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Posts Tagged ‘future focus’

Opportunities to engage with 21st century ideas

August 17th, 2009

The NZ Curriculum has 8 principles. These principles are supposed to underpin all decision making in schools. One of these principles is about community engagement and one is about future focus. At NZCER we are running a project (Families’ and communities’ engagement in education) that is looking at what opportunities whole school communities (students, teachers, families) have to engage with 21st century ideas about education. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that families (and the wider community) have access to some of the current ideas about schooling and how it might need to change to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world?

Recently a group of principals (and other school leaders) we are working with met to talk about what current school practices might be useful for engaging families with future focused ideas about education.  How might parent-teacher interviews for instance be structured differently to serve this purpose? What messages do parents currently get about what is important to learn, from looking at their children’s homework or  school newsletters? What role do (or could) students themselves play in challenging the way the adults around them think about education?

What future focused ideas do you think your communities need to engage with? Why these ideas?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Hidden Connections (Capra)

July 3rd, 2009
Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

When you read a book by Fritjof Capra, you’re getting value for money. Though Capra is a physicist by training, his interests and knowledge span an enormous range of disciplines, and he is enviably well-connected; his friends and colleagues include leading thinkers from many fields, and his books draw together threads from fields as diverse as biochemistry, management theory, economics, cognitive science, feminism, design, and agroecology.

I just said he “draws together threads from areas as diverse as”… but as the title of his book The Hidden Connections (2002, Doubleday) suggests, perhaps our big mistake as a species is in continuing to think that these areas are all diverse, different, and disconnected, rather than recognising the persistent patterns, relationships, and connections between them. The aim of this book is (p. 216): “to develop a conceptual framework that integrates the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life; a framework that enables us to adopt a systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time”. (These critical issues are, of course, all grounded in issues of sustainability).

For the purpose of this blogthread, I was interested in how Capra’s book could help develop my thinking about what it means to be a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change” (as part of our future focussed issues project).

In the first few chapters, Capra begins to develop a systems-level way of describing “life”. Since I majored in biological science, I was immediately hooked in by the way he begins by looking at contemporary theories about how life got started. How on Earth did something as complex as a cell come into being? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out, but a key idea from this section is that, with the emergence of metabolism comes the ability of a cell (which is in fact a tiny network) to become self-generating, or “autopoeitic” (from autopoeisis –self-making1). That’s because (pp.9-10) “the function of each component in this network is to transform or replace other components, so that the entire network continually generates itself….[the living network undergoes] continual structural changes while preserving their weblike patterns of organisation.” Cells are also “open systems” materially and energetically. While the cell continually replaces, fixes, changes, and regenerates itself, stuff has to come into the system (food), and stuff has to go out (waste). This leads Capra to discuss the theory of “dissipative structures2” – defined as “an open system that maintains itself in a state far from equilibrium, yet is nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of an ongoing flow and change of components”.

(p.13) The dynamics of these dissipative structures specifically include the spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. When the flow of energy increases, the system may encounter a point of instability, known as a “bifurcation point”, at which it can branch off into an entirely new state where new structures and new forms of order may emerge.

In short, what we are talking about here is emergence, “the creation of novelty that is often qualitatively different from the phenomena out of which it emerged” (p.117)
I’m now going to skip ahead past the section of the book where Capra applies these ideas to understanding the nature of mind, consciousness, and learning. (Though these are actually some of my favourite chapters). Where I wanted to get to in this posting was Capra’s ideas about how these concepts and ways of thinking apply to social reality – and in particular, to social networks and human organisations. In chapter 3 he talks about the role of communication as an essential part of the metabolism of social networks:

(p.83) These networks of communication are self-generating. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself – it is autopoeitic. As communications recur in multiple feedback loops, they produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values – a common context of meaning – that is continually sustained by further communications. Through this shared context of meaning individuals acquire identities as members of the social network, and in this way the network generates its own boundary. It is not a physical boundary but a boundary of expectations, of confidentiality and loyalty, which is continually maintained and renegotiated by the network itself”

I’ll skip ahead again and bypass the chapters where he discusses how social networks, through communication, create culture and a “shared body of knowledge – including information, ideas, and skills – that shapes the culture’s distinctive way of life in addition to its values and beliefs”. (p. 87), and how knowledge can’t be treated as an entity independent of people and their social context…. (Though again, these are fascinating chapters). I want to get back to this idea of emergence.

In chapter 4 he talks about how emergence happens in human organisations. He argues that emergence often occurs at “critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops”.

(p.117) “In a human organization, the event triggering the process of emergence may be an offhand comment, which may not even seem important to the person who made it but is meaningful to some people in a community of practice. Because it is meaningful to them, they choose to be disturbed and circulate the information rapidly through the organization’s networks. As it circulates through various feedback loops, the information may get amplified and expanded, even to such an extent that the organization can no longer absorb it in its present state. When that happens, a point of instability has been reached. The system….is forced to abandon some of its structures, behaviours, or beliefs. The result is a state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt; and out of that chaotic state a new form of order, organized around new meaning, emerges. The new order was not desgned by any individual but emerged as a result of the organization’s collective creativity.”

