Gloss and light: On PhDs and education debates

by @debsnet

I love a good metaphor. I really do. I blog around metaphors a lot – coaching as strawberry picking, PhD thesis as stone sculpture, selves as kaleidoscopes, connections as webs. Additionally, my PhD data revealed participants’ identity metaphors, which I found invigorating and fascinating to map and interrogate. Metaphors help us to think in different ways. They provide a powerful vehicle and a coherent frame for defining our realities.

So I was interested to read of Brett Salakas’ use of metaphor in his Education Nation keynote this week, ‘PISA Pipe Dreams’. I wasn’t at Education Nation, so only have Twitter and this blog post by Brendan Mitchell on which to base my response. I tweeted some thoughts to Brendan and Brett after I had read the blog post. In my tweets, I noted that I agreed with Brett’s points that education and what works is contextual, that reliance on external testing metrics like PISA needs continued critique, and that education should begin with and be guided by its core purpose. I also had some wonderings around two metaphors Brett used, a couple of which I flesh out below.

Metaphor 1: The glossy PhD

This one got me thinking. Brett had a slide in which he outlined what he was not. One thing he was not, according to this slide, was “someone with a glossy PhD”. As a newly-doctored PhD, I found this way of looking at the Doctor of Philosophy amusing and bemusing. I understand that Brett was outlining his perspective to the audience (and the English teacher in me loves a good adjective), but my experience of the PhD is anything but ‘glossy’.

Gloss suggests both shininess and superficiality. It is shiny and lustrous. A gloss can be a veneer covering a lack of substance or hiding something sinister below the surface. Certainly, I popped champagne and luxuriated in the joy of the beautiful final thesis document, and I’m kind of looking forward to donning my graduation regalia. Yet, the experience of much of the PhD is about being down and dirty, not glossy and sparkling. And certainly not superficial.

To explain the messiness and struggle of the PhD, the rabbit hole became a metaphor for me. I was Alice, tumbling deep into a new world, on a journey of sense-making and self-making. I was simultaneously the rabbit, burrowing into dark earth. Digging, digging, digging, the light far behind me and the unilluminated darkness ahead. The PhD is all about embracing discomfort. It’s about persistence, sweat, tears, keystrokes, insomnia, the pit of despair and occasionally the triumph when breakdowns turn to breakthroughs. It’s the ultimate in transformative learning. And it is hard. Stories of struggle abound. It’s the opposite of gloss and glamour. It’s wailing at a computer screen while wearing your least fashionable pajamas. It’s furrowing your brow for hours at a time as you pour over literatures in an attempt to understand the world in new ways and through new eyes. It’s spending years obsessing over an issue about which you feel passion deep at your core. It is reading and writing and deleting and re-writing and gnashing teeth.

Am I someone with a PhD? Yep. Is it glossy? I don’t think so (although I might buy some fabulous shoes to wear to graduation). I’m someone deeply marked with that experience in the way I think, read, write, learn, talk, assess evidence, and work through critical feedback from others. I know more now about all that I don’t know. I still have the dirt of the rabbit hole beneath my fingernails and the scrapes on my knees from a personal and intellectual journey that was rough and wonderful, not soft and silken.

Metaphor 2: Be the light in the darkness

In his blog post, Brendan shared that the takeaway message from Brett’s keynote was that we as educators need to be beacons of positivity to stave off the darkness and the negativity. In some ways I agree with the notion of ‘being the light’. I tend to be someone who is less combative and more co-operative. I advocate for compassionate and graceful debate, rather than divisive attack. I celebrate and advocate, rather than confront or complain.

However, I also see some dangers in the notion that educators embrace being positive and shining light, without considering ‘the darkness’ or negativity. Some of the most famous stories have two sides, both deeply committed to their cause and believing that their position is right. Folk heroes like Robin Hood and Ned Kelly can be seen as criminal outlaws or people’s heroes, depending on point of view. The Star Wars Rebel Alliance can be viewed as the goodies, or as a rag-tag band of terrorists disturbing the order of the Galactic Empire. I’ve been in school leadership roles now for 15 years, and the more I have led, the more I have learned to value those who question or resist. I ask myself: What can we learn from the perspectives of those who don’t agree, don’t embrace new change, or who have negative things to say? Where are they coming from? How might this change be made meaningful for them? What might be missing? What might their points of view offer? Negative or oppositional voices are not ‘the darkness’, but rather alternate perspectives to be heard, understood and considered.

Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman, in The Adaptive School: A source book for developing collaborative groups, point out that high functioning groups are not happy agreeable places. In fact, they say that low functioning groups tend to be polite and reluctant to engage in dialogue about differences. High functioning groups are ones that embrace cognitive conflict and graceful disagreement.

But not all disagreement is helpful. Unproductive conflict, Garmston and Wellman argue, includes disagreements over personalised, individually-oriented matters which are destructive and lead to decreased empathy and poorer decisions. Productive conflict, on the other hand, is where substantive differences of opinion are thoughtfully thrashed out in order to increase empathy, develop understanding and make better decisions. In productive disagreement, the aim is to understand conflicting viewpoints and honour all perspectives while working together towards a decision.

If the education community is to be a high functioning one, it too needs to be ok with being challenged and with productive disagreement. We need to poke around in the darkness, trying to understand and illuminate it. Finding ways forward in education is less about divisive arguments or staving off those with whom we don’t agree. It’s more about seeking to understand competing perspectives in order to agree on the why, how and what of education, so we can do the best job for our students.

