Saturday, March 13, 2010

How About a Twittference?

I've been using Twitter as a professional tool for about three months now. Many of my colleagues don't understand when I tell them that using Twitter has been the most beneficial professional development experience I have had in sixteen years of teaching, and I am being totally sincere when I say that.

The connections I have made to intelligent and thoughtful people, the resources they use, the ideas they have and the stimulating dialog they offer have been unbelievable- all for free and in the simplest form of distributed learning I have experienced by far. So in the context of professional development, I've been wondering lately how this wonderful medium can be spread to include more teachers that have their own intellect, resources, ideas and conversations to share. I've been wondering too if there is a way to combine Twitter for educators with the the more traditional elements of teacher professional development conferences that people seem to remain comfortable with in our profession (face to face, keynote speakers, the social factor of networking, trade displays, etc.)

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy conferences and have spoken at many, but lately I'm concerned that big ideas and good messages that should stick, don't as a result of the drive through PD format that is so prevalent these days. One shot two or three hour mini-seminars leave many feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to go next with a concept before they trudge off to the next two or three hour mini-seminar. Many conferences have become so huge, with so many topics and conversations going on, that I fear that participants fail to see the trees for the forest. They get lost in the magnitude of the process at the expense of zoning in on a key bit of information that could lead to a long-term, sustainable change in the way they operate.

So here's my idea... what if the sharpness and 'get to the point' qualities of Twitter could be applied to a large scale conference? I see delegates being offered 'sessions' that would be, say fifteen minutes long (leaving lots of opportunity for in-between time to meet new people, build networks, reflect) on any number of topics, but that were organized like hashtags into broader sections (for example- assessment, technology, literature, behavior, etc.) for organizational purposes. Each fifteen minute session would include a condensed and specific introduction to the idea, topic, pedagogical idea or whatever, and once introduced, each topic could be extended and discussed via Twitter under the hashtag that corresponds to it.  Handouts would be limited to one page including a list of web links that the presenter wanted to include that correspond to the topic and could serve to extend the concept. It would be kind of like speed dating; quick and dirty, no frills and hopefully leading to a longer term connection via the extension of each topic on Twitter and through the web links each presenter would provide.

I'm thinking a cool way to introduce Twitter to delegates at this conference who aren't familiar with it would be to offer a keynote tutorial showing people the basics. For those who are familiar with Twitter, any number of extra keynotes could also be offered addressing other big picture education reform topics or inspirational messages (and I've met many via Twitter that could provide these messages.) In addition to the whole thing being planned on Twitter and marketed through the education tweeters network, I think restricting speaker proposals from those who already access Twitter would keep the project grounded in Twittilosophy. They would propose their session presentations via #Twittference2010. A small group of organizers and logistics specialists would take care of the schedule and location, and we're off!

What do you think?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Calling All Experts- What is Authentic Learning?

flickr CC image via mzagor

Learning should be an organic, concentric process, not a linear one. The world surrounds us; it's not a point to point path. However, our education system is set up as a from here to there journey- not a great reflection of the broader world we are a part of. Enter authentic learning.

There is a debate brewing over what authentic learning looks, sounds and feels like, I just know it. I'm hearing people make reference to the term, but I'm not sure if people know what it means. I'm not even sure if I know what it means. I have my point of view on the concept, but I haven't actually heard a definitive explanation. Sad it would be if the potential value of what authentic learning has to offer kids were to be diminished as a result of teachers bantering the term about without actually creating authentic learning in their classrooms. (Reminds me of what's happened with PLC's. Alarmingly, many teachers claim to be involved within a professional learning community, but they have no idea what Richard DuFour intended that to actually mean... I know because I've asked them.)

So what is an authentic learning environment? Here's some examples of what I think an authentic learning environment might look, sound or feel like:
  • Kids who go home at the end of the day and do homework that I didn't assign, but that is totally related to what we did in class that day
  • Unit and lesson plans that adjust for the unforeseen possibilities that crop up in an organic learning environment (a.k.a. teachers who aren't slaves to their well-thought out plans for instruction; those that think on their feet)
  • Evaluation and assessment practices that reflect student's progress against his/her personal goals and aspirations, and that are relative to where the student jumped off at the beginning of the learning journey
  • Learning activities that provide multiple formats and opportunities to display learning
  • Learning that stimulates all modalities; that draws the whole person into the process... there's more to learning than just what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears
  • Learning in three dimensions (can you say paperless teaching?)
  • Kids suggesting what we should do next in whatever class to extend the learning objective we just met
  • Parents knowing what their kids are doing at school because the kids are so darned excited that they can't wait to tell them every day
  • Teaching and learning that understands we are emotional beings; that we need to reach people on personal levels before we can reach them on cognitive levels (and that by doing so, we can go so much further in the cognitive domain)
  • Teaching that exploits all degrees and variations of student strengths without apology with the understanding that there is no limit to what can be learned
  • Teaching from a perspective that doesn't recognize or validate failure, only relative degrees of success
  • Teaching that utilizes various forms of technology as critical tools toward creating authentic learning when the lived experience isn't possible (field trip to the moon)
  • Teaching and learning that incorporates the fine arts and physical movement into all learning activities as opposed to the traditional practise of conducting classes for these as separate 'subjects'
  • Teaching and learning that incorporates the issues, challenges, contexts and mysteries that the broader world provides
  • Teaching and learning that perceives mistakes as critical and valuable elements within the process of searching for understanding
  • Teaching and learning that accepts the connectivity we enjoy in our global environment not as a novelty, but a necessity
  • Teaching and learning that exudes creativity and takes risks understanding that the two mixed together equal opportunity 
OK you experts, how am I doing? I swear I have not looked up authentic learning on Wikipedia, nor have I done research anywhere else on the topic whatsoever. I'm just throwing this out there hoping I'm close to the mark because I sure like the thought of teaching in a class that looks, sounds and feels like what I describe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Drive Through PD

