docile rating

I’ve never been a huge fan of the decile rating system of schools in New Zealand. So when the government announced it is considering doing away with them I was a quietly optimistic for about a 10th of a second. Decile ratings are divisive and should be reviewed.  But I’m not convinced the idea of individual risk factors being used to target funding on an individual level is going to turn the tide of under achievement. It is yet another move to distance the stated intentions of economic and social policy from its effects. It’s another clever example of neo-liberal policy wrapped up in rhetoric around targeted funding. There are some pretty interesting criteria being proposed for defining those students ‘at risk’. Some are a little baffling, but probably are statistically accurate as I am sure there have been people crunching numbers in order to bring us such revelations.

Even if the decile rating system is disbanded it won’t change socio-economic segregation and stigmatising of particular schools based on demographic and dare I say it assumptions based on ethnicity. Education is precariously place in the society and the landscape of political manoeuvres.

However I wonder if we could replace the decile rating with a docile rating. Schools that teach to a 19th and 20th century curriculum and maintain a ‘bums in seats’ compliance model of learning would rate highly for docile learning. Those taking risks, enabling all kinds of energetic expressions and the presence of emotions with a valuing of novel and unique approaches to relationships would rate low in docile.

Businesses and employers would know what kind of ideas young people had experienced and how their thinking and ways of relating to diversity might have enabled or constrained their perspective. Docile ratings would be independent of the incomes of families and would reflect the commitment of a school to break free of traditional models and modes of learning.

Extra negative points for not having a uniform and having a play-ground at high school.


Flippering Out

Helmet fastened securely and body poised to dance with the mechanics of movement. Determination etched on the young face before me. Nervous moments as muscles tense and the single wheel beneath responds, Newtonian physics is unforgiving. And the incongruous footwear of flippers on pedals turns mastery into exploration and uncertainty. The part of me that wants to say ‘you can’t ride a unicycle in those’ is gagged internally with a quick risk analysis – which inevitably suggests the real risks probably do outweigh the perceived, but the balance of that is the exhilaration of the unknown. Awkwardly wobbling with delight and joy. She just might be a fish on a bike. We got it wrong, it’s not about what a fish needs, it’s what a fish is free to experience.

Can’t even play gay – oh Mii oh my!

I’m not a gamer, I don’t own any sort of ‘box’ or ‘station’ or whatever. My initiation into the gaming world is about where I stayed – Atari PongSpace InvadersDonkey Kong, I am stuck in a time bubble. I throw the odd coin in a pinball machine from time to time and that’s enough excitement for me – low entertainment threshold – its a good thing.

Social commentaries have explored the densensitising aspects of some of the more modern digital gaming worlds, and critiqued ways identity is constructed and expressed particularly gender, culture but less so sexuality. Just as an aside, I do think whenever we talk about gender, sexuality has to be present so it would be nice to see some creative and challenging conversations about that. Back on track then. What is clear is the move toward the gaming world providing an alternative space for people to ‘live life’ and so it is common for people to talk about their ‘online life.’ So who plays these games? That was a trick question – all sorts of people do. And there we have the ‘A’ for Awkward – rather than Awesome. You see – the problem is ‘choice’ – or more to the point – the limits of choice.

Nintendo have developed a new called life simulator game called Tomodachi Life this games producers biline for the game roughly translates as “your friends, your drama, your life.” You get to create your own avatar or Mii and live on an island with celebrities, I can just see gamers living on actual islands feeling a little short changed. Great! so what if you want to flirt or date someone of the same sex….ahhhh….no you can’t do that. The reasons given are disappointing and really reflect how pervasive heteronormativity is. They do not need an excuse because the games developers feel there is nothing to defend. If the relationships ‘option’ is supposed to represent a ‘playful alternate’ rather than ‘real life’ surely that is the perfect opportunity to explore alternate sexuality and relationships,and lets not get started on ‘real life.’ The act of excluding the choice effectively renders that aspect of identity as invalid. I know there are games where more options are available but the fact it still requires ‘thought’ and ‘inclusion’ means the default settings are geared towards Male-Female distinction rolling into Male-Female relationships. We seem to be happy to include more and more violence, choices of weapons, and other ways to hurt, maim, kill but not to love.

