With a return to school becoming a reality for many, and with so many questions around the future of education, where does one turn to for leadership?
It’s unlikely any one person has the answers, and nor could they. This time is unprecedented. And although uncomfortable in many ways, I see this moment as an opportunity, one where we can strive forward, clearing out that which did not serve our young people well and creating new systems that do. Systems and practices that are equitable for all, where every child has the chance to grow and thrive and contribute. But to move forward in this way, particularly at this time, takes bold leadership. A colleague and mentor of mine who I hold in high regard is offering such leadership – Lennie Scott-Webber – an experienced educator, trained social scientist, environmental behaviour researcher, and an NCIDQ designer of learning places. I also have the pleasure of collaborating with Lennie on the board of the Green Schools National Network – the non-profit organisation devoted to accelerating student achievement through the implementation of green, healthy, and sustainable practices. Having known Lennie and her work for a long time, I completely trust her leadership in these complex times. She is a powerhouse of progressive thought and intention when it comes to the well-being of our educators, students and society.
For the last few weeks she’s been contributing to the conversation of developing a new way forward in education by sharing her knowledge and thoughts in articles she aptly names, Thinking Out Loud. She explains, “I will share how I think we might manage and grow from this situation and address next steps for my stated beliefs. Each issue will try and connect some dots as I share my Thinking Out Loud with you with a particular focus on learning experiences.” Each of her Thinking Out Loud articles are highly recommended reading to stretch and challenge your thinking. It’s alongside thought leaders such as Lennie that together we can affect change and create a more sustainable, equitable and meaningful future for all.
Enjoy Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, INSYNC: Education Research + Design, Thinking Out Loud Issue #1
Introduction Times are certainly anything by “normal” – whatever that means. I decided because many people were reaching out to me asking questions about what to do, particularly about learning and learning environments, in this current COVID-19 crises, I would share my thoughts in this first in a series titled, “Thinking Out Loud.” These are thoughts from an experienced educator, trained social scientist, environment behavior researcher, and designer of learning places; BUT these are just my thoughts. Further scientific research may be required on some ideas. Read along. Take the thoughts for what they are. Discard them. Build on them. Use them if you find helpful – my hope is you will. Share back to build a community of thoughtful responses.
Beliefs It is my belief that… (1) the opportunity is now to let the proverbial education dinosaurs die, and grow from this situation to reach for a full focus on the learning experience. (2) integrating scientific knowledge to manage the switch from a traditional Education System to a System for Learning is possible. (3) the immediate smashup between the analogue [doing things by hand / onsite] and the digital [online] is our “new normal,” and will continue indefinitely. (4) we must find a way to bring our humanity’s human needs, particularly for the most vulnerable, into our responses for this, and any health crises, in order to thrive and not just exist in our day-to-day interactions with others. (5) the band-aid was ripped off exposing a truth, and the many failings in our collective systems [ex. food shortages, equity issues, teaching to the test, and lack of professional development for educators to know how to ‘flip the switch’ to online learning, an obvious lack of future-focused strategies for School Boards and Education systems]. (6) the fact that the pre-K-to-12 educators are our unsung heroes; their masks are invisible. (7) our social and emotional stresses due to this pandemic situation will become as critical as the health factors. (8) every situation offers the opportunity to envision something new, and it’s way past time for education to do so. I will share how I think we might manage and grow from this situation and address next steps for my stated beliefs. Each issue will try and connect some dots as I sharing my Thinking Out Loud with you with a particular focus on learning experiences.
Let the Dinosaurs Die The dinosaurs’ die off should include: efficiency-only-focused educational systems, passive teaching practices, onsite only [i.e., ‘bricks and mortar’], and at the very least the words classroom and education. I have written and presented extensively for years advocating that certain ‘dinosaurs’ in our educational system (e.g., large lecture halls, passive teaching models and practices, and large class sizes) should be allowed to die. Why? Because our 20th and 21st century approach to education is built upon a factory, or an Industrial Age model. It is based on efficiencies [one-to-many] vs. efficacy [real/deep/individualized learning]. The current education model is not about learning. That is why the word ‘education’ no longer fits. It represents an old, no longer useful thinking and system. The current model is efficiency-focused to mass produce graduates at scale. It is failing our learners, our teachers, and due to the tremendous amount of high school dropouts equaling an uneducated citizenry, our democracy.
