8 Things to Look for in Today’s Professional Learning (Part 1)

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Over two years ago, I wrote “8 Things To Look for in Today’s Classroom”, and more recently, Sylvia Duckworth created the above visual that has been shared numerous times.  As I am in the process of going deeper into the topic, someone asked me if this is something that we could do in professional development.  As someone who is a big believer in creating experiences for educators where they partake in the types of learning that should happen in the classroom, I thought this suggestion made total sense.

To be honest with you, professional learning in many cases needs an overhaul.  If the best thing that professional learning has to offer is lunch, we need to think different.  But how many educators are really excited about the types of professional learning opportunities that are offered in their school?  Like, “wake-up-in-the-morning-and-can’t-wait-to-get-to-work” excited? What is promising though, is that many schools are moving away from the traditional types of professional learning that weren’t working for staff, and trying some new ideas.

Below, I am going to offer some of my own thoughts, not solutions, to different ways that professional learning can happen in schools and districts.  This is more “thinking openly” for myself than anything, but I wanted to try to go deeper into this process.

So where I thought I would start is taking each one of the elements shared in the “8 Things”, and try to share an idea that focuses on one of the elements specifically, but obviously, each idea can have multiple elements.

Here is each element with the corresponding letters to identify them in each activity.

Voice (V), Choice (C) , Connected Learning (CL), Problem-Finders/Solvers (PFS), Reflection (R) , Self-Assessment (SA), Critical Thinking (CT), Opportunities for Innovation (INNO)

Below is each element, with the rationale on why it is important, and then one or two ideas, either large or small, and not necessarily delivered on a typical professional development day

Voice

Rationale: Sharing ideas with others openly, can lead to what Chris Andersen would refer to as “crowd-accelerated innovation”.  Empowering only a few voices often leads to ideas only from a few people, which does not tap into the ability that we have to flatten our organizations in our world today.  Sharing “voice” openly also helps educators to be more cognizant of their digital footprint.

Idea: Similar to the #EDUin30 initiative, staff could share through video reflections something that they have learned at a professional learning day, or on a monthly basis that could easily be compiled into a Storify document to be shared with the community.  Some people are not comfortable sharing on video, so they could easily share to a hashtag a picture, a blog post, or any other type of media. This really taps into the “wisdom of the room”, and could have a major impact on the culture and community, when we see everyone as a teacher and a learner.

What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day that they did in their classroom to a school hashtag, and they took five minutes out of their day to read each other’s tweets?  What impact would that have on learning and school culture?

Other elements that could be incorporated: Reflection, Connected Learning, Self-Assessment, Critical Thinking


Choice

Rationale: “Owning the learning” helps to ensure that the learning actually happens, yet a lot of professional learning is top down and decided for individuals. A.J. Juliani, in his post “The Struggle to Do Work that Matters”, shared this quote from Simon Sinek.

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Tapping into one’s passions for learning, is more likely going to lead to people not only going deep, but embracing what they have learned, and giving them the opportunity to lead, hopefully developing “intrapreneurs” and innovators within the organization.

Idea: EdCamp has been sweeping the entire world, and is a great way for educators to have ownership of their learning.  Sessions are developed, created, and led, by educators that partake in the event, which lead to rich and deep conversations, because the people in the room are passionate about the topic.  The EdCamp format is something that should happen a lot more in professional learning days with schools.  Many would say that this is not something they have time to do with a limited amount of time for professional learning, but if “learning” is the priority of the school, creating time and opportunities for deep learning should be the norm, not the exception.

Other elements that could be incorporated: Voice, Reflection, Critical Thinking, Opportunities for Innovation, Problem Finders-Solvers

Reflection

Rationale: Reflection is not only powerful for learning, but powerful for personal growth, and should be embedded into all of our professional learning days.  Although collaboration is an important process to growth of an organization, people need time to process ideas and thoughts, and without actually having that time to think, we lose out on many voices.  Also, learning is deeply personal, and without reflection time and having the opportunity to connect your own ideas and personal learning to what is being shared, it is harder to go deep into ideas.

