One Good Question with Connie K. Chung: How can we build systems to support powerful learning?

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Education Equity / Equity / International Education / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Different communities are investing in their young people in different kinds of ways.  Who is deciding how the investment is made is also an indicator of what we value of the next generation.  Young people’s voices and even teachers’ voices can be included on a larger sclae.  Going forward, given the rapid shifts of what we need to teach our young people, and the current emphasis on personalized learning, those two groups of people are essential to include in deciding that what future investments might be.

A good investment requires a diversified portfolio.  We’re going to need a diversified portfolio to figure out what we’re doing for the future.  Much of our current investments are in developing cognition. So much of how we have invested our money, energy, time, human resources, attention and discourse, has recently been around testing. I do think testing does help for accountability, transparency, and promoting quality to a certain degree.  But it’s not enough. We need more investments in the following:

  • developing a more holistic vision and purposes for education, that is child-centered
  • developing systems that are responsive to the needs of the present and the future
  • strategizing and visioneering to create systems in which parts work together
  • obtaining consistent, impactful leadership. Average turnover for superintendents in the US is 2.9 years, which isn’t enough to develop sustainable, responsive, or adequate systems for what the students need.
  • creating adequate space, time, and resources for teachers to learn while they are teaching. The technology and content is changing so rapidly that it requires continual learning, even for teachers.

We need to develop systems to learn from each other.  I know lots of great examples of powerful teachers, schools, and networks like United World College (UWC), EL Education, and High Tech High (HTH) doing wonderful work.   But I don’t see a lot of investment in ways to systematically identifying, cataloguing, curating, and making transparent and transferable some of these processes for teachers, school leaders, and heads of systems. What might be sustainable models for teachers to continue to learn in their PLCs, schools, district and region?

What’s keeping us from making that kind of investment in US?  It would be helpful to enable cultures and conditions where teachers’ voices are heard.  I’ve seen this at EL Education schools in the US.  Many of their schools have restructured their school time to enable more teachers to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams and let students do projects in longer blocks of time.  Some EL Education schools have even restructured the spaces within the schools for the collaboration to occur.  So that work is happening, but it’s not happening at a larger scale. In those places like EL Education, they have leadership that is listening to teachers and thinking about how to establish the conditions so that the real learning happens.  They’re not so invested in finding the next silver bullet, but in developing whole school cultures that enable continual learning and growth in community to happen.

In Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-first Century: Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations, one of your findings is that countries emphasize cognitive domains over interpersonal and intrapersonal domains in their K-12 curriculum.  Why does that matter ?  

Learning is cognitive, but it’s also social and emotional.  For example, we can look at Tony Bryk’s work on trust in schools. The places where student achievement increased were places with a culture of trust.  These are environments where people felt able and vulnerable to say “This is what I need to learn and grow,” and felt safe socially and emotionally to do that. And they have communities that supported that vulnerability instead of punishing and hiding it.  Carol Dweck’s work is about not just growth mindset for students but could be applied to teachers as well.  The process of learning is not just cerebral, but being vulnerable and humble, and takes place in supportive and collaborative school culture that, listens to and learns from, and challenges each other.  The more we acknowledge and understand that, and then build our systems to support not just the development of cognition, but cultures, systems, and relationship building, that’s the hard work that needs to be done now.  It’s not magic.

I’ve heard too many times about cases where school districts pivoted and adopted a curriculum that’s student centered and adapted to the 21st century but without other support systems and structures to enable that change.  But as several educational leaders have noted, “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”  Even in China, our colleagues also found that, in their innovative schools districts, their broader district culture embraces innovations and trying new things.  We might continue to recognize and cultivate leaders who pay attention to how to build cultures and environments that enable students and teachers to do this kind of work.  We need a shift in the kinds of questions that we’re asking, a shift in processes and frameworks, not just in acquiring a new curriculum.

In a 19th century factory model, where we you want to get the process right for mass production, quality was defined by consistency. The 21st century model is a sharing economy in which people all have the ability to be creators.  The ability to cultivate systems and cultures that enables that to happen, where people feel empowered and equipped, is perhaps just as important as paying attention to individual components like curriculum. I think the cultural piece can’t be emphasized enough – values, attitudes, relationships, and structures.  How do we create that kind of environment?

How do we do this without over-testing social-emotional learning?

The ultimate assessment is: are we going to survive and thrive as a country?  Have we created students through our school systems who are going to live well together and promote their own and others’ well-being?  That’s the ultimate high-stakes assessment! We may have people who have tested well in schools but may well be failing this real assessment around whether we can create a sustainable future together.

This goes back to the purpose of education, which is important to look at as a guide.  We’ve overemphasized assessment to guide us.  Assessment is one indicator for achieving our broader purpose, but we’ve disproportionally given power to assessment to drive the entire endeavor of education.  It’s a tool, but testing well is just part, not the entire purpose and end goal of education – personal, social, and global well-being are.  For example, OECD is driving towards these broader outcomes with their Education 2030 plan; it focuses more on creating positive value and well-being for example.   UNESCO is also arguing for education being a critical part of building sustainable futures for everyone on the planet. If that’s the case, let’s figure out how we can build a better world together, using all of our tools, and not solely rely on narrow indicators.

Connie K. ChungConnie’s One Good Question:  Much of what we think is necessary for students to learn is already happening, just only in pockets and for certain students and not for others.  That said, I have a lot of questions! How do we rapidly make sure that all students are receiving and engaging in this kind of education? What roles could researchers, policy makers, teachers, parents, and social entrepreneurs all play in this?  Are there ways that we can all work together to achieve this for a larger population and wider range of student?  How do we collect and connect good people who are already doing this work to make it grow exponentially vs. linearly?

About Connie: Connie K. Chung is the associate director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a multi-institution collaborative that works with education institutions in eight countries. She conducts research about civic, global citizenship, and 21st century education. She is especially interested in how to build the capacities of organizations and people to work collaboratively toward providing a relevant, rigorous, meaningful education for all children that not only supports their individual growth but also the growth of their communities. She is the co-editor of the book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century: Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations (2016), a co-author of the curriculum resource, Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course (2016), and a contributor to a book about US education improvement efforts, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform (2011). A former high school English literature teacher, she was nominated by her students for various teaching awards. Connie received her BA, EdM, and EdD from Harvard University and her dissertation analyzed the individual and organizational factors that facilitated people from diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-economic class backgrounds to work together to build a better community.

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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