Unfinished Business

Recently, the journals I kept during my practicum experiences as an emerging teacher surfaced from a dusty box.  As I spent time scanning through the hand-written observations, reflections, lesson plans and stories of successes and failures, I began a journey down memory lane through the past almost 30 years.  This opportunity gave me pause as I considered how much I have shifted in my thinking about pedagogy.    As well, it gave me a wonderful sense of how much our world has changed since those years.

The children I taught then, in grades 1, 2 and 4, would now be in their 30’s and early 40’s.  They are adults in today’s world.  Yet nowhere in my thinking of the time did I consider the world into which they would emerge as adults.  Computers in the classroom weren’t a consideration, never mind the internet and ubiquitous access to an array of technologies.  The pedagogy of the day was teacher-centered.  My successes were noted by my mentor teachers in how well the class was managed and how lessons were delivered, not by student success.  In the day, I think I approached teaching from an egocentric perspective; if my lessons were delivered well, and the children didn’t do well, it was their problem; not necessarily mine to solve.  Children’s work was produced for me, and they were not asked to contribute to something important; something that makes a difference and enriches other people beyond the classroom.

This brings me to a book edited by Richard Elmore, “I Used to Think…and Now I Think.”  The book contains essays written by educational leaders (including Elmore) who are describing their shifts in thinking and what they have learned through years of dedicated study, research and practice.  Elmore frames the book as an important professional dialogue.  “My fellow contributors and I hope to model, in a small way, what professional discourse might look like if professionals were expected to learn over the course of a career,” Elmore writes. “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little visible evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”  We can also refer to the work of Ron Berger, CEO of the Expeditionary Learning Network.  He speaks not only to the importance of making learning visible, but also ensuring that learning is public.

I could probably write a book with several volumes on what I have learned in the course of my career.  Most people probably could, if we were being honest and open with each other.  For today, I will focus on summaries of four “shifts” I have made in my thinking and that deeply influence my work today.  I believe that these shifts are necessary in order for us to adequately prepare emerging adults for the complexities of a world we could never imagine.  I also recognize that there were many similar shifts over the past 30 years, bringing me to where I am in my thinking today.  I offer these thoughts as part of a professional dialogue hoping that readers are, perhaps, sparked in your own thinking and contribution to the collection of our combined journey.

  1. From a view of Adults As Learning Leaders to An Understanding of Students as Learning Leaders

Educators have spoken about student-centered learning for many years.  In the best of circumstances, we have interpreted this to mean that adults lead learning experiences for learners, based on feedback from learners through behavior and assessment of and for learning.  In the least of circumstances, this means that the teacher imparts knowledge that learners are expected to master.

Our rhetoric continues to name adults as Learning Leaders (a common term for designated leadership roles in many educational institutions.).  We continue to refer to principals as “leaders of learning” in their schools, and we continue to advertise for senior leaders who will be Directors of Learning and  “visionary leaders of learning.”  We continue to envision adults as the interpreters of what must be learned.

I have learned that we need to reframe and rename our roles as educators.  In fact, it is the student (child, youth or adult) who leads their own learning and it is incumbent upon us to facilitate their leadership.  We need to listen carefully to what students are asking as they engage in challenging and purposeful learning experiences.  Students lead their way and educators help them overcome the barriers.  I have learned that we need to reimagine what our role as educators will be and frame ourselves in this new paradigm.  I am not sure we are far off in our intent, but the importance of the language we use to define our roles cannot be understated if we are to truly see a shift in our practice.

Michael Fullan writes that we need to see teaching shift from a focus on required content, to “…focusing on the learning process, developing students’ ability to lead their own learning and to do things with their learning.”  I think we understand this – but I am not convinced we truly believe it and live it.

We also know that there is tremendous merit in ensuring learners have opportunity to pursue things that matter to them, and through which they may possibly make a difference.  The momentum that is gained when learners engage in personal, real world challenges is remarkable.  Educators must make better sense of how to enable learners and help them over the threshold to new knowledge that matters.

  1. From An Emphasis on 21st Century Skills and Competencies to An Emphasis on Global Sustainability and Citizenship – Changing Skillsets Required to Emerge As Adults With the Ability to Participate Fully In Efforts Toward Global Sustainability

In my recollection we have spent the last 20 years talking about 21st Century Skills and Competencies.  We have invested millions of dollars in professional development to define 21st Century skills.  We have framed our profession with the requirement of preparing students for the 21st Century.  I have learned it’s time to move on.  We’ve been in the 21st Century for 15 years.  These skills and competencies should be common-place and the norm in learning environments throughout the Province.  And, they should be central to our curriculum – a notion I will discuss in a later point.

If we haven’t already, it is time to think carefully about the world in which our students will emerge as adults.  Our reality is that as political, economic, technological and environmental shifts occur residents of the earth will be relied upon to work together in a global community to share resources and provide pathways of sustainability for our resources and our population.  This reality will change the way citizens pursue their livelihood; and, people will need to be able to be flexible and nimble in order to shift the way we interact with and rely upon each other.  Technology is welcoming people into world conversations, who may never have participated before and we are seeing third world countries participate meaningfully as contributors, due to the access of nearly free internet.  We are seeing important changes in who participates in decisions that impact us, and how they participate.  Our students will need to gain the skills and competencies not only to survive these shifts, but to contribute to them.

