Sunday, December 14, 2014

Big, Big Learning

Last November we hosted our District Implementation Day at one of our local schools. This was the second year in a row we've taken over the gym at Don Ross and brought all of the teachers in the district together, as well as education assistants and a cross-section of support staff, for some big group learning and table work. The planning required for a session like this is rather daunting. We needed to reserve the gym for the day and allow time for set up, then order enough chairs and tables for everybody, as well as extra projectors and screens, proper audio equipment, and catering for lunch. There were also seating plans for the morning, resources to photocopy, placemats to guide participants through their activities, and enough pens and sticky notes for everyone. Then there are the actual learning activities to consider.

After some warm-up activities and a review of our Pathways to Learning Education Plan and the process that created it, our superintendent, Lisa McCullough, led the 500 people in the room through a series of group processes focusing on task design. Participants were asked to review and discuss the difference between "traditional" lessons which were teacher-centered and relied primarily on lecture components (described as "Task A") then compare them with lessons that were more student-centered and infused with opportunities to develop critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and contribution (described as "Task B").

The table groups completed three sets of these task comparisons, each including a chance to tune each task a little further, making them safer, more purposeful, or more powerful. Teachers were then provided an opportunity to reorganize into learning teams from their schools or curricular areas and design and tune tasks for their own classrooms, with the support of their colleagues and an Understanding By Design style template to act as a bit of a scaffold when needed. The session closed with a return to our giant competencies banner for another colour coded self-assessment activity to help us with further planning. (The following link connects to a Slideshare of the session PowerPoint and the videos intended to inspire our work during the day: Implementation Day 2014)

Exciting, right? Sure it was. I am also certain the collective understanding of these complex ideas took a quantum leap forward during the day. However, this was a somewhat risky endeavour overall. This session was held mere weeks after teachers returned to work from the longest labour dispute in the province's history, and there were still some hard feelings. On top of that, it is challenging stuff. Much of it rubs against the work we have been doing in our classroom for years and years, and it pushes the thinking of even the most astute instructor. Knowing this, we could have watered down the content and focused heavily on the affective domain. However, we felt the importance of the changes required by the Pathways and the new BC curriculum, along with the scarcity of opportunity to do this work throughout the year more than outweighed these concerns, and we decided to make the day as challenging and meaningful as possible.

After the session, we shared an e-survey link and I can divide the teacher feedback we collected into three clear categories of responses, which I will carefully paraphrase below:
1. I was ready for this session, I needed it, and it helped me move forward. Meeting or Exceeding Expectations.
2. I wasn't quite ready for this session, it was frustrating at times, but I think I moved forward. Approaching Expectations.
3. I was not ready for this session, I did not like it at all, and I did not move forward. Not Meeting Expectations.

The school psychologist whose office is across from mine offered some interesting observations about the strong connection between a person's perception of success and their perception of happiness. This leads me to some questions that mine at the crux of what leadership is really about and will hopefully lead to some big, big learning on my end:
  • What is the true impact to the system when we design and host a large scale learning event such as this one?
  • How does the perception of success drive students' learning and how does it relate to factors such as resilience or connectivity to their school?
  • What are the connections between the way students feel about learning and the way adult professionals feel about learning?
  • What is the impact of modeling in regard to resilience and the growth mindset? 

As an epilogue of sorts, I will share this one anecdote. Sometime after this learning event took place, one of our district coordinators (we call them the Instructional Leadership Team, or ILT) was having a casual conversation about instructional practice with a teacher, who had been fairly vocal regarding her lack of enjoyment of the day. When their chat touched on this teacher's particular "problem of practice" the ILT member was able to refer back to a specific part of an activity from the Implementation Day and help the teacher make a clear connection to her own work and conceptually navigate through the challenge. This might not constitute a huge breakthrough, but it does reinforce the concept that these large-scale activities have the potential to create common language and build a foundation that we can draw on to move our practice forward in a more meaningful way, and therefore should be considered worthwhile.

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