Posts Tagged ‘shifting thinking’

Generating knowledge and possibly wisdom

August 20th, 2009

I’ve just read an article by Chris Dede in the May 2009 Issue of Educational Researcher (reference details at the bottom of this posting) and it’s really struck a chord for me, particularly regarding my ongoing thinking about this shifting thinking communitywhat it is for, who it is for, and what it could do if we give it a chance.

If you’ve spent any time looking around this site you’ve probably picked up the idea that its key purpose is shifting our thinking about learning and education for the 21st century. We write a lot about how we think teaching and schooling will need to shift in order to be relevant and purposeful for today’s (and tomorrow’s) world. The teachers’ work thread speculates about what this means for teachers and teaching, and our community engagement thread asks how we might engage communities in this whole process of rethinking and redesign.

Scarier than this rollercoaster? (c) Rachel Bolstad 2007

Scarier than this rollercoaster? (c) Rachel Bolstad 2007

However, recently we’ve had a few in-house conversations about also needing to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves – the education researchers – to ask how we might need to shift our thinking about ourselves and our roles now and in the future.  In short: What does it mean to be a “21st century educational researcher”? What kinds of ideas and practices might we need to let go of, and what new ones might we need to embrace? You might be surprised to learn that this is difficult and sometimes scary territory for many of us (we can talk about why some other time)!

All this is a long way of getting to the proposition in Dede’s article, which is about the use of web 2.0 to support educational research. He suggests it is time to move beyond the use of web 2.0 tools to enhance current scholarly practices for producing knowledge (e.g. communal bookmarking, professional networking, wikis, etc), and instead, move towards:

… initiating a new form of professional dialogue: sponsoring communities that attempt to generate “wisdom”.  I am aware that this suggestion is provocative, controversial, and risky; nonetheless, I believe such an experiment is worth conducting (Dede, 2009, p. 261)

Dede imagines a potential infrastructure for generating wisdom comprising:

An interconnected suite of web 2.0 tools customized for research would provide (a) a virtual setting in which stakeholders of many different types could dialogue, (b) about rich artifacts grounded in practice and policy (c) with a set of social supports to encourage community norms that respect not only theoretical rigor and empirical evidence but also interpersonal, experiential, and moral-ethical understandings. For example… teachers could bring the “wisdom of practice” into such a community, and community representatives could articulate social and cultural norms reflective of their diverse values. These three capabilities of a research infrastructure seem essential for a community attempting to generate wisdom about educational issues; only in the past few years has ICT made these affordances widely available, practical, and inexpensive (Dede, 2009, p. 262).

I don’t know what you think, but I feel like this is what shiftingthinking is trying to achieve. Whether we’re on the right track with our tools and approach so far remains to be seen (but we do see shiftingthinking as a work in progress – and in addition to the web-based part, we also have the upcoming Shifting Thinking conference….hint hint)

Dede has some more to say about why such an “experiment” could seem risky, unwise, and perhaps downright foolish to some educational researchers – but if you want to know exactly what this is about, you should read the article :)

Dede, Chris. (2009). Technologies that facilitate generating knowledge and possibly wisdom. Educational Researcher 38 (4) pp. 260-263

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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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Look, I drew a picture of you!

July 17th, 2009

(Yes, that’s right…I’m talking to you!)
Actually, I should say I drew a picture of us.

See? You, and me, and everyone else – we’re all represented in my diagram of the shiftingthinking community.

The Power Law Distribution

I drew this after reading Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. The book has influenced my thinking A LOT recently and I reckon I’ll probably write a few more blogpostings based on its ideas. In this posting I just want to share just one of these ideas, because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately (No, don’t look over your shoulder, I’m still talking to Y-O-U ), and I want to show you exactly how you fit into this shiftingthinking community.

The curve in this diagram represents something called a “Power Law Distribution”, which I learned about in Here Comes Everybody. The vertical axis represents the number of comments posted on shiftingthinking, and the horizontal axis represents all of us, lined up in left to right order from the highest frequency to the lowest frequency of postings. What this curve shows is that the most frequent contributor (in this case, me) posts many times more often than the next most frequent contributors, and those people post many times more often than the next most frequent, and so on, and then we have this l-o-o-o-oong tail of people who contribute just a tiny little bit – let’s say, one comment or posting.  (Then there’s the folks who we sometimes call “lurkers”, who read shiftingthinking but haven’t posted comments – I’ll get back to them later…)

So what, I hear you ask? Is there a point to all this? Well I’m glad you asked, because there is, and here is the EXCITING bit. According to Shirky, this same distribution pattern is found in all kinds of social media. Wikipedia is a good example: Although anyone can edit wikipedia pages, it turns out that there are a tiny percentage of people who make hundreds or thousands of edits each, and thousands and millions of people who only ever make say, one or two edits (and millions more who simply read wikipedia entries without ever making a single edit). So if you graph wikipedia contributions, you’ll get an even more extreme version of this same curve.

