25 April 2016

23 April 2016

3 Big Takeaways from #L4LAASSA

I just got back from attending at AASSA's 2016 educator's conference (where I also presented a "Learning Lab"), whose theme this year was "Looking for Learning." Keynotes this year included Kevin Bartlett of the Common Ground Collaborative, Martin Skelton of Fieldwork Education, Mike Johnston of Compass Education, and Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh.com. There were also over 100 workshops given by teachers and other educators from the AASSA network.

As was the case last year when I went to Innovate Graded 2015, I needed to come home and let the conference sink in a bit before being able to properly synthesize all the keynotes, workshops, and seminars I went to. I came to three big takeaways, centering around the concepts of engagement, design, and conferences themselves.

Take Away #1: Engagement—way more than being on-task

(NB: I think a better word here might have been "empowerment" but...)

Kevin, Martin, Mike, and Ewan had (at least) one common theme that I keyed in on: what does true student engagement look like—what are it's antecedents? They challenged the teachers and educators in attendance to ask themselves what does learning engagement look like, really? True student engagement, in Ewan's words, is the difference between pseudo-contexts and real contexts. True student engagement is when we give the learner agency and choice instead of the outcomes being determined and linear. True student engagement is mostly student-directed, not only teacher-directed. 

Ewan's distinction between pseudo-contexts and real especially hit home with me this time. I could have my students create a "recipe" for how universal religions spread in my World History course (which I did last year). Or I could have them use those principals and concepts about how religions impact societies and apply them to ISIS, Rohingya, Tibet, Roman Catholic church, evangelization and radicalization, etc. My wife could have her students create a dino-museum during their study of dinosaurs (which she is doing now). Or they could use the same concepts of earth science, extinction and climate change and apply them our current global environmental and come up with possible solutions while also learning about dinosaurs. The end goals are fuzzier with the real contexts, but maybe we need to start embracing fuzzy thinking more?

We also talked about this idea in my Social Studies cohort in relation to doing a project as an end-of-unit assessment and doing a project-based learning unit, where the real drives, organizes, and creates the context.

I think I know where the real engagement will be found.

Take Away #2: Design—it is system wide

If you've been anywhere around education over the past 10 years, then you will have undoubtably come across the Understanding by Design and Backwards Design framework created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. But that is not the learning by design I want to highlight.

All artificial things are designed. —Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
School is an artificial thing. We are the designers of the spaces and structures that enable learning. The task before schools is no longer to merely design the delivery. The paradigm is shifting. The task is now system wide.

Will Richardson recently had a great post on schools "trying to do the wrong thing right," using the systems thinking of Russ Ackoff as a launching off point (this was my first introduction to Prof Ackoff and I'm blown away by him). Kevin touched on this theme as well.

The keynotes by Ewan, Mike, and Martin fit into this theme as well. Ewan's talked about agile leadership, giving us 10 great takeaways to think about as teachers and leaders. Mike talked about looking for learning beyond the walls, challenging the audience to embrace the complexity of this new paradigm, to take learning "beyond" your subject, school, linear, country, the physical.
And Martin's mantra was:

School, as a system, needs to take design seriously, at all levels, by all stakeholders. We are all the designers of the possible. Russ Ackoff  defines a system as "a whole, that consists of parts, each of which can affect its behavior or its properties" where the parts are interdependent. The "essential properties of a system are properties of the whole which none of its parts have." 

The essential property of school is learning. None of the individual parts have learning. Nor can we improve individual parts and think we are going to improve the whole. Thinking of school as a system requires designing the system first—an overall design of what we believe about deep learning. Are we up for the challenge?

(FWIW, I am continually blown away by both the work Ewan and his notosh.com do encouraging and leading these types of full system design discussions, and their willingness to freely share their learning and resources in the marketplace of ideas—i.e. go to their site right now and start using their materials!).

Take Away #3: Conferences—partners in the unknown

I am not old enough nor have I taught long enough to have gone to conferences in the '90s, or the '00s for that matter. But my understanding of the "traditional conference" are ones that were primarily focused on pedagogy, classroom strategies, and curriculum. Both Innovate Graded 2015 and AASSA 2016 Looking for Learning had a very different feeling. The energy in the air was not about learning how to do the thing you are doing better.  Rather, the energy was about getting excited about the unknown unknowns.

I think Mike Johnston might have captured this best in his talk about pushing beyond our normal educational walls.  Our current educational model or system rests on a premise that is existing less and less: that the guarantee of learning discrete subjects is enough, that good grades are enough, that getting into a good university is enough. The new conference is asking: To what extent do we need to fundamentally revolutionize the dominant structures of school itself—of the system?

I don't think you could have walked away from AASSA 2016 without thinking about the revolution.

Why? Because this seems to be more or less true.


So where do we go?
So remember,


Those were my 3 big takeaways. I would love to hear yours if you were there. Leave a comment or send a tweet.