On Parity

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “Because it’s 2015.”

With Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau preparing to announce a cabinet that is 50% women, researchers have discovered a sharp 5000% increase in the number of men who suddenly have strong opinions about how cabinet appointments should be a “meritocracy.”

Across the nation statisticians are at a loss to explain a recent and drastic jump in the number of men who have spontaneously developed hard opinions about the qualifications of Federal Cabinet Ministers.

“This is affirmative action, and even though it has been statistically shown to improve working conditions over time, I don’t like it,” said longtime man Thomas Fielding. 

The Beaverton

The argument for meritocracy espouses the belief that we should make decisions about hiring upon completing a thorough search for “the best person for the job.” This despite the tacit societal acknowledgement (“It’s not what you know…”) that the person in the job only has it because of a web of networked advantages: of friends and family connections, personal gifts or turns of good fortune in sport, wealth, opportunity or talent.

I’ve often remarked that “I’ve never gotten a job by blindly submitting my resume”; I won an athletic scholarship to a university in the American South, earned an academic fellowship along the way, and got work as an alumni teaching back at my old high school.

I may be “the best person for the job” that I have. But in gaining the qualifications to have found myself in the position, I can’t deny that I have enjoyed the easiest, least impeded path here by way of my various privileges, whether in gender, class, race or physical abilities. While I don’t often lack for self-confidence, I don’t think for a moment that a surplus of merit has earned me my job ahead of others who might similarly apply.

There are more than twice as many female teachers in British Columbia as men; yet it wasn’t until 2011 that there were as many female principals as there were men. Even in 2013 the province’s superintendents were 2 to 1 men.

Is the fact that so many men find themselves in the top spot a condition of their disproportionate merit? (Given their underrepresentation in the larger teaching force, this density of male talent and experience must be considerable for them to enjoy such heights of leadership, earnings, and power.)

Or…. there’s something else happening: gender inequality.

And if we can acknowledge that gender inequality unfairly advantages a distinct group (50%) of us toward positions of power and influence, we must also acknowledge that we aren’t committed to finding “the best person for the job.”

It means we don’t find them. We hire our friends, our sons, our connections through sports or other social networks that hold half of us (women) back.

And if we are to admit that this is the case, then establishing a quota for hiring or appointing leaders hardly seems the worst way to proceed. Even if there are arguments to be made against quotas, merit isn’t one which warrants consideration.

“All of those fifteen women,” a conservative friend of mine said today, “have a question mark above them, because we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of the quota.”

Which is true, but no more true than it is of every man appointed today – or ever – to a government’s cabinet: we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of a host of advantages that have nothing to do with merit, or earning the position. Karen Ho opens an eloquent salvo on how Meritocracy is a Lie by stating:

it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years.”

In the meantime, what these quotas ensure is that while societal inequality grooms men for roles of leadership and power, our government will at least endeavour to represent diversity of gender in its institutional leadership.

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “It’s 2015.”

The young ladies in my philosophy class variously gasped, clapped, and cheered as we watched live on our class projector.

However, as Ms. Ho observes (by way of Denise Balkissoon writing in the Globe and Mail), this “is only the first step to recognizing the country’s diversity.”

The large shift in the number of visible minorities and residents of First Nations groups who were elected as MPs is a positive, encouraging change and their significant presence in Trudeau’s cabinet is nothing less than extraordinary. But real representation of this country also includes people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community.

If I can interpret the sentiments of many the young people I spend time with, and spoke to today, there is much hope that this symbolic first day of a new government is only that first step of many toward a more inclusive and just country.

Adventures in Blended Learning

John A. Skype

As I mentioned in a brief thank you to Alec at our last class meeting, in many ways it feels as though I’ve been taking his course on The Blended Classroom for a few years now.

When I joined Twitter back in… can it really have been 2009? Alec was one of the first people I followed. Along with Will Richardson, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez and a host of others who have spoken with us or been name-dropped throughout our time together this semester, Alec has helped form and inspire many of the ideas that have driven my blended practice in the years since, a journey that has been charted across the near-300 posts on this blog, as well as in other online spaces, physical artifacts, and dialogue with peers, colleagues and students.

