One doesn’t have to go too far away to hear conversations about change, especially in the field of education. Change often comes with new leadership, that’s a given, but change in our field has been actively discussed, really, since Dewey’s writings in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Since I’ve been involved in the field, beginning fifteen years ago, I’ve seen large scale discussions of change too. I’ve heard ideas on teachers covering global awareness, twenty-first century skills, workplace readiness, and producing a tech-savvy graduating class. The inequities across class, race, and wealth also have a place among discussions in the education field, including on how best to eliminate disparities and how to give every student a full opportunity to reach their potential.
I got into this field for a number of reasons, none of which are terribly important. But the reason I’ve grown passionate within the field is the opportunity I’m afforded to make things better. I recently heard a discussion around “paradigm change in the classroom,” and my ears perked. This type of change is what really engages me.
Almost any source will tell you that the role of change agent—if in fact it’s a person or group—is a tough one. People are resistant to change, at least if they’re comfortable in their current state of equalibrium. While my title or my role is often tagged with something to do with technology, I primarily see myself as a change agent. We come in different varieties, but I have tried to focus upon being the patient type, omnipresent to help. I recently came across a phrase which I think summarized my position fairly well: a continuous, gentle push.
If we’re going to talk about a paradigm shift in our classrooms (here, or anywhere, really), we have to have a clear vision of what that means. It’s not enough to run away from a school, screaming “whatever is going on in there now stinks, and we have to change it to something else… anything!” At least not in a district/division like Goochland, which by many measures, is doing a lot of the right things for our kids, both in- and outside the classroom.
Our new strategic plan attempts to define what our priorities for improvement will be over the next 5-6 years. And there’s a lot in there that deals with instruction. If we look into the fine details, there’s got to be something lurking within that deals with a paradigm change in classrooms. I see phrases like “deeper learning,” “engagement,” and “personalization” that might be candidates. I know I’ve used my role on our instructional leadership team, and as an instructional technologist, to advocate for where I think we should be headed. By no mistake, my own thinking has been articulated in our strategic plan, congruently, I might add, by my colleagues who crafted each word in consultation with many stakeholders.
As we articulated together all of the dreamy ideas we had about where our schools should be in six years, a phrase emerged that really captured the essence of this vision for classroom instruction. And by definition, the task ahead is to move toward that vision. That’s the classroom paradigm change or shift before us. I’m confident in the six years ahead we’ll be well on our way.
If I were choosing a label, I’d call it “Personalized Inquiry-based Learning,” and if you need an abbreviation or acronym to remember that, it’d be PIbL. I’m a big fan of project-based approaches for learning, as well as those we might categorize as constructionist (the preferred term by Dr. Seymour Papert, who adapted his own theory after Piaget’s concept of constructivism). The sentiments, at least on the surface, are similar but involve the idea that we learn best through the creation of knowledge. The way this happens? Through experiences. The key then is to design experiences where kids can learn through the process of creation. The classic terminology might be “create lessons where kids can learn.” But lessons are rigid, formally-designed experiences, neatly abstracted like the storyboard for a sitcom. Don’t worry, if the lesson is boring, it will be over in just 28 more minutes. The key to the constructionist approach, I believe, is that we’re asking kids to many times create and sometimes innovate. And to do that, we have to have their engagement in the experience. They have to want to be doing and constructing, it has to be enticing. I could extend this thinking by positing that these experiences should be personalized for our students, so that they can apply their own interests, strengths, and needs for growth into the learning process.
The formal design of inquiry-based instruction does not necessarily follow one model. Our G21 program was designed to introduce to everyone of our teachers and students a method of learning that focused effort on the development of one or more of twelve twenty-first century skills in the production of a product or performance. Roughly speaking, it was a framework for product-created learning experiences. It’s cousin, if you will, is Project-Based Learning. Projects many times involve a product, but can be slightly more complex in planning. Another “relative” in instructional design, problem-based learning forces students to confront a problem, where they apply already acquired and new knowledge to solve the problem, often in the context of a small group. The commonality between all of these frameworks is the role of inquiry, or putting the student in the role of actively questioning what they need to know, applied to a simple problem, or a complex project. The very nature of having to figure something out, like a puzzle for instance, has a somewhat engaging aspect to it. The key, I believe, is supporting this interest that leads to engagement is a school-wide climate that encourages the type of open-ended thinking that so often is required in inquiry-based learning experiences. I know that the climate of standardized testing has done quite the opposite for many students. Some education pundits posit that standardized testing has killed creativity and problem-solving in schools, focusing everyone on finding the right answer from a choice list of four to five.
