Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Littky’

As we come up on the holiday break, it is a time that we often give and receive books, and look for some reading material to get us going again for the second half of the school year.  This post is inspired by the June 2017 edition of School Administrator Magazine.

The magazine had a great article on Books that Resonate – asking district leaders to reflect on one book that has carried a profound and lasting impact.  It was introduced by editor Jay Goldman, “The printed word still matters.  In fact, a good book can carry meaning for an educator across a lifetime.  A good book conveys resonating value at potent decades later as on first reading.”

And while I always enjoy reading the newest books with the latest thinking, there is often great wisdom in some books that were not published in the last 12 months.

So, as we look for books to get us going for 2018, I have three to share that have had a great impact on me.   Here are their stories:

Professional Learning Communities at Work

It was in the late 1990’s that I saw Richard DuFour speak.  I can remember his talk still today.  I was an early career teacher focused on what I needed to do in the classroom, and DuFour opened my world to the work we needed to do collectively in the school.  DuFour got me less focused on what I was teaching, and more focused on what students were learning.  After a group of us heard DuFour speak, we took on his book as a study group book at the school.  We began to talk about creating a culture of collaboration.  It seems for schools, particularly for high schools, where we had a tendency to close our doors and focus only on our classroom and our practice, DuFour’s thinking opened us to a different way.  Still today, the book holds up.  While some of the terminology has changed, the goal of working together for student success with a focus on student data, is one alive in all of our schools.  My sticky-tabbed copy Professional Learning Communities at Work is a book twenty years later I still reference.

The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business

Denis Littky’s book showed me that there are other ways to organize a high school.  I read this book just as I assumed my first vice-principal assignment, and again we used it for a study group book at the school where I was working.  Littky focused on real world education for his students at “The Met” school in Providence, Rhode Island.  This is still the first book I would recommend to people who want to think about doing high school differently.  Students have an internship, and a mentor and parents are closely connected to the learning.  Littky made me think that we didn’t need to organize school into separate subjects every hour, and that learning could not just be what the adults wanted the students to learn, but also what the students wanted to learn themselves.

The World is Flat

So DuFour got me to think differently about how we need to work together in schools, and Littky got me thinking about how we organize schools, it was Thomas Friedman who let me know the world was changing around our schools.    It was hard not to think about Bangalore, India after reading Friedman’s book.  If when I ordered at McDonald’s drive-thru I might be speaking to someone in India, or if the reviews of my x-rays could be done by a doctor in south Asia, what would that mean for schools?  Until The World Is Flat I tended to believe that changes were happening around schools, but after reading it, I came to believe that schools needed to change to stay relevant.  I know the Friedman book has faced some thoughtful criticism, but I still find it a helpful introduction to what global changes are doing this century and a great book to open the questions around knowing all of this, how must we change.

The Christmas break is a good-time to sit back with a good book.  My next two books for the break on my shelf are What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation by Frans Johansson and Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden.  While neither is specifically about education, I am sure there will be ideas that will apply to our field.

I have mine lined up, what is on your reading list?

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Over the course of the past year, I had the opportunity to hear Kieran Egan speak several times on a very simple idea — that students be randomly assigned a topic to study in depth for 12 years.  And just what topics did he suggest?  In A Brief Guide to Learning in Depth, produced by the Imaginative Education Research Group at the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, possible topics included paper, skin, gold, cotton, storms, leaves, castles, jungles and coffee.  In addition to the usual curriculum, students would study their assigned topic throughout their elementary and secondary education.

The first time I heard Egan present the concept, I was as skeptical and cynical as many of those who commented on Janet Steffenhagen’s blog post last fall about Egan’s new book, Learning in Depth.  I had the “yeah, buts” that Egan addresses in his book, like: “wouldn’t students become bored with a topic for 12 years?” “it is unfair to randomly assign topics?” “it would be difficult to organize;” “how do we know this works?” and “would this learning transfer to their other parts of school?”

With the perceived complications around making systemic changes so many believe are needed to evolve our education system, Egan’s idea is simple, doable, and is already happening in many places.  One of the concerns I share with the many, is the minutia in the curriculum — the hundreds of specific outcomes which do not allow one to ‘go deep’ on topics.  I believe it matters little what students can go deep on — it is that they have the ability to do so, and move beyond surface level and recall.  While I am still not sure I want my five-year-old son studying silk for the next 12 years, I do like the idea he could do deep learning outside the bounds of what we normally think of as school.

In Learning in Depth, Egan suggested that “for each student, by the end of her or his schooling, [the goal] is to know as much about that topic as almost anyone on earth.”

The  benefits included a deep understanding of the nature of knowledge; engaging students’ imaginations and emotions in learning; building confidence and pride in knowledge; developing research expertise and organizational skills.  There are similar benefits suggested for teachers and schools — enriching experiences, a de-emphasis on assessment and grading and an enriched school culture.

As part of his presentation last week, Egan spoke about the thousands of students who are participating in this program in Canada, the United States and around the world.  Participation has grown rapidly over the last few years.  While some have modified their study to only one year, or a few years, and in advanced grades some all choice, many schools are carving out time for this in their week.

Before you quickly dismiss the concept like I did at first, take some time to explore the Learning in Depth Project.

While we continue to explore many grander changes to schooling, I am becoming convinced we need to carve out specific time, each week, for this new, deeper, integrated learning (attach the buzz phrase of your choice).  It may seem ludicrous on the surface — blocking out time for something intended to be part of everything we do — but, somehow, on the journey we may need to set aside time to do something different.  Whether it is a project like Learning in Depth, or an initiative like  Destination Imagination, or engagement in DreamBox (more on both Destination Imagination and DreamBox in future posts), we need to systematically move forward and make a commitment to do similar ‘new’ activities — not just one teacher, one class at a time, but entire schools and districts.

Egan’s project reminds me of Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools  that were started in the United States; albeit, Littky builds projects around student choice while Egan’s are randomly selected.  On the topic of rethinking secondary school learning, I find Littky to be one of the most thoughtful and important voices and his book Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business is a must-read.

With so many educational reformers speaking and writing about deep learning these days, Egan provides us with a simple entry point.

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