Category Archives: Communities of Practice
Let’s face it – schools are primarily about kids and their learning. Sure, we need buildings, teachers, furniture, timetables and the like to support that, but the primary focus should be on them.
This is why I am personally very pleased to see the recent announcement from the Ministry of Education regarding the Education (Update) Amendment Bill. The current Act under which our education system operates places huge emphasis on the structures and governance of our schools, but less on the kids themselves – in fact learners and learning are barely mentioned. This would work well enough if all of our learners were uniform in terms of their learning needs and they were all happy to take whatever courses their local school can provide – but that’s no longer the case. The world has become an increasingly diverse place, creating increasingly diverse opportunities – and demands – for our young people. As a result, their expectations (and those of their parents and whānau) have changed – and many parts of our current education system are struggling to address this.
The proposed changes to the Education Act will provide greater flexibility for the system to respond to these expectations – now and into the future. As with any change it will be necessary to discuss and debate the detail in order to ensure there are no ‘unintended consequences’ – and I welcome that as part of a participatory democracy, as long as we can move beyond the ‘sound-bite’ journalism we are subjected to from the media and politicians.
One part of the proposed Amendment that appears to have drawn lots of attention already is the proposal to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery. It is proposed that online learning providers will come from the schooling, tertiary education, and private sectors, and will be able to seek accreditation as a Community of Online Learning (COOL).
Much of the discussion has immediately focused on suspicions around the entry of private providers into the education system (as if that hasn’t happened for decades already). The debate around corporate support of Education is crucial to the continuation of a public education system that is free and available to all and I support that. But within the rigors of this debate let’s not confuse the issues. If the concern rests with corporate participation, then let the debate focus on that –but let’s not pour scorn on the opportunities that are being created for learners to have their learning needs meet in ways that may be more creative, more flexible and more relevant to their needs, culture and interests.
It’s good to see that the first COOL off the block will be Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) – formerly the Correspondence School. This institution has been operating since 1922, catering for the needs of students who don’t “fit” the conventional education system – some because of isolation, some because of circumstance, and a good many because the areas of study they wish to pursue aren’t available to them in their local school – and so they become ‘dual enrolled’. What’s perhaps not as well known is that until now, Te Kura has operated under it’s own section of the Act, especially crafted to suit the way Te Kura operates as the provisions of the Act that applies to all other schools don’t work for it – for instance, the requirements around attendance, opening hours, staff contact etc.
As someone who used to work at this institution, I am very pleased to see that they will now be able to operate with greater flexibility and in a more coherent way with their site-based counterparts, particularly as around 50% of their over 20,000 students are already based in these schools.
The fact is that for over 90 years, Te Kura has been serving the education needs of a segment of our population who would otherwise have been denied the opportunity within the structure of site-based schools – and to my knowledge, they have done this as successfully as any other school. Many of our business leaders, politicians and even Prime Ministers have benefited from an education that has included time enrolled with the Correspondence School.
Learning at a distance in this way has always been about a choice for some, and the only viable option for others – either way, the quality of provision has ensured success for those participating as learners.
The prospect of this ‘distance’ engagement moving into an online environment brings with it even more opportunity, as well as issues to be addressed (i.e. equity, access, support etc.), but is nonetheless a welcome move in my view. And it’s not new! Te Kura have been using online technologies to engage with their students for over a decade, and around New Zealand, teachers in many of our remote and rural schools have been using online technologies to create opportunities for their students to access subjects of their choice for almost two decades.
The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) evolved from its beginnings in the early 1990s when a group of Area Schools in Canterbury started collaborating to enable their students to be able to access subjects being taught be teachers in schools other than the one they were physically attending. (Back in the day I coordinated and helped write a handbook to guide the development of these LCOs – how the cycles continue!) Around the same time many of the Kura in New Zealand began doing something similar to ensure their students could access their subject choices in Te Reo under the KAWM project. The data around students learning in these networks suggests that they are just as capable of experiencing success as their classroom-based counterparts – perhaps even more so. (Read more in my paper with Michael Barbour)
What these schools have in common is that in the interests of serving the needs of their students they have had to struggle with and become creative about the way they operate within the limitations of the current Act. Being unable to recognize students being enrolled with more than one school, or requiring a teacher to be a staff member at a specific school while their expertise may be spread among many are a couple of examples – along with the whole financial side of things which means money allocated to a student can only go to one school with no easy way of sharing that when that student may be accessing her or his learning from one or more other places. The changes proposed in the Act will, hopefully, allow a more equitable and fair way for these schools and teachers to operate within.
