Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

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 , , , ,

“21st century learning” – a new “myth”?

June 15th, 2009

Continuing with the ‘opportunities for thinking about doing things differently’ theme (in the posts below) …

Recently I’ve had to read dozens of different papers, reports and websites on “21st century learning” (for something I’m writing). I’ve been struck by the fact that, while they all talk about the new skills students need, new pedagogies, new forms of leadership, and new technologies, underpinning these things (which are emphasised differently depending on the context), is the assumption that what is distinctive about “21st century learning” is the need to get more people to do harder stuff than in the past. (Very briefly, this usually means developing everyone’s ability to think and learn for themselves, and to articulate/debate this thinking/learning with others to generate new knowledge. )

This is a radical idea – because our current school system was never set up to teach these things to all students (and the ones who were meant to learn these things learned them more by accident than design). Currently we discipline students into disciplines, and, on the basis of their apparent aptitude for this, sort them for various post-school ‘pathways’ (most of which now function very differently from when this system was set up).

So, alongside this idea, in the 21st century learning literature, we usually see arguments for transformation of the existing system (not incremental improvement), and the argument that to be effective this transformation needs to be holistic (not piecemeal), implemented across a number of different systems together, in parallel  (see for example, the Cisco report Equipping every learner for the 21st century

Could this idea – that 21st century learning is, in essence, getting more people to do harder stuff, be the 21st century version of the equal opportunity “myth” that was an organising principle for 20th century thinking about schooling in New Zealand? (The myth idea comes from a 1986 paper by C. E. Beeby).  If it is, perhaps it could function as an organising principle, a way of helping us decide what to do when faced by the glut of ideas, suggestions, techniques, and recipes for success that populate the 21st century learning literature … (In the papers and reports alluded to above, I came across ‘differentiated learning’, ‘self-regulated learning’, ‘enquiry learning’, ‘distributed learning’, ‘co-operative learning’, and ‘learning communities’ – and those are just the ones I remember! How would a school know when and where to use each one? Which is ‘best’?).

If a school was to decide to organise itself — everything, including the curriculum, all teaching and assessment practices, its buildings and spaces etc etc – to scaffold everyone‘s ability to think and learn independently and to create new knowledge, setting aside all of the other functions they currently have, what would that look like? How could they do it? And how could they do it in a way that allows everyone to be who they want to be (i.e. not be assimilated into the dominant group), and be the best they can at whatever that is.

Hard to imagine isn’t it? And of course, all this is easier said than done. Higher order thinking skills can’t be ‘taught’ in isolation/independently of ‘content’, nor are they necessarily able to be transferred to other contexts. Just adding these terms into our vocabularies won’t change anything – just as the talk of ‘key competencies’ hasn’t as yet changed very much. (For a succinct discussion of the issues that need to be considered, see Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008).

To really do this, we would need new underlying thinking – and new tools for thinking. This thinking would need to be done by everyone involved in education with – and this is important – people from outside the education sector. We need public debate, a new public consensus about how we want our schools to contribute to building the kind of society we want, and what we want our schools to achieve in the ‘bigger picture’ sense (i.e. something more than just basic literacy and numeracy).

Why do we need schools to get everyone to think and learn independently (when we didn’t seem to think this was necessary before)? What is there about 21st century life that is different/more complex than before, and how does this mean that the ‘old’ skills are necessary but no longer sufficient? How can we put together what we know from the past about what is good, and what ‘works’ in education (which is a lot), with what we think we know about (or would like to create in) the world of the future? What, in the current system, will we have to give up (or lose) to do this?

We plan to discuss these questions (and others like them) at a conference being organised by NZCER (to celebrate its 75th birthday) to be held in Wellington (New Zealand) on the 3rd and 4th November 2009. So, if you are interested in all this, mark the date in your diary, and watch this space for more information.


Beeby, C. E. (1986). Introduction. in W. Renwick, Moving targets: Six essays on educatonal policy. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (pp. xi-xlv).

Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (2008). Towards research-based innovation. In: Innovating to learn, learning to innovate. Paris: OECD (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation).

See also:

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need, and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.

Apparently, writing an essay sometimes can be hindered by numerous challenges thus there will be need to seek professional help in order to complete the essay assignment.

