Category Archives: Education Futures

Learning to Thrive

Learning to Thrive from EDtalks on Vimeo.

I’ve been pondering lately about the complex change in society, and how now, more than ever before, it is important for us to place learning at the heart of our thinking in terms of how we address this.

Studies have shown that lifelong learners – citizens who acquire new knowledge, skills and attitudes in a wide range of contexts – are better equipped to adapt to changes in their environments.

If we want to achieve these sustainable societies with empowered citizens we need to do more than simply exist – we need to thrive! And learning is key!

The video above is a summary of some of my thinking on this – highlighting the three key areas I believe are important for us to be focusing on as we work together to prepare our young people (and ourselves!) for this age of uncertainty.

Let’s start with the experience of the learner

Reflecting further on my two days at the Deep Learning Lab in Christchurch where the conversations canvased a wide range of issues facing teachers in schools at the moment. Not far below the surface in many conversations was the concern at being held to account for national standards, and how this expectation (real and imagined) is driving what actually happens in classrooms in many schools. The tension between what teachers believe about makes for ‘deep’ learning and the pressure to conform and focus on standards is not easily resolved, but generally results in the latter taking precedence in most school programmes it seems.

The gap that is thus generated between espoused theory and theory in action (ref work of Argyris and Schon) means that the experience of so many learners in our school system today falls short of what we might term ‘engaging’ or ‘deep’! Reflecting more on this I reviewed the interview (above) with Connie Yowell, director of education for the MacArthur Foundation and visionary leader for its Digital Media and Learning initiative. The movie was made by filmmaker Nic Askew who was asked by the McArthur Foundation to make a series of films about connected learning, a new approach to learning he called “courageous” and “transformational.”

This film examines the critical role of curiosity and engagement for today’s youth and in connected learning, the outcome of a six-year research effort supported by the MacArthur Foundation into how learning, education, and schooling could be reimagined for a networked world.

The film asks:

  • ‘What might be the consequence of reframing education around the experience of the student?’
  • ‘Might curiosity have always sat at the heart of an extraordinary education?’
  • ‘How might our imagination bring the experience of education to life?’

As we start the new term here in NZ, I wonder if this might be a useful point of reflection, and perhaps even viewing and discussing in a staff meeting using the questions posed above to generate some thinking about what could be done differently if we really places the learner at the centre of everything we’re doing?

Staying ahead of the game

I’ve just had the pleasure of being a part of an intensive two-day Deep Learning Lab in Christchurch with educators from the NZ schools involved in the global NPDL project. Final day keynote speaker was Kaila Colbin, a TEDx licensee, and NZ Ambassador for Singularity University. Kaila shared a compelling message about the impact of exponential change, explaining how our traditional, linear approaches to coping with change simply won’t cut it as we step forward into the future.

Much of this change is can be seen in the area of technology, across all walks of life, from education, to transport, to health and so on. New Zealand current stands pretty well in this area according to the recently released Digital Evolution Index (DEI) from the Fletcher business school at Tufts University in Boston. This report is basically a digital pulse of 60 developed countries.

The report is a data-driven holistic evaluation of the progress of the digital economy across 60 countries, combining more than 100 different indicators across four key drivers: Supply Conditions, Demand Conditions, Institutional Environment, and Innovation and Change. It segments the 60 countries into Stand Outs, Stall Outs, Break Outs and Watch Outs. New Zealand is one of three countries are notable as standouts even within the Stand Out segment, the others being Singapore and the UAE. The report identifies these three as having a unique policy-led digital strategy and a narrative that may be considered by other nations as worthy of emulation or adoption.

This is great news for New Zealand, and credit to the many innovators and risk takers in our midst who have stepped out and created opportunities to develop new products and services that utilise these technologies. It’s also a testament to the many businesses, tertiary providers and schools that provide opportunities for staff/students to pursue their interest in digital technologies – and gives weight to the argument for a digital technologies curriculum I can hear some say.

While we have good cause to celebrate the result, Kaila’s words regarding exponential change keep ringing in my ears – and reminding me that in this world we cannot afford to sit on our laurels. As the DEI report highlights in the section about countries in the Stand Out category:

“…sustaining consistently high momentum over time is challenging, as innovation-led expansions are often lumpy phenomena. To stay ahead, these countries need to keep their innovation engines in top gear and generate new demand, failing which they risk stalling out.”