The important thing about these examples is that they aren’t about a “one-size-fits-all” approach. No-one is suggesting that learners spend the whole day in front of a computer, devoid of any social connection. Educational research strongly supports the fact that the role of schools in supporting children’s social and emotional development is just as crucial as their cognitive development. I’d argue that by creating the opportunities for learners to access the subjects they want from while still attending their local school gives them the best of both worlds. There are several schools in the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) that are now thriving because they have been able to retain their learners in the local community where their social and emotional needs can be nurtured and cared for, while also ensuring their academic potential is realized by providing access to high quality instruction in subjects of their choosing using online technologies. This is not to mention also the opportunity created for many of these teachers to grow and develop professionally while remaining as teachers in these rural settings.
This isn’t something only for rural schools – the opportunities apply equally in urban settings. While I was working at the (then) Correspondence School our records showed only two secondary schools in New Zealand that didn’t have students enrolled for distance education – which suggests that even in our urban schools, the limitations created by factors timetables and staffing availability mean that even there students’ needs can’t be fully met under the current structure. A good example for me arose in Christchurch following the earthquakes there where one secondary school that was (and still is) re-located as a result of damage joined the VLN to ensure its students could have access to a broad curriculum. Their roll stabilized, their community remains intact and they remain a part of the VLN today.
I am pleased to see that due attention is to be given to the accreditation and regulation of any COOL providers – as should be the case, and is with our current schools. According to the information released this week, COOL will have to meet criteria relating to their capability and capacity to deliver education to students in an online environment and some COOL will be subject to additional terms and conditions, like which students they can enrol. All COOL will be subject to a robust quality assurance regime, including requirements to meet specified student outcomes.
This is both good and necessary because, as has been reported this week, alongside the very successful models, there are some rather awful examples of attempts to introduce online learning into schools – particularly some of the US online charter schools. This is where the voice of informed educational and community leaders needs to be heard, and involved in the process of accreditation. Staff in organisations such as Te Kura, the VLN Community and the Flexible Learning Association of NZ (FLANZ) are all part of an established body of education professionals within our country who have been doing this sort of thing for many years now – they should be consulted to ensure the policy and implementation models are informed by experience and research evidence.
So let’s keep the discussions going, and tease out where the opportunities are, and where the potential risks and downfalls are. But let’s also focus our attention on what this is all really about – our kids, their future and how we can work together to ensure we create a system that is fully supportive of addressing that.
This week's announcement of funding to support the establishment of a new Centre for Educational Leadership in NZ heralds a significant change for the way we think about the leadership of our schools and educational institutions into the future. The press release states:
The centre will be established by the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand, the newly formed professional body for teachers, and will be partially funded by the Ministry of Education which is contributing $250,000 to its set-up costs. Its initial focus will be the principals who have been selected to lead the new Communities of Learning established to foster systematic collaboration across the education system.
The Teacher's Council has been preparing their thinking about future focused leadership, and have just published their paper on Leadership for Communities of Learning (pdf download) which has been authored by Robyn Baker on behalf of the Council. This paper is a synthesis of the five "Think Piece" papers (pdf download) that were commissioned by the Council from five educational leaders in NZ.
I was the author of one of the papers – on Networked leadership. My perspective is that as we embrace the thinking and activity of the Communities of Schools we must avoid thinking of them as simply another structural or organisational change in our schooling system, but rather a fundamental shift towards operating as a networked culture and as networked organisations. Leadership in this environment must be thought of and enacted quite differently from what we've experienced in the past. It will require considerably different mindset, based on deep collaboration at all levels, and the sense of being connected to something bigger than oneself and ones own (local) institution. It will require a fine balance of three perspectives, leadership of the organisation, leadership in the organisation and leadership as the organisation.