Apparently it is written into the code and can’t be undone – good grief…really? Shades of biological determinism much? Perhaps this is more about the limits of technology to capture and reflect the reality of a diverse, multi-layered, complex, unique and dynamic expression of self.
‘Sigh’ I’m definitely no Pinball Wizard but no need to console, just grab a joy-stick and game on!

Lego of me

Plastic is an environmental disaster – unless it is in the form of Lego. My love for brightly coloured bricks began in the 70’s, but Lego has been around since the late 1940’s. Lego has stuck around since then and instead of being pushed aside with technology, has grown in popularity with the digital age adding to its cultural mystique.

Parents might have a different view – particularly if building kit sets with instruction manuals the size of telephone books. Thousands of tiny bits of plastic mathematically also work out to a large surface area of mess and potential soft tissue injury, anyone who has knelt on a piece of Lego will know what I mean.

When I visit my parents I still get a kick out of getting out my old Lego. It really is different to the new stuff. The people were featureless and genderless. Back then the neutrality and ambiguity of Lego wasn’t anything intentional but looking back – especially with ‘overtly gendered’ generation of toys (including new kits), it seems revolutionary and forward thinking. Others have already commented extensively on this change including the facial expressions of Lego people, but I don’t think we need to be panicking about the psychological damage, even the angriest Lego faces are kind of funny looking.

For those of you who ‘don’t get the Lego thing’ and are even more baffled by those Adults who dive into it as much as children do let me share my experience – don’t worry – its not contagious.
When I sit down with a pile of bricks it is like the world disappears. All I am thinking about is what I am building. It’s this effect and the challenge of creating as many cars, planes and space ships with ever decreasing pieces that is satisfying and strangely rewarding perhaps best summed up in a statement like, ‘ha! see – I made the millennium falcon out of just 15 pieces – I don’t need the 800 piece kit!’

But its ok if you still don’t get it. Lego has transcended itself, it is no longer inanimate – IT LIVES. Yes thanks to stop motion camera work Lego has made it to moving pictures. Things are funnier when done with Lego, even those who are already funny such as comedians can have their work lifted to another dimension with plastic bricks and people. Probably better to give an example:

And there is of course The Lego Movie! I have just one warning about this movie, the theme song will get stuck in your head and one word will be the trigger for full replay whenever you hear it. I’ll let Batman convince you its ‘awesome.’

There are so many reasons to love Lego, except when you get bits stuck together and you really need that one piece then it is all out frustration and broken nails. That aside, the simplicity of Lego is it’s success. I think it has its own wisdom so I’m going to have a crack at writing my own Tao of Lego – not being an expert in Taoism I realise this might be considered an act of hubris rather than humility. So I will tread lightly and hope the essence comes through.

1: Each block has a purpose a place everything fits
2: There are as many ways to build a space ship as there are blocks
3: The best way to build is without the instruction manual, it limits the natural expression of creativity
4: If you desire the perfect end product at least enjoy the process as much as the end result
5: Let go the need for comparing your space ship to others – they are all cool
6: The perfect state of Lego is broken, building moves away from the natural state – small children are masters of returning Lego to this
7: Don’t look for the right piece – reach into the pile and allow the piece to find you
8: It is what it is – whatever it is
9: We are all made of the same stuff – trees, people, spaceships
10: A thing of beauty does not need to be complex and detailed, there is wonder in a single geometric shape joined with one other.

Piece be with you all.

Assessing the cost of assessing

Auckland was hit by gale force winds yesterday. The remnants of cyclone Ita and the collective exhalation of thousands of teachers on the last day of term added to the perfect storm. In my wisdom I decided to brave the elements and rode my bike. Observing that there were no other two wheeled vehicles on the road should have been read as a warning but I just clutched onto my drops harder and decided this was an epic opportunity to practice extreme mindfulness. I really was about as comfortable as a fish on a bike.

