Posted in Learning, Studying, Teaching

Musing on flexibility in teaching and learning

There’s a conference happening as I type. It’s a conference on teaching and learning in higher education … and a student’s comments bring to mind a snippet of everyday life I heard about many years ago.

Annie lives in a small country town. She is married, has three children under the age of 7, and does not work outside the home. The eldest child catches the bus to and from school.

The family has one car and as Annie’s husband works in the bigger town 30 minutes away, and there is no public transport (apart from the school bus), he drives most days. That leaves Annie without a car. There are no shops or parks within walking distance and the hills and narrow roads make taking a four-year old and a baby for a walk a challenge.

The four-year old has discovered she likes mangoes. The enchantment with mangoes extends beyond the mango-growing season, which she does not understand. She wants a mango. She lets Annie know she wants a mango. She lets the neighbours and the sheep in the front paddock know she wants a mango.

No amount of explaining that mangoes are not available will convince the child that she cannot have a mango. She argues that they could go to the shop to buy one. But even if there was a shop that sold mangoes, they don’t have the car that day and the shop isn’t within walking distance. This is something that is beyond her comprehension. She thinks of herself and not of the wider system of which she, and mangoes, are a part.

Annie takes some frozen mango from the freezer, but the child is adamant it isn’t real mango and so does not want it. She takes it outside to feed to the sheep in the front paddock.


I am reminded of this snippet of everyday life while listening to the conference presenter – a student who wants to attend classes on campus when “I feel like it” and to attend classes online when “I’m not able to attend in person”. She doesn’t want to have to tell her tutor when she’ll attend on-campus and when she’ll attend online or when she won’t attend at all.

The other adults in the conference agree that that’s a reasonable position to take. No one mentions the wider systems of which the student is a part but which are outside of her immediate attention.

Ignore, for now, the administrative processes and the technological systems at play here. Let’s focus on the student experience.


Louise is a student at a university in a major city in Australia. In Week 3 she decides to attend the weekly 2-hour tutorial on campus. The tutorials are recorded so that students who cannot attend synchronously can have access to the material covered and the questions and provocations explored in the tutorial.

They’re also live-streamed so that students who cannot attend on campus can attend synchronously from a place of their choosing (home, work, the train, a holiday house at the beach, a cafe, a hospital room …). The university is known for providing opportunities for students to learn at any time, from anywhere, and at any place.

Louise arrives to find the teacher and three other students in the classroom. The official enrolment for the tutorial is 25. The tutor has connected to the live-streaming software allowing all enrolled students who attend synchronously to interact if they choose. Those who attend synchronously online have indicated that they like to feel part of the class, even if they’re not there physically.

The tutor has planned an interactive session where students have opportunities to actively engage with the ideas being discussed and hear others’ views. She has planned for students to work in small groups and in that way learn with and from each other. They will share their ideas, take a variety of stakeholder perspectives, formulate solutions to problems they’ve identified and justify which of those possible solutions they would recommend if they were working in a professional setting.

Nine students have joined the live-stream. They don’t have their cameras on and so show up as black boxes or initials on the screen. The two cohorts do not interact with each other, as those online keep their microphones off and while they talk when put into breakout rooms, they don’t interact with the four students in the physical room.

Adapted from an image found at the-rampage.org

Louise finds the experience unsatisfying, personally, socially and intellectually. She had wanted to be part of a dynamic group of learners all seeking to explore this highly interesting and relevant area of the course. She wanted to share her ideas and was keen to hear others’ ideas. She had questions of a technical nature of the tutor but her voice sounded too loud in the near-empty room and so she kept quiet. Those who attended via the live stream interacted with each other but not with those in the physical room, and while those in the physical room contributed to the discussion and shared their ideas, the lack of a diversity of views, ideas, solutions and recommendations left her feeling flat.

The following week Louise finds she cannot attend the tutorial and listens to the recording. She finds the experience unsatisfying. She does not have the opportunity to share or discuss her ideas and is not able to hear others’ conversations as the recording cuts out when the students engage in small group conversations.

In Week 5, Louise attends via the live-stream. There are two other students attending in this mode, and two students in the physical classroom. When it comes time to join the breakout room, Louise logs off. It is an unsatisfying experience all round.

At the end of semester, she completes the unit evaluation and scores the tutor poorly. She did not have a good experience and wants the university, and her tutor, to know.


The situation is complex. Louise wants to be free to choose but is unaware, when making her choice, of some of the outcomes of that choice. She wants the choice to study when and where she wants and the capacity to make that decision on a weekly basis, unaware that choice has consequences for her experience.

There is nothing like a room full of students talking, discussing, playing around with ideas and of coming to better understand the skills and abilities they’ll need to be better financial advisers, or engaging and compassionate teachers, or architects who can play with shape and form and functionality. The feel in that room – whether it’s a virtual or physical room – can be energising and motivating.

When teachers create space for students to engage intellectually and socially and professionally, learning is enriched and empowering.

But those enriching and empowering learning experiences can’t happen in the absence of learners. Deciding not to attend has consequences that go beyond the individual.


