Monday, 30 November 2015

Looking back on 2015 - positive momentum

What might we celebrate as 2015 draws to a close?

On the one hand, there are a number of factors to be very concerned about, in terms of the current political climate and the constraints on the work of educators and researchers. Funding is tighter than ever and there appears to be a lower value placed on qualitative methods and social justice agendas.

On possible effect is our research being bound by the politics of the day. This obstructs our ability to be intellectually independent. There is a recent case of this in New Zealand, where a researcher was denied access to some documents. Such obstruction means we need to be agile and willing to adapt to changing conditions and societal needs if we are to fulfil a legal obligation to be a social critic.

This leads us to wonder: in these complex times, what purpose does our blog serve?

For me, blogging in 2015 has been about cataloguing practice and reflections, using the blog as a teaching mechanism, to articulate understandings for sharing with students. I blog when planning or recording commentary and insights about an event or process - in an online class, an elearning brown bag lunch, or a teaching advocacy session. In this way, the blog helps to gel the different parts of my role together and assists me to weave my professional efforts into a more or less coherent whole.

In 2016, I expect to continue to blog by way of reflection on my teaching and ongoing projects - related to peer mentoring for online teachers, and helping students and graduates to use social media for professional learning. I have played with ideas around social media in education throughout the year, with highlights including the ECSM2015 conference in Porto, and the opportunity to learn about Chinese social media from visitors.

Then there's our ELDM special issue on Twitter in Education and we are very much looking forward to submissions by 26 February 2016. I have enjoyed talking (and tweeting) with prospective authors and reviewers for the special issue, and the range of topics and coverage is coming together well. If 2015 was the year of our book, 2016 will be the year of our special issue. There is still time to work on a submission and the call for papers, via this blog, is still an active link with constant readership.

What would I like for Christmas and for 2016?
  • Some spam-free responses by way of comments on our blog from thoughtful colleagues and readers.
  • A successful special issue.
  • To meet some of the new intake of students in initial teacher education who may have heard me speak about teaching myths at our open day.
  • To keep the lines of communication wide open and co-constructive with students so that we can exchange feedback to advance our learning together.
  • To manage my time in ways that matter and make a difference.

For me, I like to use the blog as a thinking aloud piece. Sometimes it's about scoping ideas about bigger picture educational policy and what this might mean for educators - both in schooling sectors and tertiary.

My posts are sometimes also about political observations related to education. For example, the OECD. There are two posts: the first, in September, is about the report on education and media tended to portray it, while the second updates my thinking as it was prompted by a blog post about the relationship between the tools and pedagogical thinking. Both go together.

Anecdotally, I talk with teachers in a local secondary school who read the blog (hi to all of you at Hillcrest High!) and are happy for talk to be off the cuff. As Dianne intimated earlier, both of us would like some engagement with the ideas in the blog itself. Besides, it's always nice to engage with others over ideas. And it will make a great change from the pesky spammers who only want to promote some product or other. The 'delete forever' button gets a bit of a workout as a result.

The blog helps us, as Dianne suggested, to think, encapsulate and make sense of what we do, read, experience and learn. My occasional posts about working with some teachers is a case in point - it helps me make sense of something I notice while I have the privilege of being in their classrooms. One example is about science classrooms HERE, while part 4 in a series links more musings. A blog post by Sean McHugh that inspired my post about mathematics teachers and weights and measures was picked up by an Associate Principal and shared with a mathematics department, so I guess this blog helps provoke some thinking (I hope!).

Anyway, this will be our last post for the year. Soon we will be on annual holidays to recharge ourselves.  We hope you all have a great set of celebrations - whatever your beliefs. We hope you go well and go safely.

Friday, 20 November 2015

More on the OECD report on digital technologies in education

The previous blog post I wrote on this issue in September 2015 was in response to some of the media reports that took one item and made it the central focus of the report, when it was nothing of the sort. I have now come across a blog post that puts together comments from a range of international academics who have also commented on ideas the report covers. Essentially, the blog post  by Maria Perifanou outlines comments that strongly advocate for the deliberate acts of pedagogy that are crucial for learning. Yes!

It has never been more important for teachers to have active, deliberate control of designing the learning activities and processes (this includes learning where students are active participants and decision-makers). This is, however, no mean feat, especially if teachers keep the long goal in mind of developing tomorrow's citizens/adults who can ethically, morally, and safely, take their places as decision-makers in their own societies. This doesn't happen in a vacuum or by happenstance, but by deliberate and careful design over long periods of time.

Deliberate acts of pedagogy that facilitate critical thinking, the ability to interrogate texts of any kind, and to not believe politicians' words all the time, is crucial for the health of our communities. With the growth also of strong efforts to turn everyone into consumers to buy, buy, buy!, we must educate our learners to think first of all: what are the messages I'm receiving? What and how am am I being persuaded? This also links to understanding political persuasion.

