Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Learning Circle University...

So my friend Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX) proclaimed a week or so ago, "let's start a university!" Sounded a little crazy, but hey, I'm game for anything when it comes to collective intelligence around the improvement of teaching and learning. So here's how the story goes so far...

Michael and I speak often, almost daily, with just about anyone who shares our interest and passion for teaching and learning. We have connected with a growing cohort of similarly impassioned individuals and organizations around the world as our personal learning network by leveraging the varied social media outlets we each utilize. The last while, much of our conversation has revolved around the optimization of learning... specifically, what kinds of environments seem to promote learning. I think the key to learning is engagement. How to engage learners is possibly the largest challenge for any teacher. Each individual student possesses a unique and complex learning story that needs to be discovered; no small task. To create an authentic culture of learning that seeks to clarify and expose students' stories, teachers have to know these stories.

The culture of any learning environment is created in a prominent way through the feelings of those immersed within it. Learning is as much, or perhaps more so, an attitude as it is a skill. When we are impacted emotionally, the attitudes we develop can represent deep engagement, or in the case of negative emotions, deep disengagement. Teachers who are disengaged likely will not encourage much positive engagement in their students. There are disengaged teachers among us who probably aren't even aware of the potential impact they may be causing. Michael and I have hypothesized that perhaps these teachers haven't had enough opportunity to be deeply engaged as learners themselves. If teachers were able to follow their passions through self-directed and deeply engaged professional development, they would be living the type of experiences they intend for their students. For this to happen teacher's professional development opportunities need to be supported in the right ways. Enter Learning Circle University (LCU).

Learning circles draw people in; people who crave authentic learning, learning that has meaning for them personally. The mission of Learning Circle University would simply state...
To draw global circles of learning support around all who want to know more.
Michael and I share a belief that education is the lynchpin to an emotionally, socially and morally just society. Teachers are the backbone of the education system, and society needs them to be heavily engaged in the process of producing emotionally, socially and morally just kids. Knowing this, one would think that teachers in training would be immersed in a developmental approach that provides ample opportunity to feel engaged; connected to the process as a result of meaningful learning experiences. Although there were certain teachers I had in my preservice training who very definitely facilitated these experiences, they were the exception to the rule. More typically I attended classes with a couple hundred other disengaged learners trying to memorize the details of all the important pedagogical theorists. I went through dozens of highlighters in my undergraduate coursework. It wasn't until I began my practicum experiences that I felt viscerally connected to the teaching process.

So in the context of preservice teacher training, consider the possibilities if coursework blended less lecture hall with more world. Any element of formal teacher training can be more efficiently delivered through the use of contemporary technology. Twitter cohorts, Google Plus, blogs, Skype etc. allow us to collaborate with our colleagues in focused, distributed and very inexpensive ways making it so easy to get a handle on the fundamentals of teaching and learning theory. While these efforts are being made in all the appropriate distributed ways, individual students, or cohorts of students, (connected in person or by the power of technology,) could design action research projects that put them in a teaching role and address local community needs... preservice teachers learning to teach by teaching while at the same time satisfying a need within their own communities.

No need for a full-service campus, expensive facilities and most importantly, massive tuition costs to support the maintenance of these things. I recently had a conversation with a colleague from the Faculty of Education at the local college. I mentioned the LCU concept to him and we spoke about credentials. We agreed that by streamlining prospective teachers' formal instruction, preservice teachers would have more time to dive deeper, and more innovatively into sharpening their pedagogical skill-sets as applied to on the ground projects. Resources to support these projects would differ depending on the characteristics of the project and how creative participants were in designing each one. They would have to adapt, innovate, find a way to get to yes, or at least maybe. They'd have to reflect, refine and evaluate as each project evolved... critical skills that truly engaged learners exemplify. Students would be assessed on the degree to which skills, attitudes and knowledge proliferated and matured over the course of each project effort. The experience beginning teachers would gain, (planning projects that benefit their local communities, working collaboratively, carrying out the plans, evaluating the plans etc.,) would be invaluable for them and the people they were serving with their efforts.

Some examples:
  • Applying a SOUNS project in a community where kids do not, and may not ever, read if some form of intervention is not applied
  • Building a school in a third world country, then teaching the local population based on their needs and interests
  • Facilitate collaborative partnerships with other helping professionals (social workers, nurses, counselors etc.) who operate within the local community schools
  • Design and implement an educational resource (website, game, video, book etc.,) that would then be used to teach
  • Identifying local educational needs and creating programming that synergizes schools/libraries/museums/community facilities/outdoor spaces and social services to collaboratively address these needs
  • Working proactively with families of preschool aged children to help prepare them (both the families and the kids) for school (habits, attitudes, skills, literacy etc.)
  • Synchronizing community and school library services to streamline and increase access to good books for community kids and their families
I would love to see some of these initiatives happen in my community. All the pieces are in place... preservice teachers longing for authentic, engaging learning experiences; kids and families looking for services and schools wanting to improve their service delivery to the community. I would love to initiate a conversation putting the ball in motion to align the LCU concept, and most importantly, the learning circle philosophy, in the interest of creating a partnership and a conduit for innovative program delivery.