Herein lies the crunch. The biggest challenge, according to this report, will inevitably come from the group of countries in the Break Out category – those that are low-scoring in their current states of becoming digital but are evolving rapidly. According to the report key Break Out countries that have the potential to become the Stand Out countries of the future are China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Russia.

Which brings me to the point of my reflection. Our continued success in this area will require a substantial amount of effort and focus if we aren’t to be overtaken. In our schools this means a significant change in emphasis in the way we think about the ways we teach about, with and through digital technologies, for while the evidence at the ‘output’ end is currently encouraging, the evidence of what is happening for the next generation of digital expertise in NZ isn’t as hopeful.

Rachel Bolsted’s recent research published by NZCER paints a picture of increasingly focused use of digital technologies to support both student and teacher learning, but falls well short of being convincing that the sector really has a grasp of the significance of the exponential nature of the change afoot.

The latest OECD report on Students, computers and learning paints a similarly concerning picture, highlighting across all countries involved that while teachers say they value 21st century pedagogies their practice doesn’t reflect that. In several of the cross-country comparisons in this report, New Zealand appears close to or below the OECD average.

The issue here is about the pace of change, and the fact that we cannot afford to maintain an approach based on our traditional ‘linear’ models of change management and approaches to PLD. While NZ may be able to celebrate having a high level digital strategy approach as identified by the DEI, we have to ensure this is being exploited fully at the everyday level in our schools and kura, and taken advantage of to ensure that our young people are given the opportunity to grow fully as innovators, design thinkers and digitally fluent young people. This is not about simply focusing then on developing a greater number of coders or computer engineers (as necessary as those skills may be) – but must focus on building the capabilities and contribution of a wide range of people, that includes the coders and engineers, but also the writers, communicators, designers, artists… building and creating multi-disciplinary teams for whom collaborative activity comes naturally, and where the principles of design thinking strategies guide their involvement.

A shake-up for education?


This week I had the privilege of attending an event in Auckland where Minister of Education, Nikki Kaye, officially released the final draft of the Digital Technologies-Hangarau Matihiko Curriculum for consultation. The event was opened with a group of students from the Lynfield College Robotics club who gave an outstanding presentation about their work as a team to design and develop robots which they have been entering into various competitions since 2008 – winning multiple national and international titles in that time!

One by one the group of year 11 – year 13 students gave their perspective on what contributed to the team’s success – the key takeaways from my notes included:

  • this is a team effort, requiring the most sophisticated levels of collaboration to succeed
  • the team requires a diverse mix of skills, including coders, engineers, web designers, communications specialists, designers etc.
  • this provides the context for deep, authentic engagement in learning in a truly cross-curricular manner
  • the skills they are learning through this process are transferrable, equipping them fully for an ever changing world once they leave school
  • the entire process is essentially student driven
  • there is a lot of peer mentoring involved – the team changes each year as older students move out and younger ones join, so the continuity of the team culture is evolved and maintained through this internal coaching and mentoring process

One thing struck me the most – and was emphasised to those in the audience as a central challenge…

  • all of this is done outside of the regular school hours – after school, before school and in the weekends – the challenge being, imagine just how engaging and more likely to achieve the goals of the NZ Curriculum it would be if this sort of learning was what students across NZ had access to in the context of the regular school day?

It appeared to be a difficult challenge to respond to – on the one hand I noticed a wave of agreement with the sentiment being expressed by these young people, then, as the day progressed, concerns about the impact on other subjects, the demands on school facilities and resources, and the lack of teachers with specialist skills and knowledge to support this sort of thing emerged as reasons why such an approach may not work in all contexts.

dtcurriculumcoverAnd so these students set the scene for what was a really interesting day, as leaders from the education community discussed and responded to the details of the announcement about the new Digital Technologies Curriculum/Hangarau Matahiko. In her address Minister Kaye described the release of this curriculum as the most significant ‘shake-up’ in our education system for many years – reflecting her belief that this move is about more than simply adding yet another area to be addressed into the existing curriculum, but instead, working to introduce into the broader context of our curriculum an emphasis on digital technologies that reflects the nature of the world our young people are going to be living and working in into the future.

There were many on the room who were strongly in support here, including Ian Taylor, fresh back from the America’s Cup where his company, ARL has been responsible for the incredible on-screen graphics that we’ve become so familiar with as we watch the live action. Ian and others spoke of the urgency around introducing digital technologies into the curriculum, while others lamented the stresses felt by principals and teachers to keep up with all of this, and to find space in an already over-crowded curriculum for yet another area to be taught.

