December 10, 2009

Just tell me what to do

This post was last updated on September 5th, 2011 at 11:03 am

Paula's famous listsThere's a time and a place for most everything.

When my wife announces, "I can't stand living in squalor, we need to clean this house now!" I tend to respond by saying, "Just tell me what to do". I say this not because I don't care about our house but it's clear who manages it. I'm more of a high ranking employee (I think I may be inflating my position). I fine with that. I don't want her job. I'll contribute but don't want to expend much energy in the decision making process. While she might like me to be more invested, she realized a long time ago it's not likely to change.

Being involved with an abundance of initiatives, teachers in my school division often have the same response as we implement change. There are times when I can't blame them. Their plates are full and they are trying manage their lives and their classrooms. However I believe it suggests, like my attitude towards my household, they don't have much interest in owning the change. I'd be the first to admit that in many cases, these changes don't welcome their ownership. It is thrust upon them without much consultation. When they are asked for their input, it may be that they aren't trusting of the process given their past experiences. Yet many times when clear opportunities present themselves for teachers take charge of their learning, they retreat.

I'm part of a team that is working hard to model and develop partnerships with teachers. We recognize that in many cases we not only do not have the capacity to create the resources and supports for learning but also recognize the expertise we have amongst our teachers.  Many do take up the charge and flourish and relish the opportunity to co-create. We're smack dab in the middle of a curriculum renewal. This curriculum represents a major shift from the past. Fewer outcomes, bigger ideas and more latitude for teachers to teach and students to learn. While that might appeal to some, for others it raises questions like, what resources do I use? How do I assess? Where do I find the time to develop all the curricula? All important questions that are best answered collectively. As support people, we don't have all the answers, nor should we. Teachers have great expertise and should have their voices heard as we implement these changes. Yet many disagree and would be preferred to be told what and even how to teach.

While there remains some disagreement as to who is responsible for curriculum design, the larger question for me remains, at what point do we no longer accept the response of "just tell me what to do" in all areas of education?

This is a direct parallel to what happens each day in classrooms. Typically the higher achieving students are very happy to be told what to do because they have developed skills in giving teachers what they want. They're good at it and can remain a non-committed learner and have success as defined by high grades. The moment we ask students to take charge of their learning, it suggests a level of commitment, engagement and discomfort that many aren't willing to accept. Asking students what they want to learn and how they want to learn it is a shift of major proportions. I'm not suggesting we fully adopt a system where authority and guidance have no place but at present, there is very little opportunity for students to take control and charge of their learning.  I'm not sure we're ready to move in that direction  until we can get teachers to begin to own their learning as well.

If you're reading this blog, you're likely someone who already takes charge of your learning and you choose what to read and absorb. You likely rarely say, "just tell me what to do" on the big issues of your job. Compliance isn't always a bad thing and there are many occasions, when we just are as invested as others and just want to get the job done without a lot of discussion or analysis. But the shift to personalized learning, if indeed you see or believe that shift, demands students and teachers to take charge. That might be the biggest challenge of all.

So when is it okay to be told what to do and when do we suggest, and even demand learners (teachers and students) to own their learning? This is hard question no doubt and I relish your thoughts.

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