I fear we’re headed towards an impoverished system of higher education that caters to an individualisation which sees decisions made on what individuals want (more flexibility to do things my way) without thinking about the wider consequences for learning and social and profesional interaction.

Flexibility has enormous benefits to students. It provides many with the only way of studying as they juggle the many other aspects of their lives. It is crucial for students to have options for when and how they study.

But, is there ever a point when we have to accept that just because we want a mango now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have one?

Is unbounded flexibility possible? And if it is, will it lead to the desired outcomes?

One final question, though perhaps for another time: Whatever happened to asynchronous learning?

Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

Musing on student-teacher relationships

I was one of those kids at school who teachers didn’t like very much. I’m not sure what it was, but I never endeared myself to my teachers.

Some of them hit me, some of them kicked me, some of them made me stand behind the classroom door, or sit under their desk, or leave the room. I can’t remember many of them being terribly nice to me.

I was a middling student who probably had a smarter mouth than brain and said more than I should have. I was clever, but not clever enough to keep my mouth shut or stop my eyes from rolling.

Being a middling student meant I didn’t have the educational needs some students had. I wasn’t gifted and so didn’t get any attention for being particularly good at anything; and I didn’t need remedial attention because I wasn’t really bad at anything. I didn’t have much potential for anything outstanding and so didn’t need encouragement or prompting … and let’s face it, if I was ‘prompted’ I would probably have said something that saw me sent behind the door or under a desk in no time flat.

I come from a family of middling students. None of us excelled academically. We did alright, but our place was firmly in the middle. We weren’t duxes, we didn’t win presitgious academic awards, we didn’t have ATAR scores in the 90s.

I was awarded a merit certificate in primary school one year.

It was for ‘uniform’. I felt it should have been awarded to my mother.

I don’t remember ever having positive relationships with my teachers though, although there was one female teacher in Grade 5 who was lovely.

These days, in teacher preparation programs all across the country (possibly all across the Western world), beginning teachers are taught that “strong teacher relationships are crucial because they:

  • Shape the way children think and act in school
  • Improve how well they do at school

When you have a good relationship with your students, they are more likely to feel positive about class and about school in general. They are also more willing to have a go at hard work, to risk making mistakes, and to ask for help when they need it” (Killian).

Holding high standards without providing a warm environment is merely harsh. A warm environment without high standards lacks backbone. But if you can create a combination of high standards with a warm and supportive environment it will benefit all students, not just the high achievers.

Lee Jussim

I wrote some time ago about punitive education and some of the lessons we learn from school and from the teachers who inhabit it/control it.

What might students learn from teachers who care about them (and let them know they care) and who have high expectations of them?

Why might we teach in any other way?


Posted in Family, Learning, Life

Mothers Day: Living the realities

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning and came across a story on the ABC News site that caught my eye.

After the birth of her fifth child, Roseann Hall decided to do a photography project on the often ‘unseen’ side of parenting – the mess, the tantrums, the food smeared everywhere, the moments of stress and tension and of the ways new mothers coped with them.

After Roseann had her fifth child and again found herself scrolling through photos that didn’t reflect her experience, she decided to use her skills as a photographer to capture something more authentic.

ABC Radio Brisbane

Hall’s images instantly took me back to my early mothering days and I began to wonder if any of them would have been worth sharing on social media. I highly doubt it.

I have recollections of constant mess: of food-smeared surfaces, of unmade beds and unwashed washing, of piles of unironed clothes and of floors strewn with toys and clothes and the debris of life.

None of it was social media worthy. None of it was worth sharing to a wider audience. But for many of us with young children it was normal. It wasn’t pretty that’s for sure, and mothers and mothers-in-law and aunts and grandmothers would sometimes step in, a working bee would be organised and the house would shine.

For a day.

And then the inevitable inertia and overwhelm of being a mother would take over – the monotony, the everyday struggle, the sameness, the mundane decision-making (should I do the ironing first or the vacuuming?), the inevitability of mundanity. Nothing to look forward to but more mess, more washing, more cleaning, more ironing, more vacuuming, more dusting … the finger run along the mantlepiece when he came home for lunch to see if it was dust free.

It never was.

Mothering has been happening for thousands (and thousands) of years, and while, I imagine, no two mothers’ experiences have been the same across those years, how did we come to decide that ‘normal’ is a tiny box that only some people fit in? And who decides what’s in that box?

How have we come to the point of looking at others’ lives and deciding that their life is “normal” while ours isn’t? Or that their life is different and somehow that means better?

In the ABC article, Divna Haslam, a clinical psychologist and family researcher at the University of Queensland claimed that “we should all normalise all the aspects of parenting, not just the pretty ones.”

When did we stop normalising the unpretty aspects of parenting? Does any mother of young children imagine, when she sees images of others’ lives, that they don’t have unpretty moments as well? That their two-year old doesn’t have temper tantrums that can last for hours? That their toddler, being introduced to a new food, doesn’t spit it out or wipe it over every surface they can find? That their three year old hasn’t ever picked up a crayon and drawn all over the walls with it?

Have we really become that naive?

Maybe it isn’t about that. Maybe it’s not naivety at all. Maybe it’s the visuals and the access to other people’s lives we’ve only experienced in the last 10 years or so.

