ULearn Keynote: Dame Anne Salmond

Keynote Three: Knowledge is a Blessing on your Mind  

Those who didn’t have to rush away to catch a plane were privileged to hear eminent historian, writer and academic, and current New Zealander of the year,  Dame Anne Salmond as the final keynote at the ULearn13 conference. For me there couldn’t have been a more fitting climax to the conference.

Dame Anne’s message brought the perspective I’d been hoping for – a well articulated case for why we must be striving to see change in our education system if we’re to prepare our young people for the future they face – and deserve.

Dame Anne expertly combined personal stories, historical perspectives and elements of contemporary philosophy to describe possible futures in New Zealand, and the idea of education as a journey. She quoted her personal mentor Eruera Stirling  who once told her that thinking of learning as a journey "helps your footsteps to find the right pathway."  

Here teachers give their students the confidence and skills to navigate towards new horizons. Teachers stand at the nexus between our children and their future. No pressure here, just a challenge for us all as educators to consider what really drives what we do – the 'why' question again.

Dame Anne repeatedly asserted that every child is a Taonga. Our children are our guarantors of our future happiness and prosperity. She illustrated how in pre-European Māori tradition, children were afforded a special place in everything that occurred on the marae. They were not separated from the world of the adults, and so their learning was in the context of the everyday affairs of the marae and its people.

She contrasted this with the influences on our current Western society, citing the great chain of being that has left us with a legacy of hierarchical, top down structures and processes in almost every fact of our society. This approach, so ingrained in our thinking and behavior, can be seen in everything from the structure of our corporations and governments.

She also referred to The Order of Things, that has given us gridded models (think Linneus, calendars, spreadsheets), as a means for organizing ourselves, our lives and our society. This gridded pattern is deeply ingrained in how we have constructed schools – both as physical entities and in terms of the patterns of organization that exist within them (think timetables, subjects, exams etc.)

For me this was of particular significance, as I am immersed currently in thinking about modern learning environments and how these might be conceived of and developed. Dame Anne’s address has been helpful in understanding from an anthropological and socio-cultural perspective the tensions that exist in our discourse and behavior that cause us so often to retreat to what is known and familiar (the order of things) rather than take risks and explore the more open, connected and heterarchical approaches that will ensure our future – and the future of our children, our taonga.   

If there's one thing I've taken from this conference it is the re-kindled determination to more consciously resist the traditional, hierarchical 'chains of command' that exist in our workplaces, our schools, our classrooms, and activley support alternative approaches. These are anathema to the state we should be endeavouring to create, and everyone who succumbs to this way of thinking becomes a block to progress being made. 

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