Indra’s Net: We are all connected

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe … At every crossing of the threads there is an individual. And every individual is a crystal bead. And every crystal bead reflects. Not only the light from every other crystal in the net but also every other reflection throughout the entire universe. ~ Anne Adams

This post itself is a tangling of threads. It is in part a reflection on the first day of the national Australian Association of Research for Education (AARE) conference, which I am attending and at which I am presenting a paper. It is also part of a wider conversation I’ve been having through blogging. It was incited today by Robyn Collard’s Welcome to Country in which she used the above Anne Adams quote which refers to Indra’s Net, a Hindu and Buddhist concept that articulates the interconnectedness of the universe. It imagines each individual as a dew drop, jewel or pearl: reflective and distinctive, but also interconnected with all the other dew drops via the threads of the web. Parts and whole. Dazzling individualism within collective network.

This quote and concept added a layer to an already-layered conversation I’ve been having in the blogonet with Helen Kara and Naomi Barnes. It started with Steve Wheeler’s #blimage (blog + image) challenge. When Helen shared a photograph of tangled dew-bejeweled spiders’ webs in her garden, both Naomi and I responded to the image. Naomi wrote about the messiness of research. I wrote about how technology connects people to one another. I’ve since also written about the web-weaving spider as a metaphor for the researcher. And today I was connecting at AARE, in person, with a web of academics who I know mostly through their work and through Twitter.

So here I am again. Contemplating the web. And the dew drop jewels. And their infinite reflections and refractions. Their beauty and fragility and separateness and togetherness.

I spent much of this first day of the AARE conference in a four hour symposium in which scholars brought diverse perspectives to the same general topic of leadership in education. They agreed and disputed. They converged and diverged. It was a great example of respectful, well-considered and articulate debate. Graceful disagreement. Elegant contestation. Research as conversation.

For instance, in conceptualising leadership as artistry, Fenwick English noted the webbed connections between research, art, leadership and creativity. Scott Eacott discussed the relational aspects of leadership and of research, asking scholars to consider how their work relates to that of others. Christina Gowlett approached school leadership from a perspective of challenge and critique, agitating against dominant approaches, norms and expectations by embracing alternate theories of uncertainty and transgression.

Additionally, Gabriele Lakomski and Colin Evers discussed thinking in schools as a wide cognitive net. They define cognition as a dynamic system, comprising reciprocal interactions between people, artefacts, resources and environments. They noted that thinking is not just computationally logical-deductive; it is interpretive, intuitive, behind consciousness and beyond awareness. They explored the notion of the extended or supersized mind which distributes cognition. Our tech is our selves. Our communities and social networks are change collectives. Gabriele and Colin noted that cognition occurs “beyond skin and skull”, challenging the myths of the stand alone thinker, the heroic leader and the change agent. Individuals influence and are influenced by each other. Thinking and being is connectivity. Web not hierarchy.

These ideas resonate with the perspective I will be presenting at the Heroism Science conference in 2016, which suggests a reimagining of heroism in school leadership. That is, that school leader ‘heroes’ can work subtly, fluidly and invisibly in the service of their school communities. In education there needs to be shared vision and individual purpose, collective and individual capacity. Strengthening the web while protecting and nurturing the dew drops.

Like Costa and Garmston’s (2006) notion of holonomy (which is based on Koestler’s 1972 conceptualisation of the ‘holon’), Indra’s Net shows the dual importance of the individual and the collective. The jewel and the net. All are simultaneously together and separate. A change in one is reflected in a change in all.

So as I reflect (like the dew drop), I imagine webs of learning, webs of emotion, webs of relationships, webs of identity. I wonder: What influences the symbiosis between individual and collective? In what ways might we shape others? In what ways might others shape us? These could be questions for families, friendships, organisations, communities, nations, the world. What about our selves can we control and what choices are we making about what our own self-jewel reflects onto those around us and onto the universal web? In what ways could we harness the global mind, the universal self and the interconnectedness of humanity?

Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning, covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. ~ Alan Watts

‘WRITE ME’: Writing to be, writing to know, writing to connect

Round the keyboard was a paper label, with the words ‘WRITE ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. Alice ventured to touch the keys, and, finding the sensation to be addictive and quite wonderful in its staccato rhythm, very soon found she had written a page! Three pages! “What a curious feeling!” said Alice, “I must be becoming a writer.” And so it was indeed, for there were words on the screen and the pads of her fingers were singing with a kind of joy.

~ adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

'WRITE ME'

‘WRITE ME’

It is coming to the end of #AcWriMo, ‘Academic Writing Month’, when, for the duration of November, academic writers take to social media with valiant goals of words written and writing tasks completed. I know how good it feels to watch the words grow. But writing is more than increasing words. It is reading. It is cutting out words. It is drafting words upon words that don’t work; words which are the evidence of problem-solving processes, etched onto white screens or into notebooks; for erasure or storage in shadowy places, not for publication.

In my PhD, and in this blog, I use writing as a medium of reflective and analytic thinking. ‘Writing aloud’ or ‘free writing’ is one way in which I sometimes see where the words take me and which surprising and non-linear burrows I might be catapulted through.

This post emerges out of a blog and Twitter conversation with three academics around writing and autoethnography: Helen Kara (who writes here about ‘showing her workings’ and revealing the personal), Naomi Barnes (who muses here about autoethnography as a vehicle between the personal and theoretical) and Katie Collins (who responds here with her thoughts about writing as thinking, as filter on reality and as power). Here, I offer my own thoughts to this conversation.

I was ushered into this conversation by Helen, but was already familiar with Katie’s work. Once Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was enmeshed into the fibres of my PhD thesis, I went looking for someone else who had done something similar (because surely I couldn’t be the first), and came across Katie’s then-recently-published dissertation. We had done different things with Alice, but the novel clearly resonated for both of us.

While I didn’t use Deleuzian theory in my PhD, Deleuze’s 1990 Logic of Sense reflects some of my thinking of Alice as a novel of identity contestation, fluid becoming and un-becoming, through language. Carroll’s fantastical, imaginative world questions adult realities and plays with the power and (non)sense of words. Deleuze positions Alice at the borders. As a neophyte researcher who has made some non-traditional choices, I have felt that I have operated in some ways at the borders, questioning and pushing at the edge of where I am expected to be, what I’m expected to do and how I’m expected to do it. Being at once curious about, filled with wonder for, and at odds with, the world is an affinity I feel with Alice. (This week I will present on my use of the Alice metaphor in my PhD, at the Australian Association for Research in Education conference.)

crudely sketching Alice

crudely sketching Alice in my notebook

While for my PhD I didn’t adopt autoethnography per se, I did use the autoethnographer’s lens as part of my conceptual bricolage. That is, I saw myself as research instrument, self-conscious participant and immersed, self-identified insider member of my study. Michael Schwalbe’s 1996 metaphor resonated: reflections on my self were both door and mirror; a way in to others and a way back to self.

My PhD thesis self-story (I was interviewed as one of my own participants; but that’s another tale) had the purpose of making transparent my own worldview (along the lines of Helen’s ‘showing my workings’), but it also had another function: to help me know myself. As I worked to find the words to explore and articulate my own lived experiences of the phenomena I was studying, I found, as others have, that I wrote my way into knowing, wrote my world into a version of its reality and constructed my own story in new ways, through the talk-aloud experience of the interviews and the process of forming and finding the words to frame my narrative.

I wrote at one point about writing a PhD as like freeing a sculpture from stone, but I wonder if the process of writing is one in which we free what already exists within, or if it is more than this. Creation? Collage? Weaving? Moulding? None of these seems to adequately embody the process of writing which seems to come simultaneously from within and without; from past, present and future; from materials tangible and intangible. It is deliberate and intuitive; visible and invisible.

And so, I continue to welcome opportunities to write my way into being, to write my way into understanding and to connect my words and thoughts with those of others.

I came across this 'Pour Me' cocktail the night of this Twitter conversation. Coincidence?

I came across this ‘Pour Me’ cocktail the night of this Twitter conversation. Coincidence?

Doctoral examination limbo: Frozen in PhD carbonite

So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ~ Stephen King, On writing: A memoir of the craft

The irony isn’t lost on me that, the same month I set a blog writing challenge for PhD and other research students (and others in the academic pre- and post- doctoral world), I am struggling to find content for a PhD-related blog post. So, following Stephen King’s above-quoted advice from his excellent On writing: A memoir of the craft, I’ll write about ‘anything I damn well want’; or perhaps just anything that comes into my head as I type. This follows Pat Thomson’s technique (which she also attributes to Ray Bradbury) of writing with a blank screen and a few selected words which spark associations. Pat says it’s ‘writing fast’ or ‘running writing’ rather than ‘free writing’, but I’ll call my approach free writing here, because that’s what it feels like to me. Screen. Keypad. Words. Let them form as they will, then revisit and see what’s been made.

