Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When did thorough go out of fashion?

I am excited by project-based learning. As a Socials teacher, this has been the meat of my course planning sandwich for 15 years, and is consuming more and more classtime with things like the Heritage (SS10) and Echo (SS11) projects to which the students at my school have been contributing for the last few years. I am excited by learning “empowered by technology” as our ministry of education puts it. This has also been critically embedded my practice for 12 years -- my students and I have tried pretty much anything that has a blinking light and the promise of connecting to something unique or important that supports Social Studies inquiry. I am excited by student ownership of learning outcomes, the pursuit of meaningful learning that connects identity, experience, and curriculum. Fostering critical, independent thinking has been there since the beginning, and trying to make assessment and learning activities formative and authentic has grown alongside my time in the classroom. I am excited by a few aspects of the flipped classroom; starting with my first website in 1998 I've been steadily extending learning connections and opportunities beyond the classroom walls, although I think there will always be a place for teachers to actually lead learning and use classtime for direct instruction. Students have been using smartphones in my class for a few years, and they usually know when to put them away and listen, talk, or write on paper. I am lucky to have such an awesome job in that direct instruction usually involves storytelling about subjects and themes that I care deeply about. I'm just good enough at it that I don't feel I need to turn to youtube everyday to find a better way of getting the point across, although I use youtube, google earth, and streaming news to get points across that I can't put in words or don't know myself. I am excited by other educational theories and practices, too: inquiry-based learning, the role of embodiment and the physical situation of ideas, learning that evokes social and environmental justice, construction of student learning narratives, etc.

So, I should be really excited when I hear that one of our local high schools is planning a project-based learning (PBL) school within a school, a program with maximum flexibility for cross-curricular learning, wide-open permissions on learning outcomes, activities, and assessment, and an emphasis on a creative use of technology.

Instead, I came away from the program presentation stunned and disappointed. I caught the proposal via webcast from our local public school board meeting. The idea is for a district-wide choice program with 50-100 grade 8/9 students, 2-4 unnamed teachers, project-based learning, technology-powered, everything else yet to be determined (find/read proposal in the Nov 22/11 board agenda). The plan that was presented had no actual details about achieving learnings outcomes, what the program would look like, how the teachers would navigate 25 individual plans apiece through the PLOs of multiple curriculums. There was no strategy for managing afternoon field trips and unsupervised activities, no indication of how the rest of the school’s services would be impacted (time/cost).

Perhaps the biggest let-down came when I realized the next day that the entire rationale section for the proposal was taken without acknowledgement from a British for-profit website on 21st century learning, and there was not much else to the proposal than some fill-in-the-blank Q&A to meet choice policy requirements. I had been wondering about where the rationale came from -- some of the expressions seemed out of place and even random given the context, and it kind of made sense once another teacher pointed out the source. As you can imagine, this proposal garnered a great deal of discussion on teacher forums in our school district. I'll go out on a limb and assume it was not outright plagiarism but rather hasty research that the authors probably thought would not really be analyzed. The plan had no details, no pedagogy, and no scheme for addressing a dozen or more issues that are sure to come up. We’re in the middle of a job action right now that precludes meetings and formal communication between teachers and administration, so I can understand why the proposal was missing teacher input, but I expect more from something as key as the originating report that launches a choice program. I want to explore this topic because, 21st century learning notions aren't going away, and I want our school system to be proactive, critical, and thoughtful as it encourages change.

The second shock was the lack of time spent reflecting on the reality that the board office has now approved two conflicting educational parameters for Grade 8 students within the last year. The first example was decision in Spring 2011 to impose three terms of mandatory math instruction on all grade 8 students in the district, effective September 2011, regardless of ability or the loss to elective programs. This was done with the hopes of improving Math 10 provincial exam scores. The second example is this new PBL program, representing a high level of freedom in interpreting learning outcomes. This may result in students entering Grade 10 with standing granted for Gr 8/9 and hoping for the best as they take formal Math, English, Science instruction for the first time (and face Grade 10 provincial exams in these subjects). So, in the first case all students must have more math in order for Gr. 10 results to improve, even those who already excel at math, and even if the extra math term is opposed by the school principal and staff. In the second case, if a student is in this new choice program, these rules do not apply and math becomes an essentially self-taught subject unless your teacher-coach happens to be a math specialist. A mixed message and collision of philosophies (one-sized vs. personalized) is created by simultaneously creating new programming restrictions across the schools, while allowing an end to all programming restrictions in a particular program. Paradigmatic conflicts in education are not uncommon, but should not come from the same leadership team.

