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Valleys and Mountaintops

Written on July 16th, 2014

(Originally publisSpencer Gorgehed on OCSAA’s online journal The Rudder—-revised here in my blog with their permission)

One of my favourite hiking locations is the Spencer Gorge in Dundas, between Tew’s Falls and Webster’s Falls. There is an amazing trail that takes you from the top of Tew’s Falls, to the cliff lookout in the distance of my photo, and back through the valley to the bottom of Webster’s Falls. It’s a glorious walk of both valley and vista.

Summertime provides all of us in education with a needed opportunity to reflect on our work from the year past and ponder our commitments for the year ahead, leading and serving the children in our schools with our best effort and best learning designs. As you move further into that summer phase, let me offer you three broad areas with which to reflect on your past and future participation in learning in your communities—the way that you and your colleagues continue to grow and learn as you also create learning for children in your school communities.

1. How do we continuously keep ourselves open to “hearing the story” that God reveals to us through Scripture, through each other and creation, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst?

The Biblical narrative is the core of our distinct identity as a school movement. For me, staff devotions, honest conversations with close family, friends, and colleagues, reading C.S. Lewis with my children, walking in the woods, trusted “prophets” like N.T. Wright, Mike Goheen, Andy Crouch, Jamie Smith, and so many others all shape my own identity as I find it in this mysterious grand story of the universe. Ren Siebenga has said that good leaders invite others to follow the story, not themselves as leaders. I think this is exactly right.

And my prayer for all of us is that following the story comes with potent moments of joy in addition to the moments of suffering that we also know so well. I pray that our experience of the story is powerful enough to make meaning even out of suffering, and by doing so also allow us to experience unspeakable joy. We use vocabulary like shalom, culture-making, image-bearing, covenant, kingdom; and Christ’s coming is concretely realised in Kingdom metaphors of feasting, vineyards, gardens, glorious cities, still waters… We want tastes and sights (spiritual fruit!) of his presence here and now; we want it to be tangibly experienced as we gather together: camping with friends, eating with our families, singing in church and school, coming together in June graduation ceremonies and August staff retreats. How do we personally and communally “hear the story?” Is this language that we use understandable to your entire staff? How do we ensure that this language is invitational/inclusive and not indoctrinating/exclusive? Perhaps our conferences can help: this coming fall, both the CSC Conference with Jamie Smith in BC and the Edifide conference with the theme “Entering the Story” will invite us to deepen our identity in God’s narrating of the entire universe.

2. How do we “design learning experiences” that are rooted in where we see the story taking us?

All of us want “the story” to shape what happens in our schools. In addition to the vocabulary I mention above, we have mission and vision statements that use phrases like “Christ-centred learning” or “academic excellence” or “service in God’s world.” But how do these phrases shape the concrete “habits and habitats” of our learning communities, as Ken Robinson asks? Intentional commitment to certain over-arching Design Principles for education can drive the habits and habitats that we commit to. Here are a few that I appreciate:

  • Cultural Participation: Education is for cultural participation: In order to make culture, we must immerse ourselves in culture with the right postures: critically evaluating and cultivating the cultural gifts history has given us and creating new culture that is inspired by a vision for flourishing. Dynamic learning is rooted in real world cultural contexts. If you’re looking for reading in this commitment, I highly recommend Culture Making by Andy Crouch.
  • Learner Personalization: Education honours the image-bearing God-presence within each learner. Typical structures within education often force students and teachers into “one size fits all” experiences that dis-empower their own God given diverse gifts and voices. We need to personalize educational experiences for learners. Parker Palmer explores this as an epistemological commitment in his book To Know as We are KnownHigh Tech High in San Diego, California, names it as one of their four design principles. (See the link below).
  • Inter-Generational Collaborations: Both the young and the old are impacted through inter-generational interaction. We expect this interaction to offer learning for all—it is not only a mentorship for the young. All voices have the power to shape the learning of individuals and communities. These adult/children interactions are not only limited to those within the school community.
  • Inter-Institutional Collaborations: The school will actively seek partnerships outside of its own immediate institutional life—including families, businesses, churches, civic and government organizations, non-profits, other schools, institutions both local and beyond, in both face to face and digital connections, as cultural partners for learning. The Fall 2013 issue of Comment Magazine explores this design principle in culture more generally. The Learning Futures programme offers an amazing perspective of schools as “base-camps” for learning (see the link below).
  • Learning Cycles: Learning occurs in generative phases: projects and units provide the means by which a group of learners can focus on a specific task through phases of creation, critique, revision, and presentation of a product in that task. Learning also occurs in reflective phases: after a generative phase learners need opportunities to reflect on what has happened and what should happen next. Each learner’s creative, critical, collaborative, and communicative faculties should be honoured and challenged in these cycles.