Along with Dave Cormier I am interested in the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and seek to integrate a more rhizomatic approach to institutional learning that makes use of the sprawling inquiries I have engaged in during my time as an open online educator. While it may be more chaotic, and difficult (if not impossible) to direct, this more organic approach has challenged me to make meaning of diverse experiences and connections in a manner which is far more in line with socio-cultural trends at the heart of the digital age and 21st century.

As a reflective practitioner, this has allowed me to plot a uniquely personal course of study that is relevant to my own interests and passions, classroom communities, and emerging perspective on my place in the world as an educator and member of the human project. But it has also offered the opportunity to engage in the type of emergent meaning-making that has become central to the philosophy of education underpinning my work as a graduate student. Taken together these experiences have influenced the type of learning opportunities I strive to create for my students, as well as the type of learning I hope they are able to engage in for themselves once they venture beyond the school.

This semester my own learning has met the gentle structure provided by Alec’s class and branched in what may be considered three overlapping directions: theory, practice and reflection.

Theory

I began my theoretical work in January with a look at the potential for Collaborative Inquiry to address teacher professional development interests, as well as put educators into the experiential role of learners as members of a community:

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In addition to the value that it might add to teacher-development and learning, this type of collaborative inquiry is in line with a conception of citizenship that is coming to ground my academic work around civic education. As the emergent view of knowledge described above may be seen to, the challenges presented by multiculturalism in pluralist democracies highlights the tension between creating and maintaining institutions that can bring about outcomes truly constructed out of their (ever-changing) constituent parts.

An ongoing theme in my work on this blog, the problematic view of emergence is described by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Sigal Ben-Porath presents a potential resolution to this paradox in the form of Citizenship as Shared Fate, wherein “citizenship education ‘seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.'”

Such a citizenship, and thus citizenship education:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

Practice

In building on these theoretical underpinnings (among others), I sought during this semester to engage in my own professional learning, as well as facilitate my various classroom-activities, with an eye toward exploring the digital applications of these ideas in the service of both individual and community development.

Guitar

(One of) My own learning project(s) during the term took on the challenge of musical performance, both in my guitar classroom and the school community beyond, a process I documented and reflected upon in a series of posts both here and on the #IntroGuitar site:Murder at the Witch's Tavern

In addition to this somewhat formal performance (as well as those which will follow throughout the semester), I also took a stake in a fundraising evening of murder-mystery dinner-theatre for our drama department, writing and sharing a series of expository songs during the hastily produced play performed for local parents, colleagues and community guests.

In each of these examples, my aim was not only to develop and reflect on my own growth as a musician, but to engage in a process I regularly ask of my students so as to both cultivate empathy for the discomfort that often accompanies learning as well as share an example – successful or not – of stepping into Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development for students and colleagues alike.

For my guitar students especially, whom I ask to document and reflect on their musical learning regularly, sharing my own journey as a guitar player is an integral part of cultivating an open course community within the structure of a for-credit classroom. Part of the ‘open’ ethos of the blended #introguitar environment creates the course site as a space for our students to cultivate and share their own narratives of learning among members of the class, but also those beyond.

But these individual and collective artifacts of learning also stretch beyond the classroom, leaving a lasting community of practice that is accessible – as the three iterations of the course that have used the course are – to future students of guitar, at Gleneagle and beyond.

TALONS Socials

The same might be said of the praxis of reflection and creation I have attempted to instigate in the TALONS Socials learning this semester, where members of the class have been asked to document various aspects of their learning: in blog posts, Tweets, pages of notes, and recorded class discussions and role plays.

With assignments separated into summative presentations and assignments, reflections and self-assessments, as well as documents of learning in progress (questions, notes on discussions, journal entries, marginalia in various readings, assigned and otherwise), the TALONS Social Studies semester orients itself toward students taking ownership over their own encounters with the course’s Ministry-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Through a range of class activities and assignments, each is charged with the collection of various artifacts of learning that will be used in the creation of midterm, as well as final syntheses of learning, where these articles will serve as evidence that the curriculum has been encountered, critically interrogated, and integrated into their own emerging understanding.

