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Teachers as designers @westminsteratl while making learning visible

October 19, 2017

At Westminster School in Atlanta, GA, teachers are learning together, taking risks in the service of their students, and creating classroom environments where the learning is being made visible.  Heather Widness, a first grade teacher, received a curriculum development grant this past summer to redesign her classroom.  In the process of redesigning the space, using some Reggio Emilia inspiring thinking, she came upon the work of Project Zero and Visible Learners.  Having originally come from St. Anne’s School in Atlanta, which is designed around a Reggio Emilia philosophy, Heather was comfortable integrating these ideas into her planning.  In addition, she taught for a number of years in Westminster’s pre-1st program, which was redesigned a few years back to integrate Reggio Emilia inspiring ideas into classroom and program design.

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Heather and her colleagues, two cohorts composed of eight teachers, are in the throes of Project Zero’s, Making Learning Visible, a semester online course that exposes them to the theories and practices of “making learning visible.”   As part of the course, there are readings, discussions, and projects that focus on learning and integrating visible learning techniques into classroom design and instruction.  On the classroom’s “learning wall,” Heather is using a technique of sharing student learning with photos and student quotes that illustrate student mastery of learning targets.  For example, there is one young girl that as a result of her mastery and making learning visible has been recognized by her classmates as an expert in odd and even numbers.  She is now the go-to student consultant when another student needs support understanding these critical math learning targets.

What I find fascinating about the work of Heather and her colleagues is that they are engaged in ongoing, job-embedded learning!  They are taking risks as learners, shaping their understanding of key pedagogical techniques, integrating them into their classroom practice, and discussing ways to use these techniques to support students in Westminster’s Lower School.  These teachers see themselves as generating new knowledge and applications, rather than just delivering content through standard practices.  These are likely to be exciting places for students to grow as learners.

In education, teachers need to see themselves as designers, rather than implementors of curricula.  In the most recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Danah Henriksen and Carmen Richardson, wrote an interesting article, Teachers as Designers: Addressing Problems of Practice in Education.   While their article addresses the use of design thinking as a process for retooling teaching and learning environments, they touch on the larger issue of teachers as designers.  They write:

We’ve found that, initially, most teachers think of themselves as “doers” and “implementors,” not designers of solutions or experiences.

They go on to share some comments of teachers with whom they have worked:

Many of our teachers noted how, through the process of using design to address classroom and school issues, they began to see themselves as creative individuals who had tools to enact change in their context.

I love the way this is expressed.  As I spoke with Heather about her work in first grade, I could see that she thought of herself as a designer of the teaching and learning experience.  Her creative energies are being put to use in the service of her students.

Note:  The Center for Teaching sponsors teachers at Westminster School and Drew Charter School to apply for curriculum development grants during the year and the summer.  These grants are designed to support teachers as designers of teaching and learning.  We support individual teachers, as well as teacher teams, with grants ranging from $1,000 to $7,000.  Generally, individuals are awarded $1,000 grants and teams can be awarded grants up to $7,000 depending on the number of team members and the scope of work.  In 2016-2017, we supported grants totaling $103,000 for Westminster and Drew Charter teachers.  We had around 90 teachers involved in designing new experiences for their students.

 

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