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You are the Theory & The Technology in Action

You are the Theory & The Technology in Action

Written by Ralph Cordova
December 04, 2011

How you ever wondered how thought communities like NWP sites start off as a group of individual and diverse people, who eventually transform in to ever-growing collective communities reshaping how we come to think of and enact teaching and learning?  We’ve wondered that, too, as a relatively new site of 4 years of existence. We have been carefully studying the ways in which we’ve been becoming a collective community with shared beliefs made up of individuals with diverse and often disparate backgrounds. This part-to-whole and individual-within-the-collective perspective originates within an ethnographic perspective; a human-centeredness that guides our work. It is a our orienting perspective that seeks to describe how we evolve over time, in and through our actions and interactions; how we both shape and are shaped by our community of practice.

The video above is a polyphonic composition and a prototype; it’s teachers at play enacting what we call an IIMP (Inquiry Into My Practice). It’s the first of its kind, the creation soundscape that is of that soundscape made by people at that place at that particular time. It interacts with a classical composition quite radical for its own time: Claude Monet’s Waterlillies. Through that experience, we lived what cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson beautifully articulated us to consider in Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way “Insight, I believe, refers to that depth of understanding that comes by setting experiences, yours and mine, familiar and exotic, new and old, side by side, learning by letting them speak to one another.” (Bateson, 1994 p. 14)

We invite you to think with us on some wonderings, observations and insights we’re reaching to articulate on the nature of networked learning communities, innovative and innovating cultures of learning. reading think together about what innovative and innovating learning partnerships in-and-out of school could look like; how literate practices and protocols are technologies we can harness in order to build to learn; and, why methodologizing creativity & innovation is not a bad thing. Stick with us, you just might change how you see the work of your site and what you are meant to do as an innovative learner, teacher and leader.

In his IIMP, Mike Murawski, CoLab member (2009) guides Piasa Bluffs Writing Project (PBWP) educators and Interchange Artist-Educators in a CoLab-designed experience in sound and movement based interdisciplinary conversations with the famed triptych, an event we lovingly called “Monet Monday,” which took place on a Monday evening October 24, 2011, just before the Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series. I acted as Mike’s Thinking Partner and we “workshopped” his IIMP to explore, envision and enact powerful learning with 50 educators at the Saint Louis Art Museum in late October 2011.

What’s the hubbub? How is this different from any activity that teachers embracing process pedagogy, or collaborative inquiry-focused endeavors, would find themselves in? It’s not too different from those, I suspect, since we learned these approaches with and from them, and innovated upon them; all typical NWP ways of networking. So, what is radically different is how we innovate, or “make new” that which is classical, tried and true by how we think and talk about why we do our work in particular ways. See, we embrace language; language that assists as tools for naming and harnessing our human aspirations. Naming and harnessing our queries, dreams and wonderings pushes us to enact them. And it is through action, that we create. And it is through this physical materialization of an experience, that we can then point to and name what happened. And because we engage in these processes collaboratively when we explore, envision and enact, we become a community of practice grown out of shared experiences and shared language-use. That’s what’s different. And we belief that the language we harness makes a difference.

If language makes such a big difference in how we experience, and subsequently engage in educational transformations, what difference does that difference make? A “what’s happening here?” inquiry-focused mindset might help us interact with and learn from that experience to unpack what we call ResponsiveDesign, our human-centered theory of action. For our site (PBWP), as we cross-collaborate with other NWP sites and non-school institutions such as the Saint Louis Art Museum, we embrace the collaborative vortex of unrelenting creativity and innovation to synergistically further articulate the larger community of practice we have in common: The CoLab . We’re a thinking and doing space, where we learn to make visible and transferable the seeming invisible and intangible aspects of our teaching practices.

At our core, is a belief in asking ourselves “what are we doing and what are we trying to build?” to the work we do individually and collectively. The attentiveness in that question is the undergirding element that gives life to three questions that are central to the practices, concepts enacted in those practices, and how our CoLab community enacts its powerful work:

  1. Whose knowledge counts and what do those knowledges look like across diverse cultural landscapes (in and out of school)?
  2. What role can an organic and human-centered view of “technology” play to help us confidently navigate and embrace these cultural landscapes as we interact with and learn from them as spaces for transformative learning?
  3. And how can creative-confidence help us re-establish a new relationship with failure as our new “F” word, the one had your mother thought like us, would have smiled each time you used it?

