Archive for the ‘Shifting research’ Category

The Museum of Before: An experiment in participatory thinking about the future

June 22nd, 2015

Educational research typically involves a lot of  logico-analytical thinking. Much of our time is spent planning projects, gathering and analysing data, reviewing literature, writing research reports and so on.  But every now and then, we stretch our creativity and imagination and dream up thought experiments as we chat over our morning coffee. “Imagine if we could….”, “Wouldn’t it be fun to…”, “What if we tried…”.

Occasionally there’s an opportunity to take a creative idea beyond a thought experiment. To actually try it, to see what happens.

One of my favourite examples has been  “The Museum of Before”, an immersive, science-fiction, participatory role play workshop that was originally developed by me, Jenny Whatman, and Sue McDowall for the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) held in Wellington in January 2013.  Two and a half years later, I’d like to revisit The Museum of Before to explain why we did it, what happened, and what we learned. To borrow a common practice from the game development industry, it’s time to dig up The Museum of Before for a good old postmortem. Curious? Read on!

What happened in “The Museum of Before” workshop?

In the original ICOT conference version, you would have turned up at a conference room not knowing quite what to expect. I can almost guarantee you  wouldn’t expect to encounter myself and Sue McDowall dressed in head-to-toe coveralls, briefing you on a strange sequence of security protocols before we let you into the room. This included:

  • a compulsory retinal scan (pretend, of course)
  • us zipping you into an (invisible) full-body protective coverall
  • signing a strange document to grant yourself access to “the secure archive facility”.

If you were game enough to comply with our bizarre instructions about how to enter “The Museum”, you would have then been ushered through into a briefing room to discover that you were now almost 100 years in the future. You’d quickly realise that the Museum of Before was built in the late 21st century to help people understand what life was like in the early 21st century.  You’d understand that you – the participant – were an invited  “expert” on 21st century educational history. Your job was to help us identify the artefacts and  plan an interactive exhibition for our late 21st century museum visitors to know what education was like  in the early 21st Century.

A little background: Science fiction

Our original inspiration for this workshop was science fiction, and the interesting ways that learning, education, and human growth and development are represented in science fiction texts.

Our very first idea was to do a conventional discussion workshop where we’d look at some different examples of education in science fiction and talk about how different stories represented different ideas about learning and the role of education in society. Then, after a particularly stimulating coffee-drinking session, we had a moment of inspiration: Rather than us delivering a presentation, or having people engage in activities like deconstructing ideas from particular science fiction texts, why don’t we turn our entire workshop into a role-play science fiction scenario? We drew on ideas from process drama as we developed our storyline and activities, particularly the concept of The Mantle of The Expert. We also drew inspiration from some of our favourite experiences as audience members in Wellington theatre productions (like the brilliant Apollo 13). Basically, we designed the kind of workshop that we would get excited about going to.

Here’s Sue and me giving a video interview (in role) the day before we actually ran the workshop for the first time. This footage has never seen the light of day until now, (perhaps for good reason)!

Yep, live action role play.

At this point, you might envisage yourself running screaming from the room. I get it. Not everyone feels comfortable stepping into a role play. Heck, we were nervous  ourselves. We learned a lot  about how to bridge people into role play in ways that aren’t too threatening, and aside from possibly making a few people a little uncomfortable, no-one was harmed in the making of this process drama. Having Jenny in the team, with her background and knowledge of drama education, certainly helped.

We thought a lot about how the drama would unfold to give people some key beats or moments in which they had to respond creatively to the task at hand and share something back with the group, in role. The  culmination of the workshop was when The Museum Director (Jenny) arrived and we all walked around each table group, asking them to explain the artefacts they’d identified, and their suggestions about the installations we could create in the Museum to help our late 21st century visitors understand education “in the past”.

The funny, thoughtful, and sometimes bizarre ideas that came out of this workshop were a surprise and a delight. Afterwards, we collectively stepped out of role to debrief about the experience. You can get a taste of the workshop and some of the debrief discussions in this video.

So what did people think?

The first thing that came up was the initial surprise and trepidation the participants felt when they realised “whoa- this is a drama thing”. But people also told us they liked the opportunity and freedom to do creative, lateral thinking and to really “get into” ideas, even fanciful/humorous ideas, as well as the multisensory and tactile nature of the workshop. They liked getting to handle familiar objects with the permission to view them through unfamiliar eyes. They were intrigued and surprised by the tendency for either utopian – or dystopian – narratives to permeate their own descriptions of either the present or the future. Someone said that because the scenario was set “so far” into the future, they felt freed up to step out from their current thinking frames and try on some different ways of seeing the present, and telling different stories about the present.  The constructive feedback was that they would have liked longer – perhaps a whole other session – to dig deeply into the ideas that came up while they were in role, and ask critical questions about the different ideas and values that were embedded in their narratives about the imagined future and present.

We ran the workshop a few more times in 2013 with different groups. The feedback in subsequent iterations of the workshop was similar. Some people reaaaaaaally don’t feel comfortable with the freedom to play in the imaginary spaces of the future. Some people  think the activity should be more structured to ensure the outcomes are more productive and tangible. They think we should spend more time around the “so what, what next” questions, which is a fair point. Other people just express pleasure and gratitude at having had a fun, memorable, and provocative whole-body experience that gives them more to keep thinking about as they re-visit their own thinking about education and the future over time.

Was it successful?

Again, looking back to the video interview we did the day before we actually ran the workshop, here was our best effort to articulate the thinking behind our design.

Looking back, what do we think now?

I’ve learned a lot more about live action role play (LARP), and “participatory culture” since then. With hindsight I can see some of the things we did well with The Museum of Before and other things we could have done better. We wanted it to be memorable and experiential, and carry an emotional component, and most of all, be fun, surprising, and playful. We felt it was very important to create a situation which allowed the participants to do the creative thinking work, and to have an opportunity to notice what that felt like, and then talk about what it means to actively think about the future and what kinds of ideas  float to the surface when we are asked to imagine the (inherently unknowable) future. I think we definitely succeeded in creating the conditions for people to start thinking differently about the future, and their role in shaping it. Could we have taken it further? Was there a logical next step in our experiential futures-thinking curriculum? Probably yes. Did we have the time and courage to keep building on our initial experiment? Well, sort of, in a lot of little ways.

