Operationalizing the concept of ‘teachers as learners’

Stephanie Sandifer recently blogged about the concept of ‘teachers as learners’:

Rather than immediately engage in a technology purchasing frenzy, take some time to begin discussions on your campus about how to transform your school into a place where teachers see themselves first as LEARNERS who are invested in improving their instructional practice through reflection and inquiry

This is an old edublogosphere theme. For example, here’s a post by Will Richardson from way back in 2006:

In a world where knowledge is scarce (and I know I’m using that phrase an awful lot these days), I can see why we needed teachers to be, well, teachers. But here’s what I’m wondering: in a world where knowledge is abundant, is that still the case? In a world where, if we have access, we can find what we need to know, doesn’t a teacher’s role fundamentally change? Isn’t it more important that the adults we put into the rooms with our kids be learners first? Real, continual learners? Real models for the practice of learning? People who make learning transparent and really become a part of the community?

So what do we mean, exactly, when we say we want teachers to be ‘learners?’ The operationalization of the answer to this question is important, I believe. For example, I once asked a group of high school guidance counselors in Minnesota, ‘How do you know if you’re a successful high school guidance program?’ They responded, ‘When every student has a meaningful connection to at least one adult in the building.’ I said, ‘That’s great! Now, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? How do you know where you are now? How do you know if you’re making progress?’ And then there was silence – crickets chirping – because they didn’t know how to operationalize what they said was the ultimate measure of success for themselves.

I’ve asked similar questions of school administrators:

If, like 98.7% of all schools and districts in the country, your mission and/or vision statement says something like ‘blah blah blah blah lifelong learners blah blah blah,’ how do you know when you’ve gotten there? How do you know if you’re making progress? What does that look like? Can you tell me?

And, again, crickets chirping – because they can’t operationalize what they say is the ultimate intended outcome of the organization.

So what’s your answer? If we want teachers to be ‘learners’ – if that’s important to us – how do we define that? What do we look for? How do we know if we’ve got it?

If we can’t define it, we can’t recognize it / hire for it / reward it / remediate for the lack of it.

Anyone want to take a shot at it?

One year ago: Don’t hold your breath

8 Responses to “Operationalizing the concept of ‘teachers as learners’”

  1. With the advent of technology and specifically the net the role of the teacher must change. The sage on the stage is irrelevant because knowledge is abundant. The information cartel of academia is in peril. The growth of online learning and web based education is beginning to threaten the normal concept of education as place based.

    So how do we ensure that teacher’s are life long learners modeling these skills? I think the mode of evaluation needs to shift to match the change. The old pre, eval, post, meeting concept is flawed. Switching to professional growth plans for teachers where demonstrated change in practice demonstrated learning. The work of Jodi Peine in this area is very refreshing.

  2. First as administrators we need to model it. Then we need to make professional reading, technology “playground time”, and pd priorities by providing the the time, support and yes money (when possible) to back this up.

    But to answer the question more directly we know we are learners when pedagogy begins to change, faculty meeting discussions begin to center around ideas and what they have read not next weeks bake sale and when we see in lesson plans and walk throughs that these new perspectives are changing practice.

    I agree with Charlie that professional growth plans need to take a more center stage.I also asked a while back a similar question about our evaluation process. I am not sure it is the process that is broken but the rubric is because it still reflects the 20th century model of instruction.

  3. Scott,

    This is a great question — and I agree with the need to clarify what we mean when we say “learners.” My thoughts on how to articulate this require more space than a comment here, so I’ll be responding on my blog.


  4. To be learners teachers need teachers to guide them and a reason to learn.

    In Educational nirvana we all are life long learner and our professional behaviours model the learning behaviours that we wish our students to engaging in. Why don’t the powers that be, then create a learning environment for teachers that we offer our students?

    In the best models of learning for our students, while we talk about self-direction and autonomy we still place a huge emphasis on a teacher’s role? At worst a content delivering/testing machine at best a facilitating wiser peer – but still a teacher.

    (Here’s the but) In most models of ‘teacher as learner’ I have ever seen the presence of a ‘teacher’ is often sadly diminished. Training; “we can give you a day on Podcasting from this guru out from the UK”, but development??????

    There is an irony – I have mentioned before that without fiscal indicators, educators find it difficult to measure their short-term affect on students (exams excepted). Administrators (The left-brain dominated ones) have capitalised on this creating models of professional development that train excellently; “Teacher x has participated in workshop A for 2 days and completed the online test ; achieving a B+ on the Introduction to Mediocrity course”. But they do not develop people.