A Dinosaur’s Death Scrap the current, traditional Education System. It’s dead, has been dead, and doesn’t know it. It has failed our population for far too long. Replace it with a reimagined System for Learning recognizing the need for a life-long learning process based on the efficacy of the learning as an experience, not solely on efficiencies. How might we transform? There are many problems to address, but we should start with knowledge about how we put what we know about how we learn into practice. This knowledge by the way is not something new. It happens to be knowledge, for the most part, that has never been fully embraced. We have to learn how to learn. Learning theorists have provided knowledge for many, many years. They tend to agree that, “All knowledge is socially constructed. Learning is a social activity – it is something we do together, in interaction with each other, rather than just as an abstract concept (Dewey, 1938).” Another classic learning theorists Vygotsky (1978) indicated that “…cognitive development stems from social interactions from guided learning…as children and their learning partner’s co- construct knowledge”. The theory these and other authors are referencing is called Cognitive Constructivism. It suggests that each learner has a personal bases that exist for them only [i.e., their homelife, their community, their country, etc.] from which they will build knowledge – it is actively constructed. Learners must become active participants to ‘own their own learning processes.’ Our current world is dominated by teaching practices, particularly from grades six through into higher education, which focus on passive traditional teaching models. That perspective dominates a view that the learner is “‘an empty vessel’ to be filled with knowledge”. Tell me who knows all the information on a particular subject matter today? Even experts look to further their knowledge – life-long learning needs. Knowledge changes at speeds we can’t even imagine. Why be the ‘knowledge keeper’ when it isn’t necessary? If one is expected to actively construct to ‘own our own knowledge,’ then how might we envision experiences [online and/or onsite] that support this basic human need? A Constructivist learning theory provides for a variety of more learner- centered teaching methods and practices completely contrasting with the more ‘traditional’ educational ones. Teachers become the facilitator/guide for active learning. Teaching fully shifts to a guided- learning practice. When teachers make this switch, they realize how much more fun it is to teach as one actually sees learning in action, and the joy of learning for students prevails! Changing teaching practices is perhaps step one, professional development across the system is a must, and how we learn articulates the ‘why we should do it.’ But, and it’s a big BUT, multiple major factors must also become aligned: (a) class size reductions for active learning practices, (b) efficiencies of scale provided by master teachers, (c) do away with ‘my classroom’ and move to ‘our learning suite’, (d) pervasive guided teaching practices, (e) the design of built places that cue/give permission for active learning to occur, and (f) professional development across all cohorts to effectively help individuals sustain a rich learning experience whether online or onsite. These built and online settings will vary in how these experiences play out. Each must maintain an effort to keep the joy of learning at the personal level at the forefront – a focus on the learning experience. Let’s take each idea in order.
Reduce Class Size The efficacy model promotes a one-to-many setting and is passive. This model is education at scale – a factory scenario; how many widgets get we get out the door and how fast? What teacher can effectively teach a group of young people, or even more mature ones over 20 in a class? Sit and git, while I stand and deliver is the only way to distribute mass information as an educator. But it’s not about learning. Learning is messy. We have to get all of our senses into the learning process [another issue will address the sensory aspect]. So, let’s just stop pretending. We can’t ignore that efficiencies matter. We can’t ignore that all teachers are the best at every subject matter. We also must remember that equity issues abound and have some opportunities to create a balance.
What if? For the physical built environment, classrooms go away? The teacher no longer ‘owns their classroom.’ The word classroom [another dinosaur’s death] goes away and is replaced by say the ‘learning suite’. This suite is a shared resource by multiple teachers. No longer are individuals teaching, but teams of teachers are either team teaching or co-teaching [i.e., team teaching = same time, same place; co-teaching = different time, different place; all connected to the same content and learning experience]. Multiple types of settings are provided supporting a range of individual, to small group to whole group connections. Settings look more like original kindergartens. Setting types provide for behavioral cuing: messy for maker/tinker areas, cozy for individual respite/reading/reflection, multiple provisions for postural changes, affordances [i.e., furnishings and equipment] that support collaboration, etc. Thus, the learning suite is born. It must be noted that the US has multiple districts that use this type of situation now. My argument is that the shift is not universal. Also, it is clear that many architectural designs for the built learning environment have wonderful varieties for in-between learning settings. Yet, most often these ‘award winning’ designs’ photos never show the formal learning places, or the classrooms. Why? Because these still reflect the row-by-column seating, one-to-many, efficiency model of passive practices – a dinosaur. When active learning settings [ex, the learning suite] are designed to cue and encourage engagement in one’s learning processes higher learning outcomes are predicted [see my website for multiple peer-reviewed published articles on this subject]. So, it is argued – the design of space matters. Buildings cue behaviors – embrace the learning suite and its team/co-teach characteristics. This shift keeps the focus on the learning experience, no more owning – embracing learning efficacy.
What if? We could add in efficiency and equity [at least partially]? A one-to-many that could provide efficiency and equity solutions is that of having ‘master teachers.’ These teachers would present the content in an engaging manner, completely online. Why is this method important? Individuals who are gifted with an ability to engage learners in an online situation, should be those who do this work. FLIP/blended/hybrid learning practices have also been around starting with distance-learning situations. A number of research studies also show the efficacy and to some extent the efficiencies by using a hybrid situation. Use this master teacher approach for the one-to-many, efficiency needs. Allowing for smaller learning opportunities for the actual work of learning in the onsite situation. With a hybrid approach (a) all content is the same, (b) presented in the same energetic and engaging manner by the best teachers in that subject matter, (c) all teachers who work onsite enable their students by becoming their guides; efficacy, and (d) professional development is focused on learning in a hybrid scenario. This new hybrid becomes more personalized, realizes that delivery matters, and employs the best to do each segment of the ‘job’ for the best results for learning. Each onsite teacher becomes the learner’s guide-on-the-side. It also means no one teacher has to take on the responsibility of working with students and more team teaching or co-teaching practices can be developed.
The win = actively engaged students. Let’s not waste the opportunity.