Today I put the finishing touches on my final PhD thesis manuscript. Copying the 1.3 MB file onto a flash drive, I drove ten minutes down the road to Officeworks, ordered the print job and killed some time wandering through the aisles, picking out random pieces of stationery that I didn’t need or want.
When the job was complete, I looked at the printed-and-bound “tree edition” of the last three years’ work sitting idly on the counter. My first thought was, “wow – it’s rather thick.” My second thought was, “wow – did I do that?”
I suppose that it’s a feature of our digital lives that stuff we do often easily slots invisibly into the ether. I’m constantly writing reports, manuscripts, emails and all manner of things. Possibly due to over-typing, the dull pain that I had in the base of my left wrist ten years ago returned just the other day. With an academic career ahead of me, I’m spending less time in the classroom and more time in the office. I’ve also been quite the perfectionist throughout my PhD candidature, and it’s made me hold onto ideas more and share them less. I’ve been pushing the envelope and not taking much time to smell roses, let alone share my experience of the garden with those around me.
I’m hoping now it’s out of the way, I’ll get back a piece of my old self. In finding those past pieces of ourselves, I think it’s important we regularly take stock of what we do. Just forging on, working harder and finding the next “big thing” means we often lose sight of those important reference points that define who we are and reflect some of our contributions to the world.
So when I saw the printed copy of my thesis, the physicality what I’ve been doing these past three year hit me. It’s nice to just take a few breaths, say, “yep – I did that,” and take stock of it.
“You Find Yourself Yet?” by Mikey G Ottawa (Flickr)
What does teacher professional learning look like in a digital age? What kind of impact on student learning outcomes and the school community does a highly connected, digitally literate teacher have? How can educators work more effectively with one another using available tools? I’m incredibly lucky to be an Education student at a time when pertinent questions like these are still waiting to be fully investigated. Now in the second year, my doctoral research has led me to explore the professional learning of teachers, principals, preservice teachers and school leaders. While I’ll never be an expert in this area, it’s exciting to see what’s now possible and to know there are so many awesome teachers out there.
We’re witnessing a shift taking place – from the now antiquated professional “development” forms of lectures, one-day training courses and PD days to more highly personalised, relevant professional learning that’s tailored to the needs of the individual teacher. I’m optimistic that more and more teachers can become effective learners in the digital age and empower themselves and their students in the process. I’ve often felt that school leaders (and principals especially) need to be on board. My recent work experience has also led me to believe that we should do everything we can to support preservice teachers to learn far beyond the life of their degrees.
I’ve been especially lucky to work with Cathie Howe, Professional Learning & Leadership Advisor at Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT). Cathie is a passionate educator who supports teachers in schools across Greater Sydney and New South Wales. Professional Learning in a Digital Age (PLDA) is a course that we’ve developed at MacICT to reflect the new, connected ways in which teachers can learn. The course provides first-time support through training sessions in a range of current tools for content aggregation and people-to-people connections, including Feedly, Google Plus Communities, Twitter and Creative Commons. These sessions are run in both face-to-face and online modes. Following the training, participants engage a four-week Mini-Online Course (MOC), with weekly activities where they use digital tools to practice the Four Cs of communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.
Being able to teach in an area so close to my doctoral research is incredibly rewarding. As always, I have a lot to learn – so do we all. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding our community, building connections and discovering our voices. It’s a pleasure to support our thirty-nine teachers on this journey.
I just listened to the most recent episode of EdPod, ABC Radio National’s monthly roundup of education issues. In the current episode, interviewer Natasha Mitchell and corporate lawyer David Gillespie discuss the question: “does money buy a better quality education?” Gillespie, father of six, decides to select public education for his six children, having worked out that it would cost him over a million dollars to send all six children to private schools.
I was having a conversation with a friend the other day discussing her experiences studying an Education Masters degree in the late 90s. She noted that a professor she had held in high esteem really helped her to keep a healthy perspective on the role of technology in education:
“Right from early on, she kept telling us ‘technology is just a tool.’ I think that became an important reminder throughout my research and I’ve carried that view into the classroom. Technology really is just a tool.”
