Questioning the purpose and function of schools and systems is an ongoing pressure point for me and is founded in my Foucauldian inspired adolescent exploration of governmentality. The dichotomy of rigid curriculum and testing versus the emerging essential employability skills of collaboration, flexible thinking and empathy challenge the systems and approaches we are comfortable and familiar with in schools.
In the past I have been fortunate as a teacher to embrace different approaches, taking risks and challenging the status quo with freedom. When I was first afforded the responsibility of establishing a learning environment for young adolescents with learning disabilities, I didn’t hesitate to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective not bound by previous experiences (I had none) nor templates (there wasn’t one in the school). This granted, with the incredible support of the school leadership, the opportunity to create learning that was personalised and authentic for the young people and staff, and not contrived or bound by curriculum or structures. This meant that in my first year, students utilised a range of technologies and had dynamic learning experiences including, but not limited to; blogging, passion projects, Identity Days, international collaborative projects, thematic units, authentic work placements and personalised reporting based on skill development and growth against individual learning goals. Not the traditional industrial model of education that is the state of affairs in similar settings, but a modern and responsive learning environment.
Since that time I have been fortunate/challenged to move into a range of leadership roles across the school with responsibility for a spectrum of key areas. This year has seen my responsibilities include oversight of whole school curriculum.
It may be reasonable to suppose that the greater the perceived power in regards to a leadership role, the more influence you would impart on the innovation of curriculum design. Furthermore, that approaches modelled would evolve and amplify with the expansion of innovative approaches and perspectives. Unfortunately, this does not occur organically and just like every young person, each adult is on a personal learning journey with their own prior knowledge, preconceptions and experiences that either curb or drive their openness to new approaches and willingness to take risks and challenge their own conventions.
I am continually reminded that my own zealous approaches to learning new educational approaches and my areas of foci are not necessarily shared by others. This is not to say that many are not equally if not more devoted to the exploration of their educational priorities, it just means that our approaches are informed by different influences. This is by no means a negative, it just relies on greater self-awareness on my behalf when I approach the leadership of curriculum design, trying to ensure a shared purpose and understanding.
Over the past two days, I facilitated the screening of the educational documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The film is a commentary on reimagining the American Education system with a particular focus on one model, San Diego school, High Tech High. Whole staff participated along with a handful of middle school students and were provoked by virtue of the film to consider what sort of learning environment is most likely to “succeed” in the 21st century.
It became apparent from the reflections shared that some had previously grappled with many of the ideas and provocations in the documentary whilst for others, the ideas were unfamiliar and even confronting. Most staff felt inspired and invigorated by the possibilities and models presented in the film, however, for a few, it left them feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. The challenge moving forward is how to foster the inspiration to develop different approaches to our current curriculum design and ensure staff who were overwhelmed are nurtured and supported to feel empowered.
The critical takeaway in regards to my current role from the models presented in the film is to have teachers see themselves as powerful designers of learning, not hampered by ticking content boxes, but instead supported to facilitate deep and meaningful learning opportunities with students.
If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. See below for the trailer and this review by Vander Ark is a fair synopsis.
Whilst there were a range of important themes throughout the film, the most significant for me was ‘doing what’s best for kids’. Coach Carter (Samuel L Jackson) choosing to “lockout” his players from any basketball until they met the agreed grades and expectations. Despite incredible pressure and volatility from parents and the Richmond High School community, Coach Carter sticks to his convictions with the bigger picture in mind.
This is the exact challenge that we are faced with as educators today. Imagine if each of us took a stand for the future of our students, did not bow to the pressures of structures, politics, timetables, content demands and even student resistance and actually chose to push for the bigger picture and imagined what could be. If you agree with me that 20th century education and paradigms are not best for 21st century learners, then our challenge is to foster the importance of lifelong learning over the immediate gratification of grades. To break the learners focus on being measured and ATARs and instead have them choose learning and personal challenge over being defined by their final numbers.
I am excited by some of the initiatives coming out of Universities now, where they are honouring students who choose challenge over subjects that will gain them the best ATAR (hat tip Flinders University). Especially exciting for girls choosing mathematics, physics and other STEM opportunities. Even greater reason for us to be forging ahead, reimagining the learning to foster ownership and agency with relevant and meaningful work which sees us (teachers and students) as creators, problem solvers, mentors, and instructors grappling with problems bigger than ourselves.
“We need to teach students two things:
1.HOW TO LEAD
2.HOW TO SOLVE INTERESTING PROBLEMS
Because the fact is, there are plenty of countries on earth where there are people willing to be obedient and work harder for less money than us. So we can not out-obedience the competition. Therefore, we have to out-lead or out-solve the other people… who want whatever is scarce. The way to teach your kids to solve interesting problems… is to give them interesting problems to solve. And then, don’t criticize them when they fail because kids aren’t stupid, if they get in trouble every time they try to solve an interesting problem, they’ll just go back to getting an ‘A’ by memorizing what’s in the textbook”. — Seth Godin
This week I have watched the ACEC conference twitter stream from the sideline with more interest than any other with several students from my school attending as part of a Digital Leaders group. A great opportunity to listen to presentations, tweet thoughts and questions and interact with teachers and keynotes.
They have done a brilliant job of pushing ideas and reflecting genuine student voice and have also been excited by the various learning opportunities showcased at the event.
20%PROJECTS: Donating 20% of your time to solving a problem relevant to you. Can turn into something big; next best thing #ACEC2014
— ACECDigitalLeaders (@ACECDLs) October 3, 2014
After hearing about this idea over 2 years ago, I developed Passion Project time in my own teaching and had our faculty run the projects with students over a term. This year as part of a different team we have implemented this concept into a “Big Idea” project with our entire year 8 cohort.
The concept remains the same, students can work independently or in groups on a project of their choice. There are expectations to develop a proposal and present/share findings or experiences upon completion.
Whilst I treasure and value these opportunities for students, I also wonder: how long can we keep adding this into our week as an extra though? How can we justify to students that this learning is different to their classroom learning? How much does that devalue what they are doing in each subject?
“Ok in this ‘special’ time you can learn about things that interest you and are meaningful to you, in any way you like, but the rest of the time, it’s just stuff you have to do!”
My argument here is not that we ditch these projects. I found it was a great stepping stone in my own experiences of supporting students to complete very different projects but on a similar time frame. I have learnt a great deal in this time including how to scaffold and lead discoveries and push students to ask and develop their own questions.
I am suggesting that instead of keeping these projects or times separate from our everyday school experiences, it should just be part of our everyday learning in classes. Why can’t kids be involved in ‘real’ and meaningful learning experiences in all their subjects?
Instead of adding another subject/lesson into the timetable, shouldn’t we be looking at what is already happening in classes and working on how we can make that more meaningful?
Shouldn’t this kind of learning be more like 80% not 20%?