These questions are the roots of this curated discussion. And through articulating responses to them, we create routes to: coming to know more wisely why our work is human-centered; developing shared language beyond the how we do something to why and with what intended consequences we engage in our work.

What Does Learning Look Like, When and Where?

1. Whose knowledge counts and what do those knowledges look like across diverse cultural landscapes (in and out of school)?

Guiding our beliefs about learning is a social-constructionist perspective that reminds us that learning is a socially occurring phenomenon made, talked, acted, heard, felt and smelled into being in and through the actions and interactions between an individual and her own understandings, and, that individual within the collective, or community of practice, with which she shares membership. We believe that understanding, heeding and enacting theories of learning in our practice helps us test them out, and in doing so, we further articulate those theories, or ways of knowing and being, as they manifest themselves in our practice. This process brings a particular kind of physicality to those concepts, allowing them to become tangible, and, thus harnessable towards becoming a technology (or tool) to assist us in the next challenge. We’ve learned to harness, and, in doing so refine and situate theories of learning as continuously growing roots to our practices. The patterns that those roots reveal, and the impressions made upon us through their recurrent emergence, if noticed can service as recursive, Möbius strip-like, informational loops that help us intentionally create routes to to new discoveries. These ideas serve compasses and our approaches the rudders that assist our navigation of our understandings as we examine, name, theorize and disseminate views on what learning looks like.

In October 2011 Fellows April SaboLay, Bill Miller, Meredith Murray and Stephanie Sakran, all 7th grade teachers at Central Junior High enacted a response to a question they had been asking themselves: How can we make the museum a cultural landscape for in-school and out-of-school learning for your students? With support from their administration, the four and eight additional 7th grade teachers scheduled a day-long experience of professional development at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Teachers wanted to bring their school’s 200+ 7th graders to the museum so they too could experience learning in human-centered ways, the way they as teacher-learners had been doing in their CoLab work. The day was intentionally designed to guide the teachers to learn through experience and harness our ResponsiveDesign model to explore, envision & enact to make this seeming dry place into a rich space for interdisciplinary cultural learning. Ultimately teachers would harness ResponsiveDesign in order to co-develop learning experience for their students who would be visiting in mid November 2011.

We highlight one activity of the day, which we engaged in to exemplify another core principle of ours, to make visible the invisible (go to our blog site for an in-depth description of the that day’s experience). We believe we cannot take for granted what we know, nor pretend that how one person perceives is the same for everyone. Thus, we asked “what if we explored what learning looks like to scaffold for teachers a progressively growing articulation of learning? What would this manifestation help them see as individuals, and, as a collective to develop a shared view of learning and how it occurs and is supported? The video clip shows 1/2 of the teachers explore, envision and enact their individually-informed group representation of what learning looks like.

While the First Group enacted What Learning Looks Like, the other 1/2 participated as an audience to their representation. After the First Group performed, they then shifted their role from performer to take on an onlooker’s perspective by studying how their audience debriefed their performance. Mike and I wanted to find out what would happen if we further built upon the process of “making visible the invisible” as a theme for the entire day. We developed a protocol to ensure a three-part process of discovery:

1. The first part of the debrief included the audience/onlookers pointing to an observable action/act within the performance. The goal was to cite a particular part in a series carefully planned learning-to-look exercises. Observers used the language “I noticed _____” pointing to an act/action. The idea was to first first afford the onlookers with multiple experience to cite and name concrete, descriptive noticings of as many aspects of the performance.

2. Following the first round, we attempted a more complex task to conjecture what small parts of the performance might represent by using language “I think ________ represents _________”, and we explored some rounds of that.

3. Following was the third part of the protocol, which was to guide the audience/onlookers to begin practicing a more complex process to synthesize, by having listened to noticings, and, conjectures to attempt an insightful interpretation about teaching and learning using the language “I think for them learning means _________ because _________.”

