Big Lessons from Little Things – Marc Wilson

This Victoria University alumni lecture from Marc Wilson caught my attention for it’s focus on adolescent well-being. This was a VUW inaugural lecture – a previous one I’ve attended from Victoria Green on bullying is reflected on here. I came away with a lot to reflect on – why I didn’t take psychology at University, and a range of information that I believe relates to teaching.

Wilson’s sprawling lecture began by working through the usual suspects of social psychology, which offered both a historic perspective on the learning area and an introduction to the types of the authoritarian (bad people do bad things), the new authoritarian (submit to authority or you should be punished), the machiavellian (unemotional and detached), the social dominant (hierarchy, structures, developed to maintain social dominance orientation) and the psychopath (limited empathy: primary – no fear of authority or punishment; secondary – impulsive [prisons largely full of secondary psychopaths]).  He made connections between personality types and attitudes towards vegetarianism noting the new authoritarian and the social dominant eat more meat and predominantly vote right wing. He made connections with prejudice, sexism and discrimination.

The point this came to was the importance of emotion. As people become older, they have less emotional recognition. Your social dominant orientation (SDO) can be used to predict your social and political attitudes, therefore: what is the role of educators in teaching empathy and emotional intelligence?

This is where Wilson connected his study of adolescent wellbeing, which has focused on self-harm. He asked: “why would people hurt themselves?” The EAM (below) helps to explain this, but the concerning part that Wilson expressed was how some youth find that self-harm works.


EAM source

Importantly, the study showed conclusively that teachers’ concerns that surveying students, or raising self-harm does not have a negative impact – self harming activity does not increase from talking about it.

Various findings from Wilson’s research were summarised – the sprawling nature of the work makes it difficult to summarise. The Youth Wellbeing Study site offers a brilliant hub of the research and the outcomes including some really lovely work with different media forms like graphic novels. I was left thinking about the important of more guidance education for teachers around this area. Teachers are the front line of these issues, perhaps even more so that parents because we are nearby for a lot of their in person peer-to-peer interaction. How informed are teachers about the latest thinking in this area? How capable are we of recognising a student in need? And do we understanding self-harm and suicide enough in order to have appropriate conversations around this which aren’t stigma-enforcing or harmful? The heart of the lecture was the importance of emotion – something we could all do with better understanding of.


eFellows17 – Hui #3

The CORE Education Dr Vince Ham eFellowship programme continued a couple of weeks ago with the third hui of 2017. I’m privileged to be one of seven teachers on this year long journey that will see us challenged and inspired as we all take on individual inquiries that will be presented at uLearn17. 2018 eFellowship applications are now open! Continuing the trend from my second hui and first hui summary, I’ll capture the journey with three ideas and three questions.


1. Kaurilands and Koru School

The opportunity to undertake school visits continues to be one of the most heart warming parts of this journey. We visited Kaurilands School and Koru School with Jo Robson, who has been supporting their development. Both are at various stages of implementing Innovate Learning Environments. Both came from strong passionate leadership and in both cases it was a real privilege to see the environments in action. I’ve seen Cashmere Ave School‘s ILE in action and was inspired by the attitudes to learning that this approach to agency encourages. In fact there is still learning from that trip I am still trying to implement into my practice. The main focus here was the shift and change process. This is where the themes of a shared vision, collaboration and communal values were so strong between the schools. The main takeaway for me was the importance of leading with the needs of your learners.

2. Agency Ladder

School ladder

Arnstein’s ladder of participation (adapted on the right by Adam Fletcher) was raised a couple of times over the hui. If “the pinnacle experience for children in organizational decision-making [is] to initiate action and share decision-making with adults” then is becomes vital to create inclusive environments. Can genuine agency be achieved without equity? This appears to be a superb model to have on hand. Very adaptable.

3. Vulnerability

‘The Power of Vulnerability’ is a TED talk I remember seeing many years ago. Brené Brown raises some powerful ideas in here, not only an insight into humanity but also into the research process.



1. Thriving Schools

The highlight of the hui was the chance to connect with John Fenaughty, who has blazed a trail for sexuality and gender inclusive pedagogy. It was a honour to talk through my research with him, discuss the connections with his work and evaluate the state of NZ schools and their approach to gender and sexuality diversity. In a broad ranging chat I left pondering what does it take for a school to shift from coping with sexuality and gender diversity to thriving with sexuality and gender diversity?

