Capstone – Synthesis of Digital Learning & Leading
Throughout the Digital Learning and Leading program, we have been given opportunities to metacognitively reflect on our innovation plans and the steps we are taking toward implementation. Although it is a work in progress, and there is still much to do before full implementation at a campus level, I am still committed to my original innovation plan. My campus already supports project-based learning (PBL), but there are still many traditional expectations that clutter the time and focus needed to make sure PBL is executed consistently and effectively. My original innovation plan proposed that the learning environment be personalized through blended learning and project-based learning. This initiative aims to provide learners with choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities (COVA). These learning opportunities are shaped through guiding questions and inquiry framed by project-based learning. As I revisit this plan, I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson (2010), who encourages educators to “consider the conditions in which learners would flourish.” In our rapidly changing society, we cannot accurately predict what our students should know. Therefore, our focus should shift from what our learners should know to how and why they learn. Life-long learning is a journey, therefore we must guide our students in learning how to learn.
When I revisited this plan through the lens of action research, I decided to really consider what my first step should be during the implementation process so that my plan would be met with students ready for this level of freedom that occurs with PBL and blended learning. Many of my students simply weren’t ready socially and emotionally to handle this level of independence, therefore I decided to scale back and conduct research on how social-emotional learning provides the critical foundation students need so they can gain all of the benefits that the blended PBL environment provides. Like I have mentioned in several posts, my initial plan was designed for a school housed within a women and children’s shelter for domestic violence and sexual abuse. The level of trauma created a block in many of my students’ abilities to connect meaningfully to learning because they just wanted to heal. That attempt to heal often looked like escalated behavior and a very poor perception of self. Fast forward to my new campus where many of my students seem to come from loving homes. However, thanks to my previous experience at the women and children’s shelter, I knew there could be struggling students in my class desperate for a safe place to belong. Social progress is sparked through education. Therefore, we must diligently ensure our learners will think for themselves, know their rights, and question the “norm” especially if it impedes equality and inclusiveness. They have to be ready to take on unprecedented challenges and not allow fear to dictate whether or not their ideas are heard. Developing core values through a strong foundation in SEL skills is what makes all other skills attainable.
PBL invites students to engage through meaningful guiding questions. First, however, approximately 99% of my students needed to learn how to recognize their “fixed mindset voice” and speak back to it with growth mindset language (Dweck, 2009). This is a life-long practice, not one that can happen overnight. They needed reminding that asking questions is encouraged, and sometimes the answer to a guiding question is another question. It is daunting for learners to experience this level of freedom and not have all of the answers, especially if they’ve never felt their perspective mattered. In the last seven years of teaching, I’ve come to understand that adults underestimate elementary aged students’ ability to connect to a deeper level of understanding and meaning. Much of my PBL research involved case studies at the secondary school level simply because PBL hasn’t been tested as frequently in the lower grades. Perhaps it is because there is still a strong reluctance to change a traditional elementary setting due to the belief younger students should rely on others to make every decision for them. They are often kept from natural learning opportunities for fear they’ll be physically or emotionally hurt. I am not saying children should be jumping from dangerous heights or sticking their hands on an open flame. I just believe that healthy boundaries with rich learning experiences are necessary for children to develop boundaries of their own and learn how to advocate for their own needs and the needs of others. I firmly believe it is never too early to give students choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities regardless of age. We have to guide our students to trust themselves and not be afraid to self-search. My 3rd graders have grown exponentially this past year. Many of them have developed a level of confidence and empathy that only comes through emerging from failure and seeing every mistake as a chance to learn. My action research plan regarding the impact social-emotional learning and meditation has on students and teachers became my first step toward full innovation implementation. Through social-emotional learning SEL, we connect to the hearts of our audience, develop relationships, and hopefully receive more “buy-in” for the implementation initiative that follows.
I have implemented several aspects of my innovation plan within my classroom this past year beginning with SEL restorative circles, meditation, and growth mindset discussions. Alongside these self and community building activities, I have incorporated several PBL units after students began to accept that I wasn’t trying to trick them. They were used to being told what to do and how to do it. During restorative circles, we discuss deep questions about learning and life, and many of our discussions resulted in them sharing how excited they were to have true choice, ownership, and voice, but it was still a little scary at times to be granted so much freedom, creativity, and invitation to innovation. I’ve been reminded of Donald Miller’s (2009) take on creativity in which he states “every creative person, and I think probably every other person, faces resistance when they are trying to create something good. The harder the resistance, the more important the task must be.”
There have been a few setbacks regarding full implementation of my innovation plan. One of the setbacks was moving to a new campus mid-proposal, which meant I needed time to observe which problems were similar to that of my previous campus. I began seeking patterns to these problems and if they all stemmed from similar roots. What worked, what didn’t work, and what could be done better at my new campus? I simply hadn’t been there long enough to know if they had truly implemented PBL or had the technology to implement blended learning equitably among the school community. As a newcomer, I believe it is always important to listen first, observe what the needs are, who is involved, and really get to know the audience before attempting to “save the day.” Although our leadership highly encourages PBL and innovation, there hasn’t been any ongoing training or professional development for teachers who would like to transition their traditional methods to PBL. In order to change theory into action, we need ongoing training from teachers well-versed in PBL to model exactly how it will work in our unique context. If teachers do not have appropriate modeling, they will be overwhelmed by the “daily whirlwind” of their jobs. Unfortunately, this means even the best intentions fade over time. I recognize this could be where I step in and offer PBL implementation training, but I have never actually had this training myself. I have implemented PBL based on research, collaborating with my cohort and professional networks over the past year and a half, and trial and error, but not based on any professional training. I would love to have the support through ongoing training in hopes to elevate the PBL experience within my own classroom and across campus. Traditional weekly lesson plans, progress reports, and benchmark tests are also still required categorized by subject which takes time away from preparing thoughtful, integrated PBL units. For an environment to truly count as PBL, the entire approach to planning and accountability must change. Regarding the blended aspect of learning, there is inconsistency in the type of devices being used, a lack of devices overall, and no IT department for technological setbacks, so it makes it difficult and time-consuming when trying to train both myself and my elementary students on how to use each (varying) device. I am thankful for our Donor’s Choose selection of Chrome-books. If it hadn’t been for these 4 reliable Chrome-books, my students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to engage in research and the beginning stages of blended learning. At the moment we began discussing ePortfolios, COVID-19 creeped its way into all of our lives. March 6, 2020 was the last day I saw my students in person. I know this innovation plan still has potential to make true change at my campus come next year. I am looking forward to a fresh start, familiar faces, and a better grasp as to where I can take the lead.
