Systemic Change vs Pockets of Excellence vs The Rogue

The Preface

Let me start this by saying that when I was in the classroom, I was probably what I will define below as a rogue. I do not write this as a statement against the rogue teacher (often they push us in brave directions); only to say that a system should not measure itself against the high flyers. Pockets of Excellence exist in more that just the places lit by Twitter’s rays, and we don’t know they exist because they are composed of teachers doing great things in humble ways. Teachers who don’t announce themselves or promote themselves because the integration of technology vanishes into the framework of their teaching in ways that don’t seem impressive to them (don’t be fooled by this: what they do everyday is impressive: they are engaged in the process of learning to improve practice). The joy and the struggle of teaching is that you can never do it perfectly; and the best among us strive as life-long learners to improve everyday in new ways.

The Blog Post

As a department, we were asked last week to provide some information for a presentation attempting to discuss this statement:

Briefly confirming that each member on the panel has examples of these “pockets of innovation” in their district, and that for the most part they have not been able to replicate them district-wide in whatever grade or subject area they involve.

We must first separate the pockets of excellence from the rogue. Too often we celebrate the rogue. The very few, very loud teachers who are doing things wildly differently, and teaching “on the edge”. These are teachers who take risks everyday, sometimes at the cost of content over flash and bombast. A surface examination shows escalated student engagement, which then (hopefully) translates to achievement; but amidst the successes there are sometimes instances of “Skyping across the classroom”: an example I will use to illustrate the extraneous use of technology for its own sake, without measuring how the technology will enhance pedagogy. Why would I Skype an individual I can communicate with face-to-face, and why would I Skype around the world to ask a question that can be answered by an individual across the hall (let’s reserve Skype for the answers we can’t find across the hall). This is the embrace of technology as shiny thing vs. technology as change agent. When one becomes constantly concerned with picking up shiny things, every once and awhile something precious is found, but just as often, that glint in the sunlight reveals itself as tin. I’m sure I delivered some tin lessons in an attempt to integrate some new web 2.0 tool into a curricular area it didn’t necessarily fit into: I can be temporarily blinded by the new.

We need the rogue: their successes formulate a path for systemic change; but if we are aiming to create a system of rogues, we will fail (we cannot all blog and tweet and post video and connect with expertise on Skype into the wee hours of the morning). The rogue may represent a professional deep in the process of transition to change practice, and will   create incredible learning opportunities for the students. The difficulty remains that the rogue can also be self-serving, creating fireworks in the classroom for ulterior personal gains, fame in an edtech twitterverse that has trouble accurately identifying exemplary practice in less than 140 characters, or a future destined for the keynote speaker circuit. We cannot assume that they are the only ones innovating, merely because they are the loudest ones innovating.

We often look to the few rogues and see our failure to create systemic change. We look to the rogue and acknowledge that we will never be able to convince everyone to teach in that way. This cannot be the measure. We will never replicate this system wide. In fact, the lengths the rogue must take to continue on their path is fraught with the kinds of risks and struggles that deter the rest of the system from moving forward. The rogue is an impossible exemplar, so far beyond most teacher’s zone of proximal development as to become unattainable.

Systemic change is slower. It gets obscured by the rogue and moves at a pace that is more difficult to track. Think of the rogue as the second-hand on a clock. Grabbing our attention as it spins and distracting us from the more subtle minute hand: the engine that spurs the hour hand (the system) forward.

Two examples in HWDSB help to illustrate sustainable systemic change. The HWDSB Commons, and the FDK program.

The Commons is a board provisioned Social Learning Network. Using authentic tools, and interaction similar to the features of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, the Commons creates a space for interaction, collaboration, and sharing with learners within a classroom, across the hall, within the board, and around the world. Having a centralized, board managed platform for blogging enables systematic adoption through streamlined PD, colleague to colleague coaching, easily accessible exemplars, and the elimination of the blogging silos created by the disparate adoption of different third-party tools.

The rogue will always be willing to jump through the hoops necessary to adopt and implement the third-party “tool du jour”. Whether this year that is Ning, or Edublogs, Collaborize Classroom, or Edmodo: the rogue has the wherewithal and technical prowess necessary to walk a new path, every year, or every month, in the pursuit of the new. We cannot concern ourselves solely with them when cultivating systemic change, or building board-provisioned spaces, because pursuing their fickle fancy will be at the cost of the system. We certainly hope that they will see virtue in our design, but know that they will take the road less travelled for its own sake, because they are not concerned with systemic change, as much as they are constantly pushing beyond it towards the fringes, and can begin to wear the badge of rogue proudly. We see this in pop culture, where bands become “too” successful for their cult following and are abandoned by their once complicit fans, feigning disinterest in the fame they have dreamed of since childhood (using a board tool will diminish rogue status). An Oprah’s Book club endorsement may be a boon for an author, but is a shameful seal to the high-brow bibliophile, who sees themselves as beyond or above the tastes of the masses, holding in disdain this popular fiction like it has suddenly been rendered pulp.

