What follows is the first installment of my networked thinking about our current learning situation. I currently serve as the principal of a middle school for students in grades 6 through 9 in a mid-sized school district in British Columbia. My thinking is influenced by my observations and work with our learning community. It is also influenced by my very valuable Professional Learning Network (PLN) which is comprised of professionals I respect and learn from. During this time of intense learning I have accessed several key outside sources as well: the Silver Lining for Learning conversations; conversations facilitated by Rod Allen (BC Education Transformation); and other on-going on-line sources such as Education Week , Edutopia, and Twitter.
The premise of this piece and those to follow is simple: the COVID19 crisis has created an opportunity for us to examine what we consider to be schooling with an eye to improvement. However, for this to happen, we need to learn and grow from our experiences. That does not happen in isolation or without reflection. This post is my attempt to work with this.
For years we have seen how difficult our education system is to change even when we know better. Four elements have repeatedly been identified as needing innovation in education:
- Changing pedagogical approaches
- Regrouping of adults
- Regrouping of learners
- Rescheduling of learning
Overnight all four occurred. This is the most powerful learning moment for educators I have ever seen. Not only are we forced to confront many of our assumptions, but we have been thrust back into the role of the learner which should help inform our practice as our perspectives change. The artificial structures of control that we had in our buildings are gone and power to control learning has shifted to our students. We need to listen. We have an opportunity to walk in the margins of the system and engage the voices and experiences of our students and their families so that we can better meet their needs if we care to. To learn from this moment, we need to empower people to tell their stories so we can find the best things for learning and then amplify them.
We have had vulnerable learners in our building for the past two weeks and in another week, we will be inviting many more students back on a part-time basis. Before this happens, I want to get some feedback from our learning community. I created three surveys this week that I have distributed to our students, parents, and staff. I recognize this is not perfect methodology, nor is it the only way I plan to gather such information, but I will share my questions here for those who want to replicate or improve upon them for their own learning and growth.
“We have experienced crisis schooling together with no rule book and no experience. We struggled, we thrived, and we learned together. I want to hear your story. Let’s write the next chapter together. Please take some time to reflect and answer the questions in this survey so that we can continue to learn and grow from our experiences.”
For our students:
- What grade are you currently in?
- What has your daily experience of learning at home been like?
- What is working for you through remote learning?
- What is not working for you through remote learning?
- What do you wish learning looked like?
- Do you have any final comments?
For our parents:
- What has the experience of learning at home been like for your child(ren)?
- What has the experience of having your child(ren) home for learning been like for you?
- What has worked well for learning from home?
- What has not worked well for learning from home?
- What do you wish learning for your child(ren) looked like?
- Please add any other comments, suggestions, or questions you would like us to hear.
For our staff:
- What is your role in our school (teacher or support staff)?
- What has worked well for our students in the remote learning environment? How do you know?
- What has not worked well for our students in the remote learning environment? How do you know?
- Who has this type of learning worked well for? Why?
- Who has this type of learning not worked will for? Why?
- What has worked well for you?
- What has not worked well for you?
- What have you learned through this transition in learning?
- Please add any other comments, suggestions, or questions you think we should hear.
I will share the results of these surveys in subsequent posts as the results will inform the more granular work we will be doing as we plan forward. Right now, my work is at the more general level. On reflection, and after listening to a BCPVPA webinar with Dr. Simon Breakspear, two other questions I wish I had asked of our students is “What did you get better at over time in managing your own learning? What did it take from you in order to improve?”
Currently we are working to develop three plans by the end of June to guide our work in September: one plan for if we are back for face-to-face instruction, one plan for a hybrid style of instruction similar to the stage we are about to enter in June, and a third plan for if we return to a fully remote learning platform. My current thinking is focused on five areas of priority.
- We need to focus on relationships. The schools and students, internationally, that have done the best or thrived in the remote learning environment are the ones who have done the best jobs of developing and managing positive relationships. We all benefited from having our student for two-thirds of the school year before we moved to remote learning this time, so we were able to capitalize on our positive relationships with families and students: we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility this will not happen in September.I think there are some key pieces that should be in place to help develop positive relationships. I believe that there should be a single point of contact for each student that co-manages the learning program with the student and their family. In our school our homeroom teachers are responsible for the learning programs for their single class of students. This has been valuable. Our teachers need to be responsive to the communities and contexts for each of their students and they need to engage with parents to co-create a meaningful and manageable learning program for each student. This is particularly challenging with multiple points of contact.
