Stephanie Burroughs, Ed.D.

Curriculum Leader, K-12 Education

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A reflection on #BLC16: Building Learning Communities

On Wednesday, July 20th, I began my three day journey through #BLC16: Building Learning Communities.

The conference was a few days at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston with a wide range of presenters. Topics included Neuroscience and Mindfulness and also Edtech and Pedagogy. Although this was my first time at the conference, there were very many attendees that had been attending for the past six years. 

As I finally let the dust settle in my brain from an energizing conference on learning, I am compelled to summarize what I've taken away and what it means for the future of education and, selfishly, the future of Mathematics education. In many ways the conference was a fantastic blend between research in how we learn and practical solutions for improving learning in schools. Overall, my three takeaways were:

  1. Focus on the learning, not the technology
  2. Student Centered Learning is far more than just group work
  3. If Computer Science Across the Curriculum, then why not Mathematics Across the Curriculum? 

Focus on the Learning, not the Technology

This should not be difficult to digest, but it is. We are all in a constant race to keep up with the pace of technology and expose our teachers to every application and every acronym possible. I love technology and I love that my students have so much at their finger tips, but it's not about the technology, it's about the learning. 

Technology is not learning. Having your students use an online graphing calculator or submit their work electronically does not necessarily translate to deeper learning. Having your students listen to a presentation or watch a video online does not necessarily translate to deeper learning. We have to be able to swallow that integrating technology effectively does not mean swapping out tangible resources for digital ones. 

I like using the phrase "blended learning environment" because I do not want my teachers to believe that technology should replace everything they've done before. I want my teachers to leverage technology when it makes sense to leverage technology. I want them to walk away from the lecture model and allow opportunities for student discovery and discussion. Technology can support this, but without a focus on the structure and nature of the assignment, technology can also impede this. 

So what's the answer? Design assignments that support 21st century learning. If there's a technology tool that you believe would support this, use it; if there's not, don't. But know that nothing about preparing our students for the workforce requires an ability to listen to a high-tech lecture. Students must be engaged in their learning, own their learning, and communicate and collaborate with the world to deepen their understanding of concepts and solve real-world problems. Technology has unlocked the world and allowed opportunities for students to collaborate in ways we could only dream of. Let's use technology with this in mind. 

Student Centered Learning is more than just group work

Research has shown that when students have a voice, they are more engaged in the learning process. Wouldn't you be more engaged in something if you were a part of the conversation? 

I think that when we try to envision student-centered learning, our brains immediately create a visual of students working in groups at the center of the classroom and the teacher navigating those groups. Student Centered Learning is not about group work, it is about ownership and engagement. I look at Student Centered Learning as an opportunity to create a conversation in my classroom where students are driving the discussion, asking questions, and supporting each other. I look at it as an opportunity to provide timely feedback through the discussion of ideas, not the grading of assignments.

In other times, I think we believe that student-centered means a loss of control in the pacing and delivery of content. We of course want our students to be inspired by our content, making connections, and applying their understanding to challenging problems. We want our students to discuss concepts with each other, ask questions, and challenge the thinking of their peers. We want students to demonstrate their understanding in creative ways, making our content make sense for their benefit. The struggle is giving up control. We have a curriculum to get through, standardized tests to prepare them for, and letting go of the routine and pace of the classroom strikes fear in teachers because they might not tell their students everything they need to know. 

Teachers need permission to take the leap, assurance that student-centered approaches support deeper learning, and proof that it worked. As administrators, we need to create the structure that makes this possible.  As policy makers, we need to recognize that 21st century learning might not be able to be measured in a standardized assessment and that's ok. 

If Computer Science across the Curriculum, then why not Mathematics across the Curriculum?

If you've happened upon new technology standards in recent months, you may have noticed a greater emphasis on computer programming than in previous versions. The reality is that the ability to program is quickly becoming the equivalent of the ability to word process. As education bodies, we must get ahead of the curve and support our students to be literate in programming language. 

I could not be more excited about this revelation, since the basics of programming language are so deeply routed in the basics of algebraic language. There are clear connections between processes, algorithms, and patterns in computer programming and the foundations of algebraic thought. I view the integration of computer programming as an opportunity to support literacy in Mathematics as well and reinforce the relevance of Mathematics in today's world.

For me, the data movement and the computer programming movement both highlight the need to rethink how we teach Mathematics. We structure mathematics as though it is something to be memorized, allowing only the 'gifted' mathematics students to dig deeper with proof and problem solving. This system could not be more detrimental to the future successes of our students. We have to approach Mathematics in the same way that we are now preparing to approach Computer Science. Mathematics is its own language and our students have to become literate in Mathematics in order to contribute new ideas to the world. 

I see a future where interpreting graphs and statistics are a critical component to understanding History. I see a future where writing a story on your interpretation of data is a critical unit within English Language Arts. And I see a future in Mathematics education where we are less focused on memorizing processes and more focused on the discussion of problems, leveraging the language of Mathematics to explain and describe the world around us. 

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