Working with an established institution that would offer the programming possibilities necessary to set up and support the LCU philosophy would be a giant step toward legitimizing the idea. Reaching out through a faculty extension program that could be administered and managed online would be the next step to globalizing the idea. Imagine a global cohort of preservice teachers working collaboratively on local projects, but supporting each other through the magic of social and trans-media connection. Costs would be minimal (likely far cheaper than providing the traditional teacher-training delivery model,) because the projects would surround ideas, not programs... just preservice teachers around the world creating opportunities for themselves to expose innovative and supportive ideas on the ground in the service of educating the community.

Why wouldn't this work?

13 comments:

  1. I come at this from an Anglo-Aussie background, so some of my observations might not be relevant to your culture.

    My own entry into teaching was over a decade being volunteer teacher at local riding stables. This taught me about the delivery-assessment cycle, risk assessment, and the importance of both subject knowledge and personal enthusiasm. These are threads that I see running through your piece.

    The challenge, particularly in light of Michael's tweet "@philhart You are lucky... But it's pretty clear that teacher training as is has become unsustainable. Methinks a rotten apple ready to fall", is to convince decision makers, these being both potential employers (schools, universities) and prospective students. I don't know enough about your culture to make an informed opinion as to chances of success (or otherwise) of such efforts.

    For what it is worth, and bear in mind the what amounts to a disclaimer above, it might be worthwhile talking to potential employers first, with the sub-text of Michael's "rotten apple" theme. If that apple does "fall", then the marketing opportunities become obvious. Once you have secured an indication of willingness from those potential employers, then it would be time to talk to prospective students.

    I wish you luck, and I will be watching with interest.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Phil. Yes, I agree there is a hierarchy of application that probably makes sense depending on the context. I'm also thinking thought that there is probably a place for from the ground up learning circles to evolve into recognition by the decision-makers... success stories making it difficult for the localized process to be ignored by established institutions.
    Thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Phil,
    What I see is that the evolving needs of the education system in the States combined with new financial stresses make this much more likely than previously thought possible.

    I've recently had some conversations with a supt of a district in the States that is pretty far along with 1 to 1 computers. He told me that pre service teaching training in his state simply cannot supply the number of teachers he needs to hire in the next few years. To be fair he was referring to teachers who had the technology piece well in hand.

    In the States, I've spoken to any number of teachers who complain about the cost and the waste of time they've spent going through teacher college. I think it's fair to say that many teachers will say they only really started learning how to teach once they got into the profession.

    Your point about potential employers is a good one. From what I think I see is that school districts would be eager and ready to train their own teachers, but are hesitant as it will ruffle lots of feathers will local teacher ed schools. My strong hunch is that something is going to have to give. If school districts could do their own training and be able to capture some of the revenue that is now being diverted to "higher education." they would welcome it.

    The district wins in controlling the new cohort of teachers. The teachers win by working directly in apprenticeship type of arrangements before they get into the classroom. The really good teachers win by having a possible career path as teacher trainers. The kids and parents win with a stronger continuous culture in the school.

    The only ones that lose are teacher ed schools that cannot respond quickly enough to new realities.

    Could be interesting to watch this play out.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Sean,

    Thanks for prodding my gray cell into action. I guess that the initial success story will be dependent upon winning the confidence of the first (and hence by definition) already receptive decision-maker before setting up a pilot group. Setting up a pilot group without that first decision of support would be asking the students to take a greater risk, which some might decline. (But I am arguing from a distance: I expect both you and Michael to be much better informed than I of the feeling on the ground.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hello Michael,

    Thanks for your information about how the education system works in the US - I was unaware of all of those issues. The thing that struck me as I was reading was "What about the Finnish model?", where prospective teachers spend years training before being "let loose solo" in the classroom; your comment about "wasted time and money" (I paraphrase) makes me wonder if those colleges are really relevant to the needs of a practicing teacher.

    In terms of teachers who understand the available technologies, my guess is that this is a problem that will self-correct over the course of the next 40 years. (Not that this helps your superintendent with his immediate problems.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Boys,
    Fascinating and a bit coincidental that this came from an ad (Upsala University, Sweden - Masters' Degree in Sustainable Development) that bordered this post as I checked it just now...

