Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Brute Thing to Organic Learning: Time to Unplug Professional Development?

We won’t learn a great deal of new material. My hope is for you to become more perceptive of every day school matters many of us take for granted but that can change our schools and the world for the better. A professor used this sentiment as the opening of one of my school leadership courses. I sometimes feel like that after spending time putting together a blog post like this one which doesn't feel especially earth shattering.
In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe cite a timeless John Dewey quote from How We Think *:

To grasp the meanings of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or function, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to. In contrast, what we have the called the brute thing, the thing without meaning to us, is something whose relations are not grasped...The relation of means-consequences is the center and heart of all understanding (pp. 137, 146) (p. 38)

Dewey's timelessness really shines in this quote. "The brute thing", which I bolded in the text, is a beautiful descriptor of how technology can be viewed in education even for those who use it. I've juxtaposed brute with organic since brute's definitions range from inhumane to crude to irrational. Organic for me anyway connotes something that is grown from within and the only word I could really come up with. In this case, technology need/adoption/selection is grown from within the need to use it.

This all comes as I reflect at this past year's success with professional development and take a look at next year's professional development within my school.

The Brute Thing Approach

Description: We provide training “Day 1” on technology tools (the brute things). You name it we show it, model it, and let teachers play with it. “Day 2” training is typically in the classroom environment. That’s when the onus is placed on teachers to make the “relations” between the technology and student learning often without immediate assistance or any connections to student learning. The classroom, as we teachers know, is a pretty isolated environment. (As a sidebar, the diagram mentions Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) here as a awesome tool to use to help make connections and further reduce the isolation.)

Organic Learning Approach

Description: In this model (please click for a larger version), the technologies are grown out of quite simply student learning. No matter what your beliefs, values, convictions, or politics of education, I think we can agree that schools are about learning. Shouldn't our training and conversations about technology be centered around this singular facet or at least someone connect to it? In fact, curriculum, instruction/pedagogy, standards, assessment, community, leadership, culture, vision, student voice are all about learning. As such, tools and subsequently our training models should grow from learning.

Hardly a novel concept, I know, but one that seems to be at the crux at technology adoption, change, providing better opportunities for our students and ultimately improving our schools. As an example of teacher technology adoption, please see my post about Teachers Beliefs of Technology. And I've discovered other research since then that supports these themes.

The core mission of our schools and education haven't changed: learning. I think the fuzziness comes from the fact that learning itself is changing. What needs to be learned and how we learn are changing. Since technology (as a whole) is one of those drivers behind that change, the technology itself become the focus of learning sometimes at the detriment the core mission of learning in our schools. Yes, tools in and of themselves need to be taught but I think a greater connection needs to be made.

That's what I love about standards: state standards, 21st century standards, and ISTE's NETS. When all is said and done, standards are at least one constant that we can keep us grounded in learning. And even more, I'm becoming more and more indifferent to the high-stakes testing environment (I'm not saying it's perfect and can't be improved). Why? Because tests are about the standards and standards aren't that much of an obstacle to new learning and new skills that must be learned. Why can't we achieve standards about main characters, plot, setting using blogs, wikis, Twitter, Second Life, or any other tool and still have learning and understanding that is deep, reflective, collaborative, and meaningful to students and yet meet standards?

In the realm of professional development, a learning approach just may make "The Brute Thing" and make it more meaningful with greater sustainability and resonance. When was the last time we held a professional development series on just student learning and all of the new great research available on student learning? Is it time to unplug our professional development offerings at least a little bit?


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

*Interestingly, the quote referenced in UbD is from Dewey's 1933 edition of How to Think. I wasn't able to find it in the 1910 edition which I own.

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