Friday, March 11, 2016

Reflections on a #techquity Design Day

In my work in the Aurora Public Schools Educational Technology (Ed Tech) Department, we’ve formed a research practice partnership with the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) and two interested schools in order to explore the connections between what we’re learning about equity and what we’re learning about educational technology.

The two participating schools are engaged by our district as both "Equity Focus Schools" and "Ed Tech Focus Schools," so they have dual commitments to professional learning that might feel disparate for teachers and school leaders. In an effort to better connect these two concepts, we’re co-designing professional learning opportunities to test in the months of March and April. In this semester-long research partnership with Dr. Remi Holden from UCD, we will study the professional learning of the school leaders, teacher cohorts and the Ed Tech instructional coaches.

Recently, the APS Ed Tech team led a full day of professional learning with the goal of designing ways to advance #techquity in two schools. Teams from those schools consisting of teachers, school leaders, and instructional coaches wrote inquiry questions to serve as design opportunities. With those opportunities drafted on blank sheets of paper, revised with Sharpies, and taped to the walls, our school teams became "clients" for visiting designers- a mix of central office support folks and interested educator guests- who rapidly designed inquiry projects which they pitched to their clients. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, we hoped to surface fresh viewpoints and encourage innovation, all in an effort to take action toward more equitable teaching and learning. Dr. Holden and I got to facilitate what was a dynamic day of collaboration marked with laughter and inspiration that surfaced some innovative possibilities for the schools.

In this post, I'll aim to share the positives that emerged, some important feedback, and a best guess about how this work might manifest into shifts in practice.

Promising practice number 1: creating asset maps

We asked the school teams to create asset maps of the ongoing work at their schools. The maps identified people, tools, networks, and projects, surfacing potential connections and intersections that might help them. They had an immediate positive reaction to this activity because they were called on to identify strengths. One participant explained that it was a departure from typical professional learning where she is asked to identify gaps or problems in order to fix what isn't working. Focusing on assets set a positive tone for the day.

This asset map exemplifies how schools identified positive work and potential connections.

Promising practice number 2: reviewing "empathy" interview transcripts 

To help them draft inquiry questions, we gave each school three short transcript excerpts selected from interviews and focus group conversations we had with them. We identified for them remarks that we thought showed their interest in tackling issues of inequity, or highlighted a promising practice that led to more equitable teaching and learning. Looking at these transcript snapshots prompted the teams to make connections between their teaching and their authentic interest in experimenting in their schools.

Promising practice number 3: playing with designer's habits

To encourage a designer's mindset about the work, the school teams played an improvisation game that required them to build on each other's ideas and embrace ambiguity. They also worked in pairs to build with Legos in an activity where they had to look at an animal built according to perfect Lego specifications and then take a jumble of mismatched bricks and create something new and innovative based on the models. During both of these activities the room filled with laughter as the teams joked and negotiated, chatted and played. Throughout the day when I heard groups settling in to deep discussion or debate, I reminded them of how the playful activities set positive, action-oriented norms for our work.
A Vine video of participants practicing their design habits of mind


The feedback we gathered from participants affirmed that the design-centered professional learning structure worked for most participants. Asked what worked for them about the day, they said:
Processing time; discussion time ; actually participating in the design process; the concept of ideation
It was fascinating to think outside the box about issues/problems around technology and walk away with a tangible product. 
The scaffolding in order to reach questions that we need to answer as a school and what we hold to be important as a staff for our students. I also liked the designers and the ideas they gave and trying to figure out more specific uses within the building. 
These comments informed our team's reflection and will influence how we plan our support of schools moving forward. One comment in the feedback got me reflecting on the larger goals of the project. Asked what we could improve about the professional learning, someone wrote:
a clear focus on equity
This struck me as a powerful and fair comment; It was fair because we had emphasized the design process and collaboration. We chose to surface equity conversations by selecting transcript data where participants had raised issues of equity. It was powerful because I wouldn't want participants to feel that we'd skirted the equity issue in favor of fun-filled design work. Moving forward in this project, I want to always make explicit connections between our project and the equity work our schools are doing.

How will we notice techquity?

The schools we work with have been learning about more equitable approaches to teaching and learning at the same time our central office staff has. Dr. Yemi Stembridge from NYU's Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools leads the learning for our district. He works with support teams in a workshop setting and pushes us to make what we learn about culturally responsive education and equity actionable in our support of schools. When he works in schools, he supports lesson design and leads instructional rounds, just to name a couple of ways his support takes shape in buildings.

Since equity learning looks different at the central office than it does in schools, our techquity work provides an opportunity to for central office and school staff to collaborate and determine what we will change in teaching and learning to achieve equity. What I take away from a workshop is different than what a teacher takes away from classroom level coaching and support. With that discrepancy and opportunity in mind, it will be important to share our thinking about the changes we will make as a result of the techquity project. By sharing my ideas, I hope to prompt the reflection and response of other stakeholders who are sure to offer a different and more complete vantage point.

Changes we might see

Our big themes of culturally responsive education are relationships, cultural identity, vulnerability, asset-focused factors, rigor and engagement. As this techquity project moves forward and the educator teams increasingly connect equity learning with ed tech planning, I expect to see our work change in the following ways:

From creating rules and consequences about the use of digital tools to identifying ways these tools support relationship building and lead to more student engagement. 

From direct instruction about how to use software to contextualized learning about how digital tools help us explore cultural identity. 

From celebration of digital tools and their potential to active discovery of learners' assets and a concerted effort to build on their potential.

Inquiry we might conduct

In addition to referring regularly to themes of culturally responsive education, Dr. Stembridge has asked our central office support teams to think about our work in schools using the Consortium on Chicago School Research's Five Essential Supports for School Improvement

While this framework as a whole is useful as a lens for reflecting on school support, I'm particularly drawn to support number 5, ambitious instruction. The authors basically identify ambitious instruction as work that provides intellectual challenge while also building basic skills. According to the report, the more common- and inequitable- occurrence in Chicago's inner city schools is that teachers and leaders tend to focus on basic skill instruction and "rarely get to more ambitious tasks." After looking back at the report, I see how students endlessly working on tasks with low cognitive demand in order to develop basic skills is an inequitable situation. What is less apparent is what ambitious instruction would look like.

 Looking back at the inquiry questions that developed on our design day, they suggest potential for us to refine in our own contexts what ambitious instruction looks like as we move forward with this work. Here are three of my favorites:

How can we create a process that allows students to record oral stories and then requires them to make revisions through more traditional writing practices?  
How can we create a technology leadership class of students who can strategically help close the technology skill gaps for all students? 
How do we move students from a game/play state of mind to a creative state of mind (problem-solving)?
These are just a sampling of the questions that reflect teachers' interests when they're prompted to think about techquity. The ambitions of the school teams come through in these questions and speak to the potential for teacher learning, learning for our ed tech support team, and an opportunity to positively impact the learning environments we create for students in our schools. The challenge for our school teams and our ed tech team moving forward is to take our interests and inspiration and enact some of the changes we've begun to envision.

1 comment:

  1. Great visuals and useful information ... thanks.