I hope these stimulate your thinking for your own school’s design commitments. Let me offer you some links to other design principles from specific schools and systems to

continue that conversation. Some of these designs create a visual resonance with their designs so that it can be more memorable and more deeply understood. What do you think? Which of these resonate with you? How do they compare with your own school’s design principles?

[caption id=”attachment_4886” align=”alignright” width=”300”]The Learning Futures programme represents their design for schools visually The Learning Futures programme represents their design for schools visually[/caption]

A number of different but inter-related learning designs are being intentionally pursued in Ontario (and Canadian) Christian schools—Differentiated Instruction, Project Based Learning, Understanding by Design, Teaching for Transformation, All Kinds of Minds—as pedagogical design structures that shape the organization of learning and

curriculum. These various learning designs (and professional learning agendas) must be evaluated through the lens of a school’s committed design principles and rooted in a community’s desire to respond to “hearing the story.” A school that prioritizes cultural participation (a story of culture makers!) might prioritize project based learning (or, if you’re reading this in Alberta—Teaching for Transformation and “formational learning experiences”) as a design for learning. (Are you a member of eCurriculum? Join the pbl conversation on eCurriculum here, and see our first project upload here.)  A school that stresses learner personalization (a story of unique and relational image-bearers!) might start with differentiation as a design commitment. (Again, join the DI conversation on eCurriculum here and see our first DI lesson upload here.) These design principles are not just rationalizations. If they are going to shape our “habits and habitats,” they will first shape our desires and imaginations—our Christian school “social imaginary” as Jamie Smith highlights from the work of Charles Taylor. And these design commitments are not exclusive or competitive, of course. We can integrate authentic projects (PBL) and differentiation strategies into one learning cycle. Indeed, I think we must! But our design commitments will shape our learning conversations at the local, provincial, and national levels in schools of all systems.

3. How do we “live the learning” in a way that concretely realizes both our story and our design commitments?

A learning design is not an experience until it is lived! And it is through the doing and living of learning experiences that we understand more deeply how learning occurs and how we can continue to intentionally shape learning experiences for more learning. Educators need a means to share not only their learning designs but also the story of that design as lived experience. And the story of lived experience will most often be powerfully told through samp2014-05-29 14.22.00les and images—photographs and video of the cultural artifacts that we all produce—whether we’re principals, teachers, students, or in another position. These artifacts math patiomight be an actual product, like this patio made by a 4C math class at HDCH, or an event, like a class exhibition of presentations (like HDCH hosted in the school and on the completed patio). I love celebrations of learning because they celebrate the value of the artifacts that a school is producing for learning. What artifacts reveal how we’ve been trying to live our learning? How does the lived learning actualize our learning designs (and our desires and imaginations!), which are in turn rooted in our biblical narrative identity?

These three areas—hearing, designing, and living—have become important to me through conversations with my colleague Chris van Donkelaar.  We have been applying these three broad areas in both our face-to-face work with schools and in the structure of our digital communal space—eCurriculum. Above, I mention that learning is cyclical—it goes through generative and reflective phases.We have committed to both generative production and reflection as we “hear,” “design,” and “live.”

As you move further into your summer, I hope you can reflect on the year past with a sense of honesty and peace. Some of us have had very difficult years; others of us will feel like the year was perhaps our best yet. Much of this perception will be shaped by both our professional and personal lives. I have been blessed by many of you letting me into those stories of success and struggle. Regardless of whether you find yourself looking back or forward on a mountaintop or in a valley this summer, I pray that you can rest secure in the love of the Prince of Peace  who draws you into his story. Speaking of stories, valleys, and mountain tops: although my children and I are only just finishing The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (Aslan is just being bound to the Stone Table) I can’t wait to get to The Last Battle, where we get to hear Jewel the Unicorn laugh and say

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!