It was exhausting on every level. I’d used every ounce of concentration, skill, sense and bit of luck to get there in one piece. Walking into work looking at the faces of my colleagues the fatigue and weariness matched mine, although they were somewhat dryer. As students began arriving, they too had ‘done’ stamped clearly across their glazed eyes. It’s only the end of the first term!

I occupy a role in education that affords me some distance from the classroom and allows me to have conversations with young people about how they are making sense of life, including learning. I’ve done my time teaching – it was more learning than teaching if I’m honest and rolled sideways as I became aware of the rumbling avalanche of NCEA and the ‘A’ word – Assessment.

Jump in a time machine back to the 80’s (if you dare) – and New Zealand was experimenting with a combination of exams and internal assessment. Generally however the number of assessments we sat were minimal. Stress wasn’t something any of us really had a concept of except for a very short intense period before end of year exams. Teachers were able to do what they do best, inspire, provoke curiosity, play, create, respond spontaneously, and had TIME to explore content with students.

Before you reach into your memory of High School and pull out the ‘worst teacher’ story – because we ALL have one, this is about structural changes that I feel have come thick and fast and something has to give. There is a cost to both students and teachers. Both have been left scrambling through curriculum content, pushed along by looming deadlines, re-assessment opportunities, evidence gathering and perpetual feedback and progress reports.

When people scoff at youth (let alone teachers!) being stressed at school and are from my generation or older, I resist sarcasm or derision – but not always successfully. The relentless assessment regime over 3 years IS hard on everyone and the carnage is what I see on an increasing level. What is that? Significant anxiety, not just test nerves, but paralytic and overwhelming anxiety. Professional burn out and loss of passion and en-joyment of teaching. Intense pressure to be ‘perfect’ and work harder, longer and to keep ‘raising the bar.’ I’m not saying we shouldn’t aim high but for some reason we have come to believe that more is better and if you say ‘no’ that this indicates some level of failure, or incompetence.

Squeezing more and more out of people is doing nothing to improve the quality of education. That storm yesterday reminded me of the internal struggles I see teachers and students grappling with daily. Fierce winds of change, coming in gusts and catching you off guard on a slippery winding road where the difference between gaining and losing traction is delicate and requires huge reserves of strength at all levels of being.

Insurers measure damage in monetary value. I suggest the cost of the current level of assessment in education is incalculable because it is invisible or worse, desirable. They say if you are caught in an avalanche to ditch the heavy gear, hold onto something, start swimming. Ideally and this is perhaps unrealistic but hey – this is just me writing my thoughts, I would say ‘ditch most assessment’ hold onto authentic and creative teaching and learning, and swim for leisure not for your life.

Colouring outside the lines

There is something profoundly beautiful about children’s art. It is free and unbound by self-consciousness. Art wasn’t something I was encouraged to appreciate or take seriously and a part of me feels robbed at a deeply spiritual level of artistic pursuits. I envy children they are perhaps an insight to how stunted we become as we age. The ‘rules’ and restrictions permeate our awareness shaping our understanding of how things should be so we live ‘within the lines.’

Watch very young children with a colouring in book and they don’t notice the lines. But put an older child beside them and watch things change and the bringing forward the idea of ‘getting it wrong’ and making a mistake and shame. From then on colouring in the lines is the aim. The pictures offered get more and more complex but the aim is the same – to stay within the lines. The spaces get smaller and the detail more precise so the stakes get higher – one small slip or wobble and the perfect picture is ruined.

We can do better raising creative confident young people. There are really clear ‘pictures and lines’ youth are encouraged to see as successful, worthy and desirable and our education system supports this. I salute all those pushing beyond the lines, who are challenging young minds to see more than just two dimensional possibilities. Scribble with them and play alongside them and laugh at failure as it is just a line – it can be erased, moved or ignored.

So I am calling out to all those who have a connection to children and young people. Be prepared to guide and support and even ‘draw on experience’ but if they ‘brush you off’ smile and know you have given them the greatest gift, a blank canvas.

