For two months I spent considerable time reflecting on changing the way adult students should learn.
I was scheduled to teach a new course for a Masters program that is currently being offered to our faculty at ASB. The cohort had completed two thirds of the program before taking my course. The course is titled ’21st Century Learning’ and focuses on building an understanding of 21st century skills and the elements of a 21st Century learning environment.
‘A movement has an emotional heart. A movement might use an organization, but it can replace systems and people if they disappear. Movements are more likely to cause widespread change, and they require leaders, not managers.’
I played with the idea of using the course to break the mold and ’cause widespread change.’ It seemed like a great opportunity to create a movement, the kind that Seth Godin describes in his blog
‘It was going to be an immersive learning experience. In order for the students to understand 21st century skills and teaching and learning, they had to experience it.
So I set up the class as a exploratory constructivist learning lab – where the learners had to construct their own knowledge and create their own understanding. This amazing cohort of 25 professionals embraced the stance of active learners, and read, reflected and discussed aspects of 21st century learning. There is really nothing new about 21st century skills. (These skills have always been important but we now need to intentionally and purposefully ensure that all our students have these skills.) The learners participated in various types of learning activities and reflected on these experiences and the application for their practices. They identified and discussed the urgency of changes that are needed in the structure and organization of schooling including scheduling, learning spaces (both physical and virtual), teacher and student roles, the concept of grade levels to support learning, etc. They designed new learning environments for the future. . . Throughout the course they questioned their own and each others’ thinking and practices, nudged each other to think outside the box and envision and redesign learning. The pictures they painted with their new learning designs highlighted ‘the death of education and the dawn of learning’ (Stephen Heppell, Learning to Change, Changing to Learn). . . They arrived on the first day of the course with a lot of questions; they left on the last day with some answers and a lot more questions . . . They left empowered, their emotions stirred and with an eagerness to step out of their comfort zones, and be the change and lead it.
I’ve had a few days now to reflect on my own learning at the end of the course. Some of my early takeaways:
Social constructivists – The experience reinforced my belief that humans are social constructivists and that in order to make sense of new information, we need to interact socially, contributing to each others’ understanding, reflecting upon the understanding, and generating and testing hypothesis collaboratively. This is what the learners in this course did. This has implications for professional development and professional learning.
Authentic Activities – We all know about the research on the importance of creating authentic problem-based projects. The final project for this course was to design new learning environments. The project was not just another assignment to be turned in. The work done by the learners will be used next year to continue to study ways in which we can superstruct teaching and learning. This raises a question in my mind – What are the kinds of professional learning experiences we can design that can support school improvement or school transformation efforts?
Empowering teachers to be leaders – Too often we leave the task of leading change with administrators. We know they should be thinking beyond the core subject areas and asking questions like ‘What skills should students master by the time they graduate from high school? Do they need to be effective communicators and collaborators and critical thinkers?’ If they are not asking these questions or cannot answer them, they should not be the ones to decide what the ideal learning environments need to be. Consider the possibilities if teachers are allowed to expand their thinking about learning environments beyond the traditional classroom. Once teachers are empowered to lead, the changes can be more visionary and far-reaching. Distributed leadership models are necessary for the creation of learning designs for our students.
One size does not fit all – The reflections shared by the learners in the course reinforced my belief that each school needs to consider questions about 21st century learning and start their own conversations. The responses to the questions will be unique to each school.
I am searching for ways in which we can continue to empower this cohort while engaging other educators and members of the community in conversations about new learning designs. Any suggestions?