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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Teaching Well: The Intersection of Big Ideas and Practice

In many ways educators stand at the center of big ideas and practice, and the question is, "How do I read, research, analyze, and embed good ideas into daily practice to ensure that children are learning with engagement and empowerment?"

Why engagement? We know that to be engaged is to learn with greater strength and investment.

Why empowerment? We want to strengthen our students for their lives--we want them to be powerful citizens who lead their own lives well and contribute to the lives of others and their communities with value.

For too long the role of educator has been seen as the giver of information, but now we know that's neither true or advantageous. Instead the educator today is a coach, mentor, and guide--an individual who helps a child find his/her voice, passion, and path while also developing and strengthening each student's foundation of concept, knowledge, and skill related to targeted topics and overall learning-to-learn behaviors and mindsets.

Where does an educator today begin his/her journey of serving children well?

Believe that EVERY Child is Capable of Successful Learning.
First, educators today have to believe that every child is capable of success. Still, too often, I hear educators belittle what children are able to do before even meeting those children. I hear educators say, "My students can't do that." A strengths-based, belief in what children can do is step one.

Work in Solidarity with Other Educators to Lead Schools and Serve Children Well
Next educators have to work in solidarity to lead their profession and do what is right for children.. Too often I hear educators say, "I know that's the way to go, but my system would never allow that. I have no say." Current systems models in many, perhaps most, schools, I believe is one of the greatest obstacles to teaching and learning well today. Too many educators feel disempowered to do good work and this is a major obstacle. To hear well educated, dedicated educators time and again respond with comments such as, "I have no voice. No one really cares. I do as I'm told. I'm not in charge of the decisions," is truly mind boggling and worrisome.

Know Expectations and Plan for Best Possible Learning Experiences
To teach well educators have to become experts at the content, concept, and skill related to their main teaching/learning expectations. Educators also have to well understand child development, cognitive science, successful teaching/learning strategies, and tools, resources, and materials that support optimal learning and teaching including technology.

Balance Teaching and Learning
Optimal educators need to be lifelong learners who well understand and partake in an individual learning path that continually leads them forward in the profession with regard to their work with students. Teaching well is not static, one-size-fits-all work, but instead work that depends on educators melding passion and practice with targeted goal setting, research, reading, reflection, assessment, collaboration, and revision.

Create Wonderful Learning Environments
Advocate for, find, and utilize the best resources in a welcoming way to create a valuable and dynamic teaching/learning environment.

Teachers alone can't change education. There are many obstacles with regard to good teaching and learning today, and I believe that the greatest area of concern is the way systems are structured and led. Too  many education systems are based on outdated models rather than new knowledge-age models of learning, teaching, and leading.

Education advocates, policy makers, citizens, and government officials need to shift their view to that of educational structure, systems, and roles to deeply look at how we can make education better. Attention to the optimization of energy, passion, skill, education, and potential is a key factor in this shift. Those in charge of education for the country, state, cities and towns need to ask, "Do our current systems of education maximize the potential they hold for teaching every child well?" Specifically, questions such as these will help that analysis:
  • Does everyone in the system share a collective vision for what they hope students will achieve throughout their education in the system--what are the overarching goals of an education in the system?
  • Do system leaders and educators model the mindset, skills, and attributes they hope students will learn, practice, and apply as they develop within the school system and beyond?
  • Do obstacles exist with regard to teaching/learning potential? How are those obstacles identified, shared, analyzed, and replaced by more advantageous efforts?
  • How is vision set for a system? Is it an inclusive process? 
  • Who helps a system evolve? Is there an inclusive, systematic approach to idea share, research, professional learning, individual/collective growth, and development?
  • How does a system communicate? Who receives the information? How timely is information? Are some in the know and others not? Is the information transparent and inclusive?
There are also factors within systems that affect the work that teachers do greatly including those noted below:

Teachers today need inspiring, up-to-date leadership to thrive. In an ideal world, leaders would make the time to know the teachers in their schools and systems, and use that knowledge to build systems that respond to teachers' needs, ideas, and efforts with positive support, inspiration, and timely, inclusive communication. Too often old time school systems have relegated educators to the job of worker, but not thinker. In these systems the educators are told what to do and expected to follow the directions with great obedience and little voice--this, to many, describes the ideal educator in many systems.

Models like these do not provide students with educators that truly mentor what it means to learn. Passive, do-as-I'm-told educators do not mirror the thinking, problem solving, and independent learning that children need to see and use to become successful citizens, employees, and people in our world today. Further, when educators simply follow directions rather respond to students with creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and apt communication, they do not do all that they can do to teach well.

In many models of schools today, inspiring leadership that models 21st century and future think and skills is missing and this is an worrisome issue in education today.

Structure and Systems
Many today are calling for school systems to replicate living systems models. From what I've read, I really like this idea and am just at the start of thinking about what this would look like. I'm sure there's research out there to support this, but for now, I utilize the model of breathing, a living system, at right as a possible model for school structure.

Living systems models have a much more natural, give-and-take flow than old time corporate or factory models that, to a large degree, model a pyramid or ladder. At first, I had envisioned a model of interlocking gears as a better model for the distributive model of education, but recognize that model is too static not providing the flow and change needed with regard to school systems.

Like the natural flow of the breathing system, school systems take in and put out, back and forth, all the time. Sometimes the "breathing in and out" is more rapid due to the critical nature of an issue and other times it's a slower, more deliberate pattern given the time or depth an issue requires. I'm sure that true systems thinkers and philosophers have favorite living systems models when it comes to schools and I'll be on the look out for those.

Living systems models for schools are more powerful models of school system structure than the pyramid or ladder which are linear and narrow with regard to interplay, intersection, and integration. Pink's research in Drive related to the potential autonomy, mastery, and purpose hold for optimal work environments as well as some research I've read related to optimizing human energy inspire me to want to learn more about this, and I welcome your knowledge in this regard.

Top down, tight, ladder-like systems do not maximize a system's collective energy whereas living systems, distributive models provide a better model with regard to where we need to move our current education systems.

Roles in education have stayed mainly stagnant over many years. I believe the fact that roles haven't changed and are rarely audited has created an obstacle to optimal development and change in schools. Roles that were once effective are no longer that valuable, and roles that may have once been deemed minimal are now powerful roles in the school house. It's important to look closely at school roles by asking the following questions:
  • What are the specific expectations of this role?
  • Specifically, how have the expectations of the role contributed to the overall goals and vision of the organization?
  • Where is this role powerful and where is this role less than powerful? How can that change?
  • How many minutes are associated with this role? Does the role time equal the role's value?
  • What roles include direct service to students? What is the ratio of role time to direct service to students--is this an advantageous ratio or could it be changed to make the role more powerful?
There's no doubt that schools can improve to serve students better. Of course some schools have greater need for improvement than others, but nevertheless, schools can improve. I believe the greatest issue in schools today is the way systems, structures, and roles are created, supported, and applied. I think that in many school systems restructuring and re-looking at roles and use of technology can enhance what the systems can do without a lot of added costs. That being said, I do know of systems that simply lack human resources. Those systems will need greater financial support to teach better. 

With regard to teaching alone, however, I recommend putting into place the actions at the top of the post--those are actions which will serve your professional development and your students well.