I have learned we have to be watching our youngest learners, and positioning ourselves to meet their changing needs. We know now who our gradates will be in 2026.  Are we prepared to adjust our systems, resources and processes to meet the needs of this generation of learners as they grow and mature?  Just as individuals need to be flexible and nimble, organizations need to be flexible and nimble.  Strategic planning needs to evolve from hierarchical, rigid structures to malleable, evolving ideas that roll flexibly.  We need to become fluid organizations, with well-honed habits of observation, critical analysis and the ability to motivate and accept change.

We do not have the time to spend years developing new curriculum, especially if it is rooted in content.  It is outdated from the moment of conception.  Skilled educators will be able to watch students lead the way, and become engaged in the journey with students.  Curriculum will be developed by students who are encouraged to frame real-world challenges, and seek solutions collaboratively both locally and in their global communities.  Learning organizations need to be responsive and nimble if this is to occur, and prepared to welcome unproven innovation and design.  Furthermore, we need to believe that even our youngest learners can contribute rich knowledge if given the chance.

  1. From a Focus On Bringing Effective Practice to Scale to A Focus on Bringing Effective Learning Environments to Scale

For far too long a teacher’s skill has been measured by how well we plan lessons, execute a lesson, and manage a group of students.  Professional development has focussed on these categories and teaching has been considered an “action word” or a verb.

Perhaps we should consider teach as a noun; a name we give to the dynamic relationship between a teacher and a student in the presence of content.   Richard Elmore calls this the “instructional core.”  Students who are deeply engaged in task lead the way and the teacher helps the learner map the path, finding ways around barriers and helping the student access the resources needed to solve a complex problem.

When you think about it, it is silly to think a practice that has been successful for some learners will be successful for all learners.  We should be able to go into every learning environment in this Province, and see evidence of common standards for an effective learning environment; evidence of collaboration, engagement in real-world questions, rigorous challenge, and so forth.  How the facilitators of learning establish these environments would vary according to context. This is a celebration of the expertise, skill and creativity our staff bring to this work.  If we are serious about facilitating learning experiences with our students, we need to free teachers up to do that, by removing rigid parameters that, in an archaic sense, signal their success.  Learning organizations need to signal that teachers will be supported as they join learners on journeys through the unknown.

We need to be asking if our schools and learning environments are giving students the opportunity to do “good work.”  Gardner speaks about the engagement of learners in efforts that are excellent and ethical and that have meaning.  Further, we need to challenge the notion that schools are the only valid places for student learning AND that teachers are the only means through which our students can access the expertise they need to engage thoroughly in their learning.

  1. From a Focus on Content as Curriculum, to a Focus on Skills and Competencies as Curriculum

In a compelling blog published in March, 2012, Grant Wiggins ponders whether “Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong.”  He says, “A revealing shift in the winds has in fact occurred in our era in professional education.  In medicine, engineering, business, and law courses are no longer built backward from content.  They are built backward from key performances and problems in the fields.  Problem-based learning and the case method not only challenge the conventional paradigm but suggest that K-12 education is increasingly out of touch with genuine trends for the better in education…this idea of designing backward from the ability to use content well for worthy present and future purposes has lurked under the surface or in pockets of the medieval paradigm that still dominates curriculum for centuries.”

The emphasis in our schools can no longer be on whether a student has mastered content.  Student success needs to measure whether they can work collaboratively, seek knowledge from many sources, share learning in many ways, and become engaged in rigorous and challenging, complex real-world issues.  Our communities are telling us, and educators agree, that Citizenship, Imagination and Creativity, Resilience and the ability to be successful in life choices, work and further learning are more important than content mastery.  Yet, in the Province of British Columbia, recent drafts of new curriculum remain rooted in content.  This means that indicators of success will continue to be based in content mastery rather than in the development of skills and competencies.  As educators, we need to challenge this, and stand strongly in support of deeper reform.  Completion requirements need to shift, and students need to be given the right of learning with purpose, and demonstrating their learning in many ways.

For years I have maintained that if students are engaged in purposeful learning, they will do well on the required exams, even if the exams are content-based.  Now I think we need to be more assertive in our expectation that if we are really raising our children and youth to thrive in our future, we can no longer “play the game” with measures that are archaic and highly influenced by what we knew in the 19 century.  Educational transformation will not be successful if we keep measuring and celebrating “improvement” with our current metrics.

Conclusion

For me, these shifts are drivers of change.  They provide a forward-thinking momentum and challenge our status quo.  For me they will evolve and I will continue to shift.  No doubt others came long ago to the conclusions I have contemplated in this blog.  However their voice has been too quiet; we don’t see enough of us who are willing to share our thinking in visible and public ways.

Indeed, our business will never be finished.  Thank goodness – because I love it!

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One Response to Unfinished Business

  1. Ron Sherman says:

    Reblogged this on Ronswithscissors's Blog and commented:
    Here’s a blog from our Superintendent, describing 4 shifts in our District.

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