Why did we stop running The Museum of Before?

It takes a lot of time and set-up to run The Museum of Before workshop. Eventually we stopped doing the full-blown workshop and instead reincarnated aspects of the concept in various presentations and resources that were less production-intensive.

The Curriculum For The Future Game is one such descendent of The Museum of Before. Like The Museum of Before, it draws on role play, and casting people into a future setting to explore familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. Hopefully, The Museum of Before also lives on in some way inside the hearts and minds of the hundred or so people who experienced it in the different iterations of the workshop during 2013.

I’d definitely consider pulling this one back out of the vault if anyone was interested, but even if it never happens, I hope it had some lasting impacts for those who experienced it. I know it had a lasting impact on us.

Future focussed issues, Shifting research

Help us take shiftingthinking forward (or sideways, or…)

May 5th, 2010

I’d like to welcome new visitors to this site, particularly those who’ve met me or Jennifer during the 2010 AERA conference in Denver. If you met us there or you’ve been following the “shifting research” blogstream you’ll know that Jennifer and I presented a paper about shiftingthinking. If you’re interested in reading the completed paper, please email me and I’ll send you a copy! And read on, because I’m about to explain the request in the title of this posting.

Briefly, our AERA paper aims to do three things:

  1. To give the “backstory” to the development of shiftingthinking (where did it come from? what ideas were behind it? what happened?)
  2. To reflect on what’s happened, and most importantly, what we have learned so far
  3. To open up some new questions for ourselves, and (we desperately hope!) for others to engage with us in exploring. For us one of the most exciting and interesting of these new questions can be summed up quite simply as: What next? (and why?)

I’m quite serious about this. One of my tasks for the coming year is to take a serious look at shiftingthinking and think about how it fits with, adds to, or could potentially change the shape of, all the various different aspects of our work here at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research: Where can we take this thing next? That’s kind of an “in-house” job for me – but the very nature of shiftingthinking as a publicly accessible online community/blogspace that these questions of “what next? (and why?)” simply demands a much wider range of views, perspectives, and inputs from the wider shiftingthinking community.

In other words, I need YOU!

A number of questions, ponderings, and thoughtlets have been circling around in my head (particularly after conversations I’ve had or sessions I attended at AERA), and I would seriously appreciate some input and feedback on these. I’ve numbered them below in case you want to reference them in your comments.

1. Who are you, and why are you here?

This question isn’t quite as existential as it sounds! For a long time we’ve been exploring different ways of knowing who’s visiting this site, why they came here, and how they engage. One way is to track our visitor stats, which tells us how many times we’re clicked on, and where those clicks are coming from. We also invite people to make themselves known by joining the shiftingthinking community where you can write a brief bio  about yourself (however, see Q. 3 below). And of course you can give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or comment on our blogs. Over time we’ve developed a sense of who’s interested in the ideas this site, and we have a few additional ideas about who else we think might be interested. Lumped together, these two categories seem to include

  • Teachers and school leaders interested in rethinking their own or their school’s ways of doing things, including ideas about knowledge, curriculum, and teaching;
  • Other researchers working across the areas we are interested in;
  • University graduate students who are learning about, or interested in the educational ideas and theories pertinent to this site;
  • People who work alongside schools and teachers to support professional learning, educational transformation, etc;
  • Occasionally, other people such as parents, or other people with a general interest in these ideas even if they aren’t working in an education-related field

What we’re wondering is, what’s the “payoff” for each of these different kinds of people in being part of the shiftingthinking community? What are YOU getting out of being here (or if you’re not getting anything useful, why?). What else would be interesting/useful/engaging for you? And how did you find your way here – do you follow us on Twitter? Did you come here through a google search? Do you know our work at NZCER?

2. What do or don’t you like about what you’ve found here?

Given the somewhat “emergent” pathway that this site’s development has taken, it’s sometimes hard for us to step back and evaluate this site as a whole, and to imagine what fresh eyes make of it. In the past, people have told me they find the site a little confusing to navigate, and they’re not sure where to begin. That’s hardly surprising, as we are very much a web 2.0 space. I’ve tried to address this with the “where should I begin” comments on the home page that try to give you ideas about where to start.

We’ve also tried to develop a range of different kinds of content for the site . We’ve got blogs, theory pages, and various other resources, both text-based and multimedia-based. What I want to know is – what “things” on the site are interesting or useful to you? Do you come here to browse? To get information?  To engage in discussions about ideas? To find resources/videos/things that you can use with other people (such as teachers you work with, or students you teach, or anyone else you are interested in “shiftingthinking” with? What other “stuff” would be useful for you in relation to our wider goal of shifting towards 21st century ways of thinking about learning and education? And if you’re here because you’re interested in shifting other peoples’ thinking as well, who are these other people we ought to be connecting with, and what do you think would be interesting/useful/engaging for them?

Plus, does all the “stuff” on this site feel like it’s interconnected into the wider narrative of “shifting towards 21st century ways of thinking about learning and education”? Or does it feel like lots of disconnected “stuff”? If it’s the latter, how can you and we start to weave all these pieces together in a more coherent way?

3.  Whose space is this? Yours, ours, or everyone’s?

This site is built on a blogging platform called wordpress. It’s a free and relatively easy and flexible platform, which is great because we’ve built this site more or less on a shoestring. We describe our reasons for this in our AERA paper (email me). Way back when we started shiftingthinking we had a lot of competing ideas about who ought to “control” this space, who would be in charge of managing the quality of what went up here, and so on. We could have chosen to build the site using very web 2.0 platform such as a Ning or other “web community” platform  - which more or less enables all members of the community to create and post content (blogs, pages, video, etc). However, we were still grappling with our own competing ideas about what the site ought to be like, what content it ought to have, and how it ought to “work” in terms of engaging people in thinking about the ideas/theories/shifts that we think are important for exploring together. We also weren’t sure who might be interested in joining our community. And let me tell you, there is nothing sadder than building a web-based community that nobody joins – and hence nobody except you ever creates content.

