In a recent op-ed in Education Week, the author spoke about it’s not what we teach, it is what the students learn. This is the crux of the matter for many educators and in the book, Results Now! by Mike Schmoker. Now one can sit and complain about testing, leadership (or the lack thereof), instruction (or the lack thereof) but it is of no use. So what are the ideas from this book that we can incorporate into our schools to improve student learning?
Mr. Schmoker makes the case that the number one factor in improving learning is instruction. I assume that the professionals in question have taken into account student interest. If we teach based on student interest, learning should occur. The better the lesson is designed, the greater the chance of learning. The better the lesson plan is executed, the greater chance for learning. The better the local, home-grown assessment, the more information the educator can derive from the student learning to improve instruction. The cycle can then begin again. Sounds easy enough, why doesn’t it happen?
Mr. Schmoker says it’s the teaching stupid. “Teaching needn’t be exceptional to have a profound effect; continuous commonsense efforts to even roughly conform to effective practice and essential standards will make a life-changing difference for students across all socio-economic levels.” (pg. 9) I would say get out of your dimple (the classroom) of the egg-carton (the building) and learn from and with others. No one knows it all. No one can ever know it all. But if you think of the collective intelligence of you and your colleagues and the experiences they have had…there is no reason why we can reach all learners. We need to come out of our individual dimples and wobble around like eggs. This means the learning is going to be messy. There are going to be cracks and breaks but through collective effort and kaizen (continuous improvement) we can help students learn.
Read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody or James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds and you will understand that a collection of minds will consistently create better ideas then any intelligent person or two who work alone. Or read, Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and his ideas about how mass collaboration changes everything.
In David Warlicks post, Method vs. Approach he states that we “as educators, need to beg(i)n to picture ourselves as master learners, and to project that image of ourselves to the community. If we become enthusiastic learners, then we are modeling the concept and process of life-long learning. If we walk into our classrooms as master learners, then we might come to better understand that working with information is as much about approach as it is about method.”
Educators need to be willing to work together, not alone, for the common good. PLC’s and PLN’s can be the answer. Professional Learning Communities and Personal Learning Networks. PLC’s I look at as being inside the learning community. PLN’s are built on the outside but can be used to meet the goals of the community you learn in.
A professional learning community, as defined by Wikipedia, is an extended learning opportunity to foster collaborative learning among colleagues within a particular work environment or field. It is often used in schools as a way to organize teachers into working groups (a PLC in action).
According to Mr. Scmoker, PLC’s have several key characteristics:
- they require educators to establish a common set of curricular standards and teach to them on a roughly common schedule.
- educators should meet regularly. At least twice a month for 45 minutes discussing specifics about instruction and the results achieved with the lessons and units used.
- educators must make frequent use of common assessments.
By structuring the community in this manner, it appears as if the professionals would be able to work together to learn from each other, to focus on “best practice,” and to develop units and lessons based on informatin gathered from the students. Considering the way public school is currently structured, this may help students achieve state standards. If you think that meeting state standards and meeting a certain level of performance on a state exam are what students should know then I guess this is a step in that direction. I do not know if this will lead students to become “life-long learners,” more intrinsically motivated to learn, or inspired to find their passion and what they are great at to fully reach their potential but that is a story for another time.
A piece of PLC’s that I think is important is professional development. Our current model, which is hamstrung by the phrase; “two hours contiguous to the end of the school day” is not maximizing the potential of professional development. There are the occasional one-shot workshops that are beneficial but in reality the great majority of it does not suit the needs of the learners. In a recent Educational Leadership (February 2009, Vol. 66, No. 5), I read an article entitled, “Research Review / Teacher Learning: What Matters?” Linda Darling-Hammond and Nikole Richardson that summarized the research on professional development. The results are as follows:
Research Supports Professional Development That
- Deepens teachers’ knowledge of content and how to teach it to students.
- Helps teachers understand how students learn specific content.
- Provides opportunities for active, hands-on learning.
- Enables teachers to acquire new knowledge, apply it to practice, and reflect on the results with colleagues.
- Is part of a school reform effort that links curriculum, assessment, and standards to professional learning.
- Is collaborative and collegial.
- Is intensive and sustained over time.
Research Does Not Support Professional Development That
- Relies on the one-shot workshop model.
- Focuses only on training teachers in new techniques and behaviors.
- Is not related to teachers’ specific contexts and curriculums.
- Is episodic and fragmented.
- Expects teachers to make changes in isolation and without support.
- Does not provide sustained teacher learning opportunities over multiple days and weeks.
Professional development needs to be led by all the professionals in the community. From the building principal to the teachers, to the aides, everyone needs to take on a leadership role in providing quality professional development. There needs to be a sustained focus, with a resistance to the latest fad or catch phrase. There needs to be a sense of urgency or dedication to high-quality teaching that focuses on the process of how students learn.
Professional Learning Networks or PLN’s is another way for professionals to learn from one another. The difference being that you can learn not only from the professionals in the building you learn in, but from professionals around the world. In the past week or so, my colleagues and I have learned from the following sites/people:
- SMART Board Revolution (Trevor Meister, Obe Hostetter, Matt Granger, Jennifer Gibson, Darren Kuropatwa
- SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast (Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard)
- Education Gadfly (Amber Winkler, Christina Hentges, Rick Hess, Mike Petrilli and Stafford Palmieri)
- SirKenRobinson.com (Ken Robinson-reading his book, The Element)
I have never met any of these people in person, yet they have all had an effect on the place in which I learn. They have all helped me understand something that I needed or wanted to know. I in turn, passed that knowledge along to members of the our PLC. If you want to learn more about bloggers and wikis that can be useful to you and your PLC read the article, Learning with Blogs and Wikis by Bill Ferriter (Educational Leadership, Feb. 2009, Vol. 66, No. 5).
I have more questions, then answers. But I do believe it is all about the students and building a passion and excitement in them that burns so brightly that they take off and never look back. It is about guiding and not being the center of attention. It is about being humble, driven, and always improving.