week 0 – welcome to your new school

Tihe mauri ora!
Tēnā koutou katoa

Ngā mihi nui ki te kaiako
Ngā mihi nui ki te iwi katoa kia tenei wahi nui nei
Ngā mihi nui ki te whānau o te kura

Ko Te Aroha te māunga
Ko Waihou te awa
Ko Mataatua te waka
Ko Ngāti Pākehā te iwi anō hoki
Ko Ngāti Awa te iwi anō hoki
Ko Whakatōhea te iwi
Nō Ngarua ahau
Ko Stephen Watts rāua ko Anne Watts ōku mātua
Ko Mic Watts tōku ingoa
Ko Aia Dowsett Watts tāku tamāhine e whitu tau

Whakawhetai mātou ki a koe mo tou mai
Titiro tātou i mua ki te heke mai whai i roto i tenei wahi
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

On Thursday the new staff were inducted into the school and warmly welcomed by the Senior Management. So far, the process of learning about the very different way HPSS operates has been gradual and low-stress, as long as you are able to cope with uncertainty. What I mean by this is that while from the outside it may appear as if things are being made up as we go along, there are some great systems to assure that module planning can happen flexibly and responsively while retaining robust links to the curriculum through structured planning based on learning objectives linked to themes.

If you’re someone who needs to know ahead of time exactly what you’ll be teaching and to whom over the next year, then I can imagine the experience being somewhat unsettling. Happily there is a lot of support in place for n00bs and I am very fortunate to be paired up to teach modules with experienced HPSSers Claire Amos and Andrea Tritton who are both extremely supportive and knowledgeable about the process.

On Friday I delivered my first mihi whakatau, leading the party of new staff into our pōwhiri (see above). It was a great experience, despite some trepidation, and went well (at least, I think so). I will need to discuss the structure with a fluent speaker, as time constraints meant I relied more on Google translate than I would have liked, but I tried to verify my sentence structure by searching out similar phrases from the web.

It also led me to do some thinking about my identity and the appropriate way to express my whakapapa. I have a little Māori blood in me, but I know little nothing really of the specifics of that whakapapa beyond the iwi those tupuna belonged to. I felt it appropriate to identify with the waka of those iwi, as the first vehicle in which my blood arrived in Aotearoa, but not to adopt the maunga or awa/moana of those tribes because having grown up far from those lands, I do not belong to that landscape. I instead chose the significant landmarks from my childhood in the Piako – Mt Te Aroha and the Waihou.

Although it’s only been 2 days, I feel like I’m getting a good handle on the structures and systems of HPSS in a general sense. I can tell there is a lot to learn, but so far colleagues have been very good at avoiding overwhelming us with information and prioritising the most important things to begin with.

Next week we will have individual meetings with ākonga from our learning hubs and their parents. It’s great to start the year with an opportunity to meet parents and begin building strong relationships. I’ll talk more about learning hubs, pastoral care and the dispositional focus of the HPSS curriculum in oncoming posts.

It’s been a great first week and I look forward to the next…


identity part 2: emergence, confidence

In my first post on the HPSS term 1 theme of identity, I went over my conception of the basis for consciousness, which is the vital core of one’s identity but is only a fraction of one’s self. A biological learning system awaiting input.

It is the input that creates identity, emerging gradually through the years and through billions of minuscule interactions with the world and other people. Learning is not only what our brains were made to do, it is literally what makes us who we are. We begin in the womb and we can’t help it.

As a self, a teacher, and a parent, this developing an identity thing is a fascinating and delightful, yet very fraught, process to experience and observe. For all of our sophisticated neural hardware, we still operate on the Primate 2.0 operating system, and so we must contend with the rigours of hierarchy built in to enable effective group co-ordination. This means that any group of us will naturally organise according to more or less self-confidence and that these dynamics change in any given social grouping.

Confidence is a very important component in our identities: Too little and one will never have any fun, too much and one might hurt oneself. It is important because it greatly regulates our motivation and ability to play and experiment and thus to learn. In order to create ideal spaces for learners to learn they need to feel confident to play and experiment safely.

So, as we accumulate and build our confidence (and repair the various damages to it) our identity forms and develops. You can think of it as another layer of skin: It is soft and absorbent at birth, but gradually hardens, thickens, scars, and etc…  which links nicely to the introductory tattoo exercise Claire and I are working on for the intro to our module on NZ art and literature in a few weeks… hmmmm

F. Hundertwasser, c.1998 (inverted)

Hundertwasser believed that one has 5 skins: the epidermis, the clothing, the house, the social identity, and the earth-ecosphere. I find this a compelling idea and a good way to think about my identity and my place in the world.

