Professional learning communities

I have the privilege in my work to be able to both facilitate and participate in a number of online communities of practice (CoP). It’s a great opportunity to learn from others as well as share my own experiences and what I have come across. Like many online communities, sometimes they seem to rocket along and at other times they appear to be rather quiet. This has got me thinking about the online communities I’m a part of and question what it is that brings people to them and engage in them.

I have been given the opportunity this year to undertake some research and have decided to focus it (broadly) on what fosters engagement or participation of educators in online communities of practice (particularly in the communities in which I facilitate). While still very much in the development phases, I would like to come away with a better understanding of where educators are accessing their professional learning from and why. It is also an opportunity for me to find out and hopefully trial different strategies to increase participation in the communities within which I facilitate.

I feel like my thoughts are still quite a jumble, which I think is okay at this stage. As I’m going through the process of thinking around why I want to undertake this research and just doing some general wondering around the topic, I’ve realised how the whole thing kind of aligns with the research I did for my MEd on online student engagement. While there are definitely differences (I’m working with adults rather than middle-school students; participation in the CoPs is completely voluntary), there are also similarities. For example, we still have those that are visibly active and those that are often called lurkers (I prefer the term ‘listener’ myself). We don’t know what impact is being had on those who don’t contribute but could still be reading/learning from the community. It’s also not clear how deep the engagement is going. For example, someone might be reading and commenting, but there is no impact back into their classroom. Understanding this could be useful in determining steps to encourage greater participation.

The expertise and knowledge held with an online CoP can be incredibly vast. Yet, it appears sometimes that we like to hold on to our own knowledge, or perhaps we don’t feel like what we have to share is worthwhile to others. Other times, looking at the various communities, it can appear like we’re just after a quick fix, or something to get us by, eg. “Does anyone have a resource/unit on…”. I’m not saying this is an issue. It is simply an observation. I’ve got quite a few other questions and thoughts at this stage as well, but won’t list them all here.

If you’ve read this far – well done on making it through my jumble of thoughts. Hopefully as the year progresses and I get further into my research things will start to become much clearer. I’m looking forward to developing a better understanding of what is going on in the online CoPs and further develop my facilitation skills as a result. I’ll try to remember to share my progress here as well.

Inquiry abuse?

Dr Linda Bendikson, the Director of the University of Auckland Centre for Educational Research, wrote a very good post about inquiry: Inquiry – a much abused word.

As someone who is continually learning about inquiry (or perhaps inquiring into inquiry), I found it interesting that inquiries should be about making a difference in the short-term as a part of the iterative inquiry cycle/spiral. They are most effective when you look back on your practice and the outcomes of it every 5-10 weeks rather than trying something out for a year or two.

Dr Bendikson says that inquiry “should be the day to day work of teams – not a project or special event, and definitely not an ‘add-on’.”

I think it’s easy for us to say “this year my inquiry is…” and then semi-forget about it and go about our day-to-day teaching life and at the end of the year look back at what’s gone on, but we need to turn this around and remind ourselves that the focus, as Dr Bendikson says, is still on the “effectiveness of the teaching that is occurring”. It’s a bit difficult to improve outcomes for students at the end of the year if we haven’t focused on the effectiveness of our teaching

 

Relevance in learning

Learning to Walk

I’ve recently been taking a lot of notice as to what my own children are being asked to do for homework and what various teachers are expecting of their students and I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps we’re not really helping our kids to learn.

I’m not teacher-bashing here. I see that I’ve done this before too. And I know this is definitely not every teacher/class. But in my observations recently – reflecting also on what I’ve done – I realise that many children are asked to research this or that and present what they find out. I don’t know about you, but I can go and get information about a certain topic, present it in a way that satisfies the criteria given, and I will not have learnt a thing. I’ve engaged in a superficial way on a task that I can do pretty easily. I haven’t been challenged, however. I haven’t needed to think. I could-and many students/children do-copy and paste from the internet into my own presentation.

Ignoring the copyright issue for a moment, one could argue that this is okay as the student has shown enough understanding to pick the right information to present out of the screeds available online. However is this all we are really looking for?

I’m sure most teachers would ask questions that encourage higher-order thinking, but are these questions getting the answers you would hope by just asking for a presentation (which in my observations is usually a poster or a PowerPoint – don’t get me started on PowerPoint, but it is usually not an appropriate technology for children to use to present information in my opinion).

What many of these tasks are missing is the authentic context, the real life situation that makes the task/topic relevant to the students. They seem to be missing the group discussion/interactions to ask the questions that students actually need answers to. Although they are set up under the guise of inquiry learning, they are still teacher-centered with an expectation that students will carry it out in a certain way and present something to the teacher that satisfies their (the teacher) needs/requirements rather than giving the student ownership of their learning.

One of the key points about inquiry learning is that it is collaborative. Students “co-construct their learning in an authentic context” (Team Solutions). However, I have seen a number of inquiries given to students to work on individually.

I would love to hear about really positive learning experiences that are going on. I know they are happening as I read about many in blogs, on twitter and elsewhere, however I’m not convinced this is the norm.

Personally, I’m going to work at making sure what I ask my students to do is relevant to them somehow. I imagine with some things it could be particularly difficult. Also at the higher levels of school I know that qualifications can get in the way sometimes with students motivated by gaining credits. But hopefully I can help make learning more relevant to them.

 

Image: Flickr.com Tela Chhe / CC-BY-2.0