Part of the reason I’m finding a PhD-related post difficult is that I am currently in examination limbo. I’ve submitted the thesis and it’s been posted to three examiners, so now comes a wait of two to six months.

In this limbo period, I’ve got some papers to revise and to write, and I have work, parenting and life which go on. And thank goodness! Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer, has likened completing the doctorate to running off a cliff. I can certainly relate to that, in a Road Runner cartoon kind of a way. My little animated PhD legs are still sprinting even though the thesis is submitted and I’ve run off the edge. Suspended in mid-air, legs madly cycling, I’m grateful to have work to keep me busy, purposeful and grounded.

selfie scribble

selfie scribble

Meanwhile, today as part of the #aussieED Twitter chat, we were asked to ‘sketch note’ an introduction to ourselves. I have declared my love of notebooks in previous posts about my flânerial packing list and on my pre-professional-fellowship art journalling. So I sat with my kids and scribbled some bits and pieces, watching them join together. The interesting thing about the process of thinking-while-scribbling is that thoughts and ideas emerge, seemingly through the very process of the pen scratching across the paper. Before beginning, I hadn’t mapped out what I was going to include. Much like this blog post, which is free-written, I was free-drawing. I surrendered to the moment and watched what emerged. If I did the same exercise tomorrow, or in a week, or a year, I’m sure the result would be very different (there’s a time-lapse video idea!).

And how about free-talking? I am connected with educators and doctoral students on Voxer, and I sometimes find myself using that walkie-talkie app as a useful ‘think aloud’ tool. I find that if I press the ‘transmit’ button and start talking, I don’t know what I’ll say until I’m saying it (sorry VoxSquad for the occasional ramblings). The act of talking aloud helps me to surface my thinking.

What can we learn about ourselves, what internal thoughts can we surface or capture, through the acts of writing, drawing, or talking aloud?

Here I am, in limbo between PhD submission and PhD completion, frozen in carbonite as an almost-Dr (yes – I’m anticipating The Force Awakens and am reminiscing about my favourite Star Wars moments, like Han Solo being unfrozen from carbonite). I’m wondering what might come next. Continuing to work in my current job, at my current school, business as usual? Considering what kind of role might be possible in my present context? Starting at the bottom of the pile, after a 15 year career as teacher and school leader, by dipping my toe in the academe? Heading down a consulting or alternate/indie academic pathway?

I know my current thinking, but I’m open to being carried in other directions. Free-writing, free-drawing and free-talking open up possibilities, so why not free-professional-decision-making? Lay out the materials and see what surfaces.

* This post is for the #HDRblog15 challenge. Join me to blog all things higher-degree-by-research this November!

my PhD notebook stack <3

my PhD notebook stack ❤

Coaching fields forever #educoach #twistedpair

strawberry fields forever

strawberry fields forever

Today’s blog post is a response to two blogging challenges: the #educoach October blog challenge and the #twistedpair blog challenge set by Steve Wheeler, in which a blog post needs to blend two disparate things. I’ve decided to pair coaching (something of my journey as/to coach here) and picking strawberries. (Although now that I look back on Steve’s challenge, he asks us to pair people or characters, not things; still, I hope this counts as a strange duo.)

So how is coaching like strawberry picking?

Today I took my two young children to pick strawberries. After a week of working relentlessly on my PhDdeep in the thesis cave where it’s dark and solitary, and with a sprained ankleit was so good to get out into the sunshine and the dirt. 

The first rows were dry and over picked; there wasn’t much to find. We fossicked and looked, but our box remained sparsely populated. It wasn’t until we walked further afield that we found bushes that were greener, bushier and more bountiful. Even then, it wasn’t until we crouched, paid attention to a particular plant, and looked deeply into its foliage, that we found the glossiest and juiciest strawberries, protected by shade and unseen by others who had trudged by without stopping to examine that plant and explore its blossoms, leaves and unseen-from-the-outside fruit.

