Optimising The Learning Of An Organization – The Learning Sciences As A Guide

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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

We had an interesting exercise for today’s class – take a paper by Davis, Sumara and D’Amour (2012) on how three school divisions in Alberta administered their resources from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) project, and read it up against a paper we had studied earlier by Sawyer (2009) about Optimising Learning and the implications of what has come from the Learning Sciences. Seemed simple enough, but it lead to some interesting dialogue in our groups and with our class.

To use what we learned from Sawyer’s paper, we had to look at the three school divisions (which were kept anonymous by the authors) as learners themselves. Davis, Sumara and D’Amour speak in their paper about how they used the work of complexity science to study these divisions:

Informed by complexity science, in this article we work from a different perspective, arguing that any evolving system that maintains its coherence through time by responding and adapting in manners consistent with its own history can be properly construed as a learner.

Well this had my head spinning a bit, but further on in the paper they helped the reader understand a little better:

Complexity science is itself an example of what it studies: an emergent phenomenon in which similar but nonetheless diverse elements coalesce into a coherent, discernible unity that cannot be reduced to the sum of its constituents.

And furthermore providing a scope of complexity science for the paper and their research on the topic:

As educators and educational researchers, we find a particular resonance with the notion that a complex system is a learning system (see Davis et al. 2008), and this “definition” figures prominently in this writing.

So now to think of these three divisions as learners, we could apply what we learned from the Sawyer article on learning to these divisions as we would to a student, a classroom or a school. I have to admit, I was kind of excited by this exercise at this point, and I’ll talk more about why later.

So looking at the way these three divisions developed their AISI projects and the structures they set up in the management of the projects, we were able to apply a couple principles of Sawyer’s article to them.

Customized Learning

Sawyer (2009) suggests in his paper that the learning that takes place for a “learner” benefits from it being meaningful to them.

Learning sciences research suggests that more effective learning will occur if each learner receives a customized learning experience.

This gave us a scope to reflect from in looking at how each division handled AISI. One division honoured the need for customization in the way they allowed projects to be developed in schools that were customized for that building, while others kept the development centralized at the division level.

Diverse Knowledge Sources

Sawyer points to how the Learning Sciences research  talks about diverse sources of knowledge and not simply the teacher delivering knowledge. When looking at this example, the “teacher” would be the people providing the training for the AISI project such as division staff or an AISI lead.

Learners will acquire knowledge from diverse sources: of course, expert support from the teacher can facilitate these learning processes, but the teacher’s involvement will not be one of transmitting knowledge.

I thought of this speaking to the potential connections between teachers, and between schools as they worked on similar AISI projects. The connections with other teachers/schools would facilitate further learning by adding another source of knowledge. When it came to the three school divisions, fostering this culture of sharing and opening up networks for this sharing to occur wasn’t always present.

This exercise was a good one for me, because as a school administrator I live in two worlds, my school and then the division as a whole. We often talk about how we want things to change divisionally, and this exercise helped with my thinking when it comes to this topic. The first way it changed my thinking was in the way Davis, Sumara and D’Amour talked about just how difficult it was to study a school division:

Further, these rules can be volatile, subject to change as the system changes. Such precariousness arises from the fact the “components” of the complex system are themselves dynamic and adaptive.

We talk about how we want things to change and we are sometimes pretty dismissive when things don’t move quickly enough for us. When you consider this quote, and this paper, you realize that there is a reason why changing a system as complex as a school division is difficult, there are so many components that are evolving and changing. When I apply this to an even larger system, such as a provincial system of education, it helps me to temper my impatience.

The second way this exercise helped my thinking was in this idea of the division as a learner. Its not an easy idea to get your head around, but once you get there it opens up a whole world of possibilities in how we work from a division perspective. We can apply the Learning Sciences to the division the way we would a classroom of students, as we did in this exercise. We can reflect on the practices of the division that may be improving or impeding its learning. We can even try to apply strategies to ensure that the division is maximizing its learning, again guided by research.

This opens the door to many conversations, and in my studies, another scope to reflect from when I consider theories and research as it applies to learners – the ones in my school and the larger collective learner I am a part of.

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