I have been teaching and consulting - from primary school through adult education - since 1996. Currently an education consultant with la Commission scolaire de la Seigneurie-des-Mille-Îles in Montreal, Quebec, I believe that sharing our stories is the key to getting better together.
That title totally doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, it does. We are at the beginning of a new school year and with that comes new initiatives and new focuses. Schools have Welcome Back! PD days where we are told we have to design and deliver explicit direct instruction through high impact practices or use blended learning to revisit mastery-focused literacy solutions within professional learning communities or use design thinking to collaborate on innovative solutions for competency development in our 21st century at-risk learners!
Ok. Full disclosure – those sentences were created with this Educational Jargon Generator. They make us laugh (maybe) and that is because they are so close to the truth of what we hear maybe a little too often in education. (And those didn’t include any acronyms! How’s about we PLC about RTI with CCBE and DBE teachers in FGA and FP? We can submit a PDIG application for that.)
We so often throw around these words and phrases without really thinking about or clarifying what it is we actually mean. I think we use jargon because it is much quicker to throw out a catch-phrase than to spend time talking about what we really mean by it. And when we are quick to identify THE solution, THE key to all of our problems then we assume that it won’t take long to fix whatever it is we think our problem is.
And we can say we ticked the box next to this year’s must-have professional development about innovation or technology or whatever.
But, then, what happens when our problem isn’t fixed? We give up, go onto the next theory or catch-phrase, and start all over again.
Oh, Flexible Spaces, we tried that last Fall. It didn’t work.
The thing is, the downside of using buzzwords or jargon too often is that they lose meaning. You just may end up with a group of people who all say they are “differentiating” or “innovating” or “designing flexible spaces with UDL” or “using design thinking” or “leveraging technology” or “insert buzzword here” without actually checking in with each other that we all carry a shared understanding of what each of those words or phrases mean. Even worse, the word can end up ruining the practice:
“[Buzzwords] are a dangerous mechanism to lose sight of things that bring value to organizations and affect the bottom line. Buzzwords make us tired of hearing about it. They make us crave the day before we heard about it. They solidify patterns that hold firm on the status quo. Sometimes that buzzword may be something you actually need to do, and dismissing it puts your business [or practice] at significant risk.
Beyond Buzzword: Innovation and Design Thinking by Erika Bailey
Each of those buzzwords originated in a practice built on respect for student learning and the teachers who work with students every day. Any of those things, when given time and space and clarification (and…more time and space and clarification!) CAN be a solution. They CAN be a key. But none of them are THE key or solution.
I think if anything comes close to THE key or solution, it would be the time and space to talk about and act on what matters to us as educators – and to include students in those conversations. This quote is almost cliché, it has been used so often, and it is so true:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”Margaret Mead – disputed citation
So my focus this school year will be on innovation without “innovation”.
In other words, I don’t want to innovate without having conversations with my colleagues and with students about why and what and how. This process takes longer because, well, change and planning for great things takes time.
I feel this way because I love my job. I care about learning. I care so much about the people I work with and the students we all work for.
And really, I don’t want to tick an innovation box, even if we leverage technology to do so 😉
I spent Wednesday morning watching some students present their final websites to their classmates in Caroline Mueller’s Social Media and ME course at Place Cartier Adult Education Centre.
I am so glad I did.
Behind all of the work we do developing resources,
integrating technology, making websites, writing grant proposals, going to conferences, presenting workshops, collaborating with different groups, getting better as teachers and consultants…. there are the students.
The websites ranged from a presentation of a variety of favourite things to very specific purposes. One student created a site as a way to start her own photography business, another created one to support her brother’s business in St Lucia. In each site, I could sense the personal relationship to its creator.
Some of the students talked about overcoming their personal struggles throughout the course and through their sites. I heard stories of dealing with depression, of managing as a young single parent, of working night shifts before coming to school, and even one person who had just lost a close friend. One student had never typed before, let alone use Google apps to make a website! His first job was in a gold mine in his home country to make money to come to Canada.