This reminds me of coaching, which requires us to approach a person, the coachee, uncertain of what we might find or where we might find it.  We cannot assume where they are at, or where the conversation is going to go. In order to uncover and bring to the surface thinking which they haven’t previously accessed—not to mention the a-ha moment, or ‘cognitive shift’ as it’s called in Cognitive Coaching—we need to be present, pay attention, and expertly use questioning to reveal those glossy, or rotten, unsurfaced thoughts which help that person to take their own reflection, practice or dilemma to the next level.

by @debsnet

part of our haul

Not only that, but as I picked the strawberries this morning, and later washed and sorted them this afternoon, I noticed their snowflake-like idiosyncrasies. Each was recognisably a strawberry, but each was a slightly different shape, colour and texture, with a stalk which bent a different way, or seeds which sat differently against its skin. Some were under-ripe, some had just begun to turn, and others were at the apex of their strawberry-eating life: red, shiny, firm and glorious. Each coachee is an individual, and they are in a different place each time we meet with them. So while a coach might apply a coaching conversation map or set of tools to all coachees, each relationship and each conversation will look different, shaped by its person, time and place.

Combining two very different things seems a disruptive way to approach a topic. I’m interested in how we might bring new understandings to familiar concepts or practices by attempting a twisted pairing. I’ve written before about research and Wicked, the musical, and my PhD as a sculpture or birthday cake. I’m wondering what else I might uncover about myself as coach through analogy or metaphor.

by @debsnet

strawberry blossom in the sunshine; perfect potential

Risky business: Living on the PhD edge

The doctoral requirement for the candidate to produce a significant and original piece of work … indicates that the most significant and original ideas can be those that are most likely to challenge the status quo or the scholarly paradigm within which they are examined. … the ‘best’ doctoral research is likely to be much riskier than modest research. ~ Professor Terry Evans

WRONG WAY GO BACK

WRONG WAY GO BACK

As I inch towards the thesis submission finish line, I have been pointed towards Terry Evans’ 2004 AARE paper, ‘Risky doctorates: Managing doctoral studies in Australia as managing risk’ by the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC. The above quote is from this paper and surfaces the interesting point that the pursuit of knowledge and science is perhaps better served by research which is willing to take risks and challenge accepted knowledge and paradigms. Yet Evans goes on to note that the performative measures imposed on academics and universities encourage modest paradigm-following research, rather than that which is risky, status-quo-challenging and paradigm-bending. That is, PhD researchers are most likely to play within the established rules of the game, in order to complete within time and assure a pass. Evans argues that this results in the loss of “unknown and incalculable benefits” to science and scholarship.

This makes me feel better and worse about the PhD thesis which I’m hoping to submit in the next few weeks. Better, because I think my research is risky; at least the bricolaged – that is, bespoke and woven-together from a number of traditions – paradigm and the way I’ve chosen to communicate my findings. I haven’t totally smashed through academic norms; my thesis is still recognisable as such. But I have pushed at the edges of what is accepted. I’ve been ok with embracing my discomfort and doing things that seem, within the traditional schema of the academe, ‘out there’. My work proposes slightly new ways to go about protecting participant anonymity and communicating participant stories. It is these things about which I am presenting at the AARE conference in November.

While I am feeling proud of my research and my writing (despite having chosen not to employ a professional editor), Evans’ paper also makes me feel nervous because I am getting ready to send my thesis off to three external experts who are to examine my thesis. In the USA and the UK PhD examination usually involves a viva voce, or oral defense, of the thesis, followed by questions. Examiners are then able to deliberate before deciding on the result. In the USA the committee is made up primarily of professors from the candidate’s university, including their supervisor (who hopefully supports the work). Under the Australian system, my thesis will be sent off to three different individuals, including one external Australian examiner and two international examiners, who don’t know me or the work at all. These three people will read my thesis and send in their (potentially conflicting reports), without any discussion between them. At least if examiners’ reports disagree about the quality of thesis, there is a majority one way or another.

While I hope that my thesis is one in which the examiners think the work is interesting an original, and the text worth reading, there’s a lot riding on the opinions of three people, coming from different places, different perspectives and different paradigms. That’s part of the challenge of a bricolaged thesis which weaves together multiple phenomena and methodological threads; there isn’t a clear box in which it fits. Risky.

writing retreat collage, by @debsnet

Having just come back from a mini revision retreat in Sydney (read: 2 nights solo, away from work and family commitments – a PhD-working-parent’s dream), I am so deep ‘in’ my text that I can’t see the wood from the trees. As I have worked at the various levels of editing, I’ve been in the forest, sometimes looking at the whole lot together, sometimes at patches in between and sometimes at teeny micro details. Undergrowth. Canopy. Bark. Branches. Veins of leaves. Reflections in dewdrops. The feel of earth and sound of sticks underfoot. Birdsong. I’m so immersed at this point that I’ve lost direction. Time to take a brief step back to regain perspective. A helicopter ride to survey the scene wouldn’t go astray.