Social media, the thing that’s allowed us to connect in ways we’d never been able to before its invention, has maybe also caused us to unconnect from reality. We see others’ unreal images and imagine they determine the reality of someone’s life. The totality of their life.

But do we really think we’re the only ones with children who make unreasonable demands in the supermarket at the tops of their voices? That we’re the only ones with children who refuse to get into their car seat? That our newborn is the only one who doesn’t sleep through the night? That our two-year old is the only one to have a temper tantrum in the main street, requiring us to carry them – kicking and screaming up – under one arm while trying to wrangle their trike with the other? That our four-year old is the only one who swears like a trooper when Grandma walks through the door, that our eleven-year old is the only one who verbally baits his sister till she’s in a paroxym of frustration?

It’s sad if we have. But we don’t have to, and I know that may be easier said than done, particularly from my vantage point. We know – in the very core of our being – that the vast majority of little children will be unreasonable at least some time before they’re five. And while we might not want to post images of those moments on social media, let’s not forget what sits behind the cheery images of happy-looking kids and the ‘perfect’ settings in which they live.

If you’re looking at others’ lives on social media, imagine the corner of the room you can’t see, full of life’s debris – the clothes that moments earlier where all over the couch, the bowl from breakfast the child threw on the floor, the toys they’ve been told to put away a million times but never do.

Think of the “perfect” images that appear on social media as museum or gallery pieces. They might be tightly curated images of a life, but they don’t represent reality.

Posted in Learning, Life, Schools, Teaching

Punitive education

Late last year I spoke with about a dozen small groups of Year 9 students from a local high school. It was part of a program called Future Me; a program designed to help Year 9 students develop a range of ‘enterprise skills’, one of which is communication. In groups of 4 or 5, students spoke with a range of university staff, asking the staff questions about their schooling, their jobs, their career pathways.

A few of the groups asked me what had been my favourite subject at school. That really made me stop and think.

I ended up being honest with them and told them that I hadn’t liked high school much and I didn’t have a favourite subject. They were surprised that someone teaching at university didn’t like high school; hopefully it helped them realise that high school experiences don’t necessarily define your whole life – although in Year 9 it sure feels like they do.

If I’d thought about it some more, I may have said that English was one of my favourite subjects. The problem with it wasn’t the subject, but the teacher. I didn’t like my English teacher. He was punitive and I didn’t like his attitude. For the record, he didn’t like mine either.

Art was good because we sometimes got the opportunity to travel to Sydney to the Art Gallery of NSW – as well as other places – and I enjoyed that. But I didn’t like my Art teacher. She was punitive and I didn’t like her attitude. She really really didn’t like mine!

One of the times I was thrown out of Art class, I saw a boy being caned by a punitive woodwork teacher.

We had weekly assemblies and one of the teachers would patrol around the assembled students checking to see if the boys were wearing the right sort of socks. There were consequences for those who weren’t. Punitive ones.

It was the 1970s and I guess punitive was an educational fad back then. I like to think it isn’t one anymore …

It’s easy to be punitive though, and some still think it’s better for children and young people if their teachers are punitive, if they rule through fear. I read a comment on a ‘tell us about your favourite teacher’ blog from a man who said that getting the cane ‘certainly kept us focussed on doing the right thing’. I wonder if it helped with his learning?

Even back then schools weren’t only about learning – well, not in the academic sense. We sure learnt stuff, but lots of it wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Boys learnt to wear the ‘right’ socks, girls learnt that to get ahead they had to be ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘compliant’. Boys learnt not to cry; in fact, many boys learnt not to have emotions at all, or that some emotions were bad and therefore shouldn’t be part of their repertoire. Happy was a legitimate emotion as long we you didn’t have too much of it, and if you were tall and good looking and a favourite with the teachers, you could have pride and conceit in your bag of emotions as well, but others, like sadness or disappointment, were to be internalised or just avoided altogether.

Boys learnt that if you did the wrong thing, you were hit by an adult weilding a stick – and your parents generally thought that was an okay thing to do too. Girls learnt that if you spoke up about things that didn’t feel right – like boys being hit by stick-weilding adults – they were sent out of the room, or to that space behind the classroom door where your only companions were spiderwebs and dust.

Anyone? No?

I would have thought that these days punitive was gone from schools – but it seems to be alive and well. My 13-year old grandson said ‘hello mate’ to the school principal through the year and was then forced to sit outside said principal’s office for almost 2 hours. I’m not suggesting that saying ‘hello mate’ to the school principal is the correct way to address the principal, but sitting outside his office for almost 2 hours didn’t teach Ronan a more appropriate greeting. What a great lesson he could have had in levels of formality and when it’s appropriate to refer to someone as ‘mate’ and when it isn’t. Instead, Ronan felt aggrieved and angry and now feels more negative towards the principal than he otherwise might.

We know that learning in schools is, in large part, about relationships. Being punitive doesn’t help build good ones.

What other lessons might we teach if we stop being punitive?

