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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?

Future focussed issues, Shifting research, Shifting schooling, Teachers' work , , , , , , , , ,

What should the “nature of science” look like in the school curriculum?

March 3rd, 2010

(I have more questions than answers.) 

I’ve just read an article sent to me by a UK colleague who shares my interest in making changes in the way we teach genetics at secondary school. The paper is about “Biological Citizenship”. It was written by Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas. They are sociologists whose interest in the “nature of science” links it to work done on how the public interacts with science, not to the school curriculum. But I think the things they write about raise huge questions for those of us who work in the school sector. You can access the whole article here.

In this paper they set out to describe and discuss what biological citizenship in the 21st century looks like and how it changes who we are – how we think about ourselves, how others might look at our potential “biovalue” and what we do when faced with a biological issue that impacts on our life (or others might expect us to do). Here are two excerpts from the many examples and ramifications Rose and Novas explore (I added the italics):

… while patients’ organisations and support groups have been around for many years, today we see one notable innovation: the formation of direct alliances with scientists. Patients organisations are increasingly not content with merely raising funds for biomedical research but are seeking an active role in shaping the direction of science in the hope that they can speed the process by which cures and treatments are developed. (p.24)

 …a key feature of the Internet is that it does not only give access to material disseminated by professionals, it also links an individual to self-narratives written by patients or carers. These accounts usually offer a different narrative of life with an illness, setting out practical ways of managing a body that is ill, the effect and harms of particular therapeutic regimes, ways of negotiating access to the health care system and so forth. That is to say, these narratives provide techniques for leading a life in the face of illness. They have a further distinctive feature which relates to truth itself. Strategies for making up biological citizens ‘from above’ tend to represent the science itself as unproblematic: they problematize the ways in which citizens misunderstand it. But these vectors ‘from below’ pluralize biological and biomedical truth, introduce doubt and controversy, and relocate science in the fields of experience, politics and capitalism. (p.14)

Reading this discussion raised huge questions for me about what we teach in school and why – questions about content itself, but most especially questions about what we mean by the “nature of science” and what difference we expect it to make to the ways we teach content. One question I have is “whose nature of science?” I’ve read a lot of research literature that explores NOS as an idea. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of it is a deficit literature. It talks about what teachers don’t know and won’t do. But this is mostly in relation to what we might call an “epistemological” view of NOS that focuses largely on questions of how experts come to make definitive knowledge claims – what Rose and Novas would call ‘from above’ versions of NOS. I think the ‘from below’ actions they describe have huge implications for how we think about what we mean by NOS for the school curriculum. My own position on this is not yet well resolved but I do see it as helpful that the NOS strand of the curriculum is linked closely to the key competencies by the way the sub-strands have been named and developed. I’m especially thinking about “participating and contributing” here. The participatory two-way nature of interactions citizens have with science really jump out of the above descriptions. (By two-way I mean that ordinary people who interact with a biomedical issue can influence the science that happens, not just be influenced by it.) Bullet point four of the science learning area statement implies a focus on current and future participation too (but not necessarily the more radical “two-way” dimension):

By studying science students will … use scientific knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about the communication, application, and implications of science as these relate to their own lives and cultures and to the sustainability of the environment. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p.28)

If we really mean to help students reach these sorts of outcomes (actually do we?) what might we need to do differently? How could you, while still at school, learn to “be” a person who is ready, willing and able (to borrow Margaret Carr’s framing of key competencies) to do the sort of things Rose and Novas describe? What science do you need to know? What sort of NOS might help and how? Who helps students bring the pieces together (social sciences not just science)? Assuming we can imagine some answers, how can we even make it possible for these sorts of changes to take place? What might happen if we don’t change? (Rose and Novas are not writing science fiction – these things they describe are happening already.) It would be good to share ideas because these won’t be easy questions to answer.

