Thursday, September 29, 2016

Building a Culture of Learning, Easy Right?

Teachers' roles in Project Based Learning.
We are already into a month of school, and the start of this school year has been unique and, I would say, great in an important way! The word “great” to some might mean that students arrived and compliantly adapted to our rules, all of which give the impression of orderly classrooms where students sit quietly listening to their teachers. Now mind you, we live in middle school, so orderly might be a stretch. In contrast, what I have observed is something a bit more unique from previous years! From the first day, our kids were thrown into groups doing collaborative activities, getting to know each other, establishing group norms, and accomplishing group goals. It was noisy, and it was messy, and it was awesome!

I am constantly amazed and am very proud of our staff and their work with kids, due largely in part to their willingness to take risks in order to better serve our kids' best interest. There has been a lot of talk about developing 21st century skills and creating thinkers and doers as opposed to teaching strictly content and compliance. Our staff has been learning together about how to incorporate strategies and tools such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking to teach the content standards differently. We have found that it has required us to think differently and, in most cases, it means almost starting from scratch. We have been fortunate in that a group of us had the opportunity to work together over the summer to create these kinds of experiences for kids with the goal of deepening learning.

Teaching tool for a focus on teamwork.
This week I got to see first-hand some challenges among students working in groups, communicating with one another, and struggling to learn together. It’s much different than watching them struggle independently with solving a math problem or finishing up an essay.  What makes deeper learning experiences different, and perhaps the most difficult, is creating a culture of learning where students have a much larger role and responsibility. As in just about every other aspect of life, without exposure to a variety of situations or opportunity to practice skills, we will most likely not become proficient in our endeavors. Working in groups has been the bane for many teachers as students struggle managing time and sharing the workload. Despite student inexperience or lagging skill, though, our teachers are reporting great success stemming from activities designed to teach kids about working in groups and managing roles as the key learning outcome. Just like anything, we have learned that we cannot expect a skill such as collaboration to simply exist within our kids; we have to be purposeful and guide them along the way. The work our staff has done relates to the perceived messiness at the start of the school year, which I believe has paid off for our students. Starting the school year with high expectations has caused our students to settle in and get going with a clear focus and a set of tools with which to practice.

I am fortunate to be a part of an organization that values kids. As teachers, we do not want our kids to fail. This year I have watched our teachers work very hard, yet struggle, with being ok with failure in the sense that it is a very important part of the learning process. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we are finding with students working in a project-based world. Once our kids have established a direction, the level of maintenance required through continual coaching is relentless in some cases.

It is here where we have to work to stay the course, staying positive, adding guidance to each unique situation, and focusing on the teaching of a lagging skill like self-management. It would be really easy to fall back on natural consequence as a teaching tool; but if our students are to learn to be successful, it will be much more likely in a supportive environment, as opposed to a hands-off approach, where failure is accepted as a natural part of learning for both the student and the teacher. To some kids, failure is unfortunately ok and it marks the end of their work, which typically means no work at all, and that is not the failure we should be OK with. Though there are times that, despite the scaffolded levels of structure and supports we put in place for kids, they will ultimately choose whether they are motivated to try, which lends itself to a future exploration about student voice and choice and adding authenticity to learning as a means to motivation.

Being reflective, in my opinion, is one of the premiere skills a person can possess. It is especially important for teaching and guiding developing young humans who are creating their sense of identity as learners. As teachers, using projects that are collaborative in nature can put us into some pretty unfamiliar territory as our kids take a much more active role in their education. I am excited that our staff has begun conversations around learning from each other as professionals and understands that we are sometimes our best resource since we share some of the same experiences. Creating opportunities to share questions, ideas, strategies, successes, and, yes, even failures is what a healthy learning environment is about. We have much important work to do, and I am excited to have the opportunity to retool our school’s strategies together with an amazing, creative staff, and I am really looking forward to the positive impact that is surely to come from our efforts.