A couple of iterations ago, my primary supervisor said, ‘You could hand it in like this,’ which gives me hope that if the text is better now, it can only be more submittable. I’ll have to see what my supervisors say tomorrow about the most recent version of my thesis. Is it good? Is it good enough? Is it risky? Is it finished? Is it finished enough? Are there mistakes? Will the examiners be sympathetic to my approach? It’s so hard to know because, while I can read other dissertations, the PhD process for me has been in isolation from other students; I don’t know where my work sits on a continuum of doctoral standards.

I guess at some point, it’s time to trust, print, send, and see.

(Disrupting) disruption in business, academia & education

disruption: dis·rup′tion n. ~ from the Latin disruptionem ~ “a breaking asunder”; to break apart, split, shatter.

While the dictionary definition of disruption points to breaking apart, in fact now disruption often means to make anew. In business, disruption is about creating new markets and discovering undiscovered needs. Traditional products and modes are replaced by new business models, new technologies and new ways of appropriating the old. Google’s now-defunct ‘20% time’, which instigated ‘genius hour’ in classrooms around the world, was designed to nurture disruptive, moon-shot thinking. Often Uber, Airbnb and Apple are touted as examples of businesses which have displaced other services with their innovative thinking. Businesses and entrepreneurs like to see themselves as ‘disruptive’ because this means they are radical, ground-breaking and on-the-bleeding-edge of innovation.

As an English and Literature teacher, I am drawn to teaching texts which were either disruptive in their context, challenging socio-political status quos, or which feature disruptive characters. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, feature films like The Matrix and The Hurt Locker. These texts allow me to challenge and extend students’ thinking, inciting discussion about humanity, history and ethics. They allow us to interrogate dominant belief systems and representations, and dig into our own values, attitudes and assumptions. Being a critical questioner of everything, including ourselves, is a key to disruption.

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

One of the books I read my own small children is Tootle, Gertrude Crampton and Tibor Gergely’s 1945 children’s book (you can see the Tootle birthday cake I made in this post on PhD-as-cake). In it, the young engine called Tootle breaks the firm rule ‘Staying on the Rails No Matter What’. Instead, he frolics through fields, making daisy chains, racing horses, talking to frogs and crushing buttercups. I continue to be dismayed that, unsurprisingly for a 1945 text, Tootle ends up complying with the rules. Rather than celebrating his individualism and his new way of being a train, he tows the line like every other locomotive. Each time I read the story, I want to shout through the pages: ‘Go your own way, little train! It’s ok to be different and subversive and joyful and live a life off the subscribed journey!‘ Clearly this says more about me than it does about the story.

In the blogosphere, I follow traditional academics, as well as independent off-centre researchers who are questioning, through action, what being an academic might look like. My PhD research uses a bricolaged paradigm and a fairly unconventional approach to writing up participant data. Bricolage refers to a kind of drawing together of a range of traditions to make a bespoke, rather than off-the-rack, approach, tailored to the particular research problem. This might be considered disruptive in the sense that it rethinks well-worn traditions and stitches them back together in a new form. Perhaps my inability to conform to one research approach is a bit like my inability to follow a recipe in the kitchen, where I’m always using recipes as a kind of springboard-guide, if I use them at all. But disruption isn’t just failing to conform, it’s finding new ways, forging new paths, building new possibilities. It’s providing alternatives to accepted ways of doing things. I think it’s so important that we define what terms mean for ourselves and our sectors, before we begin bandying and bandwagoning them about with reckless, jubilant abandon.

Some educators see the job of education as to nurture the innovative thinking of students, to prepare them for uncertain futures. In education, words like ‘edu-preneur’, ‘edu-innovation’ and ‘disruptive education’ have become popular. In my Twitter bio, I’ve used the word ‘disruptor’, to suggest that I am someone who questions and pushes at the boundaries of what is known and what is accepted, but I have questions around the thinking and behaviours of some self-professed disruptors. The irony is not lost on me; perhaps I should rethink my Twitter bio, but I like delicious words like ‘disruptor’ and ‘flâneuse’. Therein lies part of the problem. Trendy-sounding words are seductive. We like to roll them around in our mouths and social media feeds. 

