It is common for organizations and businesses to create a “Vision Statement” that represents the direction or umbrella beliefs they feel capture the essence of what they are aiming to achieve. Although typically these statements are brief, concise and succinct, they are often the most challenging to create and build consensus for due to this innate quality of brevity.
This is why I am very proud of the effort and energy our Urbandale team devoted when developing the Urbandale vision: “Urbandale will be a school district that brings learning to life for everyone.” A representative committee worked last year from January to May sharing our beliefs, collaborating on ideas and ultimately delivering a vision that we all feel we contributed to and sincerely support. We wanted our vision statement to not only represent our beliefs about education, but we also felt it was imperative that it serve as a guide for navigating our way toward revolutionizing learning and transforming education in our district.
As former students, current learners, educators, leaders and parents, we know that every student learns a bit differently. Customizing the way we instruct and teach to better support learning aptitudes for all students is paramount in bringing learning to life for everyone. Many of us can remember our school days and the classes we enjoyed most, and least, and much of that can be attributed to how engaged we felt during class time. If we had a teacher that could capture our attention during even the dullest of subjects, then we tend to remember the teacher and the subjects fondly. Developing learner-centered classroom environments is what bringing learning to life for everyone is all about.
But, how do we, in practical terms, “bring learning to life?” It’s a wonderful vision, but not if we cannot actually achieve it through concrete action. As a district, we have begun the process of answering this question and it is both complex and simple at the same time. Simply stated, we create an environment where learning, more than anything else, is central. Please notice I did not say “teaching” is central, but rather “learning” is central. Learning is a natural process for us as human beings. We want to create an environment that taps into that natural inclination for learning, rather than one that over time results in diminished joy in learning for students.
Motivation is a key factor to consider, with autonomy, mastery and purpose being at its very heart. As a sixth grade teacher in a different local district many years ago, one day following a math lesson a student by the name of Julie raised her hand and asked, “Mr. Stilwell, when am I ever going to need this?” My response was made with utter confidence in its wisdom. “Julie, you will need to know this when you get older and your real life begins.” Following this most wise response Julie’s hand shot up again. Unfortunately when she said “But Mr. Stilwell, this is my real life, right now,” I knew she caught me, for I had no self-satisfying retort and realized the truth in what she was saying. The “teaching” I was doing, did not provide much opportunity for autonomy or purpose. In short, there was no real meaning in it for students.
Our task in Urbandale is to continue to find ways to make learning more meaningful and relevant for our students – to “bring it to life” for them. One way we might begin doing so is by asking the students what they think. This may seem to be an odd idea, particularly given the fact that the least asked group of people about education is our students. However, by seeking input from this “well of knowledge” we may well find the answers to making learning more interesting, relevant, and even fun.
We now have teachers doing just that; seeking input from our students for improvement ideas, and what wisdom they have to share. We have teachers whose use of technology unleashes student learning. There are many wonderful examples of teachers becoming “facilitators of learning” by creating systems of learning in their classrooms that give students greater ownership and voice in their learning. We have found time and time again, how capable students can be if we create the proper environment and structure and then “get out of their way” as we guide them in their learning.
Teachers as facilitators may sound as though there are less demands on our students. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Several of our teachers use the phrase, “get an A or get busy” and establish systems in their rooms where mediocrity is no longer acceptable. Giving a student a grade, whatever it may be, and then moving on is no longer the norm in these rooms. The expectation is that students will learn and master the learning at high levels and I’ll be darned if that’s not exactly what’s happening. Students are working harder, learning more, and are gaining the necessary attitude and skills to become lifelong learners.
What I’ve described here is about accomplishing our vision to bring learning to life. Learning can be joyful when it is purposeful, allows students to reach mastery, and provides autonomy within a set of parameters. This is the vision about which I am so passionate; this is the transformation we seek in Urbandale.