Throughout the weekend at ConnectEd Canada, I heard many people referring to inquiry learning and other collaborative practices being discussed “as what’s best for our kids/students”. It strikes me that this is an implicit assumption in the conversations that took place at ConnectEd Canada. It seems almost all participants share a common vision of the type of educational approach that is “best for our students”. Here is what I heard reflected across the sessions that I attended and in the Twitter stream as core to that vision of education.
Relationships – Education is a product of sustained, respectful relationships with open communication. The primary relationship is between student and teacher, but almost equally important are the supporting and surrounding relationships student to student, teacher to teacher, parents with teachers/administration and teachers with school administration.
Students as co-creators – Students should be active participants in the design, monitoring and assessment of their learning progress along with teachers, administrators and other support staff. This varies from student choice of assignment or topic to student designed rubrics for assessment.
Descriptive feedback over data – Education is a process of unveiling understandings and building connections between ideas and information. It is very difficult to measure in an equitable way an individual’s progress along this continuum of educational experience at any one time. Standardised testing takes away from a more nuanced view of education and ensures teaching and learning remain focused on information delivery and memorisation. Descriptive feedback help the student make connections and modify understandings as they move through that progression. Marks and grades under a strict quantification system must also be evaluated through this lens for their value in improving a student’s education.
A spirit of collaboration – Education should draw on the social nature of humans and encourage collaboration between students, between teachers and between students and teachers. We will all benefit from working together toward a greater understanding, on an individual and collective level, of each other, the world around us and our society. Social networks as a tool for connecting professionals and the sharing of educational ideas and resources, whether in your school building or online, are key components of a growing culture of collaboration. As Gary McKinnon, superintendent of Calgary Science School said in the last session of the conference,
“Where do you start with collaboration? It begins with collaboration between student and teacher.”
Inquiry is where it’s at – An inquiry focused education that provides opportunities for students to deeply explore and uncover their understandings and connections across a variety of topics then communicate those understandings is richer than one focused on knowledge being stored in the learner through exposure and testing on a vast range of content. Inquiry takes many forms drawing on methods from the ancients through to modern media presentation techniques. It is critically connected to the idea of descriptive feedback, which enables students to revise and build on their understandings and connections. Inquiry is a process that draws heavily on curiosity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication/dialogue and creativity.
Time is precious – Time is a critical resource in our education system and we must be conscious of how we can best make use of that resource. Students need more time to explore, grow and create under an inquiry method than under a knowledge transmission system. Teachers need time to create educational experiences, collaborate, reflect on their practice and build relationships with each other and their students. Lasting change doesn’t usually happen overnight with a sweeping, directive initiative, but over time through the continual reflection and adjustment of practice based on peer feedback and research of best practice.
Technology is a part of the process – The structure of inquiry should not be using a specific technology to communicate, but rather using technology because it enables or extends educational experiences beyond, or in a different way, than what is possible without technology. Pedagogy and careful thought about the planning of the educational experience should always proceed the introduction of technology. Technology is part of the process because it enables connections and creation in forms that aren’t possible without it.
Connection to our communities – One of the ideas that I most connected with this weekend is the concept of inuuqatigiit, an Inuktitut word meaning “your education must reflect your culture and community”, via Bill Belsey. I heard this reflected in discussions about connecting disengaged youth to volunteer opportunities in community organisations, field learning at locations in the surrounding community, involving experts from the community in teaching and presenting student work to community members. Schools are centres of our communities and the connections between our schools and our communities should be active and authentic. Involving community members in educating our young people keeps schools relevant and connected to meaningful issues to our students and their families. Openness to community participation in education also encourages representation of the diverse cultural heritage of country and our students. Likewise, school participation in the community helps develop students into active citizens who are aware of the issues in the community and able to participate in the dialogue and decision making processes. Increasingly our community also extends to global connections and so our students should be mentored in how to connect internationally.
Responsible risk-taking – Learning requires us to venture out, if sometimes only in thought, to confront ideas, situations and connections that we hadn’t previously considered. This is risky because it means we could end up more confused than before or in a messy situation that will take time to sort through. It takes trustful relationships between students and teachers, peers, parents and school staff, and teachers and administrators to provide the space for this responsible risk-taking to take place. In my eyes, risk-taking is responsible if it takes into account the needs of those around us, is connected to research or previous observation, is supported by a mentor of partner who can provide feedback and isn’t associated with a permanent change that can’t be altered or corrected. Teachers must be enabled to take responsible risks in their teaching practice with the room to make mistakes without fear of reprisal, as students must be able to explore and inquire without constantly being evaluated and marked.
There is one major problem with all of these thoughts on education. For as much as they may form a shared vision of an education that is “best for our kids” for most people at ConnectEd Canada, that vision is not shared by a majority of people in our country. Most people alive today, not currently in school, received and experienced an industrial model education focused on knowledge transfer, drill and memorisation. This forms the basis of the expectations about what school should look like for students in this generation. Mainstream media, right-wing think tanks, and school reformists (of the standardised testing variety) tend to perpetuate these ideas and push for an education system that can be extensively measured and quantified. In this view, the ability to rank, order and measure a student’s learning, and in turn teacher and student quality, is “good for the kids”. Heck, there are lot of educators who would feel similar or find it to daunting to take on the changes given the demands and expectations placed on them by parents and other stakeholders. Inquiry learning and the ideas laid out above don’t mesh well with such a system because they’re messy, take time and acknowledge the complexity of assessing one’s understanding and application of concepts. But, it’s much easier to have an opinion when the world is black or white.
The inherent value about “what’s good for the kids” is the undercurrent to the discussion about shifting educational practice. Inquiry practices, moving away from standardised testing, removing the dependence on grades and ranking, and de-emphasizing the importance of memorizing broad swaths of discrete content will be heavily contested. As one of the participants at ConnectEd Canada said to me in the hall, “For all the Twitter and technology used at the conference, it’s all in the room, and if the conversation stays in the room nothing will change.” In this case, I think “the room” could be defined as the educational community, and in that case I think it makes the statement true. The dialogue about shifting educational practice to inquiry methods remains primarily within a relatively small network of self-selected educators interested in exploring ideas about teaching and learning online. I hope that ConnectEd Canada becomes part of extending and opening that discussion to a broader audience, first with students, parents and educators in our own schools then with the media, ministries of education and other organisations involved in public education.
To that end, ConnectEd Canada was a great first step in what will hopefully be a continuous dialogue about educational practice in Canada.