On the one hand, I know business owners, writers, academics and educators who thoughtfully question the status quo, pushing the boundaries of practice and questioning accepted ways of thinking and acting. These people and their organisations are taking risks and building alternative ways of being in the world. Yet I’ve also noticed that some others bristle when their pithy, jargonistic talk of ‘being disruptive’ is questioned. Sometimes self-professed disruptors don’t take well to being challenged, or disrupted. Sometimes advocates of more traditional approaches or technologies attempt to disrupt the disruptors, but are shot down for being old-hat, stuck-in-the-past or not-on-the-bleeding-edge. Sometimes the whole discussion breaks down into paradigm-war name-slinging. I’ve spoken before about the importance of robust, respectful discussions in which we are ok with graceful disagreement and are able to listen to opposing viewpoints with compassion. I think if disruption is embraced, those doing the disruption should embrace deeper interrogation of their ideas than slick presentations or 140-character tweets might allow. This is why I love blogging and podcasts; they deepen conversation.

So, I approach the idea of disruption with both fascination and healthy scepticism. I do think we should ask what it is that might need disrupting, and why. Or perhaps what might need reconsidering, or consolidating, or investigating, or researching, or rebuilding. When buzzword-saturated talk of disruption becomes the unquestioned norm, perhaps it is those who question the dominant discourse of disruptors who are the most truly disruptive. Let’s not forget to be questioning, critical thinkers, especially within echo chambers of (disruptive, or other) discourse.

Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers. ~ Bernhard Haisch

'Wave 1' by Annette Thas

‘Wave 1’ by Annette Thas

The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Last week I spoke at my university’s Three Minute Thesis competition, which challenges doctoral candidates to explain their research in under 180 seconds, to a non-specialist audience.

Other PhD students in the competition had been attending multiple workshops, practising for weeks in front of experts, and being given feedback from professors and each other. I wrote my speech the week before, and then attempted to memorise it while teaching, marking essays, parenting, and revising my whole thesis (again), this time for the eyes of my second supervisor. In amongst that week, the universe decided to add night after sleepless night with sick children, and sickness for me, too. Such is the world of the working, parenting PhD candidate!

I found ways to fit 3MT prep into the cracks in my week. I recorded my speech on my dictaphone and played it in the car on the way to and from work, and before I went to bed. At night after my kids were in bed, I ran through the speech. By the time 3MT day came around, I was still full of cold and bleary eyed, but I figured I only needed to be ‘on’ for three minutes. That, I could do. I presented the speech before its first ever audience on the day. I managed to remember my entire speech from start to finish, did it under time (which is crucial) and got some nice feedback afterwards. (Thank you to those in the audience who nodded vigorously, and the two girls at the cafeteria afterwards who told me they think I should have won!)

The most useful part of the 3MT for the PhD researcher is the decision making that goes into writing the speech. At around 500 words the speaker has to make tough decisions about what to put in (in my case, from research which has resulted in a 100,000 word thesis) and what to leave out. About how much to popularise and entertain, and how much serious research detail to foreground. I think my balance was a little off, but the experience of writing it – like writing abstracts or short papers – was a worthwhile thinking exercise in distilling my PhD down into its essence. It forced me to ask: What is the crux of what I am doing? Why should anyone care? How might I encourage them to want to know more?

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

Above is the image I used for the static slide which projected behind me as I gave my 3MT competition speech. It gives an idea of the way in which I’ve conceptualised my research about professional identity, professional learning and school change. It’s an approach which might be perceived as a bit whacky and non-traditional by some.

I’ve used narrative method, but taken the notion of story further, including using a well-known literary novel as conceptual frame and even providing illustrations in my thesis. These decisions emerged from systematic working through of research problems such as the ethical issue of protecting anonymity, as well as the storytelling challenge of making meaning for readers. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Australian Association of Research in Education conference about the use of extended literary metaphor and known literary characters as analytical and conceptual tools.

In reflecting upon this slide and my 3MT speech, I was heartened by Helen Kara’s new book, Creative Research Methods, and by this recent podcast from Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead. Helen, in her book, does not encourage researchers to be creative for the sake of creativity, rather she notes that being open to creative solutions to research problems acknowledges and respects the complexity of research work.

