A Unit Plan of One’s Own: TIEGRAD Final Presentation

MEd Final Presentation

Notes and slides which served as a summary of learning at our cohort’s presentations in Vancouver on December 5th, 2015.  The title comes from an essay by Virginia Woolf and has been used as the basis for a project started by Jim Groom and others at the University of Mary Washington called Domain of One’s Own (which they’ve since taken on the road as Reclaim Hosting) and which allows faculty and students to own and manage their own domain and web publishing spaces. The idea from Woolf is that all one needs to write, and thus be free, is a place to write: and while for Woolf that place may have been a room, for people today everywhere is place to write, and reflect, and synthesize. This is as true for us in how we are able to approach our various areas of education, as it is for our students who are growing up on the web as participants in a truly globalized culture. Teaching young people to own and manage their own data, from the 1s and 0s on up to the content they share on Facebook is central to the task of educating digital citizens. In an article published on Medium last year, Audrey Watters cited the TALONS class as an example of “the growing number of schools [who] believe that students need a proprietary online space in order to be intellectually productive.” This project focuses on the creation of that space as having a central role in citizenship learning in the 21st century. MEd Final Presentation

Something great about networked learning – and learning in public – is that it sprawls. It goes all over. In relationships and projects, initiatives and endeavours: it is always ephemeral. Sometimes it crystalizes into moments of understanding and knowledge, but inevitably it careens back into confusion and new mysteries.

But in blog posts and pictures and videos and presentations, collaborations and conversations, rhizomatic wanderings can come together and be recorded as syntheses of new meanings and understandings that sprawl further and further in every direction.

This was a journey I had been on for more than five years before I joined TIEGRAD, and the challenge to bring together this swarm of ideas and authentically represent the last two year’s learning has been tougher than I might have thought, coming in.

MEd Final Presentation

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p style=”text-align: justify;”>Something that has remained consistent, however, has been a focus on teaching and learning for citizenship, and the view that schools are places that can increase a community’s ability to realize democratic possibilities. This was true in many of my past experiences as a teacher prior to enrolling at Uvic:

  • Whether working in an experiential gifted students program;
  • as a music teacher;
  • as someone working in a global social network;
  • or in my personal and professional development on my blog.

 All along I was sketching out the elements of what might constitute a conception of citizenship in the 21st century.

MEd Final Presentation

Through my grad studies, that conception of citizenship has grown to include the longer traditions of educational philosophy, and support what I had previously approached as exclusively “digital” concerns.

Introductions to Paulo Freire, John Dewey, and Gregory Bateson brought me to a view of citizenship learning that blended critical pedagogy and transformative learning, and placed the digital contexts of modern learning square in the tradition of the Enlightenment.

MEd Final Presentation

In his description of Enlightenment, which he called ‘critical ontology,’ Foucault referred to:   “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”   It’s a description befitting the outcomes much of our educational reforms are concerned with these days, especially when we think of an emphasis of constructivist pedagogies and student-led inquiries. But for schools to truly embrace an emergent view of knowledge – where what emerges from the process of learning cannot, and should not, be predetermined – schools confront a direct challenge to the notion of traditional curriculum and assessment. MEd Final Presentation

Over time, my research question formed around the possibility of creating such a framework for learning based on emergence, and what this could look like within the constraints of traditional – or even the newly Government-mandated – curriculum, and given the possibility of digital technology.

In attempting to set up digital spaces for learning, I try to use a similar structure for knowledge-building and dialogue that I would in physical space: we learn by trying to articulate ourselves to others, and by recognizing new possibilities in one another’s expressions of our shared experiences.

So as would apply in the classroom, it is important that digital space is organized to foster audience and sharing around collaborative inquiries, with a record of individual growth accumulating in an environment that is owned by the individuals in that community.

MEd Final Presentation

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p style=”text-align: justify;”>In the unit plan of one’s own, the process can be organized around any grade level or subject area; it also doesn’t necessarily need to take place within a digital environment. What the class or individual blogs present is the opportunity for a critical praxis of learning to be documented in-progress by individuals or groups: if a similar record of learning artefacts were to be kept in a binder or shoebox or corkboard through the course of a semester, much of the essence of the pedagogy would remain. For those looking to instil a sense of digital citizenship extending beyond the local classroom, however, public sites can take the process onto the global web.   At the outset of a unit, students document or represent their “First Position.” The intent here is to “capture” the state and intentions of their learning with only introductory information at hand:

  • What are my first impressions of the topic?
  • What do I already know?
  • What do I want to know?
  • What are my questions?
  • How will I go about finding answers to them?
  • And why is it important for me to have them answered?

From there we have a document of learning in progress, a planning document of what might become of the ‘summative’ event, a ‘capture’ or record of that summative piece, and a reflection or self-assessment to articulate the learnings of the particular unit – whether to the individual learner, teacher, or group as a collective. The process itself is structured to bring about an authentic emergence of subjective perspectives around a common topic or inquiry.

MEd Final Presentation

For each of the unit assignments, criteria are generated by the class to determine mutual expectations for the learning that should be done, and how it will be shared. Rubrics are created and distributed, and used to gather peer-feedback, provoke authentic self-assessment, and to provide for teacher intervention where necessary.

It is not even always important that grades be attributed to each of these unit assignments, as they can distract the focus from seeking out relevant feedback to better meet individual and collective goals.

To coincide with reporting periods, it can be useful to require a mid-term and final synthesis of learning relative to mandated curricular outcomes. Here, students are asked to look back over their amassed documents of learning, and to assemble a record of their work toward identified learning standards. These points in a semester can offer a chance for students and teacher to arrive at a grade reflective of the totality of their work – rather than an aggregate ‘score,’ for the term or semester.

MEd Final Presentation

In brief, the process has left me with a few takeaways:

  • One is that I need not be a revolutionary: the system we have inherited is itself built on the premise of an ongoing revolution. Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others. But it is especially bad if we don’t know how to use it to build community-driven consensus.
  • How we pursue this community driven consensus is by preparing young people to express themselves as members of their various communities to achieve authentic collective ends.
  • And finally we must pursue this for ourselves as educators and citizens, working through our own praxis of intention, action, and reflection, because this is what it means to be enlightened.

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.