Marica's meanderings

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Trees can teach us a thing or two

A colleague of mine is undertaking a PhD research project on using metacognitive strategies to support professionals in health and education disciplines to develop electronic portfolios. I have agreed to participate in the pilot of this research and at present, on top of everything else, I am undergoing a facilitated process whereby I am developing an electronic portfolio.

There are copious links to discussions on e-portfolios. Stephen Downes comments:

I have mixed feelings about e-portfolios. In one sense, personal portfolios would be very useful. But tying them specifically to learning, and specifically to educational institutions, makes the same mistake as was made in learning object metadata - it assumes that the educational sphere is separate from everything else in life. An e-portfolio should be a part of a life-portfolio, and the educational content only a small part of it.

Final FLLinNZ presentation workshop in Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2005.The aim of my portfolio is to provide an example of how the creation of a digital story can be used within a professional development context to demonstrate learning crystallised through reflective practice. I am going to use my digital story I created for my final Flexible Learning leaders in New Zealand (FLLinNZ) presentation to demonstrate my development as a leader, learner and teacher during my year as a FLLinNZ.

My digital story is entitled Getting to the heart of it. Unfortunately I can't make it available online because it is a huge file. One of things I still need to learn is how to compress digital movies. I have decided I will present my electronic portfolio on a DVD but I hope to adapt parts of it to place on my website which I am still developing.

As a part of my portfolio development I started thinking about my teaching philosophy. I decided to go back and have a look at what I wrote when I did my secondary school teacher training. We were asked to use a metaphor to describe ourselves as a teacher. I thought I would share what I wrote with you:

I find it very difficult to describe myself as a teacher using a static image, as I have done earlier in the year. A lot of the metaphors that come to mind are limited in that they don't allow for growth. To me teaching is very much a journey. It involves a process which shapes and moulds you as time goes by. The good, the bad, the fun, the hard work ... all contribute to me as a teacher.

A young developing tree.
I like the metaphor of describing my journey as teacher to that of a growing tree in a forest. This tree is firmly established with a solid root system yet it is still vulnerable to the forces of nature. My tree has become very lush over this year. Lots of new growth has occurred while old bits have been discarded to nourish the ground below. Nothing is wasted - it all has purpose and contributes to the splendour of the tree which stands solidly in the forest. This tree nurtures all sorts of life. It supports and encourages new growth while at the same time adding to its unique character with the passing of time as people, animals and plants come and go. My tree is never static because it has to change with the times and learn to adapt to the different seasons and other challenges before it. At the same time my tree is not alone either. It is surrounded by other trees which might be the same variety, or might not, but each is unique in their formation and development. The important thing is that together we can provide support for one another. As time passes a further ring is added to the bark of my tree to indicate growth and development.

This is me as a teacher so far. I bring me as I am today but with all that passing time has taught me. Teaching, in this formal sense, is a new branch in my life which has only started developing this year while at the same time it has grown and become well established. The rest of my tree is supporting this new branch so that it will grow and develop even further with the passage of time. Similarly I have grown as a person this year, as well as professionally as a teacher. New branches will develop, new buds will grow but the tree is always growing bigger and stronger and supporting more and more life. Nature is so splendid.

It is interesting looking back. This metaphor must be something that I think about a lot in my sub-conscious. As I look back on the photos I have taken over the past year trees feature a lot. I was particularly taken by this tree in the grounds of The University of Western Australia in Perth while attending last years Ascilite conference.

Tree in the grounds of The University of Western Australia, Perth.
Have a I evolved in my practice? Do I connect with this splendid example of a tree? So many things have changed yet my core principles and beliefs are still there. This tree is an example of one of many magnificent trees on this stunning campus. As I walked around I felt like I was somewhere where many others had been before. I felt special, important and peaceful as I sought out the shade beneath the tree's outstretched arms. Those arms were huge.

Would I add anything different now - I am older and wiser.Intertwining growth. My teaching branches have definitely grown and many new ones have developed. My tree is older, however, the excitement of new growth never abates for me.New growth Technology plays a bigger part in my life now so how does this affect my tree - actually it doesn't - it is just a part of the environment my tree now lives in. It adapts just as it has done since the beginning of time - that is why it still exists because of its ability to adapt to its surroundings.

It is amazing what grows on Sydney's waterfront.
Imagine my surprise when a friend showed me a book she had purchased while on a visit to the US entitled Advice from a tree. This little book is so beautiful. I have ordered a copy for myself and I can't wait to receive it.

Stand tall and proud

As we celebrate the beauty of nature and human nature, we are energised by all of the good present in life. Yes, thousands of things are going right at this very moment! Your True Nature, Inc. is here as a breath of fresh air, a reminder to reconnect with the flow and ease of life. We share with you inspiration and information--reminders to value your own strength, to treasure your well being and to celebrate your good fortune.
Reach . . . grow . . . imagine . . . succeed!
In other words . . . Be your best . . . forget the rest!