So now we have a blogging platform which also includes a modest, slightly clunky community feature . At the moment only we (the NZCER team) can blog, although we have invited other people to be guest bloggers from time to time. Everyone else can participate through the “comments” function. Is this enough? Do we need to open up shiftingthinking more widely, to enable all members of our community to create and contribute content? What might happen to the site if we do this? What are the pros and cons of the current setup, in which our team sort of controls the “metanarrative” of the site, as opposed to a much more open, community-driven site like a wiki where the “metanarrative” is generated through the collective inputs of all its members?

OK, as you can see I tend towards long and rambly trains of thinking dotted with questions and half-thought-out ideas – so that’s basically your invitation to do the same. Let’s talk! (PS. remember, you can leave audio comments and webcam comments as well as written comments!!)

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AERA paper written!

April 14th, 2010

So our AERA paper has been written (and submitted to the AERA online system). We’re pretty pleased with how it turned out, and of course we’re enormously grateful to all those who have been following the blog and providing thoughts, feedback, suggestions, and challenges along our thinking journey. We’re looking forward to presenting at the conference and getting some further feedback from our AERA colleagues.

In case any readers are going to be in Denver for AERA, here are the details of our presentation slot:

Shifting Thinking About Qualitative Research Methods: Conversations and Co-Construction From the Bottom of the Changing World

Unit: SIG-Qualitative Research
In Session Submission: Transnational Qualitative Research
Scheduled Time: Sun, May 2 – 2:15pm – 3:45pm,Building/Room: Colorado Convention Center / Room 109, 111, 113

If you ARE going to be at AERA, please get in touch as we’d love to meet up with you there!

Everyone else, after the conference we’ll let you know how you can get hold of a copy of the paper, if you are interested in reading it.

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Listening for the silences and absences

March 31st, 2010
Yesterday Jennifer and I met (in person, wow!) to talk about our AERA paper. We’ve yet to start actually writing “the paper”, although we already have many pieces of writing that represent stepping stones towards it. As we said we’d do in our original research announcement, we’ve been blogging little micro-chunks of our data analysis and emerging thinking/questions along the way, hoping that some of our readers and shiftingthinking community members would respond with their own thoughts, responses, questions, challenges, reflections, arguments, anecdotes. We’ve already received a number of very insightful responses and Jennifer and I have really appreciated the additional ideas/perspectives you’ve offered. Soon we’ll decide how we’re going to weave all of these threads, ideas, and conversations together into a paper that bears a decent semblance to the paper plan we originally submitted to AERA last year.

Desert Oasis (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2007

(I actually think we’re pretty close, but it reminds me of something someone once told me about writing a thesis: It’s like a mirage of a desert oasis – the closer you get, the further away it seems….)!! 

Yesterday when we were talking about the exchanges and dialogues between yourselves and us through the blogs and comments, we returned to that old question about who’s not commenting, who’s not participating in these conversations. To illustrate, in her last posting, dark and disruptive methodologies, Jennifer talked about some areas/questions that various of us (within our team of educational researchers) have found the most uneasy and unsettling when it comes to the purposes and implications of this shiftingthinking space (or as she phrased it, “the ways that blog spaces like this one could be a disruptive and potentially frightening innovation in the world of educational research”). 

Jennifer reflected yesterday that when these kinds of issues are raised in the blog, the people who tend to comment are often those who (perhaps like me) tend to take a fairly optimistic/confident stance, which goes something like this: “even if we don’t know for sure exactly what this new thinking and collaboration space will lead to, nor do we yet fully understand it’s implications (either positive, negative, or simply different) for the ways we think about education, learning, research, and so on, well, there are plenty of good theories and research to support the notion that we ought to be at least trying to work in this way, and as long as we keep thinking and talking about what we are doing, we’ll work the tricky things out together along the way, and this is all good learning, and unexpected things may emerge, and that’s all just part of it and it’s nothing to be too afraid of, and that’s just the way a learning community ought to operate”. 

Maurice and Mary’s recent comments also helped to pull us back from becoming overly stuck in a solipsistic “researcher” perspective. Commenting from their own positionings, their comments suggested pulling our focus back to the interactions within a community of learners/educators/researchers – as Maurice suggested “We probably could all learn from sharing narratives as explorations, not positioning ourselves as teachers, learners or researchers, but as all of these.” 

So - back to the conversation that Jennifer and I were having yesterday: We wondered, once again, what do the people who aren’t participating in this online conversation think? What arguments/critiques/theories/evidence is not being presented within our ongoing learning conversation? As researchers we’re used to the idea that the voices we don’t hear are usually the ones that have something different to say. I’ve long been very interested in the silences and absences in this blog/community (longtime readers might remember some of my earlier postings about lurkers). It seems there all kinds of reasons why people don’t comment/participate. Some of the most common ones, I think, include: 

  • I don’t visit shiftingthinking, or don’t check it regularly.
  • I’m not interested in the discussions/ideas here.
  • Blogging is a waste of time. Doing things on the Internet is not real work.
  • I’m too busy/I don’t have enough time (either to read the blog, or to respond to the blog)
  • I can’t see the purpose, I need a more relevant purpose for participating in this site.
  • I like reading the blog but I’m not interested in responding to it.
  • I would like to say something, but don’t quite know how to say it (i.e. composing a response is too hard or time-consuming).
  • I would like to say something, but don’t feel it is worthy of posting (i.e. I don’t think my ideas are well-enough expressed, or I am uncertain about my ideas, or I’m afraid that I might be criticized or held to account for the things I post, or I’d rather not share my ideas publicly at this stage because I haven’t thought them through fully enough).

There are probably other resaons, and for most of our silent/absent friends and colleagues, a combination of these reasons are probably at play. I’m also not saying that everyone has to participate, and I’m certainly not having a go at the lurkers (honest, I still love you, lurkers!). I’m completely aware that it does take time and thought to put together something in writing – much more than, say, participating in a discussion with us at a conference – and that just seems to be part of the territory of this particular medium.  And I can also [grudgingly] accept the fact that perhaps the topics and threads on this blog might not be of interest to that many people in the world! 