I reflect, therefore I learn.  

This is something that is necessary in our learning environments today.

Idea: One of the practices that I have done at my workshops, is that I will share ideas and some of my thinking, but then give an extended break with reflection time embedded into that time.  I will use something as simple as a “Google Form” to give people an opportunity to process their thoughts, while also tapping into the power of open reflection.  Knowing that your thoughts are going to be open to not only each other, but the entire world, sometimes help people process and think deeper about the ideas that they are about to share.  As Clive Thompson suggests;

“Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.” Why Even the Worst Bloggers are Making Us Smarter

The one element of this that is really important is asking people to not only share their thoughts, but to ask questions moving forward.  Asking questions is often more important to learning than knowing answers because they drive us forward.  As I have said before, school should not be a place where answers go to die, but questions come to life.  Asking questions is imperative in the reflection process.

Other elements that could be incorporated: Voice, Self-Assessment, Critical Thinking, Connected Learning

Problem-Finders/Solvers

Rationale:  Ewan McIntosh has a brilliant Ted Talk discusses the notion of “problem-based learning” and how it is not beneficial to give students problems that aren’t real.  Instead, he focuses on the idea that students need to be “problem finders”; being able to find some tough challenges and then being able to solve those problems. If we are to ask students to find and solve problems in the classroom, it is essential that we put ourselves in situations where we are doing the same in our work.  How often are we put in situations as a staff where we are asked to identify and solve problems as a staff on our pursuit to creating better opportunities for our students? Short answer; not enough.

This visual by Krissy Venosdale should not only be reserved for our students, but everyone involved in education as we are all learners:

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These are all crucial characteristics of the problem finder/solver, and something that we should work to develop at both the individual and organizational level.

Idea: Recently, I wrote a post on the idea of “Inquiry Based Professional Learning”, and tweaked the introduction from Alberta Education on Inquiry Based Learning to reflect the importance of the process for staff;

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others to create real solutions to improve learning and the environment of the classroom(s) and school.  In classrooms a school where teachers administrators emphasize inquiry-based learning, students staff are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage and empower students staff deeply.”

If you read the comments from the post shared by others, you will not only see ideas from schools around the world that are already doing variations of the process, but finding it powerful in their professional learning. By looking at not only challenging the way schools are, but empowering our community to act upon their solutions, this could be a very valuable process in helping our organizations move forward, while modelling the type of learning we want to happen in our classrooms.

Other obvious elements that could be incorporated: Critical Thinking, Voice, Choice, Opportunities for Innovation

Moving Forward

The deeper I go into this topic, the more I realize how important it is to really think about professional learning and how our experiences, shape opportunities for our students. Please feel free to comment and share your ideas/thoughts/questions below.  I will look at the other four elements in the next blog post.

Inquiry Based Professional Learning

What if we created professional learning opportunities that were not only engaging, but also empowered educators in the change process?

“Inquiry Based Learning” is something that I have been spending a lot of time looking into lately, not only from the perspective of how it could be done in the classroom, but for staff professional learning.  I found a great document from Alberta Education on the topic, and although I am not probably saying something new, I was thinking about how if we want schools to do this type of learning with their students, it is more likely to be successful if teachers had the opportunity to participate in this type of professional learning. (If you do “Inquiry Based Learning” in your professional learning, I would love for you to leave a link in the comments.)

Here is the quick introduction on “Inquiry Based Learning” from Alberta Education:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply.”

Let’s modify it for the purpose of this blog post:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others to create real solutions to improve learning and the environment of the classroom(s) and school.  In classrooms a school where teachers administrators emphasize inquiry-based learning, students staff are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage and empower students staff deeply.”

As I thought about the potential for this process, it was not only to have teachers understand deeply the potential of inquiry based learning for students by immersing themselves in the process, but it was also to tap into their knowledge and wisdom to be a part of the change process of a school or system.

This tweet from Andrew Campbell reminded me of how often we don’t listen to the people that are in the system on ways that we can move it forward.

