Creating a Professional learning Community to Understand Understanding
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
― John Lennon
. . . knowledge one has acquired without sufficient structure to tie it together is knowledge that is likely to be forgotten. An unconnected set of facts has a pitiably short half-life in memory.
― Jerome Bruner
Teachers arrive early to their classrooms to prepare for another day of instruction. They make copies and prepare materials for student use. Objectives, instructions, bell ringers, and daily vocabulary are all carefully written onto classroom boards in deliberate ways to establish routines and jump start activity in the classroom. Each small task that a teacher completes while preparing for the day should work in conjunction to create the most efficient and optimal learning experience. In addition, teachers must plan a continuum of lessons in a content area that work towards developing student understanding of core concepts within a discipline. They must choose experiences and activities that will enable student learning that can later be transferred to a performance of this learning in a different situation or context. Considerable research combined with a knowledge of the content is necessary to be successful in both creating the educational experiences and the optimal environment for students to develop an understanding of core, content-based concepts. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe make an important distinction about learning: “To know which fact to use when requires more than another fact. It requires understanding—insight into essentials, purpose, audience, strategy, and tactics. Drill and direct instruction can develop discrete skills and facts into automaticity (knowing “by heart”), but they cannot make us truly able.
It is critical for teachers to understand what is meant by understanding. If understanding is what enables students to transfer what they learn to new and different situations and contexts, then simply planning a series of unrelated lessons that focus on memorizing facts and learning isolated skills will not be enough. Understanding, understanding will require time to study the meaning, discuss interpretations, and analyze examples of what student understanding looks like.
With all the competing, often overlapping allotment of time blocks used to compress all the teaching that must be done to meet perceived responsibilities, most teachers would say that they simply do not have the time to accomplish a competent study of the meaning of understanding as it applies to learning in their classroom. One glance at the jam packed schedules suggest that any chance at conducting consistent, ongoing professional development is a lost cause. Even the preplanned time set aside for professional learning is often subdivided into short segments of disconnected, superficial presentations that schools are obligated to present due to system wide initiatives. The symptoms described above are indicative of a deep seated, procedure oriented culture found in most schools I have worked in. The frustration grows as teachers try to comply with procedural demands while being held accountable for student learning. That being said it is imperative that teachers understand what is meant by understanding if students are to have the best opportunity to be successful academically and ultimately in life.
One key concept that has stuck with me since reading a number of articles about teaching and learning is the idea that teaching is intellectual work. Learning is a part of the job and must be integrated into a teachers professional responsibilities. My goal is to build a professional learning community among math and science teachers, administrators and support staff. With this in place, “learning community” will not only refer to students, but everyone who has a stake in the success of the students.
How can teachers be sure that decisions they make will result in the desired outcome? What is the most effective way for teachers to maximize learning in a limited amount of time? What are effective means of fostering understanding in the classroom? There is a body of research that can help answer these questions beginning with the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and the backwards design of instructional units. In the book Understanding by Design Wiggins and McTighe discuss the meaning of understanding and the implications for design of instructional units that focus on developing understanding of important concepts within a discipline.
Teachers also have to know the content and methods that are most effective for learning. Studying common core standards is one way of identifying important concepts within mathematics and next generation science standards can be used for science content. The process of analyzing these standards to extract core concepts, referred to as unpacking, has been used in many settings to help identify concepts for understanding. Along with this process a teacher should be able to identify the best way to teach these core concepts through research and investigation of teaching methods. Several examples of units are available through common core focused websites. Another important element of teaching for understanding is the use of the backwards design method outlined by Wiggins and McTighe.
It will take time to learn to effectively use of the backwards design template for unit design, and require even more research to determine what understandings students must develop and what questions will guide their understandings. Some of the practices we will use are: