Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.
I have a fascination with structures. Whether these are the physical structures of cityscapes, the formal systems in organizations or the informal structures hidden in organizations, how they are created, used, morph, disappear and replaced, intrigues me. The structures, in schools and districts, are the patterns and frameworks through which innovation and system change move. There is the visible and the invisible—each part playing a powerful role in system transformation. In the work we do, it is the structures that can give us opportunities for change, coherence, meaning and, ultimately, reorganization. Never underestimate the power of an intentional, strategic and well-designed structure to transform the learning environment.
At the start of this past summer I travelled to Philadelphia. The city has a unique backdrop of historical and contemporary significance. It has deep roots with one of the oldest original settlements together with the home of Benjamin Franklin in juxtaposition with contemporary skyscrapers such as the Comcast building. Wikipedia described it citizens in the early twentieth century as “dull and contented with its lack of change”, but the city, and the people, as demonstrated at the International Society of Technology Education (ISTE) Conference, has been transformed into one of the top 10 US cities to visit and a hub of 21st century learning.
This year’s conference brought the added excitement of our district receiving the ISTE 2015 Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology for our commitment to technology planning focused on transformative learning. We are the first school district in Canada to win this prestigious award. In early summer, we were recognized on an international stage among 20,000 peers. It took intentional and strategic structures—both formal, informal, and hidden–to get us to that place in the spotlight. Our technology ecosystem incorporates the key structures that allow the organization to become a learning place of significance.
Surrey Schools is considered a national leader by educators and Chief Technology Officers alike for its initiatives in planning, building, and integrating technology into education. Whether it is our Innovative Learning Designs strategies, our Learning Commons conversions, our Makerspaces movement, the Making Learning Visible e-portfolio partnership with FreshGrade, or our social media branding, our learning is carefully crafted in organizational structures, requirements, and guiding principles that create the conditions for learning to flourish.
Our technology ecosystem aligns to a shared technology vision that replaced isolating silos with collaborative cross-discipline teams and, more recently, to a refreshed transformative district vision for learning: Learning by Design (LbD).
The ecosystem emphasizes collaboration and engagement within a progressive governance model, integrating five essential components: Leadership, Professional practice, Schoolhouse, Technology toolbox and Partnerships. At the heart and centre of our ecosystem is the learner.
The technology ecosystem infuses and promotes innovation in the classroom, professional inspiration and learning, building school communities and networks, the transformative use of technology tools, and optimal planning efforts tied to appropriate resource allocation.
Our teachers transform learning in their classrooms and schools. Through technology, they are creating personalized opportunities for authentic student engagement and deep learning that go beyond the cursory completion of prescriptive learning outcomes. Technology has helped teachers create fresh opportunities for student voice, choice and ownership that are grounded in the core competencies of critical and creative thinking, contemporary forms of communicating and real ways of expressing personal and social responsibility.
Our transformative change was fueled in 2010 by the district’s strategic requirement for school-site specific learning plans to accompany any hardware requests. These plans included learning-focused questions, professional learning opportunities, collaborative inquiry teams of teachers and the explicit sharing of learning through social media. All of those requirements were predicated on an Information Technology (IT) infrastructure that was foundational for these organizational changes. The IT department, beginning over a decade prior, had worked systematically to create the hidden structures, networks, wiring closets, bandwidth and more, which made new forms of learning possible.
The Sylvia Charp Award acknowledges our systemic approach to the diffusion of pedagogical practices that are underpinned by teacher-led inquiry and embedded learning. It also recognizes the professionalism and commitment of teachers engaged in the process of continuous improvement, supported by the districts nurturing ecosystem. And finally, the Award acknowledges the collaborative work of the Education Services department’s focus on learning with an IT department that is committed to both anticipating and removing the barriers to that learning.
What’s next for us? We will build capacity within the system to create new and ever evolving structures, provide appropriate tools and experiment with new forms of learning. We will continue to share our stories, learning and inspiration with each other (#sd36learn) and our peers around the globe. We will provide opportunities for teachers to “see” into each others’ classrooms, observing, reflecting, exploring and playing with new notions of teaching and learning. These classrooms and schools will act as Learning Studios and Learning Labs where the exploration, play and sharing of practice on a peer-to-peer level is nurtured.
The district’s strategic organizational structures, together with the tools we use, the technology infrastructure, resources and learning support, will help us to further understand, embrace and expand this intentional learning by design across the system. Surrey School’s technology ecosystem – with our learners firmly at the centre – continues to create and build the capacity for our continued learning evolution.
Note: For more information on the District’s strategic work on transforming learning, see cover article in October issue of T.H.E. Journal. Thank you to Dan Turner (@dj_turner), Lisa Domeier (@librarymall), and Jeff Unruh (@unruh_j) for participating in with T.H.E. Journal photoshoot. For more information on the district’s IT department, see wickedproblems.ca. See Superintendent Dr. Tinney’s (@jordantinney) blog at jordantinney.org for related stories. Big thanks to the #sd36learn tribe who are creating, designing and living the change. You have been my cheerleaders.