And this was all over the span of two hours.
One student said, “There were times where I was frustrated and wanted to break things. It was difficult but worth it. Especially with a 2 and 3 year old at home!”
So, when I am tired and frustrated about the work I do I am going to remember these brave people who are working so hard to become their better selves. They give me hope for the future – they should give us all hope for the future.
You can visit their sites and find out more about Caroline’s course at her course website:
Digital Action Plan. New courses. New partners. New projects. New people.
It has been a busy year and if there is one word to describe the past 180 days, it has to be collaboration.
Collaboration in education usually invokes images of smiles and people getting along while working on projects. When we say collaboration, maybe this is the picture we have in our head. And when we don’t want to collaborate with people, maybe it is because we think that it will be really difficult to attain that image with the particular people involved – if not impossible.
I think collaboration needs to be so much more than getting together (smiling and getting along) to achieve a pre-set something – whether it be a learning resource, an evaluation situation, a video, a set of ideas, a workshop, or an article.
Years ago, I read an article that I keep coming back to, Conflict amid Community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration by Betty Achinstein. Her research demonstrated that, too often, what was missing from collaboration and community was conflict. (Not the yelling at each other and fighting kind of conflict, the opposing viewpoints kind of conflict.)
Now, we might think that to be a good thing. But, really, it is not. Conflicting opinions exist in community. When we ignore that, when we think there is only one way to do things, then we get into dangerous territory of privilege and oppression. When we focus on only one way of doing things, then we lose out on a diversity of ways of doing and being that, when put together, become something new, something great.
And that is what Betty Achinstein found. That when teachers collaborated on various projects, they very often met with conflict. The knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to make it go away – to smooth things over, to concede to something that we may not agree with, or to choose to exclude diverse viewpoints from the conversation. But, when conflict was allowed to happen, when teachers listened to each others different points of view and worked together anyways, they were able to achieve great things. Together. And the community got stronger. And individually, people felt better because they were heard and together they were contributing to the betterment of their community.
This year, I worked on many projects with many different people. Our Adult Education RECIT team in the English community doubled in size, beyond that, the RECIT network more than tripled in size. There was a demand for more resources to support the English network and so I have been starting to work with more people across it – from the youth sector into the adult sectors – and we each have our ways of doing and being that become part of our collaboration process.
And so of course – conflict occurs. When it is talked about and worked through and accepted as a part of the process, I believe that what we are working towards is better. Universal Design in education is steeped in empathy – the designing of learning environments and products with the greatest possible potential users in mind. How can we do that without listening to, considering, and integrating opposing viewpoints?
Each year around this time, as I start to think about the year to come, I ask myself – how are we getting better? When my ideas were challenged this year during collaboration, the end results were always better because they included multiple points of view. It wasn’t always easy for me and sometimes it took longer than I wanted, but it was always better. So my wish for next year, is that we continue to challenge each other so that we can continue to get better. Together.
I have been thinking and talking a lot about accessibility this year. As teachers, we want our students to be successful in our classrooms, in our schools and centres, in whatever their goals are. But how do we do this? Concretely, what do we do to ensure that this happens?
For many, the quick answer is through differentiation – when we tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of our students.
With differentiation, we get to know our students needs and/or learning styles so we can create lessons, activities, or environments that cater specifically to those needs.
Focusing solely on differentiation can be problematic on a variety of levels:
Where does accessibility come in? Well, it doesn’t. At least, not right away. In fact, I’d even argue that with differentiation, we are looking more at accommodation than at accessibility.
When we train our focus on accessibility, we can use frameworks like Universal Design to anticipate possible obstacles to learning in our lessons and environments and then design them away before the students can encounter them.
I think that both universal design and differentiation have similar motivations:
Their differences lie within their approaches.
With differentiation, we respond directly to individual needs. But we have to wait until these needs are presented to us in order to respond so it is a reactive approach.