Still, we’ve had many occasions where people have chosen to email us, or talk to us at conferences or in the kitchen or tearoom about something from the ShiftingThinking site, rather than posting their thoughts on the site. I can imagine lots of perfectly good reasons why people would opt to take their conversations with us into these more “private” spaces rather than the truly public space of 

However, it is useful (and important) for us to notice the silences and absences here, and we can’t help but speculate as to what those silent and absent voices and perspectives might say in reference to some of the challenging questions and tensions we’ve been discussing?

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Dark and disruptive methodologies

March 29th, 2010

We’ve had a group interview now where some of us inside NZCER who blog here talked about the different ways this blog space shifts our thinking about what it means to conduct qualitative research. One of the key issues that arose was about purpose, about what our purpose was for being here, what your purpose is for showing up, and why we might want to do research differently in the first place. Rachel has already blogged about the purpose of this website (and used the cool idea of “cognitive surplus”). The thing the focus group left me wondering about, though, was the purpose of educational research in general and the ways that blog spaces like this one could be a disruptive and potentially frightening innovation in the world of educational research.

This website-and the conversations that are happening at NZCER because of the website and because of the AERA paper—opens up the possibility for people that there is a new thing afoot, a new way of doing and thinking about research. For some folks (like Rachel, as you may have noticed) that’s a thrill, a buzz, a fun ride. For others (maybe like me?) it’s a curiosity, a thing that is interesting and a little scary, a roller coaster ride with more than a hint of danger. For others of our colleagues (including presumably some of those we haven’t talked to about it at all), there’s more than a hint of danger. For those in the third category, this way of thinking about research –even imagining that we might call this research in the first place—puts cherished ideas and practices at risk, and just might bring down the whole show.

For people who are in the second two categories (nervous but curious and straight-out-worried), this way of thinking about educational research dismantles many good things—and maybe creates ill-advised risks. These folks (which admittedly sometimes include me) think that educational research is untidy enough already—we have all these different perspectives to understand, the messy world of learning and growing—we hardly need to go searching for new challenges! And, let’s face it, it took us YEARS to learn to do research in the first place. Some of us are still paying off our student loans (ok, me again). We took our training seriously and we worked hard to be researchers, and now we have this website where the boundaries get blurred and you can hardly tell the researchers from the researched (and in this project, you can’t tell at all).

There’s a way this reminds me of the “disruptive innovation” idea from Clayton Christensen, that truly reforming innovation has to disrupt and unsettle the entire enterprise.  He says (on his website): that disruptive innovation:

describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.”

A key example is the way personal computers totally displaced the enormous mainframe computers and drove those who were successful to the bottom of the food chain. In an established market, those who are already successfully in the inner circle tend to remain successful until the disruptive innovation climbs in (think regular phones to cell phones, Walkmans to i-pods). Then the new guy, with the new innovation, knocks the old guy off the perch.

The idea is that those who are currently successful get complacent, tinkering their way toward a better and better product rather than reimagining the whole enterprise.  In this way, success actually diminishes innovation and limits the scope for what could be possible. The new, disruptive folks make use of new technologies. They imagine new customer groups, people who were not served in any way by the original product or service. In rethinking the whole idea, they create new markets and new products which are often less sophisticated but are more useful in their own way. Could educational research be like that? Could be a disruptive force?

Is this blog meant to be “selling” educational research, in chatty, blog-bites, to a whole new set of “customers”? And what does that mean for how we think about what we do? What does that mean for the fact that now anyone with a computer can engage with our findings, our analysis, our careful thinking? What does it mean to us that we put thinking out there before it’s even gotten very careful yet? (Or that some of us feel comfortable doing this and some of us don’t.) What is the purpose for the upmarket educational research, conducted by people with years of training, which leads to thoughtful, reflective, carefully-produced products (= journal articles, research reports, occasional resources)? What is the potentially disruptive purpose of the research we talk about in this space? Do we want to build on what has come before or dismantle it?

In the focus group, one of us talked, in moving and lovely ways, about having and its publish-then-filter activities challenge old ways of thinking about and engaging in research. Even more, it challenged “Everything I would have believed for most of my life.” That person was open and engaged with this task, but still, that challenge is a big ask. What are we gaining by asking researchers to reconceive the enterprise? In what ways does educational research need to be disrupted? And in what ways are we losing something precious by changing the way we think about and engage in research?

AERA paper due in just over a week. Your comments are helpful constantly.

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Shiftingthinking or Lolcats?

March 25th, 2010

Spoiler: Although this posting discusses LOST and Lolcats, it is actually deep and meaningful, and you will be rewarded with an interesting 16-minute videoclip, so stick with it!

Given the rather serious intentions of this website, I think it’s amusing that some of the most commented-on-and-revisited postings have been our various “Shakespeare or LOST?” conversations. Much of this conversation has been driven by three of us at NZCER (myself, Jim, and David) and we clearly each have quite different perspectives on LOST as either a literary text, a source of cognitive engagement, and/or a social/cultural phenomenon. (If you haven’t been following this debate and want to catch up, I suggest you start by reading this comment, then this posting and associated comments, and finally this posting).