flickr CC image via Robert Couse-Baker

Saying one-shot teacher professional development is a valuable and effective tool toward positive teacher growth is like saying drive through restaurants contribute to long-term health. Serious involvement and meaningful change take time and commitment, neither of which are elements of our profession's most popular form of professional development.

We need to seriously re-think how we do professional development for teachers. There is a pervasive tendency within our profession to add-on to an endless stream of the "latest and greatest" ideas pertaining to teacher growth and the provision of high-quality learning environments. We attend school, district and large (sometimes massive) scale professional development events, for the most part organized around a list of one to three hours sessions discussing (if you're lucky; if not you just sit and listen while a stream of Power Point slides flashes in front of you) virtually everything. There has to be a better way.

It seems to me that it's so easy to "add-on"... teachers are always looking for the latest trend, topic, resource, perspective, etc. to save them from the challenges they face in the classroom. The pendulum swings back and forth as we jump on, and off the bandwagon trail of teaching philosophies and "best practise" trends. I read dozens of comments via Twitter arriving in real time from the recent Association for Supervision and Curiculum Development Conference in San Antonio this past weekend mentioning the overwhelming volume of not-to-be-missed PD offered to delegates. People were saying things like, "I can't wait to put these ideas to good use," or "there's so much going on here, I don't know where to start." I'm not sure these comments are as encouraging as they first seem relative to the provision of authentic and sustainable professional development for teachers.

I must admit, as a presenter, I'm guilty of providing this drive-by style of teacher professional development. When I get my invitation to speak, the parameters regarding the room I'm assigned, the conference schedule, duration of my allotted time and the target audience are all elements that I have no control over. I simply do what fits, and strive to make the content engaging and provocative enough to make sure the participants in my session have a good experience. I try to do things outside the box as much as possible... I tell participants to leave their phones on, and feel free to use them (immediatley after the moderator asks them to please turn them off)... I insert as many interactive possibilities into my presentation as time allows (I have yet to leave a session I presented without having learned something from the session group)... and I try to present thoughts as opposed to knowledge.

Above all though, the most important point I need my session participants to understand is that I don't believe in the use it on Monday approach to teacher PD. There is nothing I can share with my colleagues in one, two or even three hours that has the capacity to change their immediate plans for their classroom. On the contrary, my goal as a PD facilitator is to plant a coneptual or philosophical seed that I encourage participants to continue exploring, and if it resonates with them, great... if not, that's OK too. I usually do alright with this approach; participants often tell me they're appreciative of the provocation.

I don't want to contribute to the never-ending supply of latest and greatest trends about how to do education better; I'm more of an ideas guy. I want to boil contemporary ideas about how to do education better down with the authentic, grassroots and timeless pedagogical ideologies we teachers prescribe to (but sometimes forget about amidst the fervor to find the latest and greatest) so old meets new in a thoughtful and critical manner. Why can't our conferences reflect this concept? Perhaps they can.

Any ideas?

Beliefs- Creativity, Curiosity, Innovation and Imagination

I believe that creativity, curiosity, innovation, and imagination are the benchmarks of vision and problem solving.
flickr CC image via fotologic

In an era of building discontent regarding the state of education in North America, questions about how best to solve our educational problems abound. The vast majority of responsible, hard-working and talented teachers would agree that creativity, curiosity, innovation and imagination are words that describe the sort of positive elements they strive to nurture in their classroom environments working with kids, so it strikes me as ironic that we are so quiet whe it comes to nurturing these elements within the broader professional contexts we work within (curriculum, discipline, assessment, professional development, etc.)

Education reform should not be a linear process. On the contrary, reforming education will work best as an organic, concentric process that does not ever reach a state of quiescence. The common center relative to this concentric model of perpetual improvement is the goal to develop people who will be smarter, healthier and more creative than we are. The children we work with are our gifts for the future, and it is so important that we package them carefully. In order to do this effectively, teachers need to mirror the way they contribute to the education reform process with the creative, curious, innovative and imaginative approaches they exemplify in their classrooms.

Teachers are undoubtedly naturally poised to lead the charge at the front of education change. The exempliary skills they display in their classrooms that have become somewhat latent in the broader context of the profession, (a result of years of transactional departmental control over what they do as professionals,) will need to emerge. To solve the problems we're confronted with in our profession, teachers will need to establish collective vision toward the foreseeable preferred future, but they will also need to grasp the concept that we can only see so far into the future; that the target is a moving one that requires a re-tooling process, a constant re-focusing of our perspective regarding how we will package our gifts. A new culture of change invites us.
"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating."         Henri Bergson
Creativity, curiosity, innovation, and imagination will be the benchmarks that ground our evolving vision and solution focused perspective toward the problems (challenges) that confront us.

Stay tuned.
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