Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Improvement vs Transformation

I'm being changed by change, its a place I relish professionally, and as I'm challenged to explore the impact of change on teachers, I realise that change is what defines my practice personally. At some point, I stopped worrying if I was doing it 'right' and started trying different approaches, that are based on a mixture of hunch, intuition, courage, and best practice. 

I've viewed Derek's video today on 'Improvement vs Transformation', and its really helped me to start locating my 'balancing place' amongst the shifting thinking of education in Aotearoa and further afield. I'm not sure if balance is the right word, for me, teaching has become about constantly looking for levers to destabilize practice, and yet if I hope to be taken seriously in my work, I feel that I should be providing anchor points. There's not a lot of 'anchorage' in my practice presently, I find it difficult to explain myself, but I know I'm 'onto something'. Maybe this ocean-going metaphor is useful, perhaps I spend a lot of my professional time 'at sea'...

Derek Wenmoth's short explanation and model helps to create an 'anchorage' of sorts, to refine my understanding, a set of 'coordinates' to locate myself maybe... linking improvement and transformation, and bringing together the best of centralized and decentralized systems into a 'networked' model makes sense of my thinking. 

It also makes me think about NetNZ, a new model for video-conference or online education for secondary school students, that is replacing the cluster model in the South Island of NZ with a 'next generation' model for sustaining online, video conferenced based learning and teaching. It does represent a 'networked' approach I think...

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Dad - The Ultimate Maker

The maker-movement is gaining momentum around the world, and is slowly taking hold in New Zealand education settings. But what I think about the most is something that hasn't been mentioned for a while socially in our country, even in amongst the politically driven narrative of kiwiana. 

No.8 wire. That versatile material that came to symbolise the innovation, creativity and invention that underpins a resourceful New Zealander. Yet this attitude seems to have faded, and I do recall the occasional article lamenting the loss of our No.8 wire culture:

"In 1900 New Zealand had the highest number of patent applications per capita in the world. In 2006 New Zealand was ranked fourth in the world for patents filed in proportion to gross domestic product (GDP), and fifth on the basis of population. This tradition of Kiwi ingenuity is often known as the ‘no. 8 wire’ attitude, a reference to a gauge of fencing wire that has been adapted for countless other uses in New Zealand farms, factories and homes". (source)

To be honest, as a kid, I always found 8 gauge wire too hard to work with, I preferred using 2 or 3 gauge wire, much easier to mould and bend for small hands. Binder-twine, poplar branches, bullrush leaves, copper wire, a bit of soldering; to create simple radios, building a circuit to make a light bulb light up, blue stone crystal making out of orchard fertilisers, etc. Squashed thumbs and grazed knees after thinking running on concrete sprinkled with gravel etc would work (only did that once). Not to mention all the inside sewing and craft based stuff, the odd sewing machine needle through end of finger type thing. Loom bands are interesting, they remind me of macrame, friendship bands out of embroidery cotton, and those little looms with the cotton reel and four small nails in the top. Stuff that 70s-80s country kids got up to. In terms of technology, for ages we had two TVs - they sat one on top of the other - the top one had picture but no sound, the bottom had sound but no picture... a few memories.

What I missed the most when I went off to Dunedin to study, was my Dad's workshop, oddly enough. I'd gotten used to fixing and making my own stuff, something I learned from both my parents. Through using the technology of the day, I'm reflecting on the fact that my Dad is the ultimate maker. His tools and materials include a welder, a metal lathe, soldering, compressed air, steel (including off cuts), small motors.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Learning as Submission?

I've been challenged to think a lot about agency, or epistemic agency (and even shared epistemic agency) through my Knowledge Building Communities research over the last three years. I listen to the frustration that those who embrace future focused education and modern learning practices and pedagogies express, about those teachers who hold back, or for whatever reason don't engage. 

I think too about my own initial difficulties with taking risks with all aspects of my teaching practice. I think about how teachers have to make a choice between giving themselves to an initiative, or holding back due to the fact they are, on the whole, exhausted from juggling what teaching has become in secondary school settings.

