Thoughts on A New Culture of Learning

I’m an Instructional Technology Specialist in my district. It’s a district-level Admin position, so I have the good fortune to see teachers of all kinds from pre-K through 12th grade. Ten years ago when I first started in my position, we had very specific training plans for our very specific technology tools, and teachers were only “allowed” to use a tech tool of any kind if they had first attended one of our very structured training sessions. Thankfully, those days are over. The culture of learning has shifted to an expectation that when you see a new piece of software, you will click around on your own until you discover how it works. We assist when asked, of course, but unexpected updates on Facebook and other social media tools have instilled in people more of an attitude of “Hmm… that’s different. Let me figure this out.”

My absolute favorite thing about my job is still getting to teach classes on a variety of technology-related topics, but thankfully we have a lot more flexibility now in what that looks like. Now when I offer classes in the computer lab at the Administration Building or other central location, the classes are based either on a topic I’ve had a lot of requests for or just something that I learned about that I think would make an interesting class. There’s not a lot of room for participants’ independent exploration in an hour-long, one-shot class. I try to build in time for the teacher-learners to talk to each other and to have some kind of reflection time at the end, because I know that is a big part of what makes learning “stick” for adult learners, but it never feels like quite enough. Maybe that kind of teaching is ok when teachers come to a specific location with the specific goal of learning about a specific assistive technology device or Google add-on. But it’s just that: ok. Not horrible, but not the best.

My favorite way to teach, though, is when I visit on teachers during their grade-level planning periods to help them learn more about a topic that they have selected. In this best-case-scenario type of learning, I’ve given the teachers some teasers about different tech tools (websites or apps) ahead of time. I ask them to complete a Google form with the tool they want to learn about AND a lesson or topic that’s coming up in their curriculum. Then when I arrive at their planning time, I can give them a quick overview of what their chosen tech tool does & how it works, with a few examples of how it might work in the particular lesson they selected. In most cases, teachers really take the ball and run with it at that point, after they’ve gotten the gist of how the tool could be used. When they start ignoring me and talking to each other about, “You know where else this would be good? That landforms unit we’ll be doing next month” I know they’ve started to own that learning. That is like a home run for me, and is a tiny glimpse into the way “the new culture of learning” that Thomas and Brown (2011) describe can look in education.

There will always be pockets of teachers who *want* to support the ideals of this new culture of learning, and I think it can happen – but not necessarily easily. It’s so difficult to create in a classroom the conditions for the organic kind of learning that Thomas and Brown describe. The main problem is TIME and the number of demands that teachers have to keep up with – IEPs to document, parent phone calls to return, lesson planning to be done or sub plans to prepare, and every time they turn around, another assessment to be administered. All of those can suck the joy right out of teaching. Playfulness, a maker mindset, innovation, and inquiry are often missing from our classrooms.

If I want to encourage teachers to create a more playful and inquiry-based type environment for their students, then I have to find ways to model by bringing those principles into the teaching that I do. As much as possible, I need to provide to teachers the same kinds of authentic, inquiry-based, and playful experiences that I hope that they in turn provide to their students. The biggest challenge I face is also time; since I rarely have more than an hour with any given group of teachers, I feel the same time constraints that they feel! I have learned to be okay with giving them less information and more time to explore and learn on their own – but I always leave wishing I’d had just a little more time to cover something else.

Calling attention to the new culture of learning, or pointing it out when I see even a small example of it happening in a classroom, is another way to get others to think about that kind of culture and the possibilities that it affords students. Additionally, one of our district goals for the year is to “close opportunity and achievement gaps through pervasive learner-focused support.”  Capitalizing on this district goal will be crucial in bringing a level of credibility to any suggestions for teachers to change their “standard operating procedures.”

My current innovation/passion project involves enabling students to create content that will help others learn skills of digital literacy.  I read in the book that

The new culture of learning is based on three principles: (1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world. (2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural. (3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media (location 577).”

I was gratified to see the parallels between my innovation idea and these three principles; peer-to-peer teaching and learning is exactly what my project seeks to accomplish. Traditional methods don’t seem to be ensuring that students are learning digital skills alongside all the content they have to master. Using available technology to create a platform for students to learn from each other seems to be exactly what the new culture of learning is all about!

Thomas and Brown assert that “every answer serves as a starting point, not an end point. It invites us to ask more and better questions (location 1095).” When curriculum specialists, technology integration coordinators, and professional development directors all begin modeling this philosophy – asking more and better questions rather than supplying teachers with ready-made answers – then things might begin to change in the classroom, too. I am one piece in that puzzle, and consider myself very lucky to work alongside other district leaders who are aware that a culture shift needs to take place. In a large organization, that’s so much easier said than done. 

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Thomas, D., and Brown, J.S. (2011). [Kindle version]. A new culture of learning. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

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