SA NC Doing Investigations/Chapter 8
Clusters, support networks and communities of practiceEdit
The ideal environment in which to bring about change, either system-wide curriculum change or more local efforts to change, say, to a more investigative approach to teaching and learning, is one where teacher support is freely available - when and where needed. Ideally the "when" is all the time and on demand. And ideally the "where" is in the place where educators encounter their problems and difficulties: the classroom. Giving support is not as simple as it sounds. For a start, the giver and receiver should be in a trusting, professional relationship. Secondly, the receiver must trust the support giver's knowledge and skills in that discipline. And thirdly the support giver must be an expert. The fact is that nowhere is the ideal commonplace. Givers and receivers of professional support seldom have the time to develop the perfect "mentor-mentee" relationship. There are never enough experts in school education as their skills are in high demand, making them very mobile. It seems to be the way of the organizational world that experts are promoted away from their areas of expertise as they are probably too competent in too many areas! And then there is the principal limitation: money and not enough of it. No government anywhere can afford the cost of quality support needed to effect major change in a very short time. Finally, we all have responsibilities and lives to live beyond our work and so the demands on people and their own time must be kept reasonable.
Now where does this leave us? Is enduring curriculum change a pipe dream? Well, actually, no. If teachers like our MSTotY finalists and many others like them are anything to go by, it is not. We, the willing, can change the curriculum and provide better science and mathematics to all South African learners. But it will take steady progress, creativity and energy to bring about any changes we desire. This chapter offers a few simple suggestions on one course of action. Quite simply, educators can't wait for "the department" to do everything for them. An answer is to develop educator-to-educator support networks. How to organize these depends so much on local circumstances that it is pointless to go into too much detail but here are some provisos for viable teacher support networks. We must start with teachers who:
- really want to improve themselves professionally;
- really want to receive support;
- are prepared to put in effort to improve themselves and each other;
- are really prepared to give to others as well as receive from them;
- live reasonably close together;
- are prepared to meet regularly;
- are prepared to try new things and ...
- are prepared to fail (at first) in their attempts to change without withdrawing.
With a group of like-minded professionals we can establish "communities of practice". In our context a community of practice is a group of educators who live and work in close proximity and who can meet regularly to offer practical and moral support; to share ideas and to recount successful teaching experiences. Together educators can analyze their failures and see them not as sources of embarrassment but as sources of really useful, professional knowledge. Building a community of practice takes time and patience but it is a basis for true professional development. Because a community of practice is teacher-driven it encourages a stronger commitment to professional development than official programmes that are attend reluctantly and infrequently. How does one start a professional growth and development group that will become a healthy community of practice? An approach is for a small, committed group to answer a few, key questions. The questions should be re-visited and possible answers re-negotiated as the group grows. The moral "buy-in" of all members is critical so it is important to give every member the chance to add his or her views to the debate. Here are some guidelines.
How to start?Edit
Who are you?Edit
Someone needs to take the initiative and put out invitations to local schools and teachers to get together. Once this has been done the ball will roll if there is a perceived need for such a grouping.
What do the group members need in general?=Edit
Ask this question and come to a consensus about a programme.
What do the group members need, specifically?Edit
Specific, curricular or teaching support. But be realistic. The group can't equip labs or supply computers!
Why do the group members need these things?Edit
Opens the discussion on group members' circumstances and gets a mutual appreciation of each others' problems.
Needs by phase / grade?Edit
Catalogue needs. This will help with the development of the group's programme. After the initial discussions, is there still a genuinely felt need for the group/network?
How to do it?Edit
Schools within close proximity; with similar needs; and with resources or expertise that they are willing to offer to / share with the whole group.
Optimum size: what can YOU handle?Edit
Don't be over-ambitious. Although there may be a great need to serve this group, you cannot do it alone.
What REAL official support is available?Edit
Survey this and find out from local education authorities.
