Saturday, June 25, 2005

Quality Learning Globally

Over the last year or so, I've been involved with a "Quality Learning Globally" consortium organized by our school district's technology resource teacher Rob Lewis. The group assembled teachers and admin/district staff, most of which were tech leaders, to inquire into some key problems emerging with tech-based learning. We met about 8 times, studied, and experimented with distance/blended/synchronous/asynchronous environments. The QLG research concluded with a number of observations aimed directly at three connected questions faced by (and encouraged by) the district:
  1. What should distributed learning look like... should it occur at many schools and be integrated into the options faced by students (course selection) and teachers (course design, career specialization), or should distributed learning be the purview of our distance ed school?
  2. What technology should we use, and why... virtual classrooms, CMS, platforms, peripherals, access issues, budget & greening issues, what works in various contexts?
  3. What pedagogy emerges from, or shapes, the technology and the choice of delivery models... synchronous vs asynchronous, what degree of "blending," how is the vision, coordination, and support sustained in schools and in the district? 
The research looked at teacher and student experiences in contexts that explored as many of the possibilities brought up by these questions as possible. The QLG group asked these questions from the perspective of teachers and students, and in the end we recommended:
  1. Distributed Learning should happen at every school, at any time in which teachers in these schools were willing to experiment in such a way that could be supported by administration. Teachers excited to try teaching an online course or increase the amount of interactive technology they use with regular classes are the best bet for success. Dumping online course work and new tech on unwilling teachers will not work and will halt any momentum built elsewhere. While the integration of distributed learning has a logical place at the secondary level, it should be placed within the continuum of integrating all forms of teaching and learning strategies that make use of rich media and interactive technology, not just the ones that lead to more independent (distant) student learning. This has implications for the continued promotion of technology skills and digital literacy among staff and students, and commitments to support, training, and leadership.
  2. Online and distance learning works best when the students are also connected to a learning community and teachers -- real people (with bodies and nuanced expression) and real social environments that are essential for human development, so some face-to-face is a must except for special cases and for most should be the the primary experience, even at higher grades. The group spent a lot of time on the creative/collaborative/critical process involved in building and analyzing content (distributed "learning objects," resources , courses). Some felt there should be an attempt to build original, professional resources specific to BC curriculum contexts, while others were confident that existing online (free/external) resources would increasingly meet learning needs. This has implications for inter-school communication/collaboration and the coordination of some aspects of course programming across the district.
  3. Technology and distributed learning should not remove and try to replicate the best of the classroom experience, but should seek to revolutionize the worst and most problematic aspects of the classroom experience. Thus virtual classrooms that imitate real discussions are often a step backward unless no alternatives exist. Just as the powerpoint can take a meaningful presentation and turn it into something segmented, trite, or didactic, interactive technology can create addictive, self-absorbed recluses where once were curious, social kids. The group was confident that the interactive web could extend and enrich but not replace the social fabric of schools. This has implications for school and district tech direction, planning and licensing.

Friday, June 17, 2005

some thoughts on PLCs

Having recently attended a two-day workshop on instructional leadership (featuring/promoting the Professional Learning Community concept), I have a few thoughts and questions...

This is a bit of a long post, so... you can read it here as a pdf file on a white background or you can go bug-eyed reading below... Also, this is my first crack at a response; I will take any feedback I get to offer a revised look at PLCs -- my opinion, so far, is easily influenced by what others may know that I do not. If you are new to blogging, just click on "comments" below the post in order to leave a comment.

First, briefly, my interpretation of the PLC concept:
-School system organized into hierarchies of learning communities, each roughly accountable to themselves and the next higher order
-Communities are distinguished by structures which focus on student achievement (asking questions like "what do we want our students to learn"); some of these structures follow...
-Time is sought for staff to meet regularly to collaborate on practices and results, study issues & questions, conduct & respond to casual research
-Problems with student achievement are met with timely, consistent, and structured interventions
-Student learning and classroom practice are valued over isolated teaching & professional development
-Supporting the development of a well-rounded, healthy student is balanced (or off-set) with the need to improve academic results
-Leadership is shared; administrators devote more time to instructional support and less on discipline and monitoring