8B66C9F0-8113-41C8-A53E-F08D220B7799
Ronan (13) ready for life’s lessons

Posted in Learning, Life, Studying

Chapters

A number of years ago I was feeling stuck in my academic work. It seemed there was no end to what I was doing and no capacity for change on the horizon. As often seems to happen, I stumbled across a journal article that expressed exactly what I was feeling and also presented a way of thinking I hadn’t thought of for myself. That’s one thing I love about reading – you learn of other ways to think, other mindsets, other perspectives.

This particular author suggested that one way to look at the situation was to think about chapters – this is the teaching chapter of your academic life and the next chapter might be the research chapter or the leadership chapter or the something entirely different chapter. It helped me realise that my situation wasn’t going to continue in the same way for the rest of time. And sure enough, over time, the teaching chapter finished and I was able to start a new chapter.

I like metaphors and their capacity to explain a concept, though of course there’s the danger of pushing a metaphor too far. Any good author will know that there are other ways to structure a narrative than in a straight line. It’s the same with our lives, which is, in some ways, a different form of authoring. Our lives don’t travel in straight lines despite the chronology that suggests we take a straight line from one point to another.

We are born, get to be five, head to school, emerge more or less damaged by that experience some years later, and tumble into adult life. We work, we get married, we have children and so on and so forth. Or so the story goes.

But some of us combine highschool with motherhood, either as a teenager or an adult or both. Some of us don’t move through the ‘stages’, the ‘chapters’, of our lives in the right order. We have a baby and then some months later, get married. We have another baby and then finish high school. Some of us don’t do things at the ‘right’ age, and by ‘right’ I mean ‘standard’, ‘accepted’, ‘proper’, but we do them anyway.

We don’t live linear lives.

Our stories get woven around other stories, stories that have already happened, stories we thought we’d shed the skin of, stories that get tangled in our memories and in our retellings. Parts of our lives connect with other parts in ways we don’t necessarily expect; some things we thought we’d finished with re-emerge and take up space again. The re-emergences push us in directions we hadn’t ever expected and we circle back and find we’ve picked up threads of an older story and the newer threads give it added depth.

We change and develop and grow through the chapters of our lives. We cook and clean and harangue and clean and cook and nothing changes. Is it always going to be like this? A sense of hopelessness. Going through the motions. But deep within, a reluctance to accept that this is all there is. Change. Unsettling. Upsetting. Challenging. Difficult. The transition from one thing to another, from one chapter to another.

And then another.

We teach – about language and tone and purpose and audience. About human emotion expressed through movement and words and no words and space and silence. We study and learn and develop, and another new chapter starts, full of more learning and challenge and motivation and no motivation. And struggle. Personally and professionally and we feel stuck. Is it always going to be like this?

With each transition from one chapter to another, we build up who we are. In one chapter we’re a teacher, in the next we’re a teacher-educator, but then there’s the chapter that weaves research with teaching and the two parts sit uncomfortably with each other. There’s no time to do both properly and compromise is unsettling. And then the next chapter adds leadership and it’s difficult, challenging, upsetting. We feel stuck in our academic work. Is it always going to be like this?

Some chapters  are so long we can’t see the end of them. The PhD chapter of our lives can be like that .. it goes on and on and on. Our energy flags, we can’t see a way through; there’s work and kids and your supervisor saying ‘just get it done’. If only it was that easy. It drags. It’s intellectually tortuous. It’s mentally draining. There’s no ounce of motivation left. It becomes a grind. Will it always be like this?


Robyn, one of my PhD candidates, was at that point this time last year. It was intellectually tortuous, mentally draining. It was a grind. Scraps of motivation lay on the ground at her feet. “Sharon, will it ever end?”.

It ended. Robyn submitted her thesis, it was examined, accepted and just last week, Robyn’s doctorate was conferred. All those years. All that work. And now she’s a doctor, by virtue of having a doctorate.

Will she use her title in the next chapter of her life?

You bet she will, kiddo.

PhD bonnet
This makes it all worthwhile! Well, almost.

Posted in Learning, Studying, Teaching

Idealism and education

I am an idealist.

That might not come as much of a surprise to those who know me well, but it comes as a surprise to me.

It remains a surprise, given that the realisation hits me every ten years or so. In the intervening times I simply forget.

Do you do that? Flashes of realisation about yourself, then forget, only to be reminded a year, or ten, later that, oh yes, that’s right. I forgot. I’m an idealist.

My latest revelation came after dinner at my sister’s place a year or so ago*. We got to talking about schooling and after chewing over certain parts of the conversation over the next few days, I had my flash of self-awareness.

I can’t think of any other way to say this than: for me, education (formal education) is about learning.

There. I’ve said it. That’s what it means to me.

And I’ve realised that that’s an idealistic way of thinking about formal education.

To me formal education is not primarily about:

  • a score on a NAPLAN test
  • a grade on the end of year exam
  • marks, and whether you get enough of them to get into university
  • whether you pass or fail an assignment, or a unit, or a course
  • a qualification.

To my way of thinking, formal education – whether you’re in Prep, or Grade 3, or Grade 11, or first year university – is primarily about learning.

Not grades, not marks, not passing tests, not learning enough to do well in spelling bees or at trivia nights at the local club.

Learning is challenging and requires thinking and changes of perspective and knowledge and understanding and questions: posing them as well as answering them. It requires reflection and resilience and determination and discipline.