While I’ve enjoyed these debates, does such a thread really belong on this website? Aren’t we supposed to be discussing more deep and meaningful ideas about how to transform education for the 21st century? What purpose, exactly, are the blogpostings and discussion threads on this website supposed to serve, and does an ongoing discussion about the television show LOST take us any closer to achieving our desired purpose?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately due to the AERA paper that Jennifer and I are currently writing. We’ve been looking to ourselves, our colleagues, and anyone out there in the shiftingthinking community to help us pin down some answers. What I’m coming to realise – particularly through writing Shifting Thinking: The Making of (Part 1) and (Part 2) - is that in one sense, we have (and have always had) a pretty clear idea of what we’re trying to do, and our big-picture intentions around this project/website have been pretty consistent. Yet in another way, we really don’t know exactly where we’re heading, or what might it might look like when we get there, and what else unexpected might emerge along the way. On good days, I find this idea very exciting and inspiring. On bad days, it’s scary and confusing. I’m sure this is something that school leaders, staff, and communities experience when they are undergoing some kind of long-term transformational process! (See Jennifer’s recent posting entitled wondering what’s next )

For me, one of the most interesting possibilities of shiftingthinking is the invitation it extends to you (all of you out there) to participate in, and contribute to shaping, this *thing*, *idea*, this *change* that we’re trying to create. It’s not entirely directionless, and there are some well-thought out, deeply anchored theoretical arguments that underpin our intentions. Thus far our “invitation to participate” is, you might say, a bit limited, because for the most part we are seeking your engagement with us in the form of an online, written conversation through blogs and comments around ideas/threads that we think are worth discussing (don’t forget though, if you have a webcam you can also add video comments to any posting!). We extended this invitation to participate a bit further with the 2009 shiftingthinking conference – where some of you came together with us to go on a two-day journey through some of the most challenging ideas for 21st century education. We asked you to take on some responsibility for shaping the conference, by choosing the dilemmas and tensions that hooked you in the most, and collaborating with us and each other to seek new ways to think about these questions, and new ways to think about changing ourselves and our environments in order to reframe today’s challenges into tomorrow’s new possibilities.

But….are we getting anywhere yet?

With all these thoughts in mind, last week someone I follow on Twitter posted a link to the Clay Shirky video below, which helped  to put all these things into a context that makes sense to me. (I’m a fan – having mentioned Clay Shirky’s book, Here comes everybody, a number of times on this website). In this video clip, Shirky talks about something he refers to as a society’s “cognitive surplus”. Loosely, he seems to mean all the extra cognitive power in a society that isn’t being taken up by our obligations to our existing social institutions (like our work, our schooling, etc). Another way to describe it is “free time”, but measured in terms of thinking capacity. He goes on to discuss the critical technologies in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century that have either sought to absorb/mask/dissipate that cognitive surplus, or those which have actually provided an opportunity to channel that cognitive surplus into something interesting. Rather than me paraphrasing, I now invite you to watch the clip:

There’s plenty of interesting ideas to discuss here, but the point that really sticks out for me is when he says the following:

The interesting thing about a surplus is that at the beginning, you don’t know what to do with it at first. You can’t. Because if you knew what to do with a surplus, with reference to the existing social institutions, it wouldn’t be a surplus would it? It’s precisely when no-one has any idea how to deploy something, until people start experimenting with it and finding new ways of using this, that the surplus gets integrated and in the course of this, transforms society. (Clay Shirky, 2008, Web 2.0 Expo, San Francisco April 22-25)

All this helps me place my/your/our engagement with each other, and with ideas, on shiftingthinking into context. As a huge fan and participant in the social media universe, I’ll be the first to admit that I frequently take up, with glee, the “invitation to participate” that’s offered to me by various social media – Twitter, Facebook, the LOSTpedia, and yes, even Lolcats. But I’m really happy that I can use at least a little bit of my “cognitive surplus” here, with you, on shiftingthinking, where the invitation to participate offers at least some hope of generating an outcome that matters. Even if we don’t know exactly how to get there – yet – I’m inspired to stick with it. Are you?

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Shifting Thinking: The Making of.. (Part 2)

March 19th, 2010

In my last blogposting I attempted to give a brief history of shiftingthinking, including some of the key ideas behind its inception, and various ideas/approaches that have changed over time as the project/site has developed. In the next few postings I’ll continue to draw on and share some of the conversations from our recent group interview with the people at NZCER who’ve contributed to the shaping of shiftingthinking. What follows is my analysis/interpretation of what emerged from the discussions, structured around some of the questions we used to guide the group interview. With permission, I’ve included quite a few direct quotes taken from the discussion. Where several quotes follow in direct sequence, they represent the actual sequence of discussion (although I have omitted a few comments or details from the transcript for brevity). As usual, I invite my colleagues and anyone else reading this posting, to offer comments which might correct, contradict, question, complement, or reframe what’s written here.

Q. Do you think Shifting Thinking has met (or begun to meet) any of its original intentions/purposes/ideas/goals?  (which ones “yes”, which ones “no”, which ones “maybe”?)

One theme that emerged from our discussions is that there were a few different (although overlapping) intentions/purposes/ideas/goals for this project/website, and therefore some debate about what kind of site to build, what to put on it, who to engage in the project, and so on.   

The phrase we had at the time [to describe] what this website was all about – and you can debate what each of these words means and what they mean when they are all put together – was: that [it] was going to “equip people (and I’d written next to that, “which people”?) to think critically about what the knowledge society and the 21st century is going to do about education” (team member/blogger)

In the early days there was considerable debate around what the deep goals were within this general description. For example, as mentioned in my previous blogposting, the original name for the project/website was “thinking things through (T3)” but the name was later changed to “shifting thinking”. This name change was a source of some debate – for example, did the name “shifting thinking” imply that we were trying to shift people’s thinking in a particular direction? If so, in what direction, and guided by what theoretical perspective(s)? If not, what was the key purpose for engaging others in collaborative knowledge-building/critical thinking about the knowledge society and 21st century education? Several of the original team suggested “ontological differences” and differences of opinion lingered around some of these questions in the early days.

But out of these interesting human interactions come great things….some of these situations put you in positions where you have to rethink who you are, what you’re for, what you’re doing, why does it matter, and who cares? (team member/blogger)

Some of the ontological differences seem to have eased when the site started to take its current direction in late 2008. (Though we could legitimately argue that these are still valuable questions to ask about the site today).

If we take some of the statements from NZCER’s 2008 proposal and associated meeting notes from those times, does the team think any of the original goals have been achieved?