So what could this look like in the context of professional learning?

I was thinking about having an overlying question to guide other questions.  This question would be, “Why do we…?” For example, a question that could be created by a group of staff based on interests is, “Why do we have student awards?”, or “Why do we use report cards as our main assessment tool?”  Not all of the questions necessarily need to start with “why”, but it is mainly to challenge the assumptions that we have about the process of school.  They could also be along the lines of, “Does the process of school impede on deep learning?”  The importance of this process is that we start to look at ideas with fresh eyes, ask questions that we are passionate about, actively research new ideas and solutions, and have staff be crucial in the change process of school.  Change is more likely to happen when we are active contributors to the change process; it is not something that can be done to us. 

As my friend Jesse McLean would say, this goes beyond simply looking at best practice, but it is looking at creating innovative solutions and ideas for what school could look like.  Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant talk about the block that “best practice” can sometimes have on innovation:

“Innovation has an inherent distaste for best practices because it is about new solutions, not copying existing solutions.”

What is imperative in this process is to empower staff, not only by providing time to create this type of work (this could be an example of a 20% time initiative in your school/district), but also that if they are willing to go deep into the research and provide powerful new solutions, looking at how they can be implemented at the school or district level.  If their question that they start with is a “non-negotiable” and something that you will never be able to change, that needs to be communicated up front.  If the group or individual still wants to pursue their question, then at least they know the drawbacks at the beginning.

As I see, there are several benefits to this type of professional learning:

  • Experiencing a powerful learning opportunity as an adult to understand what it could look like in the classroom.  To be a master teacher, you must first be a master learner.
  • Unleashing the innovative potential of the adults in the building and creating an environment where risks are not only encouraged, but time is created to actively take them.
  • Focusing on the importance of research based on passions as an important element of learning.
  • Empowering staff in the creation of improved learning environments and giving them real opportunities to lead in the change process.

This is not meant to be an idea that is taken and implemented as is, but a starting point of something that you could do to transform professional learning and provide autonomy to staff, the research that is necessary for mastery and deep understanding,  while also tapping into the importance of purpose in developing the future of schools.  Three elements (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) that Dan Pink would state are crucial to motivation. This might be something that is risky as an administrator, but if we want to create an environment that staff take risks in their learning, we need to not only encourage it, but more importantly, model the process.

To think different, we need to create  opportunities that immerse ourselves in new experiences that make us act and feel different first.

The Game of School

I have a minor in English yet I never had the interest to write consistently until about five years ago when I started blogging.  What it took for me to really start wanting to write was the opportunity to write about things that I cared about and have the ability to share it with others.  Unfortunately, I never really knew I had the opportunity to do that until after I was done my “education”.

But here is my confession…Although I have a minor in English I have never read a novel from end-to-end.

Gasp!

Here was the problem for me…Fiction has never really been appealing to me in book form.  I love watching movies and hearing a great story, but I much prefer hearing and seeing that story, than reading it.

So how would I get a minor in English when I had no interest in reading fiction, when the majority of the reading that we did in those classes was from novels?  I learned the “game of school” and applied it to my work.  I knew that I could read a bit of the beginning of the novel, part of the middle, and read the end (where I would usually start), and then write an essay to connect these things to my life in somehow or something going on in the world.  This wouldn’t necessarily get me a grade in the 90’s, but I did know I could consistently pull off something in between 70 and 80.  That was all I needed to move onto the next level, and that next level, ended up being my degree in university.

Some people will say to me when I am tell them this that I miss so much because I don’t read novels and it is such a shame.  There is probably some truth to this, but people missed out in school because they didn’t play sports, write for the school newspaper, or act in plays.  We miss out any time we choose not to do something, and unfortunately, it is impossible to do everything.