So that is a potted tour of my conception of identity. The next task is to collaborate on building two modules for the first semester to explore the concept through an English/Art lens and through a Biology/Art lens. I am looking forward to this…

identity – part I: consciousness

The school’s theme for term 1 is identity, so it seems like a good idea to think about my own starting concept of the nature of identity and the kind of thinks which might make good starting points for examining what identity is and how we might embody our identity (or identities).

Firstly, as an artist, identity is one of personal fascinations and is at the core of much of my artplay.

Magnetic Tape Reader – Mic Watts mixed media on board, 175mm x 230mm, 2015

Having been infected fairly early with an obsession with uncertain landscapes of reality through Philip K. Dick, the twilight zone and 1st year philosophy papers, I have long been interested in the emergent nature of the mind. Within the black box of our skulls, bio-electro-chemical signals pulsing thousands of times a second through a hyper-connected substrate result in the sophisticated physical experience of personhood that we live each day.

My exploration of identity and consciousness has lead me down a recursive rabbit hole toward the concept of recursion. At many different levels, it seems apparent that a crucial element of the richness of human cognitive experience is not just that we think, but that we are able to think about our thinking – metacognition. We are able to reflect on the content of our minds and to recombine this content imaginatively.

One of the key nudges of my train of thought along this track came from a thought experiment from one of my philosophy papers in my first year at university:
1. Imagine that you wake up one morning and inscrutable aliens have cleanly and painlessly separated your left foot from the rest of your body (who knows why they do these things?). Which part would you identify as still being you? easy: your body, right?
2. Unfortunately the aliens aren’t finished and the following morning your head and body have been separated (somehow the alien’s tech can keep both alive). Which part is lost now?
3. Those pesky aliens return the following night and restore your body, but they replace your brain with an exact (atom-for-atom) copy. Would the person who wakes up in the body be you?

I am recalling from a long time ago, but the gist is there: To begin questioning exactly what our minds are and where they reside. Most would agree that the where is ‘in my brain’ but the what is a bit more tricky. How does our internal, subjective experience of self-ness arise from the dizzying activity of our neural structures and patterns? Do other people experience things similarly to us? How does the picture our (skull-enclosed) brains build based on our perceptions reflect the ‘true’ world outside the skull? These questions are not easy to answer once you begin to pick the whole thing apart…

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

– Emerson M. Pugh

From the inside of my mind it seems that experience consists of an interplay between perception and memory. Perception – a picture of one’s current situation in time and space, based on sensory inputs – triggers various responses from memory – information from past experience which may assist a mind in formulating a response to the perceived situation. The more we perceive and remember the wider the variety of potential responses a mind might call upon in any given situation.

These processes (both perception and memory) are insidiously recursive, and the recursivity of the underlying neural structures gives rise to the capacity for metacognition and the ability to think about how one thinks.

Language, as a subsystem within this mental environment includes a significant degree of recursion – especially in English (which provides a variety of grammatical structures for recursively nesting clauses – such as this one – at different levels) – which enable us to formulate highly complex ideas and structures.

My conceptualisation, then, of identity, rests on the foundations of several layers of structure:

  • Hardware:
    – at base, the energy of the universe, structured according to laws of physics…
    – some of which is congealed into matter formed into chemical structures…
    – some of which  is self-organised into biochemical structures culminating in bodies with brains
    – which develop complex information processing architecture, conducting electrochemical signals
  • Software:
    – these signals form complicated patterns in order to convey and manipulate coded information based on external input signals and internal neural processes…
    – allowing an individual to experience and act within their environment and community…
  • Subjective:
    – this experience, via some blurry neural magic, results in an emergent phenomena called consciousness

And – despite all of this taking place within the warm, mushy darkness of a human skull – feels very much like being an evolutionarily advanced ape on a rocky planet orbiting a small star in a far-flung arm of the milky way.

This, roughly, is the basis of the mental model inside my brain of what, where and how my self is…

hello world

The buck has stopped.

I have waded through my teaching career so far proclaiming – to anyone who will tolerate it – my sincere belief in the need for a reconceptualisation of education and an examination of the many assumptions that no longer apply in the ways they did even a decade ago, let alone the way they did when the institutional forms of (most of) our schools were forged (50-200 years ago). At its core, my dissatisfaction with the status quo arises from aspects of the organisation most schools employ of separating their students’ learning into subjects taught by specialised departments. Specifically, the way in which this specialisation disconnects various learning areas from each other and scrambles them across an arbitrary timetable which students then need to assemble into a working model of their universe.