Tara and Steve, in their discussion of interdisciplinary PhDs, make a point about doctoral (and other) research that resonates for me; select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect your journey and respect your work. This has been so important for me. My supervisors, neither of whose own work is in my specific area, have been supportive of my ideas and my journey. That is not to say they have not challenged me! Quite the opposite. When I first floated the idea of creating illustrations for my participant stories, for example, they were sceptical, but not dismissive. I worked on the theoretical rationale for using illustrations in my thesis and once I had articulated my argument convincingly, my supervisors told me that I’d effectively made the case. This is one example of a number of moments in my PhD journey in which my work has been respected and my journey supported, rather than controlled.

So as I presented my 3MT speech, before my idiosyncratic slide, I felt that I was presenting research in which my journey, my voice and my work has been – challenged, certainly – but also respected.

Balance, not division. Compassion, not attack. Conversation, not war.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. ~ Pema Chödrön

by @debsnet

Often I am struck by argumentative battles in traditional media, on social media and around the blogosphere. I appreciate those writers, commentators and educators who share their musings, experiences, readings, and perspectives, without using divisive loaded language or attack. I think the rantiest I have gotten was this post on the APPR reforms in New York and this one around whether teachers can be researchers, but I attempted to frame my criticism through making transparent my perspective and asking clarifying questions. Balance.

I have written a lot about my school’s coaching model, as it is kind of my baby and it’s something which I think is worth sharing; others might gain from hearing our story. Yet this coaching model is not stand alone. It is not as though teachers at my school are only coached by teacher-coaches in a non-evaluative, non-hierarchical model. In their first year at the school, teachers participate in a rigorous evaluative permanency process. Every year they have a conversation with their line manager, who touches base with them on their work, goals and classroom practice. Every third year, teachers have their coaching cycle with their manager. This is more evaluative and performative by its nature, and by the nature of the relationship. Teachers additionally work with instructional consultants. Leaders work with coaches. Professional learning community teams and action research projects work alongside. Growth and evaluation. Balance.

I have written about the creative things I trial in my classroom like a term without grades and genius hour for students and teachers. These are things at the experimental end of the spectrum of what happens in my lessons, so I share them as stories of experience and part of a conversation. I do these things to develop engagement of my often-reluctant high school English students, to build their self-efficacy and to help them learn to rely on themselves as drivers of learning, rather than entirely on me as Teacher with a capital T.

Does that mean I don’t use explicit instruction? Of course not! I explicitly teach concepts, skills and texts, although I temper this with encouraging students to do their own thinking and to trust their own thinking, rather than expecting that I can fill them, as vessels, with the answers. What are the ideas of the text? What interpretations might be drawn? Answers can come from me or from Spark Notes, but if I do my job properly, students will have the skills, understandings, language and cognitive capacity to draw their own interpretations, from their own contexts, and justify these using logic and evidence. The best student responses comprise original thinking, not regurgitated knowledge. The best teachers focus not just on effective learning (our core business, of course!) but developing learners and passion for consuming, curating and creating knowledge.

In my Head of English roles at three schools I have ensured a balance between explicit instruction and those strategies which propel love of reading, power in writing and deep intellectual engagement in ideas and discussion. Interestingly, Charlotte Danielson’s heavily-researched Framework for Teaching has its ‘proficient’ descriptors describing teaching which is expertly directed by the teacher, and its ‘distinguished’ teaching descriptors outlining lessons in which students are taking responsibility for their own learning and behaviour. Creative and explicit. Balance.

I have written about lyrical metaphors for PhD study, and only occasionally about the unsexy logistics of what the graft actually looks like. My conceptual framework draws in part from fictional literature. Does this mean my PhD is devoid of hard, critical, scientific work? No. My PhD is of course the result of the logical, systematic working through of literature, data and research problems. When writing the Limitations section in the conclusion of my thesis I was highly aware that all research has its limitations. Extensive quantitative data can show us patterns and effects, but these may be faceless. Qualitative data can drill down deep into the messy humanness of lived experience which may be unrepresentative of wider groups and therefore not generalizable. Yet each study adds its tiny piece of understanding to the layers of what is known. Research is conversation. Imaginative and systematic. Broad and deep. Balance.