Your True Nature e-zine

There is something I will need to reflect on further though: How does the role of facilitator, as opposed to teacher, fit my metaphor? As we make the move to online learning the traditional role of teacher is no longer applicable. The focus of the learning and teaching environment has changed. I believe this change is happening across all sectors of education. Many young kids now know more than their teachers about certain things. What are we now - facilitators of learning, mentors in the learning process or something else? All of these new roles require new skills. How best do we acquire these skills? This is something I have been investigating for the past year and am continuing to do so.

How do I be the best I can be - for both myself and my learners (whoever they may be)? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


For a while now I have been grappling with my growing unease with traditional education and my own role within it. I know that the systems and processes behind it all have good intentions but somehow their translation into reality doesn’t seem to work so well for the learners of today. Or is it simply that the wheels of change don't move fast enough to meet the needs of a world undergoing change at rather a dramatic rate?

As an educator I feel I spend more time trying to ensure my learners complete their course, because funding is dependent on it, rather than focusing on the learning and my own “teaching”. None of this is new – there is always some pressure that takes you away from what you really want to spend your time and energy on. Yet there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction creeping in everywhere. Everyone around me is stressed and so am I. I keep wondering about how to change this? We are led to believe the answer is to create a work/life balance. Have you tried to do this? It certainly isn’t as easy as it is made out to be and is this necessarily the answer. Doing the work you love isn’t work and yet how many of us can truly say we love what we are being paid to do.

I love being a part of the process of developing people to be more than they believe themselves capable of being. Do I manage to achieve this in my practice? Do my learners feel excited and engaged? Do I inspire them in any way? Are they motivated in their learning because of their love of what they are doing or is it merely something they are required to do for their work or to please other people?

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about flow as:

The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

I am currently grappling with how to live and work on a daily basis in a state of flow.

The other night I read Jay Cross’s blog entry entitled Natural Learning. This is an extract from it:

this learning comes from deep inside
it makes you feel right with the world
you're thinking without thinking
your mind has a mind of its own
it knows what to do
you let it do its thing

it's making connections
traveling new paths
matching patterns
putting things together

you can't force it
you must simply be open to it
there's no secret formula
it comes when you merge with everything around you

enlightenment comes
when you're ready

I strongly recommend taking the time to read the full version of Jay’s reflection. I found his final comment particularly significant:

I asked my son if he ever stopped to smell the roses.
"I don't have the time," he replied.

This spoke to me on so many levels and I really identified with Jay’s ideas on learning at this most basic level – in connection with nature. Let’s face it, nature has been around a lot longer that we have. I know when I need to de-stress I seek out the sea. I am fortunate to be surrounded by sea. I look at our stunning harbour as I drive to work every morning and it always inspires me. Everyday it is different. Some days I am blown away by its beauty. Other days it is like a raging, angry beast.

My husband, Lynsey Gedye, took some wonderful photos on a recent visit to the beach where we walked, pondered and refreshed our weary bodies. We both feel so battle scarred by the daily grind.

Stacking stonesLynsey writes an interesting viewpoint on Stacking rocks.

Someone else that I read regularly who is also feeling the pressure is Danny Gregory. You will need to scroll down to the entry dated 11 August Refreshed by Jobs.

I am exhausted today. I feel too many wheels spinning, too many things for me to do all of them as well as I'd like, too many things I am too deeply into to walk away from, too many possibilities for failure. I decided to stop long enough to sift through email I hadn't gotten around to. It just seemed like something concrete to accomplish, checking off something. Anyway, a few emails down, I found the following, sent to me by Frank B. It made me think and feel a little rejuvenated. It may do the same for you.

He then provided the text of a commencement address given by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers and of Pixar Animation Studios, delivered on June 12, 2005. I suggest you read the whole speech but here is a snippet – I certainly found it motivating.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Lots of food for thought.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Desire lines and maps

I first heard about desire lines during a panel presentation by at the Blogtalk Downunder conference I attended back in May.

desire line (di.ZYR lyn) n. An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route.
The Word Spy

Notice the well trodden path in the dirt on the right.
Desire lines are linked to urban planning. It all made so much sense and I immediately started thinking about how this might apply to learning and teaching. One thing that sprang into my mind immediately was the disparity between the curriculum which we are required to teach and the actual needs of the learners we teach. Is the curriculum itself an example of a desire line created by a group of experts who wholeheartedly believe this is what the learner needs to know, or is the curriculum an example of a concrete path which learners are expected to use but don't necessarily want to?

It makes me wonder how we accommodate desire lines in our learning environments. How do we meet the needs of our learners while still engaging them in learning things they may need to know although at the time they don't know it? How does the saying go - you don't know what you don't know! Should we always allow our learners to be in control of their learning desire line or do we gently help them onto the path? Who decides which is the best option?

In his paper Commercial success by looking for desire lines Carl Mayhill writes:

Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is to not design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths needs to be.

Could we take this approach in learning? Would mayhem ensue if we just planted seeds and waited to see what happened?

This is what I think today's constructivist learning environments are actually trying to create - especially in online learning. Instead of the learning process centering on the teacher imparting knowledge we now act as facilitators of learning where the learners are learning from and with each other. They decide what to do and how to do it according to their needs. The educator sets everything up so the learner can achieve the learning outcomes while at least partially, if not fully, accommodating the desire line of the learner. I do question though whether the applications we have available are yet sophisticated enough to enable the necessary diversity within the learning environment. It is not just one pathway you have to think about - it is many.

The Walking Project is extending the concept behind desire lines to uncover the stories they tell.

The Walking Project uses the paths people make across vacant lots in Detroit and across fields in South Africa — desire lines — as springboard to explore the paths we walk and how they are formed through culture, geography, language, economics and love. It looks at how people make their own paths; how and why people’s paths cross; and how changing patterns of movement can alter perceptions, attitudes and lives.

In the past year I’ve been exploring the use of locative technologies to create alternative maps of desire lines by converting GIS (geographic information systems) data into audio and visual material for the Web, for physical installation and for live performance. Apart from the technology, I’ve been thinking about the stories maps tell, not only about the places they locate, but also about the people who make them.

This project talks about cartographers as storytellers. The stories contained within maps of a single place are different according to who is creating them.

Maps help us navigate culture by visualizing information that addresses those big, fat, universal questions: Who are we? Where are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there?

Brian Ellis writes that the stories told about how things came to be are powerful tools for bringing geography to life.

The Dine, or Navajo, say that the landscape stalks us with stories. These stories remind us of our place in the world; that cliff or this boulder reminds us of our relationship with others, of the right way to walk in this world. The Aborigines of the Australian Outback use stories as maps to help them find their way in that bleak landscape. The stories are told at a walking pace as they cross the land. As features of the landscape come into view they are reminded of the next chapter in the story; and as the story unfolds they are reminded of which way to turn to get to the next watering hole, the next village or wherever the chosen story leads.

Aboriginal Dream Paintings are said to be coded versions of the Aboriginal world view. They contain conceptual maps of dreaming sites, with symbols for landmarks and water courses. Stories of the Dreaming are an important part of the culture of indigenous Australians.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Goodbye to an inspirational leader

Cancer is such an insidious disease. I remember the day I was told my son had leukaemia. All I could thing about was that he was going to die. After all, in my eyes, cancer equated to death. My life experience had taught me this. Everyone I loved who had cancer died.

Thirteen years later my son is still alive– he has been lucky.

Today someone incredibly special to me was not so lucky. Nola Campbell, the director of the Flexible Learning Leaders in New Zealand (FLLinNZ) programme died at the start of this beautiful sunny day after a long and incredibly courageous fight to beat cancer.

Nola at the Peter Cammock Leadership Workshop in Dunedin - April 2005.

15 December 1946 - 4 August 2005

I heard the news as I was driving to work. The tears streamed down my face as I was trying to navigate rush hour traffic and focus on the road ahead of me. Wellington Harbour looked stunning and I felt Nola's presence in the suns rays that were reflecting off the water. I knew that Nola timed her departure perfectly. The beginning of a new day is the perfect time to begin a new journey.

Nola was a great woman – she was an inspirational leader, an incredible teacher, a magnificent role model, and the kind of friend you knew you could always rely on. She was always “present” and if she couldn’t give you her total attention she would tell you it wasn’t a good time. She never told you what to do yet she had a way of letting you know what she thought. She believed in you and your capabilities and always encouraged you. I always felt I mattered in her company.

Nola and I in the Skyline Gondola in Rotorua going to the Moodle Moot conference dinner - February 2005.

Nola was a Senior Lecturer, Professional Studies in Education at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. On her profile page she said the following about herself:

I am an eTeacher, an eLearner, eMentor and an eResearcher.

As a teacher in the area of information and communication technology (ICT) I do not see myself as any sort of expert. If I do not know the answer then I will usually know who does or at least where I can find out. I endeavour to act as a good role model in this respect. I believe in the importance of building up information networks for teachers so that information can be shared. Issues of equity and the empowering of people to overcome their technophobia are other aspects I enjoy. For a number of years I worked with people with special needs and computers so this area is also of particular interest for me.

The web site page where her profile used to be found is now blank.

Some of Nola’s sayings that I will never forget:

Have you considered…?
Pick your battles!
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
You’ll find a way.
When you have a vision nothing else matters.
You have to know yourself before you can know others.

I have been told there is something she used to say often to her students when she was working with them over the phone:

You are warm. You are alive. You can do this.

This truly sums up her philosophy of life. She treasured her time with those she loved and doing what she loved. She was determined and in her quiet way she pushed forward and got things done. It is now up to the rest of us to pick up the baton, to keep her dream alive and to make sure none of her work was in vain.

I feel priviledged to have known Nola. I hate not being able to phone her, to email her or text her, to talk to her, to hear her stories and learn from them, to be mentored by her, to laugh with her – just to be with her. She has touched so many people’s lives and truly made a difference to mine.

Good bye Nola. Safe travels.
This is indeed an incredibly sad day. Goodbye.