The power law distribution is also called The Pareto principle or the “80-20 rule” which basically says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So this distribution shape isn’t just limited to social media – it appears in all kinds of social phenomenon.

The cool thing – and the point of this posting -  is when we start to ask ourselves what value we get out of the collective contributions of all 100 percent of the contributors. In the business world, the 80-20 principle suggests that organisations should focus on the 20 percent (of people, activities, projects etc) that contribute 80 percent of the “productivity”. The “costs” of carrying that long tail, which tends to generate proportionally less, can be hard for an organisation to carry. But if you lop off the long tail, you lose out on all those potential contributions that, when added to the collective, could add up to something really great.

Is this youThe nice thing about social media is that there is really no “cost” involved in encouraging as many people as possible to contribute. By opening up wikipedia to everyone to edit, “we” (the users of Wikipedia) benefit from everyone’s contribution. Whether someone contributes thousands of edits, or only one, each adds value to the collective whole. It’s the same thing with shiftingthinking!

I’d like to end this posting with a couple of shout-outs. First to the members of our “long tail”. Guys, thank you. We love that you’ve stopped by and taken a moment to add your contribution to the shiftingthinking community.

Or is THIS you? (CC)

Or is THIS you? (CC)

Second, to the “lurkers” – you know who you are. I want you to know that you’re welcome here too. I think I’m going to call you “foragers” from now on though. (I like to picture you as adorable little hedgehogs – shyly nosing around the edges of our community, nibbling surreptitiously from the cat’s dish, drinking water from the puddles of our drain-pipes, but leaving no trace of your presence). We promise not to shine a bright spotlight on you – but maybe just think about joining our long tail every once in a while? We’ll be here waiting, with a nice cup of tea and a gingernut biscuit.

**PS. I know time is a big factor making it hard to add comments. We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!

Shirky, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

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Connectivity and conversation

July 1st, 2009

I’m writing this blog from the Rydges hotel in Rotorua, where I’m perched in this lovely open restaurant concentrating on a keynote I’m about to give to the School Support Services Hui here.  The work of preparing for this presentation has brought me to think quite a lot about communities and how we find them and how we build them.

I had resisted doing another keynote here in this season of speaking at multiple conferences. After all, a ninety-minute talk about transformation gets overly ironic after a while. Here we get back into questions about information and transformation, about knowledge and capacity. I think learning about adult development and transformation is potentially vital information to help people craft a map of their own lives and move more deliberately toward some desired future. And at the same time, talking for 90 minutes about transformation is hardly going to help anyone begin to transform. The best that can happen is a tiny beginning—and then the question is, what have we begun? Where is the community which supports this emerging transformation into the future?

The reason I’m so excited about this particular hui and this particular keynote is that from the very beginning, the organisers here were interested in deep exploration instead of a touch of this and a dash of that.  And so we have crafted this day together, building together on what our hopes might be for the people here, how we might all become a community of thinkers all trying to do this difficult thing of changing the way we think, work, teach, be in the world. And the big hope of this website is that we will all collaborate in becoming a community of thinkers together here too.

See, I believe the issues we face will never be solved by great minds thinking alone. We need minds and hearts and experience and theory and practice and passion from all of us working together, each of us pushing the thinking of the group a little, each of us contributing what we can to make us all bigger, to make us all a little more able to handle the complexities of the problems which face our world, to make us all a little safer as we are supported in our risktaking by the gathering community around us. That’s why I’m hoping that long after I’m done talking today, after the planes and cars have taken us away from this lovely hotel, we’ll meet again here on this blogspace, and we’ll talk together and learn from and alongside each other. And we’ll shift thinking and shift practice and shift schools and schooling. And ultimately, we’ll shift communities and environments and ecosystems. I do not think big because I am so idealistic and optimistic. I think big because thinking big is the only option available to us anymore.  We are on the threshold of a new world. A leader, facing a perilous time, once said,
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Abraham Lincoln could not at that time have imagined what the storms the present would bring when he talked to the US Congress in 1862. Neither do we know what these storms might bring. But we do know that the increase in both connectivity and mutual peril in our world is bigger than any one person, community, or nation. And it is only in this gathering space—in huis like this one today, in virtual communities like—that we will be able to reach beyond our individual limitations and really “think anew and act anew”. Come, readers, and think with us. Let’s build a new set of ideas and practices and connections to move us beyond this stormy present.