This wasn’t to say that I didn’t love reading.  I actually love reading and did it all of the time in school.  Anytime I would have a free period, I would go to the library and read the latest Sports Illustrated and even though I would read all of it, I would go directly to the back page and read the article from Rick Reilly.  I loved his sharing of inspirational stories and was saddened when another author took that page.  I also loved reading non-fiction and still do to this day.  True stories are appealing to me, as are books on leadership, teaching, and learning.  Those books still inspire me, yet I don’t know if any of my teachers knew this, cared about it, or had the opportunity to care because of the system that they were working in.  Tapping into what I loved seemed secondary to teaching the curriculum.  It was only until I started exploring my passions that I really felt that I was actually learning.

Don’t get me wrong…There are many things that I learned in school during my time that are beneficial to me today and gave me the tools to learn.  But more of that was from teachers who cared about me as a person, than focused on their teaching.  That is something that will never change.  I have said in the past, that if we only teach students the curriculum we have failed them.  There is so much more to our world than what is written in the static pages of a curriculum.

We need to ask questions and challenge the things that we do that have become so commonplace and “normal” in our everyday.  For example, does a rubrics set up expectations for students or limitations?  Or does having five classes a day in five different subjects make you become more curious or simply exhausted and confused?  Is school getting in the way of learning or enhancing it?

So are our students learning at school, or learning to play the game of the school?  If the system doesn’t serve our students to follow their passions and go deep into learning, then they’ll either leave or learn to play the game. Do we really want either?

“More than better students…better people.”

One of my favourite videos on the power of education, especially in our world today, is the “Speaking Exchange”, which has students from Brazil learning how to speak english from seniors at a retirement home in Chicago. It is a powerful reminder of how we should not only invite “experts” into our schools, but that sharing our expertise with the world also has a tremendous impact on others as well.  I am not only talking about teachers, but students. Their words and actions can make an impact on others if we give them the opportunity.

The words at the end of the video are perfect and encapsulate so much of what I believe about our goals for school.  The video ends with, “More than better students…better people.” Schools need to go beyond and be a part of developing good people alongside our communities to make a difference in our world.  This is paramount.

I was reminded of these words again when I saw this video of the power of team sports and caring for other human beings.  Please take a few minutes to watch, but have some kleenex ready:

This video goes beyond sports and the quote, “We all need someone who knows our mistakes, and loves us anyway” resonated with me deeply.  None of us are perfect but we all deserve to be loved.

I hope you enjoy watching that story as much as I did.

(Thanks to Sarah Garr, here is a version that works in Canada.)

Literacy as “Comprehending and Creating”

In my presentations, I often use a hashtag for people to share their thoughts during the time I am speaking, and also asking them to use my twitter handle (@gcouros) if they have any questions.  This is a great way to be able to keep up with the audience while I speak, and to encourage them to connect with me after if they need help.  Any time I show a video during my presentation, I usually go to the hashtag and see what the audience is sharing, and it gives me an insight into what they are thinking, or what they are challenging.  Sometimes it helps me to decide to re-emphasize a point or clarify something when I am speaking.  This is an incredible opportunity as a speaker to not only work with the audience during the conversation, but also for them to learn from one another.  I really believe that if you are only learning from me when I am speaking, that you are missing a great opportunity.

The one thing that I do mention when I speak is that if you don’t know what a “hashtag” or a “handle” is, in this world today, you are becoming illiterate.  It is a statement that is meant to challenge more than anything, but it does raise some eyebrows.  Some people disagree, and some people adamantly agree, but it is more to push thinking and start conversation than anything.  I do however go on to say that in the room, everyone at one point had no idea how to use the Internet, and then figured it out, as well as email.  These are things that were not the norm in our world, yet they became extremely important in our work.

So what is literacy? The “traditional definition” is the ability to read and write, but you will see that definition is a little different according to some sources.  The definition of literacy has changed over time, and there are many different perspectives on the topic.  In this article on the “Definitions of Literacy”, the author shares some differing perspectives that go beyond simply “reading and writing:

“…we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as ‘computer literacy,’ “civic literacy,’ ‘health literacy,’ and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression.” Dubin and Kuhlman (1992)

Or this thinking from Langer in 1991:

“It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking.”

