Creating ‘Catalysts’ for Change
Special Needs and 21st Century Teaching and Learning
When: February 22-25, 2012
Where: American International School of Johannesburg
Facilitator: Laura Malbogat – Educational Consultant
Take 25 participants from diverse World IBO schools, create an environment and space to purposefully encourage and support creativity, innovation and collaboration and what you can have – is – magic. This is what emerged during the three-day workshop; the room became a space filled with positive energy, flow, humour and laughter.
I had the pleasure of leading this three day workshop for AISA, at the American International School of Johannesburg, a school I had previously worked for a number of years, as their Director of Student Services and College Advisor. Having led numerous workshops for IB, AISA and ECIS, I’ve learnt the importance of what may, at first glance appear contradictory – to develop the organization and structure of the workshop to closely reflect the description of the workshop, while at the same time, remain flexible and open during the workshop to accommodate the more immediate and evolving needs of the participants. It is this combination of structure and intuition that makes the difference. Following a few simple strategies can successfully do this:
- Contact the participants prior to the workshop and initiate dialogue and connection between and amongst participants and the workshop leader.
- Check in frequently during the workshop, keep a pulse on how everyone is doing, and if necessary, make changes.
- Pay close attention to the questions and comments shared by participants during the workshop and shift, either the content or process, if needed.
Contacting participants and inviting their responses to a few specific questions prior to finalizing the details of the workshop facilitates deeper understanding of the participants’ needs and begins the important process of collaboration amongst them. In this workshop, participants responded to four open-ended questions, shared on a google document. This created the opportunity for participants to view and share responses to such questions as, ‘Fast forward to the end of the workshop and share what skills, strategies, and tools do you hope to take away with you? Or, provide a description of a ‘case study’ from your school that outlines a dilemma or academic challenge a student or a group of students face, that you would like to gain a deeper understanding and, very importantly, leave with some solutions. By setting up a shared google doc, participants begin to connect with people they do not yet know – but will.
Collaboration is a key 21st century skill, modeling this behavior throughout the three day workshop was a primary goal. Flexibility is another skills we need to develop in our students and, consequently, in our teachers. It begins with leader flexibility, being open to changing the workshop to respond to the evolving needs of participants, the unplanned technology glitches, and /or the flow of the workshop as it unfolds. Risk and chance leads to change. How often do teachers participate in a workshop that encourages risk taking in a safe, supportive forum? One example was to encourage a participant to practice her leadership skills, she did so by leading her group in a session and sharing the results with the whole group.
Many 21st century teaching and learning principles focus on the skills, behaviors, and attitudes needed: it is essential that our teachers are provided with opportunities and training to risk, create and innovate.
The group of participants came not only from diverse countries but also represented the range of IB Programs: PYP, MYP and DP. When working on the case studies, or addressing a specific challenge raised, we worked collaboratively and collectively across programs. Too often teachers only meet in their respective teams or departments despite knowing that diversity brings different perspectives, understandings and solutions. We learn not just from those who teach similar grades or subjects but also by engaging in discussions and problem solving with a wider, more inclusive group. Some questions posed to the group included:
- Are LSS/SEN teachers typically included in IB or PYP Coordinator meetings?
- Should we be ‘equal’ in assigning duties and preps when it comes to SEN/LSS teachers? What is best use of an SEN teacher’s expertise and time? Is equal – fair?
- How can we practice ‘differentiated scheduling and work loads’ to more effectively model differentiation and meet the diverse needs of students?
Teaching our students to ask critical, higher order thinking questions is essential for 21st century learning. Too often, we miss the significant potential questions have in learning. If we can engage our students in asking critical, thoughtful questions, we can instill a lifelong curiosity for learning. In general, teachers ask too many questions and too often, the same students reply. How can we differentiate the questions we ask, and ultimately, how we involve more students to engage in higher order thinking? We spent a number of the workshop hours working with Bloom’s Taxonomy and Critical Thinking; reading, researching and applying what was learnt.
You may wonder how a workshop leader can meet diverse participant needs, abilities and interests? One strategy is to step off the stage and become, instead, a facilitator for learning. Modeling a differentiated learning approach during the three-day workshop reflected one of the workshop goals. One example implemented was to set up stations, in this case, based on the participants’ interests, needs and prior knowledge acquired from a quick pre- assessment and survey done on day two of the workshop. What became clear was following:
- A few participants new to Special Needs (even though they were experienced IB educators wanted to learn the ‘basics about learning disabilities’
- A second group wanted to learn the basics about differentiation
- A third group was interested in extending their knowledge about differentiated instruction
- A fourth group wanted to learn strategies to support and influence regular classroom teachers who were reluctant or struggled with how to implement differentiated instruction.
Participants chose the station that reflected their needs. As a workshop leader, my focus on 21st century skills was to ‘facilitate’ their learning, modeling my role as ‘guide on the side’ instead of ‘sage on the stage’.
Perhaps one strategy, more than any other became a highlight; the ‘gift sharing’ that took place during random times became a favorite moment, both for the participants and myself. As workshop leader, I wanted to reinforce the power of collective knowledge, where participants shared, for example, a strategy, tool, or program. By the last day, participants were volunteering even more strategies and resources; eventually this resulted in setting up a google doc/wiki site to continue the learning, sharing and dialogue following the workshop. What better way to end a workshop – than to set it up as just, the beginning.