This is going to require leadership that
- is network literate, understanding the way networks operate and how to work effectively within them,
- collaborative instead of competitive, moving beyond the self-interest of the local organisation,
- moves from hierarchy and heterachy to holarchy, understanding that the conventional 'power-oriented approaches to leaderhsip no longer apply.
My hope is that this new centre will embrace this thinking (along with the key ideas presented by the other four authors) to create and promote a truly future focused view of leadership for our schools – not simply a regurgitation of all of the leadership thinking and theorising that has shaped our past thinking. Of course, there is much value in a lot of that thinking – but as we bring it forward to the present, it needs to be located within the paradigm of the networked organisation in the networked age. And that's something we're all going to have to imagine and co-create as we move forward.
(Wait for a few seconds for the new article to begin once you've pressed play)
For those who may have noticed, I've taken a break from my regular blogging for the past couple of months as the new year has proved to be particularly demanding on my time and energies. I'm prompted to start again now having spent time this week with Michael Fullan at a number of events, in particular, the launch of an exciting project involving a cluster of seven schools in Christchurch as part of an international collaboration under the banner of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning.
New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is an international innovation partnership involving students, teachers, school leaders, families and education communities working together to address a key education challenge: how to design teaching and learning that leads to more successful lives for all students. The project is based on the work of Michael Fullan's paper A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies find Deep Learning (PDF download). The Christchurch cluster will be working in close collaboration with around 80 schools in Victoria and another 20 in Tasmania, Australia, which in turn are a part of a larger group involving over 300 schools in nine countries so far.
The following quote from the New Pedagogies website sums up why this project has been established:
There is a growing sense among education leaders, educators, students and parents that traditional approaches are not delivering the necessary outcomes for all students to flourish in the increasingly complex world in which they live. Education is at a major turning point with a powerful push-pull dynamic at play. Push being that traditional school is too often boring leaving students disengaged and pull that the digital world is exciting and ubiquitous. All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.
All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.
Over the next 2-3 years the Christchurch schools are going to be exploring together how they can create far richer, relevant and engaging programmes of learning for their students, involving new approaches to using technology to support learning, new approaches to planning, learning and assessment, and now approaches to leadership across the cluster at all levels to support what is happening. I'm looking forward to an exciting time working with them.
Many of the children in the city today cannot remember a world before the earthquakes. The presenters in this TVNZ documentary ask how this has affected their wellbeing by visiting South New Brighton School in the heart of the most affected suburbs.
As someone who has visited this school, and knows the principal and some staff, I found this a very poignant and informing piece – so am sharing it here to inform and inspire others. It reveals..
- the resiliance of the young people – but also their fragility.
- the importance of schools as a focus of community, and a place where there needs to be opportunity to attend to the things that are important in the lives of the children and their families – in addition to the focus on learning.
- the enormous responsibility placed on the shoulders of school leaders to cope with all of this – on top of them having their own families, homes and personal health to consider.
- the restorative effect of a team of dedicated teachers committed to meeting the needs of learners – supported by other professionals with complementary skills.
It will be some years before the 'new' Christchurch is fully established, and in the meantime I pay full credit to the dozens of school leaders, staff and their communities who are working constructively and collaboratively to provide the sorts of support and opportunities portrayed in this clip.
This morning I had the privilege of joining a panel to present on the theme of modern learning practice in a connected world as a part of the Connected Educator Month here in NZ. Joining me on the panel was a very old friend from the UK, Stephen Heppell and colleagues from CORE, Mark Osborne, Janelle Riki and in the chair, Karen Melhuish Spencer.
In this post I don't intent unpacking what was said or the ideas that were discussed – if you want to know that then the recording is available here and the thoughts of the participants are captured in a shared Google Doc here and on Twitter here on #cenz14. All has been captured in Storify by Marnel van der Spuy.
