I wonder if unlearning is harder than learning? Humility is in short supply these days and it is hard to admit when we have been wrong. While curiosity is a desirable trait and important to the learning process, it’s hard to always find courage to “face the mess” (a term borrowed from Andy Stanley) and identify our mistakes. #unlearn4forever!
Uncertainty has become a permanent condition in our world. Indeed, one of the only things we can be certain about, is that everything is now uncertain. The current and very ongoing pandemic is the #1 piece of evidence for this view, but everything else that previously provided stability in our world is not far behind. Politics, sports, the state of organized religion, and even the weather are further examples of how uncertain things have become. Anecdotally, how many times recently have I heard a comment from a trusted friend saying something like, “I just don’t know about the world anymore. Everything just feels weird.”
Determining methods for predicting the outcome of events has attracted some of the best minds in history. One definition of uncertainty I like so far is as “being any departure from the unachievable ideal of complete determinism”  which means to me that in a world without uncertainty we would only act on something when we can determine with complete certainty when the outcome is completely predictable. If however, we have something less than a completely determined outcome available to us, then we are in a state of uncertainty and the course of action isn’t clear. Recognizing the inevitability of uncertainty has led many fields of knowledge trying to address the unachievable ideal of complete determinism. Statisticians & Mathematicians have attempted to define uncertainty numerically through measurements and formulas of probability. Psychologists have defined it through individual factors such as judgment and the conflict created from the competition between our rational and emotional or intuitive brain. Policymakers try to come up with plans and policies which will either prevent uncertainty from occurring, or provide a full response and direction when it does. Decision Analysts are analytical, and Philosophers are philosophical and, while acknowledging that uncertainty exists, believe that we either don’t have a systemic enough view of the world or an accurate system of knowledge to follow in determining how to address the problems created by uncertainty.
For me, uncertainty is certainly an ongoing reality in my life and having this as the focus of my PhD study is intriguing. My research topic will be about how uncertainty impacts decision making in organizations and will focus on definitions, measures, and types of uncertainty; evidence and evidence-informed decision making within central offices in education; and how groups of people, rather than individuals, can be better equipped to address this “unachievable ideal.” Each week I will publish my thoughts and musings and what I am learning about how uncertainty can be addressed in this uncertain world and try to bring us a little closer to the certainty we all seek. Thanks for reading and see you next week in This Week in Uncertainty!
 Walker, W. E., Harremoe, P., Rotmans, J., & Janssen, P. (2003). A Conceptual Basis for Uncertainty Management in Model-Based Decision Support. Integrated Assessment, 4(1), 5–17.
A great read about preparing the post-pandemic response to the mental health challenges created and perpetuated by COVID. Thanks Kevin, Patrick and NACTATR!
A problem was presented to us in a recent class, “What about those students who don’t return to school next year?” For most, getting back to normal means that kids will return to classrooms and the great engine of schooling as we have known it will begin to roar to life again. As the problem proposes however, it may not be the case that all students will make this choice to return to school and get back to normal. A recent New York Times article gave examples of students who will make the conscious choice NOT to return to school after the crisis moment of the pandemic is over. The reasons for this could include working as a choice or family necessity, preference for staying at home which is labelled as ‘school hesitancy’, and perhaps simply fear for safety. For some students, this choice to not return could be an expression of how the pandemic has hit low-income and minority students harder and makes getting back to normal both a less possible and possibly less desirable choice. In the short term, 2021-22, schools will determine how significant of a factor student choice will play in their return to school planning and schools will need to be ready with plans for blended learning and other approaches which will accommodate and provide meaningful learning to these students. In the long term, as the article asks, what are the implications for extended remote learning by choice? Is this the moment when the bricks and mortar structure begins a slow death as the base structure for education?