Background on the PLC concept:
-The concept, with its attendant philosophies and terminology, is a product of Richard DuFour and others at the American National Education Service, a for-profit foundation which offers books, tapes, study guides, etc.
-Their system has much in common with other current educational theory (Dufour's is maybe less theoretical or inquiry-based and more "let's get to it") with varying levels of acknowledgement. Lave & Wenger's work on communities of practice is a good starting point for comparing similar theory.
-The PLC lingo and ideas have parallels in current business philosophies and government (USA to BC) emphasis on accountability and decentralization

PLCs in our district -- positive
-Following the conversion of a number of individuals in our district to the PLC concept over recent years, senior administration is encouraging the application of the concept at district schools. The PLC concept provides one way of meeting accountability requirements and School Plan for Student Success goals, and may also remind educators of what they are called to and help them ask if they are doing it well.
-The underlying concepts of focused collaboration, aiming at greater overall student success & educating the whole person, community-based approach, and shared leadership are well rooted in respected theory and are a natural evolution for conscientious schools and school systems.

PLCs in our district -- problems
-The collaborative model is being "tasked" out to schools. When dealing with a shift in guiding ideas which is ultimately meant to impact classroom practice, a top-down approach is probably not the way to go. With any change, the "buy-in" window is narrow and, if those heralding the change haven't covered all the angles, can turn what could be a groundswell movement into a perceived mandate or imposition. If the ideas have merit in the classroom, they need to be field tested in the classroom by volunteers with support.
-The DuFour model is a "total package" system. As such, it has the potential to exclude those who don't understand it, accept it, or have differing views. This is not the same as resisting change, this is simply that change of "governing" ideas often involves dispensing with the old order and marginalizing alternate voices. If the old order was yesterday's "good news," there can be justifiable scepticism about rapid cycles of change.
-Shared leadership, in the business world, often involves pushing decision-making to the lowest acceptable level... While this is not necessarily a feature of the PLC concept, our district is reluctant to let go of centralized decision-making (not saying this is good or bad, simply that it creates a philosophic tension with shared leadership ideas)
-An important emphasis on diversity, site-specific transformation of PLC lingo & practices, and student responsibility for learning appears to be missing or of secondary concern. The PLC concept, as it has been passed on, has the danger of being a "one size fits all" solution to problems which have not been very well articulated.
-The depth to which new ideas enter the educational scene will be a good test of the PLC concept's merit. Will it just involve use of new lingo (out with department meetings, in with collaborative team meetings), or will a new attitude about teaching & learning sink in on the front line (classrooms)? What makes the difference? Where does hoop-jumping turn to meaningful change? Much of it has to do with meaningful questions and data. If the questions asked by staff are arbitrary or determined in 3-minute think & paste activities, the results will be limited engagement and cynicism. Similarly, if the data (on which to build goals or examine practice) is not relevant to the daily classroom experience and broad questions pursued by teachers and students, it will be ignored.
-Formalizing the mentor relationships that occur spontaneously throughout schools, and formalizing the collaboration
-Time, energy, and will... what is it that individual classroom teachers need to improve their practice and affect student success? What barriers exist in supplying these needs? Starting by asking these questions could create problems for PLCs because the results will reflect tremendous diversity and will reflect a variety of philosophies. One teacher may need more collaboration time with others, one might need access to technology, one might need specific training, etc. This could all fit within the PLC concept, but it might not, therefore it is problematic to ask these questions unless we are ready to see the PLC concept as a set of ideas to evaluate, deconstruct, and allow to re-emerge where it makes sense to do so.
-These problems, I think, are worth the trouble of examination and response because the PLC concept has enough merit that it should be taken seriously. If it didn't, it wouldn't be worth evaluating (i.e. extract value).

What I plan to take away from the PLC concept:
- some powerful questions... I really like the one "what do we want our students to learn?" -- follow this one through and it has the potential to transform practice -- it is at once practical and highly philosophic. For me, it pushes me back to another question "what characteristics do I want members of society to exhibit?" and "how does what I teach show of my view of human nature?"
- some tools for collaboration... I have higher expectations for department and staff meetings now; I want to move past business and information and get to issues and beliefs.
- some renewed focus on theory & practice & identity... where is my classroom centered? teacher/student/subject? how does this affect student success? who is the self that imagines this reality and what do I want to learn by being a teacher?