Shifting schooling , , , , , , ,

NZ Curriculum in Action PD Day

February 3rd, 2010

NZ Curriculum In Action was a professional development day created for two purposes:

  • To bring together the isolated pockets of educators already working in the direction of the new curriculum, and connect them with educators looking to develop their teaching in that direction but wanting to be inspired by what was possible.
  • To build a professional learning community that fostered interest in the theory and practice of 21st century teaching ideas.

Originally envisioned in a traditional workshop model, the organisers soon realised that it would be incongruous to run a PD day looking at 21st century ideas in a very traditional, 20th century way. So we adapted the concept of the World Café to give us an opportunity to run the day in a very different way.  Gone was the single presenter lecturing to the audience. Instead the room was set with five table clusters, and each presenter session saw five different presenters, one per table, leading a more intimate group discussion of what they were about, enabling more questions and discussions to occur than during a traditional style presented session. Flat screens were available to make anything on laptop easy for the group to see. These sessions were interspersed with discussion sessions around provided open-ended questions. The questions were designed to enable thought-provoking discussion and debate about some of the philosophical ideas underpinning the direction that the new curriculum allows education to go.

In order to minimise as many barriers as possible to people attending, the day was provided at no cost. The venue was generously made available by the Foundation Studies Dept of Manukau Institute of Technology, tea and coffee was generously provided by Team Solutions, and all participants were asked to contribute a plate of food for an ongoing buffet table that people could help themselves to whenever they wanted. There was a structure and timeframe to the day, to enable workability, but the overall intention was to create an atmosphere of inclusivity, flexibility, and connection, to encourage people to communicate what was important to them about the direction of education, and to learn from each other.

Held on November 26th, the day was promoted through email contacts, the most productive email lists were the Team Solutions Secondary Science list and the Specialist Classroom Teacher list. I hope to find access to other similarly effective contact lists to be able to reach more teachers in future. The original aim was the secondary sector, but across all subject areas, as the concept of inclusivity and connectedness between learning areas is one aspect encouraged by the new curriculum that I find particularly encouraging. However, as the planning for this day went on, it soon became apparent that building the connections and understanding between primary, secondary and tertiary sectors is as important as building the connections and understanding between subject areas in secondary schools, or between syndicates in primary schools or departments in tertiary institutions. I was pleased to have presenters and participants from all three sectors of the education system, and hope to be able to have a more balanced representation of all sectors in future events.

How did this day dream itself into being? I was in the early stages of a community leadership course run by Landmark Education, and had already selected a project to create, when I was introduced to the new curriculum in such a way that I actually saw it for its full potential.  For myself I saw the way to bridge the gap between my personal philosophy about what education should be, and what I instead would find myself putting into practice in my classroom – a disparity that I always felt but had little idea how to do anything about, and so had always ignored and made the best of. More importantly I also saw that the paradigm shift required to move from the traditional concept of education to what the new curriculum makes possible is not going to be easy for a lot of our colleagues, and so this gift to education could so easily fail to achieve its potential. And so I became determined to do something to help encourage forward thinking and action. My original project idea was shelved in favour of what became known as NZC in Action. What I was surprised by was the so very positive response to this professional development day, right from the outset. It then evolved and grew into something bigger and more valuable than my original idea, and the proof of this pudding was the 50+ presenters and participants that travelled from up to two hours away to attend, the large numbers of positive comments people made to me in passing across the day, the energy present in the room, and the wonderful feedback and supportive suggestions made on our survey forms. Even before the day itself, I had people contact me to say that they couldn’t make that date but wanted to be kept informed for the next one.  People clearly saw a need for an opportunity like this.