Michael Fullan discusses how the pandemic and its many impacts on society can be leveraged to drive a reimagining of education. Long an advocate for system wide reforms, in Education Reimagined Fullan and his colleagues present their hybrid model for learning as “more than a quick fix” and a “way to enhance and accelerate learning by providing student centered approaches to meet diverse learning needs” (p. 9). He asks six questions to drive the reimagining conversation including, “what kind of learning is needed for this current and future complexity?” Fullan also provides recommendations for instruction that, “quality is more important than how lessons are delivered” and that providing support for, “pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes” (p. 15). Fullan concludes that this current moment is what Kuhn identified as a true paradigm shift, and that seizing “the opportunity to create a whole new and powerful learning system is more appealing than slipping back into a status quo that does not work” (p. 21).
There are many authors and organizations also engaged in this conversation. In a blog by Heather Wolpert-Gawson called Has the Pandemic Ushered in New Norms in Education?, some “new norms” have already been established including involving the community as a true partner and increasing engagement with students to allow more choice about what they are learning. In Back to the Future of Education, the OECD looks at four potential alternative pathways for the structure of schooling which it calls: schooling extended, education outsourced, schools and learning hubs, and learn-as-you-go. Each of these responses is designed to respond to the situation according to the amount of continuity or discontinuity which may result after the pandemic.
How much will this be a time of real change in education? Are we really at a time of reimagining or will the drive for a return to normal, with all of its deficiencies, prevail? Predicting the future is always perilous and education will need to respond to these pressures in a thoughtful, collaborative, and student-centered way. A good place to start is by establishing new pedagogical approaches which Fullan identifies as hybrid or blended learning and which needs to become the new norm. Learning occurs anywhere and everywhere and limiting learning activities to the classroom only restricts the possibilities for engaging and relevant learning that can occur outside of the classroom. Next, the OECD idea of schools as a learning hub in the community in partnership with others needs to take greater hold. The fortress education mentality has denied children opportunities for learning outside the walls and as stated in this scenario, the walls need to come down to make education truly a community effort. As the OECD (2020) states, the benefits of opening the walls will be to “connect schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation” (p. 49). Finally, leadership and organizational models need to keep up with the changing environment in society by building adaptive organizations as explained here by Arena & Uhl-Bien to better be able to respond to these pressures. School systems are complex are generally traditionally organized and better need to reflect how organizations are changing all around them.
The future remains uncertain & complex, and it is difficult to anticipate what direction course instruction, school structure and organizational design will take. While there were certainly calls for serious reform prior to the pandemic, there is no doubt these will only be increased after the current moment of COVID crisis passes and a post-pandemic re-assessment of how we should best imagine teaching and learning occurs. This is not a moment that should be wasted no matter how strong the desire is to get back to normal and school systems need to engage with their communities and teachers, students, and administrators to truly take learning out of the classroom and into the world.
Much is being written about best practices for how to do online learning during this pandemic age and unlike Dr. Seuss I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, I have been afforded a unique perspective and experience from which to share some reflections about online learning having looked at this as, as the old song says, “from both sides now” as an educator and a student, and have experienced some of the best and worst of online learning over this past year from both of these viewpoints. When my online journey began one year ago, the initial task was to organize instruction at our school through a Learning Management System for students and teachers who would be in their homes on opposite sides of an ocean for what was initially to be for only two to three weeks to give this COVID thing time to “settle down.” If only that were true. At that time, because of this perception that online learning would be a temporary measure and from our lack of experience, we focused mainly on asynchronous (not at the same time) instruction and teachers busily prepared online activities that students could complete on their own time without worrying too much about the quality of the teacher-student connection. As we progressed through the spring and it became clear that face to face (f2f) instruction would not be re-established, and so teachers were encouraged (and required) to increase their synchronous (at the same time) contact and regularly connect with students despite time zone challenges.
