These days, in addition to coaching administrators and helping with school redesign, I also do a lot of direct work with teachers, supporting them in designing inquiry learning experiences for teams, individual classrooms and beyond. Portfolio tasks and PBL are a part of the bigger picture of inquiry learning but I like to take it a bit further, helping schools move purposefully from a “culture of teaching” to a more authentic and engaging “culture of learning”, within which students fuel their own intellectual activities. To do well at this, I spend a lot of time exploring how to help adults engage in meaningful learning, similar to the kinds of challenges they will present to students. We’ve known for years that the highest performing organizations have the highest degree of adult learning.
For some time now I’ve been influenced strongly by the power of visual learning and visual literacy. Among those influences are Thomas West, a big thinker and writer on visualization, graphic design educator Kristina Lamour Sansone of Lesley University, my ERC colleague Katrina Kennett, a superb lesson/project designer and teacher developer, and a host of cognitive and neuro-scientists who are proving with brain-imaging technologies that seeing usually beats listening and text for learning. Although I thought I understood the field pretty well, and had the pleasure of writing an article on visual literacy for Phi Delta Kappan, (Connecting the Dots”, November 2008), I’m always finding new examples of the power of making things visible.
Something I’ve been working on of late is a process to help schools make the huge leap from teachers working in private practice to being part of small teams, where it’s critical to make their planning and teaching visible. It’s something I call a Learning Mural. Learning Murals are in no way an invention for which I can claim credit. Similar processes and products have been around for years under different names- curriculum diagrams, mind maps, brainstorm webs, and more. What feels novel is the way we’re using them, and two aspects seem to be particularly helpful about the process. One is the power of colleagues being able to actively participate in a fellow teacher’s thought process, and, two, that the plans they generate are a departure from the kind of canned or scripted lessons that have overtaken our field over the past years. Teachers have been remarkably enthusiastic, standing up in front of their teams, sharing their excitement, asking big questions, making connections, and imagining possibilities. Two schools that have begun to embrace Learning Murals this summer –the STEAM-Ahead Academy at Manchester NH’s West High School and Providence RI’s Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School have already begun to make serious strides.
When asked for feedback, what teachers key in on is that Learning Murals are dynamic –“living documents”, as we call them- and exceedingly multi-purpose. They include three key aspects of good planning-- brainstorming, organizing and incubating, all in a lively, focused setting. The last of the three –incubating- results from the fact that other teachers and students have an ongoing opportunity to add to and alter it, posing resources, activities and possibilities that will help enrich student and teacher learning in ways that traditional solo, written lesson planning seldom approach.
Alvarez HS Principal Zawadi Hawkins-Gladstone is ecstatic about the potential for the murals to provide documentation of evolving teacher work and concrete starting places between meeting times, with phone cameras and software applications making it easy to capture and share the murals as they morph. She has endorsed the creation of Learning Murals as a key planning tool across all grade levels this academic year. Already the school’s teacher planning rooms sport a host of murals from different content areas.
Something I’ve added to the Learning Mural with great success is a simple, flexible protocol that helps the presenter further maximize her/his unveiling of a plan for a unit, lesson or activity. The facilitated protocol provides 5-8 minutes for the teacher to share the mural (see photos), another 5-8 minutes during which colleagues can act as students (what would excite me, if I were studying this topic or trying to learn this skill?) or as teaching colleagues (how could I connect to/piggyback on this? What am I doing that’s related or complementary?), reacting to what’s been presented, and a final 3-5 minutes on suggestions to make the Mural more compelling, powerful or understandable. The protocol can be facilitated by another faculty member and, in some cases, a helper uses a marker to add thoughts and ideas, draw connecting arrows or points of emphasis so that the presenter can focus on listening and using her/his visual powers to track changes on the mural.
At Alvarez HS, teachers are already planning for students to attempt their own Learning Murals to organize a project they choose, as well as for second and third opportunities during Team Planning for teachers to incubate their learning design ideas as the work grows and changes with real live students. At Manchester West, STEAM staff members have agreed to adopt Learning Murals as a “road map”, a way to explain to students where their course work will take them, hoping to engender student ideas up front, and to post them so that students can track the flow of activities.
Again, nothing here is brand new, but the timing seems right. Learning Murals are an effective way to offer schools and teacher teams a safe yet provocative way to pursue higher quality planning, enrich a team’s collective and collaborative understanding of its intellectual endeavors, capture the fruits of that work, and above all, invite students to experience deeper engagement and learning through the power of visual learning.
For more on Learning Murals contact: Larry@educationresourcesconsortium.org