Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Learning Circle University...

So my friend Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX) proclaimed a week or so ago, "let's start a university!" Sounded a little crazy, but hey, I'm game for anything when it comes to collective intelligence around the improvement of teaching and learning. So here's how the story goes so far...

Michael and I speak often, almost daily, with just about anyone who shares our interest and passion for teaching and learning. We have connected with a growing cohort of similarly impassioned individuals and organizations around the world as our personal learning network by leveraging the varied social media outlets we each utilize. The last while, much of our conversation has revolved around the optimization of learning... specifically, what kinds of environments seem to promote learning. I think the key to learning is engagement. How to engage learners is possibly the largest challenge for any teacher. Each individual student possesses a unique and complex learning story that needs to be discovered; no small task. To create an authentic culture of learning that seeks to clarify and expose students' stories, teachers have to know these stories.

The culture of any learning environment is created in a prominent way through the feelings of those immersed within it. Learning is as much, or perhaps more so, an attitude as it is a skill. When we are impacted emotionally, the attitudes we develop can represent deep engagement, or in the case of negative emotions, deep disengagement. Teachers who are disengaged likely will not encourage much positive engagement in their students. There are disengaged teachers among us who probably aren't even aware of the potential impact they may be causing. Michael and I have hypothesized that perhaps these teachers haven't had enough opportunity to be deeply engaged as learners themselves. If teachers were able to follow their passions through self-directed and deeply engaged professional development, they would be living the type of experiences they intend for their students. For this to happen teacher's professional development opportunities need to be supported in the right ways. Enter Learning Circle University (LCU).

Learning circles draw people in; people who crave authentic learning, learning that has meaning for them personally. The mission of Learning Circle University would simply state...
To draw global circles of learning support around all who want to know more.
Michael and I share a belief that education is the lynchpin to an emotionally, socially and morally just society. Teachers are the backbone of the education system, and society needs them to be heavily engaged in the process of producing emotionally, socially and morally just kids. Knowing this, one would think that teachers in training would be immersed in a developmental approach that provides ample opportunity to feel engaged; connected to the process as a result of meaningful learning experiences. Although there were certain teachers I had in my preservice training who very definitely facilitated these experiences, they were the exception to the rule. More typically I attended classes with a couple hundred other disengaged learners trying to memorize the details of all the important pedagogical theorists. I went through dozens of highlighters in my undergraduate coursework. It wasn't until I began my practicum experiences that I felt viscerally connected to the teaching process.

So in the context of preservice teacher training, consider the possibilities if coursework blended less lecture hall with more world. Any element of formal teacher training can be more efficiently delivered through the use of contemporary technology. Twitter cohorts, Google Plus, blogs, Skype etc. allow us to collaborate with our colleagues in focused, distributed and very inexpensive ways making it so easy to get a handle on the fundamentals of teaching and learning theory. While these efforts are being made in all the appropriate distributed ways, individual students, or cohorts of students, (connected in person or by the power of technology,) could design action research projects that put them in a teaching role and address local community needs... preservice teachers learning to teach by teaching while at the same time satisfying a need within their own communities.

No need for a full-service campus, expensive facilities and most importantly, massive tuition costs to support the maintenance of these things. I recently had a conversation with a colleague from the Faculty of Education at the local college. I mentioned the LCU concept to him and we spoke about credentials. We agreed that by streamlining prospective teachers' formal instruction, preservice teachers would have more time to dive deeper, and more innovatively into sharpening their pedagogical skill-sets as applied to on the ground projects. Resources to support these projects would differ depending on the characteristics of the project and how creative participants were in designing each one. They would have to adapt, innovate, find a way to get to yes, or at least maybe. They'd have to reflect, refine and evaluate as each project evolved... critical skills that truly engaged learners exemplify. Students would be assessed on the degree to which skills, attitudes and knowledge proliferated and matured over the course of each project effort. The experience beginning teachers would gain, (planning projects that benefit their local communities, working collaboratively, carrying out the plans, evaluating the plans etc.,) would be invaluable for them and the people they were serving with their efforts.

Some examples:
  • Applying a SOUNS project in a community where kids do not, and may not ever, read if some form of intervention is not applied
  • Building a school in a third world country, then teaching the local population based on their needs and interests
  • Facilitate collaborative partnerships with other helping professionals (social workers, nurses, counselors etc.) who operate within the local community schools
  • Design and implement an educational resource (website, game, video, book etc.,) that would then be used to teach
  • Identifying local educational needs and creating programming that synergizes schools/libraries/museums/community facilities/outdoor spaces and social services to collaboratively address these needs
  • Working proactively with families of preschool aged children to help prepare them (both the families and the kids) for school (habits, attitudes, skills, literacy etc.)
  • Synchronizing community and school library services to streamline and increase access to good books for community kids and their families
I would love to see some of these initiatives happen in my community. All the pieces are in place... preservice teachers longing for authentic, engaging learning experiences; kids and families looking for services and schools wanting to improve their service delivery to the community. I would love to initiate a conversation putting the ball in motion to align the LCU concept, and most importantly, the learning circle philosophy, in the interest of creating a partnership and a conduit for innovative program delivery.

Working with an established institution that would offer the programming possibilities necessary to set up and support the LCU philosophy would be a giant step toward legitimizing the idea. Reaching out through a faculty extension program that could be administered and managed online would be the next step to globalizing the idea. Imagine a global cohort of preservice teachers working collaboratively on local projects, but supporting each other through the magic of social and trans-media connection. Costs would be minimal (likely far cheaper than providing the traditional teacher-training delivery model,) because the projects would surround ideas, not programs... just preservice teachers around the world creating opportunities for themselves to expose innovative and supportive ideas on the ground in the service of educating the community.

Why wouldn't this work?
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