“Learning can’t exist in a vacuum or silo. It needs to be connected both to why you do what you do and how you go about getting things done in your everyday work.”
Why is it that teachers go to conferences or have school seminars, yet no matter how polished the presenters or how inspired and enthusiastic the teachers felt at the time, when they return to the reality of the classroom, the implementation of the new is put off? The answer is that changing the whole is too much, so the comfort of the status quo stymies the risk of making major changes.
Fortunately, two complimentary plans exist which provide a pathway for teachers and their students to become bite-sized, continuous learners. First, is the two Heath brothers’ plan, explained in their book Make It Stick. The plan involves six simple actions which create the framework for the deliberate, continuous learning needed as different ideas and concepts emerge at warp speed.
When coupled with the Habits of Mind stable, the basis is established to develop and expand both the teachers’ and their students’ developing dispositions as skilful problem solvers who can apply their learning to an ever-expanding array of situations.
Whether a novice or an expert, each teacher starts by identifying one simple, straight forward core idea, from the new that is meaningful for that individual teacher to experiment. Emphasis is on the KISS technique: Keep it Short and Simple. Look for a question that not only indicates how this new knowledge reacts with what you already know, but is also precise and accurate. Keep it to an uncomplicated, precise simple sentence.
A simple game-like activity will provide structure and connectedness. Set up a chart with a column of squares for each day of the week, headed by the simple thing you chose above. As the week progresses, place a cross, using your favourite colour, in the daily squares, to indicate that you activated this activity. Any blank squares will clearly indicate gaps or backsliding. You win when each weekly column is complete with crosses. Look for the opportunity to move beyond the crosses to add a one sentence precis as a metacognitive comment. Charts with these comments added become a valuable communal asset when put on storyboards (see beneath) for all to see and reflect on. The squares may need to be enlarged for this.
Credibility develops from the metacognitive monitoring under connectedness above. At a simple level your success is being recorded every day, but you must force yourself to do it even when you don’t want to. It is formative assessment melding together hindsight and foresight to indicate not just where each is at, but also where they have come from, as well as where to go next. A continuous record is being developed, (a paper trail) which even a quick glance at will show the continuous learning as the chain (process) grows regularly and consistently, until it morphs into a habit.
Unexpectedness is surprise, where the normal patterns of your classroom organisation and teacher practices are disrupted. However, it is not just an aimless one off. The question to ask yourself is, “How can the surprise be applied to continued learning?”
Georgette’s surprise was to provide cakes of chocolate for each desk. She then used them as a basic tool for her lesson on fractions for the students to break up as they began to develop and understand the vocabulary: whole, halves, quarters, eighths and so on. Later, the squares became visual and kinesthetic teaching aids as they learned to add, subtract and divide.
While the students were in assembly, Judy tipped the desks in her classroom over and scattered the contents on the floor. When the class returned, there was new interest in the earthquake drill they needed to practice.
It is all about creating wonderment and awe.
New ideas introduced by experts are transformed into grass roots practice to fit the schools’ needs by both the teacher leadership groups within the school and each individual teacher. Thus, grass roots expertise enriches the whole faculty by expanding understanding of what excellent teaching looks and feels like. As the stories are told to other teachers, new insights are gained and refined by hearing authentic teacher voices.
This can be done formally in many ways. One is to have storyboards about the school or in the staff room, where precis or paraphrase of noteworthy stories can be left for all to see and comment on. One school has a brief daily meeting round a table, before school starts, of a different group each day, to tell stories and to share where they are at. Only a lack of imagination would inhibit the development of further options.
The informal comments as teachers pass each other in the corridor (corridor conferences) or socialise over coffee may appear to be idle snippets, but they are much more. These stories, even the briefest of comments, are serious ways of exercising teacher brains because they are unscripted role plays involving metacognitive thinking aimed at clarity and precision.
Learning can’t be done in a vacuum.
Beneath the consciousness level the question all ask is, “What is in it for me?”
Because people want to be making their own decisions and not be bossed by managers, self-managing, as in simplicity and the four other aspects above, gives hope. With hope, comes a degree of happiness which adds energy to the venture. Fear of the unknown is reduced when compulsion is replaced by personal choice.
A sense of readiness will further enhance this hope, which in turn, adds to teacher energy. Thus, management practices should be in place that start from ground zero, or the first day back on the job. A starter could be requesting all to write a one sentence precis of what they have chosen under simplicity and post it on the storyboards. This provides a link to connectedness. Immediate action such as this provides for shared early wins. If carefully handled, it also adds a degree of satisfaction, and that in turn, provides further energy to create, imagine and to be innovate.
Starting with simplicity and connectedness is a given. What you add after that is your choice, but do not sit still!
It is this development of teachers, not schools, that must be the priority. John Hattie, writing in a Corwin blog at the end of September 2019, has this to say:
“Often we find that the greatest variability in learning outcomes is not between different schools but between different teachers within the same school. The key unit of analysis should be the teacher rather than the school, and many high-stakes assessments may not be attributable to a particular school.”
Alan Cooper is an educational consultant based in New Zealand. As a principal, he was known for his leadership role in thinking skills, including Habits of Mind, learning styles and multiple intelligences, information technology, and the development of the school as a learning community. Alan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.