In the discussion at one table I was at a teacher was concerned that in her school the technology classes were given a lesser number of hours in the timetable that other subjects such as maths, English or science. She was keen to see more mandates coming from central government to require schools to give more hours in their timetable to this subject.

While I am empathetic to her sense of injustice based on the fact that this is the dilemma most schools will face given the way they currently organise their curriculum and subject lines in the timetable, I simply don’t agree with where this argument would lead – inevitably it would become a case of shuffling things around so that someone else would miss out!

Firstly, I believe that centrally mandating that schools give extra time to this new curriculum is the last thing we should consider, (a) because we already have the freedom and flexibility to make decisions about how time is used and allocated in our schools and mandating such things removes yet more agency from school leaders, and (b) considering the implementation to be counted in terms of hours to be allocated seems to be missing the point entirely of what this curriculum is about – or at least, how it should be implemented.

For me the lesson lies so explicitly in the message we had from the Lynfield College students – make this sort of experience a central plank of all learning, and work towards taking a far more integrated and trans-disciplinary approach. Instead of isolating these subjects into their own lines on a curriculum, each competing for hours on the timetable, work to create new ways of identifying and addressing the opportunities for learning in and across disciplines in the manner in which the Robotics team did at the beginning of our day.

Like Nikki Kaye I believe this curriculum could herald a ‘shake-up’ in education – but the experience will vary. For some it will mean shaking up the way in which learning occurs, with teachers and students working in trans-disciplinary teams on engaging and authentic challenges, whole for others the shake-up will occur only at the level of “shifting the deck chairs on the timetable” and discipline-based experts competing for the attention of the same students for their classes.

I’m for the former – but it’s going to require a lot of courage, commitment and partnership across a wide range of stakeholders! This simply isn’t going to work if it is received as yet another curriculum area we need to find space for.


Going deeper with learning


In his preface to A Rich Seam, Michael Barber writes about a revolution that is impacting almost every area of society, noting…

This revolution is already in homes across the developed world and increasingly in the developing world too. And there, it is transforming the way children and young people play, access information, communicate with each other and learn. But, so far, this revolution has not transformed most schools or most teaching and learning in classrooms.

Amid the barrage of new initiatives, assessment demands, achievement challenges and the like it’s sometimes difficult to lift your eyes to a horizon that’s focused on the greater purposes of education, with the long-term good of young people at it’s heart. This is why I’m really proud to be a part of a global collaboration headed by Michael Fullan and his team called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning.

With participation from schools in the USA, Canada, Finland, Uruguay, the Netherlands, Australia and a growing number of schools here in New Zealand, this project is successfully helping teachers, schools and school systems to build knowledge and practices that develop deep learning and foster whole system change.

The programme has been going for a little over three years now, and is gaining traction through the sharing of experiences and research that demonstrates what is effective in creating these rich and deep learning experiences for our young people. Educators are provided with a suite of tools to help them plan for, assess and evaluate programmes that enable deep learning to occur, and connect them to a global community where these experiences are shared and explored further, allowing insights to develop that transcend the limitations of specific country contexts.

Regular Deep Learning Labs are held in various parts of the world where these experiences are shared and the latest insights and knowledge are explored further. We’re holding on in Christchurch, New Zealand on 20-21 July this year where we’re looking forward to sharing with the growing number of teachers from NZ and Australia who are participating. Kaila Colbin is a keynote speaker. Fresh from her participation in last year’s SingularityU event in Christchurch, Kaila has some challenging perspectives on the future where exponential growth of technology offers exciting opportunities to disrupt education.

I’d welcome inquiries from anyone who may be interested in attending – this is a unique opportunity to find out more about this global collaboration and how you can be a part of it!

Supply and Demand – the big issue for schools of the future

I’m currently attending the ConnectED conference of principals in the Newcastle region in Australia, exploring the theme of professional learning communities and enjoying hearing from speakers with a wealth of experience in this area including Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Helen Timperley and Peter Goss. A constant theme in the presentations and workshops is change, and how, as educational leaders, we need to be disciplined in the ways we work with teachers to embrace and deal with change, empowering them through the process of inquiry and professional learning groups. Many times in the discussions with secondary teachers in particular the challenge of providing quality instruction in specific curriculum areas has been raised as one of these issues.