(Read the entire article…there is lot to think about in what is shared on the “definitions” of literacy.)

When groups say that students are “excelling” at literacy, they often mean reading and writing scores, not necessarily anything beyond.  One of the definitions that has really pushed my thinking is this one from the  National Council of Teachers of English who define 21st century literacies as the following:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

What would our “scores” be in this area for our students and for ourselves?  There are areas that I would be considered “illiterate”, but I do know that I could learn them.  This is crucial to this mindset.

When I think about literacy in the traditional sense of “reading and writing”, I think that we would lose out on a ton in our world if we couldn’t do either.  Yong Zhao once said, “reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling.”  This is a minimum. But the less we know (from anything to coding or hashtags), the more opportunity we lose, and that could lead to more opportunities being lost by our students.

Do we have to know everything in our world today?  Absolutely not.  But we also can’t just dismiss things as “insignificant” because of our lack of knowledge when we know they provide opportunity for others in our world, especially when those “others” are our students.  Literacy is more about the ability to comprehend and create today in many different faces of learning, than it is simply about reading and writing.  As our understanding of literacy develops, so should our understanding and practice of teaching and learning.

Getting Where We Need to Go

Leadership can be tricky.

You have to juggle respecting tradition and research that has been done in the past, while focusing on the people in the building right now (students and staff), and also keeping an eye on the future.  What is often necessary is having an awareness of all three; ignoring the past sometimes loses people in the present, and focusing too much on the future sometimes does the exact same thing.

With what we know now (or at least have the access to knowing now), tells us a lot about the shaping of the schools and the opportunity to constantly look at a shifting pedagogy.  Dean Shareski once said, “the longer we keep up the facade that school is the primary place of learning, the sooner we will become irrelevant”, and there has been no more important time in our world to develop our students as true “lifelong learners”.  Some schools aren’t even close to the “present” right now.  YouTube, probably one of the biggest libraries of information in the world is closed in many schools, or access is only given to teachers.  Where does that leave our students?  Do we develop learners that do not see YouTube as a rich learning resource because of our own concerns and fears?  Of course YouTube has great entertainment value, but it can also be used for powerful learning, but people are not seeing this.  This is not even a focus on the future; this is what our world looks like today.

But what about the future?

There are still schools that are getting to the point of providing WiFi to their students and staff, leaving places like Starbucks as a more accessible learning environment, not only because of Internet access, but because of the different seating arrangements that serve a wide range of learners.  Yet the goal for some schools is to build an infrastructure that supports one device per child, but I am seeing adults in my workshops using two and sometimes three, depending on what they need at that time.  I know money is a part of this, but it is also shifting our thinking.  Do we want to put in a lot of money into providing the bare minimum amount of access (“sorry…YouTube needs to be blocked because of bandwidth issues”), or do we want to be thoughtful and create rich learning experiences that include not only viewing, but creating different forms of media.  If a student best shares their learning through creating a video and posting it on YouTube, shouldn’t schools provide the access to do it?

As I was sitting with principal Brad Gustafson on a panel recently, and he was sharing some of the amazing things that are happening at his school, someone asked him “where do you get the money to do this?”  I was nervous that he was going to share a grant process that may have been only available to people in his state of Minnesota, but he simply said that he shifted money over to a budget line that he created called “innovation”.  He did not add money but simply rethought what the school was doing and adjusted the budget accordingly.  If your textbook budget is eating up a major chunk of your money, what does that tell you?  Could you do something different that provides better learning opportunities for your students?

I recently heard that a principal who is in school that is trying to go paperless decided that when their photocopier went down, it didn’t make sense to get a new one.  If you are trying to go paperless, why is a photocopier an essential need?  I heard this story from a third party and do not know all of the details, but I do know it would take guts because this pushes people in a different direction. Could they still use paper?  Probably, but do they need to spend thousands of dollars on a machine that has traditionally been used for worksheets?