What this experience very powerfully demonstrated to me is the principle of learning in a connected world. With an hour together online, a handful of 'presenters' and a few dozen participants all active in the back-channels, there was an extraordinary level of communication and ideas generated through the questions asked and responses given etc. – a true knowledge building community emerging. In reflecting on this, there were three dimensions of the knowledge building experience that I observed that I think may be worth considering when designing and planning for the learning experiences we provide (online and face to face) for our students:
Capturing the soundbites
As the presenters were sharing their ideas in the session there was a constant stream of 'soundbites' being captured and shared via the chat facility in the Adobe Connect environment we were using. Each of these represented the key idea or important concept captured by an individual participant – and collectively, they represent the key messages of the experience, there for everyone to review and construct their own memory of the event from.
Imagine if we had this sort of facility in our classrooms – where we were intentially capturing the ideas that are regarded as significant in the minds of each learner – and see them shared in this way so that what escaped the attention of one, is picked up by another etc. Seems to me there's something quite powerful in recognising and understanding the usefulness of this activity in the knowledge building process – recognising of course that it's a part of the process, and that there's a lot of revisiting, filtering and connecting of ideas that will need to occur yet. But at least it is captured – and accessible in a way that previously we've missed out on in our classrooms.
Co-constructing the knowledge base
The Google Doc provides a different level of engagement. Here we saw the knowledge base grow before our eyes during the presentation – and it continues to grow and develop afterwards as there are people active in it even as I am writing this post, editing and playing with the format etc.
The level of engagement here goes beyond the simple soundbites (although these are recorded at the bottom of the document) – and makes lots of use of the links that were shared during the presentation to add substance and value to the soundbites used – offering opporutunities to dig deeper into the concepts and ideas. The Google Doc also remains as an archive of the event and the knowledge shared within it.
This is a strategy that we're certainly seeing deployed in some schools – but there's room for far more of it! The ability of learners to use an online environment that is accessible from anywhere and at any time to share ideas and co-construct knowledge in this way must certainly come to feature as a 'must have' in the repertoire of any modern teacher.
Challenging the ideas
I also saw the start of some thinking that represents the metacognitive engagement – where questions were being asked in response to something that was said by a presenter, or where such thoughts or 'sound bites' stimulated another level of thinking in a participant. The use of the backchannels to immediately enable people to deal with the questions they have or dilemmas in their thinking is extremely powerful to the learning process – particularly as they are able to be responded to by the community, and not wait in line for the presenter to respond.
A counter to this is often cited from some who see this sort of activity as a distraction – preferring that everyone focuses on what the presenter/teacher is saying. I concur that it can be a distraction – but I also believe that dealing with distraction and making the right choices about when and when not to engage in such activity is a part of learning to manage self – an important skill for our modern learners and teachers. The fact is that for many, having the question buzzing around in your head as a result of something the presenter says can be a distraction in itself, and creates a 'block' to full engagement until it has been answered or responded to.
So my point is that the CEM experience this morning has powerfully reinforced for me again the need for us to consider, plan for and embrace the multi-dimensional experience that learning can and should be in (and out of) our classrooms.
If you aren't already connected – take a look at the variety of events and opportunities that are yet to come through the rest of October in Connected Educator Month. if searching the calendar of events isn't your thing, you can sign up fo regular updates.
One of the things I've had the privilege of contributing to in terms of the organisation is the upcoming Connected Educator Month which will launch here in New Zealand for the first time this year. My colleague Karen Melhuish Spencer (in the video above) has done an outstanding job leading the organisation from the NZ end.
Connected Educator Month began in the US two years ago, using online communities help educators share effective strategies, reduce isolation, and provide "just in time" access to knowledge and expertise. In 2013 nearly 200 educational organizations participated in Connected Educator Month in the US, providing a variety of interactive activities, such as webinars, live chats, open houses, contests, projects, and badges for connected educators to earn.
This year we are bringing the opportunity for teachers to participate in these sorts of professional learning experiences to New Zealand – joining with the Connected Educator teams in the US and Victoria, Australia, to make this a truly global event.
To find out what's available, check out the Connected Educator Month group on the VLN for more information, and the Calendar of Events on the Connected Educator websites. The calendar provides you with the opportunity to contribute workshops or events if you want to also – great for those in our education community who are doing some great work in their schools and who can share these experiences so that others can learn from them. You can also check out what's happening in the US Connected Educator Month calendar and joing those events if you wish.