Today I read the article in the NZ Herald titled Secondary schools facing a ‘perfect storm’ as teacher shortage deepens that reports on the issue of high school students are being taught maths and science by teachers without specialised skills as schools struggle to fill gaps created by a worsening teacher shortage. The article quotes Secondary Principals’ Association president Michael Williams: “Schools were making do, but students were not getting the scope of curriculum they deserved. For instance, he had heard of one school dropping its robotics course in the senior school because the principal could not find a teacher to take it.” Sadly, making do isn’t good enough if you’re the student lining up for your ‘one chance’ to receive a quality secondary education in year 12 or 13!

The problem isn’t simply one we face in NZ. In his keynote speech at the COBIS Conference 2017 Mark Steed highlighted the growing problem of supply and demand of schooling worldwide and examined how technology and innovation may provide solutions to teacher shortages and a growing population. To illustrate his point he highlighted the statistic that 28 per cent of Physics lessons in the UK are not taught by a qualified Physics teacher. I’m sure there’d be similar statistics available if we were to explore the current situation in NZ schools in depth.

The Herald article quotes several education leaders expressing very valid concerns about the impact of this on our learners, and includes reference to the Minister of Education, Nikki Kaye, who has announced funding and new initiatives this week to help boost the numbers of quality teachers. This is all very good and commendable, and will hopefully go some way towards addressing the issue at hand.

There was one statement repeated twice in the article that caught my attention, however – “that the situation would get worse before it would get better“. Sadly, this is evidence yet again of the stable state thinking that Donald Schön makes the focus of his 1971 publication “Beyond the Stable State“. I love the way he introduces his book:

schonstablestateI have believed for as long as I can remember in an afterlife within my own life–a calm, stable state to be reached after a time of troubles. When I was a child, that afterlife was Being Grown Up. As I have grown older, its content has become more nebulous, but the image of it stubbornly persists.

Schön takes it as a given that things will never settle down. The appropriate response to any change, in his view, is to understand it, not to fight it or even to surrender to it: “The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning”–to become capable, in other words, of making continual transformation a given rather than reacting to it as an anomaly. This is where using inquiry as part of a collaborative process of ‘inventing the future’ becomes important – not to ‘fill the void’ until things return to normal, but to give effect to that continual transformation.

I believe this is the case with our ‘perfect storm’ in the teaching profession. It’s not a case of putting in a number of measures in the hope that things will ‘settle down’ and return to ‘normal’ (whatever that is). The fact is that the very foundations of our education system have been and are being changed. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to provide the numbers of specialist teachers required – most certainly not if we expect every school to have a full quota of them, especially in our rural and remote schools.

I agree with Mark Steed that innovation is the key to tackling these problems, and that disruptive technologies will play a part in this – although I am less enamoured with his idea of education being offered at three price points according to preferences such as class size, facilities and the qualification of teachers!

For me the future lies in the sorts of innovation that we are already seeing in some areas, including the Virtual Learning Network that has been brokering connections between skilled teachers and students for nearly twenty years now, as well as the sterling work of Te Kura (The NZ Correspondence School) that caters annually for approx. 10,000 dual enrolled students. These very successful approaches, although not widely acknowledged as significantly as programmes offered in traditional, face to face schools, do cater for the preferences and interests of students first and foremost, allowing many to access their first choice subject options where otherwise they’d be denied.

Besides embracing this sort of online access to quality programmes as ‘normal’ (rather than ‘second best’), we need to be open to other forms of innovation that will enable our learners to have access to the subject options they desire – taught by specialists in those areas. This is likely to include far greater use of online, self-paced learning programmes, supported and reinforced by engaging and high quality tutorial-style sessions in face to face settings; engaging specialists in various areas to work alongside schools and teachers to ensure the quality of the subject matter expertise being offered; extending the school day to provide for ‘shifts’ of students and more flexibility for teachers; creating opportunities for learning ‘in situ’ with experts in the field (otherwise known as work-place experience, but with a greater degree of focus on the learning taking place – along the lines of programmes offered by the Big Picture schools for instance.)

To face the future we must accept that the stable state is simply an illusion, that things won’t ‘settle down’ once we’ve put a few temporary measures in place, just to tide us over! As educational leaders we need to be more courageous, more visionary and more disciplined in our efforts to create the future that will ensure our students get the education they deserve and that the issues of equity and quality aren’t lost in the process.

I’m sorry, but “making do” simply isn’t good enough!

What if all of this really is true??