In my own context, we developed a digital portfolio process that can be used for a student’s time in our school, but can also be exported to their own space when they either graduate, leave our schools, or at any time of their choosing.  This gives peace of mind to educators moving forward, yet it also ensure that years of learning shared in one space is not hidden within the school walls.  Can you imagine doing 12 years of work in anything, and when you leave, it is not accessible to others, or even yourself? Our universities and colleges pushinig for digital portfolios? Maybe they aren’t right now, but they will be, and even if by chance they never want to see this, the learning is hopefully invaluable to the student.  This is both focused on the present and the future.

Recently, it was shared that Nova Scotia was going Google Apps across the province for schools, yet some organizations say that this is impossible to do this.  So why on one hand do we have an entire province moving this direction, yet organizations saying that it is not possible? I know that communities and situations are different, but I also know that some places have chosen one direction not because of where they need to go, but are focused on the platforms they (usually IT departments) have been trained in.  If it a good decision for kids (which is what ultimately matters), it shouldn’t matter what you have been trained in, but where you need to go.  Yes, things might be easier for a little while, but where is the accountability to what our students need and are more likely to use?

I understand why teachers use things like “Edmodo” for students (it is a great service from what I have seen), but I have not seen adults en masse create Edmodo groups to connect with one another outside of education.  Are you using this service to provide the training wheels to something else, or is this a “school solution” that is not really focused on what our learners are more likely to use on their own?  I am not saying that it is wrong to use it, but it is important that in education when we create solutions that we do not just think about what is good for today, but what is necessary for tomorrow.

If you go back and answer the question, what is best for kids, what do your answers lead  you to, and what are you doing to get to that place? True learning organizations constantly move and grow, and for this to happen with our students, it has to happen at all levels of leadership.  If we expect our students to learn and grow as individuals, we need to model this at the organizational level.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”  As educators, it is essential that we do not try to think about only today, but ultimately what our work is leading to in the future of our schools and our students.  We need to try and understand where the puck is going to be and get there.

 

Are you focused on the “stuff” or the person?

Here are two approaches to the same thing…

Let’s say you want educators in your school to start reflective and professional blogs.  One way that you could get them to do it, is by really pushing the value of blogging, show them the “why”, talk about the need for it, and put some real pressure on others to move ahead.  You could probably mandate it (which I have seen done with many initiatives that have failed) and have people do it for awhile, but as soon as they can get out of it, many will.  There are many initiatives out there that would be beneficial to our students, and focusing on how we are so behind, rarely ever puts us ahead.

Now a different approach, and one that I am still working on in my growth.  Let’s say you wanted educators to blog, but you didn’t start at that point.  Maybe you go into classrooms, observe things that are happening, and talk about their positive impact on student learning.  Sit down with the teacher, talk about their strengths, and then share the impact that they could have on the rest of the building on other educators, and perhaps sitting down and writing a blog together could be a way that we could share those strengths with others, and make great teaching and learning go viral.

In each scenario, you could have an educator write a blog, but in the first, we are starting from a deficit model (here are the things we can’t do), and the second, is starting from a place of abundance.

As an administrator, it is important that you know the strengths of each member of your team, before you know their weaknesses.  If you can’t find them, maybe you aren’t looking.  If you dig down deeper into each scenario, the first starts with a focus on the outcome (blogging), but the second starts with a focus on the person.  That is leadership.  Stephen Covey made the simple distinction between management and leadership; we manage “things”, we lead people.

Taking time to find the strengths of individuals is not an expenditure, but an investment, that can come in copious amounts of growth.  In most cases, when people know that they are valued, the distance they are willing to go is much further than when we constantly point out weaknesses.

A Higher Chance of Becoming Great? The “Twitter” Factor

I walked into the room and I could tell right away.

This was a teacher I had never met and knew very little about, but the atmosphere in his classroom was great.  As I walked with my colleague, I asked her the question, “Do you think he is on Twitter?”  I wanted her to make an educated guess, and her thoughts were the same as mine; definitely.

How did we know this?