What was presented? In no particular order… Kate Slattery (M.I.T.) - Higher order thinking and questioning strategies that get students thinking for themselves; Dr Karen Dobric (One Tree Hill College) - school structures and qualification pathways and what needs to be addressed to allow us to better meet the needs of our students; Larraine Barton (Pakuranga College) – the thinking and planning behind how the Science Dept at Pakuranga College developed their new and different programme in Junior Science;  Melanie Wiersma (Clendon Park School) - using digital tools extensively and to very positive effect to develop independent learners in the classroom; Ang Whitlam (St Mary’s College) - using ICT in innovative ways to support learning in Science; Sarah Painter (Team Solutions) – integrated and contextual learning, cross-curricular teaching; Oriel Kelly (M.I.T.) - using the internet as a teaching tool; Sharra Martin (Alfriston College) – what’s been happening at Alfriston College; Sandy McGivern (One Tree Hill College) – the Shifting Thinking Conference for those who missed it; Anna Gibbs/Harold Russ (King’s College) – integrated units and Harvard’s Teaching For Understanding; Diane Hartley and Toni Shaw (Albany Senior High School) – what’s going on at Albany Senior High School; Jenny Pope (Team Solutions) - Empirical vs Rational Thinking, educational philosophy;  Libby Slaughter (Monte Cecilia School) – Enquiry-based learning.

Where to from here? The survey showed an overwhelming enthusiasm for more of the same, the two most popular suggestions were a blog site and a continuation of the NZC in Action days, at the frequency of once a term. A large number of people signalled their interest not just in attending again, but in being a part of bringing the next PD day into being. I will be getting in contact with those generous people in the New Year so that we can put together the next NZC in Action day with many hands making the job effortless.

My particular thanks to the key supporters and organisers, Mike Stone, Harold and Linda Russ, Sarah Painter,  Anna Gibbs and Jenny Pope, and the numerous people I met and talked with from Team Solutions, Shifting Thinking, M.I.T, and schools around Auckland who answered my opening question of “So who do you know that’s doing edgy and innovative things that I can show to the world?” with great enthusiasm and support. And finally to the group of presenters, who were the embodiment of NZC in Action, generously sharing their ups and downs, breakthroughs and hiccups to help support and encourage others as to what can be done. You really made our day!

Note: This really was much easier to bring into being than you’d think! And so rewarding, being part of building a community of like-minded people. If anyone wants to see something similar happen in their area, please get in touch with me, I’d love to help support other similar professional learning communities getting underway, in other parts of the country!

Sandy McGivern

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Educating for the 21st century – is this just about school?

November 23rd, 2009

Others have written about communities learning together and of the fluid and ever changing nature of communities. The point has been made that we need dialogue between different groups within the community, such as between people within what we currently call formal education and people in the wider community (parents, employers, etc). Others have highlighted the more permeable boundaries between the formal (usually in the context of schooling) and the informal (community-based, out of school experiences, etc) and the enriched opportunity to learn that when this occurs.

As I have mentioned in other blog entries I attended a symposium, Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century and I one thing I am left wondering about is why when we talk about educating for the 21st century the assumption commonly made is that the conversation is about the education of 5-17/18 year olds (being in the US the speakers all referred to K-12)? The title of the symposium didn’t suggest to me that attention would just be on these years. There was maybe a hint in the high level questions posed in the programme: “How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century; and “How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world? But, with the exception of references to the importance of learning in the very early years all the conversation focused on the systems of schools and schooling. Interestingly too there was only passing thought given to maybe re-thinking aspects of schooling. The conversation was mostly about how can we use the knowledge that we have from a variety of disciplines to improve the way we educate young people, mostly in terms of the curriculum we offer and the pedagogy we use. There was some acknowledgement that adults would need to learn new things, in this case the teachers who will need to take account of developing knowledge from neuroscience and psychology given that such knowledge could help improve the learning of their students.

Now of course we know how important learning is during the years of schooling but the very early years are also critical (with growing evidence that these years are even more important than we have realised) and the kind of education that supports learning post school; at work, and throughout life seem rather important too! We can, of course, hope that schools can be beacons ­ as many already are ­ of what 21st century learning might involve but to me it feels too narrow a window to be pinning all our hopes and attention in these years of life. Do we need a more spacious definition of “education system” so the default position isn’t just a focus on schools but takes account of the kind of “systems” we need at the various stages of life? Or, given that many are advocating more permeable boundaries between the so called “formal” and “informal” systems maybe we need new terminology so that we keep our conversation on education and learning and not on the “systems” of today?