And the bonus? Learning leads to test passing and success in spelling bees and impressing your mates at the local pub trivia. And a host of other, much more important things besides.

But it seems that schools and universities are not in the business of learning.

They are simply in business.

That’s how the education system seems to see it – and the politicians who enact educational policy. The education system is about students getting a good score in NAPLAN so that we (the rest of us outside of the education system) can hold teachers to account, so that we can hold schools to account; so that students – education’s ‘customers’ can move from high school to university, and from university into the workforce for the purpose of ensuring Australia is  “internationally competitive”, economically strong, part of a culture built on consumption. That’s where growth comes from – from more of us consuming more.

There are implications of this thought process for what is taught, how it’s taught, who is taught and who does the teaching. It has implications for the kinds of expectations educators have of students and the level of responsibility given to students for their own learning.

And in this blighted landscape of education as business, education is something that is consumed. It’s a product we purchase. Universities don’t have students anymore; they have customers. And customers demand satisfaction for the goods they purchase. And customers’ purchasing should require as little effort as possible.

Customers don’t want to work for the goods they purchase. I mean, when was the last time you paid for a lipstick you had to then build from ingredients you had to source yourself, or even ones that were given to you? When was the last time you had to fry the chips you’d just paid for at the fish ‘n chippy, before taking them home to lavish with tomato sauce and consume?

Mall University

Many customers of universities don’t want to have new ideas or perspectives to consider or to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. They don’t want the pain of not doing well, of being uncertain, of not knowing. Some of them don’t even want the fuss of having to craft their own assignments.

Education is a business with customers to satisfy and a national economy to help grow.

It’s idealistic to cling to the idea that it’s about learning, and all learning’s attendent benefits.

And yet, I find the older I get and the more experience I have in formal education, the more I cling.

Perhaps I’ve turned into an anachronism … if I have, at least I’m an idealistic one!

Love learning

* I came to my blog to write about something else entirely, and found much of this in the ‘drafts’ folder. I had the ‘I’m an idealist’ revelation again, finished the post and thought I may as well publish it.

Posted in Learning, Life, Writing

An answer

Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world has answered a big question for me. One I’ve been seeking an answer to for years. The way he answered the question was humbling, but it was an answer nevertheless and I was instantly calmed by it.

It made sense.

Existential crises are nothing new for me. My first memory of said crisis was in Year 7 (first year of high school – called first form back then). High school was big and scary and I was introverted (called shy back then) and felt bewildered. So many people, so much movement and action and interaction and confusion. So much talk, so much noise filling my head. Finding my way and fitting in. Or not.

A steel door slamming shut in my mind. The familiar refrain ‘so what? so what? so what?’ bouncing around the walls of my newly closed mind.

It was a refrain that ran through my adolescence. And beyond.

From the outside, it might have seemed like an attitude of not caring, but it masked a deep desire for meaning. For understanding the experiences of high school. For understanding myself and my place there, and how I fitted in. Or not.

So what?

It’s a fundamental question that can tie you in knots if you linger on it; if you seek an answer that has meaning for you and for your life to this point and for your life into the future.

It’s a question I ask a lot. I try not to because of the damage it can do, but it pops into my mind stealthily, when I least expect it.

We’re born, we live, we die.

So what?

Far beyond high school the question continued to plague me. There were times when I’d bounce from one existential crisis to another. None would bring any answers, or at least none that I was happy with. None of the usual answers made sense to me.

meaning of life

I tried Googling it. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t help.

But then I read Sand Talk and that did help. Enormously.

Yunkaporta says “Some new cultures keep asking, ‘Why are we here?’. It’s easy. This is why we’re here. We look after things on the earth and in the sky and the places in between” (p. 109).

We’re custodians. Of things in the places between earth and sky: People. Animals. Ourselves. Each other. Knowledge. Ideas. The processes through which we generate and share knowledge and ideas.

Humans, according to Yunkaporta, are a “custodial species” (p. 102). It’s a slightly different rendering of the ‘man has dominion over …’ we learnt in Sunday school; it has a different quality. A nurturing quality. A caring quality. A quality that works against exploitation.

The idea of being a custodian is a powerful one for me. It makes sense as no other response to the ‘so what?’ question ever has.

There are many other insights in this book that have made sense to me in ways nothing I’ve read or heard have done before. For me, it’s an important work that helps make sense of my thinking – not necessarily what I think, but most certainly how I think.

‘I have previously talked about civilised cultures losing collective memory and having to struggle for thousands of years to gain full maturity and knowledge again, unless they have assistance. But that assistance does not take the form of somebody passing on cultural content and ecological wisdom. The assistance I’m talking about comes from sharing patterns of knowledge and ways of thinking that will help trigger the ancestral knowledge hidden inside. The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own’ (Yunkaporta, 2019, p. 163).

Perhaps this book has helped trigger [my] ancestral knowledge. Whether that’s the case, it’s certainly making a lot of sense for me.

Sand Talk

Source: Booktopia

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Learning, Life, Melbourne

Is that a light I see before me?

It’s been a tough few months. Not anything health related I hasten to add.

Thankfully.

