In the spring, a colleague forwarded an email message from Chicago Public Schools regarding an opportunity to develop innovative approaches to teaching math and science - an area of interest. Technology would play a part in the learning process – another area of interest. It seemed too good to be true, but I was selected to participate. As the class went on it seemed as if this were a continuation of learning I have pursued over the last few years, but something unrelated would have the greatest impact on my learning over the summer. It has changed me as an educator and has I fell as if I am in the process of discovering what it means to become a leader.
Recently I was asked to become coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the school where I work. I was a teacher in the program for three years and I was trained through the IB organization, but little had changed in how I approached teaching. There was something missing in all the training and orientation, and that was the conceptual understanding of the theories behind the IB philosophy. As it turned out, I became aware of these ideas after independently studying IB literature and documents. I followed references to the unit planning process of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe from the book Understanding by Design (UBD). This became the focus of professional development in the school through our instructional leadership team.
Changes came to the IB program and the new IB unit planner, released in December of 2013, had a connection to Lynn Erickson’s book about conceptual learning. Several copies of the book Concept based Curriculum and instruction for the thinking Classroom by Erickson were purchased by the school several years earlier but were never used. After reading several chapters it was apparent that this was the concept behind the design of the new IB unit planning process. Erickson, in the aforementioned book, stressed the idea that learning is three dimensional. Traditional approaches to teaching focus on two dimensions –knowing and doing. Erickson included understanding as a third dimension citing Wiggins and McTighe’s ideas about enduring understandings. Knowing refers to memorizing facts while doing refers to learning skills, but understanding refers to learning about concepts (Erickson 2006). In the article Theories of learning and Teaching by Wilson and Peterson a history of learning theories is discussed including a “cluster of theories dealing with the social aspects of learning”. They go on to state “scholars have also discovered that learners who understand more about their own learning—researchers call this a metacognitive awareness—have greater capacity to transfer their learning to new problems and contexts (Wilson and Peterson 2006). In both the UBD and IB unit planning process, conceptual understanding is realized through performances of understanding. “Performances of understanding require students to go beyond the information given to create something new by reshaping, expanding, extrapolating from, applying, and building on what they already know (Blyth and Associates 1998). Both of these readings provided perspective and depth to concepts I was learning and I immediately saw a use for the literature beyond this class.
This theme was reiterated in several other readings, In the Shulman article “What is learning and what does it look like when it doesn’t go well?” he refers to students who are not able to use what they learn in different contexts (inertia) as an example of learning that did not go well. In the article about instrumental vs. relational understanding the author describes relational understandings as being “more adaptable to new tasks” and that “ideas required for understanding a particular topic turn out to be basic for understanding many other topics too” (Skemp 1978). This article is also an example of where the author(s) tend to use the word understanding in an arbitrary way. I prefer the distinction made by Wiggins, McTighe and Erickson- simply memorizing and performing a skill is knowing and doing , but learning why or how something works so that you can apply it in another context, is understanding a concept. I found all the readings were shaping my understanding of these theories of learning.
Besides the focus on conceptual learning, the IB also values the development of humanitarian qualities in teachers and students by identifying ten traits that should be a part of learning experiences. This is called the learner profile and it is expected that these ten traits, which include being open-minded, caring, principled and reflective, are integrated into units of study. IB also requires that all units of study have a global context to immerse learning in a real world issue that encourages students to apply creativity and problem solving skills.
When I read the articles assigned prior to the first class I did not make any immediate connections to my work. New standards for the world we live in are needed and I was aware of this through a TED talk by Daniel Pink. As it turned out it was one of these articles, What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning that helped form another important theme. The article creates a framework of frameworks, synthesizing concepts from current literature on what should be taught and what kind of learning experiences students should have (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, Terry, 2013). The authors found three major categories surfacing among the fifteen standards-related documents that were surveyed – foundational knowledge, humanistic knowledge, and meta knowledge. This makes one think about how we should develop as a society – gaining core knowledge and using it to reach out to the world to communicate and collaborate and address issues that are of importance to humanity.
I see now that these three categories provide a way to integrate all the ideas of IB into a simpler framework teachers can use to plan their units. They have the foundational knowledge in their content and they also have the humanistic knowledge in the form of the learner profile. Both foundational and humanistic elements would be integrated into meta knowledge presented through the lens of a global context/issue. As a school we would dig deeper into the individual standards documents (with the addition of common core state standards) to articulate each subcategory in the framework of frameworks. We now have a framework for creating a holistic IB unit that draws from a number of forward thinking standards documents I have to admit that I had to reread the article after face to face meetings ended because of time passing and also to understand how it was connected to the rest of the readings. It was then that connections were made, especially to the in-class activities. As I reread the article after deep reflection I realized that much of what was identified in humanistic and meta knowledge was being played out in our day to day interaction, collaboration, and problem solving activities.
This is where the other learning, referred to at the beginning of this paper, began to unfold. As educators we are surrounded by concrete examples of foundational types of knowledge, but well developed examples of humanistic and meta knowledge are not as plentiful. We practiced meta knowledge related skills every day through group work by solving problems, often collaboratively, that consistently requiring creativity. Our discussions brought out what we value but it was through activities like shoot and tweet and world of wonder that our personal perspectives began to surface. Our Dream It project was a chance to think deeply about what we would like to develop in our teaching and then set out a plan to make it happen, getting to the core of what we really value.