Daily homework, if not otherwise specified, reflects the values of ongoing personal inquiry and is geared toward the TALONS being successful in what has become known as the Philosophy Pop Quiz:

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Working toward the highest possible class average score on the above quiz, the traits and habits required for daily success can become part of the cycle of personal learning without falling prey to being too prescriptive. The synthesis of a collective voice out of these various inquiries and encounters with the common course of study are able to become the task of the social curricula.

This has been particularly evident in the class’ recent study of Canadian Confederation, where an experiment in social media role-playing has built upon the debates and discussion various historical characters have been waging in the face to face classroom, realizing that multicultural difficulty:

“…to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

“In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

“Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

“Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

“Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.”

Reflection

Perhaps apart from both the theory and practice summarized above, the learning engaged in on this blog regularly ventures into more personal reflections and syntheses of learning that go beyond the collection of classroom experiences or theoretical readings and attempt to articulate something of a larger polemic on the state of educational or cultural affairs.

In the past few months, these posts have charted a variety of themes encountered in my weekly wanderings, including some thoughts on the nature of Learning on (and of) the Web, My life as the Music Department Digital Archivist, and Teaching in the Patriarchy. On a more personal note, I looked back on more than a decade spent with the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Each of these musings serves to help synthesize and express an emerging interpretation of various themes in my teaching, learning and life, harkening back to an image I used in a post last December on Course Design and Narrative Discovery, where data is transformed to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

By engaging in this open manner, and publishing this work and these thoughts alongside the TieGrad cohort which has inspired many of them in the past two years, each of these experiences – and their corresponding posts – represents at once the wisdom of today as well as the points of data that will be made into new meanings going forward.

In a way it’s been the lesson I’ve been learning from Alec for years, while at the same time a culmination and synthesis of everything I’ve been learning the whole time.

Just as learning should be.

The HS Music MOOC

IntroGuitarWhile it hasn’t blossomed with a wealth of open online participation (yet…?) this semester, the blended and open structure of #introguitar – as well as the new site design and digs courtesy of Alan Levine‘s WordPress blessings – has created an anthology of learning about guitar for both my own block of Introduction to Guitar, as well as Mr. David Salisbury who has taken up a block of beginners.

To a degree, it can be difficult to involve an outside community of learners with the goings on in a face to face course that is generating credit for students at our school. But whether folks show up from term to term doesn’t take away from the platform the site and assignments allow Gleneagle music students to document and direct their learning from whatever stage they currently find themselves.

Additionally, the opportunity to narrate and share their journeys in video reflections (and for those videos to roll out in a wall of televisions on the front page of the site) allows the individual voices in the class to come together in a stream of stories about learning guitar.

This has been especially helpful in integrating the many international students who find their way into guitar (either with a more formal musical background or in need of a class that won’t demand too high a degree of English language skills they are in Canada to build), and who might not be quick to speak up in the larger in-class discussions or activities. Similarly, as an elective course that draws grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 students, the video documents allow for a levelling of the social hierarchy that allows individual talents to be brought out into the light.

As it would serve to introduce open-online participants in addition to the face-to-face members of the class, the Course Introduction Assignment allows students to meet one another in a relaxed setting that still challenges them to be vulnerable. Mr. Salisbury and I shared a laugh about how self-conscious the process made each of us, even as experienced guitar players who address groups of people for a living.

That said, his intro video is awesome. And as I’ve already posted my own here on the blog, I’ll share his here:

Following the course intros, we spent a few weeks building fundamentals around basic chords, strumming together, and even arranged a simple A / A / A song by Josh Ritter, that we recorded and finalized in only a few days into a coherent number (you can check out the finished product here). From there, we set out to prepare our first performances of the semester, recording goal-setting videos and documenting these early efforts in sharing our work with small groups, a few of which have been shared on the class site.