Although before I venture into the toughness, I’ll give a brief update.

If you’ve been following my journey, you’ll know that around a year ago I found a lump in my breast. It was cancer. I had it removed in January and then in February through March had radiotherapy. It wasn’t pleasant and I’m still feeling the after effects. Last week I had a checkup with my medical oncologist. My breast tissue is still swollen and still very tender. Of course I already knew that as I feel it every day. What I didn’t know is that it’ll continue for another year or so – both the swelling and the tenderness.

Other than that, everything is fine. I still get days of exhaustion – I went to work on Tuesday last week, worked for an hour or so, went to attend a meeting and just couldn’t. Instead, I went home and spent the day in bed. And that might have had to do with the toughness than any lingering after effects of radiotherapy.

So, to the toughness.

Tim started a new job in late June and in the time between jobs we spent a week in Tasmania, touring around to places we’d been before and places we hadn’t. It was cold and wonderful and punctuated with moments of family just to make it even better.

When I got back to work, I was asked to work on an undergrad ethics unit for financial professionals.

You’re right. I know nothing about financial professionals, but had taught ethics some years before and so knew some of the basics.

‘Work on’ initially meant working with the unit chair to develop materials to ensure students were more active in their learning during the seminars. I’m very familiar with the principles of active learning and with unit design and so this was something that spoke to my skillset.

Not so the unit chair.

He struggled.

He couldn’t fathom why you’d want to teach in any other way than through lecture.

He couldn’t fathom how you’d teach in any other way than through lecture.

He quit.

I became unit chair.

And learning designer. And developer of the materials – both online and for the on-campus seminars. And the builder of the online site.

I had help of course. A colleague would send me ‘content’ which equated to discipline-specific information on things like fraud and tax evasion and fiduciary duties.

I asked lots of questions (beyond the obvious: ‘what’s a fiduciary duty?’).

The question I asked most often was ‘what are students going to do with this information?’ Providing students with information is important. Learning doesn’t happen in the absence of information, but there are ways and ways of presenting information, some more effective for learning than others. And then there’s how students start to make that information real for them – for their personal and professional lives.

We’ve recently had a Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in Australia. It identified a lot of unethical – and illegal – conduct. It was a gold mine in terms exploring ethical issues, but it was outside the range of interest/thinking/relevance for many of the 662 second-year students in the unit, many of whom were international students.

So making ethics personal before we thought about professional ethical responsibilities was important to me. We started with a case study on ‘what she makes’ – a campaign involving comedian Sammy J and Kmart. He asked, through the medium of comic song, what the women who make the garmets Kmart sells make. Are they paid a living wage and was it ethical if they weren’t? We moved on from there. Some students couldn’t see the point of it and struggled from the start. These are, after all, mostly accounting students.

I’m not quite sure what I’m saying there, but I think my point is around the idea that they’ve been trained in a particular way to think about how university learning is done, and this wasn’t it. Some said it was ‘nonsensical’.

This work took all of my time, all of my energy, all of my intellectual capacity. I had to learn about the finance profession, about governance structures, executive and non-executive directors and organisational culture, the differences between tax minimisation, tax avoidance and tax evasion (which ones of those are il/legal and which are legal but unethical; which one is a tax agent obligated to do?); I had to learn about the ethical hierarchy and the AAA decision-making model, Baird’s four ethical lenses (apparently I sit squarely between the responsibilities lens and the results lens meaning I get the best of both of them, but also the worst), how deontology and teleology relate to ethical decisions in the finance sector; I learnt about APES110 and Chapter 7 of the Corporations Act, and I now have a much better understanding of the role ASIC and APRA play in regulating the finance sector.

And so much more.

SO much more.

I designed seminars the nine male tutors baulked at. This isn’t teaching. Where’s the lecture? Where’s the space for me to talk to students – to tell them what I know? Our students don’t/won’t work/learn this way.

It felt like a fight the whole time. A fight to get the materials up in time, a fight to wrestle some sense out of the information I was given, a fight to record videos and to see myself on the screen without wanting to get a professional makeup artist in to turn this old woman into someone others could stand to watch. It was a fight against time, against my own ignorance, against others’. It was 14 hour days and most of each weekend. It was responding to students’ requests for extensions – when there are 662 students, there tend to be a lot of extension requests. It was finding markers to mark student assignments and providing markers with ideas for giving feedback that was empathic and supportive rather than punitive. It was students coming to see me to ask about how to do a mind map (something I’d mentioned as a potentially useful tool for determining the links between the various bits of information they were engaging with). It was students emailing me to say they couldn’t see the point in what they were doing and ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning’. It was emails asking if [this] was going to be on the exam, even after I’d written in the unit materials that everything was going to be on the exam.

And then there was Charles.

Charles, a 24 year old international student, came to see me late one afternoon. He was struggling, not only with the unit but with life in general. He sat down, started to tell me his story and cried. His business had gone badly, he owed an eye-wateringly large sum of money, his girlfriend had dumped him. He felt that life wasn’t worth living. I sat and listened and thought, I don’t know how to help this young man, but it seemed all he needed was someone to listen. I could do that. He came to my office regularly after that, always just as I was packing up and we’d sit and he’d talk and cry. Over time, his voice began to change – there was more energy and more life in it. He’s back in China now and still writes to me. Life is still tough for him but he says I made a difference.

