Over the Christmas break, I spent a great deal of time reading, listening and watching a wide range of media. I have consumed more than I should have in relation to US politics, plus research and discussion on climate change and current environmental concerns. I live by the philosophy of know better, do better so this culminated in a range of actions and lifestyle changes including choosing to eliminate meat and dairy from my diet, establishing a worm farm to reduce wastage and a range ethical shopping changes. Several realisations ensued, in particular, how hard it is to determine the ingredients or origin of many products that I would normally purchase with the assumption they are locally sourced. My growing understanding was also supported by healthy debate and the need to justify my actions to a range of friends and family. Some were quick to raise stereotypical vegan memes whilst others acknowledged they could probably make some better choices themselves. My learning was self-driven, in my own time, at my own pace and to be honest, when I was most open to acknowledging these issues and I had space and time to respond.
Until widespread access to the internet, there was a ceiling on learning, limited to the expertise of the teacher, whether that be formal settings such as the classroom or the parent-child relationship. Now that ceiling is broken and we are inundated with information. Our greatest challenge will be to create environments where our students can design their own interesting questions to answer, not teach them answers to questions that already exist. Creating learning that is active as opposed to passive about issues they actually care about or create their own responses to issues that don’t have straightforward solutions. We should endeavour to construct space and time for them to delve into issues that are meaningful to them and then provide the time to enact responses and changes themselves, whether personal or within their community.
Opportunities are endless, but our time is limited, so what we value most will take precedent. My goal this year, is to question these priorities on an ongoing basis. To keep in check, that what time is being used, and the choices I make about other people’s time, whether they be staff or students, is used to address the most important priorities.
2015 went by so fast and I expect that 2016 will be equally as busy (more likely busier). With taking on new challenges and responsibilities, I found there were a few things that I value that I neglected which have become critical to my personal growth and wellbeing. This year I hope to be better!
One personal attribute that I value is that of my curiosity and willingness to try anything at least once. This has opened so many doors for me because I don’t shy away from opportunities. Essential to this process of curiosity and exploration is time to reflect. When I don’t deliberately commit time and space to think, reflect, review and explore, I limit my capacity to see potential opportunities or create new experiences.
Something that has always resonated, in regards to being creative, is something that author Michael Morpurgo said in an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson back in 2012. When asked what advice he would give to young writers, he encouraged living an interesting life; keeping your eyes, ears and heart open, reading (a lot) and going to interesting places and experiencing interesting events. I think critical to this is being able to take time to reflect on these experiences whether they be professional or personal, exploring what impact they may have or what it was indeed that made them good, bad or other.
In reading Innovators Mindset by George Couros, he identifies “Time for Reflection” as a critical to any innovative learning environment. He quotes John Dewey “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience”. There is nothing to disagree with here, deeper learning requires time to consolidate our understandings and develop connections to our prior learning. How often we are deliberate about ensuring time for this to occur, whether that be in the classroom or beyond, will surely impact on the nature of the learning and any opportunity for improvement or innovation.
So this year I hope to be more deliberate about creating time to reflect; for myself, for my peers and for students.
There are a range of different representations of the concept of innovation in schools. It’s a word that I don’t particularly like to use, in fact when my school was looking to name its new collaborative open learning space I strongly contended for the word “innovative” not to be included in the label.
Buzz words fly around business and education continually as we reevaluate what it means to develop successful organisations. This is even more true now as change accelerates with modern technology and access to a global learning and business community. Just recently my son’s school rolled out their new promotional campaign of being “Future Proof” claiming the aim is “teaching children at all ages to be happy, resilient, adaptable and inquisitive, … future-proofing its students, to be the leaders of tomorrow.”
The Edtechteam promote the “Future Ready Schools” initiative, claiming that “Future Ready means having a comprehensive approach to the technology integration”. Furthermore they claim “Being Future Ready is a mindset, not a destination… In order for students to have agency, learning should take places in inspiring spaces where teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions.”
I think we spend a lot of time generating labels and linguistics to represent modern learning and modern spaces and by the time they are adopted, things have changed once again. It’s no wonder schools and teachers become overwhelmed and even despondent as new ideals are continuously rolled out.
So where am I going with all this? Well for me it’s trying to make sense of how I can be part of a leadership team that supports and develops continual and sustainable change in a school without it feeling like an entire makeover every year. How can we develop an emerging culture that embraces disruption as an ongoing response to making choices about what is best for kids in the now, which could ultimately mean rapid change in some respects in short periods of time. A definite challenge, but ultimately what choice do we have if our ambition is to do what is right for kids?
I have acknowledged before that ideas are not original and it’s a no brainer that we need to consume, whether that be watch, read or listen to make sense of ideas, thoughts or to develop more questions.