For example, in the advertising context, I'm thinking of the relentless advertising for the machine that says it creates healthy smoothies that a juicer can't. This advertising does not compare like with like. If it did, it would have little to offer that a blender can't do, other than being a bit easier to clean afterwards. A juicer is about removing pulp; a blender doesn't do that. So why would there be a deliberate effort to mis-compare? It is about creating need when there isn't one, playing the health-conscious card to potential consumers. is this justified? Such a question could raise all sorts of ethical considerations that might not be thought about. In 2007 for example, Ribena was left red-faced by New Zealand schoolgirls who unearthed its levels of Vitamin C. The began with a question about which of the comparable fruit drinks had the most Vitamin C.

So why aren't we using common texts such as these to interrogate in our classrooms? These can leverage the affordances of the internet to offer students the opportunity to come up with answers to relatively disarmingly simple questions like:

Does this product compare like with like? How do you know? How did you test the argument of the advertisement? What do you learn from this investigation? What would you advise potential buyers about this product? If you had the money, would you buy one? Justify your decisions. 

Imagine classrooms where students are encouraged to use the internet, check out the purposes of certain pieces of equipment, make comparisons, draw conclusions, and report their findings to their peers? This could include investigating the value of educational Apps- are they fit for purpose? Do they help learning or so they stop at drill and rote memory?

Deliberate acts of teaching are about the end game of critical thinking and using readily available tools and texts to facilitate this development. it doesn't require much technological nous, but keen pedagogical expertise. Tasks that begin with a problem and leave the process open, are ones students can easily attempt. They combine the skills of close reading, analysis, discussion, using literacy strategies such as creating tables of comparisons, drawing conclusions, and writing up reports of some kind (blog, printed text, video, poster, infographic etc) to present to peers. This is mathematics, science, technology, English and the entire range of Key Competencies put together. A teacher at almost any level could justify such problem-based learning tasks. The differences, I suspect will be of degree - of complexity, the sophistication of the resources, and the expectations of the final outcomes.

So let's take back the power and claim what is rightfully ours as educators - the ability to provide deep, meaningful learning that transcends narrow technicist views of who teachers are and what they should do. My colleague Dianne Forbes' last blog post is entirely relevant here for she outlines teachers' roles in actively creating learning from positions of strength and clear purpose.

So what do you think about this argument? Discussion is really welcome!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Being a teacher … now and tomorrow

I’ve been browsing through a book called ‘Learning identities in a digital age’ by Avril Loveless and Ben Williamson (2013) and have found the chapter on ‘being a teacher in a digital age’ (chapter 8) particularly insightful.

As a Teacher Educator there is much in this chapter that resonates with what I am trying to be and to teach. Recently, we discussed similar questions in faculty groups as part of our review of initial teacher education. What do teachers need to know, do and understand in order to be effective in diverse settings? What do we want for the beginning teachers we mentor?

Guided by Loveless & Williamson (2013), and following discussion with a small group of colleagues, a little of my current thinking falls around the words highlighted below, with the suffix sion/tion: meaning act of, state of or result of. So, this is my thinking on what teachers do, are and achieve. This is what we are aiming at ideally as we teach, including those of us who teach teachers about teaching.

Vision – As teachers, we need to be purposeful, imaginative and as resourceful and wise as we wish/expect students to be, say Loveless & Williamson (2013). This is compatible with the New Zealand Curriculum vision for young people to be confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners. It stands to reason that these goals are essentially appropriate to teachers. Can a teacher who is not confident, connected, actively involved or a lifelong learner successfully teach someone else to develop these capacities? Can we expect students to have purpose, imagination, resourcefulness and wisdom if we do not lead them by modelling these qualities? If these are the attributes we seek in our next generation, these are areas for teacher leadership. At its core, this vision needs to prioritise social justice and ethical responsibility, with appreciation of diversity, in order to be responsive to the needs of all students rather than just the privileged few.

Foundation – Teachers need subject knowledge and a dynamic approach to advancing and revising this knowledge continuously. Pedagogical presence and reach are essential attributes, alongside interest and actual enjoyment of one’s field. If we can’t model passion and joy in teaching, then how can we guide others to find it an exciting career?
Digital literacy is a key foundation, comprised of skills and attitudes toward problem-solving and change. Fundamentally, the ethical core lies with commitment to equity and to valuing people and learning.
Without vision and a foundation to build upon we would be stuck, floundering and faking it at best.

Decision – Teachers are curriculum-makers, not merely there to deliver or transmit what another has designed. Instead, teachers have to make decisions, to do so in flexible and adaptive ways, and with the social good in mind. Again, ethics comes into decision-making, as does courage and wisdom. Specifically, Loveless & Williamson remind us that environmental sustainability must now be part of our decision-making in terms of social good.

Action – Just as students are encouraged to be actively involved, teachers need a growth-mindset as lifelong learners, willing to proactively create and pursue learning opportunities and continual improvement. Being active is about being critical rather than passive in our acceptance of the status quo. This critical stance also pertains to our own practice, as we actively interrogate and build upon our practice. Action that takes a new direction can be transformative of learning possibilities. Action also includes the strategies we use when teaching and learning.