In one year’s time, by creating a more gradual entry-point for teachers looking to integrate technology into pedagogy, we have seen the creation of 9000 user accounts and over 2500 collaborative online learning spaces in the form of group and individual blogs. This is a big pocket, and the great teaching and learning we are seeing far surpasses the list of rogues we acknowledge exists. This is the beginnings of systemic change. The adoption of blogging as a classroom tool allows for a number of powerful changes to occur in the classroom: a blog in and of itself is no great feat, but the way it can open up the classroom to ease descriptive feedback from multiple learning partners, create exemplars and professional sharing across the system, create a portfolio of student work to help monitor and celebrate growth, allow for anytime access to the materials necessary for learning, and creating opportunities not only for teacher moderation, but also a means to deploy system supports from instructional leaders and teacher consultants in targeted ways, based on the more visible availability of data about current classroom practice is powerful.

What we have seen — as agents for systemic change — is that the HWDSB Commons has created a vehicle in which to drive change, and has emerged as an effective means to enhance pedagogy with technology, in a pattern that could be leveraged in systematic ways if the necessary conditions are put into place. In this way I take issue with the wording of the discussion statement, as it assumes we do not know how to replicate it. I think we are starting to get ideas about how this can happen.

We see similar systemic change conditions in a number of our FDK classrooms, in which blogging has emerged as one of a larger number of key factors driving change.

The Factors (out of which we can decipher the lack of these factors as barriers):

Examination of Curriculum: A new curriculum has forced teachers to examine their old practices; resulting in updates to their programming in innovative ways. This is hard work.

A Critical Friend: Having the ECE in the room leads to conversations about practice, and support to “risk” trying new things with someone who intimately understands the specific barriers and possibilities within the learning space. Of course, most of us are alone in our own classrooms, and let us not for a moment dismiss this second adult in a classroom of 30 4 and 5 year olds as anything other than a necessity; but a comrade in arms can help ease the difficulties of battle. We see other teachers finding this support through blogging, and twitter; but the face to face is nice.

Freedom to take Risks: Play-based learning (which really is just an early learning iteration of inquiry-based or constructivist learning) is an old idea in new clothing, and shouldn’t be reserved for the FDK classroom. Because it is being presented as “new”, we are seeing a willingness to explore and experiment beyond the normal comfort level. New ground means you forge your own path, and feel confident given the necessity to do so. Giving teachers (and students) the freedom to “play”, can lead to a more engaging learning experience, and a more rewarding teaching experience.

The Importance of Documentation (data): The new FDK program espouses the virtues of documentation. This is where technology is enhancing pedagogy, by creating an easier, more effective way to collect, sort, and search the anecdotal assessments teachers capture throughout the day (in FDK via board-provisioned iPads) that help create a more complete picture of the student as learner. Multiple assessment strategies, and numerous ways for students to “show what they know” in personalized ways, creates a better assessment model than content delivery in preparation for a final test.

Collaboration across the District: The Commons blogging platform (populated with iPad created posts) allows teachers to see into their colleague’s space, and provides a better understanding of how this technology can enhance pedagogy in a variety of classrooms: leading to an exponential pace of sustainable change.

Instrumented Instructional Spaces: We cannot teach in new ways with old materials. If technology is indeed seen as a tool to affect change, then it needs to be at the point of learning. It needs to be accessible always (otherwise the old tools, the ones that can be accessed daily without caveats, will re-emerge into daily practice). Beyond the FDK space, we need to understand that disbanding a computer lab in deference to a mobile cart isn’t making things easier (it actually just creates more roadblocks, charging hassles, theft opportunities, and operational upkeep). The cart, and the kits, and the dearth of resources “equitably” shared (10 iPads is enough for two classrooms, not an entire school), just perpetuates technology as a fleeting treat, rather than an agent for change. Stop trying to spread these resources so thinly. We see success in the FDK classrooms because we have given them the technology, and we have made no requirements on them to share that device with 30 other teachers on staff.

The rogue creates these conditions for themselves. They beg and they borrow, and they re-purpose and innovate with technology they source and maintain on their own. A lack of centralized support does not dissuade them in the same way it does the rest of the system. Kids bring their own devices regardless of a misreading of board policy that has a number of staff proclaiming that phones belong in lockers, and become conspirators in the guerrilla (by whatever means necessary) teaching practices of the rogue. We can learn a lot about what our system is lacking from the efforts of the rogue, but we cannot model systemic change on their day-to-day practices. We must find ways to replicate the conditions found in the HWDSB Commons and the FDK classroom:

Curriculum Knowledge
A Critical Friend
The Freedom to Take Risks
An understanding of Documentation and how it can enhance instruction
Easier Collaboration across the district (the elimination of silos)
A richly provisioned instructional space (the death of labs and carts and kits)

Links to Explore: A repo of every blog post on the Commons that has set Privacy settings to “Public” in chronological order. Constantly changing, but gives a nice overview of the different types of contributions happening within our Social Learning Network. A newer feature, where we are attempting to highlight posts from users around the system.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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