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge urban proletariat, and socialism spread because no other creed managed to answer the unprecedented needs, hopes and fears of this new working class. Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist program. In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new un-working class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

This morning I spent some time reading and reflecting on a challenging article I came across by Yuval Noah Harari titled “The Rise of the Useless Class” in which he asserts: “just as mass industrialization created the working class, the AI revolution will create a new un-working class” – a group he calls the ‘useless class’.

This is challenging stuff, and not entirely palatable for those of us who are ‘long in the tooth’ and concerned now about the future for our kids and grandkids. The central tenet of Harari’s thesis is that what we do as humans is the product of organic algorithms (occurring in our brains and consciousness), and that eventually these can, and will be replaced by the non-organic algorithms of machines and artificial intelligence.

Of course, Harari isn’t the only person speaking about such change. In 2015 Darrell West of the Brookings Institute wrote about the impact of emerging technologies on employment and public policy in which he cites computerized algorithms and artificial intelligence as key influencers of this change. West argues as one of the solutions we should consider the establishment of activity accounts for lifetime learning and job retraining.

Almost daily we see reference to this sort of thinking and the impact it is having on a changing job market. In New Zealand we are seeing robots being used increasingly in a range of industries, including areas not previously considered such as on dairy farms. And this change is occurring rapidly, as illustrated in a recent Bloomberg article suggesting economists may be underestimating how fast robots are coming. A July 2016 report from Mckinsey predicts that 45% of all jobs in the US could be replaced by technology that currently exists – although when asked about this US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doesn’t see it this way, saying that the artificial intelligence revolution and its impact on the US workforce is “not even on our radar screen.”

This is not the first time I’ve felt confronted by bold predictions about the future. Back in the 1970s when I was training to be a teacher we were encouraged to read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, much of which I’ve seen come to pass in my 40 year career. While my peers and I might have read the material, very few of us (myself included) took these predictions as seriously as we might, and soon found ourselves immersed in the culture of schools and teaching of the time, finding little opportunity (or need) to actively pursue new ideas and approaches in our practice. For me that came later in my career!

While I’m sure there will be many others besides Mnuchin who have a similar ‘optimism’ that nothing will change (or if so then very slowly), there are indeed plenty of signs that they indeed are. And if this is the case, then we need to be concerned about how best to prepare ourselves. This is the question that Liam Dann responds to in an excellent article in the NZ Herald  titled “how to prepare your kids for the robot revolution“, in which he explores whether they will kill our jobs, and how we can future-proof our children.

Reflecting on it all this morning I find myself asking

What if we were to take this challenge seriously – and I mean, really seriously??

What if all of this talk about robots and artificial intelligence really is true? As Harari points out in the article…

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.

In view of this sort of challenge…

  • How might we reconsider our models of school and schooling?
  • How might we reconceptualise our thinking about curriculum and assessment?
  • What about our pedagogical practice – who teaches who and how?
  • What will be the role of teachers – and who will those teachers be?
  • What emphasis needs to be on things like citizenship, ethics and equity – alongside the development of job-ready skills?

These questions have been asked for as long as I’ve been a teacher – but our schools and schooling system remains largely the same as when I started. Sure, there are now more computers being used, a number of walls have been knocked down between classrooms and vogue terms such as learning styles and personalised learning have entered our vocabulary, but for the most part these are what I call first level changes (where the change takes place within accepted boundaries and leaves basic values unexamined and unchanged).

If the challenges presented by Harari and others are really true, then perhaps we need to be actively pushing at the boundaries of existing practice and examining the assumptions that influence first order thinking (second level change). Then we need to push on to develop a deep understanding of alternative world views and ways of doing things, seeking change that is transformative – for both individuals and the whole of society (third level change).

So I ask again….

What if we were to take this challenge seriously – and I mean, really seriously??

The Future of Education

I’ve spent some of the time over the past few days preparing for two conferences that are coming up next week – the first being the NPDL Southern Deep Learning Lab in Christchurch, and the second being the huge ULearn conference – being held this year in Rotorua and expecting nearly 2000 educators from all over New Zealand. Each event provides an opportunity for educators to delve more deeply into the things they’re interested in and to be exposed to a wide range of new ideas and new thinking that they can translate back into their context.

As I look through the abstracts and programme for ULearn this year, I am heartened to see a distinct change in the themes and topics that are the focus of the three days. Alongside the usual array of workshops sharing new ideas for using technology in the classroom, there is a more significant focus on the ‘bigger picture’ issues impacting our education system – consistent with the themes of the conference , and the focus on Transformation that is common across this  year’s keynote speakers.