    The objective of this master programme is to enable you to utilize aspects of sustainable development in your future professional activity, irrespective of what you work with. This could be social planning, education, research, organization of supranational agencies, the future for biodiversity, and much more.

    This issue of "sustainability" is HUGE in contemporary society, and certainly in education... technology means ideas have to stick, or they disappear. They have to be malleable and adaptable, and certainly contextual... I'd say built on a solid platform, but open enough to allow for replication in those different contexts. I think LCU can work this way. I am not advocating for a piecemeal abandonment of higher ed, but rather a re-tooling of what higher ed means for prospective teachers as first and foremost, expert learners.

    The zen statement "when a student is ready, a teacher will appear" resonates here. I would say "when a teacher is ready to learn, a true teachers will emerge." Providing purposeful and tangible contexts for teachers, (both prospective and practicing,) to apply their developing skills in practical and purposeful action research projects within their local communities would provide more opportunities for "teachers" to also be "learners."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Sean,

    The issue of sustainability is also growing in Australia, particularly in education. You may have heard of the phrase "tyranny of distance", this forcing environmental concerns on such things as travelling to remote students, which can be a day each way for just one student. The benefits of technology are manifest.

    You have also hit one of my hobby horses: You cannot be an effective teacher if you not also an active learner.

    ReplyDelete
  8. So ... seems to me that recent emergence of edcamps in the States and Canade and teach meets in Oz are on a natural path to Learning Circle Universities. If I ran a organization that gives certifications I would hook up with what seems to be an uber trend.

    The path would be similar to what Stanford is doing with offering online courses and many universities seem to be going in the same directions. To see what I see, take a look through "400 Free Online Courses from Top Universities" http://ilnk.me/beeb

    So far the model has been Excellence from the Top being made available to everyone. If edcamps and teachmeets evolve as I would expect, it would be Excellence from the Bottom shared with everyone who is read.

    It's the difference between a One to Many publishing model and a Many to Many publishing model. All it needs to trigger is some Uni willing to give it certification cover.

    What do you think I'm missing?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. that is spot on my friend, this is how the Waters Edge model will work

      Delete
  9. It may because I am tired (it's been a long day) or I have missed something vital. I see '(@ToughLoveforX) proclaimed a week or so ago, "let's start a university!" ', and I compare it with 'All it needs to trigger is some Uni willing to give it certification cover.' at which point my feeble brain admits defeat. Da capo:

    My own prejudice (for lack of a better word) is that universities are about bums on seats in lecture theaters, with some well-informed academic droning on about his or her own specialist area, and with a final exam that is given after three or four years of "study". I must contrast this method of knowledge acquisition against contemporary methods. In the areas of abstract thought (e.g. mathematics, general relativity, quantum mechanics) it is now entirely possible to acquire the same knowledge through entirely online means, principally by using a favoured search engine as a means of research. (And, as is usual with study, a lot of skull sweat by the learner.) Which raises the question of how such (newly) acquired understanding can be acknowledged. (The traditional answer has been by the awarding of a degree to a person wearing a gown and a mortar board in a public ceremony. But I jest.) The trick, I venture to offer, is to break this mould, and to do it such a way as to make the alumni of LCU irresistable to prospective employers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Michael asked me to take a look and comment. I think it would be important to know what States require to credential teachers as reciprocity doesn't happen among states. In NJ for example we have different pathways that lead to certification. All come with formal learning experiences that are required.

    At universities where I have taught some have been credentialed by NCATE. That process is significant.

    I do think alternatives are and will arise. The way quality is 'controlled' is less clear.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks Mary,

    I was struck by the fact that in New York State, Rally School for Education was the first non traditional organization given the right to grant Masters to teachers. Also watching with great interest the work of the New York Times joining with a few accredited colleges to give teaching certification in the Western US, ( I think )

    The model of an outside organization partnering with an accredited university is pretty well established in the States. In the case fo Jack Welch, his group I believe purchased a going bankrupt university for it's ability to certify his on line Business MBA.

    As the pressures increase on mediocre teacher training schools, I have to believe more and more of them will jump at the opportunity to bring in some revenue by licensing their certifying power.

    My hope and expectation is that we may see a mash up of school districts, on line education platforms and accrediting institutions to create "learning circles" that will faster, better and cheaper than what we know see what there.

    I agree 100% that the question of quality and excellence is a wicked problem. But I'm pretty confident that will play itself out as these trends unfold.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I submit http://www.seangrainger.com/2011/07/kids-learn-now-lets-prepare-teachers-to.html for reflection...

    ReplyDelete

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