A group of educators in China push through discomfort and come out on the other side, with a sense of confidence and pride that their learning is their own.
G. FAITH LITTLE
Initiative Director, 21st Century Learning
They were looking at me like I had sprouted horns or was speaking another language. Wait — I was speaking another language; I was speaking English to 26 teachers in Shanghai, China.
I tried again, leaning on our interpreter, Serena, for support. I waited for understanding to cross their faces, for light bulbs to turn on. Instead, I saw blank stares and suspicious expressions. Then Serena said, “Yes, yes, they get it,” and motioned for them to get started. I moved around the room, table by table, asking teachers to flip their check for understanding card to the emoji that represented their thinking:
Most of them were thinking and some smiling. “Is it the positive kind of thinking (productive) or the negative kind (destructive)?” I would ask. For most it was the former. I circled back around to support those who pointed to destructive thinking or sad faces.
We were on the third day of a five-day institute, part of a partnership with YouXi, an organization that serves Chinese families and students by helping schools to raise their teaching standards and working with local teachers closely on their professional development. Our team was pushing them to engage with new ideas in what, we quickly discovered, was a completely new way of experiencing professional development.
“They’re used to being lectured to, taking pictures of the Powerpoint, and then being finished,” we were told on day two, “This is a tough transition for them to make.” While we did have a Powerpoint they took pictures of, the slides were mostly filled with opportunities for making meaning -- with questions, not answers. We had invited them on day one to experiment, on day two to imagine, on day three to collaborate, and on each of those days to reflect and to question. With two days left to go, I could tell they wanted me to give them an answer. How could I tell? They said it, that’s how.
“Just tell us the example. We will do it the way you say,” I heard more than once. Yet, our objective was to teach, inspire, and support these teachers in integrating 21st century assessments into their classrooms. I couldn’t do it for them. There were no answers to give, because they had the answers inside of them. As uncomfortable as we all felt — the teachers with this new way of learning and me anxiously wondering, have I pushed too hard? Have I discouraged them, or are they in a positive struggle? -- the only way out was through.
I made my third round to each table. Each teacher was still in the room. Not only were they still present, but each one was working, either on their lesson or their rubric, so they had a way to assess learning in either:
They were doing it! They were intellectually engaged, absorbed in their attempt to make sense of this new framework, exploring how they might use it in their own classroom, investigating possibilities, and problem-solving individually and collaboratively. The day ended with presentations of their work.
We laughed with joy as Chinese language teachers demonstrated how their students would collaboratively embody a traditional story involving a fish and a stomach ache. We perched on the edge of our seats when a Biology Engineering teacher shared her lesson on artificial intelligence, winding her fascinating story toward her end goal to provide opportunities for her students to communicate their learning in multiple ways. We asked an art teacher question after question about the painting her 8th grade student did and how she planned to use the piece in a lesson focused on observation and reflection.
Their sustained struggle to make sense of new concepts resulted in the opportunity to teach and inspire one another. They were able to develop their own examples and become models for one another for what it looks and feels like to push through discomfort and come out on the other side, with a sense of confidence and pride that their learning was their own, and the knowledge that they could take it to places only they could imagine.