So, I could ramble on. But my point is this: we’re headed in a direction to try and change what teaching and learning looks like in our county, centered around experiences that personalize learning, with inquiry-based approaches. It does not mean that everything we’ve done is old and will be thrown away. We’ll start with our best exemplars for teaching, and replace others. For some classrooms, the changes might be more radical than in others. It’s safe to say that inquiry and personalization are not foreign to our teachers. What’s important to realize for everyone is that this change will be gradual.
For one, we’re taking the challenge of offering ubiquitous computing opportunities to students slowly at a pace that we can handle technically. We can do a lot of preparation for getting the technology, but in all honesty, we’ve been preparing for this for many years. The real transformation can’t really happen until teachers and students both have ready and regular, reliable access to learning tools and resources.
Technology will help in some ways with student engagement. The research I’ve looked at suggests that many districts see positive correlations to 1:1 programs in the first several years with attendance rates, graduation rates, and a reduction of discipline issues. But engagement is not the whole story.
Technology is, as I describe in our upcoming instructional newsletter, Explorations in Learning, a bicycle for the mind. In the case of our iPad 1:1 program, the omnipresent iPad in kids’s hands means they can look up a fact or answer a factual question any time of the school day. They have a multiplicity of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and online fact books at the ready. It is obvious, then, that technology supports a classroom paradigm grounded in inquiry.
Yet, technology’s greatest contribution to the ideas behind “PIbL” is the economy it provides in creating new knowledge. This was Papert’s point in his book The Children’s Machine, that a computer made the experience of creation, in a digital or virtual realm, so much more economical than some of the same things you could do with real physical objects in the world.
In my visits with schools and district leaders with one-to-one programs, I see those who have loaded their devices with drill and practice games. I’ve seen all sorts of digital textbooks. These resources are clearly grounded in the state standards and have little to do with a new classroom paradigm. We can do that, but I’d like us to aim beyond. I have no doubt that as we continue our program, we will standardize on a learning management system where teachers can present the requisite content. Students will have access to this content and be able to interact with it in ways that go beyond the textbooks and worksheets that still remain a tried and true staple of learning in schools today. But the changes we’d like to see in pedagogy will take time. If we move too fast, the process of change is too uncomfortable. If we move too slowly, we won’t see a return in our investments in expenditures on technology and new resources, not to mention training. But time and time again those who have already gone through ubiquitous computing programs report that staggering the roll-out of technology, and proceeding with constant, ongoing professional development is the key to doing it right.
At the end of the day, someone is liable to ask “Why?” What needs changing, and for what reasons? Why should there be a classroom paradigm change?
I can articulate a few reasons, none of which are particularly new or novel.
- Students show less engagement in the school system the longer they’re in school. (Dr. Geyer discusses this in an upcoming article he wrote for Explorations in Learning.)
- Both employers and tests for college entrance are moving more towards a model where students have to be able to demonstrate understanding and apply knowledge, not just recall knowledge.
- Our charge with technology goes way beyond making sure students can turn things on and cover basic operations. Today, we want kids who often come to us with those skills to be able to solve problems with these tools, responsibly. School is the place to develop skills in communication, collaboration, and inventive thinking with these tools. Workplace readiness metrics tell us these are among the skills in most high deficit by previous high school and college graduated students.
- As educators and as citizens in our communities we share a moral imperative to do what’s best for our country’s next generation. In part, this means we apply what we know about school success, lifelong success, the neuroscience behind learning, and what the individual needs and aspirations of our students are to our educational system. This includes bringing equity of opportunity to all students, using data to track progress and course-correct instruction, and divorce ourselves of the education model that was originally conceived to prepare a workforce for the industrial age.
To get where we’re going, I believe we need to:
- Share our vision about what our school division can be, at its best. We’ll be formally sharing this with our staff on February 14, in the afternoon with all of our teachers beginning at 1:45 PM;
- Work towards developing every one of our employees of their role, our mission, and our vision, as communicated in the plan;
- Plan, align, and execute a continuous professional development program that leverages our instructional leaders, including teacher leaders, towards building capacity to improve our ability with instruction, focusing on personalizing it for every student. We believe this improvement will come from inquiry-based approaches.
- Provide the tools and resources that support inquiry-based instruction models;
- Re-fashion our concept of curriculum to become a rich and organized, digital collection of resources for learning. This will only be possible after we have experience and exposure in our efforts towards deeper learning, as teachers firmly in the role as facilitators.
Thank for you taking the time to read this. No doubt, this is a draft of my current thinking on the ideas behind change. I won’t be doing the work alone, but in concert with our other district leaders who also bring a wealth of experience and ideas to the execution of our strategic plan. The fact that so many of our teachers have already welcomed the change I describe is a testament to my certainty that together, we can succeed at maximizing the potential of every student. Change may be a challenge, but hard fun is the best kind of engagement towards our commitment to education.