Although there were differences in the connections established between teachers and students, many teachers developed excellent practices to build strong connections with their students and quickly grasped that the quality of the teacher-student connection was still “the main thing.” With the onset of much better interactive platforms and educators learning from experience, we are long past the days when computer-based instruction meant a student sitting behind a computer working asynchronously and know that interaction and communication is required to make any classroom work. Indeed, if I was to do anything over again as an educator from this first foray into online learning last spring, it would be to increase the synchronous component as much as possible and decrease the time students are working on their own.
After returning home to begin my PhD studies to become a student myself, I soon learned that I would be an online student and so began a different online journey. While I was disappointed not to be in f2f instruction, I also noticed the irony of being in front of a screen as a learner rather than educator and plunged into my studies eager to have this experience this from a new perspective. I have found that the name of the game is still about building strong connections between teachers and learners and the classes that I have participated in so far have at least three characteristics that have contributed to building these successful connections and will call these community-building, differentiated structure, and technological ease.
- Community-building means that, to the greatest degree possible, the online experience simulates an in-person experience and feels like a classroom. It is really hard to create community when cameras are off and people can’t be seen and is a pet peeve of mine so cajoling or requiring that cameras be on as much as possible is essential. Finding ways to encourage and promote communication between teacher and student, and between students is another key way to create a community feel. Breaking classes into smaller discussion groups is a key strategy to help overcome the awkward silences that can occur in larger group settings. I also think it is fair game to notice the personal artifacts and pets and people that appear via the window into people’s lives that Zoom affords us and that just noticing these helps create authentic community within the class.
- Another component that makes online experiences successful is how the class is structured for teaching and learning. If traditional transmission of learning through direct instruction does not engage students in a f2f class, it works even less so in an online environment and a greater variety of differentiated modes for communicating and instruction need to be applied. As a student, I must say I enjoy some direct instruction so this doesn’t mean that the teacher should altogether abandon providing some direct instruction. However, after about twenty minutes of “hypnotizing the chickens” (a US Military term for the fog that sets in after about twenty minutes of a PowerPoint) other methods for communicating information need to be applied. One of the best methods for this that I have experienced as a student is to breakout into small groups for discussion and for the group to complete a Google form which can be contributed to by every one in the group. This can then be used to share with the larger class when the breakout session ends. Coming up with different varieties of activities is essential for students to remain engaged.
- Technological ease means that the technology has to be easy, efficient and just has to work. Technical points such as having a good camera with proper lighting (and yes, a good background), good wi-fi connections, are good starting points but the other teaching and learning activities need to be well structured. My experience as an educator was very positive with a learning management platform and while these are now commonplace, there are advantages and disadvantages to each platform but the main point being that there should be a single entry point for all teaching and learning activity. Students will need to easily navigate whatever learning management system is used to find and share course material, hand in assignments, and easily dialogue and connect with students. Teachers should share live links with students in real-time to allow students to easily locate resources and not make students go searching for these resources later. While there is concern about creating distractions when providing something in real time, I find there is more value being able to focus on the content in the resource and not spending time finding the resources on my own.
These and other practices are supported in a short literature review here called “The Efficacy of Virtual Instruction in K-12 Education” from Georgia State University (2020), identified as one of the top ten significant studies of 2020 by Edutopia. While this pre-pandemic review concluded that effectiveness of online learning is at best mixed, there are some practices that support the points made above with the most significant being of the value of “incorporating peer and teacher feedback” (p. 4) into learning activities. One study concluded that there is a “strong, positive relationship” (p. 6) between positive rates for course completion and student grades when there are strong student-teacher interactions. Relationship quality remains an important factor in student success whether in f2f or virtual settings and as any successful teacher will say, is one factor that should be sought for at all costs.
While it is unclear how long instruction will be provided in a virtual or blended environment, for the foreseeable future at least all teachers and students need to find out how to build and then maintain strong connections to provide the greatest chance for creating student success. As education prepares for the next steps into the post-pandemic period we will see what practices will carryover. Which brings us to Part 3 of this series, Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning called “After the pandemic: what’s next?” Until then, stay connected out there in virtual land.