2. Race and Gender

In the first eFellow hui, Alex Hotere-Barnes introduced me to the concept of “Pākehā paralysis” and in doing so really unlocked something in my thinking around this issue. My research has since stumbled across a different type of paralysis, a fear of action around issues of gender and sexuality. This has led me down a rabbit hole of thinking and discussion in trying to understand this more and this journey has stumbled across the concept of diversity inertia. I wonder how issues of gender and sexuality are connected to issues of race? Each area has very different and complex histories, but both contain themes of invisibility and marginalisation. How might there be a connection between the fear that teachers are experiencing and pākehā paralysis?

3. Student Voice

My research will soon seek to gather student voice from some consenting members of the classes taught by the teachers I am working with. At the beginning of the process I insisted that student voice much exist in this process and I still stand by this. However, I’m now re-evaluating this stance and trying to answer the question “what for?” I was reminded by this powerful post from Richard Wells where he examines putting the word “genuine” in front of “student-centred learning”. Is there a difference between student voice and genuine student voice? Am I seeking student voice in order to affirm what I already know? How can I gather their voice objectively if I have conclusions already in mind?

Some of this relates to the scope of my research and I can make changes accordingly, but the wider question lingers for me: when we make claims of collecting or using “student voice” to what end is it actually authentic?

Thriving in Complexity – Core Breakfast

Schools have often been forces of societal stability, preparing young people to take a defined and productive (and sometimes predetermined) role in society. Today’s schools, on the contrary, are being asked to prepare young people to enter a future world that we cannot even imagine. It’s hard enough for the adults in schools to cope with the uncertainty we face in the relatively near future; growing the school and societal leaders we need for the distant future is daunting indeed. In this session Jennifer Garvey Berger (Cultivating Leadership blog) offers a new way of thinking about uncertainty and some new tools to help us all grow more capable of coping with our complex world.

8a0d40377f3606f893c74d8a6074111bThis highly useful Core Breakfast set the scene by exploring the idea of complexity. Education is fast becoming more complex with digital technology a key driver. The quote from Mencken captures why this is important discussion. While the level of complexity for educators has grown dramatically, the landscape of schools hasn’t.

This is where Snowden’s Cynefin framework comes in – a ‘sense making device’. It is structured with four domains, over two sides: predictable and unpredictable. Schools are everywhere on the domain, so it can be used effective as an evaluation tool.


  • Obvious – known knowns – facts are known, cause and effect is visible, can rely on best practice
  • Complicated – known unknowns – need expertise, facts are contested but with analysis and research we can find an answer


  • Complex – unknown unknowns – cause and effect are in reverse. Cannot rely on what has happened before, need novelty, critical thinking and knowledge creation – leading people, culture change are complex. As Berger said “Good teaching is a complex endeavour that shifts and changes in the moment. It’s not something you can repeat.”
  • Chaos – cause and effect is unclear, the job is to stablize the system. “In this context, managers “act–sense–respond”: act to establish order; sense where stability lies; respond to turn the chaotic into the complex” – Snowden & Boone. Chaos creates innovation (i.e. Christchurch earthquakes)

Mind the gap (close the gap between current results and outcomes that you want), mind the system (nudge the system, watch its responses, be ready to respond). Three habits of mind to help us to thrive in complexity:

  • Ask different questions: increase curiosity. The future is not going to be like the past. Questions come from our general beliefs. Useful questions about what people are chatting about. Facts are way less important than what people believe.
  • Take multiple perspectives: taking other people’s perspectives to expand our own perspective. The truth we see is the truth – that is wrong. How can we listen to learn? Generally we listen to win, or listen to fix something, or listen to make something go away. In the unpredictable space, you don’t know the answer. Which people are you not listening to and learning from well enough? What might you learn if you listened harder?
  • See systems: notice the patterns and forces instead of the individual elements.

I’m left reflecting on the way this framework could be used. It might support teachers to understand change and to feel more comfortable with complexity. It certainly makes a useful tool for personal reflection and would support change management. Ultimately, the message I’m taking away is to be comfortable with complexity and how important it is to learn to live not in the predictable past, but instead in the unpredictable future.

