The Shape of Learning Throughout Our Systems

September 28, 2015

Attendees at the New Tech Annual Conference in Chicago might have noticed the small shop next to the registration area filled with beautiful Russian Nesting Dolls.  All lined up and smiling, they reflected compelling patterns, shapes and sizes.  Colleagues know my preoccupation with those dolls—one that is much less about the dolls themselves, but more about the metaphor they provide for our work.  For the dolls to nest perfectly within each other, each must be formed in the same common shape.

New Tech Network and the districts and schools with whom we work share a common purpose—to graduate students truly prepared for college and career.  Our work together is in service of developing students who have the ability to:
• reason and problem solve;
• make sound arguments and decisions;
• create new ideas by applying knowledge and skills in a discipline;
• take ownership for their learning and persist to improve
• become productive members of their communities and our democracy at large.
This is the “learning doll” that sets the shape for everything we do.

We also share the belief that students who learn through authentic, engaging and collaborative projects within a culture of trust, respect and responsibility are much more likely to meet the desired outcomes.  And, so the shape of the learning experiences for students must then reflect the shape of successful graduates.   We can expect students to develop critical thinking if learning is not primarily the regurgitation of factual information.  We can ensure students are truly collaborative if taught how to collaborate and provided with learning structures supporting this skill.  And, students can leave school understanding how the skills and knowledge acquired can have a positive effect on the community at large, when engaged in projects allowing them to explore and experience this reality. Therefore, the shape of this learning doll for students must reflect the shape of who they need to become.

Building and sustaining a strong school culture and project-based learning practice places great demands on teachers and school leaders.  These demands require deep and collaborative learning on the part of adults in the school in order to successfully support students learning in this way.  It means the establishment of a professional culture that supports teachers sharing their practice and getting feedback, and looking at student work to understand the impact of practice.  This happens with a greater sense of trust, respect and responsibility between the adults in that school.  The shape of the learning doll for teachers must then reflect the shape of the learning doll for students.

Carrying out this nested doll metaphor to the larger system brings rise to the question: How does this impact the district office?  To develop the mindsets and skill sets of adults and students, here are some considerations:

• Shape the professional culture within and across the district to reflect the culture we want for our schools
• Shape professional development throughout our system that reflects the authentic, engaging and collaborative learning wanted for our students
• Ensure that the working relationships between all district departments and schools are based on trust, respect and responsibility we want for our students
• Align district services in ways that support the kind of learning practices and structures we want in schools

These are the questions and ideas being contemplated at NTN as we build learning relationships with district leaders in support of their New Tech schools.  We have an emerging practice of support for district leaders taking several forms:

• The opportunity to include onsite district leadership support in our New Tech agreements
• Providing a learning pathway for district leaders at NTAC
• Focusing breakout sessions at Leadership Summit that support district leaders application of the summit’s theme and learning to the district at large