Here are some perspectives from the team:

I definitely think “promoting dialogue”, I think that still is a main thing that shifting thinking is trying to do. And “connecting thinking”, “generate new knowledge”, I think it’s trying to do all of these things still. “Build partnerships” and “develop strategies”. I think it is still trying to do all of those things, and in fact, it’s become more fluid. (team member/blogger)

So what’s been lost, well… the partnership thing has changed…. The thing of the project (originally) being a partnership with another organisation ….(team member/blogger)

I think the new site is much more in partnership with the community, than the site we were originally envisaging which was sort of [going to be] academics talking to each other. [Whereas] now, there’s this whole set of people who talk, so it’s a different kind of partnership (team member/blogger)

The excerpted comments above were nested within a wider discussion that included reflections about a) who was (or wasn’t) originally envisaged as having something of value to contribute to the kind of knowledge-building or theory-building that the site could (potentially) support, b) how the project (and site) would be structured in order to bring those people into the knowledge-building/theory development process, c) what that process might look like, and d) who ought to be in control of such a process (or to put it another way, what systems for “quality control” would be used). Overall it seemed to us that we’d moved from a more “high control” approach (where there was a desire to have fairly structured, moderated, and quality-controlled processes for shaping and filtering what happened in, on, and through the site, particularly in relation to the idea of knowledge/theory-building), to a more fluid, open, less tightly-controlled approach.

I’ve got one of the early brainstorm pictures of what we thought it would look like, how the bits would all fit together, and it was more segmented out, that theoretical bit (team member/blogger)

That’s what I remember, a lot of discussion about [the project as a way to] generate new theory … and that was part of the “controls” [aspects of the project] that have disappeared…. I don’t know if [that idea] has been lost or if it has just changed, but it was certainly quite a strong focus of original idea [for the project] whereas now it feels more like sharing of ideas, than generating new theories? (team member)

I think that was one of ideas we talked about [at the beginning] but looking back now, I don’t think a website is the most appropriate place to do that anyway. But if I had any motivation [to be part of this project] at that point, that’s what it was [a platform to build new knowledge/theory]. (team member/blogger)

But that’s where I think some of the “control” idea was, with somebody taking what other people were saying [on the website] and then doing something with it to come up with a new theory, or extend theory, or whatever. (team member/blogger)

So we got to about that point, and then we went around in circles for a while, and people kept asking what are we here for, what is the purpose, who is the audience…. Then….the idea of blogs came up. That was a major turning point I think and made it seem doable, it was something we can focus on and do. Then I don’t remember how but it got merged with Shifting Thinking conference, because those two things originally weren’t anything to do with each other. (team member/blogger)

Our conversation then turned towards the point at which we decided to change the direction of shiftingthinking, (as discussed in my previous blogposting). I proposed a list of things which I think have been consistent about the project from the beginning until today, plus a list of things I think have changed over time. My list was as follows.

Things that have been consistent from the beginning Things that changed over time
  • It is exploratory
  • It is linked with NZCER but also a different kind of space from the normal NZCER website.
  •  It’s about creating dialogue/conversation in the “spaces between” people and ideas
  • It’s about taking a “21st century thinking” approach to the way we think about moving peoples’ thinking and practice forward in/about education.
  • We need to be self-conscious and aware about what theories of change underpin this project (i.e. what kinds of change, who is changing, and how do we think they change?)
  • The site should have “things” to “think with” (thinking objects) as well as opportunities to delve into theoretical/conceptual backgrounds/context for these.
  • Developing this site/project requires us to draw on a range of expertises
  • It has potential to expand our international (and national) networks – even if we don’t know precisely who we might end up networking with as a result.
  • To be sustainable in the long term, we need a mechanism that  self-funding or brings in revenue that extends/continues the work)
From a division of labour between conceptual and technical development, to a more fluid interaction between technical and conceptual. Early in the project there was “conceptual” team and a “technical” team (with a few members who were in both teams). The conceptual team’s main role was to come up with the ideas/purpose, framing and the content. The technical team was responsible for figuring out how to design around/for this content and build a site that would achieve what it was supposed to achieve.  From the point at which we shifted to the foregrounding the blogging/narrative approach the conceptual/technical teams dissipated and dissolved into one another, and the development of shiftingthinking began to be more influenced by social media systems/practices/culture/trends. We continuously tinkered with the site, trying new ideas and features to see how the community would respond.From “filter then publish” to “publish then filter” In the book Here comes everybody (2008) Clay Shirky talks about a paradigm shift from “filter then publish” to “publish then filter” that has occurred through the emergence of online social media. While the ability to publish was once a costly and limited resource,  the low cost of self-publishing on the internet enables anyone to create and publish content which can be accessed by anyone in the world. In the old paradigm, there were many quality control filters in place prior to publication, controlled by knowledgeable experts, to ensure that content which was published was actually worth publishing. In the new paradigm, there is less pre-filtering of content. Anything, of any quality or value, can be published online, and so the “filtering” process tends to occur after, and is often determined by the response/reaction of a wide collection of readers/audiences/critics rather than a predetermined group of experts.   In the early days of shiftingthinking, we were more concerned with how to filter/channel the quality of content before it was put on the site. Our later approach was somewhat less pre-filtered. Quality still matters, but the quality or depth of various ideas/content can continue to be discussed/debated on the site, through extended comments and discussions between us and our readers. We operate on a high-trust basis, believing that our colleagues will think carefully about what they write on the site, and using each other as sounding boards for advice/feedback when we need it, but without requiring that someone checks each posting before it is published.

From structuring by “ideas” to structuring by narratives (bedded within ideas)The first version of ST was structured around a set of conceptual “entry points” (which led into theory, blogs, thinking objects, etc). The current version is structured more around the blogpostings and the narratives within them, and the larger narratives that link between them/through the postings over time. These thread and loop back to the theory ideas, but people do not have to enter the site through a “theory first” route

From “make sure the ideas don’t contradict each other” to an “ecology of ideas” Meeting notes from August 2008 discuss issues of “quality control”, and the need to check that ideas “don’t theoretically conflict”. In our AERA paper proposal, we talk about shiftingthinking as a “web-based ecology”, and consider it as a space where different ideas – sometimes contradictory ideas – can bump up against each other. 