Because Connected Educator Month is being run in October across all three countries, we're also integrating ULearn into the month, with several workshops and events there being shared as a part of the month's activities.
Collaboration is a hot topic in many areas of education at the moment. My work in describing and explaining the key changes for teachers as they develop their Modern Learning Practice places this pretty high on the list. So too with the work I'm involved in my home city of Christchurch, as school leaders and the Ministry of Education seek to explore more collabortive forms of 'school' and 'schooling' as they rebuild after the earthquakes here.
in the video interview above, New York University professor and author, Clay Shirky, explains the disruptive impact of technology on how people live and work. While his comments apply much more broadly than the education space, the principle of collaboration being a disruptive influence apply.
What I get from this interview is the fact that we need to understand collaboration as an organic activty, not something we try to create policy and structures around, and expect to happen.
If we want promote true, engaged collaborative activity, we can do things that will create the environments that will encourage it (Clay's focus in much of his writing is on the way social media environments enable this to happen), and we can also incentivise collaborative behaviours (by re-examining the things that are 'measured' in our system – e.g. ERO criteria etc.), but little is likely to happen where we simply announce a mandate that we must all collaborate.
This applies within schools where principals and school leaders implement new forms of collaborative teams as ways of organising staff, as well as externally – for instance, the organisation of schools into clusters.
The second key lesson from Shirky is around the way in which collaborative groups can create success from failure. This isn't likely to be the case in 'enforced' or 'organised' collaborations where failure is often interpreted as a reason to stop collaborating. In a more organic collaboration, failure drives the group to find alternative solutions – ideas that may not have emerged otherwise.
Of course the critical thing to consider is that collaboration is the polar opposite of competition, and we currently work within a policy and resourcing environment that promotes, encourages and rewards competition in our schooling system. Until there's some serious work done to change those drivers, then collaboration is unlikely to have a lasting impact at a system level – however, it may be the thing that convinces those in decision making positions to do so!
So my call to action would be, as educators, become active in those collaborative environments where you can add your voice to the tide of informed opinion (note the adjective, there's plenty of ill-informed suff out there too) that can help establish the case for change and identify the areas where changes need to be made (in policy, resourcing etc.) It's an election year after all 😉
At last – after months of bringing together the information from a variety of sources, the Superloop Forum website has been made live 😉
The Superloop Forum was formed in 2007, following the allocation of funding to five regions in New Zealand from the Broadband Initiative Fund (BIF). The forum exists as an informal affiliation of those associated with and representing the emerging networks of schools being connected by UFB infrastructure. Their mission is to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between clusters of schools in deploying and using UFB networks to enhance learning.
The link titled 'building regional capacity' contains the text of the submission that the Superloop forum made to the parliamentary select committee on 21st century learning environments and digital literacy.
This website presents an overview of the activity that is occurring in various regional areas of New Zealand, both urban and rural, in terms of schools and clusters making use of the connections they have to ultra-fast broadband. It is really pleasing to note that the VLN is a part of this network – representing over 200 schools alone! By clicking on any of the circles surrounding the NZ map on the front page you can view more details about each cluster, including the numbers of schools involved and links to the cluster website (where it exists).
In addition to the website, there is now a group on the VLN for the Superloop Forum, which anyone who has subscribed to the VLN can join. this is where those involved in the Superloop forum can share ideas and resources as the community grows and develops.
I've been following with interest all of the activity in the US where they're celebrating Connected Educator Month through August, an initiative aimed at strengthening connected online communities of practice in education.
The notion of online communities of practice is nothing new – but interest and participation in them has increased markedly in the past year or so as educators are discovering the huge benefits that lie in being able to link with and learn from each other in these sorts of environment. In NZ, participation in the VLN, for instance, has be increasing exponentially during that time, and, of course, as more people join and participate, the greater the body of knowledge and shared experience that is available makes it attractive to even more to join.
Until now, participation in these sorts of things has been regarded widely as purely optional, and for the 'enthusiasts' and early adopters. But the tide appears to be changing, with some arguing that connectedness should now be the standard, and no longer an option.