The Director’s Craft and Student Centred Learning

41xybfa4xcl-_sx331_bo1204203200_After reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, I sought further insight into the creative process and how to frame it in my teaching. The Directors Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre by Katie Mitchell has served as a really strong companion to this journey. The explicit connections are with the annual school production I direct and the my drama class. However, it was the implicit connections with pedagogy that really interested me, challenging me to thinking about how the role of the director in a production overlaps with the role of a teacher. Teaching a particular skill or piece of knowledge could be done via direct instruction: tell the student what they need to know. However, by viewing pedagogy through the lens of the director, one can find something far closer to student centred learning: directing the student to find out. There is much out there already on student centred learning, but from this book it was the close connection between this concept and the craft of a director that felt worth exploring.  Some of the key takeaways from this book:

  • The idea of seeing the work as if it were “naturalistic cinema” (4). By thinking of it as a simplistic sequence, you can think of the play as how the audience will experience it frame by frame. How might learning also be narrative based in something similar to ‘naturalistic cinema’?
  • “If you get the picture of what happens in the past right, it will make what the characters do in the present more accurate” (24). This is essentially constructivism, articulating Piaget’s theory of learning. Your experiences of learning in the present, depend on your experiences and understanding of the past.
  • Action on stage only represents a small window of time in a characters day and a character’s life; just as time with a student in class represents a small window of their time. What happens outside of these windows is important and makes a big difference to what we do in the time that we have.
  • “Do not start on design, costume, lighting, music or sound until you have studied the play carefully” (76). A somewhat similar statement to make might be: do not start on lesson planning, resource selection, content choices, until you have met and developed relationships with your students.

I think there’s considerably more to explore with this pedagogical lens. My shift into teaching Drama over the last four years has had a profound impact on my practice in English and Media Studies. The Director’s Craft has been a launching pad to thinking about many of this ideas and is a truly excellent read.

The New Zealand Project – Max Harris

Max Harris is a Rhodes Scholar and a friend who I met at Secondary School. His book The New Zealand Project was a proud read from the perspective of seeing a brilliant peer’s writing published and an inspiring read from the perspective of the ideas and challenges that he shares. I was particularly interested in the views expressed on education, and this blogpost will attempt to capture some of my reflection on this.

The foundation of the book is a call for “politics grounded in cornerstone progressive values of care, community and creativity” (12). This values-based approach is threaded throughout the book in chapters that deal with various aspects of the political landscape from justice to economics, and the environment to gender and sexuality (I was very proud to see the last one achieve a chapter status).  Of the values discussed, I particularly responded to the importance of creativity. It is a value I championed in the Newlands College vision and a skill that the World Economic Forum claims will be vital for future employment. Creativity invokes imagination and innovation and “is in tension with the value of tradition” (16). Creativity is fundamental to a progressive society.

The discussion around a values-based approach led me to two takeaways from the book:

  1. That this value based approach should be used as a framework in other fields, for example I feel that there would be merit in using this framework as an approach to education if school decisions were seen through the lens of care, community and creativity. I feel a different decisions would get made.
  2. Education, therefore, is more deeply political than I have previously supposed.

While reading I started to think of some of the issues raised around NZ politics and applying them to education: the technocracy, the accessibility, the boldness of decision making being limited by the overton window etc. The ease of substituting ‘education’ for ‘politics’ was provocative, giving me lots of reflect on in terms of the way that the profession approaches the ‘bigger’ conversations in education. Where do values sit in these conversations? To what degree are we guided by them? There is, I think, an unfair weighting to the discussion that sits around ‘how’ where more value-based dialogue would concentrate on the ‘why’ and ‘what’.

The conclusion of the book contained three educational proposals for further debate:

  • “Te reo Maori should be a learning area in the New Zealand curriculum. Inequalities between Maori and Pasifika must be reduced…
  • A review of school zoning, enrollment scheme and school inequality should be undertaken…
  • Civics education should be introduced in New Zealand schools” (283-4)

Should this debate occur through the lens of care, community and creativity then I believe we could make some very promising progress.

Harris, Max (2017) The New Zealand Project. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books Ltd.

Digital Vs Human – Richard Watson

9781925321173My previous holiday read ‘Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy‘ was a strong advocate for the integration of digitally based learning through careful application of several key principals. This book, “Digital Vs Human” by Richard Watson, is a far more cautionary tale. Watson is a futurist (interviewed here on Radio NZ) who was mentioned and recommended by Derek Wenmoth in his presentation on future trends.

The main them of the book was around the impact of automation and digitalisation: “How new technologies change the was that humans relate to one another, and ultimately, how technologies change human identity and purpose” (172). However, Watson is clear, boldly announcing in his preface “the problem we currently face is not technology, it’s humans” (xv). He encourages us to take control of the changes going on, to ask questions about purpose and impact, and evaluate ethically any technological change.

He considers the impacts of technology change on jobs, the economy and privacy, identifying that an “imbalance has emerged between work and life…individuals and community …liberty and equality…economy and the environment…physical and mental health” (16). The imbalance is leading to loss of connections and isolation of individuals. Watson implores us to stay in the driving seat, keeping creativity and empathy at the fore. Instead of blindly accepting new technology as progress, we need to ask what is it for? Who does it serve? Watson also considers the development of AI in depth. Where is the line between human and non-human? To what extent will humans “be happy to use machines in place of people and in what roles? Is there an obvious limit?” (58).

