The Reflection Pool

Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?

Co-learning: when a group of people comes together in a spirit of inquiry to share knowledge, investigate possibilities and learn from each other. (From Edward Brantmeier article)

Characteristics of Co-learning:
*  All knowledge is valued
*  Reciprocal value of knowledge sharers
*  Care for each other as people and co-learners
*  Trust
*  Learning from one another

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

I had a wonderful opportunity during our September professional activity day. I got to sit with both elementary and secondary staff to talk about student learning needs evident in student work and what educators need to learn in order to meet those needs. Talking with people about ideas is my favourite part of the job, and these discussions were passionate and student centred.

In each school, the educators obviously care deeply about their students. They were wrestling with big ideas like integration of technology into critical literacy, problem solving, how to balance classroom management with a focus on higher order thinking skills. I loved the discussion.

At first, I flattered myself that I was co-learning. Wasn’t I open to listening, being trustworthy and valuing the knowledge of all participants? Well, yes, at least in my mind. Then I had two important conversations. The first was with a principal who shared that maybe my presence hadn’t been viewed as positively by staff as I’d hoped. In my eagerness to be transparent, I had highlighted that even though I was a superintendent, I was there to learn. But perhaps that just drew attention to my position and made people uncomfortable. When I spoke in a group, my words carried more weight than others and some felt criticized. Not the trusting atmosphere I was seeking! It was a setback.

The second conversation was with Steven Katz, a thinker, professor and researcher at OISE who works with our district. During a principal learning team meeting, he talked about hierarchy and how naive it is to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a learning session. When a superintendent sits down with principals or teachers, hierarchy exists because of the evaluative component. Announcing that I’m a co-learner and expecting that reality to disappear is naïve at best.

Honestly, I could kick myself! I know that. I have felt it in sessions as a teacher, a vice principal, a principal and now as a superintendent, with my boss. I’ve done lots of reading about trust over the past couple of years, so I understand how it is earned and builds over time through a combination of character and competence. (Steven M. R. Covey)

For a time, I felt a bit stuck. Then I realized that I have to go back to my core beliefs about learning and our work.

Co-learning can happen, even with the spectre of hierarchy at the table.  I’ve experienced it as a principal and a superintendent, after people come to know me better and when I leave my ego at the door. I need time with the schools where I work. I need to accept that the hierarchy exists, acknowledge it, and get on with the work. I also want to clarify my purpose in sitting at the table with other educators. It is three fold:

1) To hear and reflect on their ideas and insights;

2) To interrupt group think and established patterns of thinking; (see Intentional Interruption by Katz and Dack)

3) To interrupt my own thinking so I can truly learn.

I’m ready to get back in there.

Making My Learning Visible

Every day I ask staff members to think, learn and reflect. As John Spencer, teacher blogger extraordinaire (@johntspencer) reminds us, being in a classroom is a tough, demanding job. It’s easy to forget that when you leave the classroom. I can talk about program and assessment in a session or from the safety of my “big principal desk”, but the reality of teaching 25 to 30 young, active and eager minds is something else. So when I ask faculty in our building to think, to learn and to reflect on their instructional practice, I need to always be aware of just how difficult teaching is.

One way I can do that is to make my own vulnerabilities and challenges as a learner visible for all the people I work with. Steven Katz , Canadian professor and educator, stresses the importance of showing that it is OK to identify challenges and weaknesses, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As students need that model and permission, so do teachers, educational assistants and early childhood educators.

In October, we held our first staff learning session. Our focus was to be a discussion and exploration of teachers’ problems of practice as they related to instructional practice. After examining perceptual data provided by teachers, we asked: “What is pressing and urgent in your classroom in terms of creating the conditions for student learning?”

To set the stage, I shared the results from a leadership qualities survey I asked staff to complete anonymously last June. (See previous post: Feedback, Priceless). This was not easy, partly because not all comments were positive, but also because this is intensely personal work.  Next, I shared my reflections about the feedback and what I wanted to focus on in my learning.  I accepted that I hadn’t done the best job in some areas of my school leadership. I accepted what the results were telling me. I admitted that I didn’t really know what to do next, but I was dedicated to finding out how to tackle the problem. I identified some next steps. Finally, I committed to telling staff about my progress in the future.

Reactions?  People were interested.  When I was honest about what I needed to learn, it opened the door for them to admit their own vulnerabilities. We can’t learn unless we admit our mistakes and work together to learn how to do things better. Our learning session was full of rich discussions about beliefs and teaching. I am really looking forward to the next session where we can continue the conversation.

How can you make your learning visible?