So what is the appeal of being 'connected', and why are so many people suddenly taking an interest? In a recent article titled why educators should connect digitally, Tania Roscoria identifies professional development as a key theme. Increased costs associated with traditional forms of PD, the time it takes to participate, the difficulty in getting access to customised or tailored activities etc. etc. are familiar conversations in school staffrooms, and it would seem that there is a dawning realisation that these online environments provide opportunities that are of significant value as PD, as well as meeting expectations in terms of content and relevance. On top of that, participation isn't passive – it's highly contributory, where the expertise and experience of members is recognised and valued by others in the community.
In her blog, Edna Sackson speaks about her experience with communities of practice, noting:
Our communities of practice come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Curriculum Team Leaders, form the core of a group that meets weekly to learn together with other school leaders. They take the learning back to their co-teachers and bring back feedback from teams. These meetings have become a forum for shared reflection and for exploring new ideas.
Teachers are encouraged to share their own learning and expertise with their peers. Collaborative grade-level teams meet regularly to share practice. Each term, there is a flexible PD schedule and team leaders record their teams’ needs and ideas for how best to utilize after-school meetings times.
I completely concur. In my own work I've become increasing involved in using online community spaces as a focal point of the work I do with teachers and educator groups. I've recently begun a programme for a group of teachers in Christchurch titled 'emerging eLeaders' that has attracted a number of teachers who haven't previously been involved in learning this way, but who have been attracted to it because of the limited opportunities available to them through traditional approaches. Already in this group the sense of 'connectedness' is evident as participants have begun sharing thoughts and responses raised in our first meeting together, and respond to the challenges that have been posed.
Of course, online communities don't just 'happen'. There are some new skills and knowledge to be developed in order to adapt our facilitation approach and design these experiences. So too, there is a huge emphasis on participants taking responsibility for being active participants – with out that the community will languish and fail. There's plenty of help available for people wanting to make a start here – this week I came across an enormously useful set of links and references on How To Build An Online Community: The Ultimate List Of Resources (2012), put together by FeverBee founder Richard Millington. There's a plethora of great information here, starting with readings about the background and philosophical frameworks for online communities, how to establish then run and manage these, to measuring the effectiveness of them and the value they are providing.
My final comment piece of advice is – while reading about online communities and being a connected educator is very useful and an important thing to do, nothing can beat actually DOING it, so step out and have a go at participating in some of these online groups and environments, and combine your head knowledge with your practical, lived experience of being an online community member.
I'm currently in the UK, meeting up with colleagues and preparing to participate in the International Conference on Thinking in Belfast, Northern Ireland, next week.
Since arriving here I've been involved in several discussions about the things that are happening in the area of continuing professional development (CPD) here in England and other parts of the UK. Among other things, there is an emphasis on successful and failing schools, with an announcement just this week that 200 of the nation's worst performing schools are to be closed soon and re-opened as 'academies' where they will, in effect, be run by a nearby 'successful' school.
So it was with interest that I came across a publication from late last year titled A Case for Change which outlines much of the thinking and evidence base for what is happening. In particular, I was interested in the detail on page 10 that states:
A systematic review of research on professional development found that there are some key features of professional development which are linked to better achievement by children:
- Observation of teaching;
- Feedback to teachers;
- The use of external expertise linked to school-based activities;
- Scope for teachers to identify their own CPD focus;
- An emphasis on peer support;
- Processes to encourage, extend and structure professional dialogue; and
- Processes for sustaining CPD over time to enable teachers to embed practice in their classrooms.
As I ran my eye down this list I felt proud of the system we've developed in NZ and have been working with for more than a decade now. It appears to tick all of the boxes above. I thought point 3 (use of external expertise) is well stated, as in the NZ context, the role of the national facilitation team has been particularly beneficial in suporting the regioal and cluster-based facilittors.
The report also states:
Evidence from inspections has found that better sharing of good practice in teaching and learning within and between schools led to improvement.
Again, I thought of NZ and the hugely successful ULearn and Learning@School conferences , together with the regional events and cluster-based showcases – we've certainly developed an excellent culture of 'celebrating' success in our schools – not just in these face to face situations, but also online.
We often hear that the thing we need to be concerned about is the impact on student learning, and improving student learning outcomes – this report provides an evidence-based link that is certainly very encouraging.