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Learning in Networks

July 24, 2012 3 comments

Photo by Brian Harrison

“You teach best what you most need to learn.”    Richard David Bach

I’m spending a few days in Bozeman, Montana at the Discovery Educators Network Summer Institute ( #DENSI2012). Those who know me in person or online know that networks, and networked learning for kids and teachers is something I care deeply about. The link below sums up how I feel about learning networks really well:

 Stephen Katz on Learning Networks

We were having a dinner conversation the other night about the ways we could improve and scale up the professional learning for teachers and extend the use of web tools and social media for student and teacher learning.  One of the things that I believe is that the learning needs of students are the best context to frame the learning needs of teachers~ or as Stephen Katz said, we need to move teacher professional learning “from the ballroom to the classroom.”

So, if we are to do this, I’m thinking there are a few things that we need to attend to as innovative teachers and connected school leaders:

  • continue to document the learning of our students, and our professional learning, and share how they are intertwined
  • focus on building professional relationships by inviting colleagues to learn and and collaborate using social networks
  • engage in meaningful, classroom-based  joint work with like minded innovative teachers and school leaders

For me, a conference or institute is a great way to meet people, but unless there is some structure built in to facilitate joint work it’s likely that the only thing I will leave with is validation for the ideas I already had and a few extra pounds from too many visits to the muffin table. I’m grateful that the DENSI team have created a structure for us; we have been placed in teams and been given a facilitator to guide and support our team.

I’m thinking about the work that Judith Warren Little has done in the area of teacher collaborative learning, specifically the 4 stage continuum she developed to structure and define this learning. Little’s taxonomy looks like this:

  • Storytelling: the learning or communication is one-way (think keynote) or if in a conversation it is back and forth, like a tennis match. Storytelling is important as it builds familiarity and rapport, establishes context and forms and filters the group.
  • Help and assistance: A knowledge sharing that is a  transaction (think consultant or expert). The learning is one way, expert to novice and is grounded in a problem or challenge. Help and assistance is important as it acknowledges a need for change and creates a relationship based upon a degree of collaboration. It is worth noting that storytelling and help are based upon a hierarchical model.
  • Sharing: There is an exchange of learning that flows in two directions (think of sharing units, links or resources) but there is no expectation that the parties will actually use what has been shared. We are great collectors of ideas and resources but tend to stick with what we know and prefer. Sharing is important because it fosters a norm that sharing is a good thing for teachers and builds positive interdependence; a precondition for true collaborative learning. It is worth noting that this phase, and the next one, are non-hierarhcical and based upon the principle of mutual benefit.
  • Joint work: There is a collaboration that is grounded in the classroom practice of the members of the team (think Lesson Study, Action Research, Classroom Coaching through co-teaching). The context is based upon the student learning needs and how the teacher practice can be made visible in order to observe, describe, analyse, and predict different practices that would alter the outcomes for the students. Joint work is important because it is the only way to build common understandings around effective instruction and change teacher practice in a way that meets student needs.

What excites me about social media tools like Twitter or blogging and the DEN is they allow for wider connections and I believe it is really important for innovative teachers and leaders to have a network; we don’t always have one that can support and push us in our buildings or districts.

Our challenge, however, is to push our PLN’s, be they Twitter, Edmodo, Blogs or, the DEN, beyond storytelling, helping and sharing towards joint work~ that is where the true impact on teacher practice and student learning will be felt.  Joint work is a phase that is created by those on the team, not mandated from above. Joint work sustains itself because is is a culture, not a system or process.

Because of this, ultimately, joint work is something we can, and need to, create together,

Photo Story

July 23, 2012 1 comment

Photo by Brian Harrison (really)

“ You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” –Ansel Adams

It’s a well known in our family of five that I’m the fifth best photographer; the last resort in any situation that requires a picture. In reality, if we still used film, and not digital cameras, it’s likely that the only time I would actually be trusted to hold a camera would be if it were safely stored in the camera bag.  We have two nice DSLR cameras in our home; one belonging to @techieang and the other to our 16 year old son Peter.

There was no chance that I would be bringing either of those cameras with me to Montana this week for the Discovery Education Network Summer Institute (#DENSI2012). No. Chance. Period.

So, I grabbed the Panasonic Lumix DMC from the bureau, found some batteries and a 4GB card and headed off to Bozeman. I was aware that I’d likely be  some serious photo masters among the group but rather than be fearful of this I thought I might pick their brains and try to learn a few things about photography.  On the bus ride, I was fortunate to sit with @jeffwhipple, who knows a thing or two about taking pictures and, as it turned out, the folk at DEN invited professional photographer (and Montana resident) Daniel J. Cox to join our group on our excursion to Yellowstone National Park and he led us gave us a little workshop on the nuts and bolts of good nature photography. Between these two kind mentors I headed off the bus ready to roll.

Here’s what I learned:

Proportion and Balance ~ just like we need to use a balance of evidence, tools and approaches when creating a learning environment, balance and proportion is a critical component of any photo. Photos are representations of light, colour, textures and shapes, the ‘rule of thirds‘ presents a framework for the photographer to account for all of these elements and look at the image as a whole, and not just the central focus of the image.

Feedback Counts~I learned that almost every digital camera has a feature called a histogram in the display settings. I had actually seen this feature in the past, but had no idea what it was there for. It turns out that the histogram provides a graphical representation of the light spectrum in the frame. Moving from left, the black, to the right, the white. If a photo is skewed too far in either side of the spectrum, then the image will suffer. This feedback allows the photographer a set of real time data to improve the photo. That is so much better than finding out the photo was not very good after~sort of like how on-going descriptive feedback is much more useful than a mark at the end of a unit or task.

Tell the Story/Trust the Tool~ Dan shared that, in his professional opinion, the quality of the equipment we have access to today is incredible. The technology of modern digital camera is such that the Auto Settings address the light and shutter speed issues as the photo is being taken, allowing the photographer to focus on the subject or story they want to tell with the photo. We have access to lots of technology in our classrooms, but do we focus too much on the way it works? Or, instead to we think about how we can use the tools to tell the stories? I wonder about that…

It was a good learning day and I feel a little more knowledgeable as a photographer. Earlier in the day, Dean Shareski,   Shelley Wright and I had been talking how adults use their hobbies the same way that children often  use play, to learn in an optimal learning environment. I think that the habits of mind that we learn at play lay a neural foundation or framework for all learning. Learning is something that is constant, persistent and pervasive, it is what we do, at work and at play.

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