And then there was Rohit.

Rohit, a 22 year old international student, asked lots of questions in the online seminar. So many that another student asked him if he’d even engaged with the materials. He asked more questions via email. Eventually, I asked him to come and see me. He burst into my office, full of energy, and just as full of questions as he’d been online. He told me, quite proudly, that he was ‘immature’. I asked him how that was working out for him. That question stopped him in his tracks. He wrote that question down, and said how it was an important question for him to consider. He showed me a photo of his mother, who he loves dearly. I asked what he does to make her proud. He wrote that down too. He told me that the exam was on his birthday and so I sent him a happy birthday email the morning of the exam. He came to my office one day last week to give me a box of chocolates. He said that I had had a profound impact on him and that he felt blessed by God to have had a teacher like me.

Before the end of the trimester, when I was still trying to finish the ethics unit, under mounting pressure as the days ticked down to get the work completed but feeling like I was getting close to the end of the tunnel, I was asked to work on another ethics unit. This one was for those who are financial advisers. Sharon, you’ll be academic lead on a unit, taught in two different ways (so, effectively two different units). Please work with the learning designer and the subject matter expert to complete the work by the end of October.

The learning designer and subject matter expert did very little. My workload, which had been easing slightly (I was only working 12 hour days and fewer hours on weekends), skyrocketed again.

But it’s come to the end of November – or close to – and I can start to see a little light at the end of what’s felt like a long tunnel. I only have a few rubrics to write now, and some development work to do on one of the units – and I have my unit chair duties to do, but they don’t take too much time.

Was it worth it? Spending all my time and energy working on the development of the ethics units?

No.

And that’s not being as blunt as I could be about it. I’ve enjoyed some parts of it, don’t get me wrong. I had a great day on Thursday for instance. I had no meetings and sat at my computer and put together resources on the ethics involved in organisational culture and whistle blowing, and that felt satisfying.

But I haven’t been to Tasmania since June – unless you count the day I went down for Emma’s birthday in October. I did manage to get to my 40 year high school reunion and spend the weekend with my 40-year friend Michelle. I also managed to fit in a quick trip to Deb’s. But I haven’t seen Byron since he was a week old and now he’s just over 6 months. I haven’t seen Mum since July. I haven’t been north to see my sons and grandkids since April.

I haven’t written a blog post since August. I haven’t taken a photo of a flower in months. I haven’t been enjoying the little bits of photography I have been doing, and I wouldn’t have been doing any except that I’m doing a part-time photography course and that requires me to take some photographs.

I’m tired. All the time.

ALL the time.

It’s been a tough few months.

Bring on the light.

 

Posted in Learning, Life

Confluence

I click on the ‘add new post’ button and a blank page opens, with the blinking cursor sitting in the ‘Title’ box.

The word ‘confluence’ pops into my mind, so I type it in, then quickly check the dictionary definition to make sure it’s the right word for what I want to say.

A title is important. It helps synthesise our ideas in a way that suggests there’s a core idea the author wants to communicate and the author knows, at the start of the writing process, what that idea is.

Sometimes when I start writing a blog post I have no idea of the core idea I want to communicate, and so I leave the title blank. The act of writing helps distill my idea and it’s at that point a title emerges.

But not this time. In this moment, as I sit writing, I know the core idea I want to communicate and so the title is easy. Plus, I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now and that thinking has acted as a distillery.

Over a week ago I saw this on my Facebook feed.

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I remember being struck by the sentiment because we mostly hear ‘you only live once’ as an exhortation to make the most of things.

I’m currently, with lots of support from others, developing an ethics unit and am constantly on the lookout for case studies, resources, stories of ethical misconduct in the financial services sector (which is not hard to find at the moment), but when you search online for something, you enter into a rabbit warren of ideas and perspectives and views and things the internet believes you might be interested in.

One of those things was an interview Charles Wooley did earlier this year for 60 Minutes. I don’t ever watch 60 Minutes, but on this occasion, when the video was in my ‘Up next’ menu in YouTube,  I decided to watch it because I was interested in who Charles Wooley was interviewing: Ricky Gervais.

The interview opened with them both walking through a cemetery and at one point, Gervais says something like, “you don’t exist for billions of years, and then for 70 or 80 years you do, and then you don’t”.

It’s a cosmic view of life – a long-range look – one that perhaps brings a different perspective to our lives.

And as I sat thinking about his comment, Carl Sagan’s video ‘Pale Blue Dot’ sprang into my mind.

Consider that dot … on it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. ~ Carl Sagan

I could feel the confluence starting – ideas beginning to merge.

The idea that we don’t only live once, we live every day of our lives.

The idea that we’re here for such a small part of all time.

The idea that we’re all together, on this one tiny planet.

How am I living each day? How am I making the most of the opportunities my being here allows? How am I caring for others and for the only planet we can currently call home?

I don’t have answers; I rarely do.

But the questions are a starting point.

A confluence has to start somewhere and it may as well be here, as I sit, musing from the cold.

