Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts from the Mosey Road

I like to drive what my colleague Dixie Good calls the Mosey Road. The roads or streets with less traffic and less anxiety. I look for roads with good flow. I don’t need to go 75, or even 55; just cruising is fine, often better, so long as I don’t have to stop frequently. Typically these roads are framed by interesting scenery -- neighborhoods; open spaces; industrial zones...  

Aside from the pure pleasure of the easy ride, gazing at the world as it rolls by, the Mosey Road frequently rewards me with Big Thoughts. Mulling mostly -- ideas, reflections on things done, anticipation of things to do. Ruminations. Occasionally a burst of insight -- though often my insights are essentially Revelations of the Obvious.

What does this have to do with 21st century learning? I’m getting there.

Today, driving the Mosey Road back to Denver from an appointment in Boulder, I meditated at some length on contour and texture. Driving south out of Boulder, you can follow State Highway 93, a two-lane road that winds through open foothills that flank the first uplift of the Front Range. Beautiful drive, though thick with cars and impatient drivers hurrying between Boulder and Golden. Three or four miles south of Boulder, you turn east onto State Highway 128, also two lanes and much less traveled. (Note the literary reference.) 128 traverses a large, long, moraine-like finger that points out from the foothills into the wide valley surrounding Denver, gesturing to the wide prairie beyond. The road winds through 6-7 miles of open, grass-covered hills, making wide, luxurious curves, climbing up to a ridgeline, then swooping down into valleys to cross from one ridgeline to another.


Not just visually pleasing. There's some rhythm, some internal resonance. The drive and the countryside give one -- give this one at least -- a sense of joy and contentment. I feel good just being there.

My primary theory, at least today, for why I always get this upwelling of joy is that it's a combination of the contour of the hills, the gentle wind of the road, and the texture of the grasses and shrubs, the occasional tree, the boulders poking up through the soil. Something primordial in me is touched by this irregular geometry -- by this lay of the land. It feels like home. It feels right.

The same rich feeling comes to me in the mountains, along streams and rivers, in the rolling prairie, beside the ocean.

I think it comes through the compelling allure, for humans, of uneven, unpredictably organized, asymmetric, unfurling landscape. And not just visual landscapes. It happens as well in what we like to hear, how we like to think, the way our feelings and our lives go. Chaotic patterns that fascinate and comfort us, that keep us in flow.

And now I’m getting closer to the point about 21st century learning.

It’s a fascinating irony that, as a species, we seem compelled to impose order on the very chaos that, intrinsically, we love. It’s as though we fear the tumbling flight we love to take. We must tame it. So, we make things straight. We trim the rough edges. We build. We describe. We instruct.

We use. We tame. We make rules. We punish.

As teachers, we think that the best thing we can do for learners is to package our knowledge and give it to them. OmiGAWD, we think, getting that knowledge was SUCH hard work... for us. But we will make it easier for you! We’ll provide you with the all information you need, neatly packaged, so you can get it right away. I struggled with math, but here, use these formulas in those particular ways, and you’ll do just fine! It took me 40 years to learn how to write essays, and I’m STILL trying to figure it out. But here, follow these principles and apply those rules of style and language, and you will be a competent writer.

Oh, and by the way, if while you’re trying to learn, you mess up... I really want to help. But that work you just did... That’s a C.

I don’t mean, not at all, that all learning should be free-form, open discovery. Yea, Structure! Yea, Guidance! Yea, COACHing!! I’m a big fan.

I’m just contemplating, as I mosey along, the fascinating ambivalence we have about the compelling, heart-opening beauty of contour and texture and our simultaneous need to bring everything under control and put it all in order.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Well-Designed PLC.... Really

In my previous post ("Professional Learning Communities... really"), I raved about the St. Vrain Valley School District’s PLC model, the Digital Learning Collaborative. I can only hint at the intricate detail of the DLC’s excellent learning design here; if you want to know more, check the resources at the end of the previous post. But I want to touch briefly on three elements of the design: blended learning, structured process, and teacher inquiry.

Blended Learning. The DLC’s hybrid online/face-to-face approach may be an essential design element for “online” professional development. In addition to the blogs and Google Apps that participants learn to use for ongoing collaborative work, building teams (four teachers in a building) meet face-to-face once a month. Team leaders (one from each building team) also meet face-to-face once a month. That connection creates community in ways that digital connection by itself cannot — at least, it seems so to this digital immigrant.

Structured Process. The DLC’s dynamic structure for shaping the processes of learning can free the mind. Project leaders Bud Hunt and Michelle Bourgeois put their primary attention on clarifying how they want participants to do the work rather than on what participants will learn from doing it. They believe — and observations by my excellent colleague, Dixie Good, and I confirm — that if the work is well-structured, the learning will be powerful. The DLC process structure includes:
  • requirements about meeting frequency and length;
  • a template agenda for meetings;
  • guidance on team process issues;
  • forms for teams’ progress and outcome reports;
  • frequent required pauses for written reflection;
  • coaching on how to conduct teacher inquiry and collaborative work.
Notice that the process structure is not a restraint; it’s a support system. Template and forms are adapted to suit individual needs. Reflections both cement what’s being learned and raise new questions. Rules, for the most part, are made to be bent. This explicit, dynamic structure enables participants to become more skillful at the work of learning, of course. But it also allays many of the anxieties associated with learning, and, as a result, makes it easier for the participants to learn boldly.