Consumption is certainly not new to schools, reading text has been an elemental part of learning since compulsion arose in the late 19th century. What we need to consider now, is how young people are consuming information today and how we can tap into this consumption. Video and visual media are increasingly the modes by which we access information. How can we as teachers utilise these formats more? Are we teaching our students to note take effectively, to research responsibly, to annotate or to listen and identify key ideas as essential parts of accessing these modes?
Once our students have consumed, do we get them to create? What does this creation look like? Is it still written? Are we allowing them to demonstrate their emerging understanding in different ways? Do we encourage them to express their ideas on the basis of developing thoughts, rather than concluding answers? Can they record, build, animate or film these ideas?
Do we provide opportunity to curate these ideas? Do we allow students to organise and connect their collection of thoughts, so they can make links and deepen their understanding? Do we ensure they have a way of organising their work and recording it so they can look back a refer to their developing works and see how they build upon each other? How can digital records support the “tagging” and “categorising” of this learning?
How are we making this learning purposeful by providing an audience? Are we allowing them to connect? Do we give them a platform, physical or virtual where they can share their creations and seek feedback on their emerging ideas? So often we finalise the learning by creating a product (essay/presentation/performance), but is that where the learning ends? How can we facilitate the power of the crowd to suggest, to comment and to review works for ongoing improvement and allow our students to respond to these?
Just some things currently on my mind and conscious to be working towards being better at!
When I introduced the concept of Passion Projects to our team, I described it as an opportunity for our students to learn and explore ANYTHING they wanted. This may have been a little intimidating, as I was immediately fielding questions of how we could possibly support our students to learn completely different concepts and showcase them in completely different ways. Most of our students need significant support to complete anything out of routine (we work with students with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities) so these questions were fair and justified.
Fortunately I work with extremely passionate staff, but most fortunately they are willing to hear me out and give things a go.
One of the plans we set in place was to group our students with an adult mentor based on the category of their interest. This was very successful and meant we could support our students on their passion of choice and they could learn from each other as they worked to problem solve and manage their projects.
Reflecting on this process has me wondering why we wouldn’t facilitate the same opportunities for staff.
What if at the beginning of the year, we;
1. asked “what is it that you want to learn?”
2. grouped people into PLCs regardless of their experience/faculty/position but based on their learning interest and
3. allowed them time to support each other and direct their own learning
I wonder then if the word “Professional Development” would continue to be a dirty word?
“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
This is a quote that I have read, heard and seen adapted many times in presentations, on twitter and in blogs. I really don’t think there would be anyone who seriously believes that our world is not changing, or that the workforce our students enter will be identical to our own experiences. I don’t believe resistance to change is due to a disbelief, or denial that our world is changing. What I do believe is that many teachers are purely a product of the education system they are now a part of. Learning was remembering facts and equations and completing pages of questions or cloze writing.
Probably rarely encouraged to question or challenge an idea or concept in school, for many of us, it was probably not until University where we were asked for an opinion of our own or an opportunity to reflect upon our own learning. Many are more comfortable with delivering a prescriptive curriculum than being designers of curriculum. Just as our students are more comfortable doing the same because they know it has been successful in the past.
So how can we expect our teachers to be learners if they have never learned to learn?
We need to foster a culture where questions are inherent in the development process. By encouraging questions and encouraging being questioned as a leader, we can show that there is not one decisive best way to educate all students, to run a program or to implement a process. Through continually questioning what we are doing and why we are doing it, we can model to develop better ways.
Not knowing the answers is the first step towards taking a risk and if we are to prepare for tomorrow, today must be approached with openness and willingness to be critical (not critisisors) of ourselves and of each other.
The extent to which we can now be connected brings to the forefront the question of how we learn. This is true for both teachers and students.
If someone were to ask me about my own learning and how much of it is formal and how much is informal, I would have to suggest that in the past 2 and a half years I have spent more time utilising informal learning opportunities. Driven by a need to know, a desire to try or inspired by great examples accessed online, my informal learning is supported by a growing digital community, a developing circle of influence and a passion for pushing towards innovation.
This is also true for our students! They have learning accessible 24/7. Our kids are “connected and dangerous”. Dangerous in the sense that if we don’t utilise this access to the world, we will find ourselves and schools defunct! If we don’t make kinship between their learning outside of school and that in school, we will have further disengagement.
What if our kids could choose where, when and from whom they learn? How many would we lose?
This morning I participated in a Google Hangout as part of #SAVMP (School Admin Virtual Mentor Program). I am very fortunate to be grouped with mentor Jimmy Casas (thanks @gcouros) and with great education professionals Jenna Shaw, Dana Corr, Kevin Graham and Jen Lindaman. (If you’re not already following these passionate educators on twitter, you should be!)
This mornings hangout had Jimmy, Jenna, Dana and I spending an hour together getting to know where we are at in terms of our own leadership journeys.