At a basic level, a choice program should start with either a demonstrated contextual need or an educational vision focused on an authentic horizon, one that is shared by teachers or at least has a firm sense of their role. Every program plan should include referenced research or original research, pedagogy (or multiple pedagogies), consultation and commitment from stakeholders, professional writing with clear goals, teacher and student exemplars, social context, input from the wider local educational community, budget and shared services impact predictions, a roadmap for planning, implementation, delivery etc. Any section dealing with background, guiding principles, influences, rationale can still be focused and succinct, but it needs to show evidence of a depth of ideas, freedom from jargon and cliche, and appeal to an amateur and academic eye alike. Launching a choice program may only come around once or twice in an administrator's career or the life of a school, so it stands to reason that a high standard of quality is expected.

The group assembled at the board meeting was correct to look at North Peace's Energetic Learning Campus as a great example of what can be done, but it needs to be pointed out that North Peace has been building up to this for years with integrated leadership, comprehensive involvement of teachers, 1-1 laptop projects, a tradition of digital content delivery, extensive planning & research, a building designed with a program in mind, and a long-term culture of collaboration on exactly the kind of teaching and learning that are required for a PBL program. There are many examples of successful PBL programs in BC and North America, and I'm quite sure each of them had a skookum plan in place that gave confidence to the educators, parents, and students affected. There is also a strong role for unplanned, wild experiments in education, teachers giving students freedom to inquire, principals giving teachers freedom to discard and adopt practices that inspire inquiry, and boards giving principals freedom to create unique situations for inquiry. I'm having deja vu right now, something is reminding me of Postman & Weingartner's work. The "let it happen, captain" approach is a great one, and one that often guides the approach I take to my job -- I usually seek forgiveness rather than permission to experiment with new ideas. If I waited for the education to catch up to what I am interested in, I would not have changed much about my practice in 15 years. My dad used to talk about his principal when he was a teacher at D.W. Poppy in the 1960s. Whenever my dad or any other teacher wanted to try a learning experiment, usually something unorthodox, the principal would thank them for their enthusiasm and ask how they could support the project, even in cases when mistakes were expected. That's more like asking questions, responding to a group of students or acting on a compelling idea. This is not the approach that is called for, though, when redesigning a system that affects an entire set of educational partner groups -- a choice program requires a more thorough treatment and "yes" needs a real plan behind it.

Our district has not had the same trajectory or success in laying the kind of foundation seen in the North Peace District, at least not recently. I don’t think this can be attributed to any one person’s bad decisions, but rather to two factors that have dominated district-level changes in the last 10 years: budget strains and decision-making paradigms. I’ll leave the latter for another post or discussion (or for someone else to discuss), but the former is relatively straight-forward. When our board was forced to cut five or six million in structural deficit from the district budget in 2010, it was bound to result in a loss of capacity. We should not expect the same level of service, the same capacity for teacher involvement, funded projects, personnel seconded or promoted from the classroom to dedicate time to coordination, and release time for multi-level collaboration or committee work. As a result of these two factors, we have seen the loss of all of the district-wide tables at which this “foundational work” used to originate. This history has been chronicled in detail elsewhere, most notably in the comprehensive response given by teachers to a collection of technology announcements made by the board office March 31, 2011. These tables include the District Tech Team, Tech for Learning leadership team, the Quality Learning Globally consortium, Key Tech Contacts assembly, Standards Working Group, Tech Coach groups, Teacher Tech leadership positions, Blogging for Change project, Coordinated Workshop and Training program, the Elementary Tech Series, TLITE follow-up initiatives, to name the ones I know about. To put it another way, we had a collaborative renaissance in our district from about 1999-2005, with teachers, administrators, and district staff working on common themes and trying to make sense of how student learning and teacher pedagogy could be improved with technology. They anticipated and participated in almost every aspect of “21st Century Learning” before the buzzwords became a mantra, and the student projects emerging from these efforts were spectacular. Some of this work could be seen at the annual tech fair (now defunct).

