Redesigning Teaching and Learning: Individual or Systemwide Effort?
Student engagement, project-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching and learning, inclusion, STEM, blended learning, online learning, writing across the curriculum, authentic learning and assessment, team teaching...all these goals and movements within education can become catchwords or overused phrases. Before the fall momentum takes over, there are opportunities to enter a deeper conversations about what we have chosen as priorities and why. Those conversations span the organization.
A system-wide advantage can be developed when the initiatives and priorities of each building or department is shared with all. With the student experience at the center, strength is generated when all the adults creating learning environments for students have a shared understanding of meaning and of the choices made. If we are to commit ourselves to always improving student learning and achievement, a continuous spiraling upward of application with the same operating knowledge is a better guarantee of success than when spotty understanding ferments and questions and cynicism ferment.
Take critical thinking as an example. Do all teachers and those who coach, observe and evaluate them have a shared understanding of what that means and what it looks like? Defining and describing it, coming to agreement about when and where it belongs in each class and each grade opens the opportunity for reflection, revelation, and redesigning, all with the student experience at the center. Imagine an experience where critical thinking was expected once a quarter, or every hour depending upon the teacher and the class. Imagine an experience where critical thinking was expected after 5th grade or only in social studies. Unimaginable, right?
What holds educators back from diving deeper and bringing together a coalition of understanding? Or, what prevents continued growth when a deeper and shared understanding is achieved and a plan is in place? Do any of us think we can really "arrive" as students and technology keep changing? Holding questions, in and of itself, sometimes brings an insight that isn't your own or was in your blind spot. Here's one.
Each teacher has to be individually observed and offered feedback on their individual journey toward the agreed upon objective. This seems to be true of all improvement thinking. A belief exists that if we are to improve teaching and learning, it can only be done one teacher at a time. This is a subtle form of silo thinking. There are important advantages to individual discussions, coaching and feedback, without a doubt. But if we are to engage students, shift into 21st century teaching and learning models, and growing as teaching and learning environments, all benefit from an inviting and motivating, engaging process and sometimes it can happen collectively.
Are We Agreeing to the Same Thing?
First, the definition becomes a shared one. Any faculty member or leader can be asked to define (for this example) critical thinking and will explain what it looks like at different levels in different classes and grades, and the answer will reveal similar properties. This is not achieved in a one-step process or in one way information delivery. It involves conversations, reflection, expertise, courage to speak up and speak out, and a safe environment for truthful conversations to take place. This is neither one faculty meeting nor one Google-Doc event. Things are always changing, a new faculty member joins or a central faculty member leaves.
Schools are dynamic and changing environments but, somehow, belief systems and practices hold tightly. It is these belief systems and practices that might need some challenging. In what ways is our plan or decision centered on the welfare of the students? In what ways do we share a common belief about our practice? Is there agreement about what it looks like in action? How can we best monitor the use of this practice?
Monitoring and Follow-Up
What follows, even in the most progressive environments, is monitoring and follow-up. With critical thinking, for example, where the same attributes may exist but appear differently in different subjects and levels, there can be an advantage to collecting data across the building or district. During brief classroom visits, sometimes called "walk-throughs" observers collect data on agreed upon definitions and what critical thinking opportunities look like. It can be what is said. It can be what is done. And it can be both. But there is no intention to identify the class or teacher. Then, over time, and with more than one person doing the observing, the data is gathered and trends are noted. This becomes an empowering and engaging process as the data is shared across the organization.
Since the first step was to come to agreement about the purpose and definition, what it looks like, and the joint effort is will be, teachers and leaders are invited to reflect on the trends and where they do or do not fit in. The opportunity exists to see where one fits into the trend. Teachers and leaders alike will be able to share their own views about the data and what it means to them, their students and the school and district.
The invitation to become a reflective practitioner within a system that has an established shared goal is an empowering one. To step away from seeing oneself as needing improvement to seeing oneself as a contributor to the improvement of the students' experience is a system-wide advantage. It pulls attention toward the organization and the student experience within it. It opens minds and hopefully hearts and helps to bring down the walls between teachers, subjects, and grade levels. Who wouldn't want that?