Community engagement, Shifting schooling , , ,

Opportunity to contribute and participate

October 27th, 2009

Thanks Rachel for your comments on the first thinking piece I wrote from the conference.

The second idea that I found myself musing on as I reflected on the conversations held during the Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century symposia relates to the “opportunity to contribute and participate”. I am curious if you think there is anything  useful or new here that can nudge our thinking forward in terms of what might constitute a 21st century curriculum in practice. The essence of the idea is that young people are living in the 21st century, that they have insights that we can learn from, and that they have a contribution to make ­ and we need to provide the tools and the opportunities for them to do this. In the context of schooling some commentators suggested that young people need to be considered as resource and not a problem to be fixed. Ronald Dahl, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, highlighted the fact that although early life is very important in shaping the brain there are other important times too. He suggested that adolescence may be a unique time with new interactions developing between neural pathways. It is a time when thinking and control systems are getting stronger and with scaffolding, he thought, this energy can be used to ignite passions; to take action in purposeful activities. Another speaker, Jacquelynne Eccles, said it was young people who led the de-segregation of schools in the United States and asked “how can we encourage them to take responsibility – to understand that they have the opportunity to make changes”. She used a wonderful metaphor of leadership, calling for young people to be “thermostat leaders” – changing the climate of the society and for them not to be as many leaders ­ merely “thermometer leaders” ­ who just read and report on the climate.

The idea of young people having the energy and ideas to shape a more positive  future was picked up by other speakers. It was suggested that many young people are interested in contributing, in making a difference to current global challenges, such as global warming, and are open to being engaged. However, the opportunity to participate in this way is often limited and as Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, suggested we often say, “don’t get distracted, concentrate on school stuff” rather than saying “here’s a window of opportunity to work in the community”. A number of examples were given that illustrated how powerful such experiences can be for learning. One commonly used is for older students who are struggling to succeed at school to have the opportunity to teach younger children. This strategy takes what the older kids have to give, recognises this and draws on it, and so provides a context for building confidence and the courage to continue to learn. To be able to contribute, participate ­ and lead ­ young people need not only to be given opportunities; they also need to be given the tools to take up such work.  Further they need to think they have something to contribute. This was an idea raised by researcher Peter Benson whose work involves talking with young people and he too took the position that young people were not vessels to be filled up but flames to be lit. His research, which involves interviewing young people demonstrated that while about 75% of young people can identify and talk about what really interests them, and the other 25% can do so with gentle probing, the significant adults in their lives (such as parents and teacher) frequently were unaware of this interest. Overall, Benson’s research has shown that: (1) everyone can describe what gives them joy and satisfaction, what Benson calls their “spark”; (2) young people yearn for authentic relationships: (3) they want opportunities to nourish the “spark”; and (4) they are keen to live in a community where they are seen as a resource not a problem to be fixed. He wasn’t suggesting that “sparks” should necessarily relate to a vocation, in fact he argued that they shouldn’t be turned into a vocation too soon. What was important was nourishing this interest/passion as it was this that helps people thrive and so feel compelled to participate and contribute in the world of today. He suggested that we should be asking all young people the following questions: what is your spark; who helps nourish your spark; who knows of  your spark; what gets in the way of your spark; how can I help?

There aren’t really any new ideas in all this either but perhaps it is helpful to think about them in the context of notions of our notions of participation and contribution, one of the key competencies in the New Zealand school curriculum. What do you think?

Shifting schooling , ,

Thinking tool 1: Understanding Transitions: Endings

October 23rd, 2009

As we talk about school change, and as we sometimes write about the changes to structures and societies that will unfold over the next years, we can’t forget that each piece of school change is about shifting the thinking and practice of all the people inside the schools, that societal or educational change is the result of millions of individual choices by thousands of people around the world. And that making those millions of little changes is super hard.

