Friday, 7 October 2011

From Pam Hook

When you stare into the eye of a whitebait...

The invitation to present to the West Coast Principals’ Conference at Franz Josef offered many unanticipated adventures.
 

Peering out the window of the Beechcraft 1900D on my way from Christchurch to Hokitika I marvelled at the huge up-thrusts of sheer sided, ice-carved, greywacke rock; the U-shaped glaciated valleys and the ancient forests below. These were the surfaces I had so often talked about when teaching earth science in the 80s – to see them from above was weird. They had seemed so familiar in our textbook relationship and yet, face to face, their complexity made them majestic and unknowable –strangers.
 

The experience was not unlike nudging up against a minor television celebrity in a Ponsonby cafĂ© – without all the majestic unknowable-ness. You catch their eye – and for a moment you think you know them well… and then, you realise that whilst you have looked at them for months, they have never looked back at you.
 

Thelma was waiting for me at Hokitika Airport – or was it Louise? Either way, we pass the Bechdel Test for a Thelma and Louise Road Trip: The road trip must have at least two women in it; the two women must talk to each other; the road trip conversation must be about something other than a man or men.
 

We threw the luggage and handouts into the back of “Phyllis” the 4WD truck and set off on the Thelma and Louise road trip to Franz Josef (and the conference). We were almost immediately distracted (check a map) by the call of Step 2’s Bargain Corner and Jon’s Relics in the Hokitika township. After much searching and many number 8 wire suggestions from the locals we added to the truck a dented aluminium billycan with “Boys’ Brigade” scratched on the lid, a rusting 1950s Griffin’s biscuit tin and a school desk that the mice had gnawed through.
 

Buoyed by the romanticism of our finds we went looking for a local white baiter. This was less successful and when the girl frying chips at the Hokitika takeaways suggested the local New World, we decided to get back into the truck and hit SHW6 and travel south for Franz Josef.
 

The West Coast Principals’ Conference was fun and packed with new learning. I especially enjoyed hearing the charismatic Hana O’Reagan (Dean of Te Puna Wanaka, Faculty of Maori Studies, CPIT) speak on making a difference for Maori students in school and the equally verve-filled philanthropist Chrissie Fernyhough speak on valuing and learning from the rural sector. Derek Wenmoth had the last speaking slot on day one and focused on ubiquity, personalisation and collaboration through technology. I always like it when Derek Wenmoth references Neil Postman’s Fourth Idea about technological change: “Technological change is not additive it is ecological.” But I do wish he would reference it within the context of Postman’s original thinking in his article on Five Things We Need To Know About Technological Change. For Postman follows the quoted text with this caution for culture and traditional ways of thinking and being.
That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible. That is also why we must be suspicious of capitalists. Capitalists are by definition not only personal risk takers but, more to the point, cultural risk takers. The most creative and daring of them hope to exploit new technologies to the fullest, and do not much care what traditions are overthrown in the process or whether or not a culture is prepared to function without such traditions.
Derek shared his draft thinking on how we should understand the connection between teaching and learning, services and infrastructure. I reckon the bit on teaching and learning – the “Learn Create Share” bit – needs some re-thinking, but the underlying message was important, and one too seldom heard in education. It makes no sense to ask what impact deploying UFB fibre connections to New Zealand schools has (or will have) on learning outcomes.
 

The best question of the West Coast Principals’ Conference came from the sponsor who inadvertently highlighted the importance of this message when he asked:
“How does furniture impact on educational outcomes?”
It was a “when you stare into the eye of a whitebait” type question. Because when you stare into the eye of a whitebait, its protruding lens and fixed-size pupil stares right back at you in a very knowing 360-degree gaze. A “when you stare into the eye of a whitebait” type question is a question that demands/extracts a response.
 

The question jolted the educators present to think about the credibility of some of the questions we currently raise and attempt to answer about the relationship between technology, services and infrastructure, and learning outcomes.
 

It is well answered by John Hattie in his book Visible Learning: “My own view is that, like many structural innovations in education, computers can increase the probability of learning, but there is no necessary relation between having computers, using computers, and learning outcomes.” (Hattie 2009 Visible Learning p211)
Intelligence about local communities gleaned from the local principals meant the return trip on SHW6 from Franz Josef to Hokitika was packed with deviation – it was closer to a lateral arabesque than a road trip and took in the people and places that had escaped us on the way in.
 

Driving through the lurking wilderness and lowland farming communities of Whataroa, Hari Hari and Ross, we stopped for some of Spider’s whitebait in Whataroa and then for whitebait sandwiches at the Pukeko Tearooms & Store, made famous in “Goodbye Pork Pie” in the 80s. We stopped again for free-range, red-shaver eggs and a tour of the hen house from a couple in their 80s who lived on the highway, and again trying to locate a knife maker in Hokitika. Sometimes we stopped for no reason at all and many times when we stopped, we had to put “Phyllis” in reverse or do a u-turn to retreat to what had caught our eye. It was a whimsical and complex journey.
 

At each stop we had “when you stare into the eye of a whitebait” type conversations. We talked, we laughed, we gleaned new sources and shared our contacts; we had conversations that looked right back at you – we made new friends.

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