Monday, July 23, 2018

Creating and sustaining a culture of learning

In the early 2000s, one of the most talked about books was Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education. Peter Senge and his colleagues upended, challenged, and reinforced a lot of thinking about schools. They published an updated version is 2012; I refer to the initial version published in 2000.

Challenging traditional thinking wasn't a new conversation for Peter Senge. ASCD published an interview with Peter Senge in 1995, prompted by the first book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning (1990).

The first question put to Senge: "Schools are considered to be institutions of learning, but are most of them learning organizations?" His response:
Definitely not. A learning organization is an organization in which people at all levels are, collectively, continually enhancing their capacity to create things they really want to create. And most of the educators I talk with don't feel like they're doing this. Most teachers feel oppressed trying to conform to all kinds of rules, goals and objectives, many of which they don't believe in. Teachers don't work together; there's very little sense of collective learning going on in most schools.
By the way, I also disagree with your assumption that schools are institutions of learning for students.
When asked to elaborate, Senge said:
We say school is about learning, but by and large schooling has traditionally been about people memorizing a lot of stuff that they don't really care too much about, and the whole approach is quite fragmented. Really deep learning is a process that inevitably is driven by the learner, not by someone else. And it always involves moving back and forth between a domain of thinking and a domain of action. So having a student sit passively taking in information is hardly a very good model for learning; it's just what we're used to (emphasis mine).
This is a conversation we've been having for decades now. In 2018, we seem to be making a little progress, but we are still a long way from creating and sustaining a true culture of learning. When Senge was asked how he would go about making a school a learning organization, he said:
The process always involves two dimensions. One is creating a reflective environment and a degree of safety where individuals can rediscover what they really care about. And the second dimension is to bring those people together in such a way that their individual visions can start to interact. We communicate our individual visions to one another and eventually start to create a field of shared meaning—where there really is a deep level of trust and mutual understanding— and we gradually begin to build a shared vision. Actually having shared visions exist is so profoundly different from writing a vision statement that it's really night and day. It takes a long time, and it's a process that involves a lot of reflection and a great deal of listening and mutual understanding. It always involves those two dimensions.
I could mention Knoster's Change Model and how that framework should probably be a part of the process. I could talk about vision as an investment of time and reflection and effort rather than a one-and-done process of writing a vision statement that is then ignored until the next iteration.

I could spend some time talking about the five disciplines themselves, some of which will look familiar conceptually even if we use different terminology in some instances: personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, team learning, and systems thinking. But there is a LOT of information in the book, so I'll just give you a quick overview.

Personal mastery "is the practice of articulating a coherent image of your personal vision--the results you most want to create in your life--alongside a realistic assessment of the current reality of your life" (p. 7). Thinking as a teacher: what is your personal vision for what you most want to create in your classroom? Using the change model elements to help with the assessment: What skills do you have? What resources do you have? What do you need? What are you likely to be able to get? What aren't you likely to be able to get and why not? What can you do, if anything, to mitigate what you think you lack? What can you do to optimize what you have and can get? How will you make use of what you have and can get to pursue your vision for your classroom?

An administrator at the school and district level can and should ask similar questions, especially in preparation for the second discipline.

Shared vision "establishes a focus on mutual purpose. People with a common purpose. . .can learn to nourish a sense of commitment in a group or organization by developing shared images of the future they seek to create and the principles and guiding practices by which they hope to get there" (p. 7).

Imagine, if you will, a school team getting together well before school starts and being bold enough, feeling safe enough, to post their images of the future and their principles and guiding practices. Each person fills a piece of chart paper with their thinking, knowing there will be no judgment. Then small teams, let's say grade level teams, consolidate their individual visions, principles, and guiding practices to one that represents the grade. On a piece of chart paper next to their combined grade-level vision, they list their non-negotiables and why, and they also assess the weaknesses of their vision; maybe a SWOT variation.

Then each grade-level team spends time looking at the grade-level vision for the grade that immediately precedes theirs and the one that immediately follows. They might even take a peek at the individual charts to see what informed the grade-level chart. (For some schools, this might require some imagination. High schools might go the route of content areas though I'd discourage that kind of exclusivity so 12th grade teachers might actively speculate what such a chart might look like for first-year college educators). They note the non-negotiables and the reasons; they reflect on the weaknesses. They do not make notes on another grade-level chart, but they take their thinking back to their own. What have those other teachers told them about learning and their vision for learning?

Maybe then they make revisions to their charts but they also start to articulate something concrete, which leads me to the third discipline.

Mental models focus "around developing awareness of attitudes and perceptions. . .which can also help you see more clearly and honestly define current reality." Mental models should allow safe and productive conversations about what might be otherwise "dangerous and discomfiting subjects" (p. 7)

The fourth model is team learning, "a discipline of group interaction" and the fifth model is systems thinking in which "people learn to better understand interdependency and change and thereby are able to deal more effectively with the forces that shape the consequences of their actions" (p. 7-8).

Senge et al. give readers a LOT of information, but no clear roadmap. I remember having a conversation with educators about how organically a PBL project can evolve and one teacher kept asking for a step-by-step list for how to develop a PBL project. So, yes, some educators will be frustrated that there is no specific set of steps to becoming a learning organization.

The Fifth Discpline began as a way of thinking about businesses as learning organizations and, to that end, there were lots of articles published that tried to point the way to becoming a learning organization. One of them is 6 Ways To Build a Culture of Learning (2014), which is as good an example as any of such articles. The writer makes an interesting statement in his closing paragraph: "Perpetual learning allows you to understand not just the topic at hand, but also the interconnections of other issues that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. At the end of the day, people are the defining element of success—or failure—for an organization. . . ."