Ultimately, we have a guess that the very hardest part of shifting our thinking towards new ways of teaching and learning for the 21st Century is not the changing of practice but the necessary changing of minds. It seems to me that teachers and principals don’t simply need to change what they do, but who they believe they are. In order for a focus on key competencies to really blossom, teachers and principals may need to think in knowledge in new ways. If teachers and others think about knowledge in new ways, they have to think about their very role in new ways. And often teachers and principals—like many others in helping professions—are so strongly invested in their roles that they actually are their roles. As one teacher I interviewed told me, “My job is like my identity; if I don’t do this well, who am I, anyway?”

A beautiful ending. What loss are we mourning?

A beautiful ending. What loss are we mourning?

So the question isn’t just about how do we change our practices but how do we change our minds about ourselves?

If we’re really going to shift our schooling, I think we need to spend as much of our time on the meaning of the change as we do on the content of the change.  One way is to recognise some of the stages of change. William Bridges, in his groundbreaking book, Transitions (the 25th anniversary edition was published in 2004), points out that we often don’t pay attention well to the different stages of making a change. The first stage Bridges points to is the idea that we need to focus on Endings before we can even begin to deal with what’s next. After Endings, Bridges names an often-neglected phase: the Neutral Zone. Finally, only after we’ve spent time inside the Neutral Zone will we be able to come to a place of New Beginnings.

I thought today I’d just talk a little about the Endings phase, because we need to think about what we’re giving up before we can move on more fully to where we want to be next. Bridges says—and many others who have come afterwards support this—that people tend not to focus enough on the endings, for fear of getting stuck there or giving into sad emotions. But Bridges tells us that without at least some space mourning what we’ve lost, we will not be able to move to a better and new place. The mourning is about fully recognising what we have given up, which is the first critical step. I wonder if we could give some of our time over to missing what’s lost before ploughing ahead to what’s next.

This raises a question in my mind about whether we should try and spend some time in this blog thinking about what we’ll be mourning about the loss of 20C education if we move toward ending of the way things are now. I wonder whether we need to mourn the loss of teacher-as-expert and content-knowledge-as-knowable and the kinds of certainty that we had in the past. Because even if we know that the old ways aren’t working anymore (and even if some wonder if they ever really worked to teach all the students), there will still be parts of who we used to be as teachers and principals and educators that we may be sorry to give up.

I wonder what those parts are for readers here. What parts of your job or your role do you think are at risk in this move toward more 21C ways of teaching and learning? Which of those changes feel like a loss to you? What are you most afraid you’ll have to give up in order to progress along this path?

[This piece is updated and revised version of one which was located for a few weeks on the NZCER Curriculum Conference blog space.]

Conference: November 2009, Shifting schooling , , , ,

Opportunities to Learn

October 18th, 2009

I have just attended a symposium in Washington DC that was designed to provide a conversation about the kind of education that would be most likely to provide young people with the tools they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The conversation drew on perspectives from educational theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and the wisdom of the contemplative traditions. So what did I learn that might help us as we think about shifting our thinking ­ and that of our students’ ­ to 21st century thinking? The first thing that struck me was that there were few new insights from the educators.  On the other hand, the importance of positive relationships and the need to actively support the social and emotional well-being of young people ­ as a necessary condition for cognitive achievement ­ was reinforced again and again. This is not new knowledge but it is useful to be reminded how important these factors are if young people are to actually have the opportunity to reach their potential. These are qualities also needed by 21st century educationalists, as argued by Christopher (May 18).

There were two ideas that I thought might contribute to our discussion, both of which focus on the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy.  I will begin with the first idea which I think of as “opportunities to learn”. In this context there were two areas raised that gave me particular food for thought and I am sure many of you will be able to add insights that will extend the points made.

