Intentionality--that’s the key to good learning online. Planning, deliberate practice, iteration and consistent communication (and forms of communication) are all key to success. Guess what? Those are key to on-campus learning too.
The work of being more intentional starts with clarity about teaching and learning at your school -- there can’t be intentionality and common purpose without it. All too often, however, that’s not where schools start. At best, some schools use words like: progressive, traditional, discussion-based, etc.. Even then,if you ask two teachers to define those terms, they’re almost certain to come up with different definitions. (I’ve been to many a “progressive” school where some faculty define “progressive” by politics, not Dewey)
How do you ensure intentional practices for teaching and learning?
Start by deciding what good teaching and learning looks like at your school and define terms clearly. Making that decision by faculty committee is far too often a recipe for in-fighting and hurt feelings. Instead, consider hiring an outside researcher to study the practices being used at your school, review current literature on best practices, and create a starting place for discussions. Slowly engage more administrators at your school in crafting and editing the statement, and ensuring that the statement feels authentic to the lived practice at your school.
We went this route when we founded One Schoolhouse back in 2009. Back then, online learning was new and there was incredible skepticism about its effectiveness and efficacy. So we commissioned a literature review from our friend Lisa Damour (back before she was a best selling author). The literature review formed the basis for our first school-wide pedagogy whitepaper.
Today, we are releasing our latest version of our pedagogy whitepaper, the fourth version of this work. In between versions, we keep a list of new literature that emerges and engage our faculty in discussions about their emerging practice in their online classrooms. This keeps our thinking fresh and evolving -- very few of the citations from version one of our whitepaper appear in this version.
Oh yeah, the follow-through is important too.
A clear, coherent vision is important. As important are tools that allow the vision to be put into practice. This is where standards come into play. Standards help bring the pedagogical vision to life by defining terms more deeply and aligning terms to the lived experience in the classroom. Here again, we know that without clear definitions and terms, practices can be misaligned throughout a school.
The example I give in this regard that seems to most resonate with administrators and teachers is from the Hybrid Learning Standards that we released last spring. One of our teaching standards relates to the student-teacher relationship: “Teacher builds an authentic relationship with each student as a cornerstone of the learning experience.” I can’t imagine many independent school teachers disagreeing with this standard. But, without definitions, this standard could have different meanings to different faculty members. So, as academic leaders, we have to go further than just the standard to define the practice. In this case, we do so as: “Teacher builds learning partnership with students based on mutual respect and trust, knows student’s goals and learner profile, and actively works to support growth through regular contact with and feedback to students.” This ensures that the standard is not misinterpreted (as would otherwise be the case) by some faculty members as “the kids like me.”
We use standards like this one with our faculty at One Schoolhouse, and even go an extra step by defining not just what sufficient practice is to meet the standard, but also what exemplary practice is, in order to help faculty stretch and set goals. (We don’t expect faculty to meet “exemplary practice” in more than a few areas; if they do, we start to “move the goalposts”.) Annually, we update the standards and practices to align to current research and emerging practices.
In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing more on how schools might use standards to align practice to their vision and their school’s unique mission.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)