Many of us have often encountered similar viewpoints, and on one level, it’s very easy to accept statements like these. Historically, the late 90s and early 2000s were a time of enormous change as the touted “information super highway” became about much more than just information storage and retrieval. As we began to explore the read/write web, our experience of technology was as much shaped by our participation as by our access to information. In many ways, we’ve become the technology; it expresses our identity to the world, shapes our perspectives and transforms our experiences.
Of course, in education, there was (and still is) a knee-jerk reaction to the hype, hence the need to regard technology as simply a “tool.” This is understandable. Given objections that, for example, technology might be used as a substitute for good pedagogy, why not pigeonhole technology into the toolshed and focus on what’s important?
Of course, pedagogy is – and will always be – important. But in essence, what is pedagogy? Adult educator Malcolm Knowles famously defined pedagogy as “the art and science of education,” a definition now widely accepted among the global education community. It’s a nice binary – art suggests capricious, free thinking and creativity “in the moment,” while science suggests cold, hard objectivity, rationality and critical thinking. Put them together and you certainly have an interesting mix. But where does this leave technology as “just a tool?” Modern (post 1950s!) pedagogical approaches like reciprocal teaching, teacher-student self-verbalisation, real-time collaboration and project-based learning are so entwined with technology that they’re shaped and enhanced by its use. To see technology solely as a tool suggests that these pedagogies are somehow removed.
Today, there was some real buzz on the web about Da Vinci’s famous “piano-cello,” an instrument designed by the artist but never properly “invented,” until now.
To consider a musical instrument like the piano, cello or piano-cello as “just a tool” seems to be missing the point. Of course, any musical instrument is merely a piece of technology – but when we view instruments like these on another level, we see that the technology has incredible capacity to transform identity, perspectives and experience. The music we create with these tools is so inextricably entwined with the technology. That’s why Da Vinci, Stradivarius and others were so committed to extending their imaginations with the technology of their day as far as humanly possible.
I don’t believe that technology is, or ever will be, “just a tool.” I’d rather leave that definition to spanners and screwdrivers and get on with dreaming about how future technologies might change the way I teach and learn – and what role I can play in getting there.
Last week saw the end of my first year as a teacher at university. Before primary and secondary colleagues reading this think “oh, the life!” I should point out that I’ll be kept quite busy with marking, research, PhD and future planning up until Christmas eve, and I hope to be back in January teaching during the summer school period.
The transition from working mostly with kids to working solely with adults has left an indelible mark on my identity as teacher, albeit a mark that I’m still daily trying to figure out. My students this year were effusive in their praise, and though I know that I could have done better, I’m very lucky to know that I’ve made a difference.
The hardest part is that, at this stage in an academic career, I really can’t separate the layers of my professional identity. In many ways, the school world used to be so separate from real life. My roles were so neatly laid out like a fortnightly timetable; commitments were funnelled into lots of twenty and fifty minutes, separated neatly by chiming bells, buses and uniforms. It seemed in many ways a beautiful little world just carved out for me – finite, structured, made clear.
Within this structure, I worked out who I was in reference to the ideas that circulated within that environment. I was considered “innovative” by some because, in spite of the order, I moved outside the immediacy of the school environment, throwing myself into countless hours of dabbling with new technology tools, researching for my Masters, blogging and networking with teachers from around the world. But I always knew that I could come back to the safety and security of the school walls.
Now the structures seem to be shifting. “Self” means father, researcher, student, teacher, lecturer, tutor, cellist, traveller, blogger… Conversations from one area bleed into another, and I find myself helplessly thinking across traditional boundaries (it seems I’m only comfortable when I do, because sticking to one area makes me more consciously aware of what little I know). The world beyond the schoolyard is liberating but scary at the same time. I’ve always been comfortable moving from one skin into the next, so there’s nothing really to be afraid of but it does take some getting used to. It’s the intersections that are the most interesting, so I need to learn to stop trying to be the best at everything and start thinking about how overlapping roles gives me unique perspectives on education.
I sit down to blog and I’m never quite sure where to position the perspective, how to “think” my way through the writing, what the purpose will be or who I’m supposed to be talking to. The blog itself has to undergo a huge shift, but mapping it out isn’t easy.