Many teachers are often nervous, watchful, or resistant in their practices. Even plunging headlong into something apparently 'innovative' can leave a teacher plagued with doubt, and nervous about the risk of change. I wonder what the interaction is between our education system, and the impact it has on teacher agency? What has happened to full teacher agency? Why aren't all teachers super excited about their jobs, continually investigating how learning happens, what learning means, what knowing means? My own experience of being an educator is one of submission to a system that seems to demand just that little bit more than what I'm capable of managing. 

Its no wonder, I don't think, that activating agency in students seems to be at the heart of effective teaching. Self-motivated students, happy in their learning, curious and driven to discover meaningfulness and a connection to the world that gives them a sense of connection and efficacy... how do you teach agency? How do you teach epistemic agency particularly? Can you?

The elephant in the room?          Image Source

What have we created in our education system? Is submitting your agency to another actually at the heart of our schools? Our society? If you submit to your teacher or "the system” (hegemony), you can learn safely; but if you are active in your learning, responsibility then moves from teacher to learner, then learning becomes risky, learning is not ‘safe' anymore, you are functioning outside the accepted system. 

No wonder so many students demand to be told what to do, and think that learning is memorising what a teacher says. Do we require our learners to submit to known knowledge, and call it learning? Do we teach students (and ourselves as learners too) that a critical element of learning is submission? When we talk about passive learners, active learners, and agency, are we in effect talking about a politicising of learning? 

Though I haven't more then skimmed a few ideas of French philosopher Michael Foucault, I'm sure he talked about the relationship between power and knowledge, and the use of social institutions as a form of hegemonic social control?

When I started to understand what Knowledge Building Communities theory and pedagogy was about three years ago, I remember getting the feeling it could be a powerful tool to destabilise what 20th century learning had become. Now I'm pretty convinced this approach to teaching and learning activates the ideas and vision of a 21st century education that produces epistemic agents that improve their knowledge and understanding through the catalyst of a community. What I didn't expect was that it would do the same for the epistemic agency of the teacher.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Treasure of Connection #blogsync

What it means to be a connected educator - fantastic - blogging is something that I haven't quite gotten my teeth into yet, so a perfect supported opportunity to get stuck in, as my 'thing' for Connected Educator Month - get involved too at 

Being a connected educator is what has kept me in education, it's been the key, and becomes increasingly important as I get better at it and increasingly engaged. I started teaching in a small, rural, geographically isolated school in 2008 after teaching in South and Central Auckland for nine years, and I was pretty shocked at the very poor access to professional learning opportunities. I was actually forced to rethink how to access professional learning to stay inspired and motivated, and to be blunt, I was on my 'last gasp' - I urgently had to reconnect. My teaching circumstances forced my hand.

My first step was to get more active in the Arts Online Visual Arts Community (I'm a visual arts teacher, amongst other roles), and I also participated in a pilot 'moderation best practice' workshop series run via video conference for teachers who were working in isolated settings, for whom it was quite difficult to get to a regional centre to participate face-to-face.

As an aside - the last time I tried to drive from Hokitika to Christchurch for a best practice workshop, my truck overheated at the top of Otira Gorge, in the dark and cold, with no mobile phone reception - I still feel lucky to have been rescued by some very kind folk after waving my iPhone torch app around to catch attention of people driving past, This story also involved lost pounamu that found its way back...

How pivotal the video conference series was, an absolute professional-life saver. The connectedness and gratitude I felt was huge (aside from professional growth). Merryn @Pejokame (the Arts Online team leader), Sam @samcunnane (then Visual Arts Community Facilitator), and Geoff (than and now National Moderator) committed to making this happen. As synchronicity (or just out-right weirdness) would have it, I took over the role of the Arts Online Visual Arts community facilitator @artsonline1 this year from Sam, and have been e-mentored for the last 3 years by Merryn as part of the VPLD programme - so I quickly moved from disconnection, to connection with others, to being supported to grow and connect in a way that defies geography and time, to supporting the connectedness of other educators.