Drawing on current research into brain development, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, argued that as the brain is plastic, and will change in response to experience, education literally changes a child’s brain, its function and structure. This is particularly true in the early years but is also true during adolescence (and as we now know, it is actually never too late as brain cells continue to make new connections throughout life). However, an early investment is healthy brain development is better! In this context Davidson argued that a very important skill to learn was that of self regulation; the ability to regulate emotions. There are times where having  negative emotion is a helpful response but not if it persists beyond the point it is useful. He gave the example of a student having an argument between classes and suggested that if the negative emotion is still lingering in the next class it will interfere with the ability to learn. If these kind of disruptive events happen frequently then the opportunity to learn will be seriously impaired. He also pointed out that in the last 100 years the average age for the onset of puberty has gone from 16 to 11 (in some cultures). However, one of the parts of our brain – the prefrontal cortex ­ is not fully mature until early 20s. So this gives a lengthy time in which the capacity of the brain to regulate emotions is not as well developed which led Davidson to pose the question “can we teach our children to better regulate their emotions, to recover from adversity more quickly”? His research suggests that a productive avenue to pursue is interventions derived from contemplative practices which can assist regulate emotions and make for more steady attention (this might be as simple as having quiet times during the day or taking a more formal approach such as meditation). He also suggested that qualities such as empathy, calmness, and cooperation are best seen as skills that can be taught and learnt and not as fixed personality characteristics. Other speakers also cited research that showed that practices that support social and emotional learning have a positive impact on academic achievement. The point was made that there is a need to practice these ways of being, as the state a mind is in on a daily basis will become its “normal” state.

The second area was also one related to supporting the opportunity to learn. One of the other speakers, the psychologist Nancy Eisenberg, apart from also reinforcing the importance of young people being nurtured through positive relationships, explored the importance of emotional regulation as well – and ways educators might support learning to self regulate. Her research indicates the importance of adults modelling such practices and using reasoning to talk through issues and emotional responses as this helps young people to learn to manage themselves positively. A negative practice, she argued, was to take a punitive approach as then the young person only focuses on themselves and their punishment and doesn’t learn about the consequences of their actions on others.

Both these examples reinforce the importance of an education that is holistic ­ that provides the opportunity for students to be educated as cognitive and emotional, ethical and social beings whose lives are deeply interconnected with others. It is a reminder that developing particular habits of mind are just as important as developing cognitively, well in that these are intertwined.  Educators have long understood the importance of educating the whole person and this is an approach that is evident in curricula that emphasise knowledge and competencies (as described in the New Zealand curriculum). It is interesting to see the growing evidence from other disciplines of the importance of these competencies for any learning. It is also an ongoing challenge to develop ways of supporting students to actually develop their competencies so they are truly prepared to deal with, learn, and thrive, in the complex world in which they live. I know there are many schools that are already supporting students to learn “habits of mind” and that they have been doing so for many years. It is a timely reminder that such learning is just as important – and perhaps more so ­ in the context of a 21st century framework.

Shifting schooling , ,

Dilemmas and diversity

October 5th, 2009

Those of you ShiftingThinkers who have been paying attention to the conference page will see that we’ve recently put up the descriptions for the first day of the conference (that’s Act II to those of you participating right now in Act I).  This description includes a hint about “thinking tools” which are a collection of theories that we’ll talk about and then use to talk through the content in the four main talks of the day. We’ll use these theories as tools to talk about gaining traction on actually creating and sustaining new ways of teaching and learning and schooling on the second day as well.

The thinking tools are the ones I find the most helpful as I work to support folks to gain real traction on changing their practices—which turns out to be just about the hardest thing in the world to do, even if you really really want to change.  People have been writing about the difficulty of change for as long as people have been trying to change, and while we’re getting a lot closer to understanding the psychology and sociology—and even the physiology of change—it’s still a pretty hard thing to do.

