Sunday, April 24, 2016

Beliefs, Buzzwords, and Being Indie: another week's thoughts

There was another great confluence of three articles today (what's up with that??? see this trio from a couple weeks ago: Bootstraps, Literacies, and Iron Cages), so I'll do what I did last time, laying them all out to see how they resonate. Maybe they will resonate for you also. Thanks to the serendipity of G+/Twitter streams and streamers today for providing a good weekend reflection!

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I'll start with this one from Edutopia because it is a great lens through which to see the other two: Teacher Collaboration: When Belief Systems Collide by Elena Aguilar (thanks so much to George Station for sharing this one at G+!).

Aguilar lays out six different "belief systems" about teaching and learning (they come from Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston's Cognitive Coaching... an OLD book; I just snagged a used hardback at Amazon for 40 cents to read this summer):
  • religious orthodoxy
  • cognitive process
  • self-actualization
  • technologist
  • academic rationalism
  • social reconstructionism
I'd be curious what people think of these categories (each one has a blurb at the article) and how comprehensive the list is as you see it. I'm so entirely in the self-actualization system that it's a bit scary, ha ha. I guess part of the reason I like this article so much is that the self-actualization belief system fits my work so perfectly. Here is the blurb:
Self-Actualization: Those who believe in self-actualization believe that the purpose of teaching is to bring out the unique qualities, potentials, and creativity in each child. They value student choice and self-directed learning and are keen to provide for students' unique and multiple needs, interests, and developmental tasks.
Aguilar's premise is that conflict arises between belief systems, and then that conflict grows worse without a shared vocabulary for articulating our belief systems. If we did have a shared vocabulary, we could articulate our underlying goals and priorities, and that could turn the conflict and misunderstanding into an opportunity for growth. I would say that is definitely a problem at my school, and I would also say that I feel in a minority as a "self-actualizer" ... although is that really true? Until we actually have discussions where people share their beliefs (and the forums for that are few and far between; there are none online), there's really no way for me to know.

Even better, Aguilar suggests that we have these discussions with our students, as you can see here in the closing paragraph: "I offer these descriptors to you in the hopes that they'll spur some conversations and reflection. Maybe these definitions of beliefs don't even resonate. Then I hope that this compels you to consider and define what you believe is the purpose of education -- and to also ask others that question. And, also, maybe ask that question of your students."

That is something I definitely want to do! I have no way to really initiate conversations with colleagues (I work remotely), but I'm able to have lots of discussion with students. Over the years, I've built a lot of self-actualizing features into my classes, and I can see that resonates with some students more than with others... and with some students it doesn't resonate much at all. Perhaps by giving them a framework like this to articulate their expectations for the class, it will help me to find better ways to accommodate their needs. Given that self-actualization means I really want to reach the students where they are, it would help me to know if I should be building more cognitive features into the class (I can do that!), more academic rationalism (yes, I can do that too), and so on.

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That all resonates really nicely with Laura Gogia's reflections on IndieEdTech with her emphasis on the Indie, not just the EdTech: I am #IndieEdTechand thanks to Adam Croom for the perfect pull-quote in his tweet: Being indie means being yourself in the presence of and in relation to others.

So, looking through the lens of Aguilar's framework, I notice that Laura's overview of "indie" sure sounds a lot like the self-actualization system, but even better because it is also about connected learning and interactions:

Let me be clear: my #IndieEdTech is not about personal APIs. It’s about how students and faculty interact with the open web and how we can explore it together.

In addition, it is about students and faculty who might feel themselves otherwise voiceless in the dominant conversations:

Individuals who lack a voice in or whose needs are not met by the establishment will separate themselves from it. They begin to explore (or innovate) alternative approaches. Indie involves thinking differently, not necessarily better. Indie implies risk. It is inherently diverse. Indie is about organic upstarts, each with a do-it-yourself ethos and a dedication to trying something different. None are exactly the same.