The title for this entry came from a daily blog/newsletter I subscribe to called “Things I Think I Think” by Mark Horstman. You may know Mark from the Manager Tools podcast series (if you don’t you should!) and being a former army officer he is usually pretty point blank with his opinions and advice. However, as evidenced by the title and this graphic from Manager Tools, he is also is open enough to admit that there is a lot of stuff he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.
This past semester at school has been an experience like this. While there are things I have learned about learning which confirmed what I feel quite certain about, I am never too quick to announce the certainty of something I think I may have learned. Anyone who has been in education knows that there are too many moving parts and factors in the equation to be certain that something will be true 100% of the time. However, like Mark, saying that there are things I think I’ve learned also represents that there are things that the combination of research and experience tells us are true. In the three parts of this blog over this first month of the year, I will describe three things I think I’ve learned from this past semester and apply to this current age we are living in. The first is about the social aspect of learning, the next are some thoughts about online learning from the perspective of both a student and teacher, and the third about some next steps forward for education as we prepare for the post-COVID era.
The first thing I think I’ve learned about learning is about the social component of learning. David Brooks writes in a recent NY Times column that “people change when they are put in new environments, in permanent relationship with diverse groups of people” and describes how learning with others is superior to traditional modes of direct instruction or training. Learning is best seen in this way as a team sport and while this is an intuitive idea, it has also been formalized by learning theorists in various ways one of them being Communities of Practice or CoPs. Wenger and Lave https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/ are the theorists usually credited with this idea and describe CoPs in three specific dimensions.
The first dimension is the common interest of the members involved in the community, referred to as the domain, and defines what the community of practice cares about. These would be things such as photography or a public speaking or even a sport. The second dimension, called community, talks about the quality and depth of relationships which create the bonds between members and the resulting connections formed as a result. The third dimension of practice develops as knowledge within the community is built through the social and shared learning activities that group members participate in together. If you think about it, you are probably now or have been involved in a community such as this whether as part of a hobby, social or church group in the past. Think about how much you learned as a result of the interplay of the common interests, relationships, and common activity which occurred in these groups and how this shared experience has spurred you on to further learning or maybe even driven a specific career pursuit or personal passion.
I know what you are thinking, this all sounds great but how does this work in an age of online learning? We will look further at online learning in Part 2, but communities of practice are and have been popping up online in the past few years initially to connect people separated by geography and now are growing in number further as a necessity of the times. Online communities include all three features of person-to-person CoPs (that’s domain, community, and practice) but instead of occurring face to face happen in a virtual format. For myself in these recent times, I have been surprised and gratified from my own experience by the amount of online community which can develop whether it be withing an online class or from something external to a class. My own experience arriving at university and not knowing a soul and only being able to get to know teachers and fellow students from an online experience confirms for me that community and connections can be developed online. Even though separated by time and distance, our common interest of learning the subject matter, combined with our regular online gatherings and the activities which we have been able to complete together, have resulted in a remarkable degree of connection and learning for myself and I believe for my fellow students also. I can say with confidence that in each of the classes a community of practice was established and the interaction which occurred online was a key component of the learning process. The good news arising from this is that we shouldn’t feel that we have to wait for face to face interaction again to benefit from the social component of learning, however the structure of these online communities does have to be shaped with intention which will be discussed further. I will write more about this in Part 2 of Things I think I’ve learning about learning when we discuss the topic of learning online.
Some great thoughts here from the author, Grant Lichtman, about considerations for education in the soon-to-be coming (it really is coming, isn’t it?) post-COVID world. His advice that, “The last seven months have been a hot mess, but this period has also been a cauldron of creativity” should be well taken by anyone in a leadership role to leverage this moment of creativity. On to the future!
If you are an educator you need to read this blog and find out how schools are a part of what is labelled here as the “YCC.” You may be surprised by what you read.
