Wednesday, February 2, 2011
A school where we are all learning
Today I read a post on the Cooperative Catalyst blog entitled When A School Is About Learning. Based on the recent EDUCON, it discusses good models for highly effective schools where the focus is on everybody learning. I would urge you to read this excellent post by Kirsten Olson, below are just a few of my reflections based what she writes about what makes a learning school.
1. The adults in the building are passionately engaged in learning - I have been fortunate to work in a couple of schools where passionate educators fired the rest of us up about a particular project. Examples from my time in Amsterdam included Project Zero and Visible Thinking. When the whole school is engaged in a focus on how best to promote learning and understanding, it's hard not to be sucked in.
2. School leaders model their own excitement about learning - in my last school that one of our administrators chose to come with me to an event organised by Apple about the future of learning. I've always found it more useful to attend PD with others in school so that we can discuss ideas and share our experiences with others who have been there too - and hopefully put these ideas into practice on our return. I like to feel that administrators are excited about more than just fund-raising or recruitment - that they are right there at the cutting edge of educational thinking and research. I hate to feel that either I or my school is drifting along in a sort of limbo.
3. Content is negotiated - one of the most amazing experiences for me as an IB Geography teacher was to join with a couple of other teachers in international schools and have our students create a wiki for us all to share - and all were accountable for adding the content onto it.
4. Difference is welcomed - but this can only happen when everyone is secure in their own positions and do not see difference as a threat. Unfortunately the "tall poppy syndrome" is still alive and well in many schools and good teachers find their different views are not welcomed - instead they end up keeping quiet and doing their own thing behind the closed classroom door.
5. Practice is public - again in our PZ cohort we would bring samples of student work, things we were working on for discussion and to gain more ideas of how to move forward. Being an IT teacher I am always either in someone else's room or they are in the lab with me and this does give us the opportunity to see and learn from each other. As a teacher I have gained so much from this experience.
6. Adults share a common understanding of what powerful teaching and learning looks like - and they need time together to develop this common understanding. We are lucky to have a lot of planning meetings, but there is a big difference between sharing an idea/activity and sharing examples of excellence.
7. Mistakes are regarded as feedback - we learn a lot from trying something that didn't work when we analyse why it didn't work and what to do to improve next time. I think in my experience this point is one of the most important indicators of a learning culture - if teachers are afraid to fail, afraid that this will lead to a note in their personal folders or a bad reference at some time in the future, then mistakes will be something to be ashamed of or hidden away and there will therefore be no learning from them and no moving forward.
8. Drive to be the best - expertise is welcomed and others seek out experts to mentor them and help them grow. Again this can only happen in a school where people feel secure in their positions and where strong practitioners are not seen as a threat and forced to hide.
Last week on a night out with some colleagues I got into a conversation with a couple of them about why some schools never go recruiting - why teachers apply to them in droves because of their great reputation - why they always have the pick of the very best educators. We talked about professional development being important in those schools, teachers want to go there because they know they will become better practitioners. We talked about the fact that these schools are very visible - their teachers are presenting at major conferences, creating a "buzz" about what is happening there. We talked about the fact that the schools were run by true leaders and not just managers.
Often when we move to a new school, when we have interviews, there is a time when we can ask questions. At those times we ask things about the benefits, pension and so on. Perhaps that's not what's most important, however. For me to be happy I can survive with less benefits and less pension, but what I need is to be learning, to be moving forward, to be encouraged and inspired. Perhaps what is needed is not to ask about the school at all, but to ask the school leader who is doing the interviewing some different questions: what are you excited and passionate about in your school, do you welcome teachers who are different and who try out different things, how do you encourage a culture of learning so your staff learn from each other and move forward?
Photo Credit: Colourful Cranes by Blake Danger Bentley