As I walked in, I saw unique seating spaces, posters all over the wall that focused on “taking risks” and encouraging students to think different.  The walls were also covered in information about “Genius Hour” and their recent “Maker Faire”.  At the time, the students were also learning how to play chess with a master player, who also happened to be a grandparent. Notice that there was no technology mentioned above, but just about a different learning environment.  There were multiple, amazing opportunities for learning in this classroom to reach students where they were at, and tap into their strengths and passions.

So when we asked the teacher if they were on Twitter, he mentioned that he was but he didn’t necessarily share that much online.  But it was his access to information that made things look differently in his classroom.  When I asked if he had seen an impact in his classroom from the use of Twitter, he wasn’t sure, but it was a type of “boiling frog” scenario.  The change could have happened so gradually that he did not notice the small steps that could have been made to where he was now.  Just being a “lurker” in that space though, had made a difference.

Now I am not saying that if you are NOT on Twitter, you are ineffective.  There might be several classrooms that look like the one I have briefly described that were designed by a teacher who may not be on Twitter, that receive their information elsewhere.  What I do know is that looked NOTHING like my classroom when I first started teaching, because honestly, I did not have the access to the same information that teachers do now.  Our opportunities have changed and people have taken advantage to benefit themselves, and more importantly, their students.

Isolation is now a choice educators make.  We have access to not only information, but each other. We need to tap into that.

Being on Twitter doesn’t make you a great teacher any more than not being on Twitter makes you ineffective.  There are a lot of great teachers who do some pretty amazing things that do not connect online.

However, I do believe that having that access 24/7 to great ideas through the medium and the connection to other teachers increases your chances on being great.  If you really think about it,  how could it not?

3 Important Shifts in Education

(I really struggled with the title of this post, because I am not really sure if these are “shifts” or just ideas that have evolved that I am paying attention to right now. Also, these ideas are definitely not only connected to education, so take the title with a grain of salt.)

“We’re still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution.” Scott Cook

The above quote resonates with me strongly, because we are currently living in a culture that not only seems to have endless answers, but endless questions, both which are subject to change.  I think of some of the things that we used to talk about in schools, now shifting to something else.  For example, I remember once working with my students talking about the importance of staying anonymous online, and now we have shifted to working with our students to develop a positive digital footprint where they actually can be found.  I often wonder “what’s next?” Our answers now, may shift, and we need to be able to be adaptable to a constantly changing landscape.

In education, I have noticed some trends not necessarily changing, but shifting in thought. In learning, we have to be open to change and take what we know and think about how to move forward.  Curriculum should not be written in ink anymore, but on a google doc.  It seems to only make more sense as we continue to move forward in both school and education.

Here are a few things I have been thinking about that I am seeing shift right now:

1.  “Digital Citizenship” to “Digital Empathy”

I struggled with the heading for this one because it could simply be “Citizenship to Empathy”, but sometimes we have to focus on the impact “digital” has and also realize that empathy is actually an important part of citizenship. We talk to our students about the importance of being good “digital citizens” and putting their best foot forward online, yet in reality, many of us avoided the same mistakes as a youth not because we know better, but the opportunities to share online didn’t exist.  It was not our wisdom that saved us.

Monica Lewinsky’s recent Ted Talk on “The price of shame”,  she states that we have a “compassion deficit, an empathy crisis”.  People make mistakes, young and old, and we have to realize that being a “good citizen” is also being good to each other, even when it is tough.  It is important to talk to our students about the possible mistakes that we can make online, but it is also important to teach understanding and forgiveness.

One of my favourite quotes is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  We have to always remember this.

2.  “Student Voice” to “Student Leadership”

Student voice has always been something that has been valued in our world, but do listen to students to only hear what they say, or do we truly bring them into the conversation and tap into their wisdom for growth in our system?  In a recent TedX from Kate Simonds, she calls on schools to not only listen to students, but to empower them in the change process.  If innovation starts with empathy, who better to tap into  then the people that we are trying to serve in the first place.  The typical thought when the term “student leadership” is about students leading amongst their peers, not necessarily at the system level.  It needs to go further.