Without these two states/acts/results, we would be indecisive and passive. So, I guess we would still be stuck.

Participation – In terms of being connected, teachers cultivate relationships and collaborate in knowledge-building communities. Whether virtual or f2f, participation stems from being decisive and active. This is important in terms of relationships with students that make a difference, and also in terms of proactive approaches to teacher learning 

Innovation – Teachers who take risks, in creative and inventive ways, who improvise and who seek originality, rather than doing things the way they have always been done.

Reflection – As part of lifelong learning, we need to be prepared to critically examine our practice and to grow. Perhaps this is what future focused learning is about.

What have I overlooked?
What else do teachers need to be, do and strive for?

Friday, 6 November 2015

The rise of the neo-liberal agenda in New Zealand's education system

The current government is about to review the Education Act. This is probably a good thing, given how much has changed in the social, economic and political landscape. However, it is wise for all in education to look behind the curtain to understand more about what the intention is. I am cautious, because there are precedents to the stealthy creep of particular agendas that seem to be about delivering more and more into the hands of those who wish to make money rather than focus on the social and educational  health of its citizens.

I'm thinking here about the move to alter legislation to allow bars to open for Rugby World Cup televised games. So, at 3, 4, 5 am, people could congregate in bars to watch matches. Apparently this went well. Today, there is a call to loosen the strings on when bars can open because of this. This is after there were limits placed on access to booze because of the increasingly deleterious effects on people, the work of the police, traffic accidents and youth boozing. There is no mention of such issues in David Seymour's call, originally focused on a sense of patriotism for rugby. David Seymour is the sole Act Party member of parliament, representing a highly focused, neo-liberal view of the world. He is the voice of the far-right policies that, as far as I can see, the National Party wants to keep away from in public, to avoid scaring the horses, ie the public.

So what does this have to do with education? I suspect the same bit by bit whittling away of terms, conditions and principles. On the face of it, there are some possibly good ideas that Hekia Parata suggests. For example, new entrants starting school in cohorts rather than at their fifth birthday. I wonder what new entrant teachers think of that? Would having a whole new cohort start at once work? How difficult would it be for such a teacher to manage say, 10 students (who would be added to an existing class most probably) who start school for the first time? Such teachers seem to be remarkably silent on this.

As a starting point, the names of those appointed to the Education Act review Taskforce might bear some scrutiny. The Foreword by the chair intimates the focus when he says "Through our enquiries and consultation the Taskforce has concluded that there is a strong case to review the Act to provide a greater focus on student outcomes and more explicit roles and objectives."

One key thing that seems to be undefined, is what 'outcomes' mean. For example, all of the internationally highly regarded Best Evidence Synthesis reports begin with their own interpretation of 'outcomes'. A literature review on e-learning also undertook this in order to fulfil its brief on reviewing e-learning and student outcomes. It discussed outcomes in relation to both students and teachers. So what is the Taskforce's view of the term?

Other ideas also require some cautious investigation. For example:
Changes suggested include removing "unnecessary red tape" from school boards, possibly having some govern multiple schools. Parata said principals themselves had expressed an interest in leading more than one school, particularly where there might be very small rolls.(O'Callaghan, 2015)
I wonder what constitutes 'unnecessary red tape' if this is about school governance? How representative would school boards be if they govern more than one school? Whose interests are best served? Page 6 of the Taskforce recommendation suggests that Boards' roles might, for example,  include:
 – ensuring that school leadership has a focus on raising student achievement
– setting objectives for the school and monitoring results
– monitoring and planning progress in relation to a school’s charter and annual plans
– reflecting government priorities
– having sound fiscal and property management
– being a good employer
– ensuring school leadership maintains student and staff safety.

Some of these are absolutely fine for a Board to undertake. But  what about 'setting objectives for the school and monitoring results'? What might that mean, be interpreted as, or result in?

Another idea I urge caution on is this:
Schools that were "doing well" could have more freedom and extra decision-making rights, but having a "graduated response" to underachievement by schools would mean earlier intervention for those not doing well, Parata said (ibid)
What does 'doing well' mean? In relation to what? Who sets the terms for 'doing well'? How is 'doing well' measured? What would be put in place to deal with schools defined as having 'underachievement'? And what is this going to be based on? Will the goalposts shift each year or each term of office? Will it allow any Minister of Education to make unilateral decisions about schools and schooling and teaching (as has been a past feature of Parata's stewardship, for example) and expect compliance?

What might these changes portend for the health of the education system, and those who teach in it? Will it give more power to Boards to expect a business model in its school, possibly undermining or in contradiction to, a pedagogical one? How might this affect how teachers are expected to behave - as professionals with professional expertise, or as technicists, who do what they're told and 'perform'?  Will it lead to more rampant privatisation of what is a public good? (regardless of what Treasury might deem it to be). I have a lot of questions and very few answers, but I am worried about the directions it might take, and what elbow room it give to further neo-liberal inroads into education.

I'd love to hear others' ideas on this.