More Questions Than Answers

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I used to believe that professional development meant finding answers. That as an educator, I was meant to attend professional development conferences to gather ideas, however the more professional development I attend, the more I realize that for me, it’s about the questions, not the answers.

This weekend I am attending Innovate West, a conference that gathers networks of innovative educators from across western Canada and the US hosted by the Connect Charter School.  I was introduced to Innovate West last year on Twitter and was amazed by the learning that was happening and so made it my mission to attend this year. Now, not only am I attending, but I am honoured to also be facilitating a session.

Today was a whirlwind of activity that has left me full of questions. Questions that I do not have answers for yet. Questions that I know will fuel my passion for education and guide me in growing my teaching for the betterment of my students. Questions that are swirling in my mind with no intention of going away until I find a way to answer them.

The day started with a student-guided hands-on tour of the active learning happening at the Connect Charter School. We were able to walk into classrooms to not only witness learning but to engage with students and learn directly from them. I met with an incredible group of  sixth grade students who were programming an educational video game using Scratch based on Ancient Athens in Social Studies. They had divided themselves into working collaborative groups with each member contributing to the project based on their own personal skills and passions. There was a programmer, story boarder, music composer, story writer, artist and leader. This was incredibly powerful to watch as each student owned his role and because it was centred around their individual strengths, the group dynamic produced an equal and distributed sharing of knowledge. This was when the first of my questions began:

  • What if we were able to tap into each student’s individual strengths and highlight them in such a way so that everyone succeeds, learns and grows?
  • How can we combine student passions and interests with current curriculum in fun, innovative and engaging ways but also ensuring it is relevant to skills they require in the real world?
  • If this can be created in this way in Humanities, how can this be implemented for other subjects?

We continued on with our tour and entered a grade four classroom. I was immediately drawn to the large four-table-long display of what looked like plaster. The amazing student I spoke to explained that they were studying Canada’s ecology layer and building a model of it using a combination of drywall compound, flour, toilet paper and water. They had researched the layer and elevations using the ArcGIS program and were moulding and sculpting it by hand to present it at city hall later this month. More questions:

  • How can we make abstract concepts more concrete in such a way so that students connect to them?
  • How can we collaboratively create something that benefits our community and grows our learning at the same time?

Our tour then took us to what is called the Collaboratorium which is a room for thinking, sharing, reflection and learning. I am a huge advocate for alternative learning spaces which allow students to be comfortable in an environment conducive to their learning needs. My favourite part of this room is that it had Idea Paint or whiteboard paint on the walls so students were free to reflect. Even more questions:

  • Why aren’t all classrooms “Collaboratoriums”?
  • What are the ways in which I can assist my students to create a culture of collaboration and reflection in our classroom?
  • Is our room set-up conducive and reflective of this?

The day led to evening where we had the opportunity to learn from three amazing keynote speakers: Michelle Baldwin, Joshua Hill and Brad Ovenell-Carter. Following their presentations, I was left feeling inspired and hopeful for the amazing learning and opportunities our students can have, but once again I was also left with questions:

  • If curiosity is what drives students to learn, how can we foster their natural desire to question and allow those questions to guide their learning?
  • Is our learning environment one where struggle is not only ok, but a growing and learning opportunity?
  • Do we provide enough time for our students to truly reflect on what they have learned and more importantly what they think they need to learn more of?
  • Are our students cognizant of how they learn best? How can we provide them with these skills?
  • How can we provide our students with more opportunities to experience learning first hand rather than reading about someone else’s experiences?
  • “What if we let our students do work that they care about and want to create because of it’s potential contribution and effect on the world?” – a question from Will Richardson used in Joshua Hill’s presentation.
  • Are we as educators reaching out to our students to find out how effective we have been in teaching them things they can’t find online?
  • We can teach our students to curate information they find, but are we teaching them how to create it? Are we providing them with the tools to be contributors and creators of knowledge instead of just consumers?

As the evening ended, I’ve realized that these questions have been building within me for the past year as I grow in my teaching and being in this learning environment today just propelled them to the forefront of my mind and practice. These are my guiding questions.

Professional development isn’t about finding answers, but about learning to find the questions from which you will grow.

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