Transition forward

Image: Derek Wenmoth

I had the privilege this morning to participate in a Zoom call with a group of educators from North West Arkansas with whom I’ve been working for the past two and a half years now. In late 2018 this group visited New Zealand and it was my pleasure to escort them on a tour of a number of schools in New Zealand, and to be able then to work with them remotely and on a couple of visits to Arkansas where I’ve visited their schools and supported them in the changes they are seeking to make in embracing a competency-based approach to their curriculum and a more personalised approach to their pedagogical practices.

The first part of our call was spent exchanging stories of how we’re coping in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact this is having on communities and learners as schools are closed in both contexts. I shared with them the responses I was aware of, including the story of my grandchildren’s school that I blogged about previously – and of the response of the NZ MoE with a number of initiatives to ensure learning is able to continue in homes during the lockdown period and beyond if required.

Lots of our stories followed similar themes – focusing on the wellbeing of children and families first, concerns about equity issues that have been exposed and exploring what distance education approaches might look like moving forward.

One of the key areas of difference for the US teachers is the way in which state law and requirements seem to dominate the mindset of many in positions of leadership, and how this in turn creates a tension for many of the on the ground educators I was speaking with who are torn between doing what’s right in the immediate term for their kids and families, and what is being required of them by their district superintendents.

The formal advice from their State Commissioner of Education, Johnny Key (a great guy who I’ve had the privilege of meeting) is…

The emphasis for schoolwork right now is on learning, not compliance…. The six-hour instructional day has been waived for schools and students. School districts should provide flexibility regarding “time on task,” and the focus should be on the essential standards within core content.  

ADE Commissioner’s Memo dated 2 March, 2020

Despite this, many of the teachers on the call described directives from their districts advising that they are now required to adhere to the legislative requirements of ‘seat time’ for each day, with differing numbers of hours recommended for each subject depending on which district they were in.

This conversation brought to mind a tweet I’d seen earlier in the day from a New Zealand teacher inquiring as to whether this sort of time-based accountability is reasonable in the current context:

My reaction when I read this was, “Why would anyone even think this is OK and need to ask?”

Now the various forums I subscribe to are awash with opinions from all sorts of people offering advice on how to best prepare for working in a distance education environment – some of whom are extremely well qualified and experienced to do so, and others who are simply putting their opinion forward because the timing is right.

Of the latter group there is a frequently occurring theme – the carry-over of language and ideas from our face-to-face traditions into what is arguably, a completely different paradigm. This point became the focus of much discussion on the call with my Arkansas colleagues. As they discussed how they were approaching the challenge of working with their students remotely from now until the end of their academic year, and the advice that was coming to them from those ‘further up the chain’, there was a concerning level of ‘same-ness’ about the ideas and solutions they were being asked to implement. The problem soon identified is that as a system our policies and legislation, and the very basis of what informs these things, is based firmly in our traditions of face-to-face teaching and learning in physical classrooms and schools.

As our conversation progressed we identified some key terms and concepts that we agreed would be important to challenge each time they found themselves saying them, with the deliberate intention of having then to find new or different ways of expressing their intent, and therefore new or different ways of actually following through on that. Here are some of the things we identified:

