Posts Tagged ‘shiftingthinking’

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

March 15th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ethics of researchers researching research

February 12th, 2010

Following our recent research announcement about writing a conference paper about, it’s been exciting to see some of our shiftingthinking community members post comments of encouragement and interest. As promised, we’d like to keep blogging about this process as it evolves, and I hope that at least some of you will keep reading and commenting over the next few months!

So, what’s been happening lately? You’ll see from our research announcement that one of the first things we’ve had to think about is the ethical implications of our proposed AERA paper. Those of you who’ve done any kind of formal research will know that seeking ethical approval is a normal beginning-stage part of the research process. Those who haven’t perhaps don’t know very much about the kinds of ethical considerations that researchers need to take into account at each stage of the research process. I won’t go into too much detail here – as there are dozens of good textbooks and whole university courses that teach about research ethics – but I just wanted to write a bit about the ethics process “behind” our AERA research announcement because it was a little different to the usual.

At NZCER, as in most universities and other research organisations, we have a group of people drawn from within the organisation that meets to review research ethics proposals – our ethics committee. The normal process goes something like this:

  • For every new project, the project leader(s) write an application that explains the research, including quite a lot of detail about exactly what the researchers are proposing to do, how various kind of ethical issues will be addressed, and often copies of interview questions or survey questions or whatever other research tools are going to be used, etc.
  • A small ethics committee, drawn from a wider pool of researchers not directly connected with the proposed project, reviews all this material, has a discussion about any potential ethical issues they can see with the project.
  • The committee’s discussions and recommendations are conveyed back to the project leader in writing and a verbal summary, so that he/she can revise their project plans, research instruments, information letters, etc. to a point where the committee is satisfied and gives approval for the research to go ahead.

So the question is, what constitutes an ethical issue in research? And how is an ethics committee supposed to decide what is an issue and what isn’t? Broadly speaking, there are at least two ways a committee might approach this. The first is to be quite rule-based or guideline-based – i.e., having a checklist of all the different areas where there might be ethical issues, and asking project leaders to demonstrate how each and all of these will be addressed, and then having some kind of rule or guideline that the committee can use to decide whether the researcher’s plan is up to scratch or not. The second approach is to deal more at the level of ethical principles. This approach takes ethical thinking to a higher level, where the committee is working hard to uncover and critique the ethical principles that underpin a researcher’s proposed approach, and decide whether those principles – and the way they are being expressed in the project –are consistent with our organisation’s values etc, and whether they are the kind of principles we would want to carry forward into our future work.  Over the years, NZCER has been moving away from the former approach, towards the latter, and the depth and quality of discussions we’ve had about ethics in our organisation have increased as a result.

It’s lucky for Jennifer and me that all this has been happening, because our AERA ShiftingThinking research project could be seen as a bit of a curveball for an ethics committee. Firstly, the AERA paper asks us to turn the spotlight back on ourselves as researchers in a way that most of our other research projects don’t. Our AERA paper says we want to look at how this website has evolved “as a qualitative research methodology”. But we (and our colleagues) are the ones who generated this site, and a great deal of its content, in the first place! We’re both researchers AND research subjects. Further than this, shiftingthinking is a project that has involved the input of so many different people WITHIN NZCER, that there is an inevitable overlap with the constitution of the ethics committee that reviewed our application. In other words, some people are both researchers and research subjects, others are both research subjects AND members of the ethics committee that has to decide on the ethics of the proposed research, and so on.

Since this project is unusual and involves so many people within our organisation, our ethics committee decided to take a slightly unusual approach. Instead of having a small committee, the ethics convener invited all the people who have played a significant role in the ethics committee’s ongoing evolution to be part of the meeting. Instead of the project leader being absent from the meeting, I (as a project co-leader) was invited to the meeting to be involved in the discussions. And in those discussions, we talked about both the particular ethical issues that we could see within this proposed project (you can read how we address some of these issues in our research announcement), AND the wider implications of this project for our ongoing thinking about, and approaches to, research ethics within our organisation.

One of our colleagues commented that a key consideration for our ethics thinking ought to be to deeply examine what each project claims to be doing, and to evaluate the ethical principles  it instantiates in relation to these claims. In the case of the AERA shiftingthinking research project, our project claims to (at least attempts to) “shift the boundaries” around our own thinking about how and why we do (qualitative) research. It seems appropriate that it opened up an opportunity for us to reflect on and re-examine the boundaries of our ethics processes.

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