Shifting schooling , , , ,

21st Century teaching and social responsibility

April 30th, 2009

I had intended to look through some of the data from the Teachers Work project by now and see what I could find that either supported the dispositions Jennifer identified in her blog or suggested new ones. However – somehow the time has got away on me and I haven’t done that, not yet anyway!  I have been thinking hard though about another teachers’ work project I am involved in and as part of that thinking I have been re-reading “Learning as Transformation” (Jack Mezirow and Associates). One chapter in that book that particularly grabbed my attention is one by Laurent A Parks Daloz about Transformative learning for the common good. When I was reading that, it struck me that there might be similarities between C21st teachers and the individuals he describes who have committed their lives to the common good.

The reason for wondering about the connection is that when I have asked teachers (in various projects) about what they think the purpose of education is nearly all have said something that includes some ideas about producing citizens who contribute to society in some way. The NZ Curriculum also talks about students becoming “contributers to the well-being of NZ” , which I guess is hardly a surprising goal for a state funded education system. So it seems to me to be only a small step from this to expect teachers to be driven at least to some extent by a sense of social responsibility. However, social responsibility through a 21st Century lens might look quite different from social responsibility through a 20th Century lens for example. For Parks Deloz a commitment to the common good is not a final product but a “stance of openness to necessary and on-going dialogue with those who differ or may not yet be full participants on the commons”. This sounded 21st Centuryish to me!

He also defines social responsibility as the capacity to identify one’s own self with the well-being of others. He says that we all have the potential to reflect on the formation of our own selves and through that develop a larger sense of self that identifies with all people and ultimately with all life , but whether or not we do that depends on the particular conditions of our lives. In their study on people who had committed their lives to the common good Parks Daloz and colleagues found that these people  had at least some of these key characteristics in common – they felt recognised and valued as children, they had at least one parent who was socially engaged, they grew up in diverse communities and they were mentored. What all had in common was what he describes as a “constructive engagement with otherness” ie  a significant relationship with someone who was in some way different. The important thing about the relationship was that both the differences and the similarities were acknowledged and the interplay between them. Anyway this is all a very long way of wondering whether any of those characteristics would resonate with teachers in this study? (I don’t think we have currently got data that would shed any light on that but perhaps some of the participants in the study might reply!) Are there particular life experiences that contribute particularly to producing 21st Century teaching dispositions? If there are can we replicate them (or at least their essence) in some way for others? What is the role of diversity/ otherness (I’m not sure what term to use) and our orientation to it in 21st Century education? The more I think about this, the more confused I get! (Perhaps if we muddy the water enough, Jennifer, we can ask the fish what water looks like!)

Teachers' work , , , , ,

Technology and what?

March 18th, 2009

Yesterday I was reading “Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century” by Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari. They reckon the challenge for the 21st school is to “educate children for living and working in an information-rich technological environment”.  This made me start thinking again about the role of technology in 21st Century education.

Although, I agree advances in technology have changed what we can do and know, I’m still convinced this alone is not a good enough definition of what 21st Century education is all about but I’m having problems identifying what I think is missing. I think it has something to do with diversity and ideas of equity. We are constantly told NZ is becoming a more diverse society but what does this actually mean? As international travel becomes easier, NZ is less isolated physically from the rest of the world and people from all over the world are making NZ their home. Information technology also allows us to connect with people from all over the world so we are not restricted to interacting just with those in our immediate physical communities. ..(so perhaps it is all about technology!) Contact with people who are different from us doesn’t guarantee we celebrate or even recognise diversity though. I think perhaps an acceptance that there are many different (and valid) ways of doing things and making meaning of the world, is an important aspect of  21st Century education…but then if that is the case who decides what should be in the school curriculum? Whose knowledge or world view is included, whose is left out? How do we (and who is “we”) decide what is powerful knowledge?

All this brought me to wondering about whether 21st Century teachers need not only a certain awareness of their own meaning making systems in order to be able to interact respectfully and at more than just a surface level with others but also an awareness of how our current education system has developed, what its original purpose was and what the society was like it was designed to serve.

So…I think I’m arguing that C21st teachers need knowledge about the system they work within (and the assumptions that underpin it) and also about how they operate as individuals…as well as subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge etc etc. .. and perhaps that is why I’m no longer a classroom teacher!

Teachers' work , , , , ,