Teacher Inquiry. This aspect is especially significant. In the first year of DLC participation, teachers are encouraged to explore tools and acquire some mastery in using them. In the second year, each teacher (or building teams collectively) conducts an action research project. If I use Tool X with Strategy Y, what measurable outcome will occur? Of course, the explicit outcomes sought are increases in student achievement. But the broader outcomes that also occur — and frequently in much more dramatic, albeit more subjectively measured, fashion — are changes in the nature of both the students’ and the teachers’ learning. As one elementary school teacher told me,
It’s making a difference in the kids. Just putting the work under the document camera. Is it proficient? Is it really ready for you to share with the other students? Then they go back to look at it some more. Their work is better because of it. Plus, other kids comment and make suggestions. So my class is becoming a student-led class. And you know what a control freak I am. I maybe instruct for two days, then they teach each other for three.
This teacher credits the technology. I’ve observed her class; it’s the teaching that’s changed.

It seems obvious that the learning districts provide for the adults will find its way to the children. That assumption is typically reflected in what districts ask the adults to learn. The DLC demonstrates that how the adults learn matters more — and that how they the adults learn can help to transform how they mediate the learning of their students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Professional Learning Communities… really…

The idea of Professional Learning Communities, appealing in the abstract, has suffered during the NCLB decade by its connection to tedious and frustrating review of NCLB-mandated measures of academic achievement. For many educators the term ‘PLC’ has come to mean torturous sessions in which the participants mutually expose their inability to ensure that all children will do well on state tests.

But there is another way.

In Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District, 35 miles north of Denver, teachers join the district's Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC) for blended professional learning that’s truly collegial, contextual, and continuous — and, most amazingly, actually helps them learn things they really want to know in order to support the learning of their students. The “digital” part of DLC isn’t really what makes it different from PLCs as they’ve generally come to be experienced — although the use of collaborative digital tools is both substantial and effective. Holding for the moment the impact of superb guidance by St. Vrain professional development leaders Michelle Bourgeois and Bud Hunt, the big difference between this and most PLCs is its focus on authentic professional inquiry. As if teachers were still learners… Imagine that…

The theme for this professional inquiry is effective use of edtech to support students’ learning. But what edtech? What student learning? What effective use? The participants decide. In fact, each participant decides. As they pursue their various explorations, each and all participants get support from their building teammates, from other DLC members, and, of course, from Michelle and Bud.

My excellent colleague, Dixie Good, and I have had the marvelous opportunity to observe these teacher/learners closely over the past two years. We have watched them grow, not merely in their ability to use educational tools but in their ability to work and learn together. Here, for example, are what a couple of teachers have said about the DLC experience:
  • “I began to look at this work as being more integrated with my thinking about learning as a whole rather than as a way to incorporate the bright shiny objects.”
  • “Belief about technology use itself did not change, but my existing belief about the importance of collaboration and continual professional growth is stronger than ever, particularly with regard to using technology in our professional practice with students.”
I’ll have more to say about the DLC -- why it works and why it matters -- in my next post. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the DLC, follow the links below.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Since Last We Met…

The 2010-11 school year was a busy one for C21L, which might help (though not really) to explain why this blog bogged after October of 2010. The opening of a new school year brings new resolve.

Let’s start with some catching up:

Promising Practices Videos
Partnering with eight school districts, C21L is preparing more than 60 video segments to document the work of teachers in learning In and For the 21st century. The video segments (each 3-5 minutes in length) capture the rationale and strategies these educators are using to implement 21st century learning. The videos are being posted to C21L's Vimeo website during Fall 2011.

Some of the teachers involved in this project presented information about their promising practices during the Colorado TIE (Technology in Education) Conference in June. Their session — Promising Practitioners of 21st Century Learning — was also captured on video and will also be posted soon.

One promising practitioner has received national attention for his work. Phil Hutcherson, featured on the C21L Promising Practice video Differentiation and Innovation*, was named a national Math Hero by Raytheon Corporation in Fall 2010. Phil teaches math at West Middle School in Colorado Springs School District 11. It pays to be a hero… sort of. In addition to a personal award, our Math Hero scored $2,500 for West MS. The funds support a schoolwide subscription to ePals, a secure platform for collaboration across cultures. Phil’s larger goal? "I just want to change the world," he says. He might do it too.

At the TIE Conference, and again at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) National Conference (ISTE 2011: Unlocking Potential), C21L presented three tools for helping educators analyze their progress in implementing 21st century learning. The primary tool is C21L’s rubric for Assessing Learning For the 21st Century, which provides thumbnail descriptions in four areas of practice (targets, assessments, experiences, environments). The supporting tools are C21L’s Classroom Observation and Building Walk-through forms, which help educators collect data on their practices. Using the rubric to the guide and analyze practices, educators can meaningfully apply data to planning and professional learning.

* FYI - eSchool News has featured the C21L Promising Practices video of Phil Hutcherson at least twice.

Monday, September 26, 2011

C21L Now On iTunes U Colorado

Through C21L's new iTunes U Colorado channel, educators may now access C21L's Promising Practices videos and resource tools. Launched at TIE 2011, Colorado on iTunes University will feature a wealth of educational and professional development resources. The 10 videos currently available include examples of how to implement 21st century learning strategies. C21L has also begun posting its resource tools designed to help educators deepen their understanding of 21C learning.

Watch for dozens of additional videos from our partner districts in upcoming months.