collaborative creativity classrooms

Last week I participated in a leadership conference hosted by my district and put together by an amazing group of people.  The speakers were great – a highlight for me was hearing from Flora MacDonald and learning about the power of one individual to make a significant change in the Taliban-ravaged rural communities of Afghanistan.  She is a “tipping point” individual with an incredible impact for change and it was an honour to listen to her speak.  For now I’m saving my deeper reflections on Flora MacDonald for another post.  Here I want to flesh out some of the thoughts I had as I listened to a speaker on the second day of the conference.

the story meeting

The second day of the conference began with small focus groups listening to speakers who were invited to share their thoughts on creativity and leadership.  The first speaker to work with my group was Laurence Wall, news producer for CBC Ottawa.  He began by telling us about the powerful and creative news stories that his colleague Rita Celli, who now hosts Ontario Today, crafted and delivered while covering the courts in Ottawa.  What set Celli’s stories apart was her incredible ability to capture the compelling angle while infusing her story with creative elements most often associated with a narrative voice in fiction writing.  Listening to Wall describe Celli’s work in this way got me thinking about the importance we are currently placing on non-fiction writing in school.  Asking students to develop their storytelling skills while finding the compelling narrative and connection across content areas such as science, geography and history would provide powerful and meaningful learning opportunities.

Wall went on to explain that the members of his news team came together for a story meeting to share two ideas for stories based on events that were happening in and around Ottawa.  Someone might begin by talking about an idea they have for a story and from there other members of the team would jump in with suggestions for a different perspective on the story or an idea about how to tell the story – what to include, how it plays out in different neighbourhoods, etc….  As ideas are bounced around, the original idea for a story morphs into what we as listeners end up experiencing – a well-crafted and engaging piece of journalism.  The process described is one of collaboration as creativity.  I could picture an almost jazz-like environment where ideas are passed around, added to and improved throughout the discussion.

the end of broccoli learning?

The idea of the story meeting really captured my imagination as a teacher.  I started to think about what it might look like to emulate this type of process across the curriculum in the classroom.  What if there were small groups – production teams – who worked together to grapple with the real story around some of the big ideas of, for example, the science curriculum?  Imagine groups of 5 or 6 students asked to find the compelling story connecting big ideas from the curriculum to issues occurring in and around their neighbourhoods.  What if students developed the ideas for their writing through a collaborative process similar to the story meeting?

Wall talked about the difference between news and gossip and how journalists at CBC select the stories with which they are going to work.  He drew a distinction between news stories that are engaging and compelling and news that you feel you need to consume because it is good for you to know – what his wife calls “broccoli journalism”.  When we ask students to memorize and regurgitate facts and figures, are we condemning them to broccoli learning?  Are the tasks with which we ask students to engage and demonstrate their learning really preparing them to participate in workplaces that increasingly demand highly developed skills in the participatory milieu of collaborative creativity and inquiry?  If we are still asking students to research and write 5 paragraph essays in isolation from their peers, then the answer is no.  If, instead, we ask them to pre-write by working through a story meeting with their peers, then write and publish a blog post and respond to comments as well as adding comments to their peers’ posts, then I think we are moving in the right direction.  If we ask them to work with peers to create and publish a digital story, I think we are closer.  Thoughts?

Education’n’Technology’n’Change – Oh My!

In the March 2009 issue of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Journal Educational Leadership, Douglas Reeves writes about 3 challenges of Web 2.0.  Reeves is the author of several books on assessment and educational leadership, and could be considered an authority on school leadership for change and school improvement.  Unfortunately, this time around, Reeves exposes the type of anxiety that I feel stagnates real change in education.  Reeves’ article projects a cautionary tenor and neglects teasing out the optimistic possibilities within a shift to education 2.0.  I worry that, armed with this type of article, leaders in education will more easily say ‘no’ to the innovators within their buildings who want to embrace the learning possibilities within activities such as social networking, online collaboration and mobile and connective devices.  I want to offer here a brief challenge  to Reeves’ 3 challenges (meta challenge?) and offer a more optimistic view of the potential of learning 2.0:

Partners vs Promotion

Reeves begins by comparing advocates for technology in education to the narrow-minded advocate for plastics in the film The Graduate.  There is no deep inferring required to know right off that Reeves feels threatened and responds by painting all of us who are interested in exploring the potential offered by increased use of technology to facilitate learning as both fanatical and short-sighted.  It is important to be wary of those who come to education looking to push their particular technologies into the classroom.  As always, we need to be vigilant and critical when making decisions around what we will introduce and model in our learning environments.  But this isn’t a web 2.0 challenge.  Dubious partnerships between education and industry predate the connected world.  Enough said.

High Touch vs High Tech

In this challenge, Reeves endorses and implicitly frames online connectivity as a threat to face to face communication, rather than as simply another mode of communication.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we witness backlash everytime there is a change in communication (from oral to written, for instance)?  Imposing a false hierarchy on modes of communication has no basis in any research with which I am familiar.  In fact, I would argue that when it comes to learning, online can be a more powerful mode under certain circumstances.  As Will Richardson said during his keynote at Expanding Our Boundaries (#expbound) this morning, “If you have an internet connection in your classroom, you are not the smartest person in the room”.  And maybe this is the real threat.

Filters vs Fountains

For my challenge of Reeves here, I will simply focus on one quote:

Oppressed as they are by a teacher who finds WIkipedia an insufficiently credible source without supplementary documentation, my students sometimes work longer and less efficiently with a search engine than they would have by consulting a carefully chosen reference book.

Woops!  I think that Reeves has pulled back his own curtain here.  Clearly, Reeves has a bad case of “techno-agoraphobia” – that is, a fear of the participatory online crowd.  To dismiss Wikipedia, and paint those who teach it and use as “Wikivangelists” (loaded language?), Reeves takes himself out of the game.  Ignorance is not ok.  The reference book, no matter how carefully chosen, likely contains as many – perhaps even more – errors as the Wikipedia article.  But, the Wikipedia article trumps the reference book in that it is a dynamic text that can be added to and improved as new understandings and developments surface.

 A More Compelling and Optimistic Perspective

Alec Couros, Associate Professor of ICT at the University of Regina, created the following visualization to articulate a vision of the connected and open learning environment:

Alec Couros - Open Teaching Thinning the Walls

– Alec Couros “Open Teaching – Thinning the Walls” cc licensecc some rights reserved

I think that this is a compelling visualization of the productive and powerful potential of connectivity in learning.  Notice how the left side of the visualization highlights a very structured learning environment that excludes some learners (the learner on the outside looking in).  As the walls thin, in other words, as students and teachers become connected with the world outside the brick and mortar of the classroom, students are able to benefit from the ‘gifts’ of those outside the traditional learning environment.  The walls (read: constraints) of the traditional classroom become thinner and, I believe that the learning is enriched, when we reach out into our learning networks.  I would argue that Couros’ visualization demonstrates the ‘high touch’ potential of ‘high tech’.

I’m eager for my print copy to arrive, so that I can check out other articles, such as Becoming Network Wise by Will Richardson.  I’m hopeful that this article, not available in full online version (is that another blog post – decision-making around who gets a full voice?) might offer the more optimistic glimpse of the power of embracing the connectivity in which our students are already swimming.