The surge of creativity from 1999-2005 was no doubt the result of emerging technology and the internet. This began with the increase of bandwidth, addition of rich media to the web, the ubiquity of email, and the heady days of Napster. Before this, teachers from one school to another did not even know much about each other, islands of learning and often not cognizant of a “district presence” in their midst. Like most teachers, I spent my first few years (1996-1998) not knowing the name of a single person at the board office, or what they did, and wasn't sure what a trustee was. Email, now facebook and twitter, tomorrow something else, have definitely thrown open the doors to cross-pollination of ideas in education, and brought some new joy to the discovery of knowledge, but like anything else this comes at a cost. I've detected at least three costly trends in crossing the email and social media divide, starting with myself. FIrst, the time it takes away from authentic, embodied relationships with the people in the room (family, friends, students). Second, the affect on the brain -- the ability to concentrate on one thing slowly, intensely, has suffered and what looks like multitasking is maybe just doing too many things poorly. Third, the access to knowledge is often wide but not very deep. No doubt the internet contains powerful thinkers, doers, teachers, examples, etc. but when the learner surfs across this knowledge and lacks the tools to interrogate and construct, learning becomes voyeuristic. I've written about the enterprising aspects of life on this side of the digital divide what seems like a long time ago, and strategies for addressing the costs elsewhere. What didn't fully occur to me 6 or 7 years ago was that the transformative capacity of technology and the skills, attitudes, and implications for our school system would be become such an abused fixation in education today, and such a target for corporate interest. What did occur to many educators back then, faced with idea sets like this, was that the coming age required a disciplined and careful approach.

The initial burst of activity waned from 2005-2008, a period of consolidation and standardization, and the phasing out of teacher access to system management. Some of this was highly necessary as the demands of a networked computer environment required some level of control by technical analysts in order to maintain security and stability. The teacher concern during this process was that educational decisions were now being made by non-educators. The last 3-yr District Technology Plan was written and approved by the board in 2005, containing the last serious collaborative/comprehensive planning effort from teachers, admin, and district staff, but was never published to the district website and is all but forgotten as a "best practices" tool. Some efforts were made in 2006 and 2009 to capitalize on the momentum built in the earlier years, particularly by TLITE graduates (SFU teacher tech ed diploma), by offering innovation grants (release time and purchases), and learning team grants (release time). With no sophisticated vehicles for sharing the work of these grants outside of teacher initiated conversations and a handful of pro-d events, the benefits of these grants are hard to assess. The teacher tech coaches wrapped up their service with a "Media Madness" series in 2007 offering a final workshop for recipients of tech grants. By 2009 the last minutes of the District Tech Team were published, signifying a margin to the culture of educational technology that had seen such a wild ride for ten years. A final consolidating move was to phase out the support for two platforms in the district (mac/pc) in April of 2010. This created some real and understandable consternation, and is some cases relief, for the 300-400 teachers and 5000-6000 students using macs. Unfortunately, the portion of innovation that can be associated with platform choice would be sacrificed as part of budget cuts, for which the rationale and transition & support plan is still not clear. We've seen an unprecedented change and downsizing to school district dialogue, strategy, training, support, and leadership on technology over the last 3 years and this has not been accompanied by a single plan or public document, excepting a powerpoint presentation on BYOD and wifi. I had to archive this myself, because at this time the school district doesn't have an active web presence for educational technology.

Some parallel trends show a proximate relationship to this "cooling off" period -- I'm not sure if these are cause or consequence. The first is the shift in the origin and purpose of the District Plan for Student Success. Up until 2009, these plans were a response to common themes and goals within the School Plans for Student Success, a process that required considerable study and reflection. They now work in the opposite direction, conveying Ministry of Education goals and conversations as directions for schools to take. Regardless of whether the ideas are sound and the goals legitimate, this shift reduces the need and mechanisms for local thinking and planning on a range of subjects. A second trend was the replacement of staff and student designed school websites with generic shells packaged as a Content Management System. While this brought some consistency to the look and feel of every site (some schools did not really have sites, others had an extensive web presence), it essentially killed the growing web development movement at the school level. The majority of schools are not using this CMS as intended; some schools have a virtually empty website, and one of our schools has embedded a functioning CMS and an updated site within the inert product provided by the district. One of the positive outcomes of the changes to website development is that many teachers have put more effort into making their own websites contain the function, creativity, and content that used to exist on school sites. There have also been more efforts to use facebook, twitter, etc. to celebrate student success and accompany class-based learning, although these tools are still blocked at most schools, as is commercial email, although students can work around this by using their own data plans and 3G network. This diversification and adaptation is sometimes an unintended result of cutbacks; when the system throws up roadblocks, new paths will be found. One important area that has still not figures out how to thrive under cutbacks and the CMS is our district website. Although this banner was probably meant as a temporary feature, it shows some of the limitations in the CMS and the amount of time that can be afforded for web design. An organization with a $130 million annual budget should not have issues with spacing, cropped logos, and random graphics borrowed from another site. I'm certainly not above reproach... my site contains many borrowed, random objects,there are lots of borrowed graphics on my website, but my little blog cabin on the web river is the right kind of place for mashups and amateur (free/voluntary) design. Our district's site still has a reasonable range of functions despite its design limitations, but taking a look at other district sites in the province gives an indication of what is possible -- SDs 37, 39, 43, 44, 60, 73, and 82 are good places to start. If we are a "can do" organization (as our District Plan for Student Success states), then I really hope these trends are pendulous and budget-dependent rather than directional and philosophic in nature.