This explicit protocol afforded the participants with an opportunity to try on an interpretive methodology, grounded in an ethnographic perspective, to describe, conjecture and draw conclusions informed from an emic (insider’s) and etic (outsider’s) perspective. This recursive loop that asked learners to play dual shifting roles of actors performing to an audience, and, the audience performing insights of learning to the actors. This practice of ‘making visible the invisible’ by pointing to something, using language to name it, and, then using the language as metaphor for meaning-making became a central part of this experience and subsequent experiences for that day, and, for the day when the 200+ seventh graders came to the museum.

Human-Centered Practices as Technologies

2. What role can an organic and human-centered view of “technology” play to help us confidently navigate and embrace these cultural landscapes as we interact with and learn from them as spaces for transformative learning?

At the core of how we think of our work is an understanding that NWP is a global community of practice made up of individual site cultures and their respective practices. As a network, we’ve come to understand that the cultural practices and what we call them are culturally invented, co-constructed, “borrowed,” and innovated upon within our respective sites as local communities of practice, and, across the larger NWP network as a global community of practice. A part-to-whole mutually-supporting relationship characterizes NWP’s existence. This perspective helps us see how NWP interacts with and learns from its individual sites, and, how individual sites learn from what NWP has learned. NWP and site practices, can be seen as literate cultural practices that are ways of knowing and being. They can also be seen as technologies. We grew into conceptualizing and understanding cultural practices as technologies through numerous experiences of noticing, naming, and, thus coming to know through multiple lived iterations of site cultural activities through our work in the Invitational Summer Institutes and site activities. We came to understand that we should view our site’s cultural practices (or any context’s practices) not as static, stand-alone things we do “because we’ve always done them.” Just like should we should not presume when someone says “I do Quick-Writes” that the image hearers have in their heads about what a Quick-Write is the same.

One technology that is central to what we do and our identity is language use. We use language to name the protocols and practices we use. And we use language to mean, or make meaning, with the protocols and practices we use in order to see them, understand their role and how to enact them, and, how to revise and innovate them. And these metaphors we “ visually steal,” as Mark Pagel would argue, from one community by watching and learning (think: ISI’s demonstrations, NWP Annual Meeting sessions, or a concept learned by reading a vignette here on DigitalIs) and we import them into our own communities where we learn to use, harness through countless hours of revisions and through that process innovate upon these cultural practices as tools. Thus, they become specialized technological tools.

Of course we are not the only site that uses language to mean. All NWP sites use words to communicate what they call their work, to describe the work they do, and how they approach their work. “Quick-Writes, found poems, writing response, 7-word memoir,” are among countless monikers we employ to represent something we learned from someone else (or invented ourselves), know how to do, and something we know how to make. Moreover, we recognize what those monikers are also metaphors we live by as an NWP community. Therefore, from a macro perspective, or “city-map view,” NWP can be seen as organism with characteristic macro patterns: nodes of multiple sites, connections among sites and relationships between diverse institutions. These patterns also reveal shared cultural practices around three kinds of interacting activities that that make NWP, well NWP: Invitational Summer Institutes, Continuity for Fellows, and Professional Development with schools. “ISI, Continuity, and Professional Development” are metaphors, or words that hold meanings, and that give shape and significance to our larger network. It is from this distanced perspective that we see can NWP as a network of diverse sites with shared principles and practices engaging in powerful collective effort to transform student learning in our nation’s schools by supporting teachers teaching teachers.

We believe that being able to see those macro-patterns and understanding them is critical to the success of a site in that they establish the “laws of physics,” for what constitutes being NWP and for what a particular site has the potential to become. The “DNA,” as it were, that can be revealed in those macro patterns have an interesting relationship, we think, with the work of individual sites, and, how and what sites become over time. It is only from a micro, or “city-street” view that we can begin to see people’s activities at that smaller level of resolution. We can begin to see how they orient themselves to NWP macro-patterns of practice, and, how they consciously organize, and, reorganize themselves in response to the particular local-and-global demands and their available resources. These patterns, if studied from a historical or chronological perspective, tell the story of how the site becomes an evolving micro-organism. From that point of view, we begin to see multiple individuals interacting with and learning from each other. We see activity of individuals shaping and reshaping, appropriating and innovating cultural practices, and, adapt and evolve mechanism ensuring their continual survival. We can begin to see the shifts in technology development that sites make, what contributes to them, and, more importantly how to understand and harness how innovations emerge within communities, and, how communities harness and innovate upon those innovations.