Listening to students is not enough; we must bring them into the change process.

3. Growth Mindset to Innovator’s Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on the “growth mindset” has been something embraced in the field of education and has made a major impact on the learning of so many, educators and students alike.  One of the quotes that has really resonated with me is from Thomas Friedman who states, “The world only cares about what you can do with what you know.”  As educators, who now have access to not only all of the information in the world, but to each other, we have a greater opportunity to come up with new and better way of serving our students.  Shifting our thinking and embracing “the innovator’s mindset“, allows us to create better opportunities and serve learners in powerful ways.  Isolation is the enemy of innovation and we have to be willing to tap into one another to create a better today and tomorrow for our students.

Like I said earlier, these are not necessarily movements from one extreme to another and many of these ideas are correlated.  Being a great “citizen” means to be caring and empathetic.  Without listening to student voice, leadership doesn’t happen. An “innovator’s mindset” does not exist without embracing a “growth mindset”.  This is more about taking what we know and pushing forward to think about what is possible.

What are you seeing changing or moving forward in our world today?

Innovation has no age barrier.

Recently, I was blown away by this TedX Talk from Kate Simonds, talking about the importance of tapping into student voice.  Her talk was so simple yet so powerful, and as a speaker, I was so impressed by her talk.

Kate discussed not only celebrating the students that blow you away with incredible projects or inventions, but tapping into all students.  She goes beyond “hearing” their voice, but actually tapping into the wisdom of our students.  She implores the audience to tap into youth who may have a different way of looking into a problem.  She also challenges the audience to really think of what we want from students, and what our system promotes:

“As students we have no say in what we learn, or how we learn it, yet we are expected to absorb it all, take it all in, and be expected to run the world some day.  We are expected to raise our hands to use the restroom, then three months later, be ready to go to college, or have a full time job, support ourselves, and live on our own. It’s not logical.”

Powerful stuff.  Are we listening?  Even if we are, are we doing anything about it?

She also referenced a quote from her teacher that was quite sarcastic, but seemingly true:

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The problems that we currently have in education, were made by the same people now trying to solve them.  She has a very valid point.

Kate’s approach and belief of tapping into students is powerful, and I have seen areas tap into this.  Ontario currently has a “student trustee” on every board in the province, that has a voice in the organization, yet this is one province that I know of, with a minimal percentage of the board represented by a student.  This needs to be expanded.

Way too often, “leadership” taps into a very small amount of people to generate ideas.  The smaller group, the more limited we are in hearing different ideas. Once you decide the group that you listen to, you limit yourself to the ideas from those voices.  This is why it is so important to open up communication and garner those ideas from anywhere.  Innovation best flourishes in a flattened organization.

One of the things that happens in Parkland School Division is that we have a student committee that looks at what is happening in our schools, and encourages them to discuss and share ideas.  Recently, the students were encouraged to take a visual created based on my work to start a conversation with the teachers at their school (shared below).

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If this is their education, it is important that they have the opportunity to discuss it, but also help guide the direction and help come up with new ideas.  I would love to see more schools encourage students to sit on leadership teams, professional learning opportunities, and whatever other opportunities we have so that we can learn from each other.  We often forget to tap into the best resource we have in our schools; our students.

The conference I attended this past week (MACUL in Detroit, Michigan), had a student showcase right outside the main hall.  Students were not only discussing their learning, but were empowered to teach adults as well.  This should be the standard, not the exception.

I am proud to say that in my TedX Talk a couple of years ago, I wanted to tap into “our voice”, which was not limited to educators, but was really about also empowering the voice of our students.  Kate reminds me deeply why this is important.

Whether you are 5, 50, or 100, you can have a great ideas, and we need to recognize that we are lucky enough to have curious and creative minds in education at all ages.

Innovation has no age barrier.

(Please take time to watch the TedX Talk below from Kate Simonds. Share it, discuss it with your staff and watch it with your students.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others on this brilliant talk.)