Personalized Learning Opinion

Navigating the Murky Waters of Educational Change

By Contributing Blogger — June 21, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Adriana Martinez, the Interim Director of Operations for the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

As a native of a country that brings the Pacific and Atlantic oceans together, I’m constantly drawn to the sea. As a child I would run head first into the water and get knocked down by merciless, crashing waves. I would get scraped, get sand everywhere, sometimes I’d get stung by jellyfish, and I’d jump back in over and over again until my parents would drag me out. Years later, I now take my niece and little brother to the beach every time I visit home. They spend their time on the shore jumping waves like I did many years ago. Now, however, I prefer to swim farther out where I can feel the tide pull, the waves well up and rise, and gently sweep past me as they make their way to the shore where they break and crash. Little by little, I try to teach my niece and little brother about the tides and how to work with them when swimming in the formidable sea. They rise, they fall, they pull, push, and they change constantly and gradually. Depending on where you are, they may break you, gently sweep over you, or quietly pull you deep into the open water. Just as the beach changes drastically within a few hours as the tide rises, in Panama you can see how our coastlines have changed over the years. Our world is changing and it may seem gradual, even normal. But even in the span of a few years, I’ve seen childhood beaches disappear and islands quietly submerge underwater all the while we’re scrambling to adjust to new coasts and new boundaries.

I reflect on this childhood experience as I continue in my professional work in education to learn about our successes and failures. As we try to ride the tides of change in education, how can we learn from our experiences? Some of us who work in education may feel change is constant, with new initiatives and programs popping up daily, while others feel too many classrooms still look like the classrooms from a century ago. Even though the change may seem gradual, the tide in education is indeed shifting our coastlines. What does a changing tide look like in education? To me, it’s much like the pacific beaches where we go swimming--it’s murky, fluid, and requires unabated persistence.

I often struggle with finding clarity in my professional work with CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network (ILN) as we attempt to transform our public education systems. This network of twelve states is dedicated to a vision of public education that is student-centered, provides learners flexible pathways, and prepares them with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to thrive in college, career, and life. The challenge our states face is similar to the one that I face with my little brother: we want to go into the water that is calmer but feels less safe. The beaches we frequent are not crystal clear because waves in the Pacific constantly stir up the sand and makes the water murky. Likewise, when we talk about innovation in education, we deal with factors stir up the sand and create “murkiness.”

One factor I’ve observed is the lack of understanding of what innovation in education looks like and what it means for students. Part of the challenge is the language we use. For example, it’s not always clear what we mean by “student-centered learning.” As these ideas gain more traction, various organizations--non-profits, vendors, funders, state education agencies, school districts--use a growing number of terms with similar descriptors and varying definitions. We not only have “student-centered learning,” there’s also “competency-based education,” “personalized learning,” and many more. This lack of clarity is daunting to parents and policymakers alike because it makes it difficult to understand the implications of these ideas for kids. When there is a lack of understanding, innovation in education seems like an unsafe risk.

We can manage murkiness by building understanding through experiences and dialogue. I learned to let go of my discomfort in the water through experience, just as every year, my brother is more and more comfortable venturing a little farther into the ocean. For education, this means going to places where student-centered learning is in action to experience it, and building from that experience to enable and support that work for kids throughout our systems. Because experiencing “deep waters” is important, the ILN strives to incorporate activities such as school visits into our programs (to learn more, visit our blogs here and here). By talking to local innovators and education practitioners, state leaders can walk away with a list of potential next steps they try and adapt to their context and communities. The most important part is making sure that along every step, education leaders pause to reflect and learn from what is working, what isn’t, and make adjustments.

Education is also fluid, which means we can’t treat education as a “fixed entity.” Those who work tirelessly to innovate in education must work against opposing forces: the rapid onslaught of change and the stubbornness of institutions that were not designed to be agile or flexible. For example, innovation in education means we must reconcile two forces: the push towards flexible pathways that don’t group students in age-based cohorts and the pull of accountability systems that depend on age-based cohorts to evaluate the quality and success of schools. The implications of fluidity for our work means that we must constantly monitor the currents and revisit the work we do in education. We can’t treat the actions and policies that states take as a solution, rather a hypothesis to be tested, iterated, and expanded upon based on what we learn from implementation. As a state works to enact policy, it should test the waters and learn from each step.

California has received attention for the development of its new accountability system, but a leader from the California Department of Education explained to our ILN colleagues that he doesn’t view their accountability system as a solution. He described that their new accountability system serves as an initial first step to be tested, iterated, and improved. California’s public education system also needs to explore and invest in other areas--they need to support the whole child and they need to develop a networked structure to support continuous improvement across schools and LEAs.

Like our friends and colleagues across the country, the ILN is braving new waters and evolving to better support states to go into deep, murky water with bravery and knowledge. Over the next few months, the ILN is building its knowledge and use of a “learning agenda” to help our states navigate in murky, fluid waters. A learning agenda refers to a broad set of questions directly related to the work of an organization that, when answered, enables the organization to do work more effectively and efficiently. Establishing a learning agenda requires that we develop a plan to answer both long-term and short-term questions and it calls for active stakeholder engagement, collaboration, and flexibility. This concept resonates with the ILN because doesn’t call for education leaders to adjust to change, but instead to learn from change in order to make better decisions that result in improved outcomes for students. For the ILN, this means our work will attempt to:

  • Identify key questions we must explore through our network,
  • Make sense of the knowledge we gain through our collective exploration, and
  • Build from our learning to distill recommendations for state action and policy

This seems most relevant now as the momentum behind promising practices such as competency-based education and personalized learning continues to grow and change the boundaries of education. The ILN also hopes that a learning agenda will help us uncover solutions to old, persistent challenges such as inequity challenges and new ones such as increased interconnectedness which has been brought on by globalization. As we work to change what teaching and learning looks like, it’s imperative that we learn from our journey so that we can prepare our kids for a drastically changing world.

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