Sunday, April 17, 2022

How do we learn? How do we change? How do we improve?

These are three big questions that are addressed in Chapter 9 of Onward by Elena Aguilar.  She opens the chapter with the following statement, 

If we see challenges as opportunities for learning, if we engage our curiosity whenever we're presented with an obstacle, we're more likely to find solutions.  This habit and disposition help us not just survive adversity but thrive in the aftermath.

When I was working at ASB I was part of the Research and Development Core Team.  This team was set up the year before I arrived to study, prototype, design and develop new teaching and learning environments.  We looked at faculty design, project-based learning, alternative school year calendars, the library and mobile technology.  The action research we did led to real transformations by creating new physical spaces for learning and new learning approaches, supporting and enriching student learning at the school.  We often asked the question "What if ...." and we discovered the joy of inquiry and learning for ourselves as teachers.

Having an R&D department is not usual in schools, but teachers can use their own classroom to inquire into what is happening and why, and to ask the question, "What would happen if I tried ...."  

At various times in my life I've struggled to be a learner.  For example I remember when I moved to The Netherlands I attended evening classes to learn Dutch.  It was hard - but it was also good for me to put myself into the role of the learner as it gave me a lot of insight into what my students were going through.  Elena shares two frameworks with us that help to explain the process we go through as learners.

The Conscious Competence Ladder - this has 4 rungs on it:

  • Unconscious incompetence - we are blissfully ignorant of what we can't do therefore our confidence exceeds our abilities.  At this level we need to figure out the skills we need to learn.
  • Conscious incompetence - we know we don't have the skills and that others can do things that make us struggle.  It's easy to give up at this stage as we lose confidence.
  • Conscious competence - we have the skills and we need to put the knowledge and skills into practice to gain more confidence.  We need to concentrate when we perform the skills.
  • Unconscious competence - we use our skills effortlessly and perform tasks without conscious effort.  In order to keep growing at this level we need to teach these skills to others.  If we don't regularly use these skills we can slip back down the ladder.
Putting this into context reminds me of learning how to drive.  At one time I didn't need to drive because as a teenager I relied on my parents for lifts to places.  In my 20s I learned to drive and found it really difficult - at one point I gave up and only took up driving again having moved to Miami where it was vital I had a car to get around.  My challenge as a driver has been moving country, as each time I moved (USA -> UK -> Netherlands -> Thailand -> Switzerland -> India) I had to drive on the other side of the road and at times it felt like learning all over again as oftentimes the rules were also different.  Even worse, in some countries I didn't drive for long periods of time so I got out of practice, and I definitely slipped back down the ladder from unconscious competence to conscious competence each time I got into the car again.

Let's give another example from teaching.  I lead a lot of Category 1 workshops and the most challenging thing teachers face when new to the PYP is writing strong conceptual central ideas.  Having been doing this for over 20 years I can often look at the wording they come up with and suggest simple tweaks to make the central ideas more conceptual and more open to inquiry.  I'm probably at the unconscious competence stage, but I need to keep teaching this skill to others to keep it sharp in my own mind.

The second framework for learning is that of fixed -v- growth mindset.  Here the important thing is to keep using the word "yet" (you can't do it yet) and to keep people focused on the skills they need to develop and practice.

With a fixed mindset people believe that success is the result of a fixed intelligence and with a fixed mindset people avoid challenge as they are unable to take criticism and give up early.  With a growth mindset we assume intelligence and talent can change so we thrive on challenge and see failure as a way to learn and grow.  Having a growth mindset allows people to thrive during challenges.

In this chapter I was really interested to read about learning needs and the Mind the Gap model.  

I can see that in order to improve we need to identify where the gaps are that we have in different areas.  Emotional intelligence and cultural competence at the foundations of all others - without these we cannot close the gaps in other areas.  However in schools we are focused mostly on the uppermost areas of skills and knowledge.  All of us have gaps - this shows us we can still learn and grow and as you dig into your gaps you can discover the actions you need to take to close the gaps.

One of the things I love most about coaching is that it gives us the space to really explore these gaps.  We know that coaching is an effective way for professionals to continue to refine their skills and so a great mechanism for teacher improvement.  We also know that it's important to have time for teachers to improve their skills and coaching can form part of that time as it's a form of PD.  

Our aim is that schools are learning organisations - places where everyone is learning (not just the students!). We know that teachers can excel when they work in learning organisations, and so these schools thrive. 

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