In my opinion, a culture of learning means that everyone in the building is a perpetual learner. Everyone.

Let's go back to that personal mastery. My hope is that most teachers would include in their vision a classroom that itself is a culture of learning with a group of students who, for the most part, embrace the opportunity to learn. Terry Heick presents some ideas for promoting a culture of learning for students. Realistically, all students won't embrace the opportunity to learn, with or without GRR, so that means the teacher might be able to provide pathways for learning opportunities---hmmm, personalization, if you will--for most of the students while facilitating learning differently for students who struggle or haven't yet found their learning chops. But oh what big changes it might mean to how teachers are able and allowed to manage their classrooms, and that means administrators at the school and district level might have to be willing and able to relinquish some oversight and control. It's a different sort of gradual release of responsibility.

How does a school create and sustain a culture of learning? Step one: Be realistic and encourage teachers to start in their classrooms. I'd invite them to go through a process similar to what I outlined above for personal mastery and shared vision. Administrators will have to give teachers permission to be bold and honest, and will have to refrain from anything other than encouragement; they will find their levels of reality and possibility.

Some grade levels will be willing to do more; let them. Don't expect everyone to be willing and able to move at the same pace--our students don't so why should we expect anything different from teachers? Leave the reluctant (or laggards or fundamentalists; Dr. Anthony Muhammad's interview on four types) alone. Just let them be. They're watching. They're waiting to see what happens. Sure, they probably have a reservoir of excuses and reasons not to change, and that's the way it is though I think it's possible some of those folks can be coaxed into change when they see what the risks and the rewards really are.

Once the school year starts, I think administrators should check in periodically and encourage those teachers or grade-level teams to continue to refine their thinking, to push the boundaries of what a culture of learning could be in their classrooms. At the same time, the administrator may have to be the voice of reason and reality, so may have to push back on some things, but that should be a conversation, a negotiation of what can be done. We can learn from the negative , especially when we are forced to reconsider something and think about a different way to accomplish something OR decide how important it is right now and if it's something that can be deferred.

Perpetual learning. It's a phrase I really like.

I'd also imagine teams get together periodically to review their charts and their SWOT variation. They make notes about what's working and what isn't. Maybe they scribble questions in the margins. Those charts become working documents for them. Nothing fancy or formal because the moment there's a committee or task force with documents and sheets, everything becomes about the process rather than whatever you're trying to accomplish and then it requires formal meetings and becomes, well, a task. Keep it messy at first; although, if you've got that teacher who has to recreate the chart so it's tidier, well, go ahead and let her do that, but leave it on chart paper and tape some sticky notes to it just to keep it real. And people should feel they can add sticky notes whenever questions occur to them or to note real-time changes for their classrooms whenever it makes sense. By the way, the reason I encourage the chart paper is because that visual is powerful. It's culture of learning sketchnoting.

Then I imagine teams getting together to reflect on their reflections, the changes they made real-time and why and how/if those worked or not. Then they revisit their personal mastery visions and discuss where they are with their shared vision to chart what they want to see happen the next year based on what they've learned and are learning. NOW you can start formalizing some stuff with a shared document. Whatever you do, though, you have to be able to encourage perpetual learning.

Now here's the other thing. Many of us want CHANGE now. If we know we have to overhaul something, let's rip off the bandage and do the change. The idea of one little change then another little change makes us slightly deranged. But let's be realistic that sometimes the best we can do is one little change.

I learned this from programming a long time ago. When I got a bunch of errors in code, I could try to fix all of the errors as individual errors. But if I "fixed" all of those individual errors, I might create more because I might not see how one error cascades to another. But, if I fixed one thing at a time, I might resolve several subsequent errors.

I think that's true of a culture of learning in a classroom and in a school or district. My personal approach would be to make a list of everything I want to change. I would figure out the stuff that's easy to fix, maybe even mostly cosmetic and get those done. (Achieve is one of my StrengthsFinder strengths, so I LOVE to cross stuff on my list!) Yep, I feel better already.

Then I would identify the thing in my personal vision that will have the most positive impact on the majority of my students (or classrooms or buildings). I would do that next and make sure I allow enough time to see if there are any unintended consequences, for good or ill. That part is tricky because we want to move on to the next thing and often do so too quickly; there is no magic formula.

And so it goes, item by item, allowing enough time to see if there are any negative ripple effects between the last thing and the current thing.

Now what are these things? It depends.

Maybe one of the things I want to do is implement more time for stations in my classroom or maybe I just want to introduce stations. Maybe another one of the things I want to do is figure out how to implement Genius Hour. So maybe I first introduce stations and when we're all comfortable with that, I introduce a Genius Hour station: that's the station where kids can pursue whatever they want. Oh wait, didn't I learn something about student voice and choice in some PD thingy last year? Huh. Maybe I should revisit my notes and see how that applies to what I'm trying to do with stations so maybe I can improve what I'm doing and how.

See? I'm learning as a teacher and I'm encouraging ways of learning for my students. Every time I introduce something new in my classroom, I could talk about what I've learned and why we're doing what we're doing. In that way, perhaps I'm also teaching them that learning is powerful; perhaps I'm also teaching them how to learn.

I think a lot of teachers already have substantial elements of a culture of learning in their classrooms. And I think a lot of teachers imagine they are constrained by school and district mandates, initiatives, or the perception of same.

I believe the teachers who are perpetual learners have no choice but to have a culture of learning in their classrooms because on-going learning is what their vision of personal mastery is all about, and they will find ways to share that passion for learning with their students.

No comments:

Post a Comment