In some ways, the change in our school district's ability to sustain and promote discussion about technology is an acknowledgement that the digital age is not a new thing to be studied in isolation of other social forces, and no longer requires such intense focus. The gaze of the district had turned to other concerns. Teachers and students are often thought to have crossed the digital divide, and thus the preparations for the journey may no longer be needed. With vibrant web resources for educators and virtual networks replacing physical ones, it was natural to see the capacity for fostering innovation downsized and outsourced. Perhaps as a result, our school board office must have a hard time seeing and assessing the local evidence it needs to make decisions about program support at the school level. Six or more "21st century learning" projects proposed by teachers and administration in the last two years have been quietly turned down by the board office. These included blended learning experiments, 1-1 personal device plans, two student inquiry-based projects for secondary Social Studies (one of those was mine), a tablet pilot with special needs students, elementary lab greening with tablets instead of computers, etc. Proponents are still wondering if the decisions came from the board office, purchasing, tech support, or school administration; they are still waiting for an invitation to discuss why these innovative projects were dismissed. How willing will these teachers and administrators be to buy in to the next set of ideas when their last attempts at "currency" were rejected (e.g. tablets in the classroom, blended learning pilots). When passionate, talented educators volunteer to move the district's learning agenda forward, it would seem the answer should be yes, but I would posit that articulating this yes requires a capacity for which we are no longer provisioned. The recent push to remove district-level blocks to third-party email, facebook, smartphone use in the classroom, teacher installation of interactive apps, and other technologies has only come with pressure from the outside, notably the ministry of education -- in other words yes has been reactive and issued under duress. My school has had a full-function wireless network for about 7 years, but teachers can't access it on their own devices or laptops. Students and staff at my school got access to limited public wireless about a month ago, but are still blocked from accessing their hotmail to retrieve assignments or facebook to share a project photo with a class, and can't use the wifi to print or access their server account. I talked with a Communications teacher who noted these restrictions turned what should have been a redeeming moment for a marginal student trying to demonstrate what he had learned into a another frustration because "nothing works." When the school district is being told it needs to catch up on “21st century learning” by the government, and teachers (among others) have been saying the same thing for seven years, the mixed messages need to stop. Conditional yes? Say yes but really it's no? Yes at some undisclosed point in the future? How about "yes, that's the right idea, let's confirm together what we can afford, support, and sustain."

I realized last year, in preparing feedback for the March 2011 board office presentation on "tech directions," how much this chilly climate had affected teacher mindsets about district efforts. I invited as many teachers as I could think of to attend the presentation, with the hopes that it represented a turn-around on communication, and also to leave constructive feedback. The overwhelming response I got was "what's the point?" and "we've already been down this road and look where we're at." As a result, although the feedback had depth and expert knowledge, it came from only a handful of individual teachers and one tech committee from our biggest high school. The presentation was a surprise to most of the attendees, as it represented a vision built in almost total isolation of the teachers who would be expected to carry it out, and the follow-up statements bore no evidence that the feedback had been taken into consideration. I fear we passed some tipping point at which a collective approach is no longer feasible or maybe even desirable. Perhaps this is for the best; I've never been a fan of groupthink anyways. When everyone in a room fervently agrees that something must be right, I tend to get a nervous feeling that something bad is going to happen. Smaller, off-the-radar cells of innovation continue as ever, and I believe these are the real hearths of change, because they represent some form of yes in action. The evidence can be seen in how innovation proliferates for a few years in pockets and eventually leaders recognize that these teachers and others have anticipated an important trend and start talking the same language. The danger of this cycle is that when something that is under intense scrutiny (like inquiry-based learning or project-based learning) gains momentum, using the "right language" signifies that "we get it, now." This is how cliches are born, such that I now find myself looking for new words to describe what I do so as not to sound like the repetitious and often shallow discussions on 21st century learning. It works as a hashtag (or blog tag like the one I've used here) because we all know what to expect, but it can't stand in for real ideas grounded in contexts. It's gotten to be ridiculous in our district and probably everywhere in the province (easy to see on Twitter) -- anyone who does anything with a problem-solving skill, a team effort, or social media calls it 21st Century Learning to indicate that they have joined the "movement." I'd love to see more show and less tell... which is the whole point of this blog post: a choice program built on "21st Century" principles needs much more than suggestive language, borrowed no less, to inspire confidence.