Learning to see learning is what our site does. And we began to seek ways to make visible the invisible ways we know what we know in order to make our multiple individual knowledges of practice and strategies we are experts in using nameable and thus tangible. We did this in order to examine, harness, borrow and adapt them as technologies to assist us to build a particular kind of community — one that embraces a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. More importantly, we began to study what we as participants do with the cultural practices, how we do it, what kinds of people we become over time with and through those cultural practices, and, just what are we building? With these questions on literate cultural practices astechnologies, we focused our attention on our ISI and the roles played by the “demo’s of practice” and “protocols and strategies” that to help professional learning occur.

Some of the ideas our Leadership Team draws upon are conceptual pieces out of What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelley where he articulates an important notion called “the Technium,” which is an overtime orchestration and articulation (since plants, animals and cells began evolving and co-existing, symbiotically making way for what we call life) of technologies that yield to the invention of later ones, leading to more and more sophisticated ones; all building upon each other. Some technologies die off, others thrive. We began to wonder where our community of practice’s technologies, or inventions were on Kelley’s scale below (see Figure 1). More importantly how were these approaches, technologies and belief systems being appropriated and innovated upon within our collective teacher-leadership? During a Leadership Team meeting last winter, 2011, we realized we’d reached the space between “Working Device” and prototype after prototype were successfully working our way into sustainable “Enabling Adoption.”

Table 1: Technology Adoption

It is a challenge to any institution and cultural group how to ensure that every member confidently and creatively harness and uses competently the tools and processes particular to its group. Related to that challenge is how to ensure the institution also learns from the innovations its members develop over time. This part-to-whole/whole-to-part phenomenon is observable in all we do, yet we believe from this level of knowing is yet another challenge of harnessing this phenomenon to create particular kinds of learning communities. That challenge persists, and ideas of scholars who have come before us point in particular ways to parallel challenges they too studied. In particular, we point to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which helps us understand the dynamic space between more experienced others, and, members with less experience working together to learn from each other. Specifically, we wanted to get our minds around the ways in which, and range of, how each of us was thinking about and using ResponsiveDesign as our theory of action.

During that meeting, our co-director, Ann Taylor, asked me what I thought of the word “technology” as it pertained how we discussed the literate cultural practices (processes and protocols we harness as NWP sites, or, particular practices to individual sites like ours). In particular, whenever we enacted a professional development experience with teachers or other clients, to conclude the day’s experience, we would prepare a resource sheet called “Principled Intentional Literate Actions (PILA) that listed the activities we engaged participants in during the professional development, and, the what “teachers teaching teachers say” about why use them. We had been calling these strategies and processes “literate practices,” when Ann’s question about “technology” suddenly made sense to us all.

That word resonated with us, and, for the first time it gave us a powerful insight for thinking about how our practices and protocols as technologies, and ways of harnessing and focusing human interaction are progenitors of today’s pervasive technologies, blogs, twitter or other social media technologies. From that perspective, then, we felt a great sense of agency and saw that language of technology is what was needed focus our next explorations, to bridge tried and true 20th century literate practices to 21st century digital literate practices, and innovate them in the process.

At the site level, all this led us to have had ongoing discussions internally, and externally with districts, schools and teachers where we pleaded, showed, and at various levels of success convinced many an educator that a ‘toolbox’ of myriad theoretically-sound and ‘research-based’ strategies are important, but once you’ve mastered how to use the screwdriver, bandsaw, pencil and operating system, can you successfully build a house for me? A customized house, even?

Insights grown out of frustrations like this led our Leadership Team to examine the purposes behind our practices; the why beneath the strategy; the how come undergirding the plan by focusing on a simple question: “If we socially construct experiences, what are we seeking to build with this particular strategy?” That’s when the word technology, or more aptly learning technology, came into existence. From a technology perspective, a Quick-Write, pen, iPad or website are simply tools. But tools to build what?

Creative-Confidence in ResponsiveDesign to embrace the “F” word (failure)

3. And how can creative-confidence help us re-establish a new relationship with failure as our new “F” word, the one had your mother thought like us, would have smiled each time you used it?