For an added bonus, Laura has a really fascinating indie film narrative that complements the indie music narrative that Adam et al. have been developing re: Reclaim Hosting.

So, I can definitely wave that #Indie flag, even if I really don't even want to label myself as edtech at this point anymore. Can I be #Indie without really making it about ed tech at all...? The issues that I really need to work on as a teacher are cultural, political, institutional, personal — in short, they are not necessarily technological. As for tech, well, just speaking for myself, the ed tech problem feels more or less solved, with a tech landscape that is dramatically different than it was in 2002 and getting better all the time.

But the teaching landscape... uh, not so much. It feels basically the same as 2002, and just as frustrating. Moreover, as the framework in Aguilar's article points out, there are plenty of academic philosophies whose agendas are not very indie-oriented, even before we put tech on the table.

And that leads me to this third article and the new battle for personalization... which is starting to look a lot like the old battle for open, with indie and anti-indie forces awkwardly using some of the same vocabulary.

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This last one is actually an old article from 2014, so thanks to Teresa Mackinnon for sharing it this morning at G+ exactly when I needed to see it!): What’s the dif? Personalization, differentiation, individualization by Adisack Nhouyvanisvong.

If you look at the way personalization is presented in that article (and it is the main focus), the definition has strong elements of self-actualization and student agency: "The learning objectives are different for each student, and a student has a voice and actively participates in designing her own learning model. The student takes ownership and assumes responsibility for her own learning."

That sounds pretty good, right? In her post, Laura Gogia cautioned against equating indie with student agency, but it's still true that student agency can and should be a part of indie... and at least in terms of this particular definition of personalization, there is considerable student agency, self-direction, self-actualization, etc. All good.

Yet if you look at the actual example provided in the article for personalized learning, it did not seem to involve real student agency at all: "In a high-school government class, I observed students given a short chapter quiz at the beginning of class. The teacher quickly scored — he has able to do this because they were using an online assessment software — and reviewed the results of each question with the entire class. The teacher and students engaged in meaningful and constructive discussions about each question, ensuring that the students knew and understood the concept being asked in each question. Students then submitted exit tickets about the main points they learned and concepts they still struggled with before leaving the class."

A quiz? A discussion? An exit ticket?

Now, my guess is that the teacher of that high school government class is really just struggling with the practical problem that a classroom presents: if the way you are engaging with the students is in the confines of an "all-here-together-at-the-same-time" model, it's natural and maybe even inevitable to drift into a "we're-all-doing-the-same-thing" model as well. But what if students want to study very different aspects of government? What if they don't all want to talk about the same questions that come from the same quiz? It's very hard to allow for that in the confines of a traditional class, which is why I have personally found it so liberating to teach online: it seems much easier (in my experience) to try to live up to the ideals of personalization when you escape some of the practical confines of synchronous classes.

Nhouyvanisvong is less interested in differentiation, contending that it is just about teachers putting students into groups (really?), and individualization also gets short shrift as if it is only about accommodations for summative assessment (really?). So, in the end, this article raises the very important question of understanding these words — personalization, differentiation, individualization — without being able to really tell us what they mean so that we could confidently use them in conversation without the fear of being misunderstood. And that was back in 2014! The situation is even more complicated now that the word "personalization" has been caught up in the hype machine.

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So, like I said, the real problem I face is not technology... it is vocabulary.


And the lack of discussion that would elucidate the meaning of those words in ways that would help make us all better understood to ourselves and to each other.

Which means the more we talk about the meaning of indie and personalization and agency and so on, GREAT. I'm all for more discussion... and even if it's pretty darn hard to have online discussions with fellow faculty at my school (although I keep hoping), there's always lots to talk about with students. Which means I'm already getting excited about what Aguilar's framework might offer as part of the process of jumpstarting next semester's classes. If I can find out more about what students might expect from me and from the class (what are their beliefs?), then I can find more/better bridges between those expectations and what we can accomplish together!

Make your weird light shine bright
so the other weirdos know where to find you.

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