Sunday, December 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thesis snapshots 1

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

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

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

History of education reform

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

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

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

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

Is education broken?

Purpose of education

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Static vs. dynamic knowledge

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A few lessons learnt about collaboration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?