This has all served to document our early first strides in term one (of two) toward an individualized “Introduction to Guitar.” Each of these first assignments provides a thorough baseline of the class’ playing, both in small and large ensembles, and on their own. And from here we will be able to move onward and outward in individual responses and remixes of various assignments.

Part of the challenge in hosting a MOOC that is also serving the for-credit and face-to-face community at our school is that there needs to be a certain degree of structure and accountability for the for-credit students, especially starting out: thus we each do each of the assignments to a similar degree of expectation and completion. Open learners are invited to participate in these aspects of the class, though I can understand that they might read too much pressure and expectation into the rigor being applied to the for-credit students; I get a lot of emails or messages on Twitter from past or potential open participants apologizing for not having done this or that assignment, which means these folks have forgotten the first tenant of open participation:

There are no expectations, no minimums and no apologies for open participants. 

But that’s all good: when open folks contribute – even by commenting on a video we’ve produced in class, or providing ratings on content on the site – we’re grateful to have them.

Always, no matter how little, infrequently, or sparse their contributions are.

And as the for-credit class moves toward our second term, and more individualized assignment-options, hopefully we can pull a few more folks into our mix.

But to do this I realize that I need to rededicate myself to making the site more of a communicative space than a bin into which students post their work. I need to redouble my efforts to comment, and connect and share the work being posted on the site in our face-to-face classroom, and to motivate our for-credit students to take more risks in sharing their progress in the coming term.

Having established a bassline baseline, our assignments in the coming term will look to challenge students’ and participants creativity, inviting them to:

In addition to our regular performances and daily class playing, these assignments will hopefully provide challenge and inspiration for face-to-face students and open learners alike to document and share their emerging skills.

If you are an aspiring or exemplary guitar player who would like to become an open participant in our course, don’t hesitate to drop your information in the Google Form embedded here, or be in touch with me on Twitter (@bryanjack) or by mail bryan at bryanjack dot ca.

#IntroGuitar Course Welcome & Introduction

Hey (#IntroGuitar) folks!

Here’s a brief example of how you might contribute a course introduction during our first few weeks of class this semester. You can see many others here.

While open online participants are free to jump in and begin on any particular assignment they like, even a short video introduction to yourself and your playing can provide a meaningful connection to your classmates before we get going.

Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • Who are you? Where are you from? How do you come to find yourself in #IntroGuitar?
  • What is your experience or history with guitar (or music)?
  • What do you want to learn during the course?
  • Is there anything you would like support in learning from the #introguitar community?

Be sure to categorize your post under Course Introductions so they will sort with everyone else’s, and connect with others who are starting out by offering a comment or feedback on their introductions.

Room for Improvement: If and when we do Eminent again…

Slide14

Before the new year, I compiled a host of the TALONS‘ responses to reflective prompts on their work created during the Eminent Person Study, highlighting the means and methods they employed to create stellar examples of public speaking in their Eminent Addresses. Being able to have each of these reflections assembled in one place – thanks to Google Forms, and a bit of code that helps display the various responses – creates a different type of feedback that allows us to glimpse the how of what is inevitably a successful aspect of the project.

When we are successful, it appears, it is because we put an exceptional amount of work into the product: we rewrite, and edit, and draft, and rewrite again. This sort of work is generally undertaken with the help of supportive peers and parents, and presented alongside a cohort of individuals similarly striving to achieve something grand. These are important insights to hold onto as we look ahead at creating future memorable learning opportunities for ourselves and future classes.

Perhaps equally as inviting is the opportunity to investigate what happens when things could be better, though. And so now later than intended, but still hopefully of value to the class and readers of this blog, here is the flip side of the Eminent data.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you believe could be improved?When it comes to work the TALONS would have liked to improve, the results are more divisive than when asked about where they believed they had been successful. Where a majority of the class felt that their Eminent Address had been the most successful, different aspects of the project reveal themselves as areas for future growth.

Among the contenders are the Interview and Night of the Notables (either on the night itself, or capturing their work in a follow-up blog post), followed closely by Document of Learning, and Introductory post.

