Monthly Archives: April 2013

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From a Competitive Contest to a Collaborative Learning Experience

Jeremy Rifkin is a best-selling author and one of the most popular social thinkers of our time.  In his book: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis he presents a picture of our current civilization and questions the future if, in fact, citizens of the world do not become more empathic.

Here is his challenge: “The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the earth?”

As he explores that question he looks at the role education is currently playing and could play in the future related to contributing to a more empathic world.

He writes: “New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative learning experience are emerging as schools attempt to catch up to a generation that is grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting and learning in open social networks where they share information rather than hoard it.

Those educational innovations are helping to nurture a more mature empathic sensibility. The traditional assumption that ‘knowledge is power’ and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.

Early evaluations of student performance in the few places where the new empathic approach to education has been implemented show a marked improvement in mindfulness, communication skills, and critical thinking as youngsters become more introspective, emotionally attuned, and cognitively adept at comprehending and responding intelligently and compassionately to others.”*

As an educator and as a citizen of the world, I see a great need for collaboration. From my point of view, citizens of the world will need to listen to and understand each other as we embrace the challenges of the future.  We will need to think together.

*The quotes taken from Jeremy Rifkin’s book can be found on pages 3 and 15

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Leading for Powerful Learning

The quotes below are from a book titled: Leading for Powerful Learning: A Guide for Instructional Leaders by Angela Breidenstein, Kevin Fahey, Carl Glickman and Frances Hensley (2012) from Teachers College Press.  This is a good book for any and all formal and informal school leaders who 1) want to be part of schools that makes big differences for learners and 2) are willing to embrace the learning that is ahead for them as an adult.

Learning about practice often gets pushed aside by parent phone calls, paperwork that needs to be filled out, tomorrow’s lesson plans, or field trip planning. For lots of very good reasons, sustaining adult learning is not a focus and many schools. Moreover, adults in schools often do not necessarily have the knowledge, or opportunity to build such learning-focused professional communities. Teacher learning just doesn’t happen on its own. It takes leadership. Page four

The leadership that it takes to encourage more learning about practice can be either formal or informal. Certainly principals and superintendents need to be instructional leaders who work tirelessly to create the conditions that support teachers examining, reflecting on, in improving their practice. Moreover, less formal leaders – department heads, curriculum coaches, mentors, and teachers themselves – play an essential role in this work  Successful schools understand that the direct improvement of teaching and the learning in every classroom comes in via a constellation who undertake a myriad of activities and initiatives that have one goal: improving teaching and learning.  Page four

Schools are full of hardworking, intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated individuals who are devoted to improving their professional practice for the benefit of their students.  Districts typically support educator learning by sending teachers and principals to conferences, offering in service professional development days, encouraging teachers to pursue graduate study, and a host of other mechanisms. So what’s the problem? (Many would argue) that it is not just individuals that need to learn, but the schools and districts also need to learn.

Unless a school can learn, the knowledge, insight, and good judgment of each teacher will remain in that teacher’s classroom. Even if groups of teachers can learn at high levels, their learning will be confined to their team or department. The school itself needs to learn.

If organizations – and schools and school districts in particular – do not learn, they cannot improve. Page eight

Supporting all this learning is a critical and complicated leadership task.  Schools –and individuals, departments, groups, and teams that are found in them – require different learning at different times. Moreover, considerable literature suggests that a school’s capacity for learning is very much connected to its capacity for improvement and for increasing student learning. Page nine

Supporting self-authoring learning in schools makes even more demands on leadership practice Self-authoring learners are willing to take the biggest risks, tackle the most difficult questions, and challenge themselves and others the most.  To support this learning, to not only understand how collaborative, reflective groups are built, but also take the risks to be a self-authoring learner herself – in a public and transparent way. It seems unlikely that teachers will take the risk to be self-authoring learners and tackle the most difficult and troubling issues and lust leaders are also willing to do this. Leaders model self-authoring of learning by asking difficult questions, by presenting this confirming data, And by exposing and exploring their fundamental assumptions in public. Page eleven