I would love to use the line ‘I’m a lover not a fighter’ but I think I’m both. I believe in sharing and celebrating our stories, but I will advocate fiercely for my students, fight for what I believe is right and argue for my research. Balance.

From a history of my posts, it is probably clear that I am seduced by the lyrical, by storytelling, by creative approaches and by metaphor. Yet I am not one dimensional. Nor is my teaching, my thinking, my researching or my living. Balance.

I came across this excellent recent TED talk from Jon Ronson on the way social media has moved from giving voices to the voiceless, to an angry mob mentality of shaming and abuse, in which people seem to forget compassion and morality.

While I love robust discussions which take us out of the echo chamber of we-all-agree-high-fiving, I also think we need to approach these with compassion, thoughtfulness and a view of each other as human beings. We can disrupt with respect. We can disagree gracefully. We can advocate with civility. (And if you throw in a metaphor, you’ll totally have me!)

by @debsnet

Viva la boredom? A #blimage challenge post.

This blog post is part of the #blimage (blog-from-image) challenge recently set by Steve Wheeler and Amy Burvall. You can learn more about it on this video https://youtu.be/-7K8cA-Iub8. This particular image was set by Steve in this post.

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The past is for learning and letting go. You can’t revisit it. It vanishes. ~ Adele Parks

photo by Steve Wheeler

photo by Steve Wheeler

At first this image, provided by Steve Wheeler, sparked thoughts of learning environments. Here is a graveyard of old wooden desks. Scratched. Graffitied. All bunched together in some kind of storage space. Left. Forgotten. Abandoned. Past their used by date. The sad scrawled face in the bottom right corner, a symbol of the kind of soul-crushing 50s -industrialist schooling that Sir Ken Robinson champions against.

I thought about how the classroom of today has changed, and was reminded of my thoughts around flexible, comfortable learning spaces.

But when I look at this image what I really get is a rocket back to my own schooling. Wooden desks engraved by compasses and ball point pens, with lift-up tops revealing stationary and lunch boxes and gum and whole pieces of fruit.

I’m reminded of how my fellow students and I would sit, listen, mess around, or tackle boredom. There were no smart phones, no apps, no laptops, no Smart screens, no texting. We passed notes on actual paper. We looked out of the window. We scribbled onto or carved into the rough wooden surfaces of our desks which lay in rows, etching them with our individual markings, evidence of our existence.

Recently my husband and I drove more than 800km in one day to this spectacular place, with Mr 3 and Mr then-4 in the car. We could have taken a dvd player. We could have hooked them up to please-keep-quiet digital devices most of the way. But we chose not to. We made a conscious decision that the very very long car trip (about 9 hours) was to be spent mostly old school. We sang songs. Listened to music. Talked. Played ‘eye spy’ (for the 3 year old we mostly played by colour instead of letter). Snacks, notebooks, a couple of monster trucks. C-o-n-v-e-r-s-a-t-i-o-n. It was a retro road trip.

There were 2 occasions in each car trip (we had to do the return 9-hour journey, too!) when we let them have an iPad. For 20 minutes they were able to have 5-minutely turns, so 10 minutes each; 20 minutes each all up per session. Sharing. Waiting. Practicing patience. Being grateful.

Parents might ask: Why would we do this to ourselves? Teachers might ask: Why aren’t we immersing our children in available technologies?

The answer is that we think it is good to be bored. Or rather, to have the self-capacity to figure out what to do with our selves or our brains when we are bored. Without a screen.

While I am a literature nerd who loves to read and smell books, and use old school tactile technologies, I’m also an educator who uses BYOD, the back channel, OneNote, virtual classrooms, discussion forums, Voxer, Twitter, personal and student blogging, podcasts, vodcasts, student created content, online surveys.

So when I look at Steve’s desk-graveyard image with its tactile wooden shapes and the student-made markings, I’m taken back to a classroom where a student’s main technology is their brain. With maybe some paper, ball point pens, and a compass.

It makes me think about letting the learning, not the tech, guide us. And ensuring that our children and our students see their brains as the best tech at their disposal.

Viva la boredom? Or at least viva la ability to use our brains and our character in ways that allow us to be still, be grateful, be learning, be creative. Like a blog post written around an image chosen by someone else, parameters can push us to creativity.

I love the idea of #blimage, so to end this post I’m throwing out another image, to ‘pay forward’ the challenge. So, bloggers, do your worst with this pic (just attribute the image back to me :)):

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?