Traditionally, the prospect of obtaining an ‘expert’ interview on a related topic to one’s Eminent Study has proved a sticking point for many TALONS over the years, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should lead the field for this particular question.

This grade ten response distills much of what generally constitutes this difficulty:

The problem with my interview was that I couldn’t get one. If an assignment like this ever comes up again, I would be sure to contact more people (even if there is only a slight chance they would be able to help with my research), and to contact people earlier on. 

Indeed, whether or not an interview can be obtained is generally the result of having cast one’s net wide enough, if not allowing enough time for meaningful responses to be offered.

A grade nine echoes this sentiment:

I feel like I could have sent out my emails earlier, so I’d have an interview by now. I was procrastinating on my interview and sent my emails rather late. I also could have emailed more people because I think most of the people I emailed didn’t see my message or they just didn’t want to respond. 

However, even with enough time and emails heading in the right direction, one of the grade nines cast more specific advice for themselves forward toward next year’s study:

Next time, I will prepare for my interview as early as possible, and send more convincing emails that will increase the chance of me getting an interview. Having conducted some research on how to form emails, I want to: 

  • Make the title / subject line less vague, and keep it short
  • Write less text, as people are lazy and won’t want to read all of it
  • Avoid lengthy introductions
  • Compliment the reader
  • Use bold / italics to emphasize important points

However, even when successful, this grade ten was able to take away valuable lessons from the experience:

Although I did end up conducting an interview, I later observed that my questions might have garnered more of a helpful response if I had chosen a specific and narrowed topic. For this assignment, the questions that I asked could elicit a very long and extensive response, and because I asked so many of these kinds of questions, it became difficult to delve deeply into one specific area, as the interviewee felt the need to address all of the questions. In the future, I would try to narrow my questions to the most important area of study for the purposes of my research and understanding. 

In the cases of other aspects of the study the TALONS would like to see improved, a common thread that emerges in reflection is the race against time. As in the interview assignment, many members of the class can likely empathize with their classmate who wrote,

I feel that I definitely could have done a better job with my [Document of Learning, Library Field Study, Biblography]. But, unfortunately, Night of the Notables crept up on me and I had to put all of my efforts into [my Speech, Learning Center]. 

Even when it came to Learning Centers, this sentiment is likely familiar:

I believe I did fairly well with my Learning Center. However, I believe it could be improved the most out of all of my assignments because since it is such a big assignment there are many places where it could be improved. I would firstly start my learning center sooner, for I had to work well past midnight many days in a row leading up to NotN to finish it. 

This grade nine agrees:

I was happy with my Learning Center, however I believe that I should have put more time, effort and thought into the creation and presentation of it. 

As does this one:

The one thing I would have liked is for more time. Between juggling math, the environmental project, being project manager, elective homework, and extracurricular activities, starting my learning center was slowly making its way down the list. 

Which is a real-world application of the experiential learning TALONS is proud of providing: we often choose which of our tasks will garner our utmost effort, and occasionally even large projects – or aspects of complex projects – don’t get the amount of time or effort we feel they deserve in a perfect world.

Time is, in the world of work as in life, unfortunately a scarce commodity, and we are each tasked with making decisions about how we allocate it. And I doubt that as an even trade, many of the TALONS would exchange success in their Eminent Speech for a more successful turn in one of these other aspects of the project.

However, the sensation that we have not used our time wisely this time around can often be the best impetus to using it differently in the future, and for those who this year felt that their swap wasn’t an even trade (inasmuch as they didn’t spend time on their speech instead of other eminent assignments), I would hope that this sentiment leads to a more informed use of time in future opportunities.

An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Banjournal

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.

Unplug’d

Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.

Why Collaborative Inquiry?

Puzzled

In a facilitator’s guide for Collaborative Inquiry for Educators, Jenni Donohoo presents the formation of professional learning communities as a means of addressing “adaptive challenges,” or those “for which the necessary knowledge to solve the problem do not yet exist” (Vander Ark, 2006 p 10). Many aspects of professional development seeks to approach these types of adaptive challenges, as many aspects of teaching and learning presently find themselves in flux.