Seems to me that now, more than ever before, we need to create room in our busy lives to take time for this sort of thinking, as now more than ever before, we’re facing times of exponential change in all facets of our lives – including education! In these exponential time we are faced with a number of wicked problems that will require much thought, consultation and innovation. They cannot be solved by the simple stroke of a politician’s pen to implement some new strategy, neither will the be solved by learning about some new app that one can install on a tablet to assist with reading.

productivity-commissionAs part of my preparation for the conference I’ve been reviewing a number of the ‘big ideas’ that are impacting education at present – and pondering these in light of the various political agendas that seem to be driving change at present. One of the things that set me thinking along these lines was the release of the draft report from the Productivity Commission on New Models of Tertiary Education (PDF). Not surprisingly the draft report has drawn immediate reaction from a wide range of people – including politicians, universities, tertiary teacher unions etc. as it makes some very bold recommendations for what might happen in our tertiary sector.

What interests me in the report are the key messages that have emerged through the process of consultation so far, and how these have influenced the recommendations being made. These include…

  • Need to agree on the purpose of education – focus on developing personal skills to live an enriched life, but includes public benefits too: a stronger civic society.
  • Students are disempowered in the system – there needs to be a strong focus on placing students at the heart of the system, recognising the agency of learners, and the need to meet the needs of all learners, from diverse backgrounds and with diverse goals.
  • High levels of regulation and compliance have the effect of perpetuating traditional approaches to tertiary education.
  • A high degree of central control [of the system] stifles the ability of providers to innovate,
  • Providers are more responsive to the government than to students.
  • While some teachers and providers innovate, core business models have persisted i.e. there isn’t evidence of innovation at a system level.
  • Inertia is an emergent property of the system – and government control is pervasive.
  • Quality is a concern – the system appropriately seeks to ensure minimum standards are met, but overall the system lacks a mechanism for rewarding quality or responsiveness to students.
  • The system is educating fewer students over time and continues to serve some population groups poorly.

Astute readers will recognise that many of these points are also made about the compulsory schooling system – in fact, similar points are made in almost all of the reports about education systems around the world at present. Not surprising then, are the familiar kinds of recommendations that have emerged, including…

  • allowing more providers into the market – including those providing for international qualifications and those with different approaches such as MOOCs etc.
  • breaking open the EFTS (currently measured in hours of ‘seat time) – allowing the introduction of innovative models of delivery
  • giving institutions more autonomy and responsibility – including over all of its financial concerns
  • promoting student access and mobility – mix and match courses from multiple providers to build their qualifications

Whether or how these recommendations are acted on will depend on the feedback in the next round of consultation – what we can be more certain of, however, is that the rate and pace of exponential change will continue to impact on us, demanding that changes are made to our system – and these must be transformational in nature, not simply incremental.

The video at the top of this post is a salient reminder of the types of issues we face – not because it is necessarily an accurate prediction of what the future may hold, but because of the way it captures and illustrates the potential futures that may emerge based on the actual present and recent past events that are a part of this exponential change in society. There are a lot of important indicators embedded in this video that are consistent with the messages coming through the Productivity Commission’s report, and as educators we will do well to deeply engage in the debates and issues – not devote all of our energy to the superficial themes that are distributed by the ‘sound bite’ journalists in the media.

The salient point of this video comes right at the end where the narrator attempts to conclude that there are two possible directions the future may take. The predictions are concerning at the very least, and verging on apocolyptic at worst – but serve to illustrate the point I am trying to make, that in the times ahead, the times that will define the future for the kids in our schools, for our own kids and grandkids, the challenges we face will be wicked problems (problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise) and to address them will require that we all are proficient in the skills of critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration, and that we demonstrate the character qualities of curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness.

The fact is that we’ve needed to steer this course for some time now – but the fact is that our pace of change is being outstripped by the pace of change in the world in which we live and in the lives of our students!

As we make our way to the various conferences and events we have lined up over this student break, let’s be prepared to raise the level of our thinking and allow ourselves to be challenged, made uncomfortable and to engage deeply in the issues that we most urgently need to address. Or, as the move above warns, we will by default subject ourselves to the decisions of ‘the leader’ (whoever or whatever that may mean!).

Schools, COOLs and Kids


Let’s face it – schools are primarily about kids and their learning. Sure, we need buildings, teachers, furniture, timetables and the like to support that, but the primary focus should be on them.