Posted in Learning, Life

A no-touch zone

I finished the workshop (I’d like to say to wild applause but that would be an inaccurate representation. It was ‘polite’ rather than ‘wild’ but I’ll take polite any day), packed up my things, and could see that one of the participants wanted to speak with me.

We stepped out of the seminar room, and he spoke to me about his Plan B for teaching in the upcoming trimester. I assured him that ‘talking more’ was not necessarily the best Plan B for an unresponsive class. Allow the silence to linger I said, and then our silence lingered as he physically squirmed at the idea of allowing silence to pervade the classroom.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that many teachers don’t like the silence. They ask a question, seem to expect an immediate response from students, and if isn’t forthcoming they jump in to provide one.

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Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

This particular workshop participant is going to be teaching into the unit I’ve just been appointed Unit Chair of. A unit of around 700 students, 100 of whom will be online. I have warned the tutors that the teaching will possibly be different from what they’re used to, but I’m not sure how ready they are for how different it’s really going to be.

I’m also not sure of how ready I am for the challenge of convincing these tutors that teaching differently is a worthwhile endeavour.

They’ll be pushed, I’ve been reliably informed by a number of reliable sources, that they’ll feel out of their comfort zone.

I know something about being out of a comfort zone.

In the last month I’ve had two men push me further out of my comfort zone than I’ve been pushed in some time.

Both men put their hands on me.

Neither of them are my husband, my personal trainer or my physiotherapist or my doctor or anything to do with my health and wellbeing.

It’s okay for Tim, my husband, to put his hands on me because … well, because he’s my husband.

It’s okay for Tom, my personal trainer, to put his hands on me because he helps ensure my shoulders are in the right position for whatever exercise I’m doing.

It’s okay for Rob, my physiotherapist to do some manipulations of my shoulder or neck or knee or whatever body part is currently undergoing some issue that needs manipulation of some sort.

I don’t have any males on my medical/oncology team, so that’s not something I have to deal with.

In the last month though, two men, both alike in age and in not formerly knowing me in any way at all, felt it was okay to put their hands on me.

Now, I seem to be suggesting that they touched me inappropriately. If by ‘inappropriately’ we mean sexually, then that’s not what I mean at all.

There was no sexually inappropriate touching. Nor, I hasten to add, was there any sexually appropriate touching because I don’t know that there is such a thing between work colleagues.

From the outside, it could be seen as benign. One patted me on the shoulder a number of times, the other hugged me from the side.

Man A walked into my office for our second meeting and told me I had a lovely smile. He even told me that he’d thought that when he saw my profile photo (you know the one that shows up when you send or receive an email from a colleague?).

It might have looked benign, but it felt yukky. I didn’t ask either of them to touch me, I didn’t give any signals that touching me was okay, I didn’t touch them.

Did I invite their touch? Did I somehow give a signal that it was okay?

Is it okay to touch a colleague you’ve just met? To pat them, tell them they have a lovely smile, hug them?

Is it?

It might be for some people, but my body is a no-touch zone.

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Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I’m not for one moment suggesting they were doing something sordid or out of line.

Except it crossed a line for me.

I’m conflicted about this.

They were two well-meaning men who show their gratitude or appreciation in small, physical ways. They are exuberant characters and this sort of touching, much like a handshake, is part of who they are.

But it isn’t like a handshake, is it?

A handshake seems to be more equal somehow. If Man A had shaken my hand as an expression of his appreciation for the support I’d provided (for doing my job, basically), would I have felt/thought differently about it?

Yes, I believe I would. It would have seemed to have given a different message. A shoulder pat while saying ‘you’ve done a great job’ seems a bit off. I felt like I haven’t felt in a long while, and that’s like ‘the little woman’.

It brought to mind an incident that happened many years ago. I was at a dairy industry dinner (in the time I was married to Kim who worked in the dairy industry) and the man sitting next to me asked me in that horribly patronising tone some men spoke to women in those days: ‘And how much did you spend today Sharon?’

You see, while the men had been discussing important dairy industry things at a conference, the women (the wives) had been encouraged to spend the day shopping, or whatever wives did in those days. I hadn’t spent my time with any of the other wives, and I certainly hadn’t spent my day shopping. We had four young children and only one wage and shopping wasn’t something I did a lot of (apart, of course, from food shopping and I certainly wasn’t going to do that while I was away from the children for a day or two).

I had, on that day, actually made about 50c. Someone who had parked behind me asked if I had change for the parking meter. I did and so he gave me one dollar (it may even have been a note) while I handed over my 50 cents in a mix of coins so that he could feed his meter. I could have just given him the 50 cents, but he insisted on giving me a dollar.

I told my somewhat underwhelming story, while thinking ‘condescending pig’ (which I may have thought a bit too loudly), and my dinner companion soon found someone else to talk to.

But I had thought that between 1987 and now things had changed; that women weren’t ‘the little woman’ any longer. Yet that’s exactly how I felt.

And, quite frankly, I don’t need a man hugging me, even if that is from the side, and telling me how much he’d enjoyed the seminar.

Actually, tell me you enjoyed the seminar, but keep your hands to yourself while doing so.

My body is a no-touch zone!