Guest author: Greg Bass, Superintendent of Schools – It is time to tell Rocky View Schools’ story. Many conversations over the last six months with all stakeholders, both internal and external to our system, reveal that some people are struggling existentially with what the transformation is all about. What do 21st C classrooms look like? What are we aspiring to achieve? What is different?
In RVS, and specifically in my role as Superintendent of Schools, these are difficult questions – not because I am not clear of the answers, but because we are now entering our fourth year of constructing this understanding. Both the previous RVS three-year plan Engaging the 21st Century Learner (2008-11) and our current plan The Power to Enrich(2011-14) were collaboratively-generated and universally-administered as the vision of the system. In short, our entire jurisdiction has been working to transform classrooms in our system, which retroactively is in direct alignment with the Inspiring Education vision of Alberta Education, and invested resources, both monetary and people, into creating a system that is truly student-centric. This vision of embracing student autonomy as sacrosanct is not new in theory, but entirely new in practice. Instead of making things more comfortable for labor groups (eg. less supervision, more prep, smaller classes) and expecting that to transfer to better learning outcomes, the focus needs to shift on what the learner needs and wants with emphasis on transforming teacher practice. Researchers, like John Hattie, are pretty clear that all other factors combined, including class size and class composition, do not equal one determinant of student success – the quality of the classroom teacher.
This far in our transformation, just some of the steps we have taken include: decommissioning computer labs and deploying teacher laptops 4 years ago; working to transform libraries into flexible and collaborative spaces to research and work collaboratively (learning commons); establishing 10 professional learning days that have fostered 160 communities of practice to augment pedagogy; embracing the 10 characteristics of the 21st Century learner (most notably collaboration, creativity, and innovation); aligning high school timetables to deliver synchronous, asynchronous, and blended courses; having teachers work towards building a digital presence through Moodle courses (have 1600 courses built to date); capturing lessons through podcasts posted to iTunes for download to personally-owned devices; creating g-mail accounts for students in grades 4-12; implementing collaborative tools like Google documents; building a digital repository of resources and promising practices; establishing contemporary technology standards for all 750 classrooms; and, among many other systemic shifts, acknowledging that we must prepare learners for their future, not our past. 21st Century teaching and learning is NOT about contemporary technology, for 20th Century teaching can continue to thrive with gadgets. Embracing digital devices in classrooms accelerates the theoretical shift to 21st Century pedagogy – but just what is it?
The best way to describe the revolution in our system and soon to be throughout the industrialized world is to summarize the work of University of Calgary researcher Dr. Sharon Friesen. Dr. Friesen has conducted a meta-analysis of research over the last 100 years on schools, divisions, and jurisdictions, that examined teaching and learning. Three constructs emerged from that research, spanning back to the onset of a free and inclusive public education system. From its inception (circa 1880) through to approximately 1960, the driving paradigm for the education system was behaviorist. The mandate was to teach children how to behave -put up their hand, sit quietly, have good posture, move in and out by a bell, and be a punctual and frequent attender. That is what the factory system called for -automated workers for assembly lines, as public education has always existed for the purpose of society and the greater needs that it presents. The top 20 percent of learners in the behaviorist paradigm, those that could conform to the strict regimen and regurgitate knowledge the best, were pushed to become society’s professionals – but the vast majority were to accept their routine path that lay before them.
In the early 1960s, the literature consistently points to a shift away from the behaviorist to a cognitivist paradigm – a period in public education of acquiring and accumulating knowledge. Due at least in part to Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first wave of excellence reform in public education occurred demanding more engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and scientists – by-products of a knowledge-accumulation education system. The behaviorist paradigm remained as a backdrop as students were expected to behave correctly or suffer consequences (eg. corporal punishment remained until the early 1980s), but the era of the teacher as THE knowledge dispenser emerged. This paradigm was essentially characterized by pre-university lecture structures, where the teacher was deemed omniscient and students were to sit and absorb as much as possible no matter their learning style, no matter the relevance, and no matter the assessment of the learning of the group outside of traditional paper and pencil tests. Interestingly, a thread of the behavorist paradigm lived on, and still lives today, through effort and preparation marks, which are not assessing what a learner knows. The cognitivist paradigm and the first wave of excellence reform was largely unsuccessful, as evidenced by three subsequent waves (early 1980s, mid 1990s, and current) of educational reform. The unintended consequence of disengagement has contributed to outcomes of stifling creativity and innovation in youth, and ultimately led to incompletion of high school and/or a belief in youth that they “survived” the experience.
Enter now the third paradigm – constructivist. Dr. Friesen’s study concluded that the revolution in education that we are embarking upon is the ultimate shift from cognitivist to constructivist teaching and learning. This shift is the underpinning of the Inspiring Action Agenda of Alberta Education and RVS’ work engaging and enriching the 21st Century learner. Our learners today are different, are growing up in a significantly different world than we did, and require a new set of skills be fostered and nurtured for THEIR success. A constructivist classroom is one where the teacher acts as facilitator, coach, and assessor of understanding, while letting go of the direct instructional processes characteristic of the cognitivist era. With the democratization of knowledge, a teacher’s role must obviously shift away from knowledge dissemenation toward creating classrooms that foster creativity, innovation, collaboration, and the adaptability of epistemology (what we know and how we know it). Students must pack knowledge, unpack, and repack it, much like what we do with our suitcase on vacation, as knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. Why can’t students collaborate on building understandings of curricular outcomes together through a Google document? Why can’t they ALL demonstrate a 90% understanding of the curriculum for a subject? Why can’t we allow students to demonstrate their understanding in a modality of best fit, perhaps a video, a podcast, a drawing, or comic book? Contemporary technology allows for constructivist cultures to flourish but is not 21st Century teaching and learning in and of itself. The use of technology in a ubiquitous manner prepares youth for their future, engages them in ways they are already engaged, and provides limitless opportunities to collaborate and access information. The facilitation of this new paradigm successfully allows learners, which we all are, the opportunity to go much deeper into understandings and applications, and learn within an environment that provides much more meaningful and authentic experiences. We must prepare for the inevitability that high schools, for example, will become registration and accreditation centers in the future as we provide flexibility and options to learners- driven by the learners themselves not the education system, and that cursive writing will be a lost art form of expression.
Check out this link to the B.C. Ministry’s Personalized Learning focus: http://www.personalizedlearningbc.ca/#/1
Check out this video posted to RVS Tube as one of the many examples of the shift that is occurring.
I am proud to say that in RVS we are at the tipping point of the provision of constructivist classrooms across the system. Our staff have worked very hard over the last four years on this shift. We know our students have higher levels of engagement and discipline referrals to the school offices are aggressively tracking downward. Our learning model, the triangulation of Understanding by Design (UbD-Backwards Design), Universal Design for Learning (UDL – access for all learners), and balanced assessment (of, as, and for learning), is flourishing in our school environments led by our teachers in classrooms. If we truly believe that students are at the center of all that we do, as they should be, then this shift is critical. By focusing in on what students want and need today from their learning, the intended outcome will be a strong and vibrant economy in the future and our graduates will be leaders of a new world order. Without this shift, Canada simply will not compete globally beyond 2025 and more importantly, our children’s interests will not have been served. Student autonomy and constructivist learning – it is time we listened. And it is time it became systemic across the globe. As adults we must abandon our beliefs in our own experiences for our youth to have flourishing lives. A revolution is occurring – our only choice is whether we lead it or become irrelevant.