Without A Net

In recent times an increasing number of educators are walking the educational tightrope to modern learning. It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly rewarding, and those that make it to the ‘other side’ do so because they don’t look down,  look back, or lament for past practice. Rather they are focused firmly on what is in front of them.

To get to the other side they have to take risks, and yet the biggest mistake I think they can make is when they think they believe they have a net, a safety net,  place which allows them to hold on  to existing practice if they find the journey across the tightrope too difficult.

I realize the metaphor is a stretch, but I do think it helps clarify the choices educators make as they take steps towards the creation of modern learning environments in their schools. How often do they look for the safety net of existing practice that will allow them to return to a traditional learning environment if they find the journey too hard?

So what should be their balancing pole? Shared practice and peer support? Visioning leadership and a culture of innovation? This is about letting go, while at the same time it’s also about trying to walk a fine line between  the comfort and capacity to continue doing what you’ve always done, or breaking out to discover something new.

Yes, I know this is obvious, and I wish it was so obvious it didn’t need to be said, but my thinking comes after a week hosting a series of very constructive panel discussions across three cities in Eastern Australia.  The panellists, who collectively had many years of experience in managing byod/1 to 1 initiatives, were very open and honest not only about what they had learnt, but also what they had not. It was a comment about the latter that caught my attention because it reflected the thinking of several audience members.

“We’ve been looking at the data from our programs over the past 3-4 years, and as yet, we have not seen any evidence that the provision of laptops (1 to 1), has had any measurable impact on student achievement.”

This is what happens when you embark on this journey with a safety net. Teachers start the journey across the rope, but find the nostalgia of past practice too much, they can’t let go, and eventually they fall back into old habits and the comfort of what they know.

It’s an old adage, but if we continue to teach the way we have always taught, we will continue to get the results we always got; computers or not.

We saw it in the ‘70’s when people dipped their toes in the water with Open Classrooms, tore down walls and continued teaching the same way. More recently we have seen it when class sizes are reduced and teaching practice stays the same; giving people like John Hattie ‘evidence’ that class size doesn’t make a difference. When will we learn from our past mistakes?

Practice matters, and we must respect that as the real foundation on which any sustainable transformation can be built.

I think Karen Ward, who over the past 20 years has supported hundreds of teachers in her role as a pedagogical and leadership coach with AALF probably says it best..

“In designing effective professional development, sometimes we see schools who try to continue to do what they have always done, but add the laptop piece to it. Anticipating different outcomes while not anything different in the classroom or with professional development.

So there are only three key questions that leaders need to ask themselves when they think about how can I help my teachers be effective in a technology-rich classroom. The first is, what are the elements that are already here that are going to profit that work? In other words, what do we need to keep doing?

The second one is, what do we need to stop doing?  That’s probably the hardest question for most educators to look at. What are the practices that are simply not going to be effective anymore? …and then the third question is what do I now need to start doing to leverage the opportunity this new digitally-rich learning environment offers my students?”

It’s a very simple but powerful observation, and for it to have a sustainable impact across a school, we know that the journey to a modern learning environment first and foremost requires us to have a rigorous reflection of our beliefs about how kids learn.

That reflection must be in the context of the rapid changes that are now impacting the lives of our young people, and ultimately it must then be evident in new pedagogies that embrace the potential offered within the digitally-rich environment of a modern classroom.

If these are the steps we take, we’ll never need a net.

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