Lessons written in the sand really stick

Growing up in New Zealand more or less comes with compulsory beach experience. I was a child growing up in the 70’s when the only sun tan lotion was coppertone with a maximum SPF of 6 and flannel was a highly respectable form of beach attire. My first surf board was polystyrene and whilst buoyant rubbed against your skin to produce lumpy red rashes which were dutifully treated with Qtol. Experiencing discomfort was part of the joy of riding the waves. Getting dumped and your sinuses flushed with sea water was accepted as right of passage. Looking back I see now just how much I learned through these experiences that masqueraded as fun.

Nostalgic as this sounds I am hoping it rings true for others as we race from one event to another even our ‘beach time’ has become interrupted with technology and other paraphernalia that detract from the connection with nature and the lessons it can impart.

Something I have been thinking about is the challenge of dam building. Whilst futile against a rising tide it provided for an amazing opportunity to explore the tension and illusion of control. My Dad was heavily invested in maximising this and had my brother and I furiously throwing sand into piles like our lives depended on it. He would laugh hysterically as we the incoming tide would tease by sending the odd rogue wave to test the structural integrity of our dam. Teasing would give way to a full on onslaught of relentless surges and we would accept defeat by lying down in the natural pool that would form temporarily before the power of the ocean erased any trace of our presence. We’d retreat, regroup, and start again further up – taking our lessons from the first encounter and altering our technique, timing and teamwork.

It was serious business for a 5 and 7 year old! It was our version of “The Matrix” a chance to play with creative power and accepting there were forces beyond our control that if used appropriately could add to our understanding of pushing boundaries and perceptions of success and failure. Being aware enabled us to en-joy the process without falling into the illusion. The adults around us modelled how to play and be free from attachment to our sense of self-importance.

I still build dams, perhaps a little less vigorously but with no less intensity – I don’t even need a child present to enjoy myself. Why bother? It’s my ‘red pill.’ It keeps my ego in check by reminding me I cannot exist in isolation. It serves as a physical metaphor of the ‘social structures’, beliefs and values I might hold onto in one particular shape, might be reshaped after evaluating their effectiveness at providing me with a particular experience of life.

The flannel might not have returned and I am grateful that sun block is SPF 15+ these days. Some things never change though – people who shake their towel without checking which way the wind is blowing deserve the ‘squinty – sand in my eye – evils.’

Being more childish

It’s funny how we use insults to shut down particular ways of being. Some of the more common ones (I can think of at least) are:
– Don’t be a dreamer
– Grow up
– Get real
– Harden up (or the modern version ‘take a concrete pill’)
– Get serious
– Don’t be so childish

Our language constructs and reveals (in the same moment) just how afraid we really are about being open, curious, emotionally responsive, creative, imaginative and playful. In other words we are supposed to leave childhood behind – including all the good bits, which is really annoying because some of us LOVE to play and laugh at farts. Yes I said FART.

Playing with children is something everyone should do – it is the antidote to the stuffy, confined and claustrophobic constraints of life as an ‘Adult’ (defined here only in terms of chronological age). A good example was yesterday when I went from playing Barbies’ – where Ken got to wear Barbies’ pants, onto Chess – where we decided that you could move the other person’s piece if they were in check mate (great for me as I’m definitely NOT the next Bobby Fischer), onto building Lego – where storm troopers (Star Wars) dived off diving boards into hoops with pink bows in their helmets. Rules? Conformity? Not in this world – in fact I would go so far as to say I really didn’t know what was coming next, revealing the surreptitious effect of ‘certainty’ on our lives, that is our need to know everything and be in control at all times as adults.

So those of you over 25…ish…
– Maybe don’t jump on a skate board if you can’t skate, or ride a bike! – but do if you can.
– Go to a park – and don’t just sit there on your mobile! hang upside down – your top is likely to fall over your head – so wear precautions
– Read children’s stories – I have never stopped reading them myself, classics like Dr Seuss are for everyone (love the Sneetches)
– Question EVERYTHING – kids do – we should to
– Blow bubbles – I hear they do weird things in really cold temperatures

I mentioned I play chess – well- I pretend to, but I do remember being incredibly moved by the movie ‘Searching For Bobby Fischer’ its a beautiful movie celebrating the wisdom of parents who see the gifts children have and putting their own desires aside.

Play hard out – not just hard.
The person with the most scabs wins!