Looking to Transform Education? Embrace Learning, Leadership, and Innovation

Looking to Transform Education? Embrace Learning, Leadership, and Innovation

Changes in education occur frequently: new programs and initiatives, new standards and assessments, new state and federal mandates. But none of these represents a true paradigm shift. This isn’t surprising, considering that innovation, responsible risk-taking, and teacher leadership are rarely encouraged, valued, or supported in education. Of course, there are pockets of teachers and schools that are doing these things, but it’s certainly not the norm.

So what needs to change to ensure that all 21st-century students are learning to the best of their abilities? Our education system needs to embrace—not just give lip service to—a culture driven by learning, high-performing teachers, and transformative technology.

A Culture of Learning

Learning must be at the center of the education system. One might argue that this is not a paradigm shift at all. But on closer examination, it’s clear that our current system is focused on education—not learning. Learning is social and at its peak when learners collaborate, connect, and create. Learning should be purposeful and allow the learner to make a contribution.  Learning is not simply about the transfer of knowledge from one individual to another; it’s generative, exciting, and inspirational. Student engagement, ownership of learning, and opportunities to make a contribution need to be hallmarks of the learning environment.  It’s really about user-generated learning.

Such learning must be the norm for students—and adults. At issue is the fact that few educators value and engage in this type of learning themselves. Educators, at all levels of the system, must be learners. We can’t possibly communicate the power, value, and excitement of learning to our students if we are not learners ourselves.

School has become a system based on obedience and “jumping through the hoops” that often has very little to do with the true spirit of learning. We’ve communicated to our students that school is about exceling on the test, giving the “right” answer, and memorizing and regurgitating information. School must shift toward a user-generated learning environment with the individual at the center, instead of lock-step curriculum and pacing guides.  Learning must be driven by students’ interests and passions, not teacher-dictated lessons, learning plans, and assessments.

 Teacher Leadership          

The education system needs to foster a culture of high-performing teachers. This culture begins with our teacher preparation programs and continues with the promotion of teacher leadership and teachers as highly respected researchers. Educators must “own” their profession, insist on high standards and performance levels for all, and embrace leadership roles.

What do teacher leaders do? They are part of the solution, not the problem. They adopt a growth mindset, encourage generative thinking, and increase respect for the profession through their actions.  They routinely engage in action research, take action, and lead.

Technology and Innovation

Instead of treating technology as an add-on, we need to embed it in our teaching. Technology and web 2.0 applications can radically change the way we know and learn. The education system needs to leverage the power of technology; it needs to become a non-negotiable, a necessary solution toward creating a highly individual, user-generated learning environment.

It all begins with educators: teachers, administrators, superintendents. We can create virtual PLNs, blog about education, attend webinars, and network with educators worldwide to learn, grow, and take risks. We can encourage others to push our thinking and become part a collective educator voice.

Fortunately, the paradigm shift is already under way. In my corner of the world, parts of this vision are becoming a reality for 25 first graders. Here are some of the ways we’re using our classroom time innovatively and extending learning beyond classroom walls:

Learning Team Time: Students generate learning goals and characterize them as “beginning,” “developing,” or “secure.” They form learning teams with students who have similar goals, create a two-week learning plan, execute it, then provide evidence of goal attainment.

Web 2.0 Tools: In my classroom, students use technology throughout the day to collaborate, create, and communicate what they learn. Tools such as iPod and iPad apps, Kidblog, Twiducate (K-12 micro-blogging site), Little Bird Tales (digital stories), and Flip cameras give students ownership of their learning.  SymbalooEdu is a user-friendly platform for student PLNs and bookmarking.  Skype gives students the opportunity to extend their learning by interacting with experts, high school students, and peers around the world. Primary Paint allows for collaboration both in and out of school. Google Apps allows for surveys, real-time collaboration, and formative assessment opportunities.

Google 80/20 Time: Students use 20 percent of their week for individual, student-created learning projects that relate to topics they’re passionate about. The students create a focus and a learning and communication plan. The projects must benefit their own learning as well as others’ learning, and they must be communicated through technology.

PBL:Project-based learning units provide opportunities for students “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student “voice and choice,” rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations. ” Buck Institute For Education

Check out the learning graphic I’m working on to be utilized as a tipping point for dialogue and decision-making for the future of schooling:

Learner Graphic8

What would happen if we shifted the paradigm and made this vision a reality for all students? Would school become a place where students can’t wait to be, where they routinely experience the energy and excitement of learning? Are you willing to lead, learn, and innovate so that this paradigm shift can occur?

What’s thrilling is that the vision is definitely within reach. We have the tools. We just need to stand up against the “us vs. them” culture prevalent at all levels of the system, take responsible risks, insist on high standards for educators, and be willing to ask ourselves the hard questions.





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