So does the discussion above take us any closer to answering the question at the top of this posting?  Bottom line, how do we think we measure up on meeting our original intentions?

Well when you go back to all those things like dissemination, connecting thinking, building knowledge, we’re still trying to do all these things but objectively speaking, if you wanted to measure, how would you measure the extent to which thinking has been connected,  the extent to which we’ve built new knowledge, the extent to which we’ve built new partnerships, etc? (team member/blogger)

That’s a good question. We certainly talked through these ideas to a greater extent than I can convey in this blogposting, but now I’m interested in hearing what you think….

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Shifting Thinking: The Making of.. (Part 1)

March 15th, 2010

As part of our process for writing our forthcoming AERA paper, we recently convened a group interview with some of our colleagues to talk about the backstory of this site ( (I’ve also read some of the old meeting notes going back the last couple of years). It’s interesting to see how the idea, goals, and hopes that got the process rolling might have changed, evolved, or developed over time, and which key moments and turning points have contributed to’s present incarnation.

Shiftingthinking is one of the most complex and open-ended projects we’ve done at NZCER, and it’s very hard (well, probably impossible) to represent the complete backstory, but I will attempt to give a partial account, and invite others who’ve been part of this journey to correct or contradict it as they see fit.

Very briefly, the idea(s) that led to shiftingthinking was/were born as a collaborative project between NZCER and another organisation (“other horizons”) in approximately 2007-2008. At that time the project had different working name (“Thinking Things Through” or T3), and was:

designed to connect thinking, generate knowledge, build new partnerships, and develop innovations related to the question: ‘how can educators conditioned by 20th century thinking and structures understand and meet the needs of learners in the 21st century?

There were lots of discussions and working documents written by the group of people who were shaping T3, as they thought deeply about what their goals were, whether they all shared and understood the same set of goals, and how to build a website that would support these goals. By June 2008, NZCER had written a proposal that outlined the essence of the project. As an organisation, we were excited by the potential for this project to:

  • consolidate and integrate some of our recent work streams;
  • explore/develop a more “21st century” approach to engaging people to take their thinking and practice forward in education (i.e. moving away from “telling” people how to think in 21st century ways, to modelling 21st century thinking with educators and possibly all kind of other people)
  • explore what it actually looks like/what happens when you (try to) build something to enable “dialogue” and “conversation” and  thinking  “in the spaces between” people and ideas
  • broaden our networks and take these conversations international – “We want to explore new forums for debate, dissemination, dialogue and feedback between the researcher, practitioner and professional development communities, in New Zealand and in the international context”

There were a variety of other ideas and questions in this mix, for example, about the nature of change we want or expect to happen, the role of theory, and the kind of theory that ought to structure or shape the site, who the audience(s) might be, and how they might be engaged into this project with us, and what kind of relationships/partnerships we might want to created in and through the project’s development.  These are, in fact, the “hard” questions which I think we have grappled with throughout this project’s history. We definitely have some very strong ideas (individually and collectively), but I’m not sure we yet have definitive answers. I’ll dodge the bullet and set those questions/issues aside for now, and perhaps try to delve into these (or invite one or more of my colleagues to do so?) in a later posting.

By late 2008 we’d built the first version of the site (which by then had the new name of “shiftingthinking”), using a content management system called Silverstripe, and NZCER was carrying the project forward on its own. A great deal of time was spent thinking about how to structure the site, what content would be on the site, what people could do on the site, etc. We expected that people should be able to navigate through the site in different ways, but we had been developing a structure based around a series of themes or “entry points” into the big ideas, such as: “Change and growth”, “Postmodernism”, “Critical literacy”, and “Systems thinking”. The idea was that these themes or entry points would provide a link between theory pages, “thinking objects”, blogs or forums, etc. But we were having some difficulties making the whole site tie together, and we had nowhere near the amount of content we thought we needed to make the site interesting enough for people to want to visit – and keep visiting.   We were also divided over questions about how and when our imagined “audience” should be able to add content to the site (e.g. through comments, or on discussion forums), and we were debating questions related to the “quality control” processes we might implement, both for the content we created, and for any content co-created by others who might visit/interact with the site.

It was sometime late in 2008 that we arrived at the idea of moving shiftingthinking to a completely different platform – WordPress – and bring the blogs much more into the “foreground”. I had some quite strong views on this – I felt we needed to structure the site in a more of a narrative style, in other words, to start building “our story” of Shifting Thinking (and see if we could hook people into this emerging story) through blogs, which would also draw people into the big ideas/theories/thinking objects that we wanted to connect them with. I also thought we should open up all or most parts of the site to public comments and decide later if we needed to bring in more stringent levels of moderation. I’m not sure that the whole team believed that this was the way to go, but apparently I was convincing enough to persuade them we should give it a try. From that point forward, we started to build the shiftingthinking site in the structure as you see it today (although it has changed and grown and evolved a lot). Many of the current features of the site have been added on in an experimental fashion, as we either have ideas of what we would like to have on the site, or we discover some new technical possibility that we could use in the site. We have ideas, we try them out, see if they work, ask for feedback, tinker with them if we get some feedback, and then wait until we have another (good) idea.  Personally, I think this approach has taken us somewhere, or at least, it allowed this site to get some traction, build a small community, and gave a whole new dimension to the completely unexpected and emergent shiftingthinking conference in November 2009 – (a whole complex story of its own).

So now here we are, in 2010, taking some time out to think about what we’ve achieved, whether we’ve gotten any closer to our original hopes/dreams/goals for this project/website, what we’ve learned, and where we might go next. We’ve developed something, but is it what we thought we wanted to develop at the beginning? Is it something important, useful, or good?  The above is just a skeletal/fragmentary account of shiftingthinking’s backstory, but I hope it’s given you some sense that ideas, people, and process have interacted in a complex way to generate the site you’re seeing today.

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Wondering what’s next

March 8th, 2010

Ally and I have finished up our current round of data collection on the Teachers’ Work project, and are just trying to decide what might be next for us. We thought maybe we’d bring some of our questions and our thinking to this group to see if anyone else wanted to think alongside us.