One key reason about this is that with big changes, we’re often managing core dilemmas that reach into the very heart of our identity. Take the issue of diversity, which organisations and schools have been wrestling about for as long as there have been organisations and schools. The first step towards change tends to be for people to agree that it’s important for those who are different to have the same opportunities and advantages of those who are currently in power.  As probably all of us are aware, that move can take some years to achieve. Once we’ve achieved it, though, it would seem that now all we need to do is figure out the mechanics; we know what we want and now just have to go about getting it. Alas, it’s not so easy as that, as we can tell from the struggles we’ve had to make sense of these differences through history (and why New Zealand, which was the first country to give women the vote, still has unequal pay for equal work).  Is it just the mechanics of the thing keeping us back? If we understood how to make it happen, would that be easier?

Well, er, no. Look at people who want to stop drinking or smoking. They know how not to drink and smoke. And they may even be convinced, seriously in their heart-of-hearts, that their habit is killing them. So why don’t they make the break, get the patch, check into a detox centre? One key reason may well be because they would have to give up a piece of who they are if they were to give up this thing which is killing them. Giving up their way to relax, to unwind, to be with their friends, to find comfort and peace or happiness. Giving up comfort/ peace/ happiness—this is a big ask.

And often, to get gains even that we all agree might be the best outcome for the most people, some of us have to pay this kind of comfort/ peace/ happiness price—to get good things for us all. To get pay equity, for example, many many people would have to give up some piece of their salaries (because it is likely true that for women’s salaries to rise some, men’s salaries would have to decline some). This is not only monetary loss, but a loss of what money can symbolise:  security, pride in our work, proof that we are appreciated or valued.

Similarly, for us to act as though we really believed in diversity, not just make space for the occasional ceremonies and assemblies, but to actually transform schools to be spaces where every type of child would thrive, we would necessarily have losses. We’d have to give up some measure of comfort and understanding, we’d have to have an in-between time where things were different, we’d have to give up our traditional and comfortable ways of thinking about achievement and school success and probably even school curriculum and content. Teachers and parents and students would all be unsettled by this transformation and there would be some times when it felt like it was all a terrible terrible mistake. So while (nearly) everyone would sign up to the value of diversity, for many of us, the actual cost of it turns out to be more than we can take. This is generally true of every difficult change. We need new ways of thinking about how to make sense of the potential for loss and risk.

It isn’t all loss and risk, though. Often what we seek in trying to find a new way of understanding these core dilemmas is a third way, where neither side wins out over the other but a synthesis of the two come together to create a whole new option. Todd Pittinsky at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is one of the many people looking for some alternative to the dilemmas of living with difference. He urges a move away from the “tolerance of diversity” (which brings with it a variety of costs and gains) to something he calls “allophillia”. Allophillia is a love of the other, a love of that which is different from us (check out an article about this here).

This love stuff sounds pretty good at first, but even third way spaces are fraught with difficulty. Love, as we all know, is itself risky, involves giving up a sense of who we are and what our future holds. These losses, like the others in this blog, are big ones. And at the same time, love can also be pretty fantastic—the payoff, like so many others in this blog, is also significant. If allophillia is the promise land, though, it may well take some years of wandering through the desert for us to find it.  The journey from where we are now to where we want to be next is a journey of uncertainty and confusion, of discomfort and fear, of loss and anxiety. It is our hope, though, that if we stay together and think and work hard together, the promised land will be sweet. What do we need to pack for the trip?

Conference: November 2009, Shifting schooling , , , ,

Examined Life

July 27th, 2009
(c) Rachel Bolstad, 2007

(Examine these) Footprints (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2007

A few of just saw Examined Life, a documentary screening at the NZ International Film Festival. If this happens to be coming to a theatre near you, or you can locate a copy on DVD – you should!

This documentary features 8 contemporary philosophers, each one filmed in a different environment as they cogently talk the audience through some of their ideas and theories. As the film’s official synopsis explains:

Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques. Slavoj Zizek questions current beliefs about the environment while sifting through a garbage dump. Michael Hardt ponders the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure. Judith Butler and a friend stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism. And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West—perhaps America’s best-known public intellectual—compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be. Offering privileged moments with great thinkers from fields ranging from moral philosophy to cultural theory,  Examined Life reveals philosophy’s power to transform the way we see the world around us and imagine our place in it.