I’m doing my best to map things out as best I can. My supervisor and I sit in his office with a whiteboard and marker, mapping out the chapters of a thesis I’m yet to write.
Meanwhile, I’m continuing to map out the changes in my thinking, planning and research for the future. The world of my classroom involved neat little programs, units and assessment tasks, many of which I’d taught for years on end. Now I’m thrust into a world of mapping much bigger pictures: government policies, national accreditation requirements, collective case studies of seventeen schools, two hundred years of educational theory…
Academics often talk about juggling their commitment to teaching with research and the pressures of publishing. These last few weeks, I know what they mean; I’m marking 122 assignments, each requiring full attention, careful consideration and detailed feedback. To stay fresh, I intersperse readings on the educational theories of Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey, an intersection I’m hoping to explore in Chapter 2 of my thesis. I’m already getting a sense that teaching and research should be equal guests at the table, so I’m hoping to listen to their conversations more closely.
At the same time, I’m learning to appreciate pre-service teachers and their world. I’m learning to empathise with their fears of standing up and teaching a class of kids, managing difficult behaviour, finding their first job and making their way in the world. Though it’s been twelve years since I was in their specific shoes, the world is now a different place.
As always, I know that it’s the slight turn of the wheel that often makes the difference to the journey. Like the kid in the video below, I’m trying new things to shift my perspective slightly and see the world differently. Each day is different – and I’m enjoying being me.
In exactly one month to the day, I’ll be a dad – responsible for bringing someone into the world. My wife made the choice of not knowing the sex of the baby which I’m happy about. Many people comment to the effect of, “that’s great – you’ll love the surprise!” I suppose it’s also about giving the kid a chance to be themselves before we’ve had a chance to work it out and there’s something liberating about that.
Like all keen parents, we’ve been working around the clock to set up the new space. After numerous trips to shopping centres and factory outlets, we’re reasonably au fait with the range of toys, gadgets, clothes and kiddy creature comforts. My wife complains that everything seems funnelled into the visual categories of bright pink and baby blue; it seems, as a society, we’re still wanting to label our children as boys and girls – and the pink/blue binary seems to suggest that mums and dads are deciding that their child will be recognisable from birth as a boy or girl. Perhaps this also represents some kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the gender freedom movements of the 70s that advocated, for example, the denial of baby dolls for girls as a form of resistance to patriarchy. Perhaps it’s just indelible the way we are.
My own story of gender is one that is so inextricably linked to my life growing up in a boys’ school and, more recently, my work as a teacher, for the most part, teaching girls. These experiences are a mix of chance, choice and opportunity – but I seem unable to escape the questions that so fundamentally define who I am as a human being and the notion that these questions should guide the way I think and act as a parent or teacher.
My own schooling was galvanising at best and traumatising at worst. A Catholic boys’ school with a strong sporting culture, rugby players six feet tall with teenage stubble, broken voices and menacing scowls ruled the playground like gods. Masculinity was the currency hard-faught for and, for those a little too pale, skinny, articulate, emotional – a little too different – this kind of masculinity was a currency rarely won. Words like faggot, pansy, poof and queer were necessary weapons for asserting yourself over others. Very often, such weapons were used by teachers in positions of power (almost always the gruffly-spoken male teachers that had been hired as role models, usually less capable than many of the female teachers who would later serve as role models for the teacher I wanted to be). These words had hardly anything to do with sexuality (many of the boys who were called “poofs” were heterosexual and, as a quick Facebook survey reveals, now with wives and children to prove it) but everything to do with how we were supposed to think, behave and interact. It seems as interesting to me now as it did then that the personality traits that so readily had you labelled as homosexual (concern for others’ feelings, admitting you were scared, or wanting to stand up for someone else who was being bullied) were as much, perhaps, about not being close to female as about actually being gay. In between the bullying and the Catholic church’s negative stance on homosexuality and the relative subjugation and glass ceiling of female leaders, I was never very sure where the God of compassion was. As a an extremely shy and anxious kid, I never really had much opportunity to talk to girls let alone work out how boys and girls might, when it all boils down, be more similar than different.
