Monday, July 9, 2012

Leading Learning in the 21st Century

The NZCER's recent publication 'Swimming out of Our Depth' outlines the possible features of a 21st century school's approach to professional learning and development, by looking at the professional learning environment that school leaders should be fostering for their teaching staff. It identifies the current widespread situation for many teachers, whereby they do not themselves have the necessary skills required of a 21st century learner, largely as a result of having not learnt that way when doing their own schooling. As a result, they may fail to produce the 'lifelong learners' that we should be aiming for in our students. The report looks at the approaches of three quite different schools to developing a professional learning environment for their staff and finds that, in these three cases, certain key features need to be developed in order for the schools to truly be 'learning communities'.

As we all know, teachers need to foster an ongoing approach to their own professional learning, but as part of a larger 'learning community' developed in the school. Teachers should see themselves as 'learning coaches' rather than 'traditional teachers', in order to better model to their students the necessary skills needed by good learners, i.e. confidence, openness, persistance, commitment and pleasure in the face of uncertainty caused by a challenging learning situation. This emphasises the need for teachers to be 'transformative' in their career as they further develop their own understanding, so that they can confidently develop them in the minds of their students. This approach aligns closely with the key competencies of the NZ curriculum.

In order to better model 'learning', teachers need to scaffold the process for students, piquing their intellectual curiosity, their problem-posing and problem solving ability, and their ability to synthesise new knowledge in collaboration with others. This may involve a large shift in the existing paradigm that the teacher holds, replacing their previous pedagogies with new ones which are better suited to creating ongoing learners. Teachers will re-situate themselves as experienced learners who help less experienced learners build their learning capacity.

The report identifies the importance of school leaders developing both a 'community of practice', where teachers work together to ensure good practice continues, and 'learning communities', where teachers work together to challenge the status quo and develop new approaches to their practice, often through disruptive, dissonant events that may make them uncomfortable in their job (in a good way!). A 'learning community' is therefore an evolving community, where assumptions are challenged, and people are challenged to find new solutions to emerging problems.

Post-modern school leaders who nurture successful learning communities will develop a culture of inquiry amongst their teaching staff, where reflective practice is at the center of their work. Emerging leaders will be developed througout this process, to ensure that there is a large supply of distributed 'experts' who can help facilitate reflective practice. This is achieved by developing and communicating a coherent mission and getting others to identify with, join in and 'own' this vision, through the collaborative process aforementioned. Many see this as "flying the plane while still building it", although that analogy is limited and does not hold up in this context.

The report identifies the important hallmarks of a learning community, achieved through scaffolding different forms of adult collaboration. These are:

  • creating contexts in which adults can articulate their thinking through writing, speaking and/or acting
  • uncovering assumptions and beliefs that guide thinking and actions
  • having opportunities to discuss ambiguities, contradictions and faulty reasoning
  • envisioning alternative ways of thinking and behaving
  • considering alternative points of view

The 'learning community' concept helps to support the cognitive growth of teachers, and the development of cluster groups of schools which use this approach to solve cluster-based problems (e.g. through online problem solving and collaboration) will greatly enhance the rate of development of schools, to better meet the needs of their students in the 21st century.

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