Friday, September 17, 2010

Teachers and Principals as Lead Learners

When my mother left school at the age of 13, she had already mastered the skills that she thought were important and necessary for the rest of her life.  She could add up in her head, read, write a letter, cook, clean, wash and remove stains and because she also had a class called "deportment" she could walk tall.  When my son left school last year to go to university at the age of 18 I would estimate that he knew very little of what he would need to get through life, and yet he probably knew vastly more than my mother did at that age.  Now we are told that knowledge doubles every 3 years, and technology is mostly out of date after 18 months.  The only way we can survive is to keep on learning.

Lifelong learning is a term that is often used, but rarely defined.  We all think we know what it means but today I tried to find a good definition of it - which was hard as it means many things to many people.  One of the best definitions I read was from Roland S. Barth, the founder and former director of the Harvard University Principals' Center and the International Network of Principals' Centers.   He says that being a lifelong learner involves:

  • a love of learning for its own sake
  • choosing to engage in learning
  • questioning and wanting to find the answers
  • using resources and knowing where to go to answer the questions
  • reflecting on what you are learning
  • evaluating whether the answers you are getting are useful
  • celebrating your learning
Barth claims that teachers need to model being lifelong learners for the students, and that principals need to lead the way.  It's no use if they have their doors and minds closed to this - and I have worked in schools where this is certainly the case - where the director was never seen in a staff meeting and was never involved in discussions about learning but simply in discussions about new building plans, exam results, salary scales or fund raising.  Both students and teachers need to look and see what the most important people in the building are doing - are they seeing people who are "finished" with learning, or are they seeing people who are asking questions, reading, sharing their ideas, solving problems and so on.  If this is what they see, then this is what they will want to do too.  If they get the message that learning is just for the unimportant people, that the important people don't need to learn anymore, then what message is that sending?  Barth says:
The principal who joins with the faculty and students in learning activities is the one who changes the school culture into one that is hospitable to lifelong learning.
In most international schools there is a healthy turnover of staff.  I suppose it depends on the school and the country, but I have been in schools where over 30 teachers have left in a single year and in schools where only 2 teachers have left.  Generally, though, many international teachers have the travel bug which means they like to move on and experience new places and cultures, and that in turn means there is a fantastic opportunity for the school directors to employ new teachers who have a proven record of continuing with their learning and who can bring new ideas and different ways of thinking to the school.  What's then important is to provide opportunities for the teachers to make their learning visible and to celebrate this learning - as it is only when schools do this that a true culture of learning will be promoted.

In an IB World School we are all learners and we should all be working on the different attributes of the Learner Profile.

1 comment:

  1. The IB Learner Profile seems to encompass lifelong learning well. I have seen teachers exceed at this and teachers who really don't seem to understand that learning can be ongoing and something to celebrate. The culture of learning needs to be more prevalent in schools, I feel like in the schools I have taught in, teaching and memorization are the culture and learning is lacking.