When this project began, we were interested in how teachers made sense of their work, especially how teachers who were interested in 21C ideas made sense of it. We wanted to know how real teachers were thinking about what 21C education might be, how they were teaching in their schools, how they made sense of having ideas in the first place. We’ve done some of that, decided other bits were too big, and been confused and enlightened along the way. Now we’re trying to figure out what might be next for us.

We’re interested in the way that individual teachers make sense of their context and their aspirations for the future, and we’re interested in how that sensemaking actually shapes the context and what is possible for the future. We’re interested in how leaders shape their school contexts—and are shaped by them. We’re interested in where the power lies in the system—where the shifting thinking could be most useful, most likely to make a big change in the way kids experience teaching and learning.

The question for us now is: what’s the question for us now? We know that we have not found answers to this big question about leverage points, and we know that very many other things are already known about teachers and how they think and work and schools and why they are so hard to change. But given all that we know, what would be useful for us to explore together? What’s the key missing question?

Now, Ally and I enjoy theory enormously. But this is a practical undertaking we’re discussing here. We want a practical way to understand how schools can change, not a theoretical model of how change might possibly happen. Usually if you’re a researcher and you want to understand something practical, you need to go out and look at something. We’re not aware of schools that have really made it in this regard, schools that everyone knows have transformed teaching and learning so that younger people and older people (inside and outside the local school) experience a different kind of education. You readers might know about those schools, and might be able to say, School X has totally transformed. We’d like to hear from you about School X.

What we’re more familiar with, and we’re guessing you’re more familiar with, are schools that are trying to change. We could name dozens of schools with fantastic older and young people, who are trying to reshape the way teaching and learning and schooling happens. We know of communities where this is contentious, communities where this is invisible, communities where this is deeply supported. But all the ones we know would say that they’re on a journey, that 10% or 40% or 60% of the students/teachers/community members are on board. But we don’t know anyone who has arrived, and we don’t know anyone who isn’t fighting madly along the way.

So, if there are no models to say “this is where we’re going,” we can’t research those.  Indeed, what Ally and I think might be true is that we’re on a journey for which there is no “arrival,” no 100% on board.  We’re moving into an unknown future, trying to take a whole bunch of people who care a lot about schools along with us, and we don’t really know where we’re going. This makes for a tricky research question.

We wonder if you might help. We have an unresearchable question like: “How do you support yourself and others to move into an unknown future?” Now we wonder what questions you have about this whole topic that we might be able to engage with in order to figure out how we’re thinking about things and what we might do next. This is a question that needs a lot of heads thinking together for us to ask just the right question. Will you lend us your head, your questions?

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Blurry lines

February 22nd, 2010

Rachel has been writing about our AERA paper and project, and she’s been thinking about how we came to be at this place as a collective—you and me, all of us here at NZCER, all of you who were at the conference, all of us who blog or read or lurk or comment.

I’m thinking today about the methodological implications of what we’re doing here, about what it means to conduct and share research this way.

Some of you who read and write here have been participants in our research projects. Some of you have been researchers. This website means that suddenly, all of us are both—part of the research (into this grand experiment) and also part of the researchers. This makes for rather blurry lines, as Rachel has written about in the ethics blogs. It also makes for blurry lines in the methodology.

When I was a grad student learning research, my teacher (the brilliant and fantastic Reba Page) talked with us about the ways our question and our data collection and our analysis plan all needed to link up and connect our ideas together in a coherent package. We weren’t to make the mistake many researchers (still) make where we had a research question, a favourite research method, and a favourite analysis theory or method which were unconnected to one another except through us, as though we picked them from three different hats. (It always reminded me of those little board books my kids played with, where you could get the head and shoulders of one animal, the midsection of another, and the legs of a third—all now creating an entirely new creature.) This is no easy feat, or else everyone would do it. It has the researcher as a thoughtful composer of the research, intentionally layering on one piece after the next, being sure each instrument is in harmony and each contributes to a rich and satisfying—and trustworthy—piece of research.

What we are finding now as we play with this new kind of research is that it’s more like inviting a whole lot of people to a jam session than composing a concerto. Here we have much less control than we had once. We go public with our research questions at the beginning, and others begin to shape them with their questions. Is this the research design stage or are we already collecting data? We go public with our initial analysis, and others start to reanalyse—sometimes even those who were research participants in the first place. When one of your research participants begins to add new categories to your codes, is that more data or is that analysis? And is that research participant now a research partner in a different way? What principles or techniques do we use to choreograph the whole performance of the research?

All of this means that the typical pieces we’ve long thought of as research stages—which yes, we always knew weren’t iron clad or utterly bounded—are more fuzzy than ever. We used to know when data collection was (mostly) finished and analysis and drafting of outputs had begun. Now we put those initial ideas out (does that make it an output?) and others comment (does that make it data?) and we rethink and reshape (more analysis!). The filter-then-publish world has some great benefits in its clarity.

Of course, even before the internet, some people were wrestling with these issues. When I was in grad school, we published Reba’s sophisticated and courageous piece of research about what happened when she reported her findings to research participants who might not like what she had found (Page, Samson, & Crockett, 2000).  Still, Reba kept control of the process—it was hers—even as she shared that control with others. How do we negotiate control with you in this blog space? How do we share with you things you might not like to hear? How do you tell us things we might not want to hear? (And how do we do this in an international setting which is also still mostly the intimate New Zealand society where we may well know one another in several different contexts?) How do we stay courageous and help you be courageous too (and how can we en-courage each other)? And what does this mean about power and the creation of knowledge and what is good and trustworthy research?

See, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but together we can play with them. Or maybe you could add new ones. I’m not sure what phase of research this is, but it does seem to be helping to shift my thinking about research…


Page, R., Samson, Y., & Crockett, M. (2000). Reporting ethnography to informants. In B. Brizuela, J. Stewart, R. Carrillo, and J. Berger (Eds.), Acts of Inquiry in Qualitative Research. Cambridge, MA Harvard Educational Review.

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