“What is Learn 4 Forever?” I was asked this question by a colleague recently and I responded matter-of-factly by saying, “Well, it’s a blog where I post stories about learning at our school.” Straightforward and simple for sure but it got me thinking on a deeper level about the stories that this blog could tell about learning.
The Gandhi quote that appears here and on the masthead expresses a sentiment that well captures a key purpose of Learn4Forever. This quote guides our lives in two ways: first, that the complete person seeks to be present in the moment and to live each day as if it were her/his last. Second, that the complete person approaches each day with an “What can I learn today?” attitude and takes an open stance toward what can be learned from their experiences on that day. One of my core beliefs which has developed from my experiences with learning and life is that, ‘we are all learners, all the time’ which fits in perfectly with Gandhi’s advice that we never quite have life all figured out and there is always something more to learn.
The core purpose of Learn4Forever is to share stories about learning so that readers will become better learners themselves and can then help someone else to become a better learner. It’s become trite to say that we are all on a learning journey, but it’s a cliché that works because it describes something we understand and have all done (or used to do before COVID and won’t it be nice to take trips again!). We can learn through experience and activity; through information from audio, visual, or written sources; or through conversation with others. What defines what and how much we can learn is determined by the attitude which we bring to the table.
My learning journey has brought me here, to the University of Alberta in sunny Edmonton, AB (it actually is pretty sunny!) where I am a PhD student in the Education Policy Studies department. I have worked in public and international education as a teacher, and school or district leader for most of my adult life, and have spent 21 years so far as a student in school besides. This journey has taken me to five countries in one way or another and continues to humble me along the way as the main lesson to be learned seems is that I’ve got a lot more to learn. The journey continues however and while I am not quite sure where it is leading, am enthusiastically ready for the adventure to continue.
Each week this blog will bring readers a story of learning to encourage you on your journey, and to help you encourage someone else on theirs. The topic could arise from a real life learning activity I’ve been a part of, something I’ve seen or read about learning, or something that has been shared with me by others, but hope that all the stories shared will inspire you to “Learn as if you are going to live forever.” If you have a learning story you would like to share, please feel free to send it to me and will share with others as they fit the purpose of the blog. See you next week for a new learning story and have a great week of learning ahead!
Message to the Class of 2020:
You have had an unforgettable, historical and some might say, success-defying graduation year. Through circumstances way beyond your control, you were thrust into the wild world of online learning, social distancing, mask wearing, having very few live teachers, no May holiday, and many other disruptive forces conspiring against your success. Yet, here you are, at your high school graduation ceremony and ready to move on to the next part of your life. How does this experience match the definitions of success you may have heard in the past? How will this experience change your definition of success in life for you?
We started the year with the theme, “You Can Do That” where we showed a speech given by a university student at Georgia Tech which gave the “you can accomplish whatever you want” message and where success is defined as a continual upward climb toward the highest points of achievement. That was all nice talk before we were faced with the realities of the virus.
When you came back after more than 3 months away from school, we talked about GRIT and did some activities which tested your perseverance and determination to achieve success. We talked about how you would need to show GRIT in your studies to make it though the challenges of online learning and not having many of your beloved teachers around. That you made it this far means that you have been able to show the GRIT necessary to complete this portion of your academic life and should encourage you for the future.
From the experience you have gained this year, and from your achievement of reaching graduation what have you learned about success in life? I’m going to suggest three ways that you can go and find your success in your future:
- Your most successful experiences in life may well also be your most difficult.
- Dreams are important to have, but they don’t always define success in your life. Even if you don’t reach your dreams, you can still be a success.
- Finding your calling & special purpose in life is the primary way that you live a successful life.
It has been an honour to be your Principal during this historic year in our school, in China and around the world. As you go out into the new world that is still taking shape and will present many challenges, remember what you have endured and persisted through this year as you find your way to success. Congratulations Shanghai grads of 2020!