Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Connect to Learn: It’s More than One Day

On Monday, 800 or so educators got together to learn.  We started the day with five extraordinary BC educational leaders who shared their insights for 20 minutes each (“ed talks”).  Kieran Egan, SFU professor and author began at the beginning – quite literally – with early man and our toolkits for making sense of the world.  Chris Kennedy, SD45 superintendent, shared his thinking about our latest tools from the digital world.  Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, faculty members at VIU and co-leaders of the Network of Inquiry and Innovation asked us key questions for engagement and made us promise to ask them (my favourite:  ask your students if they can name two adults in your school who believe they will be a success in life – if they can’t, you have a simple strategy to quickly and effectively improve their learning).  Nanaimo’s own Gary Anaka, shared some key strategies for using the learner’s best tool:  the brain.  Participants then chose one of the four keynotes for an in-depth presentation on the topic.  After lunch, there was a selection of extraordinary sessions, most developed by our own teachers to share their passionate inquiry and thinking on teaching and learning on our focus themes (co-created at our Imagine day as ideas that matter to us) of technology, building community, teaching to diversity, strategies that work, inquiry, engagement and assessment for learning.  (See our Twitter archive of the conference.)

Notes on the morning keynotes by @drea_laj
The day went off without a hitch (well, no big hitches at any rate), because of the amazing, mostly invisible, behind-the-scenes efforts of the PD team.  Jan Thorsen, the PD committee and the NDTA office staff worked many long hours planning, organizing, setting up and trying to ensure that members’ needs for engaging and meaningful professional development were met.  At the venue, Ted, Joel, Linda and a team of student helpers worked tirelessly to ensure that the day went smoothly.  And it did!

And while I loved every minute of the presentations I attended (I wished I could have attended all of them!) and was very appreciative of the effective organization, the best part was simply seeing the space filled with passionate, curious, thoughtful, learningful colleagues and all the conversations I had between things.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the content of our PD is less important than the process.  These events rarely tell us something new.  The best events, surely, connect with, challenge, deepen, extend, add to the work we are already doing.  What’s best about them isn’t what we learn while we’re there, but the conversations sparked that continue after the conference and the connections inspired that stick to create new learning partnership.  After all, the learning that matters most happens when we dig in to apply the ideas, even when we’re busy, and try to add, refine, adjust, expand, extend our practice to serve our students.  That’s when the continuing conversations grounded in our common experience and the partnerships forged matter most – so we can keep at the hard work of deep learning long after our day together.

I am so grateful to the presenters who inspired our further learning, to the organizers who made the day happen and to the educators who continue to act daily to make a difference for our children.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pondering the PD Flip

Last week I attended a conference sponsored by SFU’s Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy (CSELP).  The topic:  Targeting technology for maximum student benefit.  Three educational leaders – Chris Kennedy, Brian Kuhn and Kris Magnusson - shared their ideas about how “learning empowered by technology” (a key driver of the BC Education Plan) can best be achieved.  What technology should be given priority?  How should limited funding be used?

They agreed that they wouldn’t even talk about what was obvious:  the essential infrastructure of a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).

Many districts (certainly my own) are struggling to get this “obvious” piece in place.  Part of the problem is related to what Kris Magnusson noted:  “Our most pressing need is not a technology shift, but a culture shift.”  We can’t see outside of how things have always been done.  Consider this conference.  We all sat crammed into a room craning our necks to see to the front of the room where the three speakers delivered their message and we diligently wrote notes – or felt very “21st century-ish” and tweeted our thoughts for all the world rather than just whispering them to our neighbours.  (You can peruse these 140 character ruminations – all 850 of them. As a teacher, you would wonder, of course, were the students paying attention as they tweeted so prolifically?)

During the final panel discussion at the end of a long day of sitting and listening, we sat and listened to the three speakers have a conversation with each other, sparked by questions from moderator Bruce Beairsto.  Chris Kennedy dropped a hard question into the discussion – how could we have done this day differently?  Would it have been better if we had “flipped” the conference so that the presentations were pre-recorded and attendees could view them prior to attending, so we could use the face-to-face time to build on the ideas?

There was a pause in the panel discussion and a small buzz of conversation from the rather languid audience who had begun to catch up on emails.  No, said, Kris Magnusson.  People would have been too busy, too interrupted, if left on their own, to focus on the presentations.  (Of course, this is a doubly important reason why flipped classrooms won’t work, but we continue to tout them as revolutionary.  Read Ira Socol’s argument for rejecting the flip.)  What’s more, someone said, perhaps Brian, the conversations wouldn’t work without some relationship and a context for working together.  And then the panel changed directions.