In this respect, statements like “man up,” “act like a man” and “don’t be a girl” are as much about hiding the traits that might be considered feminine in an effort to be a part of the problem and ignore possible solutions. As many like Tony Porter have argued, this is a form of misogyny – and for me, these were the lessons of the classroom and the playground that were my reality for eight years. They were lessons reinforced by teachers who, in their “dark sarcasm” were hardly any better than the kids who in groups would ambush you to “teach you a lesson” in a quiet corner of the street as you walked home. A lot of people argue that bullying makes you strong, but for those who feel the pain inescapably, it can just as easily make you weak.
“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
A Call to Men – Tony Porter (TED)
In more recent times, I’ve seen another side of Catholic education – one that involves genuinely caring for the individual, the celebration of social justice, gender equality, positivity and following in the footsteps of some remarkable men and women. This environment has taught me a different lesson and very often, my teachers have been girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen. I chose this environment partly for something different and partly because I wanted to run away from the boys that had made me weak.
What extraordinary lessons I’ve learned when, like many teachers, I claim to have learned far more in my time in the classroom than I have “taught.” It’s from women and girls that I’ve learned what real strength is. Our world is full of life-changing stories of females that have half the physical strength of their male counterparts, making up for it tenfold in emotional strength and compassion (and we all know that that’s the real strength). In particular, it’s through the women I’ve known that I learned to let my guard down, open up, feel emotion and ultimately be the person I wanted to be. The qualities that I sought to hide, dismiss or even have disappear – the love of language, perspective, sensitivity, expression and compassion – are the same qualities that women have valued in me. Perhaps more important than anything in this world, women have taught me empathy. Maybe that’s why those like the Dalai Lama believe that women can and should lead on a much larger scale than before:
The Power of Women – Dalai Lama
Ah, but that’s the problem – doesn’t it sound easy? So many women can empathise with the kind of bullying, violent behaviour and subjugation that I experienced. New data from WHO is telling us that more than a third of the world’s women are victims of violence. In light of these and other statistics, I’d be a fool to think that my childhood experiences (now well in the past) can really help me to fully appreciate and completely empathise with the violence and suffering that so many women in the world endure, from the time they are born (just think of female infanticide) to death (think higher mortality rates in many areas like domestic violence, crime and childbirth in the developing world). When I walk the streets in my male body, I’m in a different space – one that’s far removed from the kind of violence and bullying that plagued me as a child. Perhaps for me, the nightmare is over – but it would be naive to think that other’s nightmares are as short-lived.
On the other hand, perhaps what I’ve been through and done counts for something small? As a male teacher teaching girls, I knew I wanted the best for them (that’s really not saying much: all teachers want the best for their kids). I knew that I could use my emotional strength to help them to become stronger. I learned from research that indicates the positive role that male role models can play in the lives of adolescent girls. I took as much time to listen non-judgementally – and while I knew I couldn’t fully relate, I’d let them know, whenever possible, that I would try as much as I could to relate. As a Music teacher, I taught my girls to be angry about the fact that western art Music is a five hundred year story of dead, white males. As a technology teacher, I was fascinated by the girls whose understanding of how computers work at times eclipsed my own understanding. As an English teacher, I told the stories of women burning bras in the 70s. I embraced writers like Jane Austen and her satirical critique on the dependence of women on men – the need to “marry well” – as a socially-constructed economic reality that could be changed, and has since changed because of the thoughts and actions of countless women. My wife once told me that the younger girls “need to hear these stories from you – otherwise they won’t really appreciate them.” Listening to girls and women decry feminists (one girl once told me that women who promoted equal rights “were just a bunch of Nazi femo-cows”), I can sometimes see this.
In the time since I left high school, my confidence has multiplied tenfold. I’m more aware of who I am and what really matters in life. As a teacher, I’m probably over confident, a quality that – through what educators call the “hidden curriculum” – has meant my students appear similarly confident, ready to stick their hands up, express opinions at the drop of a hat and dive into tasks even when they’re not entirely sure of what to do. Maybe these are all good things – and maybe our gender has some deeper meaning to the purpose of life – or maybe we simply are who we are?
