS: Upon reflection, it is really interesting to note that of these events, how much of an investment came from me personally, rather than from my school. Although school paid for my registration and relief for SingularityU, I paid for the flights and accommodation. Startup Weekend saw me gave up every minute of my weekend (twice!) for a whirlwind of an experience, and again with no contribution from school. Kiwi Foo, thanks to the phenomenal work of Nat and Jenine is free to attend for those lucky enough to be invited, however again takes your whole weekend. That said, I would gladly invest the time and money in these events again. They are 100% worth it. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

3 New Year's resolutions for the future focussed educator

So you think of yourself future focussed? Maybe you are aspiring to be more future focussed? Perhaps you are a fan of the work of the inspirational education authors like Grant Lichtman, Keri Facer, Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolstad? Most of us know that being a future focussed educator means a lot more than e-learning and and modern learning environments. It's not just iPads. Google Apps for Education, and bean bags, but rather a complete transformation in how we think about the world and our role in it.

For me, being a future focussed educator means that I am actively helping my students build a positive future for themselves, their children, their communities, New Zealand and the world. I believe that being a future focussed educator means letting go of the paradigms from the past, and choosing a new set that is appropriate for the advances we have made, socially, scientifically, technologically, and elsewhere.

As educators we often say that we are preparing students for the future. We often suggest that we are preparing students for jobs. In fact, many us us would go so far as to say that we have our students' and our children's best interests at heart. But do we really? How can we possibly have the best interests of our young people at heart, if our everyday choices contribute massively towards a pretty dark future, one of radical inequality, food scarcity, economical and political instability... Let me explain.

Can we call ourselves future focussed educators, if we are not actively striving to become more sustainable? Living a life that actively damages the resources of current and future generations, fiercely undermines all our beliefs of education as having an egalitarian purpose (egalitarian: "believing in or based on the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities").

  • Climate change threatens the very economy of New Zealand. Since our agricultural industry is currently heavily dependant on climate, it means that extended droughts, floods, etc. may impact our exports, the jobs provided through our export trade, and even our ability to feed ourselves. This of course has major impact on communities that depend on agriculture for their income. 
  • The current rate at which fish is being caught in the world, means that we are likely to run out of fish as a food source in my lifetime. Take a second to think about the huge number of communities around the world that depend on fishing as one of their primary food sources. How will this impact them? Did you know that Snapper, our fish and chips on the beach kiwi favourite is one of the worst possible choices you could make? Not only is some if caught through bottom trawling that completely destroys habitats, but it also further endangers our Maui's dolphin (PS: Check out the awesome Best Fish app from New Zealand Forest and Bird).
We also need to think about our throw away culture. Just think about the past two weeks, as many of us celebrated the festive season. How much did we throw away? How much of what we purchased were 'nice to haves', rather than 'have to haves'? And what was the collective environmental impact of all those 'nice to haves'? What did we throw away that could have been recycled or repurposed, reducing its environmental impact? What did we buy that was new, where second hand would have been just fine? How much extra carbon and environmental destruction did our festivities contribute?

Back to that egalitarian purpose of education, where we believe in equality. Do your choices as a consumer reflect the equality that you believe in? Take a second to look at the clothes you are wearing. Do you know where they came from? A sweat shop in China or Bangladesh? Just because you don't know where your clothes came from, does not make you any less responsible for the cycles you continue to propagate through your choices as a consumer. This might also be a good time to mention that the fast fashion industry is one of the largest contributors towards our global carbon production. If we believe in equality, then how can we justify our unethical clothing choices? What kind of a message does that send to our young people? What kind of a world does that create?

For some of us, we also might also like to think about whether our food is ethically produced? So you buy free range eggs, but is your mayonnaise made from free range eggs? Was your Christmas ham from an SPCA approved farm?

Now what?
The above are huge issues with both local and global impact. Hence, if I hope to help the students I teach be happy and successful in their futures, if I truly have their best interests at heart, then it is time I make some changes in my personal life too, not just in my pedagogy. Being a future focussed educator in my mind requires a transformational change. A change where educators take responsibility for more than just content and the best way to transmit it. Being a future focussed educator means taking responsibility for our place and impact in the world.

If, like me, you believe in helping build the best possible future for the students that we teach, then I would encourage you to join me in taking on some resolutions for 2017.

Resolution one: Accept responsibility.
I can not change you, but I can change me. I can not change the world alone, but I can certainly do my part. I will educate myself about the global issues that threaten the success of our young people, so that I might actively guard against ways that my actions might contribute in aggravating the many wicked problems looming.  But I will also change my actions, through being a more conscious consumer, choosing products with sustainability and ethics in mind. I will increase the amount I recycle, reuse, repurpose.

Resolution two: Live a more sustainable life. 
All those literacy, numeracy and test results will seem utterly trivial if we don't stand up and protect the critical resources all our young people need for a happy, successful future - our planet. It would be a shame if one day in the future the history books showed us too worried about tests, numeracy and literacy, than the fate of the planet.

Resolution three: Live a more ethical life.
What are we teaching our students and children about priorities? Are those new running shoes more important than the wellbeing of the people who produced them? Is a bargain for you more important than establishing whether the source of the product is ethical?