It was evident from the initial introductions that we come from diverse school environments and have a range of experiences. Nevertheless it was also obvious that each of these dedicated educators will have a great deal to contribute to my learning.
Of course any opportunity and coming together of people is only as valuable as what you are prepared to invest. After today’s chat, I am confident that there is a definite commitment to this little PLC and it already has me reflecting.
During the chat, Jimmy made two comments that really struck a chord with me. It wouldn’t matter where in the world your school was, how many kids enrolled or the demographic nature of the school, it just makes good sense!
1. always following up, is key to building relationships
2. never make excuses for not acting – take responsibility of how you can be the change
I have always felt strongly about both these concepts, but it often isn’t until you are “in” conversation or listening to someone else’s take on an idea that you truly “get” how you can do it better.
Listening to Jimmy speak about how he ensures relationships are strengthened even after difficult conversations was one of these moments.
I have always tried to ensure I do this with people I lead, however what about the people that lead me? Can we say as leaders we have no influence because our line manager, our principal, our cluster, our region, or our education department has a different agenda? Where does our voice die out? Should we still not be following through after we make an observation or address a concern and not leave it at that? Where does fighting for what we believe in stop and how does it leave the relationship if the last thing said was not resolved?
Lots to think about before we meet again.
How do you go about creating innovative practices in your schools?
How do you know if they are making a difference?
How are they revisited to ensure that they have the same impact that they once had before?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of a team to establish a faculty all shiny and new. Not only was this a fresh beginning as a new faculty but I was also new to the school, thus not entirely compromised or pressured by previous practices, history or approaches.
I was adamant that we would not create a carbon copy, but base all our decisions on what is best for our kids and their learning. That might mean that some of our choices reflect that of other schools, but would not be because of other schools. I had only been working in the area of disability for a year prior so had again, not been influenced by traditional practices, approaches or expectations for how this new environment should run.
No limitations, no deficit model in sight!
Working with students with disabilities comes with many assumptions. Misconceptions about students “abilities” to be problem solvers or to manage technology. Attitudes towards “wasting” time, effort and money on students with little to contribute to the community and ignorance to the expertise and skills required to support these young people to access opportunities despite their personal challenges and the limitations from these external forces.
If you enter our learning spaces you will quickly see that our students are negotiating their learning, problem solving and manipulating a wide range of technology to enhance their development. Our space is innovative, not because we have 1:1 iPads, interactive whiteboards and laptops, but because we approach learning as a constantly evolving practice, always trying to find ways to improve both the teaching and the learning.
I develop innovative practices, by constant reflection and asking these questions:
- Is it authentic?
- Is it student driven?
- Is it improving student understanding and skills?
- How can we do it better or replace it with something better?
I think these questions are valid for all learning practices and environments, do you?
What other questions would support the development of innovative teaching and learning?
As a teacher, in fact as a parent, friend even human being, I would like to think that I have encouraged and supported people around me to celebrate their unique stories, talents and traits. I think this has seen me choose particular paths and pursue certain passions over my lifetime. Special education is just an avenue for me to celebrate some of the amazing and unique differences of many young people I am fortunate to learn alongside and support.
In one of my current roles at my school I have been working to promote relationships at the centre of classroom learning. I have been encouraging staff to build connections with their students, to give of themselves and to see how these connections benefit our students.
Initially I admit, I found it a little absurd that teachers would need to be encouraged to build and see relationships as central, because I was never “taught” this, nor was it something that I had to specifically identify as an important component of my own teaching practice, it was just something I did. Throughout my teaching time I have begun to understand how crucial my family and personal relationships have been in developing who I am as a teacher and how I perceive learning. I have written several times how my mother has impacted on my approach and I honestly think that most people who have relationships at the centre have had someone in their lives who have modelled this exact thing.
When I saw IDENTITY DAY promoted by George Couros and the things that students and staff were sharing about themselves in his division and beyond, I knew this was something I wanted available to my students and staff. So this term I set ourselves this challenge and last Friday we celebrated our first Identity Day.
I am very fortunate to have a group of staff to work with whom are flexible and willing to try new things and each of them developed a great display to share. There was a wide range of interests and talents displayed by our students and each “owned” their projects to different degrees.
Like anything attempted for the first time, there were some teething problems and our reflections since have meant our next edition will be more refined. Throughout the preparation we noticed that the conversations our students were engaged in (with peers and teachers) about the impact people or events, pets or talents have had were the most profound learning times. We will continue to develop how we can incorporate these ideas into the final presentation, as articulating this in a product can often be difficult for many of our students without significant support.
I am extremely excited anticipating our next Identity Day project knowing that we have the opportunity to further develop what we have learnt from our first and ensuring it is a genuine reflection of their growth and individuality.
Thanks to the great many examples and sharing from students and educators around the world.
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