A chapter is devoted to education, but strung throughout the book is a challenge to rethink the relationship between technology and education. We live in an era “where our opinions are increasingly based on very little knowledge” where “knowledge of the fact a thing exists or is happening” is more important than knowledge itself (153). Are we over-schooling and under-educating? Are devices conditioning young minds “away from deep reflective thought”? (157). Is our tiered education system skewing our outcomes through the favouring of wealth and social status?

I think the issues discussed pre-date our current era; however, they have been exacerbated by technological change. The underlying issue, which he tackles, is the emphasis on learning to pass, or short-term knowledge. He promotes education through portfolio and people. Watson is particularly cynical about MOOCs and CoOLs which contradicts the research that people and relationships are what make the biggest difference to learning.

The final chapter of the book contains some ideas to address the themes in the book:

  • “consider the physical and digital domains as one” (240)
  • “challenge the myth that the intelligence of a large number of people online can exceed that of a single individual” (241)
  • “individuals should be granted the legal right to be forgotten…this might encourage more experimentation and act as a counterweight to conformism” (242)
  • “we must be vigilant against the threat of human extinction” (243)

Earlier in the book Watson suggests only when things are rock bottom, does humanity really truly reflect: “the threat of impeding death or disaster does focus the long lens of perspective” (93). I think the biggest takeaway from the book is the need to promote this wider perspective more often to have more ethical conversations about the progress society is making. The last six words of the book are a great question to start with:

Who do we want to be?

Watson, Richard (2016) Digital Vs Human: How We’ll Live, Love and Think in the Future. Scribe Publications: Croyden.

Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy

Published by Peter Lang

The first striking thing about the way the book (by Belinha S. de Abreu with Vitor Tomé) framed up its argument was defining the digital age as one characterised by performativity (“knowledge appreciated for its relation with power instead of truth”) and speed (xv). It positions this idea in the changing education landscape which needs to reform to ensure devices are instructional tools, not a babysitters – “the disconnect between what is assumed to be learning and engagement versus passive usage” (xxvi).

This led to the deconstruction of myths like the assumption that digital natives will be digital savvy and a task that uses a device does not necessarily have any pedagogical value. It made a clear argument that the placement of digital literacy is not exclusive to any subject and should sit in a cross-curricula space that is dynamic and responsive (I feel like that was a direct challenge to schools that are handling the 21st century by rolling out the same 4 week unit on digital citizenship annually since 2012). It also argues for online learning to be integrated in order to enables the four dimensions of learning 2.0: content, creation, connection and collaboration (144).

The second half of the book tracked through some expansive research undertaken in Portugal. The data was provocative, largely reinforcing the main themes of the book. It made a familiar call for widening our understanding of literacy to be inclusive of digital literacy. It called for the integration of online social networks to develop a participatory culture of global connectiveness: “We cannot continue preparing individuals to solve problems individually, because it is no longer what society asks citizens” (146).

The book asked questions about the privacy of data and the ethics of using mobile learning with students. If the only way to keep students safe is to keep them off the grid – which is unrealistic – then how do we ensure that digital citizenship and media literacy is taught to adequately protect students? NZ resource Netsafe is one place, but the authors quote a lot from cyberwise which looks worth spending more time with.

An overall point I understood from the book was the way that learning through mobile technology is not an automatic process. When we deconstruct the factors we realise that a lot of assumptions need to have significant thought and scaffolding to ensure positive learning outcomes for students. Take the digital divide for instance (or as Henry Jenkins calls it the “participation gap” [47]), which is often referred to in terms of who has the internet and who does not. Even in classrooms where everyone has internet access at home the divide still exists and can be broken down by the speed of their internet, the type of device used, the skills they have in navigating it etc. The authors drew on Yildiz to suggest that the way forward is providing students with multiple means of representation, expression and engagement (49). The solutions to digital literacy and inclusive learning might look very similar if both were explored through Universal Design for Learning.

In conclusion the book clearly places itself as an advocate for a positive position on mobile learning. It laments the fear mongering and negative media that hampers effort to move forward to digital integration. It finishes with this passionate call to arms:

“Mobile tools are here to stay and the underpinning of growing knowledge and understanding is best served through digital media literacy as the greater context and overarching inquiry” (174).

Belinha S. de Abreu w Vitor Tomé (2017) Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy. Peter Lang: New York.