a ‘think aloud’ for instructional leaders

It was nice to see my blog post / reflection on staff development garner a few comments.  The conversation is what it is all about for me.  I decided to post my reflections for my PQP2 course on my blog in order to make my learning more open, as I mentioned in a previous post.  Earlier today, Will Richardson posted about the importance of leaders making their learning transparent:

So here is the money question: What two things (and only two) would you tell educational leaders are the most important steps they can take to lead change today? I got that one from a professor at Oakland University last week, and after pausing for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time, I answered “build a learning network online, and make your learning as transparent as possible for those around you.” And while I really think the first part of that answer would make sense to most leaders out there, I think the second would have them running for the hills.

A timely coincidence!  I agree whole-heartedly with Will’s response.  This is one of my goals as I move into a leadership role within my own district.  I don’t want to adopt a preachy stance on it, but I will choose to model transparency in my own learning, partially through this blog.  

be the change

I know that everytime I model, there will likely be at least one early adaptor in the group who will ask questions and, possibly, join in the conversation and begin to think about and try out some open learning.  There are already at least 4 Principals and Vice-Principals within my district using Twitter.  My aim is to ‘be the change’ that I would like to see happen around me.  

I recently found this video on YouTube and, without commenting on the product being advertised, found that it really resonated with my thoughts on leading learning and changing to a higher degree of transparency within my learning.  I would never expect anything to change without jumping in and making the change within myself and my own instructional and learning practices first.

not a big shift

Something else that Will mentioned in his discussion on the value of transparent learning struck a chord with one of the strategies that we use every day with our students:

Transparency can support all of the ways in which my kids must be able to acquire expertise, act ethically, display creativity, respect diversity, and synthesize and make sense of information.

Reading this I was reminded of an instructional strategy that we use every day to help students acquire solid high-order thinking skills: the think aloud.  When teachers use the think aloud strategy, they model their own thinking and questioning of a text.  In other words, they make explicit – transparent – the cognitive processes that go into making sense of the text by inferring meaning, asking questions, finding important details, etc….  Teachers and students use the think aloud to talk through the text.  Learning becomes more conversational and more social.  

Asking instructional leaders to do the same is, in that sense, not a big shift at all –  What it asks us to do is to replicate that which we want to see in our classrooms across the curriculum.  Using a PLN to extend professional learning through online tools such as Twitter and blogging is, really, not that different from thinking aloud.  Be the change.

toward the ideal classroom – conversations

I’m going to start here by asking my poor, neglected blog to forgive my absenteeism of late.  Clearly I need to re-commit myself to sharing my thoughts here and participating in the ongoing conversations by commenting on the blogs of those in my mostly twitter-based Learning Network.  My lack of participation lately has not been due to a lack of interest. Finishing a project that sucked hours out of me every day (and I’m still working on convincing myself that it was time well spent – creating storyboards for learning objects for the Ontario Educator’s Resource Bank) and a laid-back March Break full of nothing but family time with the kids and my hubby, I feel like I’m back in the game, so to speak.  

Although my own thoughts on the ideal classroom and the purpose of school are ‘works in progress’, I thought I would share some ideas that have really got me thinking lately.  Perhaps others will add to the conversation by taking the time to post a comment including some of their ‘ideals’.

passion-based learning community

There has been a lot of talk about the purpose of school and what needs to change.  Last month I attended Expanding Our Boundaries in Toronto and spent two days learning with Will Richardson, as well as a sizable group of Ontario educators who are interested in how technology is working within education.  There were great conversations started and/or continued there – either in the room, face to face – or via the backchannels using the #expbound hashtag on twitter or the chatzy room dedicated to the event.  Attendees and PD podcasters extraordinaire Nathan Toft and Jane Smith included a conversation with Will in their PortablePD.ca Podcast #7.  Have a listen to the podcast – it is well worth the listen and asks the question: What does the ideal classroom look like?  Richardson offers some of his thoughts on what the elementary classroom of today should look like:

“I’m looking for places where (kids) can connect to their passions, really – where the teachers in the room are willing to give them a wide variety of experiences, connect them to teachers, other kids, resources from around the world and really in the attempt to help them find what it is that they want to really learn about.  I just really believe that in the context of that passion, if they find it, that we can teach a lot of the stuff that we teach, that we need to teach kids and that they will be more enthusiastic about it, more motivated to learn instead of just, basically, doing the worksheet thing everyday”

Richardson’s thoughts resonate strongly with Ken Robinson’s ideas articulated most recently in The Element.  As I mentioned in a previous post, this book has had a profound influence on my thoughts recently.  I am so excited to be moving into a Vice Principal role next year and to be taking on a greater leadership role.  I am deeply committed to sharing my own passion for learning with staff and students on a school-wide level.  I am excited by so many of the possibilities out there!  I think that the idea of finding and encouraging The Element within every student is a tremendous and inspiring goal for any educator.

classroom as studio

In a recent post called “Recanting…& Remodelling My Ideal Classroom“, Brad Ovenell-Carter, assistant head at Island Pacific School on Bowen Island, talks about how his vision of the ideal classroom changed after listening to an EdTechLive talk by John Seely Brown.  Ovenell-Carter talks about the classroom as studio looking something like this:

“So, if I could make my ideal classroom now, it’d look like this:

  • 1 laptop per student
  • 1 very large SMART board or better yet, a touch display of some kind
  • software displaying a window mirroring each student’s work, say 15 screens on display at once, like a TV wall at an electronics store; at a touch I can zoom in any one student’s work and display it full screen

I imagine a project where the students are working individually or in groups to create a comprehensive understanding of a piece of literature, a physics problem etc. They don’t need to be working on the same format: some could be editing video, others text and so on. As I move about the class coaching and critiquing each student, the rest of the class can see the material I am reviewing on the classroom display. If the discussion becomes especially important, we can stop other work and zoom in on one example.”