All of us are naturally creative and imaginative, just harken back to a much earlier you: yourself with siblings or peers at play. Those mudpies were bonafide loaves of bread, or that stick you carried was indeed the lance that would slay the evil dragon. We learned to play and played to learn. The serious work of play, even Nietzsche knew was critical to our existence when he wrote: “the struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of the child at play.” And just as we learned to walk and talk through numerous approximations, each approximation was a a mini-failure as we failed forward to competently walk and talk the way our fellow native members of our community of practice walked and talked. We develop expertise by falling and babbling our way to competency. The standards of our community, however, is what we gravitate towards as the social mores and cultural ways of knowing and being. So, that something that we strive towards better be damned good and worth the numerous hours it takes us to get there.

Presently in schools, we see the consequences of NCLB’s slowly evolving ‘train-wreck’ on our students and their teachers’ ways of thinking and doing. The complexity and highly nuanced thing we call life, and the ways to experience it, as practiced in students’ years of schooling are relegated to measurable outcomes that privilege more narrowly determined “correct answers” and ways of knowing. We’re not exaggerating this characterization, because we work with hundreds of teachers and administrators who willingly admit they feel stuck, generally uncreative and want to do something “outside the box.” So wait, the reality is every one of these adults we work with once played was once a baker crafting lovely loaves from fresh mud, or, a serious drummer banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. So something’s happened, because they weren’t born that way. Simply put, is what we’re presently doing in schools worth it for you and your students? Is the 12 years of compulsory education imbued with rich and ever-evolving k-12 opportunities for students to “pop out” the other side as creatively confident literate citizens?

Like what writing as process does for us in that not only does our writing unfold through constant attention to it, it also takes us to un-predetermined places, and we too grow and evolve in our understandings of self and others with that very process. We do not just write for writing’s sake but we write to find out. The process of building to learn led us to articulate the theory of action, or name the methodology, that best characterizes our sites process of meaning-making, or its logic of inquiry. We call it ResponsiveDesign as it parallels how we think about writing: as humans we build to learn, and, learn to build. At the center of our work is a belief we have about ourselves: we’re makers, doers and by nature creators and prototypers of things.

ResponsiveDesign is not new. It’s only a name for a process to explain how innovations emerge through series of failures, each responding to particular local demands, eventually making way to viable prototypes that will work. The fields of design or architecture are communities that prototype, build models at small resolutions of scale and test them. Teachers, too, are natural prototypers. Albeit we fall on a continuum of ‘safe prototypers’ doing what we’ve always done, to, wild radical prototypers constantly shifting and innovating upon our teaching practices day to day, month to month, year to year because we know we’re building to learn when we follow our inner muse that asks “what if, I…?”

What is new, however, is that we’ve named a methodology. And we’ve built it to learn about learning, teaching, professional development, and, how to harness learning technologies to collaboratively construct learning communities orbiting around creativity, problem-solving and seeking and innovation.

In the professional development work we do with ourselves in our classrooms with students, with each other collaboratively, or with schools and districts, we use language to name experiences, and, thus those experiences are tangible. We harness ResponsiveDesign to make visible the invisible aspects of practice. When teachers seek to create more highly engaged classrooms, rather than telling them what they look like or what to do, we engage them to experience and harness ResponsiveDesign to learn about each other’s professional needs. They explore their wishes and failures in order to develop local empathy towards each other’s professional reality. They learn to envision and ideate multiple radical possibilities and to do so must defer judgment of what won’t work, towards the potential of the “what if?” Then they must enact their plans, at low scales of resolution, to test them out, thus they build to learn.

By placing them in the “driver’s seat” with us, their Leadership Team, co-piloting, we come to jointly construct a community of teacher learners, prototypers and developers of rich learning experiences. They learn to move beyond the mere “cool strategy of the month” to creating a “powerful and innovative” learning space and processes where all students want to belong and where they thrive. They move beyond “I can’t do this because the standards…” to “I can do anything, and the standards are simply concepts and I am the professional, an architect of learning experiences guided by those principles.”

In this clip, two first-grade teachers use ResponsiveDesign to meet their particular challenges: how to build new spaces for radically creative and innovating writing-to-learn experiences for their students using their existing reading basal series?

We work with teachers so they learn to rediscover the creative spirit within them, the one they were attuned with that drew many of them into our profession. ResponsiveDesign is an approach, our theory of action.

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