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Archive for April 2011

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Learn More. Teach Less.

There is a lot of controversy about professional development especially now when budgets are tight. I haven’t blogged for some time because I have been steaming about what is happening in our schools — for our children. This is their future we are messing with. Okay so here I go. I’m going to rant a little. Are you ready?

I’m a coach. I go into the schools and watch what teachers have to do now. In most states, it’s testing time. Some schools are off this week. For the past 5-6 weeks, teachers have been teaching to the test. I don’t know about you, but to stop everything and teach to the test is outrageous. Is this really for our kids or to keep the school open? Or to really leave every poor child behind? Forget projects. Forget engagement. I know. I know. Accountability. Student data. If the data takes in account more than standardized tests. How about authentic assessment? A collection of evidence of learning.

What do our children need for their future? I can tell you it is not about knowing FACTS and how to answer a multiple choice test. That is unless they want to play Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. The jobs they will need expect them to know how to be creative, innovative, and be able to discern what they find is a fact or an opinion. News is bombarding us on the Internet and TV. Most children have cell phones but they are not allowed to use them in most schools. Why? Why are we so afraid of them. Cell phones are great tools and will become more of a factor in our lives. Just watch! There are more cell phones than landlines now. Students use their cell phone even more than the TV or computer. They rarely read newspapers anymore unless it’s on their phone. How do they know if the information they read online is biased, propaganda, or a big fat lie? We used to teach life skills and connect to real-world activities. We need to change the focus on facts and show students how to use information effectively, find it, evaluate it, and then even publish. I bet the majority of your students use some form of social media like Facebook and Twitter. I bet if you had students use their cell phones in school, they would be able to read, write, and publish using them. Ask them to text each other notes and brainstorm ideas with a mindmap.

Today the focus is on basic skills: math and reading. In some countries, children don’t start school until they are seven. We expect our children to start reading in Kindergarten. I remember when Kindergarten was where kids learned how to socialize. A good friend of mine retired when she was spending more time teaching the kids how to bubble in a bubble for the test then having them sing or dance.

This is a tough time because of the economy. We are focusing on building “High Quality Teachers,” but we take away what teachers need to become effective.  The problem for me is the definition of a “High Quality Teacher.” It is different depending on your bias about testing. Is a “High Quality Teacher” an expert in their content field but have no skills on how to do group kids for teamwork. One of the main characteristics needed in many high paying jobs is teamwork and collaboration.

If we really want our students to understand the concepts in the standards, then let them teach each other — co-design with your students projects that make sense. Students want to make a difference. I bet if we asked our kids to come up with questions about climate change, they would come up with hundreds of questions. Let them take one question and brainstorm more. Then design a public service 30 second movie to broadcast on YouTube. Just imagine how many standards they would meet and understand after a project like this.

Think about a project you did in school as a child, if you did. Then think about what you learned from a standardized test. What do you remember? I know we need some background information, but let’s be more creative about it. I remember making a paper maché relief map in third grade. I don’t remember much of anything else that year.

I cannot sit in a lecture anymore myself. I cannot even imagine children today sitting still for five minutes. Teachers are teaching more and students are learning less. They may get it for the test, but do they retain it?

I’d like to challenge a school or district to try a pilot with several groups of students. Follow them over several years. With one group (your control group), everything is like it is now. Then another group, have them make a movie with their Smart phone, do projects, teach each other. Test the groups the same. I wonder who will retain the information more. I’d love to be part of it. Let me know if you want to try this.

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Defining Professional Learning Communities (PLC)

I wrote this post in 2005 where it is cross posted on Rethinking Learning. I read it and thought it needed to be posted again with a few updates.

A Professional Learning Community (PLC) is comprised of people (teachers, para-professionals, administrators, and other community members) who collectively examine and collaboratively work to improve teaching practice. A PLC can but does not have to be situated in one school or district. With the ability to work online from anywhere at anytime, members of the community can connect, find others with similar interests, study and review existing teaching practice, and do action research to improve teaching and learning.

Being a teacher is challenging work and can be isolating. Many teachers teach the way they were taught which many times tends to be traditional lecture style: the expert or the giver of knowledge. Now with accountability issues, teachers are pressured to meet standards and teach to the test. What I am seeing is more teaching that is prescriptive in nature. In some areas, especially for at-risk students, this style can be  effective in teaching reading but less effective for students to retain deeper concepts. When teachers can interact with other teachers who have similar teaching situations, take the time to test and challenge their ideas, inferences and interpretations, and review and process information with each other, they grow professionally. This learning experience grows exponentially with the expanding exchange of ideas and multiple sources of knowledge from a variety of participants of the PLC.

A PLC can be a powerful professional development opportunity that encourages change and improves professional and personal learning.

Attributes of PLCs: the Five Dimensions
(adapted from source: http://www.teachinflorida.com/teachertoolkit/PLC.htm)

  1. Supportive and Shared Leadership. The collegial and facilitative participation of the administrator shares leadership with his/her staff by facilitating their work.
  2. Share Values and Vision. All PLC members develop a shared vision based on their commitment to the needs of their students and their desire to improve their teaching practice or grow their own skills and learning.
  3. Collective Learning and Application of Learning (Collective Creativity). PLC members move beyond existing procedures and teaching methods to design strategies for improvement based on high standards, latest research, and best practices.
  4. Supportive Conditions. The environment is risk-free so all members are safe and comfortable to collaborate, communicate, learn, make decisions, problem solve, and share their results and products.
  5. Physical Conditions and Human Capacities.
  1. Time to meet and talk
  2. Small size of school or PLC
  3. Physical proximity of staff to one another
  4. Teaching roles that are interdependent
  5. Communication structures
  6. School autonomy
  7. Teacher empowerment

I agree with the first four dimensions for any school. An online PLC can take the fifth dimension beyond the classroom and school walls.

  • PLC members can meet anytime from anywhere.
  • The PLC can be multiple sizes with the support of  eCoaches who guide and facilitate the process.
  • Anybody can be the teacher and learner and eCoach.
  • Communication online is a paradigm shift for teachers and needs to be designed into daily routines.
  • Teacher and Learner empowerment.
  • Learner centered environments.

The PLC as an Organizational Culture

Most learners adopt the organization’s guiding principles. If these principles are top-down decisions without input from all the stakeholders, the members of the organization may implement them without commitment and belief that they will affect positive change. The organization will be more successful if all members are valued and involved in the decisions on the direction of the community right from the beginning.

A sense of relational trust – linking the notions of respect, competence, personal regard, and integrity with academic achievement – also strengthens the community and makes shared decision-making possible. (Gordon – 2002)