A Culture of Learning (for Educators and Students Alike)
Wow! That was a mistake. I’m sorry. That didn’t work well for you, did it? I totally thought I was prepared, but I was so wrong about the kinds of problems and questions you might have. I need to completely rethink this.
I can recall many instances in my work with learners, from first graders to graduate students, when thoughts like these have raced through my mind. As I became more confident in my teaching, I even began to express them to my students. In several places, I’ve had a close friend and colleague with whom I could privately share such thoughts. But I never, ever shared them publicly with my colleagues, the other teachers and educators with whom I worked.
I see slogans all the time about how important failure is in the learning process or how risk taking—stepping beyond the known— is necessary for transformation and success. In the organizations in which I've worked, mottos to this effect might be posted in the staff lounge or on a public bulletin board as encouragement to students, but I’ve had limited experience with any conversations or practices with my colleagues where it felt safe and acceptable to talk about my struggles as a teacher.
I’ve been fortunate to have had some very different experiences in self-selected teams of teachers whom I could work closely with (and who were often outside of my own teaching context). These teams provided a structure and set of practices for honest analysis and reflection on my practice. As a group, we created an environment of high standards for teaching and expectations for students that simultaneously recognized that teaching is a process of continuous growth. They helped me look closely at what was and wasn’t working in my teaching and with all my students. They helped me become a better teacher. Yet I’ve rarely if ever experienced such conversations with colleagues in other education settings, and certainly not with my “boss” (building principal, department chair, school board member, teacher review panel, etc).
In a recent meeting, my colleague and current boss, Bob Hill (a former Superintendant at Springfield Public Schools in Illinois), suggested that student learning is a fractal of adult learning. Take a snapshot of what students spend their time doing: perhaps working in isolation with limited conversation about the texts they're reading or the problems they're solving. Perhaps working with lack of collaboration, of guided practice time, or of cross-content connections. Such a snapshot can give you insight into the conditions that exist to support the learning of the adult learners (the educators) in the system. Similarly, if you see teachers feeling safe to take risks, engaging in inquiry about what is working and not working, and getting feedback from colleagues, you will likely see discourse and inquiry at the heart of student learning as well.
It’s important to remember that when we talk about the culture of learning in our organizations, we need to recognize that educators are learners as well. We make mistakes. We totally misunderstand a concept. We don’t plan appropriately because our information is only partial. The extent to which those are productive places for growth and improvement as teachers depends upon the organizational culture in which we participate.
Whether it’s within your school, with a group of classmates from grad school, or through participation with other learners within the Literacy in Learning Exchange, find your own learning teams—the peers who drive you to continuously grow and who offer the safe place to take risks and to work through those bumps in the road.
Here is just a sampling of the many NCLE resources that foster conversation and reflection about creating learning organizations that support teacher growth:
- Check out Bob Hill's Perspective on Creating New Ways for Connecting Learning and Schooling which challenges the notion that policymakers’ “sticks and carrots” are what improves teaching. Bob suggests the need for a movement build around educator and organizational capacity building.
- Do a search on this site for “Instructional Rounds” —a process of engaging in collaborative conversation and observation of practice. I recommend Robertt Marzano's article Making the Most of Instructional Rounds .
- Andrew Lachman, the executive director of one of NCLE’s stakeholder partners, describes how instructional rounds are used in a network of Superintendants; or you may wish to sign up for a FREE LIVE web seminar on instructional rounds on September 27th, 2012 5-6 pm CDT. Registration is now open.
- This book chapter by Diane Waff on Co-researching & Co-reflecting: the Power of Teacher Inquiry Communities describes how teacher learning communities can foster collective growth and change while supporting the experiences and perspectives of individual members
Are there articles or resources on the Exchange site that you've already found useful for fostering conversation and reflection? I'd be interested to hear from you via the Comments area below.