Tiny Disturbances: 3 Areas of Support in Changing Learning Ecosystems

The bad news is that change is difficult. The good news is, we can scale it.

Shifting mindsets in education requires action. It may be daunting to think of how to change an entire system at once. Moving to action from perception is a cultural challenge, especially when perception is mired in habits. This Mindshift article names some of these bad habits of schools: “siloed learning, homework just for the sake of it, spending time planning with no action, keeping the door closed and visitors out, poor communication between administrators and teachers, traditional professional development, fixing problems by mandate rather than by team problem solving and initiative overload.”

Change in schools is not a technical problem; simply purchasing a program for a school, for example, does not mean the principles and practices of that program take root and transform the system. Just like growing a plant, conditions have to be right for something to germinate, grow, and flourish. Taking the lead from the natural sciences, we know that tiny disturbances to an ecosystem can cause system-wide change. Introducing something into an ecosystem impacts the entire system (Garmston and Wellman, 2002).

We can scale change in a learning ecosystem. Here are some considerations for how we can make “tiny disturbances” that might impact our learning ecosystems in positive ways.

Create Time for Personal Inquiries

Time is a finite resource in schools. Remnants of the industrial model leave us with 180 days in the school year, and timetables have traditionally identified time allocation to separate subjects. Rather than run against these ancient barriers of pre-packaged time, we might ask how we might simply provide time for learners to pursue inquiry and then get out of their way. The small-scale change might be to provide time in the timetable for student-driven inquiry and similarly, to provide time in the meeting schedule for teacher inquiry in collaborative groups. Shifting the timetable to create pockets of time for personalized learning is something we can do now.

Create Structures for Collaboration

We learn from professional development research that it’s not the content of PD that impacts teacher agency most; it’s the social processes.

Darling Hammond and Laughlin (1996) strongly suggest implementing “structures that break down isolation, empower teachers with professional tasks, and provide areas for thinking through standards of practice” (in Hindin, et al., 2007, p. 350).

Shifting to a true collaborative culture is an evolutionary process, and takes time. Learning ecosystems might pay attention to the levels of collaborative structures:

Fragmented individualism is on the low end of the spectrum of collaboration. This is the condition in which classrooms are islands. The isolation of classrooms and teachers produces very little commonality in practice.

Balkanization is defined as the condition in which the ecosystem is divided into cliques or small groups, which have their own subcultures. In this type of environment, the learning is isolated in subcultures, and there is no common set of beliefs permeating the entire organization.

Contrived collegiality creates a condition in which there may be congeniality, the feeling that a group is harmonious and agreeable. At a recent PD event, the facilitator cautioned, “Watch the food. Congenial schools tend to feature the sharing of food.” While congeniality is a precursor to true collaboration, it isn’t quite the same as collaboration.

Professional collegiality in learning ecosystems is when teachers gather to engage in dialog and discussion around student learning. In these truly collaborative teams, teachers might:

  • Examine student work
  • Be critical friends to one another as they implement new practices in their classrooms
  • Provide support in peer observations during implementation of new practices, as an ‘extra pair of eyes and ears’ to gather data
  • Share expertise and personal research into best practice
  • Co-construct a common set of beliefs and cultural practices for facilitating learning

These actions in becoming a truly collaborative learning ecosystem present complex work and need adaptive problem-solving, and schools can provide tools to support it, such as engaging in the work of developing norms of collaboration (from Thinking Collaborative).

Give Ourselves Permission to Innovate through Iteration

Change in learning ecosystems often require an openness to purposeful exploration. This means adopting a growth mindset and shifting thinking to the value of process. Constructivist approaches are conducive to purposeful exploration, where the value is not in one-size-fits-all processes but in allowing iterations.

For professional learning groups, support may come in a framework, such as having an inquiry cycle where learners can start anywhere and use the cycle to enact change.

American International School of Zagreb Professional Learning Cycle

Inquiry cycles support the ecosystem in how change can be scaled to micro-environments such as classrooms. For example, if a group of teachers believe that implementing questioning strategies systematically in their classrooms might impact students’ skills in critical thinking, they might investigate ways of using questioning for at least one class.

This scalable inquiry approach allows for some risk-taking and alleviates anxiety on the challenge of change.

The challenge of educational reform is scalable, and when we pay attention to tiny shifts in our uses of time, opportunities and processes, we can remove some of the anxiety that accompanies ambiguity in times of change.

Suggested Further Reading

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2002). The adaptive school: developing and facilitating collaborative groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon .

Hindin, A., Morocco-Cobb, C., Arwen-Mott, & Mata-Aguilar, C. (2007). More than just a group: Teacher collaboration and learning in the workplace. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice, 13(4), 349-376.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: raising your school’s organizational intelligence. Suffolk: John Catt Educational.

Schwartz, K. (n.d.). How Schools Can Face The ‘Bad Habits’ That Inhibit Meaningful Changes. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/03/06/how-schools-can-face-the-bad-habits-that-inhibit-meaningful-changes/

Featured Image:

Gamelan Orchestra on Bali, Jakarta or Solo (Indonesia). Painting by Isaac Israëls (1865-1934). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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