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What do we mean by reform?

Written by Christina Cantrill
February 13, 2014

Supporting the development of alternative visions for schooling, and teaching, and engaging in collective capacity building for this work, is a key piece of what I have been thinking about in my work with teachers at the National Writing Project. Triggered, I believe, by a commitment to supporting students in developing and using their “voice”, writing project teachers have been, for awhile now, at the forefront of tinkering and learning from their students within the context of emerging networked technologies and digital media (Because Digital Writing Matters). This work overtime, originally thought of as technology “integration” soon began to be interrogated as more fundamental to a shifting social landscape and a key provocation in thinking about literacy, learning and teaching. From here, we started to argue that “digital is” the way that we write, learn, publish and share today, and we have drawn ourselves into inquiry around this idea and and what it means for learning, and therefore teaching (see for more). From that, and our shared work with researchers and scholars of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Literacy Initiative, we now refer to this work as “connected learning,” more holistically embracing literacy’s social, networked and participatory elements. (see

To embrace a vision of connected learning is likely going to require that we all continue to rapidly and continually learn and change in the field of learning. Linda Darling Hammond also speaks to the need for entirely new mission for schools today:

Today’s expectations that school will enable all students, rather than just a small minority, to learn challenging skills to high levels creates an entirely new mission for schools. …  Major changes in school organizations and the systems in which they sit are needed to accomplish this. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic school created at the turn of the 20th century was not organized to meet these needs for intellectual development or for individual responsiveness. Most of today’s school were designed when the goal of education was not to educate all students well but to batch process a great many efficiently, selecting and supporting only a few for “thinking work.” (236-237)

Connected learning’s agenda is a response to three broad trends reshaping the landscape of learning in the U.S. and other countries in the Global North additionally include: broken pathways from education to opportunity; a growing learning divide; and a commercialized and fragmented media ecology.

Connected learning recognizes a tension between current approaches to education
and the world that youth will inherit. … In a world of global interconnection and rapid change, effective learning is lifelong and integrated into the real world of work, civic engagement, and social participation. We can’t expect young people to be able to “bank” knowledge and skills from school and apply them to a stable world of work later in life. Instead, we need an approach to educational reform that recognizes learning as an ongoing process, connected to a diverse and evolving ecosystem of learning resources, institutions, communities, and outcomes (Connected Learning agenda authors attribute to Freire, 1970; pg 14).

Andi Perez, in this Public School Notebook interview, responding to a critique that often teachers seem to be protecting the status quo against a need to change, emphasizes that groups like Youth United for Change (YUC) and Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) are also looking to reform education.

I don’t think that [because we’re] saying, ‘don’t close schools’ that you can make the argument  that we’re protecting the status quo – especially when we’re saying, ‘Don’t close schools – do this. An alternate, research-proven reform.’

The alternative reform she mentioned is a Community Education Plan put forward by PCAPS, itself a coalition comprised of students, parents and teachers. In this plan they write:

When it comes to building great schools, there are no magic elixirs or shortcuts. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to do it. In fact, we do know how to improve schools and achieve educational excellence. We know that real school improvements require sound strategies, targeted investments, and diligent and sustained efforts over time. They involve creating schools where young people feel safe, valued and cared for; where teachers are well- trained and well-supported; where students are engaged and have their developmental needs met. (23)

Similarly Linda Darling-Hammond’s policies for quality and equality clearly outline a vision for what is possible based on what we know has worked and primarily building on what others have already figured out how to do. Although, at the same time, she explicitly acknowledges that we have more to learn to shift from a bureaucratic school model into something that more resembles a learning institution or organization.

[21st century institutions or organizations] aim to stimulate greater thoughtfulness and creativity rather than focusing largely on enforcing compliance. Their success, then, depends on the creation of new opportunities for teacher and school learning, new modes of accountability, and new kinds of incentives for continual improvement and problem solving. (238)

Connected learning then potentially offers a set of design and learning principles for such institutions and organizations dedicated to learning since the principles grow out of research about the ways that youth in rich and networked learning environments are learning and then asking questions about how to create and activate such ecosystems for all youth, not just those who have access to connected opportunities (whether through family, school, etc.). This research too I believe is also backed up by the way that we at the National Writing Project see adults also learn — well established in literature about networked communities of practice (Lieberman and Wood; McDonald, Buchanan and Sterling; Stokes and St. John).

At its heart, in order to create learning institutions then, teachers must also be learners themselves within communities of peers. Much of what is challenging though is that teaching is a complex profession and nuanced undertaking but is currently often organized in schools where teachers work with groups of youth in relative isolation. Also being a learner sometimes requires you to let go of what you already know in order to come to know new things, but what you know is often deeply held and tactic and stakes in everyday teaching are high, especially in fraught environments like Philadelphia, so one’s ability to do this is very compromised. Unlearning to learn can really only happen in supportive communities with other learners who are also teachers (McDonald. Buchanan, Sterling). As one teacher responded in a survey about teacher networking that I distributed:

It’s valuable to me to network with other educators to get ideas and to be around people who have similar struggles. I feel like teaching is omnipresent throughout my days and I am always thinking about my teaching. People in other professions do not always think about their work so it’s important to me to be around like minded individuals.