I’d love to get hold of this film on DVD, as it’s a wonderfully provocative thinking object (Let’s hope the DVD will be available to New Zealand viewers). As I was watching it I had lots of thoughts about how various ideas they discussed were so relevant to our thinking about education and learning in the 21st century.  The trouble is, there was so much to think about and I wasn’t able to take notes! All of us who saw it agreed we wanted to watch it again. We want to be able to pause the film after each philosopher’s segment to discuss their ideas.  In the meantime, I’ve done a quick foray on Google Scholar to find some of the books and articles written by the Examined Life philosophers. Some of them look a bit hard for bedtime reading, but these two are going on my “to read” list:

Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. London: Penguin

Nussbaum, Martha (1997) Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

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Binding–and releasing–metaphors, images, and rituals

July 7th, 2009

Back at the office now, and the sun is shining in Wellington! I had almost forgotten what that looked like. Here in the southern hemispheric winters, I’m constantly reminded about both how far I am from the place I used to call home (Washington DC–so hot this time of year) and also how connected we are instantly to people everywhere.

Thinking about Rachel’s comments on the comments to my last posting, I’ve been thinking about, well, thinking together. And as I want to have conversations with those of you on this website, those of you in this office, those of you who were at the hui (and those of you I’ve never met actually or virtually), I’m also thinking about the conversations we have with things in our individual past, things in our collective past, in the metaphors and symbols and rituals that we’re so immersed in we can hardly see them. We’re gathering images and stories for our November conference, and so I’ve been thinking about what our individual and collective images about schooling might be. Here, oddly, is the first one that comes into my head.

A 21C kid but a 20C teacher?

A 21C kid but a 20C teacher?

When my daughter was not quite 6 years old, after dinner she would take her baby brother (about 2) and our friend’s son (1.5) and play with them in that big-sister way she had. Often they would “go to school” after dinner, and the parents would watch the ritual played out in the lounge–three children, only one of whom had ever been to school, and the school that these kids would collectively create.

Naomi would sit the boys down on cushions on the floor, and she’d drag an ottoman over to be her table. Scene set, she’d grab something to teach about: a globe or a book. She’d stand in front of the seated, quiet boys, and ask them questions. Pointing to a random spot on the globe, she’d ask, “Does anyone know the name of this country?” The boys, who were not yet speaking much, would gurgle something or another. “No, Aidan. That is NOT the name of this country,” Naomi would sometimes admonish. “It is Heppalongabarah,”  she’d explain confidently (she couldn’t read much, either). The boys would try to pronounce whatever word she had just made up, and eventually they would get something she was satisfied with, and she’d congratulate them. They’d smile delightedly and sit quietly for the next question to come.

Searching for a new kind of school for the future?

Searching for a new kind of school for the future?

I would watch, amused and also horrified. How did we expect anyone to change their visions of schools if my 5-year-old daughter–who had been to an alternative, cooperative preschool and was now at a funky Spanish/English public school–had the most conservative and conventional images of school! And these boys who couldn’t really even talk were being inculcated into this thing called “school” which involved their sitting quietly while someone stood up, asked them questions, and told them they were wrong all the time!

This image of the captivating ritual of school, the ritual that goes back to our earliest memories, stays as one of the strongest ones for me about the challenge of moving to more 21C ways of thinking and teaching. As I have conversations about 21C teaching with my now biggish kids and my colleagues all over, I wonder how we can see the force of traditional forms of schooling–a force so strong that it shapes the thinking and practice of kids who have never yet been in a classroom. How do we admit this gravitational field, examine it, and then make choices about it rather than playing out this play written by another set of people in another country and another time?

What images–from your own lives and from public events, etc., stick with you as you think about shifting schooling in a new direction? What enables your thinking in new ways or constrains it? What images or rituals or metaphors can you share with the rest of us (feel free to upload here too) that help you think expansively–or which you’d like to purge in some way (or reknow in some way) because the image or metaphor or ritual limits your thinking?

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