So, does it matter whether my wife and I have a boy or a girl? Not really. As I said before, in spite of the coloured clothes, childhood taunts, economic realities and grim statistics, we’re probably much more biologically similar than different. Like any parent, I’ll do the best I can in the time that I have. But like all of life’s great mysteries, you have to know the rules before you can break them. I hope to give them, at least, a little head start on that score.
I finished my first full semester of university teaching yesterday, having had the pleasure of working with sixty-two pre-service English teachers in their final year before the classroom. In many ways this caps off my introduction to a place that is both familiar and foreign. On the one hand, I’ve managed to survive (and even thrive) on the strength of my decade of teaching experience, drawing on many of the strategies, resources, technologies and approaches – including the talent, ideas and values of those teachers who have shaped me. Although I’m yet to receive any feedback from my formal evaluations, many of my students have commented on my willingness to teach by example. As one student remarked, “a lot of lecturers out there tell students about pedagogy – you’re one of the few who actually do pedagogy.”
I like to think about what I do as a form of “warts and all” teaching – where I make tonnes of mistakes, learn from them and share my insights in the process. I’ve really given up on perfection and the idea that there is an elusive model of a perfect teacher still waiting for me to discover. Sure, there are a multitude of teachers who are better than I’ll ever be, but I think that mistakes are far more valuable to learn from.
On the other hand, university teaching can be quite a different place to the secondary classroom, and I’m learning quickly that I need to invest, equally in becoming the best researcher I can be. One of the most inspiring discoveries that any newcomer to the academic world can make – and needs to make – is that research and practice can go together hand in hand. For me, it’s the kind of research that makes me a better teacher that I feel I could easily make my life’s work. The fact that I’m in the right place and the right time means that my work life 2013 really couldn’t get much better.
Recently, I presented my PhD proposal before a review panel at the university where I’m currently studying and teaching. Those who have been through the process know how gruelling it can be to have your ideas placed under the microscope. For those who haven’t, a proposal review it’s a process that’s almost a cross between making a sales pitch, delivering a carefully-scripted monologue of Shakespearean proportions (not quality!) and being prepared to unpack the whole process when asked questions about your understanding of the research, the design, methodology and instrumentation of your study proposal and your personal beliefs about education and what brought you to being where you are at this point in time.
My review was a particularly valuable experience, causing me question how we define, through the discourses in education, our socially constructed versions of success and failure.
On one level I “failed.” My reviewers quickly picked up my selectivity and partiality towards a particular area of the research while neglecting other areas that were, upon reflection, closely related. I made quite a number of oversights in the design of my study, thinking in grandiose dimensions and answering carefully composed questions with big picture statements that didn’t address the issues raised by my supportive audience. I now have a list of areas to address that’s literally as long as my arm! It’s a typical “revise and resubmit” result that is often inferred in academic circles as a gentle way of saying “go back to the drawing board.”
Yet, I’m reminded of my parting words the day I left my last school. I told the teachers there – many of whom I’d worked with for nearly a decade – that what would always stay with me is the sense that I was able to embrace my many failures and to be supported by those around me – by kids who realised that I was human and colleagues that struggled with the same stress, workload and self-consciousness.
In this light, I think that embracing failure is ultimately a form of success. For my proposal, I had some of the best minds in Education who had spent a lot of time reading through my thirty-something thousand words, helping me to structure my thoughts, willing to listen to my ideas over a coffee and, when the time called for it, willing to tell me that I what I have done wasn’t to the mark and that I needed to rethink my ideas and approach. As a result, I’ve spent a week or so with the same research and realised that there’s much more that I don’t know; I’ve begun to learn with a renewed passion what I otherwise would have left aside. Many of my doctoral peers were able to see me make my own mistakes – publicly as it just so happened – and learn from them (particularly as several of them present next month). They probably respect me just as much (if not more so) for making these mistakes as they would if the whole proposal had gone smoothly without a hitch. In way, I’m glad to have made these mistakes – and glad that I can once again embrace failure. That’s the best recipe for success.