This is why I am personally very pleased to see the recent announcement from the Ministry of Education regarding the Education (Update) Amendment Bill. The current Act under which our education system operates places huge emphasis on the structures and governance of our schools, but less on the kids themselves – in fact learners and learning are barely mentioned. This would work well enough if all of our learners were uniform in terms of their learning needs and they were all happy to take whatever courses their local school can provide – but that’s no longer the case. The world has become an increasingly diverse place, creating increasingly diverse opportunities – and demands – for our young people. As a result, their expectations (and those of their parents and whānau) have changed – and many parts of our current education system are struggling to address this.

The proposed changes to the Education Act will provide greater flexibility for the system to respond to these expectations – now and into the future. As with any change it will be necessary to discuss and debate the detail in order to ensure there are no ‘unintended consequences’ – and I welcome that as part of a participatory democracy, as long as we can move beyond the ‘sound-bite’ journalism we are subjected to from the media and politicians.

One part of the proposed Amendment that appears to have drawn lots of attention already is the proposal to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery. It is proposed that online learning providers will come from the schooling, tertiary education, and private sectors, and will be able to seek accreditation as a Community of Online Learning (COOL).

Much of the discussion has immediately focused on suspicions around the entry of private providers into the education system (as if that hasn’t happened for decades already). The debate around corporate support of Education is crucial to the continuation of a public education system that is free and available to all and I support that. But within the rigors of this debate let’s not confuse the issues. If the concern rests with corporate participation, then let the debate focus on that –but let’s not pour scorn on the opportunities that are being created for learners to have their learning needs meet in ways that may be more creative, more flexible and more relevant to their needs, culture and interests.

It’s good to see that the first COOL off the block will be Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) – formerly the Correspondence School. This institution has been operating since 1922, catering for the needs of students who don’t “fit” the conventional education system – some because of isolation, some because of circumstance, and a good many because the areas of study they wish to pursue aren’t available to them in their local school – and so they become ‘dual enrolled’. What’s perhaps not as well known is that until now, Te Kura has operated under it’s own section of the Act, especially crafted to suit the way Te Kura operates as the provisions of the Act that applies to all other schools don’t work for it – for instance, the requirements around attendance, opening hours, staff contact etc.

As someone who used to work at this institution, I am very pleased to see that they will now be able to operate with greater flexibility and in a more coherent way with their site-based counterparts, particularly as around 50% of their over 20,000 students are already based in these schools.

The fact is that for over 90 years, Te Kura has been serving the education needs of a segment of our population who would otherwise have been denied the opportunity within the structure of site-based schools – and to my knowledge, they have done this as successfully as any other school. Many of our business leaders, politicians and even Prime Ministers have benefited from an education that has included time enrolled with the Correspondence School.

Learning at a distance in this way has always been about a choice for some, and the only viable option for others – either way, the quality of provision has ensured success for those participating as learners.

The prospect of this ‘distance’ engagement moving into an online environment brings with it even more opportunity, as well as issues to be addressed (i.e. equity, access, support etc.), but is nonetheless a welcome move in my view. And it’s not new! Te Kura have been using online technologies to engage with their students for over a decade, and around New Zealand, teachers in many of our remote and rural schools have been using online technologies to create opportunities for their students to access subjects of their choice for almost two decades.

The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) evolved from its beginnings in the early 1990s when a group of Area Schools in Canterbury started collaborating to enable their students to be able to access subjects being taught be teachers in schools other than the one they were physically attending. (Back in the day I coordinated and helped write a handbook to guide the development of these LCOs – how the cycles continue!) Around the same time many of the Kura in New Zealand began doing something similar to ensure their students could access their subject choices in Te Reo under the KAWM project. The data around students learning in these networks suggests that they are just as capable of experiencing success as their classroom-based counterparts – perhaps even more so. (Read more in my paper with Michael Barbour)

What these schools have in common is that in the interests of serving the needs of their students they have had to struggle with and become creative about the way they operate within the limitations of the current Act. Being unable to recognize students being enrolled with more than one school, or requiring a teacher to be a staff member at a specific school while their expertise may be spread among many are a couple of examples – along with the whole financial side of things which means money allocated to a student can only go to one school with no easy way of sharing that when that student may be accessing her or his learning from one or more other places. The changes proposed in the Act will, hopefully, allow a more equitable and fair way for these schools and teachers to operate within.

