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Getting the Learning Right

Part I in a series describing the Common Ground Collaborative’s Learning Ecosystem
By Kevin Bartlett
Getting the Learning Right

To create a great school, before you can establish your other systems, you need to get the learning right. Obvious, really. Schools are in the learning business, so it should be easy to get learning organized. The one thing our profession should have mastered is the core work of providing all students with a learning experience that supports them as they progress through an appropriate plan, with sequenced goals at the right level of challenge, leading to their own, personalized success. How hard can it be to create a substantive, sufficient learning continuum, with clear learning standards embedded in relevant, engaging learning modules that tackle significant, life-worthy content?
Pretty hard, it turns out. Anyone who has served on an accreditation team visiting an international school will confirm that there is one recommendation that can be written before leaving home, regardless of destination. Something along the lines of: “The school should improve the vertical and horizontal articulation of the curriculum.” It’s time to recognize and address this stubborn weakness at the very heart of our work as educators.
Bringing simplicity and system to the learning business
To tackle this fundamental flaw, we need to think about the cause, and we need to understand the nature of schools. In brief, they are complex—officially, in fact, the most complex organizations on the planet, along with hospitals. That makes sense: schools and hospitals are high-stakes organizations, dense with people, shaping lives, saving lives.
Until we tackle the accretion of complexity that mires our schools, we will never achieve the great learning to which we aspire. The Common Ground Collaborative (CGC) has set out to bring simplicity to this complexity, to bring system to the disconnected silos that constitute the thing we call “school.”
We have done so through going back to zero, and re-imagining learning from scratch. As such we have created a new way of thinking about learning, one that enables us to see a clear way forward. We have created a complete, coherent Learning Ecosystem that, interestingly for the readers of this publication, is “program agnostic,” using concepts, questions, and responses that are fundamental and universal. So, whatever your context or aspirations, we believe this thinking may serve you well.
Getting learning organized
Organization begins with a key question: What is learning and how do we do it?
We began at base zero because we were struck by the oddest of anomalies. Despite dealing with learning as our core work, we could not find a single school that shared, throughout its community, a common simple definition of learning. I’m not referring to the feel-good, woolly language that litters our schools, with its references to “life-long learners” and “21st-century this, that, and the other.” I’m talking about a clear, coherent, concrete definition that describes precisely how people learn, so that we can teach that way. A definition that provides a common “learning language” to be shared by all learning stakeholders. Schools are cultures. Cultures share a language. Simple.
Our commitment to this task, to defining learning in useful ways, led the CGC to identify three kinds of learning: Conceptual, Competency, and Character. These forces are constantly interacting in what we like to describe as a “triple helix” model, making up the DNA of a Learning Ecosystem.
Our work on Defining Learning goes farther. It includes working with school communities to develop a simple, learning-focused Mission. Critically, it also involves the development of a set of Learning Principles, shared “truths” that bring order to the school system, while allowing for a high degree of personal freedom. We are convinced that great schools are framed by shared principles, not constrained by complicated rules and regulations.
In summary: Learning Mission, Learning Principles, Learning Definitions = Learning Defined.
Look for Part II in this series in TIE’s December issue.

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