My goal for next year is to look beyond my classroom and bring COVA and personalized learner-centered environments to my 3rd and 4th grade team, and then hopefully the campus. Because this campus welcomes innovation and encourages creativity, I am hopeful that this plan will be supported. I am also considering how I plan to begin discussing COVA with my team. COVA harmonizes beautifully with the PBL framework, but I want my team to see COVA as the approach to every learning opportunity regardless if they have planned the most thoughtful PBL unit. How can we give students choice, ownership, voice in every aspect of the learning experience including the physical space? I plan to start with the constructivist philosophy and have my team of teachers clarify their learning philosophy and identify reasons why this particular philosophy resonates with them. I believe we can learn so much from one another’s viewpoints and it really helps to set the foundation prior to planning together. If we don’t know how and why we learn ourselves, there will be a disconnect in the future vision and mission. Clarifying why we do what we do and how we get there will help us get to know each other as an audience and will further keep us accountable and unified during planning. Prior to discussing the principles of COVA in depth, I hope to spend time discussing the Growth Mindset. I believe this will help my team of teachers make the connection between Growth Mindset, COVA + CSLE, and PBL. If we spend adequate time developing our vision and philosophy before getting into the specific practices of blended learning and personalized PBL environments, I think there will be a greater chance of “buy in” and my team will be better prepared to embrace and adopt these practices within their own teaching and learning.
I am forever grateful for the opportunity to construct an innovation plan unique to my context. Although the research I conducted to support my plan taught me so much about my current initiative and what is still needed on even a global level, I learned how to collect and reinvent what our school had already established and develop plans to launch campus-wide initiatives. These plans were designed for action rather than what many of us have experienced which is simply a “theory” or “good idea” with nowhere to go or practical application. When reflecting on where innovative ideas emerge, I am reminded of Steven Johnson’s (2010) argument that innovative inventions spring from “the adjacent possible.”
“The adjacent possible captures both the limits of creative potential of change and innovation. It is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries” (Johnson, 2010).
The experience I have had throughout every course in this program challenged me to revisit my ideas over and over again, explore boundaries, and consider how I could use the “spare parts” within my organization. These “spare parts” are the pieces of an organization that may work better if we are willing to reinvent, reform, or scrap them all together to create something better. This innovative plan resulted from observed patterns within my organization and spare parts such as programs already in place, if they were working, and who was in charge of what. I broke my innovation plan into actionable steps and highlighted which steps of execution were needed from beginning to end. This all stemmed from learning how to operate from a position of influence and carefully appoint other influencers on campus. It is easier said than done to actually go through with executing every step of a plan. There are so many avenues to consider that range from who you choose to be on your team (other influencers), the size of the team, the budget, the timeline, and what foundation is needed prior to moving forward. I learned how to think about which problems were most likely to arise and how to navigate around the problems I hadn’t predicted. I was challenged to think about procedures that were so established it was difficult to discern if there was anything wrong. Once I confronted some of these preconceived notions, it was freeing and validating to discover research conducted by others who challenged similar issues. I was also pleased to discover the parts of my plan my school had already put into action prior to my arrival. This shows their commitment to innovation and openness in allowing teachers the freedom to try out their ideas. After working for a school in which the leadership felt more like a dictator, I was relieved to see that my innovation plan at my new campus will most likely be met with encouragement instead of ridicule. Developing an innovation plan has provided me with the courage to ask questions, and research the answers to difficult questions. This experience has also taught me how and why it is necessary to support proposals with data and research.
Personalizing the learning environment through SEL and PBL provides my learners with the most efficient opportunity to put COVA into action. I am still committed to pursuing this initiative and am looking forward to further communicating future steps with my leadership team along with the support of my fellow teachers. My goal is to make sure ongoing training is in place so expectations and the vision is clear to all. Personally, I intend to further build my professional networks and seek ways to be involved in innovative teaching and learning pedagogies. My hope is to visit other campuses (I have my eye on Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia) that have established these practices and learn how to implement these strategies within my campus. I also believe partnering with the community and local businesses will elevate the learning experiences for my students and campus outside of the classroom walls. Becoming a life-long learner is one of the first steps we can take to inspire this way of life in others. I am thankful to be at a campus that encourages innovation, therefore I plan to leverage my experience as a learner within this program to meet students where they are and provide real opportunities for them to become innovators. We must create learning experiences for our students regardless of time and space so they understand how to apply their thinking in all situations and real world audiences. Let’s make learning real and inspire the next generation to be life-long learners.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
Grenny, J, Patterson, K, Maxfield, D, McMillan, R, & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books.
Miller, D. (2009). A million miles in a thousand years. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2003288-a-million-miles-in-a-thousand-years-what-i-learned-while-editing-my-life
Robinson, K. (2010). Bring on the learning revolution! https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution#t-906849
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