With universal design, we anticipate obstacles and get rid of them so that the largest number of people can access the learning. It is not directly focused on the individual but on the collective, yet in a way that honours the individual.
I found differentiation exhausting as a teacher. Mainly because so much of the work had to happen once I met my students. When I started to move my focus towards creating learning environments and situations with multiple access points from the get-go, before I even met my students, I found that I was actually better at meeting individual needs than when I was working so hard trying to differentiate based on them! It was still a lot of work but much of the work could happen before I was ‘live’ with the students, which made things much easier.
As I wrote at the top, I have been thinking and talking a lot about these ideas lately. How we widen access to learning – especially in a context like adult education where we may only be with our students for a short while – is becoming increasingly important for me and the people I work with. I see accessibility being directly tied to empathy and, ultimately, respect for our students and their learning experiences.
Here are two videos I made recently based on some workshops I gave this year, some on my own and one with my colleague Sandra Laine of the RECIT service national, domaine des langues.
Part 1 answers the question Why Universal Design for Learning?:
Part 2 answers the question What is Universal Design for Learning? And it addresses some differences between UDL and Differentiation.
These videos were originally created for an article I wrote with Emilie Bowles, RECIT regional service to general adult education, for a special edition of the Carrefour FGA newsletter on Universal Design for Learning (pp. 11-13)
For more discussion about UDL and Differentiation:
About a month ago, I was invited to speak about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at an online conference during the Semaine de la Formation à Distance, organized by FADIO. That week is happening this week and I presented yesterday.
As you can see in the tweet below, I presented in French. I called my presentation La CUA et la FAD: tenir compte de l’humain à travers l’écran (Loosely translated as UDL and distance education: considering the human through the screen. Link to tweet: )
I had two goals:
I actually had a third goal – it was to not explicitly present the frameworks in detail. I wanted to allow participants to experience learning that was designed using the frameworks. I decided that anyone could go read the frameworks if they wanted more detail and so I included them as extra resources.
I used a website to house all of my materials as well as the instructions for the experiential parts of the presentation. Those activities were sandwiched in between different parts of my presentation and feedback conversations.
So, how did it go?
First off, I was out of my comfort zone on a few different levels.
To add to that, there were two uncomfortable moments:
I didn’t manage those conversations well. I think that working entirely in French on an unfamiliar platform didn’t help. Luckily, they didn’t last all that long and I don’t think they detracted all that much from the rest of the session.
Back to how did it go?….I received verrrrrrrry mixed reviews!
Ranging from – this remains very superficial. Where are your schema and frameworks? Do you have any meat to add to your presentation? To this:
(Loose translation: The presentation and activities that Tracy proposed offered us different ways to sustain participant engagement, to act and express ourselves, and to access information. A true demonstration of UDL. Link to tweet)
Much of the response I received was positive and there were also others who left during the presentation.
So. What do I take away from these mixed responses?
I believe that the best way to learn about new classroom practice is to experience new classroom practice. I have seen how this kind of experiential learning can have an impact on practice many times. But that does not mean that is the only way I need to interact with participants.
I could say, oh well, you can’t please everyone. BUT. Actually, that wouldn’t be very UDL of me, would it?
For some people, they need to see those frameworks before experiencing them in order to experience them and make connections. For others, they make the connection to theory through the experience. And for others, they might make the connection to theory afterwards. All of this lies in the area of motivation and engagement- the Why am I learning this? principle of UDL.
I had placed the frameworks in an extra resources section of the website and included the option of visiting the extra resources section when participants completed activities but did not offer them as a specific choice during one of the activities.
In my presentation, I talked about how the teacher’s task is to create an environment where instruction of content is well-balanced with learner needs. I discovered that I didn’t quite do that here.
Each time I work with teachers and other educators, I learn something new. In the future, I am going to explicitly offer detailed views of frameworks as a choice during the small group activities.
(And I am also going to reflect on managing uncomfortable conversations, regardless of the setting.)