Monday, November 1, 2010

The importance of sharing

Over the last few months I have learned more and more about the value of a Professional Learning Community (PLC)- i.e. collaborating, brainstorming, and teasing out ideas with others in one's field.  Technology makes it so easy to confer with others near and far.  With so many ideas and so many experiences to share, these PLCs become transformative for those who participate. Even more, we can help others in our own institutions in the transformation by sharing what we are learning. I have always loved the concept of "each one, teach one"- teach another what you have learned yourself.

While becoming exposed to the tremendous value of these PLCs I have been troubled to hear of the selfishness of others. Many teachers do not share ideas, lessons, and activities with their own colleagues. In fact, they hold them tight as if to preserve them in some special vault. Perhaps this is out of fear or a sense of self-preservation. When I remarked to a colleague that I was shocked to hear that teachers do this, I was told that some fear that they may lose their jobs if their standardized test results are lower than the other teachers in their grade. I thought this was a symptom of a tragedy in public schools but learned just this morning that this goes on in independent schools as well. What is their fear?

What kind of world are we in when teachers fear sharing great ideas? What kind of educational system have we created when the idea of collaboration is rejected out of self-preservation? As one teacher noted, "we teach the children the importance of sharing" but, we're afraid to do it ourselves. What are we modelling?

Monday, October 11, 2010

What is learning?

As I was teaching about the road to Revolution last week, I asked if there could be too much liberty.  The discussion bounced around for awhile and then I thought we should test out the concept. Can there be too much liberty? There were only about four minutes left in class but I thought we could try.  I told the students that they could do whatever they wanted to do. They looked at me oddly. Two students walked out but left their books and other items.One student packed all of her things and left. The others milled about and kept wondering if I was serious. They would look at me and ask what they should do. I simply repeated that they could do whatever they wanted.  Even when the bell rang those who remained were not sure what to do. The concept of being given the permission to have complete liberty threw them for a loop.

The next time we met for class I asked the students to respond to and process the experiment. Some admitted that they were confused. They thought I was trying to trap them. Those who left admitted that they strayed no further than the hallway just outside our classroom door.  One student said she was annoyed because she had a point that she wanted to make and once I set everyone "free", she couldn't have the floor. No one wanted to listen.  Then there were a few "aha" sounds. Several mentioned that complete liberty creates chaos and nothing gets accomplished.  This was what I hoped they would learn from the exercise. But, there was more. One student responded that she never left the room and remained in her seat because she "wanted to learn something."  When she finished her thought I asked, "Wasn't learning taking place?"

Students often expect that there are fixed parameters for what constitutes a learning situation. As teachers, we must challenge those parameters. Learning has many faces. Creating situations that provide unusual avenues for learning help prepare students for the unexpected that they will meet down the road.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Who has the opportunity to innovate?

Over the last week I have been working through the early stages of discovery through the "Powerful Learning Practice" program ( I am overwhelmed and electrified all at once. While being introduced to many tools that one can use on the internet, I have been exposed to so many people who are thinking deeply about the future of education. There are those who enjoy the latest gadget and can't wait until the next "iWhatever" is available. At the same time, I am so impressed with the depth and breadth of discussions concerning the applications of these technologies for truly meaningful education. Don't get me wrong. I love gadgets. As a teacher, however, I want to be sure that the technology that I use in the classroom is helping students to learn, analyze, and enjoy their studies.

I feel blessed to work in independent education where there is so much opportunity to create, innovate, and explore.  Two members of my family work in the public school systems in two different states and I am the product of public schools. When I share what I am learning about these innovative practices with my teacher family members, they look discouraged. Their opportunity to apply these practices in their own settings is met with bureaucratic walls. While some principals are more open to innovation than others, the bureaucracy is such a challenge. This bureaucracy stems from decisions made in individual school to the county, the state, and the federal government.  I see and hear about all of the testing that takes place to "prove" what students know. When will these administrators open their eyes to the vast changes that are taking place in education? Whether it's "No Child Left Behind" or "Race to the Top", I have to question the merits of these tests as educational tools.   Are students learning to grow as students or preparing to pass tests?

I would love to see those making decisions for public school curricula and tests open the doors to the powerful learning that can come in ways that cannot always be measured on a standardized test. Do we want drones or decision makers as our future leaders? In fact, do we want those following the leaders to be drones? A community grows when members can discuss, debate and decide thoughtfully and collaboratively. Students must have the tools to do this. A bubble sheet won't do it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

First Thoughts

A few weeks ago I saw a title for a workshop that asked "How many people would appear if faculty meetings were voluntary?"  When I asked the members of my department that question they immediately replied, "none!" To me, the heart of the workshop title was about making meetings useful, meaningful, and interesting.  If faculty meetings seem universally disliked, how are we doing with our classes? What if we asked, "How many students would appear if classes were voluntary?" Would the answer be more positive than it is for faculty meetings?

I never want to stop learning. How do I inspire that in my students? How do I keep my courses relevant, interesting, informative, and useful?  How do I cultivate a desire to come to class to learn? How do I cultivate learning within my classroom?  These questions keep me fresh. They help me learn more not only about my content but about the manner in which education is facilitated.  For many years, education was delivered.  I have always wanted my students to be producers of their education, not simply consumers of it.

This new era of technology and the read/write possibilities can offer new methods for facilitating and producing learning.  It should be clear by now that I love questions. In part, for students to become active producers of their education they must learn to develop effective questions. It is easy to find an abundance of information on the web.  What we need to help our students learn is how to craft questions which will help them burrow through mounds of information and then to determine which information is useful, accurate, and effective in answering their questions. These questions should help them write more authentic responses than simply trying to fill spaces with responses to vague themes.

So, this is my quest with 21st century learning. How can we help students develop questions and navigate through the information. I hope, then, that they will say, "yes, I would come to class even if I wasn't required to do so."