There was something that had an even greater effect on me personally and that was the quick immersion into social media. I have a resistance to social media and I needed some time to let it all sink in. I had no valid excuse so I moved on. Facebook went well because I was assured that there would be no contact outside of the members of the cohort, but Twitter was a mess. I refused to make my thoughts public. I did not want to have contact with anyone beyond the people I worked with on a daily basis. I had no interest in publicly sharing thoughts or ideas, mostly because I felt that I had nothing of value to contribute. Even more of an obstacle was the fear that something I posted would receive negative comments. Reading the syllabus that night helped me come to some way of dealing with the twitter/facebook issue. I had to understand the controls and settings while creating an account with a certain level of anonymity to protect my identity.
At some point we had a conversation about what we really know and understand. If we are not questioning what we think we know, then we are not able to really expand our understanding. We always have to doubt or have questions about what seems to be facts. Having some doubt about what you think you know can be advantageous to becoming more reflective. It takes courage to be a teacher to begin with. It takes even more courage to make your thoughts known in a public forum where others can comment on what you think. If we are to approach our contributions with the understanding that we are in the process of constant learning and growth, then we can accept whatever feedback is received. I posted on Twitter and Facebook fairly regular for the last part of the class but I am still cautious. There is still some hesitation when it comes time to actually post my contribution. The positive nature of the group has created a safe feeling that will encourage even more participation later. I realize that other teachers may be going through this same dilemma, especially those teacher from a generation that did not grow up in the digital age.
This seemed like a small issue at the time but upon reflection I seem to have addressed an issue I must to come to terms with if I am to become an effective teacher and leader. When we read the article Learning from Creative Teachers (Henrikson, Mishra 2013) the authors discussed the importance of creativity in highly effective teachers. This helped make a connection to my career, before becoming a teacher, as a graphic artist and illustrator. I struggled with putting my work out for fear of a negative response from the public. Artists must be fearless. They bare their soul in the work that is made public for all to view and critique. Regardless of how people feel they must continue working, despite positive or negative feedback, and continue to make their work public. This brings me back to the issue I am confronting with teaching and leadership. I must overcome whatever obstacles are preventing me from communicating and collaborating with peers not only in my building or district, but around the world, through social media and other means that allow me to share what I’ve learned and ask for help finding out what I want to know.
These past years, working as an educator, represent the greatest period of growth in my life. I have sought to become a better person. I have tried to fill my remaining years of life with as much learning as possible. Now, it seems that opportunities are everywhere and I am more than happy to take them on. I look forward to diving into learning and development during the upcoming school year. Wherever I find myself working I will have the responsibility of assisting teachers with planning and curriculum development in math and science. I intend to expand on what I have learned about using facts and skills to support a deeper understanding of core concepts within a discipline.
I would like to help teachers develop interdisciplinary learning experiences that are immersed in issues that affect their lives and the lives of their students. I want to be an example of how to use creativity and personal interests to bring passion to what I do so that my peers can do the same. I will try to take risks without fear of being criticized. I want to explore how to use technology to enhance learning experiences and encourage others to do the same. It seems like a lot but it is not a solo effort. The key is to create a professional community that values learning and supports each other by giving constructive feedback. Our motto will be –Yes! And?
Over the course of the summer session, I found research involving building professional learning communities. I found this to be the most logical place to start with. Teachers I work with should embrace the idea that we are learners as much as our students are. There are two key sites, http://www.allthingsplc.info/ and http://www.centerforcsri.org/plc but most of the research will be found on ERIC through links discussed on these two websites. Every environment is unique, which means I will also learn from my colleagues as to how a PLC can best be implemented. I have my own ideas as to what I would like to study but ultimately we must analyze our environment and student achievement to determine how we can improve learning.
One key aspect will be to facilitate the communication among teachers. This is often difficult to get a group of teachers together in the same place at the same time due to scheduling issues. When this becomes difficult, my hope is that communication can happen online through some network teachers have willingly selected to use regularly. There is some research on building communities online (http://amyjokim.com ) that I will follow up with after initial study. In the current environment I work in, facilitating collaboration has become a challenge, but it is not impossible and I’m confident that we can make progress. I have to lead by using the technology to communicate and express my thoughts and intentions and try to create an open and honest environment that will encourage participation, especially by older faculty. A first step will be to establish a google group to test the limitations of this type of application. There is a possibility that I will enter a new environment which in some ways will be the best scenario. Starting new can have some advantages.
Through whatever means used to create curriculum, IB or UBD unit planning, the key idea will be to assess if students understand. This can only be done if teachers are able to identify important core concepts within the discipline they teach and in turn design performances of understanding that will inform them if students really do understand. As teachers are moving through their units, we will discuss and reflect on what is happening in the classroom. As part of this process we will also integrate the TPACK concept. Technology does not have to have an initial role in the learning, but as we move along we will try to learn what place it has in the classroom and beyond.
The ease of using video, digital imagery, and a number of applications available online at no cost has to be demonstrated for teachers to encourage exploration of technology. My role will be to model and experiment with these applications to encourage their use. To do this effectively, research and development will be a key component, much of my free time at the beginning of the year will be to experiment with and introduce apps beginning with the long list of items introduced during our summer session. Some of the management software options, especially Google classroom, will also be explored and made available for teachers to play with. The message will be consistent – we are all learners, and we learn best as a community.