I began teaching art history via video conference in 2011, and discovered that being an e-teacher basically sent me back to feeling like a new teacher. By the end of 2011 I was after a new pedagogical approach, and little did I know where my inquiry would lead me - a plunge directly into 21st century education and modern learning practices, and professional learning that seamlessly blended f2f and online learning, consolidating what being a connected educator was about for me. Being part of a Knowledge Building (pedagogy etc) research team starting in 2012 that was spread around the country has been proved to be an incredible (and ongoing) journey (Hi Tamara @Tameey). I wont go into detail in this blog - I'll save that for the last one in this series!).

Twitter has been a focus for me this year, I had an account, but really didn't know what to do with it, until I saw how to use it as a kind of back-channel during conferences, if that's the right way to describe it? During this year, Twitter has been a bit of an obsession, and has become a primary source for me to connect with ideas, thinking and educators around NZ and the world. After my first few #edchatNZ experiences (which involved my mind buzzing with thoughts and reflection and ruining sleep!!) I've made some first steps with setting up #visartschatnz, we've had 2 chats - after getting a firm nudge from visarts teachers, which I hope can grow and be a shared/collaborative experience for those involved. Twitter - professional learning in your own home, curled up and comfy, costs not much, any time.

So, quite an amazing and intensive professional learning journey to look back on, there's a number of elements of connection I haven't mentioned, but I guess to sum up, without the ability to be a 'connected educator', I wouldn't be an educator anymore. I know that for sure. And as I learn the potential for connectedness for myself and learners (both students and other teachers), I still feel very much at the beginning... I can't leave now, I'm too curious about how connectedness in education will play out.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Experimenting with Art History Teaching

My school has allowed me to experiment with my teaching this year, which is great, I'm really thankful for this. For one trimester (thirteen weeks), I'm teaching a middle school art history class. Its a small class of six, an absolute luxury. Two year nine students, and four year ten students. We are about halfway through the course now. I've discovered that when I consider the design of a course through the lens of technology, I get a lot more creative and imaginative now. This has happened since my engagement with Knowledge Building Communities theory and pedagogy - this learning has helped me 'integrate' elements suited to 21st century or modern learning practices.

We've decided to learn how to write an art history essay, and to make stop-motion animated art history timeline movies over the thirteen weeks.

Students started selecting art works of their choice and storyboarding ideas for their movies. They asked for plasticine and had a play with that too. I've encouraged them to think about hand-made as well as digitised settings for their movies, and we've seen how simple it can be to make a movies - for example, a white board and marker... while looking at some examples of stop motion animation from the web.

I set up a Weebly site for the class with some starter resources, also with the goal of 'publishing' their essays on it, as well as their movies, once completed. The only challenge is that I don't want to pay for Weebly, which means that students can edit anything on the entire site, so we had a discussion about that, and all is well (though the title of the site keeps changing into random cheerful messages...). Having the website served a number of purposes:

  • An accessible place to access resources anytime, at school, and at home
  • Create authenticity for the work done in class - it will have a public audience
  • I'm working away from school regularly - students can still access me and their work
  • The assessed work will be digital and in one place, accessible for external moderation
Student have almost finished their essays, and the quality of the work is high. Because of lack of computer access, I ended up having to make way too many decisions about our work for the students. I don't like doing this anymore - I want learning centred on students ideas, not my ideas. However, I just need to 'lump it' till the digital environment at school improves.

We looked at the choice and application of media and processes in the work of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Students had a template to help focus on what information would be needed to structure their work, and we shared reading tasks, feeding back to each other about key ideas, and filling in templates with notes and ideas. This worked really well, and was a compromise I could live with. It turns out that this group has sound literacy skills; they were able to read unfamiliar texts and gleen meaning, doing a great job of targeting their reading to find particular content. They were able to discuss what they learned articulately with each other, and their reading enabled them to generate great questions. I was really impressed, and this raised the question for me about why students can't work at the level they are at, for example, there is a year none student in this group who is clearly capable of completing year 11 work... 

I'm looking forward to a time when schools are able to leverage technology to put students at the centre of the learning process, to truly meet their learning needs, to give them much greater agency, meaningfulness, and authenticity... I can also see that this will make teaching so much more authentic and meaningful for teachers, as well. Its frustrating having to wait for existing 'ways of educating' to shift, but I'm determined to support the process.

I'll reflect on this class again at the end of the trimester, to see where we got to. There are challenges to face yet to make the whole stop-motion animation idea fly... not enough technology to use at this stage, but the students are positive, so I'm sure we'll end up with some interesting movies. Something I've noticed already is that students are forced to 'contextualise' their choice of art works against relevant 'backdrops' in their movies, inviting students to question and research more authentically and responsively.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Teaching IS Inquiry

At some point in the last three years, I stopped being a teacher who accessed professional learning from time to time and rarely due to my somewhat remote setting, and became a teacher who's teaching spaces became sites of continuous professional learning and inquiry. 'Teaching' and 'learning about teaching' blurred, then all teaching became inquiry...

  • writing courses and assignments became instructional design
  • internalised reflection became socio-cognitive and shared
  • I realised my student-centred teaching approach wasn't really
  • my collegial interactions expanded beyond the limits of geographic location
  • I became fascinated with assessment for learning and formative assessment, and even more than before, external assessment in its existing paradigm makes me want to scream
  • my students found authenticity in their learning by participating in and co-constructing my inquiry and research efforts with me
  • every aspect of education became 'fair game' for questioning
  • I discovered and owned emergent design as my educational practice
  • I became obsessed with Knowledge Building Communities theory
  • learner agency and the centrality of the notion of 'improvable ideas' rather than 'tasks' became super important
  • my super organised and successful teaching practice became a mess (in a good way, though it didn't always feel good, and surprisingly for me, students remained successful)
  • I became really excited about my future as an educator
  • I discovered my creativity
  • I became a courageous educator (mostly - work in progress)
  • I discovered my own agency as a teacher, and realised that in a twentieth century environment, teacher agency is as controlled and limited as student agency is

The combined opportunities of targeted mentoring in the virtual professional learning and development three year programme; becoming a practitioner researcher in a small TLRI funded team investigating Knowledge Building Communities in secondary schools; and my school allowing me to engage and participate in these opportunities... projected me onto an unexpected path.  

This all happened because I asked an inquiry question that has brought me so much more than I bargained for... 'how do I teach an online class effectively, and in a way that is engaging for students?'. I discovered teaching principles and technologies that destablised and exposed my twentieth century education practices, and bridged and supported my shift to twenty first century education.

My secret inquiry, the one where I ask myself if I'm good enough, if its worth the effort, if  I can cope with another year, if being an educator is my 'thing', is getting an answer too.

I want to figure out how to share this, so that other teachers can take this journey of transformation too... not the 'Breaking Bad' teacher transformation, the other one... hehe

Friday, May 30, 2014

An Over-Looked Learning Environment

In education, the most important, primary, and over-looked 'modern learning environment' is the space between our ears. How we think, what we think, and why we think it, catalyses and forms functional and inhabitable learning spaces wherever we present ourselves as educators.

How I cultivate my mindset with a focus on growth, and how I choose to nurture my neurons, will ultimately shape the physical, virtual, and energetic spatial fields that will take shape around me. How I think, my pedagogical beliefs, shape the learning spaces where I work, and I want to be increasingly conscious of this. My beliefs shape my environment, regardless of whether or not I'm aware of them. Addressing what exactly modern learning practices and environments are allows us to re-engage with our own beliefs and values about what education means in the 21st century.

To uproot a garden of learning ideas shaped by an industrial, consumerist, competitive paradigm, driven by fear and scarcity, with a new bed of learning ideas shaped by knowledge building, learner agency, collaboration, and connectedness, informed by the notion of 'growth' and by environmental awareness, is no 'mean feat'. To operate balanced with a foot in each world is our challenge as educators, as a shift between ways of thinking about learning and the resources and infrastructure required, will take time. 

A growth mindset and an emphasis on 'process praise' is as much about an empathetic expansion of the heart and its capacity to feel, as it is an expansion of the mind, of growing neurons to increase the capacity to think. Having an expansive heart and mind located in the learning space of my body will inevitably change the quality of my actions and interactions with the people and living things surrounding me. In a good way too, I trust.