  • Instruction – this word appears far more frequently in the US policy context than in NZ, but the need to challenge it remains the same. What we do as educators is about a lot more than simply providing instruction. Our effectiveness will depend on the extent to which we demonstrate empathy, cater for kids wellbeing and provide a context for self-directed, agentic learning. Defining this as ‘instruction’ creates some semantic dissonance. Instruction is what you receive in the army or other ‘training’ institution – but it’s not the word I’d use to describe the broad-based responsibilities of educators in the modern workforce. Describing our key output as ‘instruction’ undervalues the much more complex and sophisticated role that teachers play when working with learners.
  • Deliver – in a similar vein, the notion that we should describe what we do as ‘delivering’ education is equally problematic. Like the word instruction, deliver infers an one-way transmission of something (ideas, knowledge, commands etc.) Delivery of education also reinforced the old ‘jugs to mugs’ concept of teaching i.e. the teacher is the ‘jug’ who empties knowledge into the ‘mug’ (the student). There’s little acknowledgement here of the concept of knowledge construction or a knowledge building curriculum. Nor is there adequate scope for addressing the needs of individual learners and those with different learning needs or dispositions. As teachers we do a great deal more than simply ‘deliver’ anything!
  • Seat time – somewhere in the early stages of formal education someone decided we would need a measure to use in order to be able to distribute public funding to pay for the operation of our schools. Focusing on the attendance of learners and the time they spend in their seats learning has become the de-facto measure of learning – i.e. if you are at school, at your desk for the required hours per day then you are learning. (Try convincing Ferris Bueller and his classmates!) Attempting to define a learner’s participation in learning based on the hours spent each day in Zoom calls on a particular subject is tantamount to lunacy! Not only will the kids suffer but our teaching workforce will soon burn out as illustrated by the Tweet above. Learning remotely requires a whole different level of thinking, of building trust between teacher and learners, of approaches to motivation and engagement etc. There’s actually a whole heap of literature on this from the field of distance education – yes, this was a thing even before COVID-19!)
  • Grades – we’ll never fully escape the issue of how we provide a level of system accountability for what learning has occurred – and grades appear to be it for the moment, certainly in the US environment. In NZ we have a different approach, but in senior secondary the achievements in NCEA provide a similar measure in the minds of many students, parents and educators. Grades therefore (either intentionally or unintentionally) become a de-facto measure for the performance of the school and the teachers in it. Never mind that some schools may produce consistently high grades given the calibre of learner they are dealing with in the first place, while a school dealing with particularly challenging students might succeed in seeing a lift in grades or 2-3 levels in many student due to their great practices, but if this means their overall grades are still ‘below average’ then they don’t get the recognition they should. We’ve allowed ourselves to use grades for all sorts of reasons they simply aren’t appropriate to be used for – school performance (and allied funding) being an excellent example, yet still the practice persists.

As you can imagine, this is all fertile ground for discussion, and this group of US educators and I have committed to following up on these discussions in the pursuit of solutions that will enable them to achieve their desire for a personalised, competency-based approach to teaching and learning in their schools.

One thing we were certainly agreed on – as we seek to find ways of working in the present, we must do so with our eyes on the horizon and be thinking about what the opportunities are for establishing these new ways of thinking, being and doing that will carry over into the context of how we operate back in our face-to-face contexts once the school closures are over. To this extent there was another concept we agreed we’d eliminate from our vocabulary – the concept of ‘transitioning back” – based on the ‘back to normal’ mindset, as we’re all agreed (as are so many others in the online forums) that ‘normal’ has or will be profoundly changes as we emerge from this experience. Our agreement is that we focus on building a plan to ‘transition forward‘, and building visions of what that will look like – for our kids, our teachers and our communities.

5 thoughts on “Transition forward

  1. thanks Derek for helping us think about how the language -instruction, seat time, grading – binds us into thought patterns that are ineffective in the current learning environment.

  2. Kia ora and I hope is well down south! An excellent article this am – well done. Can you clarify what you mean by ‘a competency- based approach? I will send though the adapted competency resource by email later this am. The challenge is the sequencing and growth cycles as learners move through their schooling experience. This seems to be the greatest challenge for many educators. Take care and keep up the good work! Mk

    1. Thanks Mark. Competency-based learning is a broad church as you know, but in essence encapsulates the emphasis on developing within learners the key skills, dispositions and capabilities that will enable them to grow as learners and live effectively in the modern world – as distinct from the ‘knowledge-based’ approach of the past where the outcome of an education is measured by what you ‘know’. In a competency-based approach the outcome is measured more by ‘who you are, and what you can do”. Here’s a link to a US perspective which would reflect the views of the group I’ve been working with –

  3. Thanks Katherine, That article was perfect for today.😊 We’ve been working to find low stress activities and still cover our curriculum.
    Time will tell

  4. Derek, Thanks for capturing our conversation from last week and extending our thinking here. IT seems like we have a unique opportunity to recall our core values. I feel like if we were to ask, most folks went into a career in education because they love and want to serve kids. My best hope is during this time we remember what love looks like: caring, connecting, and holding space for our kids dreams.

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