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Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking (Part 2)

May 18th, 2009

I’m still really hoping that we’re going to get more folks sharing and commenting on books that have provoked and shifted their thinking – as I requested here.

But as a quick addendum to my original posting on this topic:

On my recent travels, I had opportunity to peruse through a SkyMall catalogue on one of my international flights. If you’ve never seen a SkyMall catalogue, they are packed full of ideas, inventions, and gadgets which you never realised you needed (or wanted) until you see them.  One particular innovation grabbed my attention: a service called Getabstract Biz Book Summaries

In brief, this is a service for busy businesspeople, wherein the good people at Getabstract find and read the “best” books in business, and supply clients with  “a crisp, clear five-page summary you can read in less than 10 minutes. The perfect length to deliver the book’s main ideas, and packed full of relevant insights.”

Imagine if there was such a service for busy educators! Would this be a good thing? Might it actually excite people enough about certain books that they want to go and read the whole thing?

Of course, clients of Getabstract pay good money to receive these summaries.  But in a way, they are just a more quality-controlled version of what you can get for free – for example, by reading user reviews on

Maybe (my hope of hopes), shiftingthinking can be a more modest source of this kind of “potted summaries” service for people interested in 21st century thinking about learning. Since no-one’s getting paid to review books, however, this means we have to treat our webspace more like a digital commons.

In other words, you ought to give back as much as you receive!

Friends, consider this your call to words.

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Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking

April 5th, 2009

Years ago at NZCER we used to have lunchtime forums every now and again where we’d each talk about books we’d read, and why we liked them. It was awesome, and a great way to find out about titles you hadn’t heard of (also: knowing that they had been pre-read by a colleague meant there was a filtering-out of dross!)

Like many of my colleagues, I tend to get quite excited when I read something interesting. I go around telling people about it and recommending they read it too “so we can discuss it!”.  I’ve picked up a few really interesting non-fiction books in the last six months that I’ve been “pushing” others to read. One is Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. There’s so many ideas packed into this book that it’s hard to condense into a short summary – but in short, Shirky’s book is one of those great books that provokes us to do a whole lot of re-thinking about the nature of society in the 21st century, specifically, due to the impacts of networked technologies. (I’ve passed the book on to a team member, otherwise I’d grab it and try to put together a few notes for you here).

What I like about authors like Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell (author of some other favourite books of mine: The Tipping Point and Blink, plus Outliers which I haven’t read yet) is the way they carry you along through a page-turning blend of stories and theory. These are the kinds of books that “shift my thinking” and help me to suddenly look at familiar problems and situations in new ways. (For example, we’ve used a few ideas from Shirky’s book in our recent development team meetings, to help us figure out what we want this site to do, and how we can engage other people  in working through and developing ideas in this space about learning and education in the 21st century).

Another book, Everything bad is good for you, by Steven Johnson, gave me a whole bunch of ideas about how our minds engage with popular culture – and these ideas are sitting subversively beneath my comment on Jim’s blog here. (Read his response here)**.

As a educational researcher I spend a lot of time reading “education” books and articles, and while this is obviously really important, I think that the most interesting ideas I’ve picked up from books tend to come from authors writing in other fields, like those I’ve mentioned above – because when I read them, I have to think really hard about “well, what does all this mean for education”? I’ve had some really interesting discussions over the years with various teachers and principals (and other researchers, of course) who also like reading and sharing good books, so I know there are others out there just waiting for the chance to share THEIR recommended reads so we can discuss them.

So – what have you read that’s provoked your thinking? What were its implications for thinking about education in the 21st century? What questions did it raise in your mind? Finally, where can we get a copy so we can also read it and discuss it with you here? Please post your comments!!

**As an aside, Steven Johnson’s book also made me feel totally legitimized for my lifetime’s dedication to watching television.

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Stuff and process

March 9th, 2009

Ok, so now I’m buzzing with Ally’s thoughts and Michael and Layla’s thoughts and I’m pondering this connection between 21C learning and technology. Into the mix let’s pour Jane’s thoughts about knowledge and Artichoke’s thinking about core curriculum and what it all means.

Ok, so there’s the STUFF you learn at school—that’s the facts/content. And there’s the PROCESS of the way you learn—that’s the pedagogy, etc.  If we make that separation, then technology is sometimes a STUFF (because it’s a skill base—my daughter “takes” technology) and sometimes a PROCESS (because it’s a method of learning—my son sometimes does maths on the computer).

