Combatting Implementation Fatigue
by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
I think it might be time for school staff to play a board game during the next staff meeting. Not just any board game though. Teachers need to be reintroduced to a classic board game, Snakes and Ladders. Over the past few years we have learned that Marshall McLuhan’s statement, “The medium is the message, ” is also relevant for education. Our medium as educators is our pedagogy. As we move from a content-focused curriculum to a competency-based education system, the role of pedagogy becomes far more significant.
The board game Snakes and Ladders is relevant here because of what it models about life and learning. Passionate, invested, professional educators, regardless of years in service, are entering an intense professional learning phase in education in British Columbia. Getting to square 100, the top square on the professional learning board game of Snakes and Ladders, is far more rigorous professionally than it has ever been. Educators who respect their profession are all working hard toward obtaining new professional competencies and skills in order to better support learning and student development.
The learning methods teachers hope to share and develop in their students must first be internalized in the educators’ professional learning. Educators must have personalized plans for professional growth in order to move forward in this time of significant educational change. Educators must wrestle with questions regarding impact of any chosen pedagogy on student learning. Though knowledge acquisition may be impacted more by the content being covered, student learning and mindset is impacted more by how the learning takes place.
Learning is not linear. There is no straight line from ignorance to mastery. The assembly line works for non-thinking robots, not for the complex process of learning. This is especially the case when the learners are image bearers of a God who is revealed in the sometimes unexplainable complexities of life. This is where the simple child’s game of Snakes and Ladders is so profound. Why is it so easy to encourage students to take risks, to fail and slide down a snake, and yet refuse to encourage this in our own professional learning and within the learning culture of the staff? If we refuse to embrace the growth mindset attributes in our own professional learning, we risk two significant consequences which are hard to overcome. The long-term consequence of not walking a similar learning transformation journey with our students is a further alienation between students “real lives” and school. If teachers promote a way of learning without modeling this learning professionally, they will be perceived as irrelevant hypocrites who are not worthy of a student’s time. For students in middle and secondary school, the consequences of a perceived irrelevance in a school that lacks strong student-teacher relationships is already being seen and felt through student apathy, disengagement, low achievement, and truancy. One of the most effective ways of changing this troubling direction is for teachers to pursue growth and learning in their pedagogical skill with the same passion, risk taking, and snake sliding they hope to see in their students. Mistakes, when they happen, are acknowledged openly and growth is demonstrated through a transparent reorientation of the pedagogy. The short term consequence is potentially just as troubling. Invested teachers and schools who are unwilling to embrace a Snakes and Ladders approach to learning for staff and students are at a high risk of burn out and breakdown. Educators are used to having all the answers. They are used to being right, doing it right, and for many, their identity is tied to how good they are at doing it right. With a shift in focus, many of the choices teachers made which used to be right are no longer so. This throws well-meaning, passionate educators into a state of flux that is emotionally draining. Often the reaction is to either force the new paradigm and pedagogical focus into the old paradigm and methods or to flit from one idea to the next, but not grabbing hold of any one new idea for an extended amount of time. For many teachers, deciding where to start with curricular modernization is like completing a Google search that shows more than one million results. But the stakes are higher. There is no compliance or teacher evaluation with a google search. This state of flux can be demoralizing or immobilizing for even great educators. The current process of curriculum modernization is exciting but can feel daunting for educators.
Right now, as an educator in BC, there are more than ten key components of the modernized curriculum and each of these components is being built on a new paradigmatic foundation – competency development. It is impossible to be excellent in all of these areas within a few years of implementation. Yet, educators in BC pride themselves in being excellent, progressive, implementers of educational reform. Adjusting to not having all of the answers is new for many teachers, especially teachers who were hired based on their knowledge of a content area. A school’s culture must leave space to repeatedly acknowledge that moving into the new paradigm may bring with it a sense of loss for a content specialist. The school culture must also leave space for unknowns, wrong answers, and a willingness to try “what we believe is the best answer right now.” Change needs to be progressive, one step at a time, with a commitment to rest when needed, but to always be looking and plotting the next move toward that 100 square. Students in school need change now, not in a few years when we may have all of the answers.
In the age of curriculum modernization, schools need to live the very message being modeled provincially and celebrated by educators as keys to student readiness in a new and changing world. Schools need to model taking risks, rising from failure, and developing perseverance and grit in the process. Learning is messy work, no longer well represented through the clean and sterile overuse of lecture, rote memorization, and multiple choice tests. The key to boldly moving forward in improving our education system is two or three clear non-negotiables. Once schools have established non-negotiables, they are freed to make bold, often risk-filled decisions knowing that the school will stay true to the direction established. Schools are encouraged to create two or three mission oriented non-negotiables which will guide localized educational transformation. For one school, it meant establishing Strengthening Community and Student Ownership as key non-negotiables. Decisions about grade-level groupings, cross-curricular learning, cross-graded year planning, and many other initiatives broke down the artificial barriers of schedule, grade level, and individual classroom autonomy. This was done when it was expected that the changes would improve learning, community, and student ownership. Without the two or three specific guiding non-negotiables, the school would have been far more susceptible to the pressures and whims of the plethora of good educational ideas floating around Twitter.
Changing a cultural mindset is essential for growing into the modernized curriculum. To do that effectively, school leaders must work with staff to develop non-negotiables. These become the 100 square for schools as they wrestle with good context-based decisions. This way of thinking allows schools to be flexible as they move forward. As student populations change, non-negotiables allow the freedom to adjust schedules, programs, and student groupings to best meet the learning needs of the students in the school now.
As you continue on the journey of implementation as a school leader, ask yourself two questions: “What is in our school’s 100 square right now?” and “How is the school culture supporting teachers who take a learning risk and end up sliding down a snake, rather than climbing up a ladder?”
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