Thursday, December 5, 2013

Educating Educators

The backbone of the book "Instructional Rounds in Education” by City, Elmore, Teitel and Fiarmen what they call “The Instructional Core”.  The instructional core is defined as ‘the essential interaction between the teacher and the student in the presence of content”.  Within this instructional core is the task, which, when properly created, can tightly align that which we intend students to learn and what they actually learn as a result of doing this work.

Evidence-based based or not, we would be hard pressed to find an educator who doesn't feel that the learner has changed in the last 15 years.  Since the advent of the internet, mobile devices and the ability for students to connect to whatever they wish whenever they wish to, most educators would say that it has become increasingly challenging to engage students with the content in their classrooms.  This is somewhat debatable--we are making a broad assumption that, prior to this ‘instant connectivity’, students were truly engaged in their subject content in the first place.  However, without doubt, there are an abundance of readily available, highly-personalized learning opportunities and distractions to our students of today:  these often make the environment for the learner outside of the school markedly different than their experiences inside of the classroom.  Whether we like it or not, there are many differences in the students of today versus those in the 1990s.

In response and concurrently with the changes in our students, numerous educational jurisdictions are attempting to change their approach to curriculum to provide students and teachers with more choice and opportunities for individualization.  Consider the following:
  • In Finland: Finland’s use of school-based, student-centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum is often touted as an important reason for the nation’s success on the international exams. The national core curriculum provides teachers with recommended assessment criteria for specific grades in each subject and in the overall final assessment of student progress each year. Local schools and teachers then use those guidelines to craft a more detailed curriculum and set of learning outcomes at each school, as well as approaches to assessing benchmarks in the curriculum. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment.
  • In British Columbia:   BC’s Education Plan states “while a solid knowledge base in the basic skills will be maintained, to better prepare students for the future there will be more emphasis on key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy. We can also connect students more directly with the world outside of school, with increased focus on learning these skills across topic areas.
  • In Alberta: “Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign are pointing the way to a reimagined system that will empower Alberta’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow in our communities, workplaces and society. It is about being innovative and creative about the ways we are using existing curriculum today and bringing the best parts of Alberta’s proud education legacy into a 21st-century context with our future curriculum to ensure that all learners have access to an excellent education that prepares them for a bright future.
And these are but three samples of dozens of cases of curriculum reform across North America and the world.  Curricula are changing to reflect the changing needs of students and demands of society.

So we see changes in the learner, and we see changes in the curriculum--but what about the other piece of this instructional core?   What about the educator?  In the seven principles of Instructional Rounds, City et al state “If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two to affect student learning.”  This makes sense to me--if the learner changes, and the curriculum changes, we have to ensure that the skill set and in some cases even the mindset of educators (at all levels--teachers, administrators, and support services) changes commensurately.  If we have a new curriculum which calls for students to develop an understanding of the role of technologies in shaping and influencing society, clearly we would have to work with educators so they could learn some of these technologies and be able to apply this knowledge to use them to shape and influence society themselves.  If we expect the students to be able to demonstrate this skill, clearly someone needs to demonstrate it to them.  Clearly.

Or maybe not so clearly. Are we actually helping educators learn?  Are we creating mechanisms that deliberately and consistently allow educators to themselves become the experts that we want them to be?   And most importantly, are we creating the environments that are conducive to learning and teaching in ways that we know are best for adult learning?

If I look at this wordle that was recently created by a hundred or so educators at a PD session I hosted, I have some questions. From the prompt “Teachers learn best when…”,  the group responses were summarized here:

in combination with the idea that “we learn by doing”, and then subsequently reflect upon the learning opportunities we have with educators such as staff meetings, team leader meetings, collaborative meetings, district meetings, professional development days and conferences, I really don’t know.  I really don’t know if we are doing all that should help each of the educators at every level in our school systems move in a way or at a pace that is commensurate with the changes that we see in curricula and the students of today.  

But we have the chance to change the way we educate educators.  We know that the tiny push off of the dock that teacher training programs at colleges and universities is not enough to last us a career.  We know that we have the chance to approach the aforementioned educator learning opportunities differently.  We just have to do things differently.  And I believe that it starts with a simple question:

"Are we educating the educators in ways that optimize their learning?" 

And if we aren't...why not, and how can we do it?

Sounds like something I need to look into more.

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