But now I want to take Ally’s last entry really seriously and think that maybe the thing technology can do for us is help us think differently. That’s what Michael and Layla are pointing out too. And one of the ways I think we need to think really differently is to no longer separate the STUFF from the PROCESS. And maybe technology, because it goes in both of those directions, is quite a useful way to get us to think differently.

This means that it is most helpful to us when we’re not thinking of it as either a stuff or a process but we’re thinking about it for what it can enable—the connection that Layla talks about, the new thinking Ally ponders. If we could use technology—because it’s so new and flashy—to learn that stuff and process are not on different scales but could be the same, we could take that learning into other spaces. We could learn that putting kids in groups to think through something isn’t a PROCESS for their learning but the a big piece of the actual learning itself. We could learn that climate change isn’t just a STUFF, a content for kids to learn about, but a process for thinking differently about the world. If we can reconcile this difficulty about technology, maybe we could approach other key competencies differently and begin ultimately to have a different sense about Shakespeare’s place in the curriculum.

But what about Michael’s worry about the Faustian bargain? I wonder about this all the time. I used to teach in a masters degree programme for practicing teachers called Initiatives in Educational Transformation (fantastic programme, by the way—New Zealand needs something like this). We taught a course about education and technology, and we found that there were really two kinds of relationships our teachers had to technology: they loved it (uncritically) or they feared it (uncritically). It was so hard to have conversations about the Faustian bargains, about how each step forward is its own kind of loss.  I wonder if we need to have some of these conversations not just about technological changes but also about the changes to the 21C idea of education in the first place. Have we paid attention enough to our mourning of the old ways? I’m not sure. It’s all part of the same jumble for me, the same key question:
How does thinking shift the way technological change shifts, the way my growing kids shift, the way the our planet is shifting? How can we support these shifts? Maybe if we collect stories of shifting thinking, we can figure out more about how it happens?

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It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…


Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…


Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?

[1]  15th November 2008.

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Drawing pictures to shift thinking

February 24th, 2009

When I’m trying to understand something in a new way, or trying to communicate my ideas to other people, I often start by drawing a picture. In my experience, visual metaphors are great for generating discussion, and they can enable us to take our thinking in interesting and unexpected new directions. Below is a metaphor I’ve created to represent ideas about “shifting thinking” in education from the 20th century to the 21st century.
ship metaphor

The boat represents the education system, which is sailing from left to right – that is, from the 19th and 20th century, into the 21st century and beyond.
What moves the boat along? Well, this boat is special because it has several methods for propulsion. (However, as we shall see, this doesn’t necessarily help the boat to move more efficiently! In fact, it can have the opposite effect). These are:
The wind –what we might call the influences of “the 21st century world”. For example, all the shifts in society, economy, new technologies, and so on, that inevitably influence the direction our education system is sailing.
The propeller – Educational policy, which can also propel us towards change – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes with the wind, and perhaps at times, in the wrong directions (or even backwards!).
The oars – These are the influences of the people “on board” the system. This could include teachers and school leaders, as well as students, parents, and society at large – in other words anyone who has an opinion and a voice about how education “should” be. As you can imagine, we might have people rowing in different directions, or “putting the oar in” to steer the boat to port or to starboard, or to create drag to resist the efforts of the winds and the motor…

There are two other significant things in the picture: the anchors, and the buoys.

The anchors are meant to represent certain ideas about the education system that we’ve inherited from the past – again in this metaphor they show up as something that is maybe creating “drag” on our boat, keeping it from moving in spite of the wind and the motors which are trying to push us forward. One example of such an idea is that education is most efficient as a “one size fits all” system, much like a factory or production line.

Out in front of the boat we’ve got our buoys, representing aspirations for the future of education. These represent the goals and ideals that are often articulated about what kind of education we think matters, and what kinds of young people we want our education system to help shape. For example: “developing lifelong learners”, “developing active citizens”, “developing learners equipped to deal with the challenges of the 21st century”, and so on. So we’re tossing a line to these buoys to help pull our ship in a bit closer.

The question this visual metaphor is designed to provoke is: how is the ship going to move towards these aspirations? Do we need to cut our anchor lines in order to get there? If we do, what would happen? Would the wind, the motor, and the oarsmen and oarswomen start to carry us in the right direction, or will we end up travelling in confused circles?

Maybe the answer is that we people on the ship – all the oarsmen and women, and the policymakers – need to get up on deck with our telescopes, barometers, and other navigational equipment. We need to study the winds carefully, and plot our course intentionally. We need to pull up our anchors and see whether they are holding us back, whether it’s time to cut some of them loose. Then maybe can start to agree what direction this boat should be moving in, and actually start to head it towards our goals…..

What do you think?

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