A Joining of Hands: Looking Back at 2018, a Year of Collaboration and Connection
By Amanda Avallone, content manager at Next Generation Learning Challenges
Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean. —Ryūnosuke Satoro
Embracing interdependency has been one of the most significant areas of growth for me as an educator over the years. Whenever I look back at my early days in the classroom, I shake my head with incredulous wonder at my ignorance. How did I ever imagine that teaching was a solo effort, something that I did for my students in the tiny island of my classroom?
Now, to be fair to my younger self, I must acknowledge that traditional schooling models actively encouraged this kind of fragmented thinking. Divisions like those between subject areas, grade levels, and academic "tracks," as well as the nearly impenetrable walls between school, home, and the wider community made for a pretty disjointed student experience. Think "tidy" and "manageable" for adults, rather than "transformational" for learners.
Today, preparing students for success in a changing world requires a much broader and deeper approach to learning: one that is holistic, authentic, learner-centered, and equitable. The work is hard. It's messy. It takes time to do it right. Most of all, it cannot be done in isolation.
This edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning revisits many of the stories from this past year through the lens of connectedness and collaboration. Taken together, these pieces celebrate the ways educators in the Next Generation Learning Challenges network are forging relationships between:
Students and adults as co-designers of learning
Schools and the wider community as partners for equity and student success
Fellow educators as sources of ideas, inspiration, and support
Partners by Design
The primacy of the connection between teacher and student is hardly a new idea. Since the days when Socrates taught Plato and Xenophon in the Athenian marketplace, educators have worked to build strong relationships with the young people in their charge. However, what is new is the character of those relationships. Ancient notions of the learned master imparting wisdom to his disciple are giving way to more equal partnerships between educators and learners as co-designers of learning. Furthermore, this collaborative approach is not limited to designing the learner's own pathway—more and more, it includes working together to transform schools and the nature of learning itself.
Two stories from 2018 examined this new role of students as partners in school and learning design. The first highlighted the work of learning design teams from Massachusetts who participated in a School Design Institute hosted by the NGLC initiative Mass IDEAS. At the SDI, participants' mindsets and action plans recast students as users and co-creators of learning—partners who could help facilitate the redesign process, as well as the execution.
The second story, written by NGLC program officer Tony Siddall, featured the role of student voices in presenting design challenges for educators at a convening of the Assessment for Learning Project. With quotations, photographs, and recordings from interviews with students, the Voices of ALP installation conveyed how students experience various assessment practices. Understanding the student perspective then prompted the adults in the room to imagine what assessment for learning might look like.
Educators who take the long view of student learning often speak of young people as apprentice adults. Rather than focusing exclusively on short-term goals like grade-level benchmarks and test scores, they design learning inspired by a fuller definition of success with the goal of preparing learners for life.
One way that educators in the NGLC network support students for lifelong success is by making their schools more porous, building bridges over the moats that have traditionally separated "the world of school" from the "real world." This time last year, for example, NGLC featured the work of three learning communities doing just that. In the two-part series "It Takes a Village," we highlighted how Vista Unified Schools' Talent Cities program in Vista, Calif., introduces middle school students to potential careers through workplace site visits, strengths-based career exploration, and industry-sponsored design challenges.
We also explored the ways two school systems—Da Vinci Schools in El Segundo, Calif., and St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colo.—are leveraging strong community partnerships with higher education and the local business community to provide powerful, authentic learning to students while they are still in school. Through experiences like internships and real-world projects, learners connect with the wider world, discover their talents and interests, and chart their own pathways through postsecondary learning and careers.
In a similar vein, our story about Butler Tech Bioscience Center in Butler County, Ohio, illustrated how far Career Technical Education (CTE) has come from the vo-tech models of the past. Through hands-on laboratory work, internships, and industry certifications, Butler Tech's reimagined CTE model better matches the knowledge and skills learners need in the high-demand careers of today and the future. Moreover, its personalized, blended learning approach aligns with what we now understand about how students learn best.
Although New Orleans' YouthForce NOLA is not a school system itself, this collaborative of civic, business, and education organizations partners with schools in the New Orleans area. By equipping students with the capabilities and mindsets for success, along with industry knowledge, YouthForce NOLA addresses systemic inequities and supports that historically excluded youths to achieve their goals for career and life.
Networks for Adult Learning
A common thread through all of the stories above is the goal of building learners' social capital, which was the focus of another story from this past year. In addition to preparing young people for college and careers, organizations that have embraced next gen learning recognize the key roles played by supportive others in people's lives. By helping learners build relationships, they promote young people's personal well-being and provide access to resources outside the self.
No matter how old we are, we never outgrow our need for a supportive network. Again and again, members of the NGLC community point to the value of connecting with like-minded colleagues. They tell us that the journey to transform learning is an adventure into largely uncharted territory—it helps to have fellow travelers to turn to for support and inspiration, as well as for advice and resources.
By visiting a variety of innovative school models during Learning Excursions, for example, educators can gain a sense of what is possible and what powerful, student-centered learning can look like in practice.
In our story about communities of practice, Tony Siddall explained how virtual gatherings can provide a platform for sharing ideas, resources, and solutions to common challenges with far-flung peers. In addition, unlike traditional forms of adult professional learning, robust communities of practice promote deep conversations in which ideas can collide and inspire new thinking and innovative solutions.
A third story from 2018 about networks for educator learning focused on the Transforming Learning Collaborative, a partnership founded by NGLC, Da Vinci Schools, and Schools That Can. Combining in-person and virtual events, the TLC is dedicated to relationship-building, personalization, and authentic educator-to-educator professional learning. In other words, its adult professional learning model "walks the talk" and mirrors the powerful experiences next gen learning aspires to for our students.
Photos, from top:
All hands to the work. (Courtesy of Thrive Public Schools)
As part of the Voices of ALP installation experience, participants responded—via sticky notes—to podcasts of learners talking about how they experience assessment. (Courtesy of Amanda P. Avallone)
A New Orleans high school student gives one of the Skilled Craft professions a try at a Career Expo hosted by YouthForce NOLA and Junior Achievement. (Courtesy of YouthForce NOLA)