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Posted on Feb 1, 2015

Owning Learning

Owning Learning

by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊

One element that sets image bearers apart from the rest of God’s creation is the gift of choice.1 In a bit of a roundabout way, it is this ability to choose that has given people the opportunity to choose independent schools in British Columbia. Parents choose to enroll their students in Christian schools as an act of free will and teachers choose to apply at schools in our SCSBC school community. One’s ability to choose, something often taken for granted, is a daily reminder of who God created humans to be. It is in this very place that people are also challenged by Satan, for it is their ability to choose that allows them to make selfish decisions. Making wise and appropriate choices is a skill that is developed within a Christian community.

If Christian schools are designed to assist parents in transforming image bearers into closer reflections of Christ, teachers must empower students to be active participants in reflecting on and consciously living with choice. For students and teachers alike, focusing on learning as a way of life, and being able to make choices in this area creates a sense of ownership. John Hattie, is his book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, shares results of an extensive study with evidence that concludes “that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.”2 A school seeking to fully realize its mission is one that ensures that teacher and student learning include opportunities for ownership and choice.

There are numerous ways for teachers to use choice within the classroom to enhance learning for students. Ron Berger, in his book Leaders of Their Own Learning3, shares effective methods of using student-engaged assessment to enfold students more fully in the learning process. Among other techniques to teach students the skills necessary to effectively practice ownership of their learning, Berger highlights the use of:

  • learning targets
  • standards-based grading
  • passage presentations with portfolios
  • celebrations of learning
  • student-led conferences
  • using data with students

Student ownership of the learning process directly correlates with learning for students. Learning is a personal journey and allowing students the ability to influence their learning through choice honours who they are as image bearers of Christ. Giving up some control of learning may appear risky or uncomfortable for teachers because there is a sense of not knowing the outcome prior to beginning a lesson. Teachers who make reflection of practice a regular part of their week will know already that this is the case. Teachers can craft an amazing lesson but because of the individuality of the learner, the outcome and the effectiveness of the lesson are always in question. By leading students in activities which teach the learning process and empower them to make choices around how they learn best, teachers can help students develop a deeper purpose in their learning and become more effective learners.

Teachers have a unique role to play in the greater Christian community. While working to influence younger image bearers in the process of maintaining a God-given love of learning, teachers should also maintain their love of learning about their profession. In the busyness of everyday schooling, continued teacher development is often assumed and left for summer breaks. Many schools have tried to mitigate this by introducing professional learning communities and professional growth plans which are intended to stimulate conversation between teachers and administrators and guide professional growth. Though a step in the right direction, these are often tough to maintain because they are not built around a common articulation of measurable standards of best practice. Professional growth plans, along with regular teacher evaluations every four or five years begin the conversation with teachers. However this is not enough.

Developing teacher ownership of their own professional development is essential in increasing learning for students. If school leaders are going to have a greater impact on learning in the classroom, they need to mirror strong assessment and evaluation practices for teachers. If teachers are engaged in a process that honours them as learners and holds them accountable to a high standard of excellence, the practice they are experiencing in their own learning and development will filter down into the practices they use with their students.

In 2001, Robert Koole, with support from numerous members of our SCSBC community, compiled Good Teaching Comes From the Inside4. A major component of this document was the dimensions of Christian teaching. It divided effective Christian teaching into five dimensions. In 2012, work began again on restorying the dimensions with a learning focus. An emphasis was put on creating a rubric for Christian teaching which is modeled after Charlotte Danielson’s Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching5 and includes the refocused dimensions of Christian teaching and learning. This rubric provides teachers and administrators common measurable objectives while modeling good assessment practices.

Allowing the rubric of Christian teaching and learning to structure the new emphasis in the BC teacher contract on professional development being the teacher’s responsibility gives schools the tools that they need to support learning and development of teachers. The customizable rubric allows teachers the opportunity to assess themselves based on evidence from their current practice. Using this evidence, teachers and school leaders can create professional goals that are both personal and focused on local school initiatives. (See the example at the bottom of this page.)

As teachers compile evidence to support their self-evaluation, teachers are regularly reminded of specific ways to improve practice and they become as Hattie puts it, “learners of their own teaching.”

By including peer review as part of the growth focused process, a culture of pulling together in the same direction creates a “caring and idea rich environment” (Hattie) where action research is expected, and error and feedback is welcomed and fostered. This process emphasizes a growth mindset6 that is instrumental in moving forward in education.

As teachers become more comfortable with this process, the need for summative evaluations is reduced to situations where teachers are not regularly showing growth. Only when a teacher is not consistently showing professional growth would a school administrator need to introduce a professional management plan and conduct an extensive summative evaluation. For teachers in good standing who are consistently reflecting on their practice and keeping evidence of growth in a portfolio, a trail of professional growth would be evident that would satisfy even the most ardent evaluator or school administrator. This process of professional growth would put the focus on learning and make the teacher administrator relationship more collaborative as professional growth discussions are owned by the teacher and focused on specific evidence.

At many schools that have moved to late starts or early dismissals to acknowledge the need for regular professional development, making time for this process is already embedded in the schedule. Giving teachers time to work individually and in peer teams is essential for this process to work. Hattie’s research shows that for learning to be the most efficient, the learner must become their own teacher and the teacher must become a learner of their own teaching. Working with the rubric of Christian teaching and learning will make this possible. SCSBC will be looking for a few schools that would be willing to work with the new teacher development rubric process on behalf of the entire SCSBC community. This would be an opportunity for schools to be part of action testing this new process while allowing their teachers increased ownership of their own professional development. Feedback from this action testing would then influence a final draft that would be introduced to the entire community.

Footnotes:

  1. St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE)
  2. Hattie, J. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  3. Berger, Ron. Leaders of Their Own Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2014.
  4. Koole, Robert, ed. Good Teaching Comes from the Inside. SCSBC Society of Christian Schools in BC, 2001.
  5. Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  6. Dweck, C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006.

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