The quote above inspires me as I think about the shift to 21st century thinking about learning and education. I think about Jennifer’s posting . I think right now we are in the state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt. But I’m looking forward to the bit where a new form of order emerges from our collective creativity!

There’s a lot more in this book which I won’t discuss here – maybe in a future posting – but suffice to say that it’s given me a whole new bunch of new concepts to think with, regarding “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. I wonder what you make of it?

Capra, Fritjof (2002) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

1 Capra credits the term “autopoesis” to biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (p.10)
2 Ilya Prigogone and his collaborators developed the theory of dissipative structures (p.13)

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The future focussed issues project

June 23rd, 2009

Josie Roberts and I are beginning a new research project called “Future focussed issues in New Zealand education”, or FFI project for short. We’d like to use shiftingthinking as a forum for developing and sharing some of our thinking as we get into the work of this research. If you’d like to be part of this thinking (or at least take a peek at where our thinking is going), please read on!

The backstory to the FFI project lies partly in previous contract research work in two areas of “future focus”: education for sustainability, and education for enterprise. If you’re familiar with the New Zealand Curriculum, you might recognise sustainability and enterprise as two of the four “future focussed issues” mentioned in the section on Principles for New Zealand curriculum. (The other two FFIs are globalisation and citizenship).

Original drawing (c) Josie Roberts 2009

Original drawing (c) Josie Roberts 2009

Although some work has been done to support futures thinking in New Zealand education (for example, Secondary Futures), our experience suggests that many people within the education sector still have reasonably limited familiarity with the idea of futures thinking in general, and of these four particular FFIs in the New Zealand Curriculum in particular. We think there is something very important in these ideas, and we want to spend some time exploring them, looking at the relationships between them, and researching their relevance to (or possible contribution to transformation of) curriculum, teaching, learning, schooling, and communities.

As educational researchers we spend a lot of our time looking at what is happening within the formal education sector. But lately we’ve become interested in looking at pockets of innovative thinking and development that are occurring on the margins of the formal education sector, and in the spaces where education intersects with other sectors. We want to explore these pockets of thinking and innovation to see whether they could provide us with new insights that might also speak to audiences within the formal education sector.

One of our initial aims is to look for examples of what we’re loosely labelling “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. We are interested in how such networks form around the future focussed issues in both formal and non-formal education, with particular emphasis on how new knowledge is generated in these networks, and in connection with learning beyond school (i.e. with business, communities, youth groups, web-based social networks, etc). (We’re working with a few groups and networks as mini-case studies, but we won’t be talking about them here unless we have permission from the people and groups involved)

At the same time as we are working with these people/groups/networks, we are also reading as much as we can to help braid together our own understanding of what we mean by a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change”. Over the next few months we are going to try to post blogs about what we’re reading and what we’re thinking. If you want to follow this thread, look for blogpostings that start with “FFI”.

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21st century school leadership

May 25th, 2009

Firstly to introduce myself to this forum… I am Juliette Hayes, Deputy Principal at Waikato Diocesan School for Girls. I have been researching the work of futures-focused secondary principals for a Masters thesis, and I think this is a great opportunity to share my findings and have the perspectives of leadership for the 21st century aired and shared.

In defining futures-focused leadership I explore the extent to which principals believe  that the future is a place they can influence – not necessarily predict – and that they have a responsibility to do so. On analysing interviews with principals I identified commonalities in the characteristics, challenges and strategies of futures-focused leaders.

The first characteristic, I have found, of futures-focused leaders is that they each have a clear futures-focus in their work. This means they work from a place of vision, and encourage dialogue about the future with all of their stakeholders. Examples of this include focus groups of students who learn to use futures literacy in exploring their preferred futures, reflections in assemblies and prizegivings about the trends for society in the future, inter-curricular professional learning communities of teachers where resources such as Secondary Futures trend cards are used, and constantly introducing readings and reflections on the future  into the school community.

I found that this drive to be futures-focused comes from a motivation to challenge the status quo and question assumptions about what schooling must look like. This often stems from their own disappointing experiences at school, and a determination to make learning better for the young people in their care. It also comes from a sense of moral purpose, as the principals in my study feel that their sphere of influence extends beyond the school gates, and beyond the immediate cohort of students in their school: they feel a responsibility to lead towards a better future for all children in their communities, regardless of the school they attend.

The most significant driving force for the futures-focused leaders in my study was the potential for the NZ Curriculum to change the face of education, and to provide a paradigm leap into an education for the future. Each of them is excited by its potential, and frustrated by the perceived reluctance of some educators, communities and even students to accept that it is a shift, and that change must occur.

In fact, leadership of change was identified as the biggest challenge faced by futures-focused principals. Some had endured quite vicious personal and professional attacks in the face of leading changes, yet remained remarkably resilient and determined to carry on. As reflective practitioners they all agreed that there were things they might have done differently, and it was interesting to explore with them the improved strategies that they could share, having learnt from ‘mistakes’!

As an outcome of my research I have been able to compile what I hope could be a valuable collection of strategies, tools and theories that futures-focused leaders find helpful in their work. They are determined to keep creativity and innovation at the forefront of their work, and have some exciting initiatives underway at their respective schools.

I welcome any feedback on this, the essence of my findings.

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