Thanks to Brendan and Brett for getting me thinking.

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Reflecting on education Twitter chats

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

Chats can fall prey to … a lack of meaningful connections (with people or ideas), superficial conversations, and a lack of some sort of closure.

If mismanaged, preplanned chats can sometimes feel contrived. Better planned and executed, they might have the feel of a productive town hall meeting.

But like a town hall meeting, people can shout, speak without actually having conversations, or be lost in a crowd. You leave such a meeting asking yourself what just happened or if anything useful took place.

Sometimes the best conversations are the ones that are neither fast or slow. They are spontaneous and come from a place of honesty or concern.

Dr Ashley Tan in his September 2014 blog post

In the education world of Twitter, hashtag chats are ubiquitous and, for many, an important way to connect with other educators. I’ve talked before about how Twitter is a kind of writing and thinking practice, helping me to distil and crystallise my thinking. I participate in Twitter chats for a few reasons. In these forums, people interested in things I’m interested in are likely to be on the airwaves at the same time; I can find a tribe of sorts. I can connect with new and familiar voices in the Twitterverse.

Many chats are scheduled weekly, and happen over the course of an hour, with either one question, or more usually, a series of questions scheduled throughout the hour. There are also ‘slow chats’ which pose one question and allow those from different time zones to engage in discussion across a day or a week. I approach different chats in different ways. Sometimes I immerse myself in the chat. Sometimes I dip in and out. Sometimes I end up in a side chat having tangential conversations with people whose thinking is coalescing with mine in that moment.

You can find a schedule of the global range of education Twitter hashtag chats here.

As Greg Ashman notes in his post today, Twitter chats can connect us with fellow geeks, even when we’re feeling isolated in our own contexts. He also points out that chats often don’t allow participants to engage in the assumptions underlying their questions. In a chat we were both lightly engaged in today, there were, for instance, attempts by some participants to explore the situated, nuanced nature of the topic. There didn’t seem to me to be a clear understanding of what participants meant by the topic, or why or in what ways they felt it was important. At times it felt like people putting sticky notes up on a wall; comments were being placed alongside each other, but they were disparate and not based in the same conversation or on a foundation of common understanding.

I’d agree that often chats deal with complex concepts and unclarified terms, and sometimes they can descend into a superficial cacophony of noise where people are talking but not listening, learning or questioning. Sometimes when I have questioned the use of a term or the premise of a chat question, I’ve been engaged with by others, but I’ve also been ignored or dismissed.

Sometimes, Twitter chats can produce an echo chamber of like-minded people high-fiving each other. In some ways, this feels good, as Twitter is a place many find solidarity and support. In my participation in the PhD Twitter community, it is often moral support that I’ve sought out in times of academic struggle or isolation. But while dissent is hard in 140 characters – and can easily come across as abrasive or attacking, rather than gently provocative or inquiringly questioning – I hope for robust, rather than cursory or jargonistic, discussion from educators. Yet difficult in 140 characters.

Personally, I’ve found a solution of sorts in this blog. I use it to expand my thinking and explain it to others in more depth than even a series of tweets would allow. Blogging opens up the education conversations we have, widening and deepening debate. We can disagree more gracefully if we have more words in which to do it. I’ve really enjoyed those times in which I’ve been engaged in a conversation with other bloggers, as we build on and respond to each other.

More recently, I’ve experienced Twitter chats from the organiser side. A couple of months ago, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell, Jon Andrews and I launched the monthly #educoachOC chat, one intended to start a conversation around coaching in education at an Oceanic-friendly timezone. My co-moderators are educators I initially met on Twitter, and now our common interests have developed into this collaboration.

After collaborating using tools such as email, Google docs, Voxer, Twitter messaging and Trillo, we planned our approach and our questions for the first chat. We also launched a blog as a home base; we wanted to make our approach clear and our thinking explicit.

The #educoachOC team learned a lot from our first chat. We reflected on how we found the chat as moderators, how we felt the conversation went between participants, and also used a Google survey to allow participants to give us feedback. In that first go, we had too many questions, which left it feeling a little disjointed at times as people jumped off interesting threads of conversation to answer the next question. One participant said they felt as though they had been coached through the chat; that we had modelled coaching through our questioning and format. One said that most contributors were pulling in the same direction and that it would be interesting if opponents of the approach challenged one another. A major reflection from that first chat was around the clarity of terms. We found participants were all talking about coaching, but seemed to have different understandings of what that meant.

In our second chat, we reduced the amount of questions and focused the chat around clarifying the group’s understanding of coaching. We were keen to build a shared understanding amongst this online community. We prefaced the chat with a blog post outlining the contestations and confusions, and some useful resources. It worked better, we reflected, and we’ll continue to collaborate and refine our approach and format. In that second chat (there’s only been two so far), we were trending in Australia, at the same time as #qanda. While we certainly didn’t intend to be a trending hashtag, that was a reflection of the level of discussion and participants’ engagement in the topic and with each other. It felt much more like a conversation which allowed us to deeply explore a topic and some of its complexities.

I think the education Twitter community does wonderful, exciting things, including through Twitter chats, in which I am immersed. But I do think we can be reflective and critical about how we run these chats, how we participate in them and how we use other media such as blogs, podcasts, Periscope and Voxer to take our conversations further, deeper and towards rigorous and elegant debate.

(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