    Too much that is billed as Professional Development is actually just training – accountants are happy and success criteria meet within the annual budget (75% of teachers have attained Mediocrity).As with our students ‘development is an expensive and uncertain thing’. Don’t get me started on how annual funding models destroy schools.

    Two things straight off.

    1. To learn teachers need a wiser peer working along side them
    2. In the white noise of school evolution for those who still haven’t joined the dots you need to make Learning Technologies a priority

    Imbed a Learning Technologies peer facilitator in class time and non-contact time. They work within curriculum areas to develop teachers practice over (min) a term to a year. Also place them within departments or year groups to facilitate practice.

    Make sure that the ability to ‘articulate’ the way Learning Technologies deepen and extend learning in specific subject area is part of every Middle Leader job description and the job description of the senior management that line manager them.

    Many school over many years have employed project models to develop curriculum, assessment even school buildings. This is how we should approach the drastic deficit between the current teaching population’s capacities and the desperate need to engage with the opportunities presented by Learning Technologies.

  5. Scott (et al.),
    As you suggested, this is not a new question, but still an interesting one. This post brought me back to a post on John Hendron’s blog here: http://www.johnhendron.net/digest/2008/04/12/raise-your-hands/
    The link in his post takes you to more of that conversation. I think teachers who heed Ryan Bretag’s call might be called learners.

  6. Scott, Interesting post. I’m reading the national math panel suggestions about math in the US. The panel discusses both programs and instruction.
    I would be very interested in hearing other’s responses to the findings, including your’s. I haven’t finished reading the reports so I can’t comment at this time.

  7. Scott,

    Since your visit to my school during this past year, I have been pushing myself to both “engage” more as a learner myself and to “devise” more ways for my students to become learners. Many who have already commented here, and you yourself, have provided a clear answer – shift the paradigm. Turn teachers loose on machines, encourage “playground time” and provide pay for it as Barbara said, and promote innovation with incentives. While it will take funds to do this, we can’t afford NOT to spend the money. My school is leasing laptops for every teacher for next year. We need to replace older machines, but rather than simply pulling the old and putting in the new, our Technology Director realized she could move the classroom teacher computers to replace the old machines and spending just a few thousand more, equip every faculty member with a MacBook. Brilliant. As luck would have it, the machines are arriving before summer, and after an hour of orientation, our faculty will begin to play and learn and create. There will be other formal opportunities for classes, but my colleagues are more excited about this than anything I have seen in my fifteen plus years at the school. Certainly, some don’t want this, and others will only use it for typing and grades, but many will begin to play. As much as teachers depend on computers for aspects of our jobs, we remain a highly sheltered part of the population. Most of us do NOT explore the web. I now have my students submit papers in Google Docs and encourage them to compose there too, but had not tried “social networking” until a few weeks ago. Why? No time, too busy, it’s a waste, it’s dangerous. ou name it; it ran through my head. While it certainly has some negatives (like TV and video games and telephones and cars and everything else does), the benefits far outweigh those. We should be encouraging all teachers to get Facebook and MySpace accounts not only to learn how students use them, but to see the incredible ways that they can be used. My life will never be the same and is infinitely richer because I now use Facebook (and MySpace, although I like it much less). I would love to leverage that next year with my students. Why not create a course group that students with a Facebook account may join? It will then notify them of upcoming assignments and provide another portal for course communication. Plus, their work would easily become more global in scope within the framework of Facebook than it would simply relying on what I can provide in class. How do we get teachers to be learners? Get them onto computers consistently and get them excited about exploring this rich and boundless environment of knowledge. With encouragements ranging from additional pay to mentors to the possibility of reaching more students, many teachers will quickly realize that technology is not a toy that also has some practical use, but instead is a vital and vibrant tool that makes learning tremendously fun again.

  8. Scott- Not only do we have to somehow operationalize learning amongst our teachers, we need to operationalize the implementation of that learning so students can reap the benefits.
    It’s not enough that we ask teachers to keep up on best practices, the newest pedagogical skills, or content area advances, we have to get them to use it.
    I am not an administrator, and not sure how to operationalize this, but I know that we can’t continue to allow teachers who have stopped improving themselves teach our kids. Your post inspired my own blog entry. I also posted a conversation on Classroom 2.0 about this,so will come back to let you know some suggestions.

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