This brings me back to the Nov 22nd board meeting. The proposal hits on all of the keywords of the new government plan, and will no doubt test the appetite for "21st Century Learning" among staff, students, and parents. It will also test some contract expectations related to distributed learning ratios, instructional time, school-based supervision responsibilities, etc. At this stage the proposal seems to be at the idea level and does not yet appear to be a teacher-driven program, as there are many teachers at the host school that are unaware of this initiative, and have not been involved in the program planning. I realize, however, that staff-admin consultation is difficult during the current job action.

The proposal does have positive potential, though, and I believe the incoming board should use the discussion of this program proposal as an opportunity to thaw some of the disconnect between teacher & student innovation with technology-embedded learning and a restrictive set of practices from the board office on similar projects elsewhere. Teacher buy-in, particularly by technology leaders, is required for success as they will do the heavy lifting for this kind of program and have felt sidelined by the school district on a range of technology issues over the last eight years. The program might also fulfill one of the key recommendations from the QLG group in 2004. The QLG was a district-supported teacher & admin group that researched blended, distributed, personalized, and online education models. They suggested that all secondary schools encourage and be supported for pilots that combined dynamic teacher and student-group time with online learning and project-based learning. The QLG recommendations related to wide school-based online learning pilots were not well accepted by the board office at the time and the mandate for developing online learning was instead given to our distance educational school. This school is also responsible for wide range of community and alternative programs, and was focused on doing well by these tasks, and has not been able to make the focus on blended learning a priority.

There are an amazing programs, projects, teachers, leaders, students, and learning environments (with or without technology) throughout our district -- and there is always room for change. The problem is that educational change that sinks in and makes a long-term impact requires a high standard for both leadership and also teacher involvement. This is very hard to effect at a class-by-class basis, or to pursue without coordination. It can also be expensive. For a district-wide choice program that claims to lead the way for a new style of learning, I expect it to attain a higher standard for thorough, original, and inclusive planning. The bumpy start and fallout from the proposal’s contents should not be a dismissal of the need to take “21st Century Learning” ideas seriously. Rather, it should initiate a new emphasis on depth of preparation, vigorous discussion, professional writing, avoidance of cliche, and careful critical inquiry into how our programs and pedagogy adapt to the changing world around us. In this regards I would agree with the board member that said “we are a can-do district” if we can use these kinds of discussions to show we are focused on the ultimate impact on the student experience in our school system, and are willing to put in the hard work for teaching, learning design, and coordination. That's the positive part that I want to take away from this experience.

I get excited by possibilities for what we can do, what my students can do, and I try to be thorough about it, ask lots of questions and so on -- I really hope that "thorough" doesn't become an anachronism in our education system. I'm a bit gloomy about present structures and practices, but the past and future stand on either side to show promise and suggest a better way. Feel free to fact-check my history of tech in SD57, or to leave a comment with your own thoughts.

1 comment:

Thielmann said...

Thanks for your patience. This blog post has been edited too many times to count; probably a few mistakes still lingering. If there any factual errors, please leave a comment! While this is filled with opinions, I believe they are valid observations based on facts, and balance critique with positive suggestions. I wrote this because I've been asked so many questions about what "21st Century Learning" looks like that I wanted to gather a full set of thoughts in one place to which I can refer, and lay out a bit of school district history re collective efforts to address the role of tech. In the context of an emerging issue, I also want to make a few points and move on, so as not to let this consume me... too many other cool things going on to get hung up on this.