I think that the ideal outcome of a good education is a connected-up picture of the world, a conception of one’s place, past and future, a diverse and useful set of skills for operating in the world, and importantly, a metacognitive awareness. If this is the end goal, does it make sense to send our students from English to Biology to Art, without paying any attention to how these subjects overlap or relate or connect? We expect them to absorb scattered nuggets of knowledge across all of these disconnected subjects and from this to assemble a working mental model of the Universe. It’s like being given assorted pieces from 7 different jigsaw puzzles and asked to make a picture.

Students arrive at school pre-installed with a mental model of the universe. It is our job as teachers to help them accurately develop that model to ever more sophisticated degrees, focusing on areas which hold the greatest interest and(/or) usefulness for the students. It is difficult (or impossible) for a busy teacher to co-ordinate content with other departments in your average high school, there is simply too much complexity for teachers to be able to take the time to integrate their curricula.

My view is that this, combined with the economic drivers underlying the funding of these departments based on student numbers, causes departments to compete for “ownership” of subject matter and the funds that accompany students choosing to study it. For instance, take ‘Art Design’ (Visual Art) and ‘Design and Visual Communication’ (Technology); there is a huge overlap in both the skills and content being taught under these banners and thus a lot of opportunities to combine and customise curricular standards from both paradigms and to tailor course design to meet a wide variety of design contexts and approaches in a unified way. Too often, departments are trying to attract students in one direction or the other instead of seeing it from the student’s perspective where they might benefit most from a course combining the approaches of Art and Technology. A student can be accepted into an architecture degree with an excellent DVC or Art portfolio submission, but for the best chance of acceptance into such a fiercely competitive course surely a student would be best served by a portfolio which showcases both their artistic and technical design skills in a consistent and focused way?

This doesn’t just apply to subjects that have obvious intersections of skills or content but, with a bit of thought, connections can be found between any two subjects with a bit of thought. Whether you’re thinking of historical statistics, the physics of sport or the economics of agriculture, there are a multitude of lenses that can be focused on any given topic or area of interest and brains are built for making connections. In my opinion a school’s goal should be to train students who have both a broad range of skills to choose from and a good general knowledge of the world in order to assess which approaches to any given situation will be most fruitful in achieving a desired outcome.

Of course every single school has a different management structure and a different set of inter-departmental (and, usually, inter-personal) dynamics so there are differing degrees of co-operation between departments, but in most cases the crucial lack is in the time and space for colleagues from different departments to plan and collaborate both within and outside of the timetable. I had 8 year 9 classes, last year, two terms each, two lessons a week (minus holidays, sports days…). These students bustled from subject to subject, from paradigm to paradigm through an arbitrarily structured timetable to land occasionally in front of me. I would do my best to instil the finer points of “using a compass” (a hasty revision of my aspirational lesson plan of “drawing isometric circles”) while contending with a crowded, uncomfortable classroom, profound disinterest, a lack of equipment and the gnawing feeling that there must be a better way to do this. There was certainly no hope of my connecting whatever it was they were learning in any of their other subjects to what they were learning in mine, just the 55 minutes between that bell and this bell and then see you next week…

There are a great many reasons why a new, idealistic (yet pragmatic), savagely handsome, bespectacled and bearded, art teacher might not be able to walk into a long-term relief role in a grammar school technology department and immediately begin breaking down department walls and connecting up the learnings of teh students all around, and needless to say, I did not. And I reached the end of that road at the end of term 4 last year. And now I’m to begin a new journey, down a new, long-and-winding road, which brings me to your computer screen: My new job.

All my excuses, you see, are now gone. In diagnosing the systemic challenge of teaching students about a connected-up universe in a connected-up way within a departmentalised institution delivering a pixellated curriculum, I have sketched out a problem that has the inertial weight of strong public interest, millions of dollars of ministerial and private funding, political and professional contention and the combined resources and connections of generations of old boys pitted against anything but incremental change. Any individual teacher caught in this maelstrom might only play a tiny part in helping to bring about change while working within that system.

Now, though, I have somehow found myself in an entirely different landspcape of professional possibility, and responsibility. Because, contrary to all my previous imaginings and hopes, I now work at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

I have followed this school’s progress since teacher’s college when I stumbled upon a blog post by Steve Mouldey about the downright indecent things they were doing with the New Zealand Curriculum and post-it notes. It is a public school in a new, modern (PPP-funded) building serving the new housing development at Hobsonville Point, destined for a roll of ~1350. I have joined the staff as the school enters its 3rd year of operation and welcomes a new cohort of year 9s to join the year 10s and year 11s who have been there for the last year or two respectively.

There is much to read about how the school operates and many future blog posts for me to talk about my perspective of it as I get in amongst, but for now, I am happy to find the buck resting at my feet, laden with the weight of a responsibility to prove the value of my ideas about learning and to contribute to the positive life journeys of as many of my fellow travellers as possible.

Boa viagem!