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In such times, Levin notes that “the challenge of change is compounded by pressure from others to remain the same” (Levin, 2008 p 81), but that “change in schools come from ‘thoughtful application of effective practices in particular contexts” (p 81).

“When members of professional learning communities (PLCs) engage together in investigating challenges of practice, their understanding of these challenges grows deeper and is more unified, practice grows more sophisticated and powerful, and the group develops a tighter sense of camaraderie and common purpose.”

This type of cultural cultivation allows teams to “construct common understanding, share knowledge and experience, and develop common goals.” Developing a culture of inquiry enables sustainable change and the ability of an organization to respond to the evolving needs of a community:

“High quality professional learning includes learning communities that apply a cycle of continuous improvement to engage in inquiry, action research data analysis, planning, implementation, reflection and evaluation.”

But merely putting such a model into place is not enough to ensure such a culture will take hold. In fact, such cases are shown to be rare; where they are shown to be successful it is because of meaningful learning activities are undertaken to drive the process forward.

Donohoo presents a four stage process:

  1. Framing the Problem
  2. Collecting Evidence
  3. Analyzing Evidence
  4. Documenting, Sharing, Celebrating

Teams begin by determining a meaningful focus, and developing an inquiry that will allow them to collect evidence in their classroom, personal practice, or collaboration with a colleague. Once evidence has been collected, it is brought back to the team for analysis before being shared and documented for the wider PLC, and used to consider further inquiries. These stages are “the same stages used in action research.” However:

“The difference between the two approaches is that collaborative inquiry is conducted by a group of educators interested in addressing a school, department, or common classroom issue driven by student learning needs.”

In concluding the opening chapter of a lengthier guide for facilitators, Donohoo shares three primary considerations in implementing a collaborative inquiry model: Timing, Forming a Team, and Fostering Academic Discourse.

“The best time to introduce a collaborative inquiry is when the process of school improvement planning takes place,” Donohoo advises, adding that:

“By introducing collaborative inquiry as a strategy for school improvement, it will help team members understand how it relates to the work that is already happening in schools.”

In forming inquiry teams, Donohoo cites Katz et al. (2009) and suggests formal leaders “distribute leadership, identifying those teacher leaders who are in the position to lead in a focus area because of their expertise” (p 75).

However, it is the consideration toward fostering academic discourse which provides the greatest challenge – and in turn the greatest opportunity – for schools engaging in collaborative inquiry, highlighting MacDonald’s observation that

“teachers must be willing to expose their struggles and failures with their colleagues must be willing to tell the truth, or teams will go through the motions of collaborative inquiry but never see results” (2011 p 45).

Developing a rich dialogue that allows participants to reflect on and evaluate their own practices in the context of communal inquiry creates the opportunity for teams “to collaboratively generate knowledge while investigating problems of practice.” In closing, Donohoo refers to both Senge (1990) and Vander Ark (2006):

“Senge (1990) used the term ‘learning organizations’ to describe organizations that transformed themselves to meet adaptive challenges and become knowledge-generating versus merely knowledge-using organizations. Vander Ark (2006) noted that meeting an adapting challenge required ‘creating the knowledge and tools to solve the problem in the act of working on it” (p 10).

Such a model of inquiry is congruent with a constructive view of professional development described a few posts back:

“This act of development is a constructive act, one which suits the principles of democracy that we are all – regardless of subject speciality – charged with teaching in our classrooms, and a process we are obligated to engage in as citizens in a democracy, as well as teachers, and professionals. And if we are to provide this type of learning in our classrooms, we should be engaged – and are compelled to be engaged, in the language of our own members’ guide and professional expectations –  in a similarly constructive development of our own practice and profession.”

Not everyone will buy into the process deeply, maybe even especially at first. And it is a colleague’s prerogative to engage in professional development in this fashion. However, if small groups or pairs of colleagues are supported and given time and opportunity to experiment and explore their practice – and document and build through an ongoing praxis of inquiry – these relationships being fostered across a staff could enact a profound shift in school culture.