I really enjoy this vision of classroom as studio.  I’m excited to see what shows up on the horizon in terms of multi-touch technology and its’ uses in education.  Also, the studio setting puts the students into the role of designers, creators, developers.  It does seem to me that the very design Ovenell-Carter articulates would not only facilitate, but perhaps even necessitate the higher-order participatory, collaborative and inquiry-driven learning that we strive for in our classrooms.  Brad, when you build it, I want to come for a visit.

I also think that learning spaces need to be flexible.  I love watching colleagues grapple with the physical layout of their classrooms.  It is always exciting to see how we think and then re-think in order to make the design work to achieve our desired environment.  At my school, we are in the process of installing two flexible-space rooms in our school – each will have an interactive white board, a bank of 10 computers and an open flexible space where groups can meet, pairs can work together or where the teacher might lead a lesson.  It will be very interesting to watch how these spaces are used once they are ready.

what else?

So, what else do we need to add to the mix?  What are the key requirements for creating the ideal classroom?  Just thought I would get back into and extend the conversation 🙂

Expanding the boundaries #expbound

I’m sitting in the room at Expanding Our Boundaries (#expbound)  in Toronto.  The 2 day event, co-hosting by OTF and ECOO, is facilitated by Will Richardson.  Gearing up for the event, I connected with some of the other attendees through various blogs, the Expanding our Boundaries wiki and twitter.  Discovering our common interests, besides the conference, almost every attendee with whom I connected was reading Ken Robinson’s The Element.  Not a huge surprise, but a happy coincidence.  And, promising.

What is the element and where do I get one?

Ken Robinson explains his use of the term the Element: 

I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.  I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it. (xiii)

Reflecting on this, I ask myself questions like, “In what ways am I in my Element?” and “Is my classroom a place where every single student in the room is able to be in his or her Element?” and “Are my colleagues in their Elements?”

Are you in your element?

This morning, Will Richardson blogged about Robinson’s book.  It is a great blog post that you can check out here.  Reading it got me thinking:  How many educators are reading Robinson’s The Element ?  I wonder about this because I think that Robinson’s text asks us to find that space within which both our talents and our passions connect – and get there. (You can check out WordPress blogs with the tag Ken Robinson to get a sense of the numbers of people out there who are reading and synthesizing the text)  If we are teachers and the element isn’t the learning environment within which we work with kids from day to day, then something is dreadfullly wrong.  In his post this morning, Richardson says, 

Teachers are learners. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be teachers. In a world where we can engage in our passions through the affordances of connective technologies online, we need to be thinking about how to personalize the learning of the adults in the room as well as the kids. This is not the easy route, by any stretch, but it’s the best route if we’re serious about moving the education of our kids to a different place.

Teachers need to be learners.  Absolutely.  And personalized learning is essential.  I agree on all of those points.  The question that I have is:  What are the roles in terms of ensuring that personalized professional development is available to us?  As an educator, I need to ensure that I am seeking out opportunities to extend my own learning and keep me in my Element.  These past 2 days at #expbound saw a room full of educators, all at different points along the web 2.0/social networking/collaborating continuum, come together to learn with Richardson.  Although I know that the sessions were overwhelming for many of the attendees, but I also witnessed 

Transformation in Education

I’m optimistic that change is happening.  But it feels slow and I am not sure that it is nearing the level of transformation – what Robinson advocates for in The Element.  I find myself wondering how I can go beyond my own learning to work towards that transformation within my district?  Big questions after these 2 days.  Thoughts in process, for sure.

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.


The Experience of Crowds

I came across this insightful little video created by Will Richardson to illustrate how social networking and web 2.0 tools have changed the way that current events stories break , become aggregated and refined using tools such as, in this case, twitter and flickr:

The News According to Twitter

“Playing around with Prezi.com here but also trying to capture what I think is an interesting shift in the way we learn about, gather and share news these days.”

The shift that Richardson identifies here has interesting and immediate implications for education, as well. We have already witnessed the emerging impact of The Wisdom of Crowds philosophy and its insistence on the development of sophisticated collaborative and critical thinking aptitudes. The shift here has more to do with the “experience of crowds”, if you will – multiple perspectives dialoging in real time to create a shared narrative of an event that is swiftly disseminated, even as the event itself continues to unfold and updates or revisions are being made to the emerging narrative.

The Experience of Crowds

The “Experience of Crowds” demands a further shift towards the increasingly imperative development of highly refined and rigorous skills in the area of synthesis.  Wrapped up in the unfolding events as narrated across a multitude of 1st person perspectives – eye witness accounts captured digitally – consumers must be open to accepting and digesting revision in real-time.

The skills and aptitudes required are, in my estimation, not novel to my students, for whom this shift might be, at best, unsurprising, considering their immersion within a world where their experiences have always been mediated and captured digitally.  It is, however, an important shift within myself as an educator, in order to ensure that I provide a learning environment that challenges my students to refine their synthesizing and critical thinking talents.  The old media literacy question “what is this text really saying to me?” proliferates and includes questions such as “What perspectives are emerging as this text unfolds?”, “How does the emergent nature of this text manipulate my understanding?”  and, to be sure, “What part of this text am I creating?”