Cooperating with official bodies and personnel.Edit
Make the co-operation with official bodies and persons a priority. Get their blessing and buy-in for the idea.
Sustaining professional development: communities of practice.Edit
When group members start seeing their efforts and participation as important to the survival of the group; and when the survival of the group becomes professionally important to the individual group members, you have a community of practice.
Limitations / problems / weaknesses / difficulties.Edit
Identify and acknowledge these. Then reduce or solve them.
Where are you?Edit
Know where group members teach and try to have all members visit the schools of all other members.
What to do?Edit
Plan programme content.Edit
Keep committee work to a minimum and make sure that the bulk of meeting time is spent on doing professional work Â and not talking about trivial, administrative matters.
Functions of committee members / portfolios.Edit
If a small committee is formed, make sure that each member has a portfolio and that there is general agreement in the whole group of roles and responsibilities.
Exam setting by cluster.Edit
This is a useful way to get the group collaborate and to address an important need.
How often to meet?Edit
Balance frequency versus efficiency.
Establishing a "communication triangle so that no-one has to contact more than two people:
Running successful workshops.Edit
The "workshop" has become a standard in development work, and for good reason. A good workshop involves more doing and less talking; an occasion where participants experiment, investigate, hear and share new ideas, and give themselves time to think of better approaches in an engaging atmosphere. Some key features of successful workshops are:
Workshop participants begin by selecting themselves, in that they should already have done something to show that they are passionate about improving maths, science and technology (MST) education in their schools or districts. Punctuality and attendance; responsiveness, participation and enthusiasm for MST; and the willingness to share their curricular and content insights are important. The group decides who is welcome and who is not.
Workshops must be intensive with total immersion in MST, the principles of OBE and activity-based teaching and learning. This also means workshops that are not too short or where people are arriving late and leaving early. Teacher participants who cannot cope with intense, hard work should not be part of the group in the first place.
At MST workshops, the presenters should try to model good MST education and OBE practice, from planning to presentation. Participants must be able to imbibe the spirit and application of good teaching and learning, the first principle of which is "maximum learner activity."
Less is more:Edit
Less focus on recallable answers (less "right answer-ism") and more focus on the processes of scientific and mathematical investigation, exploration, discovery and pattern-seeking. Less talking and more doing does not mean no time for critical discussion and reflection. It means a shift in emphasis from talk to action. OBE: The context of all MST work done is set by the spirit of OBE. But worry less about OBE terminology and OBE Policy and give more attention to elements of good MST education that promote OBE.
Technology Education is a wonderful means to integrate mathematics and science learning and gives both learning areas relevance. Emphasise mathematical, scientific and technological literacy. (The "literacies" get their meaning from an ability to apply MST knowledge to real life. Technological problems are solved by using science and mathematics in context.)
Place an emphasis on using waste and recycle-able materials and on improvisation. Any resource that enables learners to do hands-on work is important. Teachers cannot wait for such materials to be supplied and must work together to create them through ingenuity and improvisation.
Follow up and "Subject Advisors":Edit
A focus of the community of practice model is to develop "lead teachers" who give rather than take the lead in their own group's development. Ideally MST lead teachers should serve a wider, provincial commitment to MST- and HR Development but this is not essential. Subject advisors are ideally placed to take the "community's" lead teachers into a wider development process but again, this does not have to be a primary aim of the home-grown support and development network. Educators should see themselves as professional friends and mentors for the other members of their group. Where possible members should observe each other's teaching.
Keep a reflective journalEdit
- It is not a report of factual information but a record of personal insights and of expectations, perceptions and feelings about one's teaching activities.
- Journal entries should include observation, speculation, doubt, questioning, self-awareness, problem stating, problem solving, expressing sentiments and emotions, stating ideas regarding content and direction of one's teaching.
- What did you learn today that you can apply to your teaching in the future?
- What questions did today's lessons raise for you?
- What do you need to learn more about?
- Did you encounter anything today that was a complete surprise to you?