The important thing about these examples is that they aren’t about a “one-size-fits-all” approach. No-one is suggesting that learners spend the whole day in front of a computer, devoid of any social connection. Educational research strongly supports the fact that the role of schools in supporting children’s social and emotional development is just as crucial as their cognitive development. I’d argue that by creating the opportunities for learners to access the subjects they want from while still attending their local school gives them the best of both worlds. There are several schools in the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) that are now thriving because they have been able to retain their learners in the local community where their social and emotional needs can be nurtured and cared for, while also ensuring their academic potential is realized by providing access to high quality instruction in subjects of their choosing using online technologies. This is not to mention also the opportunity created for many of these teachers to grow and develop professionally while remaining as teachers in these rural settings.

This isn’t something only for rural schools – the opportunities apply equally in urban settings. While I was working at the (then) Correspondence School our records showed only two secondary schools in New Zealand that didn’t have students enrolled for distance education – which suggests that even in our urban schools, the limitations created by factors timetables and staffing availability mean that even there students’ needs can’t be fully met under the current structure. A good example for me arose in Christchurch following the earthquakes there where one secondary school that was (and still is) re-located as a result of damage joined the VLN to ensure its students could have access to a broad curriculum. Their roll stabilized, their community remains intact and they remain a part of the VLN today.

I am pleased to see that due attention is to be given to the accreditation and regulation of any COOL providers – as should be the case, and is with our current schools. According to the information released this week, COOL will have to meet criteria relating to their capability and capacity to deliver education to students in an online environment and some COOL will be subject to additional terms and conditions, like which students they can enrol. All COOL will be subject to a robust quality assurance regime, including requirements to meet specified student outcomes.

This is both good and necessary because, as has been reported this week, alongside the very successful models, there are some rather awful examples of attempts to introduce online learning into schools – particularly some of the US online charter schools. This is where the voice of informed educational and community leaders needs to be heard, and involved in the process of accreditation. Staff in organisations such as Te Kura, the VLN Community and the Flexible Learning Association of NZ (FLANZ) are all part of an established body of education professionals within our country who have been doing this sort of thing for many years now – they should be consulted to ensure the policy and implementation models are informed by experience and research evidence.

So let’s keep the discussions going, and tease out where the opportunities are, and where the potential risks and downfalls are. But let’s also focus our attention on what this is all really about – our kids, their future and how we can work together to ensure we create a system that is fully supportive of addressing that.

Thriving in a modern world

I've just been watching this film from the Let It Ripple Series titled The Adaptable Mind (11 mins) which explores the skills we need to flourish in the 21st Century. Like many other lists that have been created to define and describe the skills/knowledge/dispositions that are needed for the 21st Century (e.g. a previous post Driving the skills agenda), there are several familiar terms here:

  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Initiative
  • Multi-disciplinary thinking
  • Empathy

The difference with this list that is so well illustrated in this short clip is that each of these things are in essence a part of what makes us human. There's nothing in this list about specific domains of knowledge, or specific technological skills etc. Even the STEM set isn't represented here. These five things have been the engine of innovation and survival since the beginning of civilisation. We're at a point in history where our human skills are just as important as our knowledge. 

The challenge for schools and educators is to maintain a focus on these things amidst the pressure to also ensure we are addressing those fundamental pre-requisites of literacy and numeracy. We're fortunate in NZ that our National Curriculum has at its primary focus the Key Competencies around which the curriculum in our schools should be designed. New Zealand schools have the scope, flexibility, and authority they need to design and shape their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful and beneficial to their particular communities of students. 

So one would imagine that in such an environment we'd see amazing things happening in terms of the development of 'an adaptable mind' as this clip celebrates – and we do, but often in pockets rather than in a systemic way. The constant pressure to recognise and measure achievement in terms of the traditional subject areas can mitigate against efforts to develop a curriculum that will truly inspire and develop things like curiosity, creativity and initiative among our students. 

As we enter a time in our system where the primary focus of attention will inevitably be on identifying and addressing specific achievement challenges in our schools and clusters of schools it will be important that those leading these initiatives are also abe to maintain a focus on the development of these deeper, more enduring skillsets.

As a father of five and grandfather of five also, I have high aspirations for my children and grandchildren, that indeed they will be proficient in the key skills that will enable to learn and be successful in their learning – but just as importantly, I want them to posses the quality of 'an adaptable mind' that is identified in this clip!