- We need to focus on what is important and what is manageable. Rather than seeking out many of the exemplary on-line resources, we need to make sure there is a continuity of contact between kids and their teachers, both synchronously and asynchronously. We should focus more on the skills we are teaching our students than on the content outcomes. For example, executive skills become increasingly important when the structures of a classroom do not provide them. Developing skills for the self-regulation of learning will pay dividends in the short-term and the long-term: we all need them for success. In addition, having teachers focusing on fewer electronic supports allows them to get better at the ones they use, and target supports to individual student needs. Finally, we need to increase the importance we place on social-emotional learning. For example, resilience is one of the most valuable aptitudes we can possess, therefore, we should make it a priority to teach. The Core Competencies in British Columbia’s redesigned curriculum can provide good guidance for this work. Imagine if we built our curriculum with the Core Competencies as the end goal and worked backwards.
- Co-create meaningful learning experiences with our students and their families. Teachers should shift their focus from directing learning to guiding student growth; we need to think bigger. The trunk of the tree can be the curriculum, but the branches are all the places our students can take that curriculum. We should be encouraging our students to do things that matter. Learning needs to be driven by purpose and the best way to do this is to make the learning real, with real problems and messy solutions. Every child wants to be an agent of their own learning, so we need to figure out how to support them to do that. One of the ways we can do this is by helping them to ask meaningful questions that guide their learning. Another way to support this development is to connect them with each other, locally and globally, to learn through collegial and diverse relationships. Students need to be able to self-organize to manage life, and agency is very important, but students need support to do this. As they approach adolescence their first level of support becomes their peers; therefore, we should mindfully find ways to connect them in meaningful work.
- Assessment needs to change from marks and grades for “finished” work to feedback and trials that promote growth and learning. Sadly, much of the assessment done during the remote learning phase was assessment of privilege not of learning. Those who has access to technology, conducive home spaces, and adult support were able to thrive, and our marks reinforced their pre-eminence at the expense of learning. One of the positive things I have seen during the past two months has been the increase in performance-based assessments. Where teachers have been flexible, they have been rewarded with their students sending in videos, songs, and narratives of their learning from a myriad of curricula on a myriad of platforms. Interestingly, in most cases the demonstrated learning crosses multiple curricular targets seamlessly and students have independently learned skills to achieve this. When assessment moves away from marks, learning and value increase.
- We need to consciously develop our leadership for times and contexts of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). Those organizations able to work with VUCA were able to take this seismic disruption and innovate for long-term improvement. This takes very different leadership skills than when times are calm and predictable. This begins by gaining clarity about our values and beliefs and then using that clarity to guide our actions and priorities. Those values and beliefs need to be clearly articulated and visibly acted on. Organizations that do not have a constructivist, growth-oriented belief system will struggle with VUCA. Just because we don’t know how to do something does not give us permission not to try. We need to create and support cultures that embrace risk-taking to benefit children. We also need to mindfully meet the needs of our most vulnerable without excuse. And, as we take this journey, we need to be sensitive to the incredible strain and pressure these times are putting on us as professionals. As leaders we need to find information to help people maintain their health. We need to be empathetic and present. More so now than in times of calm, I strongly encourage us to support whole-staff share-ins where we can connect and grow together. I am not advocating that we seek VUCA; however, I am suggesting it is more common than we allow for and it would be wise to prepare ourselves for its onset and, if it doesn’t happen, we still have good educational practice.
I recognize that this is an incomplete description of a plan for September; however, I do believe it is a start and can serve as a framework for future learning, thinking and conversations. I also recognize that I have not fully developed any of these five foci. I am curious if you think that any of the areas of focus are unnecessary, or if I have missed areas that need to be considered. I admit, I have far more questions than answers, but the experience of the past two months has provided us with many lessons learned and I want to believe that they will help us improve the work we do with students to support their growth and learning.
About the author: Gerald Fussell has a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Education, and a Masters in Curriculum Leadership from the University of Victoria. He is currently working on his Doctorate at the University of Kansas. He serves as the principal of a middle school for students in grades 6 through 9 in the Comox Valley, British Columbia. Gerald has been active in projects related to assessment, educational change, and inquiry driven learning. More information about Gerald Fussell can be found at his web-site, on his blog (http://whynot-gfussell.blogspot.com/), or on Twitter (@GFussell).