Thursday, February 23, 2012

Required vs. Optional

It's almost daily that I jostle these tags; as a teacher, leader, professional, colleague and person.  Too often I hear educators telling me they have to do this or have to do that.  Sometimes I like to ask, "do you really have to do that?" or "what if you tried this?"  The simple question does for many fellow educators precisely what it does to my students: makes them stop and think.

Certainly there is a veritable array of obligations teachers and administrators have to peg higher up on the priority ladder, but how much of what we say we have to do is optional?  These are questions I continually ask myself as a classroom teacher because I want to get the "required" stuff out of the way so I can open learning opportunities for my students that aren't scripted to me in a curriculum book or delegated from a political hierarchy.  I find that, in more times than not, when students are given an opportunity to inquire and investigate a concept or topic, questions and creativity flow naturally.  Absolutely, I believe there are some skills students will only acquire when guided through the process but now there are incredibly powerful resources (computers, classmates, personnel) more readily available for accessing information and learning opportunities.  Teachers and students need to leverage these tools for learning what matters.

I also believe that we impart on children the kinds of attitudes and skills we use in the classroom.  If we want our students to be open communicators that know how to work collaboratively and think critically, we have to demonstrate, on a regular basis, what that looks like.  We must engage ourselves in these opportunities with our colleagues and students.  Sometimes finding the time to do those "optional" lessons and projects can be difficult when the "required" stuff gets in the way.  That is why I encourage you to prioritize learning for yourself and students with what should be done and what could be done.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Balancing the Act of Learning... and Teaching

Have you heard the term "blended learning" yet?  If you haven't then I'd love to introduce it to you with a publication titled The Rise of Blended Learning.  Once you get a better understanding of the idea, the rest of this post might be easier to digest.  For those that will not read the link--blended learning is essentially a learning environment in which teachers and students use both computer based (typically online) instruction blended with traditional teaching methods and classroom experiences.  The teacher reverts from an all-knowing talking-head to a guide that helps when someone is struggling to understand or needs some help.

There is a weathering storm of educators across our nation that has been working diligently to transform traditional classrooms into more student-centered learning environments.  A recent article in the New York Times spotlighted an entire school community that has been forever changed by the ambitious adoption of 1:1 computing and a blended learning philosophy.  There was a seemingly endless stream of similar success (and failure) stories making news a couple weeks ago during the first annual Digital Learning Day.  It seems almost daily that more school communities are making the jump toward a technology infused, digitally enhanced teaching and learning structure.

So what prevents everyone from doing it? There are many logistical nightmares facing educators interested in making the transformation from analog to digital, so-to-speak, with cost, infrastructure and teacher training at tops on many lists.  However, many schools are finding incredible achievement gains, increases in student motivation and greater utility of resources as major benefits to the transformation.  But this concern is a whole other conversation.

I'd like to consider my classroom a crudely constructed blended learning experiment.  I'm very fortunate to have great colleagues that are open to change and have a willingness to learn.  And why, I ask myself, are these teachers and administrators open to change?  I believe it is rooted in the impact it's having on students.  They see the increased levels of student engagement when learning is driven by a modern tool (netbook, iPad) and controlled by the child.  They see the impact on a teacher's ability to collect real-time data with programs like Ten Marks Math and Lexia Reading.  Blended learning also includes the use of devices as tools for collaboration and creation for both teachers and students, alike.  It's a completely different model of learning that puts the world's most powerful learning tools in the hands of the learner.  When educators have an opportunity to experience first-hand how a transformed learning environment empowers children to learn differently than years ago, it's hard to dispute the need for all children to having similar learning opportunities.