When we think about K-12 and higher education, educators think of them as two separate entities. Within K-12, we divide it further; primary, junior, intermediate, and senior. These artificial silos create barriers to sharing professionally about the biggest questions in education: how do students learn and what is learning? How do we recognize learning when we see it? Through a series of multiple choice tests or through the creation of a product? Is our job still to stuff into our students’ heads as much content as possible, or is it to help students learn how to plan and then create? The education system at all levels is being radically changed by social media, and the artificial barriers we’ve constructed over time are shifting, perhaps eventually to disappear.
As teachers at all grade levels, we need to reach out; we need to share. We need to recognize that we’re all on the same page. We just don’t realize we are. That is one of the disconnects between education as a system and the reality of teaching. The reality of teaching is that we try at all levels to mitigate the top-down system that is imposed on us — teachers and students–about what is required for a student to learn. The system has little faith in a student’s ability to learn voluntarily. Learning is forced to follow a prescribed path, rather than allowed to develop naturally. Learning is considered a timed, fixed process, easily measured by summative assessment with a standardized refrain by the bureaucratic system. Our current system is a reflection of our industrialized past, not our future as a collection of makers/creators. If past great thinkers were forced through our current assessment practices would they have emerged with their creativity intact? I don’t think so.
So what’s the solution? I think Hybrid Pedagogy is right in seeking to build social connections between educators. I first encountered the journal after a classmate from Designing in New Learning Environments suggested enrolling in MOOC MOOC in January of 2013. Right from the very beginning of my introduction into the world of Hybrid Pedagogy, there was and is, an emphasis on creating connections. Connections between learners, not delineated by who is a professor and who is a student, but focused on creating a body of shared knowledge and understanding together. These are teachers who want to connect for the benefit of their students.
The many strands of these conversations show K-16 teachers discussing the best way to move student learning forward. From Standards Based Grading to using games in the classroom, teachers are looking for ways to improve their teaching and enhance the student classroom experience. They are asking questions such as how to improve student motivation through descriptive feedback and how to give it (both positive and negative — common to both the #ntchat and #sbgchat linked to above), how to use technology effectively as well as the disconnect between the school system and the interests of students (and teachers!) and how to overcome it. Teachers are forming professional connections around these and other topics in multiple ways. K-12 chat groups exist in almost every state and province to discuss these issues and more. So do higher education chat groups. New professional networks are emerging all the time. But are we connecting?
There are a lot of passionate educators online who care about their students, recognize the issues and even try to promote change within their own systems, but most of this movement for change is still occurring at a local or intimate level. Alec Couros, for example, spends a lot of time on the road speaking to teachers about how to connect to each other. He has an enormous footprint online, but he still travels to meet current classroom teachers face-to-face to show them how to connect with others.
There is a substantial portion of the education community at all levels who are wired but not connected. (I would have included myself in that mix a year ago.) Many use technology in isolation, not fully connecting and collaborating with peers in a Professional/Personal Learning Network (PLN).
Resources like #ntchat are enormously valuable as a starting mechanism for changing the conversation. Why? Teachers need to be connected and feel that they are not alone in the classroom. A recurring thread in the various Twitter chats I’ve curated is how to improve the learner’s experience. And these sorts of recurring threads are not uncommon. Teachers at all levels have joined these conversations and benefit from exposure to new ideas and being part of a mixed educational community. Sharing quality instructional strategies strengthens good teaching. It also creates a social community, where the emotional support that our own students require for learning is provided for instructors. Can you imagine the energy if the #ntchat group was comprised of new teachers and professors from multiple institutions and disciplines?
Building a community of educators also requires a recognition that the K-12 school year is structured differently than the higher education school year. Trying to initiate discussions during the end of school term with K-12 teachers with report cards and housekeeping chores (moving furniture, etc.) is an exercise in futility. We all want to talk to each other but we have to be aware of each other’s schedules. This means actually planning for interaction, not just hoping that it will happen organically.
We can also help by cutting down on teacher/instructional-design jargon. Jargon becomes a communication barrier: it bars others from understanding or joining a conversation; it labels and identifies the “other” and devalues their contribution because they are an “outsider.” Jargon also creates artificial social barriers within a community. By starting conversations with new teachers early in their career, we can guard against the rise of these barriers that interfere with authentic communication between each other and our students.
We also need to have the opportunity to confront prejudice before it becomes entrenched in the system. Prejudices of ageism, sexism and status, have been deeply embedded in the K-12 and higher education system: “Women work primarily as elementary teachers, men as secondary teachers and higher educators”; “I don’t want to be an elementary teacher, all they do is put on kids’ shoes and wipe noses”; “What can I bring to the conversation, I am only a classroom teacher”. Even though untrue, the sentiments continue to infect the system. My skills in creating e-learning for adults developed as a result of being an elementary teacher, not in spite of that experience. In a connected world, in a space where dialogue occurs between educators/peers over common issues, one’s position in the system becomes secondary, and ideas become the central focus. All participants have equal value as contributors, particularly when we begin to look at the learner holistically, not just as a student in class now, but their growth and potential in future years.
We also need to have a conversation about assessment at all levels. As we redefine what is authentic work (Does a remix count? Is it original? How do you mark a shared Google document?), we must change how we assess that work. Will knowledge of content still be a driving force in the future? Or will the ability to see the links between subjects and make connections be a newly prized skill? So the what and why of assessment need to be on the agenda, not just the how. To limit the discussion to only methodology we are leaving out key aspects of how learning takes place within a social environment. We need to look at learning as a continuum, not as a series of defined, discrete activities with X marks the spot. Formative assessment should be the norm as students become creators rather than consumers of content.
Finally, we need to feed our own need to be continuous learners. How else can we be great teachers if our minds aren’t open to endless possibility? It’s only when we close our minds to new ideas, that we stop learning. So let’s keep talking and forming relationships so we can continue to be open to new ideas, new people and be better teachers — at all grade levels.