I wish they’d continued on this point.  The point, I think, is this:  unless we can figure out how to learn differently, how can we frame different learning in classrooms?  How can we use technology to transform education, if, as educational leaders, we can only imagine using it to do what we’ve always done? Part of our reluctance to reimagine professional development might be related to another point that Chris Kennedy made:  many teachers become teachers (and professors become professors and especially speakers become speakers) because they like to be “on the stage,” and in control of the message. He suggested that if people knew ahead of time that they would merely be a “guide on the side,” they might not have become teachers at all.   Here, of course, is the culture shift.  What I learned from making this shift in my own teaching practice is that being a guide is often a little, well, boring.   I became a fetcher, a finder, a sometimes facilitator, an observer, a noticer, a connector.  My role became increasingly passive as the student’s role became increasingly active. As a professional development leader, I’m learning the same lesson – and it’s just as hard.
(And I’m just as slow at learning it.)

And so I thought further about how we could have done the day better.  Consider this:  we don’t travel at great expense (including the time expense) to meet in one place.  Instead the event could be a live webcast.  The twitter backchannel would allow us to have input and connect with other districts and, better, we could set up a moderated twitter chat at the end of each speech - a question generated from the talk could be posed for everyone to collect, gather and tweet our thoughts and add further questions.  Then at our separate venues we could engage in meaningful focused contextualized conversations about what we heard to consider how we might use the information to grow our own plans.  As it was, although we had a team of people attending, it was almost impossible to hear each other in the din of conversations between speakers, and our table included people from other districts and from SFU, so the conversation was necessarily general.  It isn’t that it’s a bad thing to have this general discourse; it’s that we have to learn so much so quickly that the thrust of the day needed to be how we can use these ideas for our own forward movement. We needed, in a word, to personalize the experience.  We have the technology to find creative ways to make this possible.  All we have to do now is to understand that it is the right next step for learning together.

But that next step is only possible if we consider the other barrier to flipped PD mentioned by the panel:  relationships are necessary for meaningful conversations.  This is not just a barrier in multi-district events, but in our own district and even our schools. As Roland Barth says, “although conversations have the capacity to promote reflection, to create and exchange craft knowledge, and to help improve the organization, schools deal more in meetings - in talking at and being talked at.”  This method is, of course, very efficient and sensible if you already have the solution, If you are just delivering information, if there is no ambiguity or questions or broader possibilities, if you are not seeking something new, but just want to roll out the old way of doing things.  Conversations demand a culture shift and are intregral to that shift.  To reimagine education, to use technology to do what we’ve never done before, we need to figure out how to have messy, uncomfortable conversations that acknowledge that no one of us has the answer, that value our diversity, and honour each contribution to build new understandings, rather than simply vying for our favourite “right way” that everyone has to “buy into.”  And another hard part (I’m learning a lot about this) is learning how to self-organize, to design our own learning, to create experiences that matter to us and support our next learning steps.  When you try to set up classrooms for students to be active participants, they’ll often say – can’t you just tell us what to do and give us a worksheet?  As adults, we, too, wish to wait for someone to organize the learning, give us the handouts and binders – although we’ll complain later, of course, that it didn’t meet our needs.

We live in exciting times.  But if we are going to target technology for maximum student benefit, our first job will be to learn how to learn together in new ways.  After a day listening to educational leaders (and I’m not complaining about the day, only pondering; it was thought-provoking and invited hard questions and open discussions rather than “the way” to “do” technology in schools), one thing, though, is crystal clear:  there is a lot to learn.

Chris Kennedy’s slides and notes
Brian Kuhn’s slides

image from Marc Wathieu’s photostream

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Research on Gamification from Katie Salen, Charles Leadbeater and Grade 3 students.

Gamification is one of the new buzz words and very “hot” in marketing – from points, to badges, to levels, to leaderboards to challenges, games engage the new players in today’s markets.  Games are increasingly being used to solve societal problems from health care issues to traffic safety.  In Sweden, after implementing a game where cameras captured and rewarded drivers who were keeping to the speed limit, there was a 22% reduction in driver speed after the first week of implementation.  At the Institute of Play, researchers are partnering with schools to redesign education through game play.  Games, Director Katie Salen says, "are designed as a place to be successful.  Students don’t necessarily think that school is meant to do this."

Imagine a place designed for success.  And designed for the most vulnerable students to find success.  Charles Leadbeater looked at schools in the most impoverished locations of Brazil, Africa and India to discover how educators in these places designed schools for success.  His discovery:  they look nothing like school as we know it.  Imagine, he says, “an education system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted, or started from a game, not from a lesson, or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.”

Recently I met with our own local researchers – grade 3 students who were using iPads in their classroom for six weeks.  Their findings?  Games help you learn.  Let’s do more of it!