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REFLECTIVE, COLLABORATIVE DIALOGUE AND ACTION AROUND EFFECTIVE TEACHING AND LEARNING

If we care about the education of today’s youth it behooves us to take adult learning seriously. We adults can learn our way into the future or we can hold onto the status quo in our classrooms/schools or we can defer to the massive network of sales people promoting a multitude of educational products.   I have faith in the people that went into a career of service as educators. My faith is based on my observation that educators are motivated to the future by serving today’s youth. Yet, today’s educators often hold tight to the status quo and their leaders have fallen into the trap of purchasing curriculum materials as the way to meet student’s learning needs. Neither the status quo nor products are going to lead to dramatically more students learning at significantly high levels.

There is a way to use the same positive energy that motivated people to become educators and focused that energy on reflective, collaborative dialogue and action around effective teaching and learning.  This will require new learning on the part of many an educator.

It will require intentionality for the adults to learn, change and grow in ways that focus on effectively and demonstratively serving many more students at high levels. These adults will need to let go of efforts that don’t work and maximize efforts that do work. To discover what works means to be focused on process, relationships, presentation and very clearly on outcomes.   And not just the outcomes of narrow test scores.  Instead we will need to identify appropriate and useful knowledge, dispositional and behavioral outcomes that show the progress and development of our students.

The past and the present can inform our movement into the future, yet instead of moving forward; we often find that we are invested in maintaining the past.   Figuring out why we, as a profession, are so slow to adapt and change can become an activity of ‘looking back’ when we need to be ‘looking forward’ to maximize the learning that can come from the resources invested in our learning system.  So, as important as the ‘why’ might be – now is the time to focus on the future.

There is information from many sources pointing us in a very clear direction. The information is calling on each of us, whether we are teachers, principals, superintendents, board members or community members get much better at working collaboratively – we have much we can learn about the power of working together.   We now have a “substantial professional knowledge base that highlights a strong connection between student and adult learning.  Student learning increases in schools were there are educator communities that are reflective, collaborative, and focused on issues of teaching and learning.  When adults learn from one another, student learning increases.  Adult learning makes a difference.” Carl Glickman and others report this in their book: Leading for Powerful Learning: A Guide for Instructional Leaders which was published by Teachers College Press in 2012 (page 3).

On the same page they write that: “The literature suggests that the adult learning in schools is best supported when teachers, principals, and superintendents regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues about improving their practice.”

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By making these statements the authors are referencing the work of many educational researchers and writers including: Bryk, Donaldson, Leithwood, Stroll, Guskey, Johnson, Kegan and many others from their varied works which were published between 1995 and 2010.

And as I write in The Power of the Social Brain: Teaching, Learning and Interdependent Thinking (Teachers Collage Press, 2013 page xi): “When people are good at thinking together, good things happen.  There is a great need for adults to become more intentional and successful as interdependent thinkers and catalysts for helping students and others to gain these skills.”

When many adults are working together to discover ways to serve student learning we will find the audacity to break away from nonproductive elements of the status quo and we will know to not be influenced by the sales and promotional departments for commercial curriculum materials.

What does it mean to get better at thinking together?

Most of us would likely agree that it is pretty easy to think with people who hold a similar set of thoughts that we hold. Yet, truly thinking with others means thinking with those who might look at things very differently from you.

When you effectively engage with others who think differently than you, you can learn a lot. To do this – to engage – means you will listen and probe with the intent of increasing your understanding of beliefs or points of view different from your own.

When you engage with this kind of sincerity, it is wise to be ready to potentially experience a sense of disequilibrium.

Disequilibrium is a potentially productive platform for learning.  Obviously, not the kind of imbalance that is shattering.  More, the kind of creative disequilibrium that pushes us to ponder our own current thinking and consider changes in our thinking.  From this kind of experience – new thinking may develop.

And, if the person who shared their thinking with you is willing to listen to and probe your thinking – and go through the same reflective process – then each of you may benefit from new emergent thinking.

As you face the challenges of today and the future – intentionally thinking with others who think differently from you is a good thing.

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